Monday, March 18, 2013

TFH 3/18: 1st Lt. Jack W. Mathis, USAAF

Jack Warren Mathis was born on September 25, 1921 in San Angelo, Texas. He enlisted in the United States Army on June 12, 1940 and was trained and served as an artilleryman. He was serving in that capacity when he found out that his younger brother, Mark, had joined the United States Army Air Forces, forerunner of today's United States Air Force. Jack joined his brother in aviation cadet training, and both men became bombardiers.

The two brothers weren't assigned to the same unit, although both were stationed in the United Kingdom to fly combat missions over occupied Europe and Nazi Germany. Jack Mathis was posted to the 359th Bombardment Squadron of the 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), stationed at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, United Kingdom. They were one of the first units of the VIII Bomber Command (later becoming the famed Eighth Air Force) to arrive in Europe for daring, daylight precision bombing raids that would change the course of the war. They were equipped with the Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress.

The 359th BS/303rd BG(H), Jack Mathis included, flew their first combat mission on November 17, 1942 attacking enemy targets in St. Nazaire, France. He also flew with the squadron and group the first time they attacked Germany itself: Wilhelmshaven on January 27, 1943.

Daylight bombing was the only way using the technology of the 1940s that bombs could accurately be aimed at a target. Precision strikes on industrial and military targets were some of the most hazardous undertakings for American airmen as daylight also provided a clear view for Nazi German fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners. The combat records of the 303rd BG(H) show the toll battle damage inflicted on the group. With an authorized strength of 21 B-17s, sometimes they were able to sortie only slightly more than half that number.

On March 18, 1943 - 70 years ago today - the aircrews of the group known as "Hell's Angels" were briefed for their raid on the submarine construction yards in Vegesack, Germany. It would be the unit's 24th overall mission and sixth to attack a target in Germany. For Jack Mathis, it would be his fifteenth mission. They would dispatch 20 bombers to the target.

Each of the B-17s were loaded with six 1,000-pound bombs. Twenty aircraft, two-hundred crew members to deliver 120,000 pounds of ordnance onto the target. For comparison, a single present day  Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber can carry 70,000 pounds of weaponry with crew of only five.

Counting other groups, the Eighth Air Force sent 103 bombers to Vegesack that day; 97 of them would reach the target. Jack Mathis was with his regular crew, commanded by Captain Harold L. Stouse, aboard B-17 #41-24651, known as The Duchess.

The Duchess was the 359th BS' lead ship for the attack. All the other aircraft followed their lead, including for the bomb run and release point over the target. If The Duchess missed the target, so would the other six planes in the squadron. As the formation flew steady and straight at 24,000 feet for their attack, "intense heavy, black, concentrated and accurate flak" was flung at the Americans by the German enemy by every antiaircraft battery in range.

Jack Mathis was concentrating on his bombsight in the plexiglass nose of the B-17, finalizing his aim on this vital target. Then, with less than 60 seconds remaining until their drop point, The Duchess was rocked by a flak burst just near her nose. Mathis was blown nine feet to the rear of the bomber's forward compartment. Dazed from the concussion, and dying from wounds that ripped open his side and abdomen, and that also nearly severed his right arm, he somehow rolled and dragged himself back to his bombsight, took final aim, and delivered the weapons on time, and on target. For his superhuman effort, incredible courage, and gallant sacrifice, the 21-year old airman received our nation's highest honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations from World War II (M-S):

*MATHIS, JACK W. (Air Mission)

Rank and organization: First Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, 359th Bomber Squadron, 303d Bomber Group. Place and date: Over Vegesack, Germany, 18 March 1943. Entered service at: San Angelo, Tex. Born: 25 September 1921, San Angelo, Tex. G.O. No.: 38, 12 July 1943. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy over Vegesack, Germany, on 18 March 1943. 1st Lt. Mathis, as leading bombardier of his squadron, flying through intense and accurate antiaircraft fire, was just starting his bomb run, upon which the entire squadron depended for accurate bombing, when he was hit by the enemy antiaircraft fire. His right arm was shattered above the elbow, a large wound was torn in his side and abdomen, and he was knocked from his bomb sight to the rear of the bombardier's compartment. Realizing that the success of the mission depended upon him, 1st Lt. Mathis, by sheer determination and willpower, though mortally wounded, dragged himself back to his sights, released his bombs, then died at his post of duty. As the result of this action the airplanes of his bombardment squadron placed their bombs directly upon the assigned target for a perfect attack against the enemy. 1st Lt. Mathis' undaunted bravery has been a great inspiration to the officers and men of his unit.

Mathis' Medal of Honor award was also due in part that the Vegesack attack on March 18, 1943 was one of the first truly successful daylight bombing raids. His valor resulted in all aircraft of the 359th BS and 303rd BG(H) hitting the target.

The submarine shipyard in Vegesack was devastated by the attack, and didn't resume production for many months. Post raid photos showed that seven Nazi U-Boats under construction or repair were heavily damaged or destroyed. This mission undoubtedly had an effect on the outcome of the larger Battle of the Atlantic.

Our British allies also marked the success of the attack:

Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized the importance of the mission's success and sent the following message to Gen. [Ira C.] Eaker: "All my compliments to you and your officers and men on your brilliant exploit, the effectiveness of which photographs already reveal." 
Sir Charles Portal, Chief of Britain's Air Staff, recognizing the effectiveness of this 8th Air Force effort, sent another message to Gen. Eaker: "The men and machines have proven themselves. Vegesack was a successful conclusion to long months of experimentation in daytime, high-level, precision bombing. After Vegesack comes a new chapter."

Jack Mathis' brother Mark, who was at the time assigned to a Martin B-26 Marauder unit, had been given permission to visit his brother's unit and was present when The Duchess landed back at Molesworth carrying his remains. Mark Mathis immediately volunteered to transfer to the 359th/303rd and take his brother's place. His request for transfer was accepted.

Two months later, during the group's 35th mission on May 14, 1943, Mark Mathis was forced to bail out over the North Sea with the rest of his crew and was never seen again. His name is inscribed on the monument for the missing at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.

Jack Mathis' remains were repatriated to the United States, and today rest in peace in the Fairmount Cemetery in San Angelo. The San Angelo Regional Airport is also known at "Mathis Field" in honor of the two brothers.

Both the 359th Bombardment Squadron and any descendants of the 303rd Bomb Group are today inactive. The Eighth Air Force is the main bomber force of the modern Air Force Global Strike Command and is headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

Blogger's note: the historical website for the 303rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) was an invaluable resource for this post. I encourage all my readers who are interested in the history behind the Eighth Air Force and the brave men who flew American bombers during World War II to bookmark the site and appreciate their content!

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