The Air War in Europe and the “Bloody 100th”: Some of the “Masters of the Air” From East Tennessee

The story of the air war in Europe during WW II is one of tremendous courage and catastrophic loss.  It is the story of US-made B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators, shuttled across the North Atlantic from Canada into Great Britain where they were readied for perilous bombing missions into northern Europe (Occupied France and Hitler’s Germany) between 1943 and 1945.

The  100th Bomb Group (Heavy)—the “Century Bombers” or the “Bloody 100th” as it became known– was among an armada of American bomber and fighter groups forming the Eighth Air Force. This bomb group’s exploits are depicted in the series “Masters of the Air,” currently on Apple TV. Pilots whose planes were not shot down by German fighters or anti-aircraft guns somehow managed to fly their crippled aircraft back to England or Scotland. The death toll of this almost two-year campaign was calamitous. The 100th Bomb Group flew its first combat mission on 25th June 1943 and its last on 20th April 1945. During those 22 months, its air crews were credited with 8,630 missions and the terrible loss of 732 airmen and 177 B-17 aircraft.

Coming from East Tennessee were nine individuals who died during these and other Eighth Air Force missions.  All were on B-17s, save Harry R. Wayland who flew in a different type aircraft and James C. Hull who piloted a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter.

A particularly poignant mission was that of the “Varga Venus,” apparently named for the Peruvian-American artist of shapely pin-ups in “Esquire” magazine, Alberto Vargas. Its crew was completing its 26th flight, and John P. Keys from Elizabethton (Carter County) served as pilot along with flight officer and co-pilot, Elvin W. Samuelson. The bomber’s crew included 2nd Lt. Patrick H. Lollis; 2nd Lt. Elton Dickens; Sgt. Frank O. Thomas; Sgt. Harry D. Park; Sgt. Peter P. Martin; Sgt. Gilbert A. Borba; Sgt. Joseph A. Costanza, and Sgt. Donald V. Rieger. Only waist gunner Borba survived after bailing out of the aircraft and being taken prisoner of war. The crew of the “Varga Venus” was typical of such flights.  Many had never met before, and the make-up was All-American, with crewmen from states stretching from Vermont to California.

Among the East Tennesseans who fell with the “Bloody 100th” and other units of the “Mighty Eighth” Air Force are the following airmen:

Name Branch County
Bennett, George R. Army/Army Air Forces Sullivan
Clark, Jack L. Army/Army Air Forces Hamilton
Collingsworth Jr., W. F. Army/Army Air Forces Knox
Copeland, William J. Army/Army Air Forces Knox
Hull, James C. Army/Army Air Forces Knox
Kaylor, Bert E. Army/Army Air Forces Hamilton
Keys, John P. Army/Army Air Forces Carter
Norris Jr., Gerkin C. Army/Army Air Forces Hamilton
Wayland, Harry R. Army/Army Air Forces Knox