Part XII of the series exploring the Boykin Springs military range and cantonment near the Neches River. During World War II, over 40 Army Air Force service members operated the isolated and critical “high altitude precision strategic bombing” proving ground used by hundreds of B-17 “Flying Fortress” aircrews stationed at Alexandria Army Airfield.
Bayou Bombers over Texas: Catch-22
“Catch-22, one of the most popular World War II novels in history, was based in part on pernicious rumors about the motives of the hundreds of aircrew who landed in neutral countries.”
- Dwight S. Mears
On 9 Oct 1943, the Lufkin Daily News reported a B-17 “Flying Fortress” tumbling through the pine forests near Jasper, Texas. Due to the ongoing war and strict adherence to military security, the newspaper missive understandably omitted names, cause of the crash and the type of training conducted. However, decades later we know more about the incident and the aviators involved.
The Alexandria-based B-17, piloted by lieutenants Walter Schultz (aircraft commander) and Max Bernstein (copilot), was conducting bomb runs on the easternmost part of the Boykin Springs ranges – the civilian-owned “Jasper Target” located near today’s Rayburn Country Club and Resort. As they flew south, the #3 engine caught fire and all seven crewmembers successfully bailed out of the stricken aircraft east of the county courthouse. The descending plane continued along its trajectory and eventually ploughed into the pines near Erin, Texas.
The Army Air Force quickly secured the top secret Norden bombsight and salvaged the bomber. Little evidence remains, but local historian Keith Stephens has talked to nearby residents who still remember the crash. The only known souvenir from the B-17 accident and bailout was Lt. Bernstein’s life-savingparachute. It eventually made its way to Brooklyn, New York as a silk room divider for his sister’s apartment. After completing their Piney Woods training, the crew joined the 8th Air Force based in England and were assigned to the legendary 305th Bomb Group (the same unit commanded by innovator Col Curtis LeMay mentioned in the previous article).
After flying combat missions for six months, the Schultz-led crew flew its last combat mission on 13 May 1944. Not because they were shot down but because of their decision to land a crippled bomber in a neutral country - and thus became associated unwittingly with Joseph Heller’s bestseller, Catch-22. Flying a B-17 named “Betty Cub,” the survivors of the Jasper, Texas crash were hit by ground fire over their Stettin, Germany target (now in western Poland).
Other bombers watched from above as the two pilots struggled to maintain control as the damaged aircraft lost altitude. At this point, pilots Schultz and Bernsteinhad a difficult decision to make: Either fly back across well-defended Germany and over the treacherous North Sea or they could veer towards nearby neutral Sweden and risk internment for the rest of the war. Not surprisingly, the crew chose the safer option and an hour later, Lieutenant Schultz made a perfect landing at Bulltofta Airfield.
After destroying the secret radar and bombsight, the crew was quickly detained by the Swedish military. They were repatriated in the fall of 1944, but unfortunately because of the widespread success of the fictional novel, American aircrews who had landed in neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland later became unfairly associated with Catch-22’s protagonist - Captain John Yossarian – an unabashed malinger who purposely sought to avoid the war. Himself a bombardier, author Heller drew on his own experiences of flying missions during World War II and states, “I was frighten on every mission…even the certified milk runs” and he “had learned through experience that this war was perilous and that they were trying to kill me.” In the satirical book, Yossarian, attempts to circumvent flight status by telling the military doctors he was unfit mentally for combat.
The “catch” was in order to be grounded for insanity, he obviously demonstrated he was not crazy as he had “sanely” asked to avoid dangerous bombing missions. Colonel Felix Hardison, the well-respected air attaché to Sweden, negotiated the eventual repatriation of the American airmen and flatly discounted the rumors of Yossarian-like cowardice among the detained aircrews. He emphatically stated (after interviewing and daily contact with the flyers) that “they expressed an earnest desire to get out of Sweden and return to active duty.”
Chief of the Air Force, General Giles (after a top level investigation) even told the 8th Air Force Commander, Gen Eaker, “We have been unable to pin down one case where it can be definitely established that any aircrew voluntarily landed in a neutral country.” Pilots Schultz and Bernstein remained good friends after the war and never regretted, nor second-guessed their decision to land their bomber in Sweden. Years later, as Max Bernstein applied for Veterans Administration (VA) and Prisoner of War assistance, he discovered a real-world catch-22. The VA benefits excluded “all detainees, hostages and internees held by non-enemies from consideration, since a formal armed conflict was not in force during their captivity” (this also included the crew of the USS Pueblo illegally taken captive by North Korea in 1968). Author Heller’s well-written parody continues a must read for military leaders and one English professor considers it the most influential book of the 20th century. However, its popularity created an unintended consequence of turning a fictional, sarcastic view of war into an unfounded perception that American aircrews landed in neutral countries to avoid combat. Although only an extremely small fraction of B-17 aviators were interned by neutral countries, it illustrates the world-wide breadth of experiences ultimately faced by the Boykin Springs aviators once they finished their Piney Woods training.
Credits: Quotes are from Dwight S. Mears’ The Catch-22 Effect:The Lasting Stigma of Wartime Cowardice in the U.S. Army Air Forces. A special thanks to Pat DiGeorge’s Liberty Lady. It remains the only book (in English) that tells the fascinating story of the American Internees in Sweden. (Her father flew as a bombardier in the Eighth Air Force and later engaged in espionage against the Nazis, working alongside his future wife in Stockholm, Sweden.) Mr. Jonathan Gerland (Director of the History Center located in Diboll) provided the original 1943 news article about the B-17 crash.
The first four parts of this series is attached.
Caption: Interned American aircrew in Sweden (Summer 1944)
Caption: An American B-17 being escorted by Swedish fighters near Bulltofta Airfield (Photo provided by Andreas Samuelsson)
Caption: Joseph Heller’s satirical Catch-22 – one of the most influential books of the 20th century.