Valor Friday

| November 20, 2020 | 6 Comments

One-half left side, close-up view of Martin B-26B Marauder “Flak-Bait” (A19600297000) as displayed in the World War II Aviation gallery at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s National Mall Building, Washington, DC

I’m going to do something a little different. Military folks, particularly in wartime, become a superstitious lot. There are lucky trinkets individuals will carry and there are certainly vehicles seen as cursed or blessed. I’d like to explore some of the latter.

The B-26 Marauder, made by the Martin Aircraft Corporation, first flew in November 1940, but the design showed so much promise the US Army Air Forces had already ordered more than 1,100 of the medium bomber months earlier.

Due to the Marauder’s high takeoff and landing speed, it was intimidating to many pilots, particularly on final approach. Slow to a more normal landing speed and the aircraft would stall and crash. This led to it being known as a widow maker until aircrew received sufficient, specialized training. By war’s end, the Marauder would have the lowest loss rate of any USAAF bomber.

There was one particular B-26 that did more during the war than any other in American service. Shortly after the B-17 The Memphis Belle famously completed 25 bombing missions to much acclaim and months earlier the B-24 Hot Stuff had been the actual first to cross the 25 mission mark there was another plane plugging away on mission after mission that would make 25 look like a warm up.

B-26 Serial Number 41-31173 rolled off the assembly line in Baltimore in April, 1943. The plane’s first pilot, 21 year old Lieutenant James Farrell of Greenwich, Connecticut, named the plane after his family’s dog. His brother had nicknamed the canine “Flea Bait”. Farrell called his new plane Flak-Bait.

Flak-Bait crew and mechanics, Lt. Farrell center. Photo dated 3 June 1944

Flak-Bait was assigned to the 449th Bombardment Squadron of the 322d Bombardment Group in England. From that station, the plane and its crews (of which it would have several in the coming years) participated in missions all over Europe, including D-Day.

449th Bombardment Squadron emblem

After D-Day, the 449th and Flak-Bait were stationed in France and later Belgium, where Flak-Bait would fly in support of Allied forces in the Battle of the Bulge. The 449th bombed the Germans until the day they finally gave up and then were part of the occupation forces in post-war Germany.

Along the way, Flak-Bait tempted fate over and over again. She came back twice with only one of its two engines running, one of those times the disabled engine was actively on fire when it landed. She lost her electrical system completely once and her hydraulic system twice. She also lived up to her name and had at least 1,000 holes shot into her before she rested. Every time though, Flak-Bait came back.

How many times? The crews painted mission marks on the noses of their aircraft. Flak-Bait shows a lot of them.

Nose Section of the Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder “Flak-Bait, (A19600297000), in Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hanger at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, February 5, 2019. (Smithsonian Photo by Mark Avino)
[FlakBaitNose_0013] [NASM2019-00327]

The red bombs indicate a bombing mission. The white tailed bombs are every fifth mission. The one black bomb represents a night mission. There are also six red ducks, which are for decoy missions the bomber flew. The one swastika is for the one confirmed enemy aircraft “kill” the plane’s gunners scored (they downed at least three, but only one was confirmed).

That huge lot of bombs in sum shows that Flak-Bait flew 202 operational bombing missions over the course of less than two years. This was 725 hours of time in combat. Lieutenant (later Captain) Farrell flew 72 combat missions with Flak-Bait, more than any other pilot of the bird. After the war he was a commercial airline pilot. He died in 1997 at 75 years old.

After the war, Flak-Bait was allowed to rest. On March 18, 1946, Major John Egan and Captain Norman Schloesser flew Flak-Bait to an air depot in Bavaria. There she was disassembled, crated, and shipped by year’s end to the US. Flak-Bait was one of the American aircraft selected by General of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold to represent noteworthy artifacts of the war.

The forward fuselage of the plane has been on display at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum since 1976. She’s currently undergoing a complete restoration. Once that’s complete, she’ll join other preserved legendary aircraft like the B-29 Enola Gay, Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1, the Apollo 11 Command Service Module, and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

Only one other Allied aircraft of World War II completed more missions. A British de Havilland Mosquito B. Mk. IX bomber completed 213 missions. That aircraft was unable to be preserved as it crashed in Canada just two days after VE Day.

Category: Air Force, Army, Blue Skies, Valor, War Stories, We Remember

Comments (6)

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  1. Michael Yates says:

    I had a photo of this aircraft on my office wall. A CMSgt friend saw it and got tears in his eyes. He crewed and flew gunner on one in WWII. He told me he had been searching for years for a good photo. When I took the picture down and handed it to him he was totally overcome with joy.

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    Great story Mason! BZ to Flak-Bait and the crews that flew her. Papa and his gunners probably saw her flying overhead, at least during Battle of the Bulge. 72 missions for LT/CPT Farrell. DAAAAAYYYUUUUM! Shows the lift capabilities for the aircraft to haul the payload AND the crew’s ‘nads.

  3. The Other Whitey says:

    Among the Marauder’s nicknames were “The Flying Prostitute” (because it flew “with no visible means of support”—a commentary on the aircraft’s short wingspan and relatively small, low-drag wing area), “Martin Murderer,” and “Baltimore Whore.”

    The Army Air Corps was on the verge of getting rid of the B-26 entirely in 1941, deeming it unsafe to fly after multiple fatal crashes on landing (the 200mph stall speed probably had something to do with that), until Jimmy Doolittle himself took a YB-26 up for an evaluation flight. Doolittle ran the YB-26 through a wide range of maneuvers, including some that a medium bomber had no business attempting, then landed it safely. In order to make the type flyable for the rest of the human race, he recommended a 10-foot extension of the wingspan would improve its low-speed characteristics without negatively impacting speed or maneuverability. This change was implemented on production B-26As and all subsequent models. The B-26 was still a bitch to fly, but it made up for it with high performance. B-26s would have the lowest combat loss rate of any US multi-engine bomber.

    • Atlanticcoast63 says:

      …A little more detail on Jim Doolittle’s demo flight in the B-26 – he did it in Tampa, at what’s now McDill AFB, which was also the main training base for B-26 crews. And said crews were on the brink of mutiny – the saying ‘One A Day In Tampa Bay’ had a pretty solid basis, and the USAAF wasn’t sure what to do. Part of the problem was the ‘hot’ performance of the early Marauders; part was the fact that the pilots were coming out of very docile training aircraft. That’s when the call went out to Doolittle, who asked to have all the trainees lined up on the field. He flew a complete aerobatic routine first, then he did it again…on one engine. When he got back down, he gathered the trainees around him and laid down the law: it CAN be done, you just watched it. The accident rate took a noticeable dip afterwards, and the design changes combined with changes to the training syllabus before and at Tampa Bay made a huge difference.

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