Valor Friday

| November 18, 2022

1st Lieutenant Jack Warren Mathis

I previously talked about Second Lieutenant Robert Femoyer.  He earned the Medal of Honor as a navigator aboard a B-17 during a bombing mission in World War II. Fatally wounded, he refused morphine so that he could, with clear head, guide his crew back to England. He remained at his post until they made it back safely, but died shortly thereafter. He was (and is) the only navigator to have received the Medal of Honor.

Jack Mathis similarly was awarded the Medal of Honor, also for actions while serving over occupied Europe while in a B-17 Flying Fortress. Mathis is one of only two bombardiers to have earned the honor. Second Lieutenant Joseph Sarnoski is the other, and I discussed his amazing mission here.

Born 25 September 1921, Jack Mathis enlisted into the Army in 1940 as the US was running up to a wartime footing with the Second World War raging across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Hailing from the San Angelo, Texas area, he was initially a clerk assigned to an artillery unit at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Mathis was bright and had good attention to detail. He was soon a corporal and was his unit’s reporter for the Fort Sill Army News paper. When Mathis heard his older brother Mark had enlisted and was at the newly opened Goodfellow Field in San Angelo, he requested a transfer.

Once approved, Jack joined his brother Mark in their native San Angelo. They were serving together and were near enough home that they could help out their mother, who was recently divorced.

They were in the 49th School Squadron, commanded by then-Lieutenant Leon R Vance. Vance would, in 1944, earn a posthumous Medal of Honor. He earned his medal on a 5 June bombing mission in support of D-Day. Losing a foot, he survived his ordeal. He went missing with all souls when the C-54 he was flying back to the states on vanished and was presumed crashed.

As 1941 progressed, the two men were caught up in the massive expansion of the Army Air Corps into the Army Air Forces, and the need for many tens of thousands of aircrew arose. The brothers left together for aviation cadet training on 11 January 1942.

As they went through training together, Mark’s tongue got him in trouble and he was held back as punishment. Jack therefore completed his training three weeks earlier, but the two men went through training largely together. They both succeeded in becoming bombardiers, earning commissions in the process.

It was then that the two brother’s paths separated, for a time at least. Mark would be sent to fly in B-26 bombers over North Africa while Jack was sent to the 359th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group (Heavy) in England.

Crew of The Duchess, Mathis at right, standing

Arriving late in 1942, Jack would be promoted to first lieutenant in January of ‘43. Flying out of RAF Molesworth, Mathis would join the crew of “The Duchess”, a B-17F with serial 41-24561 under aircraft commander Captain Harold L Stouse.

They flew several successful missions, defying the odds that were stacked against them. At this stage of the war, the Eighth Air Force (of which the 303d BG was a part) were suffering heavy losses. As many will know, the magic line to cross to get a trip home was 25 missions. Statistically speaking, not a single man was forecast to be able to actually achieve that. As things improved aircraft survivability over the next year, that rose to about a 1-in-5 chance of being able to finish a 25th mission.

The Duchess

While at “home” in England, the aircrew had it relatively good. They had warm beds, hot food, alcohol, and ready access to all the comforts of a non-deployed location (including local ladies). In the air though, their lives were anything but easy. The B-17 is a fantastic airframe that still has several examples flying more than 80 years after the type first took to the skies that attest to its robustness. What it isn’t though is comfortable. Missions from England to Germany and back would take several hours. The altitudes they flew at (more than 20,000 feet) meant the men in the unpressurized plane needed to wear oxygen masks. At that height, it’s dozens of degrees below zero. The airmen wore electrically heated suits to stay warm.

The Duchess (top), flying a mission on 16 November 1943

When the massive bomber formations would be spotted, the battle hardened German Luftwaffe greatly enjoyed shooting them down. As did the many flak cannon and anti-aircraft artillery crews surrounding every major city in Fortress Europe. Once downed, if the airmen were lucky, they would be able to bail out over Europe and be captured. Many of them didn’t get the chance to bail out or they did so over the frigid waters of the North Sea, never to be seen again.

It was into the hotly contested skies over Europe that Jack Mathis would fly more than a dozen times. Crossing 13 missions, he had crossed the half-way point to going home. Airmen being a superstitious lot, thirteen was already an unlucky number.

As Jack was making a name for himself in the 8th Air Force, his brother Mark had recently just been transferred to a unit in England. Jack’s commanding officer arranged for Mark to take a flight to Molesworth on 17 March 1943. Jack was due to fly an important mission the following day, in which he’d be the lead bomber for an element, and so got to spend a night with his brother before doing so.

Jack was nearly excused from the mission. He’d asked a fellow bombardier to replace him, so he could stay with his brother. Though the other man agreed, Jack’s commanding officer Captain Bill Calhoun (who’d known both Mathis brothers since their days training at Goodfellow) offered Jack an incentive to fly. He told Jack he’d give him a liberty pass on his return from the mission. The 18th was a Tuesday, so a pass would give them several days to spend together. They might even be able to go to London. Jack requested of Calhoun permission for his brother to fly with him on the 18th. The captain denied that, since it required too much red tape.

On the morning of the 18th, Mark rose with Jack and accompanied him to the flight line. The crew, aware of the special circumstances surrounding their bombardier, afforded the men as much time as possible together. They pitched in and took Jack’s pre-flight duties and stowed his gear for him.

“See you, boys, at six o’clock,” Mark Mathis shouted above the noise of the idling engines as Jack was told it was time to go. The Duchess was the first ship off the ground, but Mark remained with one of the ground crewmen to watch all of them take off. They watched as the bombers disappeared in the distance before Mark went back to the Officer’s Club to sweat out the mission waiting and praying.

The Duchess (bottom), flying with a B-17G (top, note the newer model’s chin turret) of the 303d Bomb Group while flying a mission

The crew of The Duchess joined a huge bomber group. The 8th Air Force had been targeting, among other things, U-boat pens and construction facilities to end the threat from the submarines on Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Today’s mission would be to attack the Bremer-Vulkan-Vegesacker Werft submarine construction yard in Germany.

Seventy-six B-17 and 27 B-24 bombers flew out that morning. It was the largest fleet of bombers deployed in a single mission to that date. Each aircraft had six 1,000-pound bombs and would be dropping their load from 24,000 feet. Everyone in each squadron would release their bombs simultaneously. In the case of the 359th Bomb Squadron, that meant they were following the lead of Lieutenant Jack Mathis, since The Duchess was leading the second element of B-17s from the 303d Bomb Group.

The famed Norden bombsight was fitted to the key aircraft in the formation, such as The Duchess, from which Mathis would be calling the shot for several aircraft behind him. His skill with the sight would dictate whether the mission was a success or not.

Reaching the German coast, the formation was attacked by 40-50 German fighters, who would continue attacking them until they reached their objective. Through it all, Mathis was cool and focused. Even when they started to take flak from the shore batteries.

“Flak hit our ship and sounded like hail on a roof,” recalled navigator Jesse Elliott, manning his station directly behind the bombardier. “I glanced at Lt. Mathis who was crouched over his bombsight lining up the target. Jack was an easy-going guy and the flak didn’t bother him. He wasn’t saying a word–just sticking there over his bombsight, doing his job.”

The bombardier sits at the very tip of the plane. Sitting within the plexiglass nose bubble, the view is, to put it mildly, amazing. He didn’t have time to enjoy it though, since he was looking down through his bombsight. The weight of tens of thousands of pounds of munitions and the mission itself resting squarely on his shoulders.

As he waited for the Norden mechanical computer to line up with the U-boat yard, he reached over and switched open the bomber’s bomb bay. Behind him, the other aircraft would be doing the same. They were almost there.

With less than a minute to go before he could trigger the release, an anti-aircraft shell burst just in front of the heavy bomber’s nose. Shrapnel ripped through the plastic windows. Though offering a magnificent view, they provide no cover for enemy fire. As such, Mathis, sitting square in the middle of the nose, was peppered with shrapnel.

One chunk ripped through Mathis’ right arm, nearly severing it at the elbow. He had large chunks of metal shot into his side and abdomen. The concussion had thrown him back, out of his seat, to the rear of the nose (a distance of several feet), while the newly opened gash in the front of the plane left him fully exposed to the -50 degree, 150mph slipstream.

Elliott, the navigator, had also been blown to the back of the nose compartment, with Mathis lying on top of him. He didn’t know Jack was injured yet.

Fighting his grievous wounds and the very air itself, Mathis clawed his way back to his station. He had only seconds to get there, sight the U-boat pens, and drop his bombs, which would trigger the rest of the squadron to drop as well. Dozens of men were counting on him. He didn’t let them down.

“Without any assistance from me he pulled himself back to his bombsight,” Elliott said. “I looked at my watch to start timing the fall of the bombs. I heard Jack call out on the intercom, ‘bombs….’. He usually called it out in a sort of singsong. But he never finished the phrase this time. The words just sort of trickled off, and I thought his throat mike had slipped out of the place, so I finished out the phrase ‘bombs away’ for him… I closed the bomb bay (doors) and returned to my station.”

Releasing The Duchess’ bombs was Mathis’ final act. While the bombs were still falling, he died, slumped over his bombsight. He would receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism in those final moments. It was the first such award made to a man of the 8th Air Force. He was only 21 years old.

Turning towards home, Captain Stouse ordered one of the gunners forward to check on his navigator and bombardier. When the man crawled into the nose, he found it nearly completely destroyed. Elliott, also seriously wounded, was at his navigator’s table going into shock. Mathis was limp at his post. Pulling Mathis back to check his wounds, the gunner said, “I knew then that he was dead. What I’ll never know is how he managed to get back to his bombsight and finish that mission.”

Reconnaissance photos of the shipyard after the attack showed that two-thirds of the facility was destroyed and the men of the 8th Air Force had destroyed seven enemy submarines therein. Construction of war goods was halted for two months.

When The Duchess returned to RAF Molesworth, battle scarred as she was, First Lieutenant Mark Mathis was there, waiting to celebrate his baby brother’s 14th successful mission. They never got to share that drink.

Mark’s heart leapt into his throat when the returning B-17 dropped a flare, indicating to ground crews that wounded were aboard. When The Duchess taxied in, Mark saw the destroyed nose and knew his brother was in trouble. He went with the ambulance that rushed Jack to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Mark Mathis immediately requested a transfer to the 359th Bomb Squadron. Specifically, he wanted to replace his brother as bombardier of The Duchess. Strings were pulled and soon another Mathis was sitting in the nose of B-17 #41-24561. The night before Jack’s fateful final mission, he’d been trying to talk Mark into transferring to the 359th. Jack was preparing to return to the states to undergo pilot training and was hoping that Mark might replace him as bombardier of The Duchess. He got his wish, though not in the way he intended.

Mark was well liked by the crew. He regaled them with stories of the action he’d seen in North Africa. The heavy bomber crews flew tens of thousands of feet up, whereas the B-26 Marauders (a twin engine medium bomber similar to the B-25 Mitchell) flew low. The Duchess’ radio operator recalled of Mark, “He told stories of flying so low (in the B-26s) that the bombers were pelted by rock-throwing civilians on the ground.”

Corporal Joseph V. Mazzone of the 303rd Bomb Group, paints the nose of a B-17 Flying Fortress nicknamed “The Duchess.” Passed for publication 25 Jan 1943. Looks like The Duchess was also an air ace.

Mark only flew a couple of missio[‘/.po.s with The Duchess when the crew and plane were rotated back to the states for training duties. Mark requested to remain in England to fly his full 25 missions. On his brother’s deathbed, Mark had vowed to the group’s chaplain that he was going to avenge his brother’s death. Perhaps that’s why he elected to stay.

On his fourth mission flying from England, Mark’s aircraft (called FDR’s Potato Peeler Kids) was hit hard by flak over Germany. Falling out of formation, they were attacked by German fighters and completely downed. It was 14 May 1943. Officially listed as missing in action for one year, Mark Mathis was never seen again and is now considered to have been killed in action. He was 26 years old. The Mathis brothers’ commanding officer had to write a second letter home to Mrs Mathis in as many months.

The Duchess, Captain Stouse second from left standing on the wing

The Duchess, with various crews, eventually completed 59 combat missions by war’s end. She was returned to the US in August 1945 and was scrapped, as most all of the older F-model Fortresses were.

The Mathis Brothers’ legacy has been taken up by San Angelo, who has named their airport after them. Their mother died in 1961, their father in 1965. They had one younger brother Harrell (b. 1928, d. 1990). Too young to serve in World War II, in 1989 he handed his brothers’ legacy and their medals to the National Museum of the Air Force in Ohio. Present were Harrell’s three sons, Mark, Jack, and David. The family legacy of service continued. Mark Mathis the younger spent two years in the Air Force according to his 2020 obituary.

Category: Air Force, Historical, Medal of Honor, Valor, We Remember

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It took guts to get on those aircraft and do your first mission. It took incredible courage to get on for your second.

A inspiring and heartbreaking story. RIP gentlemen.

President Elect Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH Neande

Damned dust and allergies.
Thx for the education, Mason.
“That such men lived….”


Just damn! Another great, yet tragic, story of Heroic DNA.

Thanks Mason.