The hazards faced by bomber crews long before they reached the stage of combat missions were many and varied. The USAAF suffered over 13,000 fatalities in the continent of the U.S. alone during the war, almost all sustained during some stage of training.
Still more men would make the ultimate sacrifice even after they finished training. The next most hazardous phase was getting the aircraft and crews to the theatre of operations. Navigational aids were relatively crude. The routes flown were long distance and often very demanding. None was more difficult than the trans-Atlantic route to England, especially during winter.
Sometimes bombers would make a hop via Greenland and Iceland. On other occasions the long flight was made direct from Labrador, Newfoundland. This was the route taken by the crew of Flying Fortress 42-31420 on the 9th December 1943. Lt William M. Grim, the co-pilot was to recall:
We encountered unexpected strong headwinds en route to a point that fuel consumption became a matter of grave concern. We also encountered unexpected heavy cloud cover upon reaching the coast of southern Ireland.
These developments resulted in a decision to make an intermediate landing for refueling at Nutt’s Corner, Northern Ireland. As we proceeded on course, visibility became zero; and during descent to gain a minimal visual ground reference into Nutt’s Corner, we impacted the summit of a 2,000-ft. mountain approximately 6-1/2 miles from Mullaghmore Head (Darby Hole) on Donegal Bay.
I gained consciousness on the ground on the port side of the aircraft. When I was able to get up, I noticed that the navigator and bombardier were also on the ground and both appeared to have had fatal injuries. I then made my way to the plan to inspect the damage. It appeared that everybody I could see was down and injured.
I particularly remember S/Sgt. Moss Mendoza (engineer) on the floor of the radio room in a very awkward position and asking for help. He had what appeared to be a serious head injury.
The impact had tossed him from his regular station (starboard side) across the plane to the radio operations post (port side) with a force that resulted in his left leg breaking through the bulkhead. When I tried to help him, I discovered that both of my arms were broken and I was unable to assist.
At this time, Lt. Walch, pilot, came in from the cockpit area. He was very disoriented and appeared to have a serious head injury.
The need for help was obvious. Lt. Walch and myself, the only surviving crew members who were somewhat ambulatory, headed down the mountain to seek assistance.
The Board of Enquiry was rather unforgiving in its assessment of the cause of the accident:
The board believes that the accident was actually caused by error in judgment on the part of the pilot in descending below 4000 feet. The board would like to point out that the pilot was notified to proceed to Prestwick at 4000 feet and acknowledgement was received at Nutt’s Corner.
Further, the briefing manual covering entry into the United Kingdom over the North Atlantic route requires that under instrument conditions, approach will be made at 5000 feet, and the plane will remain at 5000 feet until directed to change altitude. If altitude had been maintained no difficulties would have been encountered.
The board would like to recommend that minimum altitude be stressed to crews during briefing, to obviate such accidents. Pilots altimeter must have been in error somewhat, which cannot be explained but the fact remains that if airplane had remained at 4000 feet there have been adequate clearance over the mountains.
The whole story of B-17G Flying Fortress 42-31420 and a fine tribute to the crew of 9th December 1943, compiled by Dennis P. Burke, including photographs of each crew member, can be found online.