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NEWS | Sept. 27, 2012

306th WWII legacy honored by Princess, Memorial

By Staff Sgt. Brian Stives 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

GREENHAM COMMON, United Kingdom - On Sept. 21, royalty honored former members of the 12th Flying Training Wing's famed 306th Flying Training Group, formerly known as the 306th Bombardment Group. Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne, The Princess Royal officially dedicated three memorial stones for U.S. Visiting Forces at the Greenham Business Park in Greenham Common, United Kingdom.

The three-part memorial is in remembrance of 16 service members killed when two B-17 Flying Fortresses collided above Greenham Common Dec. 15, 1944; 33 Airmen who died just three days earlier when their Horsa Glider crashed on takeoff at the base; and American servicemen who were based locally and lost their lives during World War II.

"We are here to remember the 49 Airmen who gave their lives in 1944 and also all who served in the area," said Col. Brian Kelly, 501st Combat Support Wing commander, whose wing can trace its history back to the 501st Tactical Missile Wing stationed at RAF Greenham Common from 1982 to 1991. "We can look back at the sacrifice and struggles that united our two great nations. For the last 70 years our nations have stood shoulder-to-shoulder protecting the world and our relationship is stronger than ever, as these memorials show."

Greenham Common was one of the main staging points for thousands of U.S. troops in the run-up to D-Day, and continued to be a U.S. Air Force Base until it was closed in 1992 and has been converted into a nature reserve and business park.

The first part of the memorial - The B17 Flying Fortress crash
The two B-17s, one from the 368th Bombardment Squadron and one from the 423rd Bombardment Squadron of the 306th Bombing Group, were returning from a mission in the German industrial heartland of Kassel when the accident occurred.

The aircrews of the 306th BG, known as the Reich Wreckers, were some of the most experienced in the U.S. Air Force, but fog enveloped northern Europe - the targets in Kassel were so obscured the bombs had to be dropped by radar. The weather worsened on their return to England and the two bombers, leading the formation back to their U.S. Eighth Air Force base at RAF Thurleigh, were diverted to RAF Greenham Common. At about 2,100 feet, the 368th BS B-17G, piloted by 2nd Lt. Charles Crooks, collided with the 423rd BS B-17G, piloted by 2nd Lt. Lorn Wilke.

Both planes crashed near Greenham Common, killing all but two of the 18 crewmen. Wilke remembered hearing a loud noise, followed by an explosion. His plane blew apart at the cockpit and he and his co-pilot, 1st Lt. John Murphy, were able to bail out, deploy their parachutes and escape. Crooks and the entire crew of the 368th BS plane were killed. Because of the bad weather, the collision was unobserved by other flyers in the formation.

Both Flying Fortresses ended up roughly two miles apart from each other - B-17 tail number 43-37633 (368th BS plane) near Bishops Green and B-17 tail number 43-38019 (423rd BS plane) near the Swan Roundabout, Newtown, to the west.

According to the USAAF accident report, dated January 1945: "The accident was unavoidable. The formation ran into conditions of extreme poor visibility and it is apparent that neither pilot saw the other aircraft."

The second part of the memorial - the Horsa Glider crash
On Dec. 12, 1944, 31 paratroopers from the 17th Airborne Division, (mostly from C Company, 194th Glider Infantry Regiment) and two glider pilots of the 88th Troop Carrier Squadron gathered at RAF Greenham Common for Horsa Glider flight training.

The Horsa was constructed almost entirely of molded plywood and was bolted together in sections. The British had solved the problem of fast unloading by fixing a plastic charge on the rear section. Upon landing, the rear end blew off and easy egress was attained. The live charge while the glider was in flight was certainly not a comforting thought for the troops inside.

Walt Wrzeszczynski, a medic with 194th GIR Company who was waiting on the flightline for the next available Horsa, witnessed the accident as it took place in the sky.

"Everything looked fine," he said. "The glider was flying along smoothly when all of a sudden the tail section just came off. There was no explosion; it just fell off."

"The glider (what was left of it) swayed and flopped around at the end of the tow line and sank lower and lower," he said, shaking his head sadly. "It seemed to be pulling the tow plane down. Suddenly, it either cut loose or was cut loose and then it went almost straight down. It was all over in just a few seconds."

The third part of the memorial - for all the American servicemen who were based locally and lost their lives during World War II
Greenham Common and the immediate area played a prominent role in the preparations and launch of D-Day in 1944. The third part of the memorial honors the men who served at RAF Greenham Common or stationed in the surrounding area who gave their lives in the name of freedom.

In October 1943, the United States Army Air Force took control of RAF Greenham Common as the preparations intensified for D-Day. Meanwhile, paratroopers from Easy Company 506th Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, "The Screaming Eagles," whose heroism is commemorated in the book and television series Band of Brothers, were in the nearby villages of Aldbourne and Ramsbury.

Winston Churchill visited nearby RAF Welford on March 23, 1944, to inspect the troops and meet Brig. Gen. Don Pratt of the 101st Airborne Division. By early June 1944, forces were at a high state of readiness. Greenham's role changed dramatically to accommodate troop transport aircraft Douglas C-47 Dakotas of the 438th Troop Carrier Group and RAF Greenham Common was earmarked as an assembly point for Waco CG-4A Assault Gliders and the British-made Horsa Gliders.

On the night of June 5, 1944, the base was ringed with armed troops. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived to watch the first troops leave by Dakota bound for the shores of Normandy on Operation Overlord and told the Soldiers, the "eyes of the world are on you." More than 80 Dakotas carrying 1,430 men from the 502nd Parachute Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, left the base in 11-second intervals. Aircraft also towed Horsa and Hadrian gliders to the front in France and later carried the wounded back for treatment in Britain.