HOYT DELOACH WON DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS
Jack R. Mays, Charlton County, Ga. Historian
In Folkston, Main Street was quieter than usual that June morning, 1944. The weekly Charlton County Herald, at the bottom of page one would report that the U.S. Eighth Air Force, stationed in England, had flown 25,000 bomber sorties over enemy Europe in June alone, losing 225 heavy bombers and 311 fighter planes to enemy guns in those 30 days. Although not known in Folkston at this time, Benjamin Hoyt DeLoach was playing a major role in these statistics. He and his B-17 always returned safely to his base in England. The young Claxton, Ga. native was reported missing in combat action on three separate occasions, once with an engine out, a fuselage full of shrapnel holes and all his bomberıs instruments and gauges destroyed.
It was Monday morning June 19, 1944, C.W. Waughtel was improving in St. Vincents Hospital in Jacksonville from a gall bladder attack and Frances Mizell was to undergo an appendix operation that day in Riverside Hospital, also in Jacksonville. The three members of the countyıs Board of Tax Equalizers, Russell Johnson, B.S. Prescott and Sam Mills would be given their oath of office by Superior Court Clerk Aderine Reynolds
No one in Folkston had heard of B. Hoyt DeLoach but on a United States B-17 Airbase near Peterboro in England, the man who was to be the countyıs agricultural agent for nearly thirty years, had his own rendezvous with destiny as pilot and Commanding Officer of a B-17 bomber over Hitlerıs Germany. This is a story of that rendezvous, many years later.
The four motors of the B-17 Flying Fortress strained mightily to get the big plane and its load of bombs into the air; its huge propellers biting into the early-morning darkness over the English countryside near Peterboro. Twenty-four year old Lieutenant Benjamin Hoyt DeLoach sat at the controls in the pilotıs seat, flying yet another combat mission, his heavy bomber loaded to the gills with five hundred pound bombs earmarked for Nazi Germanyıs industrial cities. The huge American bomber trembled under the strain.
It was to be one of 29 nerve-racking combat missions the bomber pilot and squadron leader flew over enemy territory in Europe in seventy-five days, marking up 995 flying hours; 213 of them in combat. His b-17 heavy bomber was the target for enemy anti-aircraft fire on all but two of the missions, and was damaged by anti-aircraft fire on 15 of them. That day DeLoach would fly his plane through an almost solid wall of anti-aircraft fire and take 50 holes in the fuselage of the lumbering Flying Fortress. The mission earned for the young bomber pilot the Distinguished Flying Cross to go along with the Air Medal and 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, 3 Battle Stars and a Presidential Unit Citation signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The medals are now kept in a glass-top trophy case, along with a three-inch fragment of shrapnel removed from the lining of his flight jacket after one of his combat missions.
That mission was to come mid-way into the 75 days. The U.S. Eighth Air Force stationed in England, favored daylight bombing raids over Germany and enemy-occupied countries, while the English opted for night bombing raids. This mission would be another of the daring daylight raids.
In England the day started peacefully enough at Gladden Air Force Base, near Peterboro. Lieutenant DeLoach woke early and downed a light breakfast in preparation for the eight hour bombing run that lay ahead. He gathered his flight crew; his co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, engineer, radio operator, two waist gunners, a ball turret belly-gunner, and the tail gunner. The briefing officer had told DeLoach that his bomber would be one of eleven hundred bombers slated for the dayıs mission from their bases in England to drop tons of five-hundred pound bombs on the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, deep in the heart of Hitlerıs Germany. Every four-engine bomber the United States and Great Britain had in England would fly that day in the saturation bombing mission. The allies were determined to destroy the industrial capacity of Germany.
DeLoach struggled into his fleece-lined battery-heated flight suit. The temperature in the cockpit would drop near zero when the plane reached its 27,000 foot altitude. He put a candy bar in his pocket to eat on the flight back to England. His 45 caliber automatic pistol would have to be left in his room because regulations did not allow wearing them while flying over Germany. U.S. officials reasoned that if the American crew was downed in Germany, there was very little likelihood of escape and the firearm would fall into the Germanıs hands that had ammunition to fit the American pistol. The pistol could be carried when flying over fallen countries occupied by the Nazis. Escape was probable through the friendly underground there, and the Americans wanted their guns to be used by the freedom-fighters after they made it back to England.
Sitting relaxed in the steel-backed pilotıs seat of the B-17, DeLoach pulled the nose of his bomber up as the B-17s took off from their field in England and headed out over the North Sea on their way to the German interior. His flight suit was interfaced with flexible steel bands to protect against the expected flack from anti-aircraft guns in Germany.
As the allied 1,100 plane armada broke over the German border well after daylight, anti-aircraft shells exploded all around the high flying bombers. Two hundred German anti-aircraft guns were shooting at the bombers with three shots a minute belching from each gun. ³We had a three-relay fighter plane escort² DeLoach said, ³But all the time I was in Germany I never saw one of our fighters.² One team of fighters would escort the bombers from the English coast to near the target another team would then pick up the bombers and escort them over the target and part-way home. The third team would then pick them up and escort the bombers back to the English coast. ³There were nearly 500 P-51s and P-47s divided into three groups² DeLoach commented.
Just as it reached the targets at Schweinfurt, DeLoachıs B-17 shook in the heavy flack from the exploding anti-aircraft shells. Shrapnel punched over 50 holes in the plane fabric. All the planeıs instruments and gauges went out from the hits as DeLoach struggled to keep the big bomber under control. Fuel gauges ceased to function, but the planeıs radio and interphone continued to work.
At the height of the shelling, DeLoachıs co-pilot, in panic, unstrapped himself from the co-pilotıs seat, and attempted to leave the cockpit. ³Get back in that seat² DeLoach demanded. Then, a firm voice came in on the planeıs radio and reminded DeLoach that his order had gone out over the radio to the other planes in the armada. ³Get on the interphone² said the voice. DeLoach switched to interphone and succeeded in calming his co-pilot.
The bomber piloted by DeLoach would have to break out of the formation because of its damage. One engine stopped and another sputtered. The air flotilla commander ordered DeLoach to break out of formation, drop his bombs and return to England and tersely warned ³Youıre on your own.² The bombardier opened the bomb bay doors and dropped the bombs over the targets. DeLoach turned the plane back toward England and away from the burning factories, the other bombers, and the fighter escorts.
Miraculously, DeLoach and the crew had escaped injury as the B-17 began to limp away from the flaming Schweinfurt. Soon the giant bomber headed into thick clouds and with no radar at that time, and no instruments, DeLoach and his navigator got lost. ³My navigator didnıt even know which ocean we were over² DeLoach recalls. It could have been the North Sea, the Irish Sea or the English Channel. Recalling that his radio was still working, DeLoach spoke into the microphone, identified his aircraft and asked for a radio direction finder heading back to England. A voice responded ³Turn 90 degrees to the right.² These directions were given three times. Then DeLoach smelled a rat from the instructions given and he also detected a German accent in the radio operatorıs voice. ³I might be crazy² answered DeLoach on the radio, ³but I ainıt that crazy.² The German radio operator had tried to turn DeLoach back toward the interior of Germany.
Undaunted, DeLoach put the bomber into a ³steep climbing turn to break out of the clouds.² The crippled bomber broke free above the clouds and headed out over the North Sea as the sky began to darken. A legitimate radio bearing from England put DeLoach and his plane back on course to their base in that country.
German fighters did not worry DeLoach, as he recalled, ³Hitler and Goering, his air chief, had discovered their fighter pilots shooting down crippled American bombers while letting the healthy ones escape, to claim an easy kill.² DeLoach said. ³Hitler and Goering gave orders that any German fighter pilot who shot down a crippled American airplane would be sent to the Russian front, as chances were the crippled plane wouldnıt make it back to England anyway and the German fighters could concentrate on the healthy American bombers that could be able to return to bomb Germany again.²
Headed back to their base, DeLoach must have recalled more tranquil times: Two years studying agriculture at ABAC in Tifton, where he took flying lessons and got his private pilotıs license before the outbreak of war; his induction into service in June of 1942 as a ³buck private². His mind turned to his home in Claxton, where his father was a member of the Evans County Board of County Commissioners.
The shot-up Flying Fortress, with one engine dead, and another running roughly; with no gauges or instruments working and with 50 shrapnel holes in its fuselage, limped onto the runway at the air base in England while the base radio crackled ³DeLoach has done it again!² DeLoach and his crew piled out of the badly wounded Flying Fortress, thankful to again be on friendly soil.
DeLoachıs first phase flight training, just after entering Flight Cadet School, came in a Stearman Trainer BT-17 in Lakeland, Fla. with his introduction to the open cockpit, single engine, bi-wing primary trainer. At Bush Field in Augusta, Ga. he would later train in a single engine, single wing, BT-13 two-seater. Advance training in a twin engine AT-10 came at Turner Field, Albany, Ga. where he received his silver pilotıs wings and commission in the Army Air Force on August 30, 1943.
Hendrix, Field, Sebring, Fla. was where DeLoach trained to be a B-17 pilot and airplane commander. Later he was transferred to Rapid City, S.D. for intensive combat training, and to pick up his flight crew for combat missions in Europe. It was in Rapid City that he met his future wife, Betty, whom he married after returning from combat. To this union was born four daughters, Barbara Ann, Carolyn, Susan and Patricia and a son, Hoyt, Jr.
DeLoach was separated from service at Laredo, Texas in July 1945 and graduated later from the University of Georgia with a degree in Agriculture. He became County Agent for Charlton County in December 1946 and retired on January 1, 1975 after 29 years. He received credit toward retirement for his time in the Air Force.
Reflecting on those hectic combat missions, DeLoach said, ³Heck, Hitler had to be whipped and the Lord prepared a bunch of men to do it. If the Lord had been on the other side, I shudder to think what might have happened.²
Charlton County furnished three combat pilots: John White, Wordie Leckie (Royal Canadian Air Force) and Lonnie Roberts, Jr. None returned. Evans County sent two; Hoyt DeLoach was the only one to return.
Shelton Monroe, who had worked in Folkston before entering the Air Force in World War Two, was a native of Waycross. He was a P-51 fighter pilot, also with the 8th Air Force in England, and claimed nearly a dozen enemy planes shot down before returning safely from combat.
DeLoach said he knew John White when they were both at ABAC, ³He was a man among men² he said.
DeLoach sought a more tranquil life after his combat missions in World War Two. ³I went from perfect physical specimen to perfect physical wreck in 75 days² he chuckled. He enjoyed those tranquil days full time in his retirement.