On March 18, 1943, seventy-six B-17 bombers, accompanied by twenty-seven B-24 bombers, departed England for a daring daylight bombing mission against U-Boat pens in Vegesack, near Bremen, close to the North Sea coast of Germany.
A B-17F christened Duchess was the lead bomber on the mission with 21 year-old 2nd Lieutenant Jack Mathis as bombardier. Due to the mission being flown deep into German territory, Duchess, as the mission lead, was the only aircraft fitted with the top-secret Norden Bomb Sight. It was imperative that Lt. Mathis drop his bombs on target since all the other bombers in the massive raid would be following his lead. If he was unable to properly identify and mark the target, the entire mission could very well end in failure.
It was not merely chance that Jack and the crew of Duchess had been selected to lead this critical mission. They were among the most experienced in the 303rd Heavy Bombardment Group, with Jack considered one of the best bombardiers.
Just before reaching Vegesack, and minutes from dropping the bomb load, an anti-aircraft shell exploded near the front of Duchess, shattering the nose of the heavy bomber and sending shards of burning hot shrapnel into the bombardier and navigator compartment. The explosion threw Lt. Mathis backward to the rear of the compartment. His right arm was nearly severed at the elbow and a large hole was ripped into the right side of his abdomen. In shock, bleeding profusely and mortally wounded, Lt. Mathis bravely crawled back to his position and, with mere seconds to spare, put the target in the crosshairs and dropped the explosive payload with absolute precision. He then slumped over his bomb sight and died from his massive injuries.
Back at the headquarters of the 303rd, at RAF Station Molesworth, 25 year-old 1st Lieutenant Mark Mathis, also a bombardier, patiently waited for the Duchess to return. He had seen his younger brother off that morning and was looking forward to his return. The Commanding Officer of Jack’s Bomb Group had already approved a three-day pass for the brothers to spend some time together in London, a welcome relief from the nasty business of waging war.
Later that afternoon, when Mark finally caught sight of Duchess returning to base, his initial relief quickly turned to horror as he saw the bombardiers’s nose section completely destroyed. With tears welling up in his eyes, he cast his head downward. He instinctively knew Jack was gone.
Jack had enlisted in the Army in June of 1940 and had been assigned to an artillery unit at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. In January of 1941 his older brother Mark had also enlisted in the Army and had been sent to Goodfellow Airfield near the family home in San Angelo, Texas, where he had been assigned to a ground crew in the 49th Training Squadron. Eager to serve with his brother and be closer to home, Jack requested a transfer to Goodfellow. The request was granted and he headed back to San Angelo to begin his duty as a clerical assistant while his older brother Mark tended the flight line.
2nd Lt. Jack Mathis
1st Lt. Mark Mathis
Immediately following the entry of the United States into World War II, both brothers requested transfers to the Army Air Force. Their requests were granted and they departed for flight training in January of 1942. During flight crew classification, the brothers were designated as bombardiers.
Due to differences in their flight training schedules, Jack graduated before Mark. In October of 1942 Jack departed for RAF Station Molesworth as the bombardier of the B-17 Duchess. Shortly thereafter, Mark was sent to North Africa as a bombardier of a B-24 Liberator. In March of 1943 Mark’s B-24 unit was transferred to England and, in yet another ironic twist of fate, the two brothers were again reunited. Over drinks at the Officer’s Club in Molesworth, on the evening of March 17, Jack persuaded his older brother to seek a transfer to his unit, the 303rd, known affectionately as “Hell’s Angels.” Mark agreed and, although the transfer would take several weeks, Jack asked his brother to accompany him on the next day’s mission, his seventeenth, to Vegesack. As fate would have it, the commanding officer of the Group refused to let Mark accompany his brother on the mission, attributing his decision to not wanting to fill out the required paperwork. Nevertheless, Mark saw his little brother off that morning, riding with him and the other officers to the flight line. As the engines revved to life and thick plumes of oily smoke filled the air, Jack gave his brother a smile and a wave from the nose cone of Duchess. It was to be the last time the two brothers saw each other alive.
After Jack’s tragic death, a devastated Mark requested to take his younger brother’s place as bombardier of Duchess, a request which was approved. When their required 25 missions were reached, the crew received orders back to the states to train new airmen. However, despite his great personal loss, Mark requested to stay with the 303rd in Molesworth and continue combat duty.
On May 13, 1943, Mark was bombardier on the B-17F FDR's Potato Peeler Kids. Their objective was to destroy the Krupp Submarine Works in Kiel, Germany. The valuable target was heavily defended by a ring of deadly anti-aircraft fire and over 100 Luftwaffe fighters. The bombing was a success but FDR was badly damaged in the process and began to lose altitude and drop out of formation. Other B-17s tried to protect the crippled bomber from enemy fighters but the damage was already too great. Somewhere over the North Sea, Mark Mathis and the rest of the FDR crew perished. In just under two months the two brothers had heroically given their lives in service to their country.
The story of the Mathis brothers is one of courage, honor, duty, and brotherly love. Their valiant sacrifice serves as a reminder to all of us that the freedom we enjoy is by no means free. It has been bought and paid for by brave American men and women, such as the Mathis brothers, who selflessly gave their lives in service to their country. May they rest in eternal peace and never be forgotten.
2nd Lieutenant Jack Mathis was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions over Vegesack, Germany, on March 18, 1943.
Written by Dan Heller