Published in the January 17, 2020 edition.
BY DAVID WATTS, JR.
WAKEFIELD — Growing up, I knew him as “Uncle George.” He was a portrait of a young man in uniform in a line of portraits on the wall of the high school auditorium; an aircraft navigator’s bubble sextant; a medal in a black leatherette case – the Distinguished Flying Cross. Not much was said about Uncle George, other than that he was shot down and died. He grew up in the Greenwood
section, and, like many in his generation, he went to war. And that’s where the story stood until 2008, when I made a point-to-point flight aboard the Collings Foundation’s North American B-25J Mitchell medium bomber Tondelayo, spent mostly in the bombardier’s “greenhouse.”
Seventy-five years ago, on January 18, 1945, a B-25J, bearing tail number 327649 and nicknamed Stud, was the first in a line of 11 B-25s to take off from the dusty runway at Ghisonaccia, Corsica. Corsica, a French island region off the west coast of Italy, was by that stage of the war the home of 17 12th Air Force fighter and Medium bomber bases in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations (MTO), U.S. Army Air Forces. The dry, mountainous island had become, as described by historian Dominique Taddei, “U.S.S. Corsica – an unsinkable aircraft carrier.”
327649 was the lead bomber in the group on that day, as she and her crew of seven had led the previous nine missions since December 10. The lead bombardier was 26-year-old 1st Lt. George S. Watts; this was his thirty-eighth mission.
At 26, George would have been considered an “old man,” being surrounded by many fellow officers and men in their late teens and early twenties. He was born on October 12, 1918 to Sidney and Harriet Watts. In 1920, the family, which by then included younger brother Albert, moved into a newly built house on Oak Avenue in Greenwood. George and his two brothers – David came along in 1928 – attended Greenwood School. He graduated from Wakefield High School in the Class of 1936. In the class yearbook, The Oracle, his class nickname was “Fat.” His hobby of photography was mentioned, as was his plan to become a surgeon: “… we are sure that he will succeed and some day be well known in his profession in Wakefield.”
He went on to study pre-med at Tufts University, in Medford, graduating in 1940 with a bachelor of science degree. After a year at the School of Medicine at Boston University, George decided, with the threat of global war becoming ever stronger, to put his studies aside for the time being. Enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he became Aviation Cadet Watts on September 4, 1941.
By early 1942 George was at Midland Army Airfield in Texas as a member of only the fifth class, designated Class 42-10, at the Army Air Forces Bombardier School. Here he found his métier in the 12 weeks of highly intensive ground study, flight training, physical training, and military discipline, six and a half days each week. He learned the complexities of the secret Norden bombsight, how to accurately hone in on the target, and he demonstrated his skills by dropping some 200 practice bombs from a twin-engine AT-11 Kansan aircraft – a military version of the Beech Model 18 outfitted with a bombardier’s greenhouse in place of the usual solid nose. In May, George graduated with his class of 101 successful cadets. Each cadet, after swearing an oath to protect the secret of the Norden bombsight with his life if necessary, was awarded silver bombardier’s wings and a commission as a second lieutenant.
From Midland, George was assigned to the Columbia Army Air Base near Columbia, South Carolina (today, the site of Columbia Metropolitan Airport). After first serving as the training location for the 16 B-25 crews of the April 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Columbia AAB became an advanced combat training base for B-25 aircrews before assignment to Europe, the Mediterranean, or India. George probably spent two years at Columbia as an instructor for final bombardier combat training. On July 29, 1944, at Columbia, George married Jessie Sylvester, of Stoneham, who would, after George was assigned overseas, move in with George’s parents in Wakefield. Ultimately, by mid-1944, George, now a first lieutenant, was assigned to a B-25 crew headed for Corsica. In mid-July, the crew departed Columbia in their B-25 and made their way, following the southern ferry route via Brazil, Ascension Island, and Africa, to their new base at Ghisonaccia.
1st Lt. George S. Watts was first mentioned as newly assigned to the 310th Bombardment Group (Medium), 379th Bombardment Squadron on August 5, 1944 in the monthly Squadron Report. There was little time to acclimate to their new surroundings as the crew, in B-25J 327549, was sent on its first mission six days later to bomb a gun position in Southern France. Nearly every day in August, the crew flew in support of Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of the southern French coast. Once the landings were assured and troops were moving to link up with units that had been in France since D-Day in June, the USAAF turned its attention to Northern Italy to disrupt the German communications and transportation systems, particularly around the Brenner Pass.
Except for foul weather that would keep medium bomber units grounded, particularly through the fall into the winter, missions in the MTO were frequent and crews were expected to complete as many as 75 missions before rotation home. In August, George flew 15 missions; 10 missions in September; three missions in October! And then, inexplicably, there is no mention of “Watts, G. S., 1st Lt.” in the November Squadron Report, except for the awarding of a fifth Oak Leaf Cluster to his Air Medal on November 6. Why he was inactive during those weeks is not recorded.
George is back in action on December 10, 1944 now as lead bombardier on the lead bomber 327649. The group depended upon the skill of the lead bombardier; to get as concentrated a pattern as possible on the target every bombardier watched the lead bombardier and released his bombs when the he did. Seven missions in December were followed by three in the first half of January 1945. In only six and a half months, George had completed 37 missions.
The target on January 18 was limestone cliffs overlooking the main rail line through the Brenner Pass near San Ambrogio, Italy. The objective was to create a landslide, burying the railroad tracks to disrupt the traffic of supply trains heading south from Germany to supply Wehrmacht troops opposing the Allied thrust northward and troop trains heading north to reinforce German units countering the westward Soviet offensive through Poland toward Germany itself. All told it was about a three-hour-long mission, take off to return.
As the bomber formation flew over Lake Garda in Northern Italy, inbound toward their target, they were met with intense flak from German 88-mm anti-aircraft artillery emplacements in the surrounding area. On reaching the target, George released his bombs and the bombardiers of the group followed suit. In the report afterward, the results were described as follows: “Observation restricted by bomb smoke of previous mission and intense flak. Believe target was hit.”
As the formation turned to return to base, 327649 received a direct hit by a flak burst. Of the four eyewitness statements contained in the subsequent Missing Air Crew Report, one reported that the burst hit the right engine, one the left engine. A photograph taken by eyewitness Staff Sergeant Howard L. Case, in one of the B-25s farther back in the formation, shows smoke trailing from the left wing and the left main gear down. The stricken B-25 went into a dive, possibly to extinguish the fire, recovered, then went into a final, unrecoverable dive. Upon hitting the ground, the aircraft exploded.
Because during part of her last few moments the bomber was obscured by clouds, witnesses could not definitively say that there were no parachutes, and the crew was reported as Missing in Action. It wasn’t until July 1945 – two months after the German surrender and VE Day – that the crew was classified as Killed in Action.
When finally recovered, the crew’s remains were in such a condition that they were buried in a single grave in the U.S. military cemetery in Mirandola, Italy. In January 1949, the families were informed that the commingled remains were being moved to Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, where six of the crew lie together today:
Capt. Ellis J. McKanna, Pilot (Newton, Kansas)
Capt. Edward I. Phillips, Jr., Co-Pilot (Abington, Pennsylvania)
1st Lt. George S. Watts, Bombardier (Wakefield, Massachusetts)
Capt. Walter J. Rath, Navigator (Denison, Iowa)
Sgt. Paul A. Basso, Radioman-Waist Gunner (Chicago, Illinois)
Sgt. Robert B. Stewart, Turret Gunner (Terre Haute, Indiana)
The tail gunner, Sgt. James D. Nelson is, inexplicably, buried at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois.
On February 17, 1945, 1st Lt. George S. Watts was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Capt. McKanna the DFC First Oak Leaf Cluster, and Capt. Rath the DFC Second Oak Leaf Cluster.
In the 11 years since that inspiring B-25J flight, the life of 1st Lt. George S. Watts – Uncle George – has for me, through my having learned much of his wartime story, so much more meaning today. Those two objects sitting in easy sight in the study – the bubble sextant and the DFC medal – are parts, now, of a larger, more meaningful story of one airman’s contribution to the winning of that great global conflict three-quarters of a century ago.