By George Morris
Call a man a “lucky bastard” and you’re asking for a punch in the nose. But not from Rex Shearer.
When the B-17 named “Blythe Spirit” touched down at Rattlesden, England, in early February 1945, Shearer and the rest of the nine-man crew joined the elite ranks of those who completed all their bombing missions over Europe.
They called it the “Lucky Bastards Club.” The name was appropriate.
“We were fortunate,” said Shearer, a Kansas native and Baton Rouge resident since 1965.
When the United States entered World War II, the East Anglia region north of London was turned into a series of airfields for heavy bombers whose raids would devastate Germany’s cities and war industries. But not without paying a heavy price.
Bombing missions lasted eight or more hours, where German fighter planes could attack. For obvious reasons, Germany concentrated antiaircraft guns around key targets. Radar could easily determine the altitude of bombers, which had to fly through torrents of exploding shells, or flak, to accurately drop their bombs.
About 6,000 B-17s and B-24s were lost and another 2,000 were scrapped because of extreme damage. More than 30,000 airmen were killed or missing and another 30,000 taken prisoner. It was so unlikely that a crew would complete a 25-mission tour of duty that when the “Memphis Belle” B-17 did so on May 17, 1943, the ship and its crew became famous.
Shearer actually flew aboard the “Memphis Belle” while training in Tampa, Florida. He had enlisted in January 1942 and had been turned down for flight duty when he failed to pass a color blindness test. But when the testing method changed, he was assigned to a B-17 crew as an engineer and top turret gunner.
By the time they arrived in England in October 1944, there was good news and bad news. Germany had lost many of its fighter planes, but the number of missions required to complete a tour of duty had risen to 35.
Their first flight would be a practice, but it didn’t last long. Shortly after getting airborne, they received a radio call to return to the field. A troupe of stars performing in Noel Coward’s play “Blithe Spirit” was going to tour the base, and officers decided to cash in on the visit.
“We just happened to be flying this new airplane that had been assigned to another crew and they were on leave,” Shearer said. “When we got back, we asked what was happening, why did they need us back, and they said the colonel had decided to name the plane ‘Blithe Spirit’ and we were going to see the cast. They were going to take the plane from the other crew and give it to us.”
Someone misspelled the title “Blythe Spirit,” but the crew got to meet actresses Peggy Wood, Claire Luce and Doreen Lang, two of whom wrote “We love you forever” in lipstick inside the fuselage.
After that, things got serious. The “Blythe Spirit” began bombing in France, Belgium and Holland in advance of Allied armies, but mostly in Germany. They saw other airplanes go down, but never theirs. An attack on Merseburg, Germany, was especially harrowing, Shearer said.
“We put a max effort out that day, 39 airplanes,” he said. “The next day the most we could get in the air was 14. We got a lot of flak damage. I don’t remember how many planes we lost.”
There were all sorts of close calls. A flak burst over Berlin clipped the top of Shearer’s turret, narrowly missing his head. On another mission, a piece of exploded shell buried itself 3 inches deep in his parachute. On another high-altitude mission, the bomb wouldn’t release and the bomb bay doors wouldn’t close. The navigator, Leroy Seeds, volunteered to help crank the doors closed, but, taking off his oxygen mask, passed out and had to be pulled to safety.
In an effort to disrupt radar, radio operator Marvin Silbersher threw pieces of aluminum chaff out of the plane. Once, when he turned around, a piece of flak came through the plane where his head had been a moment before.
“He was very lucky,” Shearer said. “I think that was the same mission where the bombardier, we got some flak in the nose and it blew off his throat mike, put some scratches but didn’t injure him. We were kind of tired when we got back.
“I can tell you something truthfully: I never was scared on a mission. It’s true. I never thought we would get hit. I never thought we would be one of those unlucky ones. I used to enjoy getting into the flak because it was a break in the monotony of riding. It got your adrenaline flowing.”
None of the crew was killed, and they joined the “Lucky Bastards Club” in February 1945. The “Blythe Spirit” went to another crew and was shot down shortly afterward over Germany. Only two crew members survived to be captured.
The original crew came home and dispersed, and Shearer didn’t hear from any of them until 2004, when he received a call about a reunion that was to take place in mid-November in Ohio.
“After all these years, we found that all of us are still alive,” Shearer said.
Still lucky, apparently.