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Operation Crossbow and the Mysterious Final Flight of Lt. Melvin Donald Putnam
The secret history of a lost WWII pilot
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Melvin Putnam’s friends called him ‘Donald.’ The US Army preferred to know him by his first name, of course, but he preferred his middle name, going by ‘M. Donald’ in his class photo. My uncle John Blakeslee Thomas was the same way, so Donald, his classmate, would have called my uncle ‘Blake.’ Their high school class photo contains sixteen faces because they lived in a tiny, rural community, a place that could supply background scenery for ‘America’ in any film. Acres and acres of apples surround the visitor of North Rose, New York. They are the local economic backbone. Without exaggeration, the local Mott’s factory supplies most of America’s applesauce needs. Although we cannot see it from the angle at which the above photograph was taken, Donald’s P-47C Thunderbolt fighter had an apple painted on the fuselage. Clearly, he flew with his community in his heart: American as apple pie. Which you will likely eat, hot and fresh and amazing, if you stay at the local bed and breakfast. (There is still no hotel. You will be in country.)
Donald and Blake both became pilots. Donald chose fighters, Blake bombers. One imagines they parted ways with a vow to work together, Donald covering Blake’s six while his bombardier gave Hitler’s war machinery hell. We will never know if that is what happened when they parted, but it is how I would write the script for a film about the sacrifices of an American generation. My version of their story ends with the whole present-day population of the town, hundreds of them, maybe a thousand, every beautiful one of them, turned out on the street to observe the funeral parade for Blake, a native of Wayne County who finally came home only this May after being listed as missing in action for 79 years. Such an extraordinary town creates the best people. America truly sent her best in 1942, for they sent Donald and Blake.
I have already told the story of Blake (post is free) as well as the rest of the heroes involved in his final bombing mission (post is paywalled). This was easier than telling Donald’s story because Operation Tidal Wave is famous. To tell Donald’s story requires seeing past the obscuring fog of war to uncover what contemporary reporting mechanisms did not reveal. Like Blake, Donald also died a hero, out of gas but never out of the fight, defending bombers indeed, and on a vital mission to stop Hitler from taking his vengeance on English civilians. Five months after Blake died a hero, Donald became the equal in glory of his friend and joined his classmate in death. This is a secret history of a small-town boy who served his country all the way to the limit.
A newspaper clipping holds all the information provided to Donald’s family, which is not enough. Nicknamed for the general who built the system of family notifications for the War Department, ‘Ulio telegrams’ were usually printed in the local paper as part of the obituaries. Some emphasis is added:
GERMANS SEND WORD OF DEATH OF LT. PUTNAM ON JANUARY 5
Parents Notified by Adjutant Gen. Ulio; Son Held in High Esteem by Air Force First Lt. Melvin Donald Putnam, 23 years old, combat pilot, son of Mr. and Mrs. Horace M. Putnam of Wayne Center, was killed in action Jan. 5 in the European area, according to a telegram received by the parents Sunday from Adjutant General Ulio. The telegram read: "Report received from the German government through the International Red Cross states your son, First Lt. Melvin D. Putnam, who was previously reported missing in action, was killed in action Jan. 5 in European area. The Secretary of War extends his deep sympathy. Letter follows. Ulio, the Adjutant General." Since Melvin was first reported missing the the Adjutant General, Mr. and Mrs. Putnam received two letters concerning Lt. Putnam from Army authorities. The first, written Feb. 8, was from Major General W. E. Kepner, Eighth Fighter Command. It read: "My Dear Mr. Putnam: It is my sad portion to write that your splendid son is now missing. I have to extend my heartfelt and personal sympathy. He was a superior man and son of his great country. We shall miss him and the stro____ help he always gave in full measure and more as our battles become increasingly difficult. His comrades have only the deepest affection and respect for the memory of ___
[long paragraph torn off from paper fold]
_ know that I, as his commanding general, am thinking of you with the hope you may find courage and fortitude to bear your great loss. With deep sympathy, I am, most sincerely, W. E. Kepner, Major General, U. S. Army, Commanding." At the end of his letter, General Kepner penned: "Melvin was a splendid man." Under date of Feb. 15, Col. A. T. Fitzpatrick, Air Adjutant General, sent the following letter to Mr. Putnam: Under the date of Jan. 12, 1944, the Adjutant General notified you that your son, First. Lt. Melvin D. Putnam, had been reported missing in action over France since Jan. 5. Further information has been received indicting that Lt. Putnam was the pilot of a P-47 (Thunderbolt) fighter plane which departed from the British Isles on a bomber escort mission to Western France on Jan. 5. Full details are not available, but the report indicates that after our planes left the target area they were attacked by a large number of hostile planes and in the ensuing battle your son's plane was seen to go to the assistance of another flight that was engaged in an encounter with the enemy. The report further states that this occurred at about 11:30 a.m. over Western Europe and this his plane is believed to have been lost as a result of the action of enemy aircraft. There were no other persons on the plane with your son. The above facts constitute all the information presently available. The great anxiety caused you by failure to receive more details concerning your son's disappearance is fully realized. Please be assured that any additional information received will be conveyed immediately to you by the Adjutant General or his headquarters. Sincerely yours, T. A. Fitzpatrick, Col., A.G.D., Air Adjutant General.”
Press coverage the next day mentions bombing operations against Kiel in Germany, where major infrastructure and industrial targets beckoned, and also against targets in France, but no specific places are mentioned there. Consulting the Missing Air Crew Reports (MACR) database at the National Archives, I found a map indicating the approximate place where Donald’s plane went down. There is also some further information from a squadron-mate who witnessed Donald’s final moments. This tells us something important about Donald, but says nothing about the target of his final mission.
The flight plan took Donald from “Home base to Lavel to Laire to La Rochelle to Brest area and returned.” Home base, an Army Air Forces station indicated by the code ‘F-357,’ was Duxford airbase in England. This was not their first posting in England but it was a great improvement on the unit’s first airfield, which had few amenities and many inconveniences. According to the Imperial War Museum, the new site had “heated brick buildings with hot water, bathing facilities and nearby entertainment facilities such as a theatre, sports fields and an Officer’s Club complete with a bar and slot machines.”
‘It was like the Grand Hotel!’, remembered Clark Clemons, an 84th Fighter Squadron pilot who arrived later in the war.
An approximate flight path now emerges and it becomes clear that Donald’s bomber escort mission would have pushed the limits of his fuel supply in a P-47.
In the Donald MACR, a 1st Lt. William T. Chapman says that at about 11:30 “between Rennes and Chateaubriant France,” their formation was “attacked by enemy aircraft,” presumably initiating a dogfight that would have consumed precious fuel. “Last seen to be shot up and stated over radio that he was ok, but couldn’t make it out (presumably out of gas),” Donald was flying a heavy plane that could take impressive punishment, but only at the cost of fuel efficiency.
Indeed, just six days after Donald went down with his plane, the VIII Fighter Corps flew its first P-51 Mustang into combat, increasing their escort range all the way into Germany itself. Being part of the 78th Fighter Group, however, Donald’s 83rd Fighter Squadron would not be equipped with Mustangs until five months later.
Chapman’s full report adds dramatic details, but no certainty as to which cause, enemy fire or low fuel, ended Donald’s final flight. Emphasis added:
About ten miles S.E. of Rennes on January 5, 1944, Lt Putnam was leading Cleveland Blue Section home from a bomber penetration support at 14,000 [feet]. I was flying number three to Lt Putnam. We were bucking a strong headwind and were very low on gas. Lt Stokes was leading Red Section off about 1000 yards to our right. before anyone realized it, two FW 190’s came out of the sun, which was at 6 o’clock on us and attacked Lt Stokes first. At once Lt Putnam broke right to help Lt Stokes and his flight. At the same time,[sic] two 190s were attacking Lt Stokes flight, three 190s were attacking out flight and we were unaware of it. As soon as we broke, I realized we were being attacked and broke left into the attackers as they went over my head thus leaving Lt Putnam.
I never saw him again. As Lt Putnam broke right, his wing man, Lt. Hulse, was hit three times but managed to get back. Whether Lt Putnam was hit at the same time I do not know. As soon as I shook off the attackers, I called Lt Putnam on the radio and he said he was O.K. providing he could get out of this place. I called him again but received no answers from him.
Donald flew in a unit that took the full brunt of American air offensive operations through 1943 and 1944. It shows in the loss report. “In 450 missions totalling 80,000 hours of flying time, the 78th had accounted for 338 German aircraft in the air and 358 on the ground, earning two Distinguished Unit Citations” by the end of the war in 1945, IWM tells us. “Tragically, this came at a cost of 113 American pilots.”
But what was the mission target? What did Donald Putnam die to destroy? Getting to the answers requires an understanding of what the allied bomber commands were doing in January 1944. Due to ‘operational security,’ an ethic of secrecy memorialized in the famous ‘loose lips sink ships’ aphorism found on World War II posters, no one discussed the nature of the mission, either in headlines or official reports, by referring to any specific objective. A person paying attention at the time could have figured it out themselves. Nevertheless, the ‘first draft of history’ was incomplete by intention.
At 830 pages, the 1993 volume Carl A. Spaatz and the Air War in Europe by Richard Davis is a literal monument of combat historiography. “From the beginning of January to February 15, the weather and CROSSBOW proved almost as adversarial to the U.S. daylight bombing offensive as the Luftwaffe,” he writes. “Nine other missions struck V-1 launch sites in France.”
This was Operation Crossbow, the campaign to preempt, and hopefully spoil, Hitler’s flying bomb campaign against Britain. Altogether, “there were seventy-two bombing attacks in December 1943 and 313 attacks in January 1944” against launch sites identified by intelligence, Roy Stanley writes in the 2010 book V Weapons Hunt: Defeating German Secret Weapons (461 pages).
Donald’s squadron was escorting bombers on their way back to England on one of these missions. Despite the available resources, the exact target location remains unclear for now, but the nature of the target is certain. His last mission was aimed at stopping Hitler’s ‘vengeance’ weapons.
When Joseph Goebbels first started making veiled references to a new Wunderwaffen (lit. ‘wonder weapon’) during 1943, allied intelligence was already aware that some sort of rocket program was being aimed at English cities. London received the first report of possible launch sites being constructed across the English Channel in the first week of November. German occupation authorities hired French construction firms to build eight concrete sites near Abbeville, raising suspicions that the unusual activity might be related to the expected deployment of a new weapon.
An intensive photoreconnaissance (PR) campaign began immediately. Winston Churchill was understandably keen to deter or destroy this threat, Tami Davis Biddle writes in “On the Crest of Fear: V-Weapons, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Last Stages of World War II in Europe,” an article in the January 2019 issue of the Journal of Military History.
Royal Air Force (RAF) Chief of Air Staff Sir Charles Portal felt that the attack on Peenemuende ought to go forward only when the effort would put the facility out of operation for some time. Ultimately it took place on the night of 17 August, using special precision techniques that Bomber Command had practiced over the summer on test ranges in Lincolnshire.28 Though expensive in crews (with a 7 percent loss rate), the raid caused considerable damage and killed propulsion expert Dr. Walter Thiel. After the war the British official historians of the strategic bomber offensive, and R. V. Jones, argued that the attack probably bought the British a crucial two-month delay in the V-weapons program.
Yet Churchill could not be sure how much time he had gained with these strikes and further measures were needed. He had radar stations set up on the southern coast to track rocket bombs. Signals intelligence further improved the picture of what they faced. “Due to one of Jones’s early hunches, his team was able to gain a ‘ringside seat’ to flying bomb trials by keeping tabs on the German radar stations tracking their flights,” Biddle notes.
Meanwhile, the American bomber command was busy changing commanders — and command approaches. Churchill and the RAF had done their best to calm the Americans down until now, but the Army Air Forces were fed up with holding back. Operation Crossbow was the first implementation of the new policy.
Knowing that he would have new men and machines soon enough from America’s war effort, Gen. Carl Spaatz wanted a far more aggressive approach. Along with Gen. Jimmy Doolittle of the famous Tokyo raid, Spaatz “decided on or before their arrival in Britain to intensify the campaign against the Luftwaffe by using their fighters in an offensive air-to-air role, instead of purely as escorts,” Davis writes.
Their focus was on destroying the enemy force. Bomber flights would target the Luftwaffe and its essential machinery, forcing the Germans to defend the targets so that escort fighters could pounce on them.
“Spaatz also intended to use the Ninth (Tactical) Air Force to assist in the counterair effort, despite the fact that Leigh-Mallory intended to use it for preinvasion operations,” Davis explains. “Shortly after Spaatz’s visit to Washington two months earlier, Arnold had expressed to Marshall similarly aggressive sentiments which were probably reflective of his own combative temperament but could have come, in part, from Spaatz.”
Spaatz might have discussed his experiences in the Mediterranean campaign with Arnold. In any case, Arnold recommended in a memo to Marshall that the Allied air forces “seek out and destroy the German Air Force in the air and on the ground without delay. The defensive concept of our fighter commands and air defense units must be changed to the offensive.” He called for more imaginative use of fighters as ground strafers, as fighter bombers, and as air-to-ground rocket launchers to assist the OVERLORD assault. Spaatz could be sure of Arnold’s support for a more active fighter force. Both men must have realized and counted on the fact that a changeover to offensive fighter tactics would impose a far higher rate of attrition on both the Luftwaffe and the AAF. Arnold would have to support Spaatz with many replacement fighter pilots and aircraft.
Gen. Henry A. ‘Hap’ Arnold oversaw the logistics of the force. Achieving air superiority would require hard battles until the Luftwaffe could no longer replace their high losses, while the allies still could. This required the United States Army Air Corps to accept high losses of their own, including Donald Putnam, until the expected masses of men and machinery arrived.
Operation Crossbow was developing into a priority at the same time. “The first of what turned out to be dispersed V-1 launch sites was identified on aerial photography at Bois Carre, near Yvrench in the Pas de Calais, thus giving the new sites that name,” Stanley writes. British intelligence still did not know what the new weapon looked like, so they could not be 100 percent certain that the sites were meant for buzz bombs, but the ‘ski-ramp’ launching structures were the clincher.
The buildings were of a new type that didn’t fit anything known about the rocket at the time when the rocket was thought to require ‘special apparatus both for launching, servicing and handling especially in view of the sort of fuel they would have to employ.’ Rudimentary attempts at camouflage and concealment at some sites consisted mainly of aligning structures with tree lines and roads, but some of the structures were large and clearly didn’t merge well into the normal countryside.
Once the “ski-sites” were determined to be flying bomb launch sites the aerial recon search in France was widened and intensified under the code-name Crossbow. By that time it was decided to try to bomb these sites just as they reached superficial completion, letting the Germans expend time, effort, and material uselessly.
“Analysis of construction progress indicated that twenty of the ‘ski-sites’ would be structurally completed in January 1944,” Stanley writes, and so despite the remaining uncertainty “a programme was developed to systematically destroy the Bois Carre sites and authority to bomb fifty-four of the sites was given on 19 December. The attacks began two days later with an average of ten aircraft for every attack.”
It was impossible to keep Operation Crossbow entirely quiet. “In October 1943 the popular U.S. weekly Time ran a story about Nazi secret weapons titled ‘Buck Rogers Goes to War,’” Biddle explains. By then, American readers had been accustomed to rumors about secret Nazi wonder-weapons.
In its January 1944 issues the magazine carried constant stories about German secret weapons; one of these pointed out that Allied planes were continuously bombing “emplacements and installations for some kind of unorthodox weapon” in France. This echoed earlier stories in the U.S. press about Allied air attacks on German installations related to a weapon (or weapons) with unknown but potentially very damaging capabilities.
Newsroom editors did not connect the dots for readers on 6 January 1944, however, nor did Gen. Ulio explain the purpose of Donald’s mission to his family in their notification telegram. Truth is the first casualty of war, dead before the first flyer ever climbs into his plane.
It would be a very busy year for Donald’s unit. After the Mustangs arrived, the allies embarked on ‘Big Week,’ the all-out assault phase on the Luftwaffe that left it broken before D-Day. Befitting their nomenclature with the letter V for ‘vengeance,’ Hitler only began firing his V-1 bombs at London after the landings were in progress. They did nothing to stop the allied breakout, but they exacted a toll on civilians.
England recieved only a taste of what Churchill had feared. His decisions had not been uniformly popular. Stanley writes that the decision to prioritize Operation Crossbow in December 1943, beginning with intense strikes around Christmas, drew criticism. He cites an unpublished memoir by Douglass Kendal, one of the PR technicians who examined thousands of aerial reconnaissance photos to locate the V-1 launch sites. Despite the danger these weapons represented, “still there was a certain amount of opposition to our raids,” Kendal writes.
Some people found it difficult to justify diverting aircraft and bombs from targets in Germany to bomb some insignificant concrete buildings in Northern France. However, the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt that serious devastation to London would hinder the war effort. Moreover, many of our raids took place on days when weather conditions did not favor deep penetration into Germany. The flying bomb sites were an excellent alternative, especially for new flight crews just starting their bombing operations.
In November 1943, as the PR campaign to identify the ‘ski-sites’ in France got underway, Churchill was simultaneously making plans to evacuate the south of England for fear of the buzz bombs. Allied attacks could only ever do so much to prevent Hitler from taking his revenge.
Altogether, Germans launched 6,725 V-1s at Britain in 1944. A total of 2,340 hit London, killing 5,475 people and injuring three times as many. Allied airpower was then occupied with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s urgent need to prioritize Operation Crossbow until his forces could overrun the launch sites and end the threat for good. More than 9,000 Britons died altogether in the buzz bomb blitz before it ended.
1st Lt. Melvin Donald Putnam, known to his friends as Donald, died trying to stop this, and his sacrifice did buy the allies time to meet the threat. Low on fuel, Donald still fought to save his friends, heedless of risk. He was American as apple pie, a good boy from a small town like his classmate Blake.
They left home for war determined to win, and at the cost of their lives, they did. Both of them are home now with their people at the North Rose Cemetery in New York, amid the fields of apples that stretch as far as the eye can see.
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