Tragedy in the Air
The Last Flight of a Portsmouth Airman
By Ross Patterson II
Published September 1, 2021
Cradock High School saw scores of its alumni serve during the Second World War. Six of these former Portsmouth students gave the ultimate sacrifice while on duty overseas. One of the fallen was William Carl Sawyer, Junior, known to his friends as Carl.
Carl Sawyer was born on August 24, 1922 in Portsmouth to William Carl Sawyer and his wife Mary Jane. His father was a trained ship’s plumber who died when Carl was just seven. After her husband’s death, his mother decided to move him and his younger brother Virgil back to her parents’ home in nearby Deep Creek, where her father’s job as county jailer helped support the small family. Carl spent most of his school years there, learning to play the trombone in the band at Maury High School. Just before his senior year began, however, he transferred schools and enrolled in Cradock High’s Class of 1939.
William Carl Sawyer’s 1939 Cradock High School yearbook photograph. Portsmouth Public Library Image
After graduation, Carl began training as an Apprentice Shipfitter at the Norfolk Navy Yard. He was still living at his maternal grandfather’s Deep Creek home at the time of the 1940 census, but moved to Route Three in Portsmouth shortly thereafter. Work appears to have taken him to neighboring North Carolina from time to time, with his skilled position most likely marking him as essential to the war effort until late 1943. It was at this point that the draft called upon the twenty-two year old Carl Sawyer to join up.
Biographical information on William Carl Sawyer from a November 1941 document. Virginia Department of Health Image
Carl was inducted into the military in Greensboro, North Carolina on October 21, 1943. Strangely, despite his background as a shipfitter marking him as a ‘skilled pattern maker,’ he was selected for service in the Army Air Corps as a gunner.
Following six weeks of basic gunnery school, Carl continued training for assignment to a heavy bomber for roughly eight months. During this time, he was selected for duty aboard a B-24 model bomber, and was then assigned to a specific crew.
New Army Air Force gunners practicing the quick reassembly of their machine guns while an instructor looks on. United States Air Force Photograph
Chevy E-5 Gun Turret Training Trucks being used during gunnery school for future B-24 Liberator tail gunners. United States Air Force Photograph
The airframe Carl was fated to be aboard was a B-24J Liberator, serial number 42-50452. Built at the Fort Worth, Texas Consolidated Aircraft plant, 42-50452 was delivered to the Army Air Corps on May 2, 1944. As the practice was to send an airframe to its combat unit complete with crew, the ten men assigned to 42-50452 were relatively consistent across any mission. The pilot was First Lieutenant Alfred V. Brooks, with Second Lieutenant Donald Bremer serving as his co-pilot. The plane’s specialists were the navigator, Second Lieutenant Neil Snodgrass, bombardier Second Lieutenant D. R. Bromer, radio operator Technical Sergeant William Bucher, and engineer Technical Sergeant Stanley Smith. The remaining four members of the crew were all Staff Sergeants assigned to man the Liberator’s impressive defensive armament. These men were Walter Brewer, Julius Heitler, Carl Hughes, and Carl Sawyer.
The last completed B-24J Liberator on the Fort Worth assembly line. Lockeed Martine Aeronautics Company Photograph
Drawing from the November 1944 issue of Industrial Aviation showing the internal layout of a B-24J. The dedicated gunner positions are to the rear of the main wing, with the two waist positions located next to the belly mounted ball turret, and with the fourth gunner position being located at the extreme end of the tail boom. Public Domain Image
The men of 42-50452 were assigned to the Eighth Air Force in England, joining the 389th Bomb Group’s 566th Squadron at Hethel Airfield, also known as AAF Station 114. Ironically for Staff Sergeant Sawyer, this airfield was located in the east English county of Norfolk, a faint reminder of his home in the United States.
The distinctive insignia of the 8th Air Force (left), 389th Bomb Group (center), and 566th Bomb Squadron (right). Imperial War Museum Images
There was an unofficial tradition at during the Second World War for aircrews to name their aircraft, often personalizing the fuselage with the moniker and accompanying ‘nose art.’ Carl and his crewmates were no exception, christening 42-50452 “Earthquake McGoon” after a character in the Li’l Abner comic strip. The portly character and name was painted below the cockpit’s left side, just below the official Army Air Force markings. As the crew successfully completed missions, they added small red bombs to a panel just under the leftmost cockpit window. At least thirty-three of these marks of survival adorned the side of Carl Sawyer’s craft when he and his fellow crewmates approached the plane on November 21, 1944.
The forward fuselage of 42-50452 “Earthquake McGoon” after the crew’s twentieth mission. Imperial War Museum Photograph
A rare color photograph of the nose art and mission count on “Earthquake McGoon,” taken after the crew’s thirty-third mission. The dorsal gunner turret can be seen above and behind the cockpit. Imperial War Museum Photograph
November 21 was to be the ninth combat mission carried out by the 389th Bomb Group that month and served as one part of the multi-prong 720th Eight Air Force mission of the war, targeting the Dpag and Rhenania oil refineries in the German city of Hamburg. A total of 366 B-24 Liberators were to be deployed for the raid, protected by a screen of 177 P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang fighters. In order to prevent the aircraft from approaching their target in a venerable piecemeal fashion, standard practice was for the bombers to fly in circles around the airfield’s airspace, allowing all aircraft of an attack wave to depart at the same time once the last aircraft had lifted off. This period was nerve-wracking and dangerous, as all the turning aircraft were fully laden with both fuel and munitions. Accidents were known to happen. And for the men aboard “Earthquake McGoon,” one tragically did.
389th Bomb Group navigators preparing their courses for a 1944 bombing raid. Imperial War Museum Photograph.
A Liberator engaging in a hard turn in order to keep station near an assembly point. Department of Defense Video Frame
B24J Liberators stacked up on an English airfield awaiting their turn to take off for a mission in 1944. Department of Defense Photograph
B-24J 44-10513 of the 565th Bomb Squadron, known to her crew as “Old Glory,” was assigned to the lead squadron for the raid and had taken off around the same time as “Earthquake McGoon.” Both aircraft were circling the airspace around the small village of Carleton Rode, trying to maintain their positions with the lead squadron section at an altitude of 13,000 feet as they awaited the readiness of their fellow squadron mates. During one of the banking left turns, the distance between the two bombers closed rapidly, and before the pilots could correct their maneuvers, the aircraft collided.
The impact was violent, throwing both damaged airframes into tumbling spins. Aboard “Old Glory,” bombardier Second Lieutenant William T. Martin, Junior and radio operator Technical Sergeant Peter F. Ferdinand were able to scramble out of their doomed craft and deploy their parachutes. Over on “Earthquake McGoon,” only Lieutenant Brooks was able to escape in time. Seventeen of the twenty men aboard the two bombers were lost in the fiery crash, Carl Sawyer included.
The 389th Bomb Group’s medical section watching circling aircraft with several aviators. They would respond in these ambulances to the collision, but were too late for the majority of the crews. Department of Defense Photograph
The remains of a B-24 Liberator after a similar midair collision over Cavendish, England in 1944. Army Signal Corps Photograph
The village of Carleton Rode watched the crash in horror, unable to prevent the inevitable. Pieces of the airframes would be embedded in local farm fields for decades afterwards, occasionally surfacing as a grim reminder of a tragic and all-too-common wartime accident. In the village’s medieval All Saint’s Church, a wooden memorial plaque was erected, with the names of the aircrews lost on that day in 1944 rendered in painted gold. A second crash in February of 1945 would see eleven more Eight Air Force names added to the monument, and a dedication was added to one of the church’s stained glass windows in 1989.
The memorial to the fallen aircrews on the wall of the All Saint’s Church in Carleton Rode. Imperial War Museum Photograph
Staff Sergeant Sawyer was identified amidst the wreckage of his aircraft, allowing for his remains to be interred stateside in Arlington National Cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Air Medal and Purple Heart for his service over the skies of Europe. As for the mission he never came back from, four of the 366 Liberators were lost, two damaged badly enough to be written off, and 220 others sustained some form of damage from enemy action. Of the 3,660 men who took off from Hethel that day, nineteen were confirmed killed, eight were wounded, and eighty-nine were declared missing over the skies of Germany.
William Carl Sawyer’s tombstone at Arlington. Find A Grave Image