may surprise some readers that Eighth Air Force Bomber Command did not
begin operations against occupied Europe with B-17s or B-24s. The very
first bomber unit to arrive in the UK and to see action, several weeks
before the heavies, was the 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light), which had
trained in twin-engine Douglas A-20s, designed as attack planes to
support ground troops, not for strategic air warfare.
were A-20s in the Royal Air Force before the 15th Bomb Squadron arrived
in May 1942. Beginning in 1940, several hundred had been transferred to
the RAF, some under Lend-Lease arrangements. Close support of armies on
the Continent lay some distance in the future; the first RAF A-20s,
called Havocs, were modified as night fighters. Others, known as
Bostons. were used as low-level bombers.
was expected that the AAF squadron would operate as a night fighter
unit with RAF "Turbinlight" Havocs, planes equipped with powerful
search-lights to illuminate enemy aircraft for the fighters. Plans
change. Before the 15th arrived, the RAF had given up "Turbinlight"
operational experience, 15th Bomb Squadron crews, who had arrived
without their A-20s, prepared for bombing operations under the guidance
of RAF 226 Squadron at Swanton Morley That squadron had been flying
against targets in France and the Low Countries for several months. The
Boston's small, 1,200-pound bomb load demanded very accurate delivery;
hence missions were conducted at minimum altitude, where ground fire
tended to be lethal.
the end of June, 226 Squadron leaders judged most of the 15th's crews
ready for the war. On June 29, 1942, Capt. Charles Kegelman and his
crew--2d Lt. Randall Dorton, TSgt. Robert Golay, and Sgt. Bennie
Cunningham--flew the first combat sortie by a USAAF bomber crew in the
European theater as part of a 12-plane formation of 226 Squadron
Day, July 4, seemed an appropriate date for the 15th to enter combat
formally. Six American crews joined six RAF crews for a low-level attack
on Luftwaffe airfields in Holland. Taking off early in the morning, the
Bostons formed four flights of three aircraft each and headed east
across the North Sea, skimming the waves. As they crossed the Dutch
coast, greeted by heavy AAA fire, the flights separated to attack their
flight assigned to hit De Kooy Airfield was led by an experienced RAF
pilot, with Captain Kegelman flying one wing and 2d Lt. F A. Loehrl the
other. They approached the airfield through intense enemy fire. Near
their target, Lieutenant Loehrl's plane was hit and crashed in flames.
Captain Kegelman's took a direct hit in the right engine, shearing off
the propeller and setting the engine afire. Simultaneously, the bomb
load was released
Captain Kegelman fought for control, the lightened bomber surged
upward, then settled back, its right wingtip striking the ground. Then
the tail hit the ground, ripping off part of the lower fuselage. Jamming
full throttle on the left engine, Kegelman pulled the bomber into the
air and with his forward guns silenced a flak tower that had zeroed in
on his battered Boston.
a combination of skill and luck, Captain Kegelman brought his crew home
from their first brush with battle damage. Safely through the band of
coastal flak and somewhere over that hundred miles of cold North Sea
water, the fire in his left engine went out. Luftwaffe fighters, flushed
out by strikes on three of the four intended airfield targets, failed
to intercept Kegelman's lone and limping bomber, which would have been
an easy target for the crack German pilots based along the North Sea
15th's RAF tutors and Bomber Command were elated over the performance
of AAF crews on their first mission. Captain Kegelman was awarded the
Distinguished Service Cross and its British equivalent for his valor on
that Fourth of July mission--the first Eighth Air Force man to receive
the nation's second highest combat decoration. Promoted to major,
Kegelman was later given command of the squadron.
August, the 15th Bombardment Squadron got its own aircraft--former RAF
Bostons and A-20s from the States. The squadron flew a number of
missions with Bomber Command and in October was transferred to Twelfth
Air Force for support of Allied landings in North Africa. Its crews were
absorbed by the 47th Bombardment Group (Light), and the 15th was
inactivated. Nevertheless, the 15th Bombardment Squadron and its last
commander, Maj. Charles Kegelman, had earned a unique but sometimes
forgotten place in Air Force history: the first AAF unit to bomb targets
in Europe and the first Eighth Air Force man to be awarded the
Distinguished Service Cross.
completing a tour in North Africa and being promoted to colonel,
Charles Kegelman returned to the States to command a base in Oklahoma.
He later was sent to the Pacific, where he lost his life in a flying
accident over the Philippines.
Published May 1991. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.