|HERO FROM ABOVE|
WWII pilot Jack
Ahern of Atlantic Beach stays at the controls of doomed B-17, saves village
by John Woodhouse
|As his crippled B-17 bomber fell through the foggy Sunday morning
skies over southern Britain on Dec. 16, 1944, U. S. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. John J. Jack Ahern
Jr. of Atlantic Beach had a decision to make. With one engine on fire and another disabled, Ahern, 22,
ordered the eight members of his crew, including co-pilot 2nd Lt. Fred Barley, to parachute to safety. But
Barley wasn't buying it. Twelve days earlier, Barley, Ahern and the seven other crewmen, all new arrivals
from the U. S., had flown their first mission as a new crew on a borrowed B-17. The crew flew together two
more times, on Dec. 9 and 11, before they were assembled for their fourth and fateful bombing mission on
Dec. 16. On that same day, the Battle of the Bulge began and Germany launched its counteroffensive in the
As the parachutes if seven of the crew fluttered to the ground near Bozeat, England, a small village near an
airfield, Ahern assured Barley that he would be right behind the others. Barley bailed out, Ahern never did.
And the rural farm village of Bozeatand its 1,100 residentswere spared from destruction
because of Ahern's decision not to leave the controls.
The co-pilot wanted to stay with my brother, but he ordered him out too, said Fred Ahern,
who was 17 when his older brother Jack was killed piloting the fully-armed B-17. The bomber crashed and
exploded on contact in a field outside Bozeat. What happened was they were flying across the English
Channel, and all of a sudden they lost one of the engines. And as they brought it back they lost a second
engine, Fred Ahern said in an interview this week. Whatever the problem was they couldn't
|The ultimate sacrifice|
|According to a 1944 newspaper account. the chief air raid warden of
Bozeat said the doomed plane was headed for the center of the village in a low glide when it suddenly
pulled up and went over the town. The plane was headed right for the church, Ahern said
while looking over newspaper accounts of the crash in his real estate office off South Third Street.
More than 1,000 people lived in the village. A substantial number of them would have been killed. No
question about it.
Just outside Bozeat at Red Gables farm, Mrs. Phylis Drage was outside the kitchen when she saw the plane
make its final approach. She ordered her two boys to lay down in the front yard as the B-17 passed over her
house and crashed, leaving a huge crater behind. Bombs and incendiaries from the plane detonated over
the fields, but the Drages were unharmed. Ahern's body is believed to have been thrown clear of the
wreckage. If the plane had crashed in town, there seems to be little doubt that the village would
have been flattened, a British newspaper reported. It's believed Ahern was headed for the
Poddington Airfield, one of four air bases in a 20-mile radius of Bozeat, including his own base at Kimbolton.
From our house in Easton Lane, you could see these large bombers landing and taking off at
Poddington, Bill Silsby, a farm worker, recalled in a 1994 interview. They took a battering,
they did. Came back all in pieces. Something was wrong with this
one. . . . Two men parachuted out when it was low to
the ground. One engine also fell near them. They said it was white hot when it hit the ground.
|The day of reckoning|
|According to British aviation researcher Jack Boatman, Ahern's crew
was awakened at 4:45 that morning for a mission targeting German marshalling yards. The plan would
involve 116 aircraft from Kimbolton, including 39 from the Eighth Air Force's 303rd, 379th and 384th bomb
groups. Ahern's crew was on of many from the 379th approved for takeoff that morning at 9. The mission
was scheduled to last approximately seven hours. An hour into the flight, the mission was scrubbed due to
deteriorating weather. Ahern's bomber had been sent to Kimbolton as a replacement aircraft on Sept, 26
of that year. The plane had flown 23 operational sorties when Ahern's crew boarded it on Dec. 16.|
|Before the fall|
|Ahern had arrived in England in October of '44 and flew his first mission
as a co-pilot on Dec. 2 in an aircraft known as White Lightning. More than 300 combat missions
originated out of Kimbolton from May 1943 until July 1945, with all of them intended for targets in Germany
and other parts of occupied Europe.
Ahern, a 1940 Fletcher High graduate and former Senator football and basketball manager, enlisted July
20, 1942, and became a flight officer in March 1944. He received his commission as a second lieutenant in
September of that year. He had recently married and had an 8-month old daughter in Duluth, Minn. Fred
Ahern saw his brother alive for the last time in August 1944. As the brothers rode their bicycles down
Atlantic Boulevard, Jack Ahern made a haunting promise. One thing you can depend on is that I'm
not going to be a hero. I'm coming home, Fred Ahern recalls his brother saying before he left.
He always wanted to be a pilot, Ahern said. Back then, any able-bodied man went
into the service. It was a stigma to be 4-F. Everybody wanted to serve.
|Getting the word back home|
|It was just after Christmas, 1944, when Fred Ahern got the news
that his older brother had been killed in a plane crash. School was out and Ahern had gone hunting across
the Intracoastal Waterway with his friend Skeeter Dickson, who had a little hunting cabin about three miles
south of the bridge. A good friend of mine found out about it and came over and got me,
said Ahern, his voice cracking. It didn't sink in with me. I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it
for months. I kept thinking he was going to show up. I kept thinking maybe he got out. The whole family took
it hard, added Ahern. A Catholic priest who came to our house waited until after Christmas
to tell us.
Over in Bozeat, villagers went house to house collecting money to send a wreath to Ahern's family in
Atlantic Beach. Everyone in the village contributed. A memorial service was held in Bozeat in January 1945,
in the same church the plane and pilot had avoided by the slimmest margins. A packed house heard a moving
address from E. B. Lesher, an American chaplain from one of the bases near the town. I wonder
if you [Jack Ahern] realize the deep significance of what you have done, the chaplain said. You
have brought the two nations closer together in a bond of friendship that will not soon be broken.
Lesher presented the church with a plaque commemorating that episode of the war, and today flowers are
placed near the plaque at all times. A remembrance lily for Ahern is also placed in the church every Easter.
|A final reunion|
|Fred Ahern went to the crash site for the first time in October 1999.
There he met Graham Drage, who as a boy lay face down as Jack Ahern piloted his crippled craft into a
nearby field. We went out to the field, Ahern recalled this week, and he said,
'would you like some souvenirs of the plane?' In five minutes we had gathered up parts of the plane that
were still there since 1944.
Jack Ahern's body was buried in a military cemetery in Cambridge, England, and then brought back to the
U. S. and buried in Duluth, Minn. In 1946, the Atlantic Beach City Council approved the renaming of the
first street north of Atlantic Boulevard from Atlanta Street to Ahern Street, and a plaque was placed at the
intersection of Ahern Street and Ocean Boulevard. Ahern's name is also included on a World War II
memorial in Atlantic Beach's Bull Park. Also honored on the memorial are Navy pilot Richard Bull, Army Sgt.
Bob David and infantryman Solomon Sturdivant.
As for the surviving crew of the B-17, five were killed on a bombing mission to Bonn, Germany, on Jan. 10,
1945. Tail gunner William Watkins and ball turret gunner Saul Ancelet were the lone survivors. Barley, the
co-pilot on Ahern's B-17, was not aboard the downed aircraft. Fred Ahern believes one member of his
brother's crew may still be alive. He'll find out in January when he attends a reunion in Savannah, Ga., for
the 379th Bomb Group. I'm going to meet a lot of guys who have been correspinding with me,
said Ahern, who keeps a photo of his brother, wearing his leather bomber jacket, in his Jacksonville Beach
office. I'm hoping that the guy who survived isn't dead. One thing is for certain; Lt. Jack Ahern's
memory is still alive in the small city of Atlantic Beach, where he grew up, and in the small village of Bozeat,
England, where he died as he never intendeda hero.
| The Leader 10 November 2000|