The Ahern Family - Lt. John Joseph Ahern, Jr.

Lieutenant John Joseph Ahern, Jr.
379th Heavy Bomber Group

A few days before Christmas 1944, during the second World War, Lieut. John Joseph Ahern, Jr., a 22 year old U.S. Army Air Corps pilot found his B-17G Bomber (ser. #44-8275) had got into difficulties. He directed his crew to bail out, saying he would follow them when the plane was past the houses in Bozeat. He was never to follow his crew, for after clearing the houses of Bozeat, he was killed when the machine crashed. It came down in a field behind Red Gables Farm occupied by Mr. Cyril Drage. The farm buildings were damaged by the blast, but the farmer's family were unharmed. In gratitude to Lieut. John Ahern, who thus gave his life for Bozeat, the villagers made a house-to-house collection for his mother in America, organized by the members of the Women's Voluntary Service. The American Air Force showed their appreciation of the village's act by presenting a plaque to the Church in memory of this episode of the war. Four hundred people gathered in the Church when the plaque was handed over by an American Air Force chaplain. The chaplain took part in the service, which was conducted by the Vicar, the Rev. S.F.W. Powell and the lesson was read by Rev. E. Hardwick, the Methodist Minister. Lt. John Ahern
2nd Lieutenant John J. Ahern, Jr.
Inscription “Bozeat. Beside the war memorial in the church is a framed testimonial from the CO of the 379th Bomb Group, acknowledging the thanks of the villagers for the self-sacrifice of one of his pilots. On 16 Dec 1944 B-17 44-8275 of the 379th caught fire shortly after take-off from Kimbolton . . . ” —from Britain's Aviation Memorials & Mementoes by David J Smith

Presentation of memorial plaque
Presentation of Memorial Plaque

Memorial Window in Bozeat Church

Window in Bozeat Church
Detail from Window in Bozeat Church

John Ahern's plane, B-17G-VE Serial 44-8275 (no known nickname), had first been assigned to the 96th Bomb Group/338th Bomb Squadron at Snetterton before being transferred to the 379th at Kimbolton on September 26, 1944. On December 16, 1944, Ahern and his crew took off from Kimbolton on a bombing mission to the Stuttgart Marshalling Yards and to Bietingheim. Soon after take-off and during the attempted rendevouz with the other bombers, they had some difficulty and were headed for a crash landing. Ahern ordered the crew to bail out while he stayed at the controls long enough to pass over the village of Bozeat. He was killed in the crash. The eight other aircrew survived, but most were lost on subsequent missions. B-17 Bomber
B-17G Bomber
The surviving crew members were: 1st Lieutenant Frederick W. Barley, co-pilot; Flight Officer Thomas W. Ramsey, navigator; and Sergeants Whitney J. Reese, Fred E. Estlinbaum, Warren C. Barlow, Saul L. Ancelet, John W. Cox, and William J. Watkins.
Oriented Overseas
Second Lieut. John J. Ahern Jr., whose parents live at 654 Ocean Boulevard, Atlantic Beach, recently completed an orientation course designed to bridge the gap between training in the States and combat soldiering against the enemy in Germany. Before entering the Army, Lieutenant Ahern was employed as a rodman and timekeeper at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Lieut. Jack Ahern
Is Killed Overseas
Lieut. Jack Ahern, 654 Ocean Boulevard, Atlantic Beach, was killed in action in the European theatre of war on December 16, according to a War Department message received yesterday by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. John J. Ahern of Atlantic Beach. Lieutenant Ahern was a member of the Army Air Corps. His family has resided at the Beach for many years.
Florida Times-Union 3 January 1945
After the War, Lt. John Ahern's body was brought to Fort Snelling National Cemetery in South Minneapolis, MN and interred on 7 January 1949 in Section C-24, Site 13657. His wife, Margaret, who died 14 April 1966, is buried next to him. John was born 10 August 1922, possibly in Atlantic Beach, Duval County, Florida and enlisted on July 20, 1942 at Jacksonville, Forida as a Private in the Army Air Corps. His Officer Serial Number was O-926285.

Excerpts from War Dept. Accident Report, 15 May 1945
Aircraft: complete destruction [sic] Weather at the time of accident: 10/10 stratus, base 500' tops 7000'. Visibility 800 yards in fog. Was the pilot flying on instruments at the time of accident? no Nature of accident: Shortly after take-off #4 engine went out. With 3 engines 1 windmilling prop, A/C could not be kept at altitude, kept losing altitude, crew bailed out, A/C crashed to the ground. Cause of accident: 25% Mechanical Failure (Engine); 25% Personnel Failure (improper indoctrination to pilots covering similar circumstances and the dropping of bombs over England; 50% Pilot error (Judgement)
27 December 1944 Statement of Co-pilot - 1st Lt. Frederick W. Barley 0778696, AC. "We had a normal take-off excep[t that we couldn't get full power out of number 4 engine. Everything else seemed normal. Once we got into the air everything was alright. We were climbing in the formation at the time number 1 cylinder blew off on number 4 engine. The pilot had told me to take over just before this happened. At the time I took over, I checked all the instruments. They were normal. We were at an indicated altitude of 6800 feet when the cylinder blew. It blew the cowling off and the oil pressure dropped immediately. The prop could not be feathered. The windmilling prop pulled the airplane to the right and down. I lost approximately 200 feet before getting the ship under control. The pilot said that we would have to head for home and the navigator gave us a heading back to the base. We had the radio compass on. We were losing altitude at about 400 to 500 feet per minute with the airplane flying between 135 and 145 MPH. Power settings: 46 inches manifold pressure, 2500 RPM. We pulled back the throttle setting as far as we could and tried to correct the windmilling prop but could do nothing. The ship started vibrating but it was already mushing through the air so I couldn't pull it back any. I was flying the ship all this time and the pilot and engineer were taking care of everything else. We were going to try and land the ship at the base. We were at 2000 feet when the pilot gave the order to bail out. The navigator and engineer went out then. We were under the impression all this time that we weren't allowed to drop our bombs in England no matter what the emergency. We were in the soup at 2000 feet and could not tell where the bombs would hit if we dropped them. Everybody got out of the ship safely except the pilot. When I left the ship we were at about 1000 feet and as I was going out the pilot was getting up to put on his chute. The altitude at which we went into the overcast was about 2500 feet. We were just going into this soup when the order was given to bail out." [signature] FREDERICK W. BARLEY 1st Lt. Air Corps 0778696, co-pilot
27 December 1944 Statement of Engineer - T/Sgt. Warren C. Barlow, 33126243. "The only thing that I noticed about the engine before it went out was that on the take - off it would only pull 2400 RPM. It checked alright on the ground, and just before it went out the instruments were reading perfect. I was standing there taking the instrument reading when it happened. The cowling blew right off number 4 engine and number 1 cylinder broke about halfway. The lead wire was holding in on to the engine. The power settings at this time were: 2300 RPM, 38 inches. We were on automatic rich. We tried to get the prop feathered but the controls from that engine were blown out. The oil pressure went down immediately and the engine was just running away. There was too much drag on that side and it just pulled us right out of the formation and kept turning to the right. We were at about 6800 feet in formation when it went out. At 1800 feet the pilot gave the order to bail out and I stayed with it until we were down to 1000 feet. The co-pilot and I left at about the same time. We just couldn't hold our altitude. I asked the pilot to drop the bombs but he said we weren't allowed to drop them." [signature] WARREN C. BARLOW T/Sgt., 33126243 Engineer
— Report of Accident No. 45-12-16-522 from the Archives of

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 Ardennes.

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 Bozeat—and its 1,100 residents—were 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 regain altitude.”

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 intended—a hero.

The Leader 10 November 2000
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