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Chelveston in context - 305th Air Mobility Wing heritage

By Stuart Lockhart, 305th Air Mobility Wing History Office

JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, NJ -- May 2020 marks the 76th anniversary of the great air battles in the skies over Europe during the weeks leading up to D-Day, the great Allied invasion of the continent and its ultimate liberation from Nazi Germany. The 305th Bombardment Group (Heavy), the progenitor of today’s “Can Do” Wing (305th Air Mobility Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ), played a critical part in our nation’s ultimate success during this struggle as one of the first strategic bombing groups to arrive in England at the start of this campaign. From December 7-9, 1942, the newly formed 305th Bombardment Group (BG) arrived at its wartime home airfield of Chelveston, England. Chelveston, a former Royal Air Force (RAF) base known as Station 105, was built during the winter of 1940-41 to meet the growing need for airfields in the emerging air war against Germany. With America’s entry into the war and the deployment of the Eighth Air Force to England in early 1942, the 305th BG went to war under the tough and innovative Col. Curtis LeMay and flew from the idyllic Northamptonshire countryside. Approximately 8,000 Americans passed through Chelveston during the war – connections and friendships were made, families started, and those who lost their lives were honored. It was the start of the relationship between the village and the 305th AMW that has lasted to this day.

From the runways of Chelveston, the 305th BG undertook its grim wartime task of fighting the air war in the bitter cold and thin air over Europe against the forces of Nazi Germany. From the start, this untested unit had to learn how to fight. Under the steady hand of “Iron Pants” LeMay, the 305th BG perfected the techniques and tactics needed to turn “daylight precision bombing” from theory into reality. From the development of the “combat box” formation that allowed for the massing of each Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses’s defensive armament for mutual protection and greater bombing concentration, to the designation of “lead crews” for improving the timing of a formation’s bomb release, the 305th BG developed the tactics that set the standard for the rest of the Eighth Air Force. The 305th AMW’s “Can Do” motto dates from these early days of the Group’s combat experience and was a simple expression of the unit’s commitment to accomplishing its wartime mission. A man of few words, it was classic LeMay – short and to the point!

Early missions flown from Chelveston were considered “milk runs” by the 305th crews – raids flown on “close” coastal targets in France with light defenses. Later, as the B-17s flew deeper into the continent with greater flak concentrations and fighter opposition from a determined Luftwaffe (German Air Force), the costs to the Group became heavier.  “Good” missions with “light” losses (two aircraft and 20 Airmen) against such key strategic targets as the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Germany, on August 17, 1943, gave way to missions where the losses in planes and aircrew were staggering. A follow-up mission to Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943, became known as “Black Thursday.” On this date, the 305th lost 13 of 15 B-17s involved. With each B-17 having a 10-man crew, the Group suffered approximately 150 casualties in killed, wounded or captured on a single day. 

In the aftermath of Black Thursday, the “Can Do” Group licked its wounds, sourced replacement aircrew and personnel…and persevered.  The 305th was heavily engaged in the targeting of the German aircraft industry and airfields in the offensive known as “Big Week” from February 20-25, 1944. With these missions, the VIII Bomber Command of the Eighth Air Force, suitably supported by long-range escort fighters including the superb P-51 Mustang, took on the defending German fighter arm in a war of attrition the defenders could not win. The week’s missions saw the Group’s first award of the Medal of Honor (MOH) to pilot 1st Lt. William R. Lawley, Jr. A second pilot, 1st Lt. Edward S. Michael, would later receive the MOH for a mission flown over Stettin, Germany on April 11, 1944.  Uniquely, both of the Group’s awardees survived the war; their combat achievements are the stuff of legend. 

The Group and its extensive supporting crew of maintainers, armorers and ordnancemen, refuelers and truck drivers, crash crew and Air Traffic Controllers, cooks and bakers, doctors, nurses and medics and Military Policemen, continued to call Chelveston home and brave the extremes of English weather as planes and their crews came and went on their deadly missions over the European continent. When Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) came on May 8, 1945, the 305th BG had flown 480 missions of all types in 9,321 sorties and dropped 22,363 tons of bombs on the enemy. The Group received two Distinguished Unit Citations for its performance in combat. The cost in planes and personnel was high, however. The Group lost 168 B-17s and over 769 Airmen Killed in Action, not to mention the Airmen wounded or taken prisoner.  Fittingly, at the end of the war, the 42nd “Rainbow” Division of the U.S. Army presented the 305th Bombardment Group with a captured Nazi flag from the city of Schweinfurt in recognition of the Group’s losses and its achievements in bringing about the ultimate victory over Germany. 

After the war, the 305th briefly departed Chelveston for a new base at St. Trond, Belgium to conduct a mission of peace – Project “Casey Jones,” photomapping flights over Europe and North Africa. With those duties completed during the fall of 1945, the Group departed Chelveston permanently in December 1945. This brought to a close a special chapter in the lives of 305th BG, the town and our two nations. The chance to return each year in May is the opportunity to keep alive the spirit of friendship begun 78 years ago.