The Sad Story Behind the Iconic Image of the Burning B-24


There are many iconic photographs taken during wartime. Who can forget the image of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima or the photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc OOnt running after being burned by napalm during the Vietnam War?

One particularly iconic photograph demonstrates the sheer terror and violence of flying during WWII by showing a bomber falling from the sky in flames as another plane flies in the foreground.

This may be an extremely well-known photograph, but where was it taken, and what was the story behind the image?

During 1944, American bombers raided the IG Farben chemical complex that was located on the far eastern boundary of Nazi-controlled Europe. This heavily defended target manufactured synthetic fuels.

Lt. Col. Clarence Lokker at the control tower of the Pantanella Airfield in Italy. Photo: Frank Ambrose via James Althoff

Due to its distance from the Allied lines, it could only be reached by the USAF 15th Air Force, which was based in Italy.

During the Allied push to destroy the German oil industry, American bombers raided this chemical manufacturing plant many times.

One of the largest raids was planned for November 20, 1944, when over 400 heavy bombers accompanied by 300 P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustang fighters, set off to bomb those installations that escaped demolition in earlier raids.

B-24 in Formation with trails from other bombers.

Toward the end of 1944, the 15th Air Force bombers were split into two wings, known as Red and Blue. The Blue wing had more modern planes. These aircraft were equipped with electronics that were sophisticated for the time and allowed the planes to undertake more extended missions and bomb without visually identifying the targets.

On the day of the mission, the B-24 Liberator bomber identified as Blue-1 carried more souls than just its regular crew, since it was the leader of its own wing as well as the entire mission. The plane carried the lead navigator and the lead bombardier, but no ball turret as this had been removed to have a BTO radar installation fitted in its place.

North American P-51D

The commander on the Liberator was Lt. Col. Clarence “Jack” Lokker, the commander of the 781st BS 465th BG.

He was accompanied by his crew including Capt. Milton Duckworth (co-pilot), Lt. Robert Hockman (bombardier), Lt. Joseph Whalen (radar operator), Lt. Joseph Kutger (lead navigator for the Blue Wing), Lt. Grosvenor Rice (navigator), Sgt. Jack Rabkin (top gunner), Sgt. James Bourne (waist gunner), Sgt. Paul Flynn (tail gunner), Sgt. Lee Billings (engineer), and Sgt. Edmund Miosky (radio operator.)

A B-24 Liberator from the 464th Bomb Group

At 07:42 the aircraft took off. When they reached an altitude of 5,000 feet (almost 1,525 meters), they laid in a course for their target. There was uncertainty as to whether they would be able to bomb their primary target as the skies were heavily overcast.

On arrival, the decision was made to attempt their secondary objective, but within minutes, the clouds started to clear and their primary target appeared.

P-51 Mustangs, at Debden, home of the 4th Fighter Group.

The entire wing had already turned to line up on their secondary target, so a turn of 270-degrees was ordered to bring them back online for their primary target.

At the same time, Lt. Col. Lokker, flying Blue-1, wanted to avoid the heavy flak being fired by the ground defense, so he climbed to 22,000 feet (over 6,705 meters). His change in altitude was passed on to the rest of the 464th BG which was following him.

At that point, disaster struck Blue-1. The aircraft took a direct hit between the fuselage and the No 2 engine, and the left wing started to come apart from the bomber’s fuselage. The plane burst into flames and slowly began to roll over — the image captured in the iconic photograph.

A B-24 Liberator of the 15th Air Force flies through flak during a mission over Vienna.

As he saw the wing starting to pull away, Kutger knew the plane was fatally damaged and that the crew had only seconds to clear the plane. Lt. Whalen, the radar operator, and Lt. Kutger, the radio operator, sat just behind the pilot.

Kutger shouted to Whalen to abandon the aircraft. Whalen did not respond, so Kutger grabbed his parachute with one hand and jettisoned the bomb load with the other.

Kutger leaped into the bomb bay trying to pull on his chute at the same time. He had fallen over 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) before he managed to get his parachute on properly, so he only had time to pull the handle and open the canopy before he slammed into the ground.

B-24 photographed from above.

Kutger was convinced that no-one else had made it safely out of the plane, but Lt. Col. Lokker had crawled out through the top hatch. Rabkin, sitting in the top turret, did not make it out, as he was tumbled into the flames as the plane rolled. Duckworth managed to crawl out of the top hatch as well, after suffering a terrifying spin while trapped in the waist turret.

Hockman managed to pull on his parachute and crawl out of the nose wheel bay, but Rice, who navigated from the nose, was trapped and could not get out in time. Flynn, the tail-gunner died in flames.

Miosky, Billings, and Bourne were stationed in the rear and waist turrets. Miosky was last sighted as he stood at the escape hatch putting on his parachute when the plane exploded. It is thought that he died in a ball of fire.

Billings and Bourne were blown out of the aircraft with the explosion, and by some miracle, they both managed to open their parachutes. They landed safely, though they were both severely burned and injured.

B-24 during low crossover flight at airfield.

Neither Billings nor Bourne could recall the explosion. Bourne could only remember that he was standing near the waist guns, trying to get to the tail-gunner but was beaten back by flames. The last thing he remembered was being pinned to the roof of the plane as it tumbled.

He was thrown out by the explosion with his parachute partly torn and with parachute ropes protruding from his pack.

He tried to push them back in but does not remember pulling the handle. Amazingly he remained conscious despite being severely burned. He broke his leg on landing and lost an eye in the explosion.

A crashed Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber

By a strange quirk of fate, Bourne landed on the factory he was trying to bomb and was immediately captured.

He was treated for a month in a hospital in Blechhammer. With the advance of the Soviet troops, the Germans moved him to a hospital in Bad Soden. He spent the remainder of the war recovering from his injuries and undergoing numerous skin grafts.

Blue-1 was not the only bomber to take flak on that raid. The attack was both accurate and heavy, while the smoke screen laid on by the defenders obscured the target until almost the last seconds of the bombing run.

The deputy wing bombardier eventually glimpsed the synthetic fuel refinery and, at 12:27, the bombs were released.

B-24 on Bombing Run.

Because Blue-1 had been shot down and the deputy lead plane, captained by Fred Johnson with co-pilot Tom Moore, was disabled by massive damage, the air wing did not immediately leave the area.

The deputy commander’s plane had sustained damage to the hydraulic and fuel lines within the bomb bay.

Only after some hasty repairs did the aircraft manage to limp back into the formation. After that, the plane made it home to Italy, landing safely after manually lowering the wheels.

15th AF B-24 Liberator

The Liberator flown by Ernest Taft, Lokker’s other wingman, did not make it home. Shortly after Lokker’s plane was hit, Taft took a direct hit, and the aircraft exploded in mid-air. No parachutes were seen.

Later it transpired that Taft and his navigator did make it out of the burning Liberator, and Taft said that he saw his top-gunner bailout without his parachute.

Taft was captured, and during his interrogation, he was told that his crew had made it out but had been captured by civilians on the ground. After the war, it was revealed that many captured aircrews were lynched by civilians.

This could explain why Taft never saw any of his crew, apart from his navigator, but he was given their personal items by the Germans.

461st Bombardment Group B-24 Liberators, 1945

Flying directly behind Blue-1 was Joseph Norman. His B-24 flew into the fireball left behind by Lokker’s plane and ended up with the left main gear of Lokker’s aircraft stuck on the nose.

The tires of the gear were still burning, and with the crash of the gear landing on the nose, Norman’s crew thought that they had also been hit and started to bail out.

Two crew members had jumped before Norman managed to assure the rest of the crew that he was still in control. Then Norman’s plane was hit and began trailing black smoke.

He radioed the rest of the wing saying he was making for a safe landing field behind the Russian lines. He landed in Poland at the Mokre airfield near Zamość. The crew made it safely back to Italy.

B-24 drops a load of fragmentation bombs.

The second squadron of the 465th BG also suffered from the heavy flak. The steering cables of the lead plane, flown by Lubie Robinson, were damaged so it could not turn after the bombing run.

This problem meant that the entire squadron flew into the flak as they followed Robinson’s plane. Eventually, the crew utilized the steel cables from the bomb bay to jury-rig steering cables and finally made it back safely to their base at Pantanella.

The rest of the Liberators of the 465th BG suffered no further losses. Once they were joined by the survivors of the first two squadrons, they flew back to their base. On the homeward journey, one additional plane went down, but the crew parachuted to safety. The remaining 18 B-24 Liberators landed back at their headquarters at 16:30.

B-24 Raid on Ploesti Oil Refinery.

Aerial photographs taken after the raid showed that hydrogenation chambers, compressor houses, and injector houses of the target had suffered direct hits. The pictures also revealed that fires were burning close to power stations and fuel tanks.

The refinery’s railway junction to the west of the complex was damaged, and other railway sidings had also been damaged. Production installations and living quarters had been destroyed.

Bombers B-24 in flight.

Read another story from us: B-24 Liberator in Action – Video and Photos

The Americans lost 16 B-24 bombers and two P-51 Mustang fighters. Despite the evidence of the aerial photos, the Germans claimed that there was only moderate damage to Blechhammer, that Blechhammer Sud suffered light damage, and Odertal sustained no damage at all.