The first American air strike against German targets in Europe in World War II took place on July 4, 1942. Flying six twin-engine A-20 light bombers, and joined by six other planes of the same type flown by British Royal Air Force crews of 226 Squadron, airmen of the U.S. Eighth Air Force’s 15th Bomb Squadron attacked four Luftwaffe airfields in the Netherlands.
American and British reporters gave the mission a lot of attention, but the low-level, daylight raid was not a success. German anti-aircraft gunners — apparently warned of the approaching attackers by a ship off the coast — mounted a vicious opposition. It prevented all but two of the Eighth Air Force planes from dropping their bombs on assigned targets and two were shot down, as was one of the RAF planes.
If there was any good news, it was the performance of one American pilot flying with the element that attacked De Kooy airfield. As Capt. Charles C. Kegelman charged across the base on the deck at 275 mph, flak scored a direct hit on his right engine, setting it on fire and shearing off the propeller. The A-20 staggered and lost lift, striking the ground with the right wingtip and rear fuselage.
“We were flying so low over the target when I felt us take a hit and then saw a propeller go sailing by. My first thought was, I hope that isn’t ours! Then I felt us hit the ground and the bottom oilcanning under my feet,” said one of Kegelman’s crewmen, R.L. Golay.
But the A-20 bounced back into the air and Kegelman was able to keep it flying. He jettisoned his bombs and headed for the coast, mulling whether to put the plane down on sand dunes when he heard his rear gunner, over the interphone, say, “Give ’em hell, Captain.”
Seeing a nearby flak tower swing its weapons toward him, Kegelman fired at it with his nose guns, apparently silencing it.
The engine fire was extinguished on the wave-top flight home to England over the North Sea, and Kegelman made a good landing back at RAF Swanton Morley in Norfolk, taxiing to the control tower before shutting down. The experienced crews of 226 Squadron agreed the flak was the worst they had ever seen.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, later to become Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, praised Kegelman for “superior airmanship and extraordinary gallantry.” And Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, of the famous raid against Japan only months before, recommended Kegelman for the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor. A week after the raid, Kegelman was awarded the DSC and promoted to Major by Maj. Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe.
But Spaatz and Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker, who was organizing the Eighth Air Force in England, had protested the whole idea of such a raid to Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the Army Air Forces. They told him it would be premature, given the fledgling state of the Eighth. But President Franklin Roosevelt loved the idea of striking a first blow at the Germans on Independence Day. And Arnold, back at the Pentagon after an inspection tour to England with Eisenhower in May, had written a letter to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saying, “We will be fighting with you on July 4th.”
Arnold wanted to justify the massive buildup of the Eighth, hoped to duplicate the winning publicity of the Doolittle raid in April, and wanted to match the headlines of the Navy’s big victory at Midway in early June.
Arnold had assumed a group of heavy B-17s would do the July 4 job. But with the Japanese attack on Midway, that group had been diverted from England to the U.S. West Coast. The delay made it impossible for them to fly missions in Europe until August. In fact, the Eighth Air Force’s first heavy bomber mission against targets in occupied Europe was flown on August 17, 1942.
So, on July 4, the 15th Bomb Squadron — which had been rushed to England early in 1942 with its light A-20s that were designed to support ground troops — was the only unit in the Eighth ready for the mission.
“Someone must have confused the 4th of July with April Fool’s Day,” Eaker remarked. And Spaatz, following his award of the DSC to Kegelman and Distinguished Flying Crosses to Kegelman’s crewmen, sarcastically wrote in his diary, “The cameramen and the newspapermen finally got what they wanted — and everybody [apparently including Arnold] seemed contented.”
Arnold didn’t mention the raid in his diary — tacit agreement that Spaatz and Eaker were right.
Spaatz and Eaker had accompanied Eisenhower to Swanton Morley two days before the raid, a reflection of its importance to the top brass. One of the American pilots, Bill Odell, said the generals “shook hands with all of us. Not only were we surprised, but a little embarrassed by them coming to make such a big deal out of what aircrews of [the British] 226 Squadron considered to be just another mission not unlike many others to their credit. It seemed a little ironic that they had been pressed into taking part in an American Independence Day celebration commemorating the severance of ties between our two countries.”
After a number of other A-20 missions from England, Kegelman, a native of Oklahoma, was ordered to Tunisia to help support Operation Torch in North Africa. At the time, his squadron of A-20s and a P-38 fighter squadron were the only American air force units in Africa. In 1943 he came back to the U.S. to help train new pilots. In September 1944 he was sent, at his request, to the South Pacific.
In an interview in New Guinea in 1944, Kegelman, now a colonel and commander of the 13th Air Force’s 42nd Bombardment Group, said, “This is rough country. Rough to live in, and rough to fly in. I’ve never known an area to be as unforgiving of errors on the part of plane crews. In England and Africa we worried about interception and flak, but not about getting to the target or getting back from it. We had accurate and up-to-the-minute weather information. If an engine quit over England, it was a rare instance when you couldn’t limp into a near-by emergency field; if you ‘ditched’ in the Channel, an AirSea Rescue Boat was on its way before you had your life jacket inflated; the worst you could expect was a safe but dreary captivity if you had to bail out over the continent.
“That isn’t true out here,” he continued. “There are no emergency strips or open fields to skid an ailing plane into. If you ditch in the Pacific, unless you have planes from your squadron along with you, you can look forward to hunger and thirst and possible eventual death in an open raft while planes search thousands of square miles of open water for you. If you bail out in sight of enemy gunners you’ll never live to touch the ground, and if you land in enemy territory you face almost certain death if you are caught.”
On March 10, 1945, while leading a B-25 bombing mission over Japanese-held Mindanao in the Philippines, his wingman lost control and the two planes collided and fell into the jungle.
On July 9, 1949, Vance Air Force Base’s auxiliary airfield at Great Salt Plains Lake, Oklahoma, was named in honor of Col. Charles C. Kegelman.