The U.S. Army Air Forces participated in a major strategic bombing offensive throughout the war in an attempt to weaken the Axis war machine. The skies in Great Britain were often filled with aircraft, sometimes for hours at a time. From testing to training to the missions themselves, air warfare was dangerous and costly, but incredibly important to the success of the Allied war effort. This tour will visit the names and graves of nine men who participated in the air offensive.
360th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group, Heavy
On August 27, 1944 the 303rdBomber Group assigned 37 planes to bomb the Focke-Wulf assembly plant at Johannisthal, near Berlin. In the event of poor weather, secondary targets were assigned. Towering cumulus clouds made it impossible to reach the primary targets, so the crews went on to their secondary target, the airfield at Esbjaerg, Denmark. No enemy aircrafts were detected, but two planes were hit with flak. Sgt. Anthony Fidares’s plane received a direct hit, and immediately broke in half and fell away in two pieces. No parachutes were seen. Fidares, 22, was never recovered.
His brother, Sgt. Nicolas Fidares, is also buried at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Anthony Fidares is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Arizona T. Harris
369th Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bombardment Group, Heavy
Tech. Sgt. Arizona T. Harris is one of 18 men buried or memorialized at Cambridge American Cemetery to have received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). It is awarded for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force. It is the second-highest military decoration for a member of the U.S. Army, just under the Medal of Honor.
On January 4, 1943 Harris was the top turret gunner on a B-17 returning from a mission to the U-Boat yards at St. Nazaire, France. The plane had come under severe enemy fire. Two engines were knocked out and the bottom section of the nose was blown away. The bombardier and the navigator were lost. As the plane struggled to return home, 40 miles northwest of Brest, France it was attacked by six FW190s and ME109s. The pilot settled the plane onto the sea, and it soon became a strafing target for German fighters. A nearby B-17 reported that the guns in the upper turret were still blazing as the aircraft sank into the water. Harris continued to fight until he was completely consumed by the waves. For this act of heroism in the face of death, Harris was posthumously awarded the DSC.
Arizona T. Harris is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Eugene F. Darter
412nd Bombardment Squadron, 95th Bombardment Group, Heavy
The day before his deployment, Staff Sgt. Eugene F. Darter witnessed the birth of his baby brother. He was so overcome with joy that he paraded the newborn through the streets upon a pillow, much to the excitement of his neighbors. The scene was bittersweet, as the next day he was off to fight the war as a radio operator and air gunner in the 95thBombardment Group.
Darter was the top turret gunner and flight engineer of the “Lonesome Polecat II”. Among the crew, he was known as “old man.” During its maiden mission over the German North Sea, “The Lonesome Polecat II”, was placed in the rear, the least protected area of the flank. As the flight neared Bremen, Germany, eight hundred German flak guns fired into the combat box. The plane was hit several times, creating a gaping hole in one of the wings and knocking out one of the engines. Disabled and on fire, the plane became easy pickings for the German fighters. As the Germans swooped down on the stricken plane, Darter was hit, along with the second engine.
Once the bailout bell sounded, three of the crewmen jumped to safety while the pilots attempted to make a crash landing closer to home base. Thirty minutes later, “The Lonesome Polecat II” found itself over the Wadden Sea, a coastal area of the North Sea. The plane was losing three hundred feet per minute. When the pilots realized that they would not be able to attempt a landing in England, they ordered the crew to jump. Darter was bleeding heavily in the radio room. Ball turret gunner Doral Hupp found him, applied a shot of adrenaline, and clipped him into a parachute. Darter muttered that he would be all right, and then jumped out of the rear hatch. He was never seen again.
Many years later, Darter’s baby brother found that a Dutch fisherman witnessed a limp soldier parachute onto the shore. However, he was pulled into deeper water and presumably drowned.
Eugene F. Darter is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Joseph Avendano Jr.
814th Bombardment Squadron, 482nd Bombardment Group, Pursuit
Plot G, Row 5, Grave 4
Capt. Joseph Avendano Jr. was born on March 10, 1917 to migrant workers in Calif. As a child, Avendano had a strong interest in designing and building airplanes. After graduating from El Central Junior College in 1940 with his associate’s degree, Avendano enrolled in a free aviation-training program sponsored by the government.
Avendano flew in the 93rd Bombardment Group. Within a year he was promoted to first lieutenant, and a few months after that to lead pilot. He participated in one of the most decorated missions of the war: Operation Tidal Wave, the raid on the Ploesti Oil Fields in Romania, where over one third of the airmen were lost. Avendano was awarded the Silver Star, and subsequently promoted to captain.
On the night of January 23, 1944 a volunteer crew of six, including Avendano, boarded a plane to test a radar system and the plane’s equipment for an upcoming mission. Avendano was a veteran of nearly thirty missions, and was selected to undertake this top-secret duty of providing radar leads for specific bombing missions within the elite and confidential Pathfinder Unit.
The test took off without a hitch, but the plane suddenly descended nose first and crashed. A massive explosion killed the entire crew. Because of the confidential nature of the Pathfinder Unit, the government would not disclose information about Avendano’s death at the time. The crash resulted from a ‘major mechanical failure’, possibly due to the automatic pilot feature.
Three of the crew could not be individually identified, and are buried together at Cambridge American Cemetery. The headstone that commemorates them reads, “Here rest in honored glory three comrades in arms”. They are Capt. Joseph Avendano, Staff Sgt. Carl H. Jean and Tech. Sgt. Harry S. Parks.
Joseph Avendano Jr. is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot G, Row 5, Grave 4.
Nicholas J. Fidares
68th Bombardment Squadron, 44th Bombardment Group, Heavy
Plot D, Row 6, Grave 23
On December 28, 1944 the 44thBomb Group dispatched 27 planes to target road and rail junctions at Kaiserslautern, Germany. The 44thBomber Group at this time helped to check the enemy offensive during the Battle of the Bulge by striking bridges, tunnels, choke points, rail and road junctions, and communications in the battle area.
Just prior to reaching the enemy coast, the B-24 which Sgt. Nicholas J. Fidares was aboard, encountered engine trouble and returned to base. The pilot missed his approach and began to turn right. The plane lost another engine, hit a tree, and crashed. A bomb exploded, killing the entire crew, including Fidares, who was just 19 years old.
His brother, Tech. Sgt. Anthony Fidares is also buried at Cambridge American Cemetery.
Nicholas J. Fidares is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot D, Row 6, Grave 23.
Donald E. Stockton
427th Bombardment Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group, Heavy
Plot D, Row 4, Grave 59
For much of World War II a U.S. bomber crewman who had completed 25 missions was entitled to return home. As the war progressed, the number of targets increased to 30 missions, and later to 35 missions. Capt. Donald E. Stockton was killed in action on his 24thmission. He was hit in his right side by a German fighter’s 20mm shells and fell over the controls, forcing the aircraft into a steep dive. Staff Sgt. Clarence S. Coomes recalled that the dive was so steep that one of the waist guns came out of its mount. 2ndLt. John C Barker, co-pilot, and Tech. Sgt. Roy Q. Smith, engineer, regained control and pulled the plane back into formation.
Walter Cronkite was at Molesworth, England to see the crews return. He vividly recounted seeing the planes return, and one plane fire a red flare as it approached the field. This signaled that there was an injured man on board. Cronkite described a scene of extreme sorrow, with the remaining nine crewmen huddled around their fallen leader in shock, tears streaming down their faces. These were battle-hardened veterans. The 303rdBombardment Group was the first B-17 group to complete 25 combat missions in June 1943. They had seen planes shot out of the sky and friends lose their lives. Even these veterans, subject to such bloodshed only known during war, couldn’t help but cry at the loss of their leader. Nothing, Cronkite reported, better illustrated to him the loyalty and kinship between those who flew together than this instance.
Donald E. Stockton is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot D, Row 4, Grave 59.
Raymond J. Check
423rd Bombardment Squadron, 306th Bombardment Group, Heavy
Plot C, Row 4, Grave 41
For much of the war a U.S. pilot could return home when he completed 25 missions. On June 26, 1943, Capt. Raymond J. Check geared up for his 25thand final mission.
For what would have been his last mission, Check was assigned a “milk run,” a mission that was perceived to be relatively safe. Check didn’t even fly the plane, allowing his squadron commander to take the lead. They set off to bomb a French airfield just across the English Channel.
When the plane reached the airfield, 20mm cannon fire hit the cockpit. The exploding shell sent deadly fragments flying. Check was killed instantly. At the same time a machine gun bullet hit the flare box behind the pilot’s seat, puncturing the oxygen system. The plane was seriously damaged with most of the crew dead or injured. With the pilot seriously burned, Lt. William Cassedy took the wheel.
Rather than land at the designated runway, Cassedy decided to land down wind, against the oncoming traffic. The chain of command was suspicious of this dangerous landing strategy, but Cassedy explained his reasoning. Check had plans to marry a woman the next day, a nurse, who was awaiting his arrival at the end of the runway. Cassedy spared her the sight of Check’s injuries by landing where she wouldn’t see him.
Raymond J. Check is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot C, Row 4, Grave 41.
William J. Maguire
351st Fighter Squadron, 353rd Fighter Group
Plot D, Row 2, Grave 68
At the end of the war, members of the U.S. Army Air Forces who had survived were overjoyed and ready to return home. Capt. William J. Maguire was no exception. However, the skies over Britain were far from silent. Men, equipment and machines still required maintenance. The constant drone of aircraft still filled the skies. During a routine post-combat flight, Maguire, along with Col. Ben Rimerman, lost their lives.
A beloved and respected fighter pilot, Maguire escorted heavy bombers to and from their targets and protected them from enemy fighters who sought to shoot them down. On August 11, 1945 Maguire took off from Raydon to Northolt, England to pick up Rimerman of the 3rdAir Division. On their return journey the plane crashed near Great Dunmow, England and both men were killed.
William J. Maguire is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot D, Row 2, Grave 68.
Headquarters, IX Air Support Command
Plot A, Row 6, Grave 21
For every successful technological advance made in aviation, there were many men and women who risked their lives testing the devices. Often these testers were experienced and decorated pilots. Lt. Col. Thomas Hitchcock was killed on April 18, 1944 while test-piloting a P-51 Mustang near Salisbury, Wiltshire, England.
Hitchcock was one of a select few that flew in both the First and Second World Wars. In January 1918 he was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre for shooting down a German two-seater plane. That March, Hitchcock was injured during a confrontation that involved 15 enemy aircraft. He was shot down, captured, and taken to several prison hospitals before regaining his freedom. He escaped to Switzerland by jumping from a train while being moved to the Rastadt camp in Baden, Germany. He survived the rest of the war, and became a silver medalist in Polo at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
In January 1942 Hitchcock came back into service as a major in U.S. Air Intelligence. He was attached to the American Embassy in London as a liaison officer between the American Air Corps and British Fighter Command. He then returned to the United States to help develop the Mustang fighter, the same aircraft in which he died during a testing mission.
Thomas Hitchcock is buried in Cambridge American Cemetery Plot A, Row 6, Grave 21.