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Harold H. Beasley, 1stLt USAAF, WWII



 

“Those who flew in late 1942 and early 1943 fought a very different war than those who came later”.

Russell Strong-First Over Germany


The story of the US 8th Air Force’s bombing campaign against Germany is one of the most well-known and researched campaigns of the Second World War. Much of this interest began with the historic 1944 documentary Memphis Belle by Hollywood director William Wyler. The plane itself has become the most iconic plane of the entire war. In the following years much has been discovered and written about the facts and veracity of the film and what license Wyler took to produce this work. Researchers continue to pore over the footage to fact-check and determine exactly what was filmed and where. This effort received a great boost with the rediscovery, restoration and release of all the known Wyler footage by the National Archives in 2018. It also led to the release of the documentary The Cold Blue in 2019 that both highlighted the restored footage and contained interviews with the few survivors of the 8th’s air war. The use of satellite imagery and crowd sourcing research has even allowed the identification of particular targets seen in the film. The distinct early phase of the 8th AF efforts up and to the infamous Schweinfurt raid saw pilots and crews of the 8th pioneering tactics and doctrine that though costly would ultimately help the Allies defeat Germany. An Alabaman who flew in the same group with the Memphis Belle was 1stLt Harold H. Beasley of Andalusia. Research efforts by this author revealed the hurdles of documenting events of a sister squadron pilot of even the well known Memphis Belle. Further, Beasley died without children as did his two sisters. What is known of his life so far is found in the census records,  a few newspaper articles, and the group records of his time with the 8thAF.


Early Life 

Harold Harper Beasley was born in Red Level, Alabama on December 10, 1916 to William Frank Beasley and Lola Mae (Harper) Beasley. He had one older sister, Christine, (1915-1980) and one younger sister, Annie Ruth (1922-1978). At some point his family moved from Main Street, Red Level to Andalusia and resided at 417 River Falls Street. He attended Andalusia public schools and graduated from Andalusia High in 1936. A 1930 newspaper article notes his awarding of a second class merit badge as a member of the Andalusia chapter of the Boy Scouts. He then attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute in Auburn. In 1939 he attained a bachelor of science degree in Textile Engineering. While in college he was a member of the marching band and ROTC.

In 1939 he attained a bachelor of science degree in Textile Engineering. According to the 1940 census he was a lodger in La Grange, Georgia and listed his occupation as office clerk.  Later local newspaper articles would later give his occupation as a textile salesman.


Enlistment and Training

On July 12, 1941 he enlisted as an aviation cadet in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He is noted on his enlistment record as “single, without dependents” and  height is listed as 73 inches and weight as 182 pounds. The author has yet to find any records pertaining to the training of Beasley other than an Andalusia Star news article noting that he had completed advanced flight training at San Antonio, Texas and had been appointed a second lieutenant. Public records also show that on May 10, 1942 in Walton County, Florida he married Helen Elizabeth Hereford (1925-1991) of Sarasota, Florida (b. Illinois) which may indicate at one time he was at MacDill AFB.


The Air War and Daylight Strategic Bombing

The inter-war period had led to the concept of strategic bombing to weaken the enemy’s production capacity and will to fight. The British who had entered the war against Germany in 1939 were carrying out nighttime raids on the German homeland and German targets in occupied territories. The US Army Air Forces however were eager to test their new doctrine of precision daylight bombing. The British were not convinced it was feasible and preferred the US planes join them on their night raids. The weapon that gave the Americans the confidence that they could succeed in this new strategy was the B-17 “Flying Fortress” and the B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers.  The planes mounted .5o caliber machine gun turrets that covered almost a 360 degree arc around the plane. Further enhancing this defense was the arrangement of planes into carefully designed formations that would provide interlocking fields of fire and support. At that time allied escort fighters did not posses the range to escort the bombers all the way to their targets. “The bomber will always get through” was the argument of those who championed the unescoreted raids.

The first US B-17 groups arrived in the summer and fall of 1942 to England and began small-scale raids against targets in German-occupied countries. Soon the unescorted bomber began to fly deeper into Germany itself and American losses greatly increased.  By 1944, the 8th would have over 2000 bombers with which to launch raids against Hitler’s Germany. But in the fall of 1942 and early 1943, four B-17 bomb groups with a strength of around only 150 planes and two B-24 groups would carry out the 8th’s mission. These four B-17 units were the 303rd, 305th, 306th and 91st bomb groups. As General Ira Eaker said to General Hap Arnold this was “a piddling little force. “ Harold Beasley’s unit the 91st  Bomb Group arrived in England in October 1942. It was comprised of the 322nd, 323rd, 324th and 401st bomb squadrons. Each squadron consisted of 9 planes to give the 91st Bomb Group a strength of around 36 bombers. 


B-17 42-25132 "Royal Flush"


"Royal Flush nose-art (Still from The Memphis Belle)



Arrival in England and Early Missions

The 91st had trained in Tampa, Florida before moving to the new Walla Walla Air Base in Washington.  In October, 1942 it departed to England to begin combat operations. One of the B-17s was lost in a crash in Ireland during transit from the U.S.  Beasley and his crew arrived October 13, 1942 as the first replacement crew for the 91st Bomb Group. He reported a day before the 91st made the move from Kimbolton to Bassingbourn. At that time he was a 2nd Lieutenant. Pilots and crews of the USAAF were credited their missions by note on official documents known as “dailies’ . These succinct reports noted the units missions that took place that day, the crews who flew them and any other relevant unit events such as training, promotions and appointments. 

Beasley’s first credited mission as well as that of the 91st was on November 8, 1942 to Abbeville, France as co-pilot aboard the B-17 Short Snorter.  His promotion to 1st Lieutenant occurred on November 24, 1942 shortly after his second mission as pilot on the B-17 Kickapoo to the submarine pens of St. Nazaire, France. On February 12, 1943 he was flying as an observer on the 401st B-17 The Saint. Due to strong winds the plane crashed on takeoff but all crew aboard were uninjured.  

The fall and winter missions of 1942 were mainly against railroad marshallings yards in France and the Nazi submarine pens in the French Bay of Biscay.

The Germans had installed large concentration of anti-aircraft batteries around the u-boat pens that proved costly to the allied bombers.  

On January 27, 1943 Beasley flew B-17 Royal Flush! in the first US bombing raid of Germany proper against the port city of Wilhelmshaven. The Wilhelmshaven raid features prominently in the 1949 classic 12 O’Clock High. 64 B-17s and 27 B-24s would carry out the raid with only light losses by the American bombers. 

As the Germans adjusted tactics the losses of the American bombers began to mount. The oft-cited and argued statistics of the survival time of 8th Air Force bomber crews in this period is the subject of research by Professor Lowell L. Getz. In his paper Getz tracks the survival of the original nine crews of 401st and shows the bleak odds of attaining the required 25 missions to return home.


The Bremen Raid- April 17, 1942

Officially 8th Air Force mission No. 52, this was the  first raid on the German Focke-Wulf fighter factory at Bremen. The mission was the first US hundred-bomber raid and would be the deadliest mission to date. Of the 115 aircraft that launched that day the 91st contributed 36 aircraft, its largest sortie to date. 107 of the B-17s made it to the targets but 16 would not return to base that day. Beasley’s squadron, the 401st, would launch nine bombers that day. One bomber aborted and of the remaining eight, six were lost to German fighters and flak after dropping their bombs and returning toward England. The 401st was in the unenviable “low squadron” position of the formation and most vulnerable to enemy attack. An account of the Bremen mission and the deadly return to England is chronicled in the writings of  Professor Getz.  According to Getz, Beasley’s aircraft Thunderbird suffered direct flak hits shortly after the turn away from the target. When realizing the plane was mortally hit Beasley rang the bail-out bell and the crew began to regress from the plane. As the fire grew Beasley and copilot 1stLt. Walter McClain remained in their seats to ensure the rest of the crew had escaped the plane. Enemy fighters viciously attacked the wounded bomber as it then lurched downward into a fatal spin. Beasley and McClain’s bodies were found inside the wreckage by the Germans and interned in a nearby cemetery. After the war Beasley and McClain’s remains were returned stateside. A memorial service for Beasley was held on May 26, 1949 and he was reburied in the Andalusia Memorial Cemetery. Beasley was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his final actions over Germany. 


Epithet

Harold Beasley was just one of tens of thousands of airman who lost their life flying against Hitler’s Germany. Notably, Beasley’s service was near the center of what would become the focus of the public’s imagination of the 8th Air Force and its continuing myth and legacy through movies such as Wyler’s Memphis Belle, and 1949’s 12 O’Clock High and later the 1991 fictionalized Memphis Belle movie. Beasley flew at least five missions alongside the Memphis Belle from November 1942 until his death in April 1943. 

Initially Wyler was focusing on the 401st plane Invasion II betting it would become the first plane to reach the 25 mission mark and return home with its crew. However Invasion II was also downed on the April 17 Bremen mission. When its crew were taken POW,  Wyler directed his attention toward the Memphis Belle of the 91st’s 324th Squadron. 

Director William Wyler had arrived in England in January 1943 with the order to produce a documentary about the US role in defeating Germany through its bombing campaign. He is known to have filmed at other bases than the 91st’s Bassingbourn and himself flew at least five missions to record the raids. From over 90 hours of silent footage he edited scenes down to create his iconic documentary. 

Brief shots of Beasley’s planes Royal Flush! and Thunderbird appear in the film as well as the B-17 Kickapoo which he piloted on his second mission. Wyler’s historic film is in fact a distillation of many planes and crews that ultimately were symbolized into that of a “mythical” plane and crew, the Memphis Belle, that would endure in the nearly 80 years since the historic events. In 2022, the 8th Air Force will be the subject of Stepehen Spielberg’s mini-series Masters of the Air which will likely renew interest of this period. 



The author hopes to continue research on Lt. Beasley in the future. Additional information is likley held in the National Archives in Washington DC as well as the US Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama.




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