Traveler, writer, reviewer, all-round observer. I like anything cool & fast, but occasionally sit at a cafe watching the world go by.
Featured in the ‘Faces of War’ video series, and with an entire chapter written about him in Tom Brokaw’s book ‘The Greatest Generation,’ at 92 years old, Jim Dowling shows the same spirit today as he did in WWII. Drafted at the age of 18 in 1942 despite a high school knee injury, he became part of the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bomb Group in the 8th Army Air Corps as a Bombardier/Navigator, with the famous actor and fellow war veteran Jimmy Stewart as his Flight Leader.
Two years later, at the age of 20, he became an officer, earning the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Unfortunately, on 2nd Lt. Dowling’s 11th mission during the 703rd Squadron’s bombing run over Kassel, Germany, he was shot down and taken as a prisoner of war.
“The average was six missions back then. The 8th Air Force lost 26,000 airmen in the war. That’s more than the marines in the Pacific!” Just as Dowling mentioned this, the Breitling Jet Team flew past us during the Memorial Day event over Republic Airport at the American Airpower Museum. “Amazing, huh? You know we had German jets come at us just like those. I had 20/20 eyes and I can pick them out way out there in the distance, like little bugs coming at us. They were the Me 262’s! They never fired a shot and flew right through us. But when we finally got to the city of Hannover, they shelled the hell out of us with their Ak-Ak.” The Me 262 was the first jet fighter ever built. Fortunately for the allies, they came into the war too little and too late.
I went on to ask him about his pilot and crew and he answered, “Dave Johnson was our pilot.” Two seconds later he began to chuckle, “I shouldn’t tell you this, but when we took off on our last mission, we stood in front of our brand new B-24 that just came in from Willow Run.” The Willow Run manufacturing complex in Michigan was a munitions plant where B-24’s were assembled.
“It was a real beaut! So Dave says, ‘Okay, when we get back, we’re going to christen it and name it after my girlfriend.’ Oh, that’s pretty nice. What’s your girlfriend’s name? ‘Bridget. So we’ll call her Frigid Bridget.’ We all looked at one another, Holy shit, you mean on the side of our airplane?” We both laughed at the story. “Frigid Bridget! We were going to paint it, but we never got back. On her first mission we got shot down.”
On that fateful day, September 27, 1944, the simultaneous massive bombing attacks on several key Nazi targets included the 445th Bomb Group’s mission over the town of Kassel – the mission that nearly wiped out the entire group. “We were on deputy lead, and I was over the sight. We were aiming for the tank factory they had there. Well, the bombardier on the nose turret was killed. And the navigator right behind me was killed. They used 30mm on us, went right through us. I was lucky.” His voice faded slightly, and changed the subject by asking what I do. While explaining to him about my WWII project to try to immortalize the events and stories of the time, the sounds of an M4 Sherman tank rolled behind us and the roar of a P-47 Thunderbolt flew overhead.
“You know, Hollywood has never made a movie about the missions of the 8th Air Corps.” He did recall a couple of movies though. “There was one called ‘Memphis Belle’ – I walked right out of there; I was so disgusted by it. It was terrible. And there was another with Gregory Peck, ‘Twelve O’Clock High.’ That was a great movie, but was more about the management. Not so much about the crews and the bombings. But it was a very good movie.” Just then a B-24 Bomber taxied in from her flight for the air show.
Now, over 70 years after WWII, he looks back and thinks about the sacrifices others made. “Reading about all those missions during my time, and thinking about all those who didn’t make it, they’re all guys! All young men, sacrificing themselves because they wanted freedom.”
Returning as a POW and war veteran, settling down to enjoy life wasn’t enough for him. He married his high school sweetheart, proudly fathered eight children, and set the example for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren by continuing to serve his community as best he knew how. One of the first things he did was start a baseball team for the neighborhood children. As a result, he helped found Little League in Smithtown, Long Island and served as its president for 18 years. Shortly thereafter, he was elected as Smithtown’s Highway Superintendent. Running the office much like the military, he created 250 miles of permanent roads. He also changed the way they dealt with snow storms, making it more prepared rather than reactionary, setting the example that’s implemented nationwide to this day.
As we said our goodbyes, he cheerfully shook hands and waved at others while seeking fellow war veterans at the Memorial Day event, to selflessly thank them for their service.
To learn more about the Kassel mission, the 703rd Flight Squadron, & the 445th Bomb Group, you can use the following links:
For a more in-depth look at James Dowling’s missions, life as a POW, & community work, see the following video, Faces of War:
A short video about the B-24 & the Willow Run production plant:
This article is dedicated to the men who served and sacrificed during their service with the 8th Air Force.