On April 17, 1945, 75 years ago to this day, an Army Air Forces crew in a bomber named Flak-Bait led the 322nd Bombardment Group of the Ninth Air Force against Magdeburg, Germany, a “defended area” on the Elbe River in Saxony. The next day, the soldiers of the American Ninth Army occupied the city. Americans had been flying Flak-Bait, a Martin B-26 Marauder, in combat against Nazi Germany since August 16, 1943. Over the course of that year and nine months, Flak-Bait and its bomber boys flew over 200 missions. They attacked cities; airfields; road, rail, and canal junctions; bridges; supply depots; fuel and ammunition dumps; gun emplacements; and even V-1 flying bomb launch sites as they prepared for the Allied invasion of France and supported the armies on the ground as they pushed east toward Berlin, the German capital. By spring 1945, Flak-Bait’s ground crew had repaired over 1,000 holes on the aircraft caused by Nazi shrapnel, cannon shells, and machine gun bullets. (Hence the name Flak-Bait!)
Flak-Bait is one of the iconic objects of World War II held by the Museum. It was a weapon, much like the M-1 Garand battle rifle and the Sherman tank, that young Americans used to help free occupied-Europe from Nazi Germany. Alongside two other icons with incredible provenance, the Pearl Harbor-survivor Sikorsky JRS-1 amphibian and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay bomber that helped end the war, Flak-Bait presents Smithsonian visitors the beginning, the middle, and the end of American involvement in World War II.
As an artifact, Flak-Bait is providing our staff an unprecedented opportunity to interpret and preserve a survivor of a long and bitter air war. Since starting a project to preserve Flak-Bait in late 2014, we’ve reached important treatment milestones, including the pioneering work to save the doped fabric control surfaces and interior fabric panels. Work continues as restoration and conservation staff expand their meticulous and state-of-the-art work to the rest of the fuselage and the wings, including a detailed investigation into the remnants of the world’s only surviving D-Day invasion stripes. In the coming years, we are looking forward to our goal: the display of the reassembled Flak-Bait , in the Boeing Aviation Hangar of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, all back together since being taken apart all those years ago in 1946 for shipment back to the United States.
In the meantime, we continue to work on the project, especially research into its history. We’ve shared with visitors our take on how to spell Flak-Bait, a look at what the bomber and its crews experienced during its three missions on D-Day, and a behind-the-scenes tour.
One thing we want to know more about is the people behind Flak-Bait. From 1943 to 1946, 358 individual Army Air Forces aircrew flew in Flak-Bait over the course of 219 flights, 202 of which were combat missions. How do we know those numbers? A three-person team from the B-26 Marauder Historical Society, Ron Bolesta, Roberta Faulkenberry, and Brian Gibbons, dedicated over 600 hours combing through various records, including the 59,000 page operational records of the 322nd Bombardment Group held by the US. Air Force Historical Agency. Their effort to document every mission flown by the medium bomber ensures that our curators have all the relevant information available to share with visitors, and especially to those who have a family connection to Flak-Bait. They provided their results to the Museum last summer and we have been enjoying working with their findings in addition to those generated by Museum volunteer, Joe Romito, who also authored a blog discussing Flak-Bait’s missions based on his research.
Over the entire lower half of Flak-Bait’s fuselage are hundreds of signatures from another group of people connected to the bomber. Because of its special history, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold selected Flak-Bait for inclusion in a collection of World War II aircraft set aside for what would become the Smithsonian’s National Aeronautical Collection. As Flak-Bait sat in open storage at airfields in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany at war’s end, Army Air Forces maintenance personnel and some civilians, including children, decided they would leave their mark on history by signing their names, current location, and hometowns in pencil and ink, with some even scratching their names into the paint.
One of our upcoming projects is to map and document that graffiti to expand our understanding of the people that interacted with Flak-Bait as it transitioned from a weapon of war to an artifact of one of the greatest conflicts in human history.
As we recognize the 75th anniversary of Flak-Bait successfully surviving the air war over Europe this month, we must reflect that its treatment project has been a tremendous experience for the Museum so far. It is a once-in-a-career opportunity to interpret, to treat, to display, and to reach out to the public with an amazing story of survival and resolve from World War II, which presents itself in the form of Flak-Bait.
Jeremy R. Kinney is the Chair of the Aeronautics Department and the curator for Flak-Bait.