As a docent at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, it’s important for me to have a solid understanding of our major artifacts. This is the case with Flak-Bait, the museum’s Martin B-26 Marauder bomber from World War II. Of the more than 5,000 B-26s manufactured during the war, there are just seven surviving examples, and that makes Flak-Bait special. But what really sets Flak-Bait apart from the others—and what sets it apart from all other American aircraft that flew during the war—is that it flew over 200 combat missions, more than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II. To put that number in perspective, the Memphis Belle, a B-17 Fortress, earned fame when it completed 25 missions, less than one-eighth of Flak-Bait’s total.
But there has always been a nagging question about Flak-Bait’s achievement: exactly how many missions did it participate in? When I conduct tours at the Museum I could simply tell visitors that Flak-Bait flew more than 200 missions and leave it at that, but I wanted to be more precise. When curator Jeremy Kinney asked if I’d like to help conduct research on Flak-Bait, this gave me an opportunity to dig into the historical records and try to find the answer to this question. Unfortunately, what I found did not add a lot of clarity.
The most authoritative source would seem to be the combat mission reports of the 322nd Bombardment Group (BG), Flak-Bait’s parent organization during its 21 months of combat operations. These records show that Flak-Bait was assigned to fly on 216 missions. However, it was not uncommon for a bomber to be assigned to a mission and then not complete the flight due to weather, mechanical problems, or other factors. In most cases the 322nd’s records don’t indicate whether a given mission was flown to completion, so this promising source can’t provide the answer.
Flak-Bait’s mission count is sometimes reported as 215. This is the number of missions in a list compiled after the war by the B-26 Marauder Historical Society (MHS). It’s likely that the MHS relied on the 322nd BG historical records to develop this list. Unfortunately, it contains four missions that are not in the official records and doesn’t mention five missions that are in the 322nd files. As with the 322nd records, the MHS list doesn’t provide definitive information as to whether a given mission was flown to completion.
The other most commonly reported mission count is 202, cited by several Flak-Bait crew members in letters and interviews. These veterans usually point out that the number doesn’t include missions on which Flak-Bait was assigned to fly in a decoy or diversionary role. But I believe those missions should be included. Diversionary missions were flown over hostile territory, where they were subject to attacks by enemy fighters, flak, or both. This would seem to justify including them in the count of combat missions.
Having searched these sources without being able to find a definitive answer, I decided to consult one more source, perhaps the most obvious one: the historical record painted on Flak-Bait’s fuselage. The airplane can be viewed at the Udvar-Hazy Center’s Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, where it is undergoing restoration treatment. On the left side of the forward fuselage, Flak-Bait’s combat record is recorded in a collection of symbols that were painted following each mission. There are a total of 207 symbols: 200 bombs to represent bombing missions (199 regular-sized bombs and a larger one for mission number 200), six ducks for decoy missions, and a swastika for the confirmed kill of a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter shot down by Flak-Bait’s engineer-gunner Staff Sgt. Don Tyler in October 1943. Some sources cite the 207 total as Flak-Bait’s mission count, but the only way to arrive at this number is to include the swastika in the total. This is clearly a mistake, as the swastika represents a successful engagement with a German fighter, not a separate bombing mission.
So where does all this leave us? It leaves us with 199 regular-sized bombs, one large bomb for mission number 200, and six ducks for diversionary missions, for a total of 206 missions. I think this is the definitive answer, at least until a more authoritative source comes along. It took a while to arrive at this number, but it turns out the answer may have been right in front of us the whole time.