By Scott Longman
February 22, 1944. Leaving Denmark, over the North Sea.
The Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, Mi Amigo, was barely still airborne. The heavy bomber had been on a raid against a Luftwaffe airfield at Aalborg, Denmark, one of twenty-seven planes with the 305th Bomb Group, U.S. Eighth Air Force, along with others. The target was too socked in to hit, but not too socked in for enemy Me-109s to rise up to swarm them. The stunning firepower of the B-17’s Browning M2 .50 machine guns smoked at least one and maybe more of the attackers and drove the rest off, but not before they’d inflicted huge damage, shooting and probably killing three of the ten crew, and equally carnaging at least three and maybe all four of the big Wright Cyclone engines. Unable to keep up, the bomber got separated from the others, all alone, badly hurt and losing altitude. All the young men on board were on a very literal wing and a prayer.
They made it past the German anti-aircraft positions on the Atlantic wall as they left Denmark, then out over the forbidding waters of the North Sea. Ever the Good Guys, they had intentionally suffered a crucial loss of altitude waiting to dump their bomb load so as not to cause civilian casualties, but now safely over the water, they did it, no doubt with relief, and also threw out their machine guns and everything else they could, while watching the water all-too-close beneath them.
They were already too low to jump and had no chance of climbing to jump altitude.
The approaching English coastline spiked hope, even with three of the four engines pouring smoke. One of the many problems was cloud cover, thick and everywhere. It wasn’t until they’d descended to beneath 2,000 feet that they spotted it. Nobody had any illusion that they’d come anywhere close to reaching their own airfield: all they were thinking about was setting down anywhere, and they’d just found it, a wonderful, bursting, magnificent green ray of hope, a big open field, big enough for a 54,000 pound B-17 to set down.
And then, miserably, they saw them.
It was a soccer field, and it was full of little children. Although the crew would never know it, they were six-through-eight year-old kids in a place called Endcliffe Park, near Sheffield. By this point in the war, the children had spent close to their whole lives with military aircraft flying low overhead, so they thought nothing of it.
Which meant to them that the desperate arm-waving out the windows of the doomed B-17 didn’t mean “Please get the fuck out of the way,” but rather, “Hello.” One of them even waved back.
There are multiple accounts, but the agreement is that the pilot, First Lieutenant John G. Kreigshauser, made a reasoned, conscious decision. Not just for himself, but for all of his surviving friends aboard that B-17G. The only other place to go was a heavily wooded area, and given their rate of altitude loss, choosing that was more or less the same thing as deciding to ride a motorcycle loaded with aviation fuel doing 100 mph into a field of closely-spaced telephone poles.
He decided right then and there to commit suicide and take his crew along, perhaps and—let’s think—with their agreement.
Because he went to World War II to be The Good Guy. They all did.
He turned away from the children, over the woods, and as to be expected, the deeply wounded bomber lost the last of its altitude, impacted and exploded in a cataclysmic fireball of avgas, brutal kinetic energy and sheer heroism.
As First Lieutenant John G. Krieghauser had oh-so-very calculatedly intended, the children on the soccer pitch were untouched.
Because of Lt. Krieghauser’s sacrificial decision, those little children grew up. Of course, it was explained to them, at some point. One of them, a man named Tony Foulds, spent a lifetime haunted by the event. At the age of 17, he was walking through those woods and he came across the crater of the crash site. As he said much later: “It’s more than bravery, what they did. They saved me, and I mean saved me.”
Even to this day, the site is discernible from a distance, because of the trees the plane took out or were cut down: the new growth is notably shorter. And some of the older trees around the site still show charring near the tops, testament to the hell-furnace that had been there that horrific day.
There was a memorial set up in 1969, a big boulder with two brass plaques. And that was certainly something, but it always sat with Tony as not quite enough. He hit upon the idea of a “flypast,” which is BritSpeak for a flyover. He created a campaign to make that happen. Both the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force responded in the switched-on kind of way that you would hope they would, and on 22 February 2019, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the sacrifice, there was a first-class joint USAF/RAF flyover, which included ten aircraft, including a flight of F-15E Strike Eagles out of Lakenheath—each with the names of all ten crewmen painted on them. They performed the dare-you-not-to-choke-up “missing man” formation.
First Lieutenant John G. Kreighauser and his crewmates traded their lives for those of the children. The Lieutenant was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Every single last crew member should have won an award.
And split-second sheer sacrifice.