The German counteroffensive in the Ardennes forest was deliberately launched during a period when the forecast weather grounded most allied aircraft. Negating the US and British airpower greatly improved the German’s ability to move and mass forces.
But on the 24th of December, 1944, dawn rose upon a crystal clear sky, and Army Air Forces made a maximum effort to attack the Germans. The fighters, fighter-bombers and light and medium bombers of the 9th Air Force were focused on tactical support.
And the jewel in the crown of the Army Air Forces in Europe, the mighty 8th Air Force, would have its largest single mission of the war.
Mission Number 760 struck airfields, marshaling yards, road junctions, and other communications targets throughout western Germany.
2034 B-17 and B-24 bombers, and 853 fighters of the 8th Air Force would pummel Germany this day. Compared to the ghastly losses the 8th had suffered a year prior, or even six months before, the loss of 12 bombers and 10 fighters was almost insignificant. *
But one of those twelve lost bombers saw an act of heroism that would see a Medal of Honor awarded.
Frederick Castle, the son of an Army officer, graduated from West Point in 1930, and received training as a pilot at March Field, California, earning his wings in December of 1931. He left active duty in 1934, and found civilian employment, though he remained active in the reserves.
When Ira Eaker was struggling to get the fledgling VIII Bomber Command on a sound footing in England, one of his staff suggested that Castle would make a fine staff officer. And so Castle was recalled to active service as a Captain in January 1942.
And Castle was indeed a fine staff officer, quickly rising through the ranks to become the A-4, the Supply officer for all of 8th Air Force. And his reward for doing that job well was a combat command, first of the 94th Bomb Group (three squadrons of 12 bombers each in a group). Later, he was made deputy commander of the 4th Combat Bomb Wing (with three, and later five bomb groups). When the 4th CBW grew to five bomb groups, in November 1944, Castle was promoted to Brigadier General.
It was the policy of the 8th Air Force that every mission be led by a senior officer, usually at least a Colonel, but often a Brigadier or even a Major General.
And so on the morning of December 24, 1944, as Mission 760 began to flow from the fields scattered across England to the German fatherland, it was led by Frederick Castle as the Airborne Mission Commander.
His particular bomb group missed its rendevous with its escorts, leaving the flight vulnerable to fighter attacks. Engine problems and damage from enemy fighters crippled his B-17, leaving it a straggler, always a favorite target for enemy fighters. Eventually, his aircraft succumbed to repeated attacks. Castle struggled to maintain control of the bomber to allow his crew to bail out. He himself would not escape.
He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. En route to the target, the failure of 1 engine forced him to relinquish his place at the head of the formation. In order not to endanger friendly troops on the ground below, he refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed maneuverability. His lagging, unescorted aircraft became the target of numerous enemy fighters which ripped the left wing with cannon shells, set the oxygen system afire, and wounded 2 members of the crew. Repeated attacks started fires in 2 engines, leaving the Flying Fortress in imminent danger of exploding. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the bail-out order was given. Without regard for his personal safety he gallantly remained alone at the controls to afford all other crewmembers an opportunity to escape. Still another attack exploded gasoline tanks in the right wing, and the bomber plunged earthward, carrying Gen. Castle to his death. His intrepidity and willing sacrifice of his life to save members of the crew were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service.
*8th Air Forces first strike, on August 17, 1942 had consisted of 12 B-17s striking marshaling yards at Rouen, France.