AUSTIN, Texas (Austin American-Statesman) — You can look it up: The Memphis Belle was the first heavy bomber to successfully complete 25 missions during World War II.
Except, says retired IBM marketing representative Jim Lux, it wasn’t. Not even close. It was a B-24 Liberator nicknamed Hot Stuff, whose crew included Robert T. “Jake” Jacobson of Austin, a Mississippi native who died in 2010 at age 93.
Hot Stuff, Lux claims — and he has plenty of supporting documentation — reached that milestone against long odds at a time when many planes were being shot down, fully
3 1⁄2 months before the Belle. The Belle made it home safely and became a potent propaganda tool, and the subject of a documentary during the war and a feature film in 1990.
Hot Stuff was on its way home when, on May 3,
1943, it crashed into a mountainside in Iceland in bad weather, killing 14 of 15 aboard. Only the tailgunner survived.
Jacobson wasn’t on the plane. He and five other crew members were bumped from the doomed flight by Gen. Frank Andrews, often called the father of the U.S. Air Force, and his entourage. Andrews had taken over command of U.S. troops in Europe from Dwight D. Eisenhower and was expected back in Washington to collect his fourth star. Hot Stuff and her crew were to rotate home and be used to sell war bonds. Instead, because of the crash, that honor fell to the Belle, which barnstormed the country on a three-month, morale-boosting tour, and her crew.
“I understand why they did it,” Lux says. “I just don’t understand why Hot Stuff was forgotten. That’s just wrong.”
By happenstance, Lux stumbled across the information that has potential to rewrite a piece of the war’s history. An Air Force veteran himself, Lux was helping put together the program for an air show and gathering in about 1999 organized by what was formerly called the Confederate Air Force (now Commemorative Air Force). Jacobson, a golfing buddy of Lux’s in the Lost Creek subdivision, gave the younger man pictures and documents from his service years.
Jacobson had completed 31 missions over North Africa and Europe, and 14 over Japan — including one on the last day of the war, Aug. 14, 1945, the day of the Japanese surrender. After he received his master’s degree, he spent several years in postwar Japan, helping rebuild hospitals.
“I destroyed them for this much time, and then I came back to help them rebuild,” Jacobson would say.
Lux went through the material. And there it was, a certificate signed by the group’s commander, Col. Edward “Ted” Timberlake, mission No. 25 over Naples, Italy, dated “7 Feb. 43.”
“Jake, you didn’t tell me you guys were the first to complete 25,” Lux said, astonished.
“Heck, I didn’t know that,” Jacobson replied.
Intrigued, Lux had planned to interview the old airman who retired as a major, but Jacobson fell and died just days before they were supposed to get together. Discouraged but not deterred, Lux kept at it, with the aid of Jacobson’s daughter, Kelly Treybig, who had a great deal of her dad’s records.
“I approached the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio,” Lux said. “The director wasn’t too impressed. So now I have all kinds of records and research, and I have proof.”
“I believe that’s the case,” said Brett Stolle, a curator at the museum. “He’s put together a pretty convincing narrative. We can’t confirm that it was the first aircraft to reach 25 missions, but it looks promising that that’s the case. It did before the Belle. There are several (including one named Hell’s Bells) that beat the Belle.”
Lux knows it won’t be easy rewriting a narrative that has largely held for almost 70 years. But he’s not done yet.
Last month he visited the crash site with a pair of Icelandic men hoping to memorialize crash sites there during the war. (Because of frequent bad weather and heavy air traffic, both sides lost close to 20 planes over Iceland during the war, Lux said.)
Debris, pieces of which he brought home, still litter the mountainside. The larger pieces are in a lava field almost a half-mile away. Had the weather been clear, the pilot could have seen the airfield at which he was hoping to land.
Per his friends’ suggestion, Lux is contemplating a fundraising drive to get a monument erected there, an initiative he says the American ambassador to Iceland, Luis Arrega, enthusiastically endorses, and for the museum in Dayton to include Hot Stuff in a future exhibition.
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“It’s an incredible story that should be told and not forgotten,” Lux said. “Hot Stuff and her crew were the first to complete 25, and they were not given credit. The excuse given is the Memphis Belle returned with her crew intact. I’m not trying to take anything away from the B-17 Memphis Belle, which completed a nearly impossible task. But Hot Stuff should have been recognized as the first.”
©2012 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
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