This is the story of a B-26 Marauder bomber that survived two years of the most intense aerial combat of World War II, taking every bullet that German gunners and fighter pilots threw at it. This airplane was manufactured by Glenn L. Martin Company in Baltimore, Maryland in 1943 and is the aircraft that holds the record within the United States Army Air Forces for the number of bombing missions survived during World War II. It was assigned to the 449th Bombardment Squadron, 322d Bombardment Group stationed in eastern England and flew 207 missions over Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and France. It participated in bombing missions supporting the Normandy Landings and the Battle of the Bulge and by the time it was retired this airplane had over 1000 holes in the fuselage.
On the fuselage are six ducks that represent decoy missions on which” Flak-Bait” decoyed enemy planes away from real targets. Other paint patterns tell more stories of the war. Faded black and white stripes below a wing are the remnants of “invasion stripes” used to identify allied planes from below during the D-Day landings. They were to be taken off later, but aeronautics curator Jeremy Kinney points out that their location under the wing probably made it difficult to remove them entirely. The round blue background of the white Army Air Forces star insignia shows on careful inspection that its outline was once red, but at some point, during the war, the military ordered the red to be painted over in blue.
The first flight was made in November 1940, just three months later the Marauder was on its way to the 22nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field in Virginia. But in the rush to get the aircraft into service, a number of serious problems emerged: Nose Gear struts broke under heavy takeoff or landing loads, and leaky hydraulics led to a rash of gear failures. Had the aircraft undergone more extended testing, these might have been dealt with before widespread operations began. Most worrisome was that the young pilots pouring out of flight schools in 1941 and ’42 were ill-equipped to handle the B-26’s high approach and landing speeds. Unseasoned pilots had surprises: Get slower than 145 mph on final and the Marauder would stall. Lose an engine on takeoff or in a traffic-pattern turn and the bomber would roll and plunge earthward.
B-26 773 was flown that summer by Lieutenant James J. Farrell and his five-man crew: copilot, bombardier, radio operator/gunner, waist gunner, and a tail gunner. Seeking a worthy appellation for their new Marauder, Farrell remembered his brother’s nickname for his dog: Flea Bait. In light of their B-26’s seeming appetite for German anti-aircraft bursts, the men thought Flak-Bait sounded just the right devil-may-care note.
Farrell and his crew flew 70 of Flak-Bait’s first 130 missions, mostly in six-ship formations as part of 54-airplane attacks against airfields, marshaling yards, bridges, highway junctions, supply depots, and coastal guns. On 180-mph bomb runs, the squadron’s lead bombardier would pinpoint the target with his Norden bombsight, the pilot following the Norden-driven pilot director indicator, or PDI, on his instrument panel. When they saw the lead ship’s bombs fall, the entire squadron would release their bombs. Each bomber’s 4,000-pound load, usually 500- or thousand-pounders, would contribute to a tight cluster of hits on and around the target. That was the theory, but in practice, the Germans threw flak and fighters up to disrupt the Marauders’ aim and exact a deadly toll. The B-26 crews were well within the lethal range of high-velocity 88mm guns, each of which could fire 15 to 20 twenty-pound shells per minute, each shell capable of destroying a bomber. Nearing their target, Flak-Bait’s crews were often forced to penetrate storms of flak bursts.
To avoid the 88s, pilots could take evasive action during all but the last few seconds of the bomb run. Said Flak-Bait’s Farrell in a 1978 interview in Airpower magazine, “We figured it took the flak gunners 17 seconds to target us, and another 13 before the shells started bursting. For that reason, we wouldn’t go 30 seconds without doing something—climbing and turning to the right, descending and turning to the left.
Flak-Bait began to live up to its name. On almost every mission, it took a hit from 88mm shrapnel. Every control surface was replaced at least once. The hydraulics were shot out once, the electrical system twice. It came home single-engine twice, once with the dead engine on fire.
During the war, this airplane took some bullets from a formation of Messerschmitt Bf 109s in head-on attacks, 20mm cannons piercing the front of the airplane but the pilots miraculously survived. The instrument panel was almost destroyed and Farrell, with only an airspeed indicator still functional, nursed the B-26 back to the base at Braintree in England. Flak-bait also delivered 202 bombs, represented on the fuselage by red-colored bombs. Whitetails painted on the bombs represented every fifth mission. There is one black-colored bomb that represents a night mission. In addition to the bombs, there are also six red ducks painted on the aircraft representing decoy missions. There is also a detailed Nazi Swastika painted above a bomb to represent Flak Bait’s only confirmed kill against a German aircraft.
This airplane was one of the few saved from the graveyard and was not scrapped for aluminum. Because of its 200 missions General of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold selected the aircraft to include in a collection of distinctive examples of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ war-winning combat aircraft set aside for the National Aeronautical Collection and on March 18, 1946, Major John Egan and Captain Norman Schloesser flew Flak-Bait one last time, to an air depot at Oberpfaffenhofen in Bavaria. There the famed bomber was disassembled, created, and shipped to a Douglas factory in Park Ridge, Illinois.
Today this airplane is undergoing restoration in the USA, at Smithsonian Institution’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, and the curator says that they want to ” stabilize” and preserve rather than replace and restore”. Inside the fuselage, conservators found spent .50-caliber shell casings, live rounds, cigarette butts, wooden matches, and handfuls of “Window,” or chaff, fine aluminum strips used to evade enemy gun-laying radar. The team continues to find bits of German flak embedded in the wings and structure.