Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Co. Sligo, December 1942
The build up of the United States Army Air Forces in the United Kingdom would result in a flurry of foreign aircraft incidents in neutral Ireland during the winter of 1942 and 1943. The first such American aircraft had landed in July 1942 at Rinneanna aerodrome, Co. Clare. Four more aircraft would arrive on Ireland's soil, or as was the case, its sand, during December 1942 with two more in January 1943.
The first of these winter arrivals occurred on the 5th of
December 1942 when a large four engine bomber landed on a beach
at Mullaghmore, in the county of Sligo.
The story was told from the point of view of the co-pilot Jack
Rolfson in the August 2005 newsletter for his veterans
association, the Hell's Angels Newsletter of the 303rd
Bombardment Group (Heavy).
The reason for their flight from their base at Molesworth,
Cambridgeshire was given by Rolfson to Frank Mangan in 2005:
On December 4, 1942, Major Charles Sheridan, commanding officer of the 303m Bomb Groupís 427th Squadron, ordered Ralph Hayes and his crew on a secret mission.
They were to fly their B-17 to Northern Ireland to meet a P-38 Fighter Group and then fly on with the fighters, running fuel consumption tests, to a Casablanca base in North Africa. The mission was postponed a day due to poor weather. The next day they were ordered to take off at 12:30 even though the weather conditions were again unacceptable.
Co-pilot Jack Rolfson and Ralph were aboard the plane along with their navigator, Frederick IlIgen, engineer Antoni Bednarchuk, and radio operator, Jesse Jessee.
The fact that the flight was canceled on the 4th due to inclement weather but was forced off the ground with more poor weather on the 5th is somewhat of an anomaly. One assumption was that the P-38s could not wait any longer for the fuel test run to North Africa.
The crews situation in The Devil Himself proved to be difficult. On leaving England, Illgen was given codes to turn on a radio beacon at Eglinton airfield in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. The problem was that the codes were incorrect.
The plane had been ordered out of Molesworth without a clear backup if problems arose before landing in Eglinton. There was only enough daylight for a one-way trip at that time of the day. There was no point in trying to return to Molesworth in the dark because lllgen was not given the codes to activate any landing beacons in England.
There then followed an epic 17 day repair effort described in Frank Mangan's article linked above.
Repaired, the aircraft was finally able to depart on December
It appears in the maintenance records for the Lockheed Overseas Corporation as undergoing work in the Langford Lodge facility. It was flown by Hayes and Rolfson for the first time in combat on February 18th but was forced to abort the mission due to a waist gunners flying suit electrical cord becoming severed. It's combat career came to an end on it's ninth mission on the 19th of May as the mission report records: The Devil Himself, #41-24612, piloted by 1Lt. Armand F. Burch, circled Molesworth for a landing with the right aileron torn to shreds and the right tire blown out. Lt. Burch, despite this handicap, kept the ship under perfect control and came in for a beautiful landing. His comment was, "They get rougher every time, but the bombing gets better. Today's were right on the nose."
The aircraft's individual history shows it to have been
transferred to AFSC, believed to be Air Force Service Command,
for 'Special gun tests' on 25th May 1943. Thereafter it
served with the 1 Combat Crew Replacement Center at Bovingdon
before returning to the United States in on the 20 December
1944. It was sold for scraping on the 9 October 1945.
The aircraft, carrying serial number 41-24612, was a Boeing B-17F-27-BO Flying Fortress. This was an aircraft built at the Boeing plant in Seattle. It actually appears in a well known photo taken at the assembly plant at the time of its delivery.
What is interesting is that one of the crew members, Antoni
Bednarchuk received the Legion of Merit award following the
incident, with the publicly published citation reading:
Ralph S Hayes, O-430583 was born in 1914 in New York to Gertrude and Ralph Hayes. His mother sadly passed away when Ralph was just four so he he grew up in Rochester with his grand mother. The 1940 census finds him apparently at Langley Field Hospital, Virginia, but his occupation is listed as 'Mechanical Engineer, Automobile' and he doesn't appear to be in the military at that point. His local newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester followed his wartime career. The Star-Gazette from Elmira, New York reported in October 1941 that he was being sent to the flying school at Barksdale, Louisiana.
On the 13th December 1941, he and a number of class mates
featured in the Shreveport, Louisiana paper, the The
Times. A group photo of five of the men appeared alongside
their fiances, in an article relating how the men had just
graduated from flight training and received their commissions as
officers. He was due to get married on the day the
newspaper printed, to Miss Sally Rogers.
On the 19 of September 1942, Ralph was home visiting his
He was a pilot across the Atlantic in late October 1942
with the bomb group. A fellow pilot, Ehle H Reber, whose
journal is carried on the 303rd Bomb Group website, mentions the
Irish adventure of Ralph S Hayes and his partial crew:
Dec. 9, 1942 Wednesday
We learned that Lt. Hayes and crew, who started on a flight to Northern Ireland to run some fuel consumption flights with pursuits, became lost and ended up in Irish Free State. The Free State is neutral so the crew and plane is probably interned until such a time that arrangements are made for their release. Only 8 planes in squadron now. With his loss, it is doubtful whether he will join us, if and when he is released. .....
Jan. 5/43 Tuesday
Dull day. Plane should be out of the hangar soon. Scheduled to fly Billy B's plane on practice bombing mission, but it was cancelled on account of visibility and weather in general. The 303rd has now lost 25% of its air echelon in two months of operational flying. Nine crews and 11 airplanes, including Hayes. However he should be back one of these days. Rapid turn-over.
Jan. 19/43 Tuesday
All transportation called in. A lot of walking now by all personnel. Result of accident over the weekend in which two enlisted men were killed in Jeep. I was suppose to go to Cambridge this evening, but of course trip cancelled due to lack of transportation. Weather is very foggy. Jerry Jinx still loaded with 5 x 1000. Received six letters yesterday and two today. Morale of men not too good. Lt. Hayes back soon (?).
2/Lt Reber would be lost on the 23 January 1943 hence he never recorded the return of 2/Lt Hayes to the Squadron.
Ralph S Hayes Jr service with the 303rd Bomb Group is covered
by their website, where he has a dedicated
page. Ralph did not undertake a combat mission until
the 15th February 1943, showing that there was considerable
delay caused by the landing in Ireland.
He was the commander of the 730th Bomb Squadron of the 452nd
Bomb Group between September 1943 and July 1944. The 303rd
BG website highlights that he was the "Engineering Officer
Aphrodite Project 01 Jul 44" and he is briefly mentioned
in the book Lost Destiny: Joe Kennedy Jr. and the Doomed
WWII Mission to Save London by Alan Axelrod. The
303rd BG Association also link him to being a Technical
Inspector with the 3rd Air Division from 22 Oct 44, then Air
Inspector with 4th CBW/3rd AD on 23 Dec 44. There was in
1944/45 another officer of the same name serving with the 401st
Bomb Group in England. But confusingly, Capt, R S Hayes
O-430583 appears listed as the name of a witness to the loss of
a 401st Bomb Group aircraft in December 1944.
The Geriatric Pilots Association contained an apparent reference to Ralph's flying career: Hayes, Ralph S - AAF Pilot B13, 17, 18, 24), A29, L4B, LB30, AT6, 7, 8, PT13, 17), BT15, C78, Curtiss 02Cl. B17 pilot, special open cockpit B17 modified to accommodate two 16,000 pound depth charges (10 feet by 3 foot diameter), 8th Air Force Europe, 200 hours combat, UK. Colonel
Ralph died in 2011 in Rochester, New York. His obituary
recorded his post war career as: After the war, Ralph took
his Mechanical Engineering knowledge and incorporated it to
many fields in his works with Syracuse China, Carrier Corp.
and Ingersoll Rand. He was plant manager for Forster mfg Co.
in Wilton, Maine. Ralph then took a position as Design
Engineer with Stanadyne Corp in Chicago. He owned Falls
Electric Co. in Syracuse, NY and WindWinder Corp. in Dayton
Ohio. Ralph and his Brother-in-law, Otmar Ulbing, were
instrumental in designing and filing for several patents.
It also mentioned the landing in Ireland in the following
terms: He flew B-17ís during WWII. He even saved his
crew after being hit and losing power by landing on a beach in
G Rolfson, O-791053 was the last surviving member of the
partial crew, having passed away in 2017. He was born in
September 1921 to Martha and B H Rolfson in Omaha,
Nebraska. Just some days before his death he had been
interviewed by the WTVC News channel, and that can be seen on
this youtube video.
The Nebraska State Journal of Friday May 9, 1941, along with
many other Nebraska papers carried the following report on
Jack's early entry into the war against Germany:
OMAHA (AP) Jack Rolfson, 19, a freshman at the University of Omaha, soon will be one of the 10,000 Americans fighting for British and allied forces. The engineering student will leave this week end to join the Canadian royal air force for active service as a student pilot. He is the son of Mr. and Mrs. B. H. Rolfson.
On the 16 of February 1942 he registered for the US Government
draft, stating on the form that he was employed by the Royal
Canadian Air Force.
Following the end of his tour of duty his name is found listed
on the manifest for Douglas C-54 41-37284 arriving into New York
from Prestwick, Scotland on the 10th august 1943.
His name was mentioned in country wide newspapers in July 1943
when the story of the return flight from Hamburg of Lt. William
Frederick J Illgen, O-443073
Frederick was born in Alameda county, California in 1915 to Margaret and Martin Illgen, one of five siblings born to the German born couple.
The voters registration for 1940 lists him as a grocery clerk
living at home with his mother and one voting aged sister.
His draft registration record from late 1940 shows him to
be studying at the University of California.
His enlistment into the Air Corps as a cadet is recorded as
being on 29 September 1941 and was directly into the air
corps. his service is recorded on the 303rd Bomb Group
website. He is listed as being present in a number of crew
photos on the website. The photo on this page comes from
one of many he is listed as being in on the Fold3 website.
Frederick passed away in November 2008 in Sacramento.
Antoni Bednarchuk, 11043689
Antoni was born in 1915 in Rhode Island, the son of emigrants, Mary and John Bednarchuk.
The 1935 state census of Rhode Island finds Antoni learning a
trade at the Providence Trade School and living with his parents
in Woonsocket. At the time of his registration for the
draft in 1940 he was working for the interstate bus
company. The 1940 census shows him working as a farm hand.
He enlisted in January 1942 directly to the Army Air
He was awarded a Legion of Merit Award for his engineering
efforts during the repairs to 'The Devil Himself', having his
name published in the Armies Stars and Stripes publication on
the 8th March 1943.
The official Air Force Communique in had simply stated the
landing occurred in XXX. Irish newspapers of the time
would not have carried any announcement due to war time
His award of the Distinguished Flying cross was published in
His mother also was recorded for her war effort in so much as
she is given as an example of how American's at home supported
the war effort and their loved ones. She is used as an
example in a number of books, including American Crucible by
Gary Gerstle. He includes in his book the following about
Mary. Not all the participants, of course, cared
as much about the nation's official war aims as they did about
getting a loved one home alive. Many, we know, grew
perturbed at the endless appeals to patriotism that always
seemed to conclude with a request for money or
sacrifice. Still, the average American's personal
investment in the war, measured in terms of family members or
kin serving in the military and risking death, made a
skeptical, detached attitude towards the country's war aims
difficult to maintain. Mary Bednarchuk, an aging Polish
textile worker in Rhode Island eagerly awaiting retirement
declared that loyalty to her son, a much decorated aerial
gunner, rather than to her country, made her determined to
"keep going until the war is over". Yet she lavished
great attention on her son's medals and diligently collected
newspaper and magazine clippings describing his heroic acts."
The 303rd Bomb Group Hells Angels recorded his passing in the
June 1990 issue as follows: Antoni Bednarchuk (427th)
died recently in North Smithfield, RI. A long time
member of the Association, he was also a long time member of
the 303rd. In 1942 he attended gunnery school in Las
Vegas, Nevada. He was a tail gunner and finished his
tour of 25 missions which was the quota in the early days of
bombing of Fortress Europe. He received the
Distinguished Flying Cross, legion of Merit award and the Air
Medal. He is survived by his wife Maysie.
Antoni passed away in 1990 in Rhode Island, survived by his
Jesse J Jessee 19032392
Sgt Jessee was born in Washington state, in 1921 to Nellie May and William Homer Jessee.
He enlisted in the Air Corps in Oct 1940.
He appears to have served part of his war time service with the
483rd Bomb Group's, 840th Bomb Squadron, based on that groups
A draft registration for him dates from 1945 where his
occupation is listed as "Just discharged from Army". He
was at that time resident in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.
Jesse died in 1984.
Compiled by Dennis Burke, 2019.