As aerial engineer, David N. Holwell got to name his crew’s B-26. The name he chose makes perfect sense, once you know the story.
Holwell grew up on Osage-area ranch his grandfather homesteaded in 1881. (Holwell would raise his five kids there, leaving only after retirement to move into a house in Upton. The ranch is still in the family.)
He had a crush on this girl, “cuter than a bug’s ear,” and thought he’d like to date her. At a dance, the girl introduced Holwell to her sister, Kathryn.
“And it went from there. She was a terrific dancer, and we did a lot of dancing. In those days, that was about all the entertainment you had. We went to a dance every Saturday night.”
In the fall of 1943, Holwell returned to Upton on furlough, between air bases in Jacksonville, Fla., and Mitchell Field, N.Y. On Sept. 8, he and Kathryn married.
“So what would you put on a plane?” he asked.
“Cowboy’s Sweetheart. You know, it’s something I’ve never regretted.”
Holwell had enlisted in the fall of 1942 at Fort Meade, S.D. Many airmen will say they joined because they wanted to fly, and the same was true for Holwell. He trained in Spearfish, S.D., under Clyde Ice, one of the most famous pioneer pilots of the time.
In a blizzard, Ice once flew into Belle Fourche to pick up a woman having a baby and bring her to the hospital.
“I don’t know how long he flew, but he would do flights that nobody else would think of,” Holwell said of his lifelong friend.
“He navigated by the telephone lines, he told me. And that was the kind of things he done.”
Though Holwell was the aerial engineer, in charge of his plane and its crew, he was also a trained pilot and filled in as co-pilot when needed.
From Mitchell Field, the crew sailed on the Queen Mary for Scotland. They were based at Radonwood Base near Ipswich, England, the easternmost base, nearest the channel separating England from occupied France. Crippled planes that couldn’t make it any farther often landed there. German planes that bombed London dropped whatever they had left on their return flights. So at night, the airmen bicycled to a pub off base and waited for the German planes to pass.
They never took any major hits, Holwell said, but found a couple of bombs that didn’t go off behind the billet area.
While he was in Europe, the Air Corps shipped over some P-61s — the Black Widows — with engineers who had never touched a 2800 engine, the same engine as the B-26s. Holwell and other first-string engineers went to Northern England to train the new guys.
The P-61 was a great plane, Holwell said: a twin-boom night fighter, equipped with radar and four 50-caliber and four 20-millimeter guns.
But it was no B-26.
“The old 26 was my love,” Holwell said. “Everybody was scared of them, I guess. When they first started, they wrecked a lot of people, killed a lot of people.
“But you flew ’em. You just naturally flew ’em. You didn’t diddle around.”
Cowboy’s Sweetheart was olive drab. When they weren’t flying, the crew spent hours outside waxing her because a little polish could increase a plane’s speed by 10 to 15 miles per hour.
“And sometimes that was important when you were in combat,” Holwell said.
Later, they moved airmen to silver aluminum planes. And when those were polished, they gleamed in the sunlight.
“Beautiful,” Holwell said.
In all its 46 missions, Holwell’s crew always made it back. They patched a few holes, but nothing too serious. At a cruising speed of 240 miles per hour, it was the fastest bomber in the sky — too fast for P-38s to furnish cover fire. Instead, they’d pick up the B-26s over the target until the bombers released their loads and dropped down, flying home just above the telephone poles.
That low, “machine guns couldn’t get us because by the time they knew we were coming, we were right there,” Holwell said.
Only once did Holwell’s plane face trouble, and it was after the war had ended. The crew was flying a Red Cross woman from Germany to Marseilles, France, sailing over the west end of the Alps.
The carburetor heater didn’t work, so the starboard engine iced up. It went out and Holwell feathered it.
You go tighten the chute on that Red Cross girl, the pilot told Holwell. He did, sitting the girl and the radio operator on the bomb bay doors, just to be safe. He returned to the cockpit just as the other engine gave out.
Turn ’em loose, the pilot said. Then you get out and I’ll get out.
Holwell pulled the release lever. With 1,200 pounds of pressure for emergency release, the bomb-bay doors flew open, dropping the girl and the radio operator into the sky.
“But David didn’t want to walk,” Holwell said of himself. And he liked that old plane.
He knew that when the starboard engine died, the heat would have radiated into the carburetor, melting the ice. That would allow the engine to fire again. He reached over and gave it a try — it worked.
He and the pilot turned off the port engine, letting the heat melt the carburetor ice on that side. When they got into Marseilles, they turned on the port engine and landed.
The two who had been sitting on the bomb doors parachuted to a field next to a road. They met a convoy that happened to be heading to the base. And when they saw that Holwell and the pilot had landed the plane, they weren’t exactly thrilled.
“We weren’t too popular with the Red Cross girl and the radio operator,” he said.
Holwell had been flying out of Versailles, France, when the war ended on May 8, 1945 — Victory in Europe Day. Across the continent, crowds poured onto the streets.
“So what do you suppose a bunch of GIs would do? We went down to Paris,” Holwell said.
“They said there were 6 million people in the streets of Paris, and I believe it. I believe it.
“Oh, man, what a mob.”