The Legacy of the 155th Photo Recon Squadron
They flew into the night - into the darkness and into oblivion.
That is the whole, sad, simple truth.
In an effort to have acknowledged the vital contribution this small group of brave young airmen, supported by their dedicated ground personnel, made to the allied War effort and help win World War II I submit the following:
During that phase of the war, just prior to the invasion of the continent by allied troops, the German army became cleverly active in nighttime operations. They moved troops and equipment. They repaired bridges, railways and roads, often upsetting the plans of our tacticians at a great loss of time and often the lives of our ground troops. To modify this situation and be able to better monitor this nighttime activity, a new squadron just arrived in England after training as night fighters was redesignated as a night reconnaissance squadron. In this role, the 155th flew its first mission. A single aircraft sortie over the invasion beaches of "D" Day. Until the end of hostilities in Europe, this squadron flew missions almost nightly. They were able to provide headquarters with valuable information regarding enemy activity previously unattainable making it possible to act on the old adage "Forewarned is Forearmed."
I must try to help you understand the unusual nature of this duty: Try to picture an inexperienced 19 or 20 year old pilot together with his crew of the same age, consisting of a navigator and an observer, taxing in the darkness to departure end of a rough runway identified only by a single row of lights. Aircraft and crew are about to embark on a solo mission challenging the whole German Air Defense in the area. The mission would be one of two following types, both fraught with unbelievable risk.
Each of the squadron's aircraft, the twin engine Douglas A-20, had a camera, the best and latest model available, mounted in the tail section aimed to the ground. Additionally, a new and highly sophisticated "Edgerton "flash unit was installed. This unit would produce over 300 million candlepower of illumination every three seconds and was extremely effective for lighting targets on missions flown between 500 feet and 3 thousand feet. Below 500 feet, movement would distort the pictures and above 3 thousand feet, there was not enough light to produce the pictures. Visualize a lone aircraft suddenly announcing its presence in a hostile area by repeatedly flashing a brilliant light and flying at an altitude that made it vulnerable to all weapons, even the rifles carried by each trooper in the area. "Audacious" Yes, yet any chance for success and survival on this type mission could be credited to the surprise and the very audacity that was called for.
The second type mission flown was somewhat different. Each aircraft was equipped to carry ten bombs in its bomb bay. These bombs had very little destructive force but each, on explosion, produced 800 million candlepower of illumination.
On these missions, flight to the target area was conducted at as low an altitude as the nighttime visibility would allow. Approaching the target, the pilot would climb swiftly to 8,000 feet or above but no higher than 10,000 feet, the maximum altitude to produce useful pictures. During the bomb run, bombs were dropped in a slightly delayed sequence and as each exploded, the flash would record a picture and automatically roll film to the next frame. Adding to the vulnerability and hazard to the aircraft during the bomb run was the vital necessity that the pilot maintain a straight and level attitude until the last bomb exploded and the camera record its target. When destructive bombs are released, the pilot can immediately take evasive action and become a more difficult target. Already vulnerable at the altitude this type mission was flown, they became "sitting ducks" during this period.
So this was the challenge facing the crew as they mustered their courage and took off into the black night determined in spite of the known hazards and danger, to successfully accomplish their assigned task and return safely with valuable photo information. Needless to say, many did not return. The morality rate for this organization was not evitable. I grieve for those lost but also grieve for those who remain and whose service had never been acknowledged.
I respectfully submit this poor effort to review the exploits of a forgotten group of young heroes in the hope that readers will offer a prayer of thanks and acknowledgment to all of them, the few living and those that have died.
They flew into the night and into oblivion.
Bob (Tex) Schalit
Also see Best Seat in the House