Lloyd Henry Jennings was so unassuming that if you asked about what he did for a living, he’d say he was “in sales.” You’d never guess he was a stockbroker.
You’d also never guess that the 94-year-old North Chesterfield resident, who was memorialized in October at St. Luke Lutheran Church and buried with full military honors Tuesday in Arlington National Cemetery, was a World War II standout.
“He never talked about the war,” said his wife of 51 years, Joann Sandra Spahr Jennings, his only immediate survivor. Watching TV programs celebrating the 60th anniversary of D-Day, “he would begin to talk about it. After a few sentences, his voice would begin to break and he just couldn’t go on,” she said.
Mr. Jennings, born in Appomattox, was a 20-year-old auto mechanic working in Lynchburg when he signed up in Richmond to fight for his country in November 1942.
The Army Air Corps trained him as a flight engineer, but his first Flying Fortress crew needed a right waist gunner. That’s what he was when the Army assigned him to the 379th Bomb Group (Heavy), 527th Bombardment Squadron, of the 8th Air Force, based at Kimbolton, England.
Each bomber carried two waist gunners, who protected the plane from enemy attacks directed at its waist, or midsection near the tail. They wheeled and fired .50-caliber machine guns from open windows on opposite sides of the plane. Because they stood while firing, they incurred more casualties than any position on the plane.
According to what little his family knew and the 2012 best-selling book “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos with Larry Alexander, early on Dec. 20, 1943, Sgt. Jennings found himself part of a rookie 10-man crew headed across the frigid North Sea aboard a B-17F bomber called Ye Olde Pub. They were part of an 80-mile stream of aircraft bent on destroying a Focke Wulf aircraft factory in the suburbs of Bremen, Germany.
By 27,000 feet, they had donned oxygen masks, tested guns and armed 6,000 pounds of bombs. The crew, on its first mission, flew in “Purple Heart Corner,” the most dangerous spot in the formation. Their bomb group would be leading the 23 out of 26 operational bomb groups operational in England — almost the entire 8th Air Force — going on the mission.
At 11:32 a.m., they started their bombing run, with 250 of Germany’s elite flak gunners launching 20-pound cannon shells at them every three seconds. With one minute to the drop zone, cannon shells had sheared off part of the nose, ushering in a -75 degree gale; killed the No. 2 engine; hit the right wing; and caused the No. 4 engine to start accelerating.
As their bombs screamed to target 5 miles below, they turned for England, but loss of engine power dropped them from formation and they became stragglers.
Alone and outnumbered, the Pub took fire from the first of 15 German bandits. They reduced the No. 3 engine to half power, and took out half the rudder as well as the nose cone, port elevator and stabilizer.
Second Lt. Charles Brown, the pilot, went on offense, flying in ever-tighter circles, banking and diving at German planes to present the smallest possible target.
A 20 mm cannon tore through the right waist position, exploded and blasted out the other side of the plane. The concussion dropped Sgt. Jennings and Sgt. Alex “Russian” Yelesanko, the left waist gunner, to the floor.
When Sgt. Jennings sat up, he saw Russian holding his thigh up. Hit by shrapnel, the lower leg hung by strands of tendon. Blood gushed from his stump.
Rising unsteadily to his knees, Sgt. Jennings found a morphine syrette and tried to find a place to stick Russian, but the morphine had gelled in the subzero cold. He inserted it in his glove to warm it and then pierced Russian again and again.
As the plane gyrated, Sgt. Jennings resumed his position at the waist window, also hanging on to Russian to keep him from flying through the window.
Guns jammed or froze, reducing their defensive arsenal from 11 to three.
Sgt. Jennings pointed his frozen machine gun toward oncoming planes to scare them off. He shouted enemy positions to the pilots until the communications system died. A hit to the radio took out the Pub’s ability to call for help.
The Pub plummeted into a downward spiral and then a nosedive. With cabin oxygen containers shot out, the entire crew lost consciousness temporarily. Thicker, rich air rushing through the hole-riddled plane as it dove revived Brown at about 1,000 feet above the ground and he righted the plane.
As crew members revived, Sgt. Jennings began helping the wounded. Comrades helped him apply a tourniquet to Russian’s leg, and they took turns manning it.
They flew over a German airfield where Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler, who needed one more “kill” to earn the prestigious Knight’s Cross, had just refueled his plane. He gave chase, coming up behind the Pub for the kill — until he saw the dead tail gunner slumped over his blood-streaked gun.
Surveying the damage, Stigler wondered how the craft could still fly. Through the Pub’s torn frame, he saw crew members administering first aid to each other.
Stigler remembered the admonition that Gustav Rödel, his commander in North Africa, had given his pilots: “If I ever see or hear of you shooting a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself.
“You follow the rules of war for you, not for your enemy. You fight by rules to keep your humanity.”
Stigler said, “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn’t shoot them down.” However, he felt that doing nothing would be as bad as shooting the plane down.
Gesticulating, he asked them to surrender at a German airfield or to fly to nearby neutral Sweden, where the crew could get medical help but be interned for the rest of the war. The crew didn’t understand and flew on.
Then Stigler did something that could have gotten him shot for treason. As the Pub approached German flak units near the sea, he flew in a formation on the bomber’s port side so anti-aircraft units would not target it, and escorted the Pub to open water. Not sure what Stigler was up to, Brown ordered a gun aimed at him. Stigler, understanding, saluted Brown and peeled away.
The Pub landed safely in England, where hospital authorities credited Sgt. Jennings with preventing Russian from bleeding to death. Stigler’s part in the mission was classified “secret” because the Air Force didn’t want its flyers counting on enemy kindness.
Sgt. Jennings flew 25 more missions with essentially the same crew on another bomber called the Carol Dawn, one of only seven B-17s in the group that completed 100 missions. He rotated home before D-Day.
“When he came back, he was in really bad shape,” his wife said.
The family heard about his bombing destinations but never heard his stories — not even his brother-in-law, who had been a bomber pilot. His nephew, Ed Jennings, recalled, “Other missions were equally as harrowing as that mission was. The only medical attention he got was for combat fatigue (now called post-traumatic stress disorder) — he had cold sweats and nightmares. He sucked it up, did what he had to do and didn’t dwell on it.”
The death in the first few minutes of D-Day of Taylor Fellers, one of his very best friends when he attended New London Academy in Bedford, really affected him, his nephew said. Fellers was one of the “Bedford Boys.” Bedford proportionally lost more soldiers on D-Day than any other U.S. locality.
Discharged as a staff sergeant in August 1945, Mr. Jennings graduated from Lynchburg College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and attended the University of Virginia, where he did pre-med studies but didn’t pursue medicine. He retired from Lombard Securities in 2002.
His wife thinks he attended one airmen’s reunion, “but he was a very private person” and did not contact his crewmates. He gardened and loved to travel.
In 1990, Brown, after four years of searching, made contact with Stigler, who had moved to Canada. They became like brothers, often telling their story at airmen’s conventions. They died within months of each other in 2008.
Mr. Jennings earned awards including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.
In 2007, Brown asked the Air Force to award Silver Stars to his surviving nine Pub crew members, whose mission no longer was classified. He also discovered a newspaper story about a grand-niece of his dead Pub tail gunner, Hugh Eckenrode. She had secured a lithograph of the Pub and Stigler’s plane from a German auction house and given it to her father, who always had wondered about his uncle’s service.
A newspaper story about her find said Brown was dead. He called the paper to say he wasn’t, but he wasn’t sure about his crew members. The journalist who wrote the story found Mr. Jennings’ phone number. Brown chatted with him several times.
Mr. Jennings, who refused a ceremony, received his Silver Star in the mail in 2008, his wife said.
When the other men received their stars, Brown received the Air Force Cross, the second-highest award a member of the Air Force can receive. It is given for extraordinary valor. According to a story on the 379th Bomber Group Association website, no other World War II aircrew collectively has been so honored.