T/Sgt. Bob Doherty and Mischief Maker II: A Tale of Endurance

Old Colony History Museum
6 min readOct 1, 2021


Part One

By William F. Hanna

“Without warning I was smashed against the floor. Like a specimen butterfly pinned on a lab corkboard I was immobilized in a position only a contortionist could praise . . . I remember seeing my chest pack on the floor beside me but I could not move so much as a little finger.”

Bob Doherty

Forty-five years later, Bob Doherty was recalling the terrifying events of Saturday, March 4, 1944, when Mischief Maker II, his Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, was shot out of the sky over Belgium. Just two weeks past his twentieth birthday, the young technical sergeant, although ultimately able to escape death, was about to exit one phase of the war and enter another, this one often more dangerous than the first.

Robert E. Doherty was a resident of Fall River, Massachusetts when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force in November 1942. After training as a radio operator, he was dispatched to England as part of the 339th Squadron, 96th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force. The 339th was assigned to a former Royal Air Force base at Snetterton Heath, Norfolk, eighty-one miles northeast of London. Because radio silence was usually required during combat missions, Doherty routinely found himself manning one of the plane’s 64-pound, .50 caliber machine guns. The B-17, though lethal, was a large, slow and cumbersome airplane, and its 10-man crew often had to fight desperately to ward off the German fighters that took to the skies with their own guns blazing.

The crew of Mischief Maker II. Sgt. Doherty is standing second from left.

Bad luck was waiting for Doherty and his crew even before they began their mission on that wintry Saturday morning. First, they learned that they would not fly in their regular airplane. Just released from the repair shop after suffering heavy damage in a previous bombing raid, that plane was temporarily assigned to another crew. Instead, they climbed aboard the Mischief Maker II, a substitute aircraft that before the end of the day would more than live up to its name. Second, the flying weather that morning was poor, with low clouds and intermittent snow making visual contact among the aircraft difficult.

The planes departing Snetterton Heath were on their way to take part in the 8th Air Force’s first attempted bombing raid on the city of Berlin. They comprised just a few of the 500 American bombers and long range fighter escorts sent aloft that day by the 1st and 3rd Air Divisions from bases across England.

The base at Snetterton Heath contributed 30 bombers to that mission. Ordered to depart in two separate groups, Mischief Maker II was among twelve planes assigned to B sub-group, which lifted off just a few minutes after their colleagues in sub-group A’s eighteen bombers had disappeared into the low cloud ceiling.

Snetterton Heath

The Americans encountered trouble almost immediately. The bad weather never did allow the planes to establish the correct formation, and so coordination was poor all along the route to the German border. Additionally, the poor visibility hampered communications and by the time the planes crossed the Rhine it was apparent that the mission would not go as planned. Ultimately, only about thirty-five bombers and a few fighter escorts made it to their Berlin targets before the mission was scrubbed. The damage they inflicted on the enemy was inconsequential. The aircraft still on the way to the city were ordered to drop their bombs on the first targets of convenience and return to base.

The recall order reached Mischief Maker II when the plane was twenty miles east of Bonn — and still almost 300 miles from Berlin. The airplane had behaved badly from the moment of take-off back in England, and “gremlins” as airmen called them, had kept the crew busy repairing a number of malfunctioning flight systems. That was troublesome enough, but as soon as the plane turned for home a host of much more serious problems arose. Two of the bomber’s engines shut down, it lost speed and altitude, and ice formed on the wings. It fell dangerously behind the other returning aircraft. In a desperate effort to shed weight and gain speed, the plane’s bomb bay doors were opened and several thousand pounds of munitions fell on an enemy freight yard below. That brought no lasting relief and within seconds the Mischief Maker II was attacked by a flight of German Messerschmitt-109s. As the American crew opened a thunderous burst of defensive fire, the smaller, faster enemy fighters raked the B-17, and when the Germans realized that some of the bomber’s six machineguns weren’t working properly they circled back for another devastating pass.

That second attack was the end of the Mischief Maker II. The plane first went into a paralyzing, one-mile spiral dive, which caused Doherty to think of himself as the butterfly pinned to a display board. Amidst the chaos of the dying plane, the young airman recognized that he was likely facing what he called a “this-is-it” instant. Suddenly the heavy bomber pulled out of its dive and leveled off, but that brought its own trouble. The plane “shuddered as if to stall,” remembered Doherty. “I could smell grease and cordite — and something else now — smoke!”

A better look out a nearby window showed at least one engine on fire and with the pilot unable to control the plane, the order came to bail out. Doherty had no idea where they were, but he would soon be introduced to the frozen turf of Central Belgium. When they left the plane a blast of frigid air met them as they struggled to manage their parachutes. They had other things to worry about. “It seemed to all of us,” remembered Doherty, “that no sooner had our chutes opened than we broke through the undercast where a lovely snowstorm awaited us. The snow wet the silk, made it heavy and dropped us like rocks.”

All of the men were injured upon landing because their parachutes, billowing with air, had bounced them along the rocky ground after a hard landing. They nursed bumps, bruises, broken teeth and other painful injuries that would get no immediate attention.

What they didn’t know was that the order in which they had jumped was of crucial importance because it made the difference between who was rescued by the Belgian Resistance and who was captured by the Germans. Six lucky crewmen were saved by local farmers working against the Germans, while four of their friends were not so lucky.

Bob Doherty was among those captured. He could always muster a smile when later recounting that not only had he landed in Waterloo, the location of one of the greatest military debacles in history — ask Napoleon — but also that his parachute had dropped him squarely in the center of the town’s Wehrmacht garrison. He fell directly into captivity.

Sgt. Doherty was lucky to be alive, but the next fourteen months would be among the most trying times of his life. We’ll see why in the November edition of this blog.



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