HE WAS THE REAL "TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH"
Frank Armstrong, Date Unknown
Frank A. Armstrong, Jr. was born at Hamilton, North Carolina, in 1902. His official Air Force biography is at the link.
Armstrong landed at Tucson and signed the Register three times. His first visit was on Thursday July 2, 1931 at 10:20 AM. He was flying a Douglas BT-2C, 31-457. He carried Lt. J.H. Wallace as his only passenger. They were westbound from El Paso, TX to March Field, Riverside, CA.
His second landing took place Sunday December 20, 1931 at 4:10 PM. Based at Shertz, TX Randolph Field, he was eastbound this time from Riverside, CA March Field en route solo to Randolph in a Consolidated PT-3 that he did not identify by number.
His third and final landing was on Sunday June 26, 1932. This time he flew a Douglas BT-2, 31-39 eastbound from Riverside, CA to El Paso, TX. His passenger was a Lt. Lawrence.
Armstrong gained his flight training at Brooks and Kelly FIelds, TX. He earned his wings on February 28, 1929. Assignments followed at Randolph Field, TX, Rockwell Field, CA, Salt Lake City, UT, the Canal Zone, Barksdale Field, LA, Maxwell Field, AL, Savanah, GA, Tampa, FL and Washington, DC. We capture him in the Register at Tucson early in his flying career.
In January 1942, as a colonel, he was sent to England as a military observer. On August 17, at age 41, he "led"* the first air raid made by American heavy bombers based on Britain. He won the Silver Star for accomplishing the mission (to Rouen, France) without the loss of a life or an airplane. He led six bombing raids during the Fall and more during the Winter. He led a classic raid to Wilhelmshaven in early 1943. It was during this time that his firm methods of leadership led to the lore that contributed to Twelve O'Clock High (right sidebar).
*A diversion. There is some contention between two of the great pilots of the WWII era. What does "led" mean?
According to Dick, page 158, and a New York Times article in Armstrong's NASM biographical file (left sidebar), Armstrong "led" this mission. The Times, specifically states , "...Aug. 17, he led his group and won the Silver star for accomplishing the mission...." Dick states, "The mission was led by Colonel Frank Armstrong, with Major Paul Tibbetts [sic] in the other pilot's seat."
However, Tibbets' book, "Return of the Enola Gay" states otherwise. Friend of dmairfield.org, Mike Gerow, identifies statements in Tibbets that put a fine point on the August 17 leadership. On page 80 Tibbets (not a Register pilot) states, "This was not only a first for me and my crew and for the 11 B-17s that were following us on the mission to Rouen. It was also the initial daylight raid by an American squadron on German-occupied Europe. This mission, of which I was the leader, was a small beginning for us but the beginning of the end for Hitler." Further, on page 81 Tibbets writes, "As pilot of the first plane on the first raid, I was very much aware that we had to prove our accuracy from high alititudes...."
Further, on page 82 of his book he states, "Butcher Shop, which led the first flight into the air, was not my regular airplane and I was not flying with my regular crew. Rounding our a hastily assembled 'pickup' crew was Colonel Frank Armstrong, my immediate superior, who occupied the right-hand seat as my copilot...The plane that is best remembered from the first attack was Yankee Doodle, which led the second formation of six B-17s. On board this plane was Brigadier General Ira Eaker, head of the Eighth Bomber Command. The official war histories will record that General Eaker led the first American daylight raid on occupied Europe. This is a matter of military protocol, for although I led the attacking formation--and all others in which I partcipated while stationed in England--the highest-ranking officer on the flight is officially credited with being the leader."
And, finally, the backstory link in the right sidebar states, "Tibbets had been Armstrong's pilot on the Rouen-Sotteville raid, a week before...."
General, colonel, major. Take your pick of who was really the "leader" Depending upon the source, it is not so clear who should get credit for the deed. Military protocol says it should be the highest rank.
To continue, Armstrong was a stickler for crew cooperation. The New York Times further reported on the raid, above, by summarizing a conversation between pilot and navigator, "'Navigator to pilot,' the navigator's voice came over the intercommunication system. 'Will you swing 220 degrees, please?'" Armstrong replied, "Pilot to navigator, don't ask me to swing 220 degrees. Tell me!" Further, he said, "There is no place for dignity at 25,000 feet with a battle in progress." Interestingly, if you look at a map of northern France and its juxtaposition with southern England, the vector 220 was probably a turn to their final bombing run, or a preliminary turn after bombs away before commanding a more northerly vector back to England.
Paul Tibbets' Autograph
The August 17 raid was significant also because of the people involved. Paul Tibbets would later in the Pacific fly the B-29 from Tinian to Japan to drop the first nuclear weapon there. Register pilot Ira C. Eaker was head of the Eighth Bomber Command. On the August 17 raid, Eaker flew B-17 41-9023 (414th BS, 97th BG, named "Yankee Doodle"). His airplane was scrapped July 26, 1945.
At left is Tibbets' autograph on a piece of aluminum wing skin just forward of the starboard aileron of a B-17. Interestingly, at the link you can see the area of the wing where this piece was removed during restoration. The restored airplane was named "Liberty Bell." It was destroyed by fire June 13, 2011. Tibbets died November 1, 2007. This artifact is from your Webmaster's private collection.
Armstrong was assigned to command the First Bomb Wing of the Eighth Air Force in January 1943. According to The New York Times of February 21, 1943, he was promoted to Brigadier General. In July he was assigned to Headquarters of the European Theater of Operations. He returned to the U.S. in August, 1943. In addition to the Silver Star, General Armstrong had received the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal and British Distinguished Flying Cross. This link summarizes in tabular form his military career.
His experiences, above, with the 97th and 306th Bomb Groups in Europe, became part of the basis of the novel and film Twelve O'Clock High starring Gregory Peck as Armstrong. His discipline on the ground, balanced with a generosity with individual and unit decorations, and his (fictional) psychological breaking point, make for a riveting, fact-based story. He retired from the Air Force July 31, 1962. He died September 1, 1969. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
UPLOADED: 02/09/08 REVISED: 02/16/08, 02/05/09, 06/16/11, 07/25/11, 10/17/11