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Birmingham plane crews

Birmingham Blitzkrieg commanded by Col. Maurice “Mo” Preston
leaning on the prop.

Crew of the Birmingham Jewel
on September 14, 1944.


Planes Named for Birmingham Flew the German Skies

—by: Jim Bennett


hile Birmingham has had three Navy ships named for her, few probably know the city also had three airplanes, two of them B-17s, that carried her namesake into World War II.

The Birmingham Jewel was a B-17 "Flying Fortress" flown during the war in Europe by 2nd Lt. Walter Smith as part of the 525th Squadron of the 379th Bombardment Group in the 8th Air Force. The Birmingham Blitzkrieg was commanded by Col. Maurice "Mo" Preston and assigned to the 379th - 525th Bomber Squadron. It later was flown by Lt. Tom Borders from Edgewood. The Birmingham Blitzkrieg II, a Martin Marauder, was flown by Capt. Bob Borders, Tom’s nephew, also from Birmingham.

The Birmingham Jewell was constructed for Lockheed by the Vega Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, Calif. in 1942. Smith named it for his wife, Jewel, and her hometown of Birmingham. It carried a painted emblem of a large diamond on the nose. Later in the war, the plane was piloted by Lieutenant William Webber.

It flew 128 missions in the European theater. During her final mission, the Birmingham Jewel was part of the largest Allied bombing mission into the German capital on February 3, 1945.

"The Jewell was a great B-17," wrote Alvin J. Anderson, one of the plane’s earlier crews. "It was an easy plane to fly and very dependable. She flew her 100th mission on Nov. 10, 1944. The target was an airdrome at Ostheim, Germany. On Feb. 3, 1945 she flew her 128th mission, which was her last. The target was railroad marshalling yards near Berlin. Upon losing an engine near Berlin the plane had to drop out of formation and try to get back to England on its own. Three German ME-109s shot her down. Four of the nine crew members were killed."

Anderson was a crew member when the plane was commanded by 2nd Lt. Walter W. Smith. Crews usually changed after 25 missions.

At the time it was shot down, the Jewell had flown more missions than any other B-17 in the Eighth Air Force, according to the 379th Bomb Group Archives. Its pilot then was 1st Lt. William A. Webster who commanded a replacement crew.

Webber and three other crewmen (toggleer Staff Sgt. Raymond Weatherbee, radio operator Technical Sgt. Carl McHenry, and ball turret gunner Sgt. William Wells) were killed. Five others (copilot 2nd Lt. James Kiester, navigator 2nd Lt. Thomas Pickett, engineer-gunner Technical Sgt. Harold Francis, waist gunner Staff Sgt. William Scarffe, and tail gunner Sgt. Bennett Howell) survived the crash and were taken prisoner.

The Birmingham Blitzkrieg came off the assembly line on April 11, 1942 and was added to the military inventory on June 26. She arrived overseas and was assigned to the 379th - 525th BS. She saw very little combat before becoming Col. Mo Preston’s VIP ship. Later she was used as a formation assembly ship.

She took part in the first sortie flown by the Eighth Air Force against a continental target on August 17, 1942 against the rail yards at Rouen (France). The formation was led by Maj. Paul W. Tibbets flying a plane called Butcher Shop. Tibbets would later pilot the Enola Gay which dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. The Birmingham Blitzkrieg was flown by an almost all-Alabama crew.

Lt. Tom Borders, an Edgewood native who had played tackle on Alabama’s 1938 Rose Bowl team, piloted the plane. His bombardier was Lt. W.C. Lewis from Birmingham and the "belly gunner" was Sgt. Kent West from West Blocton. Lieutenant Borders was painted by artist Peter Hurd for Life Magazine and published in its Feb. 15, 1943 issue.

The plane remained in England after the war and was salvaged on June 18, 1945.

There was a second plane named the Birmingham Blitzkrieg II, a Martin Marauder (B-26), flown by Capt. Bob Borders, who after graduation from Woodlawn High School, followed his uncle Tom Borders into the air service. He flew bombing raids in the North African campaign. During one of these raids, Bob Borders claimed to have unwittingly sunk an Axis warship thinking it was a troop carrier. If his claims are true, it could have been an Italian cruiser Trieste which was sunk April 10, 1943.

Other crew included PFC Edward Dupaul, Sgt. Henry Eaton, Sgt. Jack Elliott, 1st Lt. Fleming Goolsby, Sgt. Edward Swedo, 1st Lt. Pierce Tyler, 1st Lt. Theodore Hokenstad and 1st Lt. Mortimer Walsh. They were all killed when the full bomb bay received a direct hit by flak. The plane had been transferred from the 92nd BG to the 97th BG for its move to North Africa. They were killed on a mission to Bizert, Tunisia on Dec. 26, 1942 as part of the 414th Squadron, 97th Bomber Group attempting to stop war materials from reaching Rommel’s Corp.

Sources: BhamWiki, 379th Bomb Group Archives, War Stories, Alvin J. Anderson, Air Force Magazine, January, 1997; Nose Art, Aircraft & Airmen of the 379th Bombardment Group, Tuscaloosa News 19th August 1942, Allen Cronnenberg, Forth to the Mighty Conflict: Alabama and World War II, University of Alabama Press, 2003.

Burger Phillips ad 1960

Birmingham News, January, 1960.


Do You Remember when
Freada Wallace Could Belt Them Out?


reada Wallace, also known as Big Freada (born in Longview, Texas) was a singer and pianist who became a Birmingham favorite during the 1960s and 70’s.

Do you recall Freada singing "Let me be Your Baby" at the Cane Break or the Domino Lounge in Homewood?

Freada Wallace, 1972

Freada Wallace, 1972.

Wallace began studying music while under quarantine for diptheria at age six. She played in her school bands and majored in music at Western Kentucky University. She was working as a church secretary in Shreveport, Louisiana when she got her big break in 1961, hosting a weekly talent show on KTBS-TV. From there she moved to New Orleans and became a regular entertainer at Pat O’Brien’s in the Vieux Carre. She then came to Birmingham for residency at the Domino Lounge.

Readers of Dick Coffee’s Birmingham Doings read about her frequently with its ads for Bob Cane’s Canebrake Supper Club and the appearances of the longtime night club singer during downtown’s heyday as a restaurant and nightclub zone.

In 1986 Wallace, who suffered from diabetes, became partially disabled. A series of benefits, staged by the Birmingham Entertainers Charity Fund, were held to pay for a wheelchair for her. John Andrews, chair of the fund’s medical benefits committee, was found guilty of theft for stealing the funds set aside to benefit Wallace and given a 10-year sentence.

During the summers Wallace performed at Asheville, North Carolina’s Great Smokies Hilton and eventually moved there full-time. She founded a "Night People’s Church" at Grace Episcopal Church and was hired as a minister of music at the Faith Tabernacle. She recorded a "World’s Fair ‘82" album and another gospel album, "Ivory Palaces", after which she was invited to perform on several Christian television programs including PTL. She and her husband, John Snowden, opened Big Freada’s Rib Room in Asheville, where she continued to make frequent appearances on stage.

Not only did she delight audiences with her stand-up piano playing style, which often included college fight songs, she played clarinet, drums and composed music. She was a staple at University of Alabama fraternity parties in the 1960s.

Historic Restorations

historic Florentine Building, at Second Avenue North and Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard

The historic Florentine Building, at Second Avenue North and Richard Arrington Jr. Boulevard, first opened in 1926 and has always been an events center. It sat empty for about six and a half years until Corretti Catering remodeled it and brought it back to its original purpose as a center for wedding sand corporate events. It was originally planned as a 10-story building but only two were built (al.com).

The A. G. Gaston Motel, at 1510 5th Avenue North

The A. G. Gaston Motel, at 1510 5th Avenue North, which played a major role in the Birmingham Civil Rights campaign, is slated for renovation as a landmark and conference center. Built in 1954 by businessman A. G. Gaston, its guests included Martin Luther King. In January the Birmingham City Council approved $10 million for redevelopment of the motel site as a "Freedom Center".



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