Stockton Springs to honor a past hero

Jun 13, 2012

Stockton Springs — Jerry Dobbins was born May 28, 1923. On Jan. 23, 1943, he became the first of eight Stockton Springs residents to be killed in World War II, out of the 70 townsfolk who served in the military during those frightful years. The local American Legion Post 157 was subsequently named in his honor.

On June 16, the town of Stockton Springs will welcome the lone living survivor of the tragic World War II B-17 plane crash that took the life of Dobbins, representatives from Pluvigner, France, where the plane crashed, Michael Noyes from Sen. Susan Collins’ Office, and other special guests to a program honoring the hometown hero, Jerry Walter Dobbins, who died in that crash more than 69 years ago. In recognition of Sgt. Dobbins’ heroic actions on that fateful mission, documentation of the event has been submitted to the Secretary of Defense for a posthumous award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Dobbins was a member of the B-17F Beats Me! aircrew with the 360th Bomb Squadron attached to the 303rd Bomber Group (H) stationed in Molesworth, England. He was the left waist gunner, manning one of two .50 cal machine guns that fired from each side of the aircraft. The mission on 1/23/1943 was the crew’s 11th since deploying to England, and its target was the German U-Boat pens near Brest, France. Twenty-one B-17's took off that morning and flew towards the target. Two planes had to turn back due to mechanical issues.

As they approached the target, the German Luftwaffe sent up 45 ME-190 fighters to engage the bombers. In the heat of the battle when the B-17’s were dropping their bomb loads, the entire tail section of Beats Me! was destroyed by a bomb dropped by a plane flying immediately above it, making it unstable to fly. The pilot kept it flying as best he could until the plane actually inverted and ultimately crashed in a field near Pluvigner. During those frightful moments before going down, a drama unfolded that had never been highlighted until June 2011, when members of Legion Post 157 had a telephone interview with a surviving crew member, Charles Roth of Grand Junction, Colo.

As the radio operator, Roth was wearing a “fanny pack” parachute. The waist gunners did not have on their chutes, which were hanging on the fuselage inside the aircraft. The altitude for that bombing run was 21,000 feet – an altitude at which all crew members needed oxygen. In emergency situations, each crew member had defined duties. SSG Roth’s duty was to get the ball turret gunner out of the turret. That crew member was then to open the emergency hatch door so all could exit. The waist gunners were to continue to provide fire power against any enemy aircraft still in the area. During those moments, Roth next went to help the right waist gunner, but he was already dead and fell from the gun opening. Roth lost his oxygen tube while he was going to help the waist gunner. Jerry Dobbins saw this and went to retrieve a tube from another crew member who had died so that Roth could get safely out of the plane. Dobbins provided the oxygen tube for his crewmate instead of getting his own parachute on so he could jump. At that moment, the plane inverted and went straight down. Roth had safely jumped before this, but seven, including Dobbins, went down with the plane. Roth and two other surviving crewmen were captured by the Germans that evening and spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war in Stalag Luft III.

The town of Pluvigner, France, has erected a monument in the field where Beats Me! went down. The remains of the seven crew members who died in the crash were moved back to the U.S. in 1950 and are now buried in a mass grave at the National Veterans Cemetery in Rock Island, Ill.

Roth, who will be 90 years old on June 14, will be attending the Stockton Springs commemorative event, along with his son and daughter-in-law, members of the Dobbins family and Jon Schulstad, son of the pilot of the Beats Me! B-17. Other special guests include Michele and Hubert Le Neillon representing Pluvigner and the French Remembrance Association. Le Neillon has obtained Jerry Dobbins’ dog tags from a Belgian collector and will present them to the Dobbins family.

Members of Legion Post 157 have been assisted by Roth, Collins and Lt. Col. Peter Ogden of Maine Veteran Affairs in applying for the posthumous award to recognize Jerry Dobbins’ singular act of heroism on Jan. 23, 1943.

Research on these events and Jerry Dobbins’ life have been provided by Diane Coose Littlefield of the Stockton Springs Historical Society and Legion Post member Earl Trundy. A message posted on the 303rd Bomb Group’s website enabled the Legion Post’s historian and officers to locate and contact Roth.

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