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Commentary – Drawing courage from the legacy of the Bloody Hundredth

Former Staff Sgt. Lewis Herron, top left, 350th Bomb Squadron tail gunner, poses with the rest of his crew from the “Heaven Sent” B-17 Flying Fortress, standing from left to right, Tech. Sgt. Glenn Smiley, 2nd Lt. Gerald Klecker and Tech. Sgt. William Jarrell; kneeling left to right, Tech. Sgt. Michael Garemko, 1st Lt. Tom Anderson, Staff Sgt. Angelo Cioffi and 1st Lt. Fred Schmidt, during their time stationed at Thorpe Abbots, England, during World War II. The 100th BG became nicknamed “The Bloody Hundredth” after suffering significant losses. (Courtesy photo provided by the 100th Bomb Group Foundation/Released)

Former Staff Sgt. Lewis Herron, top left, 350th Bomb Squadron tail gunner, poses with the rest of his crew from the “Heaven Sent” B-17 Flying Fortress, standing from left to right, Tech. Sgt. Glenn Smiley, 2nd Lt. Gerald Klecker and Tech. Sgt. William Jarrell; kneeling left to right, Tech. Sgt. Michael Garemko, 1st Lt. Tom Anderson, Staff Sgt. Angelo Cioffi and 1st Lt. Fred Schmidt, during their time stationed at Thorpe Abbots, England, during World War II. The 100th BG became nicknamed “The Bloody Hundredth” after suffering significant losses. (Courtesy photo provided by the 100th Bomb Group Foundation/Released)

The crew of B-17 Flying Fortress "Heaven Sent" gather for a photograph with their aircraft immediately after landing from a mission over Germany during World War II. Back in 1944, Sept. 11 also brought tragedy when the 100th Bomb Group, from Thorpe Abbots, England, sent up its usual 36 aircraft. Thirteen of those were from the 350th BS; all 13 got shot down. (Courtesy photo provided by 100th Bomb Group Foundation/Released)

The crew of B-17 Flying Fortress "Heaven Sent" gather for a photograph with their aircraft immediately after landing from a mission over Germany during World War II. Back in 1944, Sept. 11 also brought tragedy when the 100th Bomb Group, from Thorpe Abbots, England, sent up its usual 36 aircraft. Thirteen of those were from the 350th BS; all 13 got shot down. (Courtesy photo provided by 100th Bomb Group Foundation/Released)

The air traffic control tower at the 100th Bomb Group Memorial in Thorpe Abbotts, England, was reconstructed to honor the squadrons and units which served from that airfield between 1943 to 1945. During World War II, the 100th BG suffered tremendous loss during the initial bombing missions, which earned them the nickname, the “Bloody Hundredth.” A group of volunteers, who continue to maintain the museum today, began the preservation of the site in the 1970s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Justine Rho)

The air traffic control tower at the 100th Bomb Group Memorial in Thorpe Abbotts, England, was reconstructed to honor the squadrons and units which served from that airfield between 1943 to 1945. During World War II, the 100th BG suffered tremendous loss during the initial bombing missions, which earned them the nickname, the “Bloody Hundredth.” A group of volunteers, who continue to maintain the museum today, began the preservation of the site in the 1970s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Justine Rho)

Robert Mackey, 100th Air Refueling Wing Historian welcomes Airmen from the 100th Air Refueling Wing Wing Staff Agency to 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Diss, England, June 26, 2018. Airmen from the base spent the day learning about the military heritage history while visiting the 100th BG Memorial Museum and the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Groening)

Robert Mackey, 100th Air Refueling Wing Historian welcomes Airmen from the 100th Air Refueling Wing Wing Staff Agency to 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Diss, England, June 26, 2018. Airmen from the base spent the day learning about the military heritage history while visiting the 100th BG Memorial Museum and the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Groening)

Children of U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Marcelo Sierra, 100th Air Refueling Wing command chief executive, look off into the distance at an overgrown aircraft hardstand, at 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Diss, England, June, 26, 2018.  The museum is open specific days from March to October and is free of charge. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Groening)

Children of U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Marcelo Sierra, 100th Air Refueling Wing command chief executive, look off into the distance at an overgrown aircraft hardstand, at 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum at Diss, England, June, 26, 2018. The museum is open specific days from March to October and is free of charge. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Groening)

The American Flag flies next to the air traffic control tower Aug. 25, 2016, at the 100th Bomb Group Memorial in Thorpe Abbotts, England. The tower was reconstructed to honor the squadrons and units which served from that airfield between 1943 to 1945. During World War II, the 100th BG suffered tremendous loss during the initial bombing missions, which earned them the nickname, the “Bloody Hundredth.” A group of volunteers, who continue to maintain the museum today, began the preservation of the site in the 1970s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Justine Rho)

The American Flag flies next to the air traffic control tower Aug. 25, 2016, at the 100th Bomb Group Memorial in Thorpe Abbotts, England. The tower was reconstructed to honor the squadrons and units which served from that airfield between 1943 to 1945. During World War II, the 100th BG suffered tremendous loss during the initial bombing missions, which earned them the nickname, the “Bloody Hundredth.” A group of volunteers, who continue to maintain the museum today, began the preservation of the site in the 1970s. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Justine Rho)

Clive Groom, 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum volunteer explains the history of the base boundaries to visitors from the 100th Air Refueling Wing Wing Staff Agency, at Diss, England, June, 26, 2018. The 100th Bomb Group was stationed at RAF Thorpe Abbotts beginning in 1943, and left after World War II ended in 1945. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Groening)

Clive Groom, 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum volunteer explains the history of the base boundaries to visitors from the 100th Air Refueling Wing Wing Staff Agency, at Diss, England, June, 26, 2018. The 100th Bomb Group was stationed at RAF Thorpe Abbotts beginning in 1943, and left after World War II ended in 1945. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christine Groening)

RAF MILDENHALL, England -- RAF Thorpe Abbotts is a quiet, idyllic patch of farmland.

What was once miles of concrete, hastily-constructed structures and B-17 Flying Fortresses is now wheat fields. Only a few World War II-era buildings remain.

Still, the view above the old airfield from the control tower allows one’s imagination to see and hear B-17 bombers starting their engines, taxiing to the runway and taking off into uncertainty.

The once-bustling RAF base has returned to its pre-World War II serenity, but the 100th Bomb Group Museum has kept the memory of the Bloody Hundredth alive.

I visited the home of the original 100th Bomb Group with a group of Airmen, 75 years after the inaugural combat mission.

It was June 25, 1943, and the Bloody Hundredth took to the skies over Bremen, Germany, its first mission in Europe.

I can imagine the emotion of this mission. Twenty-four men died for their country on the first day of battle as three aircraft were lost to German defenses. Five more Airmen were captured, but most likely feared dead. It was only the beginning of a long and tiresome air campaign, where hundreds more would sacrifice themselves for freedom.

The first mission isn’t the most significant piece of the story to me. These men overcame their fear of death and mounted their aircraft to fly over France and Germany again, with the reality of never returning home.

According to the 100th Bomb Group Foundation, 27 of the original 35 crews of the Bloody Hundredth had been killed or captured within the first 109 days of combat flying. 

Even through loss, the Bloody Hundredth persevered, completing 306 combat missions in World War II, and dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs to thwart the Germans.

Their resilience was part of a larger warrior ethos, and today’s Airmen must remind themselves that they answer that same call—to be ready to place themselves in danger for the sake of humanity.

We pride ourselves on being the most lethal Air Force in the world, but that means our job is inherently dangerous. Just like the Airmen who flew, fought and won before us, we have to accept the nature of our business, and do whatever it takes to establish air dominance and ensure international peace.

We are surrounded by buzzwords and phrases like “Warrior-Minded Airman,” “Never leave an Airman behind” and “Prepared to give my life in their defense,” but have we really internalized what it all means?

I challenge every Airman to think about their role as an American Airman, and draw courage from the legacy of the Bloody Hundredth. We are cut from the same cloth as those who fought before us, and our mission is as important as ever.