Thomas McMillan was a radio operator in the 306th Bomb Group of the 8th Airforce. His relative, Tim Richards tells part of his story in this great clip . It’s easy to pass by some facts such as the unit name and that they had a tough time – even that the 306th was the inspiration for 12 O’Clock High. I thought that I could honor Thomas and his comrades by adding some flesh to the outline.

The 306th was not just another unit – it was the longest serving unit in the 8th and learned all the lessons the hard way. They were based in Thurleigh – about 5 miles from Bedford right in the middle of England. Here is a full history of the base and a short history of the unit.

The group flew the B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft, and remained at Thurleigh until 1 December 1945. That was the longest tenure of any U.S. air group at a UK base.

Thomas Mitchell and the 306th learned the hard way that the Flying Fortress could not get though and back safely relying only on their own guns. This was the original doctrine of the 8th. Massive losses sapped morale badly – leading to a change in command and also a drive to find a fighter that could go all the way – the Mustang.

The film 12 O’ Clock High starring Gregory Peck was based on the story of the 306th during this terrible time. The real General who took over the 306th was Frank Armstrong.

As a “trouble-shooter” for General Eaker, on July 31, 1942, Armstrong relieved the commander of the inadequately-trained 97th Bomb Group, the first group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers sent to England, and put it through an intensive training period at RAF Polebrook. He then led it in combat on six of its first 10 missions from August 17 to September 2, 1942. Colonel Armstrong led the first daylight raid ever made by the U.S. Army Air Force over Axis territory, receiving the Silver Star and an oak leaf cluster to the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also awarded the British Distinguished Flying Cross for the initial mission, the first U.S. officer to be so honored. Because he had not yet been checked out as a combat pilot in the B-17, Armstrong led the first mission as a co-pilot on a bomber piloted by Major Paul W. Tibbets.

Armstrong returned to the staff of Bomber Command and in January, 1943, was again used by Eaker to rebuild another bomb group performing well below standards. From January 4 to February 17, 1943, Armstrong commanded the 306th Bomb Group at Thurleigh, England, and led the first mission by the Eighth Air Force to bomb Nazi Germany. His experiences with the 97th and 306th groups became the basis of Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay Jr.‘s novel and film Twelve O’Clock High. While in command of the 306th, Armstrong led the Eighth Air Force on its first mission to attack a target in Germany on January 27, 1943.

It was only after the introduction of the Mustang that losses became acceptable. So Thomas McMillan served during a very hard time and was indeed a hero – his chances of getting back were very slim. Tim tells us that he was shot down but not if he lived.

Here is a clip from the film where Peck tells the men that the only way to cope is to accept the fact that you are already dead.

Imagine that that you are in the briefing room hearing that. Of course as the film progresses the Peck character falls in love with his men and cannot keep sending them out to certain death – the fault of the man he replaced at the film’s outset.

The film – made in 1949 – is elegiac and opens with the staff officer walking around the abandoned field after the war. Like the Dambusters – it is not sentimental and is emotionally very realistic and like the Dambusters – has wonderful footage of the B17.

Here finally is a very good short film that will take you around one of the few B17’s still airworthy – filmed in Dayton Ohio