The 36th Division Archive
Lieutenant Robert A. Adams
B-17 Chief Pilot
730th Bomb Squadron, 452nd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force
Robert Alexander Adams was born in the small Philadelphia borough of Sharon Hill in 1918. His father, a locally known property broker, provided a comfortable upbringing for Adams and his siblings. Graduating high school in 1936, Adams took a brief break from school before continuing his education at the Geneva Christian College in Beaver Falls. He was finishing his final years of school as the potential of war appeared on the horizon, eventually interrupting his junior year with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With many students leaving to join up, Adams decided to finish out his education before enlisting at the end of his senior year, officially joining the army on 23 July 1943. A college graduate and intelligent individual, Adams was able to choose his branch and selected the Army Air Force. Basic piloting school was completed in the fall at Gunter Field and afterward he traveled for advanced multi-engine bomber training at Randolph Field in Texas. While training at Randolph he was able to get a furlough to travel all the way back to Philadelphia and marry his college sweetheart, Lois, just a few short months before he was shipped to England as a replacement pilot in the 730th Bombardment Squadron, 452nd Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force.
Adams shipped overseas in the fall of 1944 and arrived to his assignment with the 730th at Deopham Green in Norfolk. The squadron had been in England for a little under a year primarily operating the newer model B-17 Gs for operations in support of the Normandy invasion and across Germany. As a replacement pilot Adams was not assigned to any particular crew or plane. The squadron had taken some heavy casualties in its first few months and really needed individual who could fill in the gaps as they opened. He flew his first mission on 19 September 1944 as the chief pilot of the B-17 “Rose-Etta” in a mission to harm the Wiesbaden industrial plants. Early missions came fairly irregularly, usually once or twice per week or as needed according to casualty rates and intensity of the mission from higher ups. Other notable missions included a bombing run on Kassel tank factories and railyards in October piloting the infamous “E-Rat-Icator,” a cadre B-17 to the group which ended up surviving over 120 missions without being downed once. Many of the squadron pilots rotated through the ship and Adams joined suit.
One of his most dangerous missions came less than a month later on 2 November when he was told to pilot the bomber “Our Buddy,” a reference to their fighter escorts, over Merseburg. Joining 638 other B-17s and 642 P-51s of the 8th Air Force, Adams made his way amidst a flying mass to eliminate the I.G. Farben Leunawerke synthetic oil refinery. Producing plane gasoline from coal in an extremely intensive process, the factory was widely regarded as one of the most heavily defended and dangerous positions to attack, with miles of roughly 1,700 flak batteries lining the bombers’ path. Before long the pilots encountered what was only described as a “cloud” of flak, entirely and fully filling their entire path to the site. According to after-action reports Adams and the crews were under “intense” anti-aircraft fire for around 18 minutes and then “heavy” fire for another 30. The flak didn’t operate alone, however, as a record 700 German fighters soon attacked the formation including many of the newly fielded ME-262 jet fighters. 38 B-17s and 28 P-51s were lost in the raid with a further 481 other bombers damaged by the fire. Finally the planes reached Leuna and severely damaged the plant despite the losses and wounded stragglers who were forced to turn back. During this mission one of the only Army Air Corps Medals of Honor was awarded to a fellow flyer, Robert E. Femoyer, of the 711th Bombardment Squadron.
While the danger of missions rarely reached the intensity of Merseburg, Adams continued risking life and limb to deliver his explosive payloads to targets across Germany. On 11 December he unknowingly got to bomb Adolf Hitler himself while flying “Miasis Dragon” on a mission over Giessen, where Hitler was taking residence at one of his many fortresses. One of his most dangerous personal missions came on Christmas eve of 1944 as he piloted yet another bomber over the town of Darmstadt to attack the city’s marshaling yards to cut off German supplies to the Ardennes. While on the mission his plane became the target of an entire flak battery and before long hundreds of holes began peppering his ship. One round exploded directly in the middle of his left wing leaving a gaping 6-foot hole. With two of his crewmates wounded by the shrapnel and his wing hanging by threads, Adams somehow managed to turn the plane around and make it all the way back to England; a true testament to both his flying abilities and the capability of the mighty B-17. He referred to the trip as his “closest call.”
Adams continued flying past his brush with death and made the journey from England to Germany a total of 26 times, racking up over 280 flight hours in the B-17. Upon finishing his final mission over Tachau on Valentine’s Day of 1945 he was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant and retired from the active flight line. Although he was kept on hand until the end of the European war just in case, he had earned a total of 6 Air Medals for his valorous service with the unit in some of the most harrowing missions over the German heartland. He was allowed to return home in June of 1945 and received his discharge as a decorated veteran of the European air war. Settling down with his new wife in Philadelphia he began an industrious career in the technology, specifically radio, field but continued flying part-time as a volunteer with Pennsylvania emergency services piloting search-and-rescue planes. In 1980 he was credited as the pilot to find the wreckage of a plane carrying the Governor of Oregon, President of the Senate, and Secretary of State, which had crashed into the Pennsylvania forest on the way back from a hunting trip.