70 years ago, in the early hours of 25th June 1944, an American Flying Fortress left the USAAF base at Bassingbourn near Cambridge on a bombing mission to Toulouse in the South of France.
The name given the aircraft by its crew was “Old Faithful”, code letters LL-G of the 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy Bombers), 423rd Squadron, and it was flying in probably the most vulnerable position of the whole squadron, the lower forward position.
The attack was two pronged, with part of the squadron making a diversionary attack on a German airfield and the remainder dropping much needed weapons to the French Resistance.
“Old Faithful was hit by enemy flak as it dropped its bombs on their target and one engine caught fire and stopped. The crew managed to extinguish the fire and at first the squadron thought the damaged plane had turned towards neutral Spain which was not too far off. This was normal procedure in emergencies. The only problem with this would be that the aircraft would be impounded by the Spanish and the crew interned for the remainder of the war.
Taking a life or death decision the pilot, 2nd Lt. Peter Mikonis decided to attempt to fly the 900 nautical miles back to England, flying very low over the Atlantic and swinging towards Lyme Bay upon reaching landfall. As the aircraft reached the coast another engine went out and now, flying through the Blackmore Vale at very low altitude on just two engines, the pilot decided to head for RAF Zeals, which was shown on U.S. maps as an emergency diversion point.
Unknown to him was the fact that Zeals is on high ground and he was losing height all the time. To the horror of the crew, a town was in the direct line of the approaching aircraft and it must have been obvious they were going to crash into it – that town was Wincanton.
The aircraft was in a very fragile state, being peppered with shrapnel from the flak and barely flying in one piece, they jettisoned everything that would move but could not lift the plane above the town, so in a moment of extreme bravery the pilot banked the aircraft to swerve away but this caused an explosion.
The wreckage came down mainly upon Snag Farm, Stoke Trister. The crash scene was one of total devastation and all the crew were killed instantly.
Each year since then, on the anniversary, the town remembers and this year was especially poignant as it was the 70th anniversary.
The commemoration of the crash of “Old Faithful” took the form of a Service of Thanksgiving on Sunday 22nd June, around the War Memorial at Memorial Hall Wincanton. The event was organized by Wincanton Royal British Legion, whose veterans and members took a leading role. The sister of the pilot of the ill-fated plane, “Old Faithful” – 2nd Lt. Peter Mikonios USAAF – was present after travelling from New Jersey, USA with her family.