2nd Lieutenant William J. Harden (1921–1944)

William J. Harden c. 1943 (Courtesy of the Delaware Public Archives)
ResidencesCivilian Occupation
Born in Maryland, raised in DelawareStudent
BranchService Numbers
U.S. Army Air ForcesEnlisted 12054590 / Officer O-681855
TheaterUnit
Mediterranean737th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 454th Bombardment Group (Heavy)
AwardsCampaigns/Battles
Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Purple HeartEuropean strategic bombing campaign

Early Life & Family

William Joseph Harden was born in Westernport, Maryland, on October 26, 1921. He was the son of William Edward Harden (1899–1972) and Pearl Clough Harden (1893–1978).

Harden’s father changed jobs several times during his life. He was working as a truck driver for the Piedmont Mineral Company as of September 12, 1918, but by the time of the census on January 18, 1920, he was working as a machinist helper on a “steam Road”—presumably the Western Maryland Railway. On the 1930 census, the elder Harden was described as a foreman at a paper manufacturer. By 1940, he had joined the DuPont Company. His obituary stated that he “was a chemical technician in the chemical research department at the Experiment Station” prior retirement in 1966.

William Harden (left) with his mother and younger brother (Courtesy of William J. Harden, II)

Soon after William J. Harden was born, his family relocated to Wilmington, Delaware. On August 9, 1922, Harden’s parents purchased a property at 1502 North Van Buren Street. The following year, on April 4, 1923, the Hardens welcomed another son, John Charles Harden (1923–1993), who served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II.

Harden grew up at 1502 North Van Buren Street. He attended Catholic schools, graduating from grammar school at Sacred Heart in June 1936. Harden was recorded on the census on April 10, 1940, while he was a senior at Salesianum High School. At the time, he was working as a paperboy. He graduated from high school in June 1940. That fall, he began college at the University of Delaware, where he was a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet while majoring in Chemical Engineering. During his sophomore year, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Harden decided to volunteer to serve in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

When Harden registered for the draft on February 16, 1942, the registrar noted that he was “Unemployed now – Waiting for call from Air Corps” and described him as standing five feet, 7¼ inches tall and weighing 145 lbs., with brown hair and eyes and a scar on his right wrist. That suggested that he had already passed the battery of tests to be accepted as an aviation cadet and was waiting to begin his training—especially in the days after Pearl Harbor, there were far more volunteers than available training slots.


Aviation Cadet Harden, presumably taken during his training at Maxwell Field in 1942 (Courtesy of William J. Harden, II)

Military Career

Harden’s enlistment data card stated he joined in the U.S. Army in Wilmington on March 12, 1942, while his mother’s statement to the State of Delaware Public Archives Commission gave his enlistment date as May 11, 1942. The latter date may be when he went on active duty. Indeed, Journal-Every Evening reported on May 15, 1942, that Harden was among “Fifteen youths enlisted as aviation cadets at the army recruiting office here earlier this week left yesterday for Maxwell Field, Ala.”

After graduating with Class 43-8 at the new bombardier school in Childress, Texas, Harden was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces in early June 1943. His mother stated that after graduation, Lieutenant Harden became a bombardier instructor. In his book Bombardier: A History, Colonel Quinn G. Smith explained that when the training “schools swung into high-gear operation in 1942 the need for more instructors increased, and many new (often the best) graduates were retained.”

Pamphlet from Harden’s bombardier school graduation (Courtesy of William J. Harden, II)

Journal-Every Evening announced on December 15, 1943, that Lieutenant Harden was engaged to Margaret Mary Thatcher of Wilmington, then a college student at Immaculata College. The couple did not wed before Harden’s death.

According to his mother’s statement, 2nd Lieutenant Harden requested overseas duty after serving as an instructor. She wrote that he departed from Mitchel Field, New York, on December 21, 1943, arriving in Foggia, Italy, around December 30, 1943. Assuming that she was incorrect about the date he arrived in Italy, Lieutenant Harden was probably already with his eventual unit at Mitchel Field: the 737th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy) of the 454th Bombardment Group (Heavy).

V-mail dated February 28, 1944, that Lieutenant Harden sent his parents from Italy (Courtesy of William J. Harden, II)

Equipped with the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, the 737th Bomb Squadron was activated on June 1, 1943, in Tucson, Arizona. Its first personnel arrived one month later. A squadron history stated that “On July 3, the air echelon was sent to the Army Air Force School of Applied Tactics at Orlando, Florida,” and “underwent ten days of classroom instruction at AAFSAT, and then moved to Pinecastle, a satellite field of the school, for mission training.” The air echelon rejoined the ground personnel at McCook Army Air Base, Nebraska, on July 31, 1943. The squadron moved to Charleston, South Carolina, at the end of September 1943. On December 3, 1943, the squadron’s air echelon began moving to Mitchel Field in preparation to go overseas to join the Fifteenth Air Force in Italy.

Available records are limited, and it is unclear when Lieutenant Harden joined the squadron, but it appears he was assigned to a crew led by 2nd Lieutenant John J. O’Connor. All that can be confirmed with certainty is that Harden was flying with O’Connor on his final mission.

The squadron’s air echelon began departing Mitchel Field on December 11, 1943. Each individual crew flew their B-24 via the southern route with stops including Morrison Field, Florida (now Palm Beach International Airport), followed by Natal, Brazil, across the Atlantic Ocean to Dakar, Senegal, and finally Tunis, Tunisia. Once assembled there, the squadron flew to San Giovanni, Italy—part of the Foggia Airfield Complex—on January 26, 1944, where they rejoined the ground echelon, which had traveled to Italy by sea. After some training missions, the 737th Bomb Squadron’s first combat mission was on February 8, 1944, a raid on the airfield at Orvieto, Italy.

The unit’s missions included tactical targets in Italy (including support of the Anzio beachhead and Cassino front) as well as strategic targets deep in Axis territory in Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria.

Artwork depicting the B-24 that Lieutenant Harden was flying aboard during his final mission (Courtesy of Andy Gaster)

On April 12, 1944, Lieutenant Harden was flying with a crew led by 2nd Lieutenant John J. O’Connor aboard a B-24H (serial number 42-52256, nicknamed Buttercup) for a raid on the aircraft assembly plant and airfield at Bad Vöslau, Austria.

The 454th Bomb Group history for the month stated of the mission stated:

70-80 E/A [enemy aircraft], Me 110’s, Me 210’s, Ju 88’s, Me 109’s and Fw 190’s attacked the Group over the target from 1205 to 1245 hours. T/E/A [twin-engine aircraft], in groups of 4–6 attacked from 12 o’clock high in line abreast, firing rockets and cannons passing through the formation, and also attacked singly and in pairs from 6–10 o’clock, these E/A flying parallel with Group and then coming to attack.  S/E/A [single-engine aircraft] attacked from 6–9 o’clock high, low and level.  S/E/A carried 2 rockets […] Attacks were aggressive.   

One survivor later stated that his last contact with Lieutenant Harden was by inter-phone when Harden was “Calling out flak & fighters on bomb run.” During the bomb run, the B-24 was hit during a head-on attack by an enemy fighter. Interviewed after the war, the copilot, 2nd Lieutenant James A. Kelley, recalled later that the plane was hit “just past IP [initial point] (Neusiedler Lake)[.]” Kelley stated “The ship was hit in the nose, supposedly by a rocket, and a fire started[.]” Another stated that the nose of the plane had been hit by shell fire. Regardless, it appears that all three men in the nose of the B-24, including Lieutenant Harden, died immediately.

According to Missing Air Crew Report (M.A.C.R.) No. 4037, the B-24 was last seen at 1217 hours “Directly over target[.]” In a statement dated April 16, 1944, included in the M.A.C.R. Captain Jack L. Graham wrote:

During the first fighter attack over the target, the ship flying number two position in “C” box broke away from the formation in a downward spiral pushing number five ship out of formation who was also apparently out of control.  Both ships went out of my sight for a moment and number five ship pulled up into formation again.  Lt. O’Connor’s ship did not come into view again.

The B-24 crashed at 1220 hours, about three kilometers west of Stotzing, Austria. Only five members of the crew were able to parachute to safety, some of whom were wounded. They became prisoners but were liberated at the end of the war. The bodies of the fallen crewmembers killed in the crash were buried at a cemetery in Stotzing on the day after the crash.

On May 24, 1944, Journal-Every Evening announced that 2nd Lieutenant Harden was missing in action and that his younger brother had been injured in the line of duty. One month later, on June 24, 1944, the paper reported that Harden “was killed in action according to a telegram received this morning from the War Department based on information from the German government received through the International Red Cross.” Journal-Every Evening reported on June 26, 1944, that a “Requiem high mass for Lieut. William J. Harden […] will be said at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning at Sacred Heart R. C. Church.  The Rev. Innocent Boss with be the celebrant.”

According to his mother’s statement, during his military career, 2nd Lieutenant Harden earned the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster and the Purple Heart.

Lieutenant Harden’s family at his interment at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in 1950 (Courtesy of William J. Harden, II)

After the war, individual identification of 2nd Lieutenant Harden, 2nd Lieutenant William M. West, and Staff Sergeant John D. Reed, Jr. proved impossible. On June 9, 1950, they were buried at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Missouri (Plot 84, Grave 91).


Crew of B-24H Buttercup on April 12, 1944

The following list was adopted from Missing Air Crew Report No. 4037 with grade, name, service number, position, and status (killed or captured).

2nd Lieutenant John J. O’Connor, O-749299 (pilot) – P.OW.

2nd Lieutenant James A. Kelley, O-691514 (copilot) – P.O.W.

2nd Lieutenant William M. West, O-811819 (navigator) – K.I.A.

2nd Lieutenant William J. Harden, O-681855 (bombardier) – K.I.A.

Staff Sergeant John D. Reed, Jr., 37193628 (flight engineer/waist gunner) – K.I.A.

Staff Sergeant Edmund Trzcinski, 32495753 (radio operator) – P.O.W.

Staff Sergeant Raymond E. Lunsford, 19003022 (ball turret gunner) – K.I.A.

Staff Sergeant John J. Mackin, 16147746 (assistant engineer/top turret gunner) – P.O.W.

Staff Sergeant Charles H. Aldridge, Jr., 14161814 (nose gunner) – K.I.A.

Staff Sergeant Paul A. Rackmyer, Jr., 32566411 (tail gunner) – P.O.W.


Notes

Training

According to his mother’s statement, Harden was trained as both a bombardier and a navigator. Other sources indicate that navigator training wasn’t added at Childress until after Harden graduated. Theoretically, he could have gotten the navigation training prior to being assigned to a combat crew. Regardless, Harden’s assigned duty, at least on his last mission, was bombardier.

Number of Missions

According to survivors’ statements, April 12, 1944, was Lieutenant Harden’s 10th, 12th, or 13th mission. The mission was the 454th Bomb Group’s 23rd mission. Of course, no crew flew every mission. Harden’s mother wrote that her son received the Air Medal with one oak leaf cluster, strongly suggesting that he had completed at least 10 missions.

Crew positions

In the M.A.C.R., Staff Sergeant Reed was listed as engineer, which would have normally meant that he would be manning the top turret. However, Staff Sergeant Mackin wrote in his statement that he (Mackin) was manning the top turret and that Reed was last seen at the waist window. Staff Sergeant Rackmyer described one of the casualties as a waist gunner. Staff Sergeant Trzcinski stated that Reed was the engineer, but he was at the waist firing his machine gun even after the plane was hit. Combining the various statements, it seems that Reed was the flight engineer, but was manning a waist gun rather than the top turret.


Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Lieutenant Harden’s nephew, William J. Harden, II, and to the Delaware Public Archives for the use of their photos. Thanks also go out to Andy Gaster for the use of artwork depicting the aircraft Lieutenant Harden flew aboard during his last mission.


Bibliography

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The 1941 Blue Hen. https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/9811/1941_01_Personalities.pdf

Harden, Pearl Clough. William Joseph Harden Individual Military Service Record, c. April 23, 1945. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/19023/rec/1

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“Thatcher-Harden Troth Announced.” Journal-Every Evening, December 15, 1943. Pg. 16. https://www.newspapers.com/clip/91974633/harden-engagement/

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“Unit history of the 454th Bombardment Group (H), for the period 1 April 1944 to 1 May 1944.” Headquarters 454th Bombardment Group (H), April 16, 1944. Reel B0601. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

“Unit history of the 454th Bombardment Group (H) for the period 1 March 1944 to 31 March 1944.” Headquarters 454th Bombardment Group (H), April 16, 1944. Reel B0601. Courtesy of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

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Last updated on April 3, 2022

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