A few weeks ago I had the privilege to sit down with 90-year-old Osborn Stone at his Nortonville house in West Derry. He has always lived in Derry and has lived a very full life. Our conversation however centered on only a few days of his life when he was co-pilot of a plane during World War II. The B-17 he flew is known today as the legendary "Ghost Ship."
Osborn was born in Derry in 1921, the son of Everett and Marjory Stone. His father ran a store-gas station at 19 Birch Street. He attended Floyd School and graduated from Pinkerton with the Class of 1939. After a year in college he returned home and worked as a photographer and helped out in the family's store. The bombing of Pearl Harbor pointed him in a new direction to travel. He enlisted in the Army on April 15, 1942. At that time he weighed 132 pounds and stood 5 feet, 9 inches tall — about the same as he is today.
The Army believed Osborn could best serve in the Army Air Corps despite the fact he had only been in a plane twice before. He did his basic training at Kessler Field in Mississippi. From there he went to various training schools, qualifying him to fly larger and larger planes. At his last school, just before leaving for Europe, Lt. Osborn Stone had time for a brief reunion with his old high school friend Alan Shepard, a midshipman at Annapolis.
In England, he was assigned to the Pioneer Heavy Bombardment Group of the 8th Army Air Force. For many missions over Germany he served as a co-pilot in B-17 Flying Fortresses. His group led a raid on Jan. 11, 1944, on the airplane factory at Oschersleben. This raid led to his division being awarded a Presidential Citation for "extraordinary heroism." For the bombing, Stone was awarded a cluster to the Air Medal he had already won. These bombing sorties on Axis infrastructure were vital to winning the war. Targeted were manufacturing centers, port facilities and submarine pens. It was too common for squadrons on a single raid to lose one-third of their planes to enemy fire. By war's end, Stone would be credited with 40 missions over enemy territory.
On Nov. 21, 1944, Osborn Stone took off from England as co-pilot of a B-17G from the 324th Squadron. This plane was so new that it didn't have a nickname. All the other Flying Fortress had names like "Memphis Belle", "Fearless Fosdick" or "Zootie Cutie" that were painted on their nose cones. Soon plane No. 545 would earn its own nickname, that of the Ghost Ship. On board was a crew of nine airmen from eight different states. It was skippered by Lt. Harold DeBolt from California and his co-pilot Osborn Stone of Derry.
The target that day was the Leuna Refinery at Merseburg, Germany. This sprawling industrial complex of 250 buildings was vital to Germany's hope of victory. To American fliers, the city was known as "Dreaded Merseburg." It was protected by 400 anti-aircraft guns — twice as many as the city of Berlin. In addition there were nearby Luftwaffe air fields. The 8th Army Air Corps had dropped tons of explosives on the complex from May 1944 to April 1945. During those raids, 119 planes were shot down, costing the lives of 1,280 airmen.
Bad weather set in before the flight convoy reached Merseburg. Stone's plane had a bad engine so it was unable to remain in the formation that was climbing to bombing elevation of 28,000 feet. DeBolt recalled that: "In our limping condition we were an easy target for the flack boys." Almost immediately the plane was hit by enemy fire from 88 mm guns. Immediately the plane was filled with smoke and fire, hampering Capt. Harold DeBolt in his attempts to get rid of the bombs because of a malfunction in the bomb rack.
A direct hit knocked out engine No. 3, "knocking the mount through the wing." A few minutes later "a big red flash" filled the entire plane. The plane had been hit in its bomb bay. DeBolt said "I'll be darned if I know why the bombs didn't explode!"
DeBolt and Stone now decided to head immediately for England. The weather continued to deteriorate. The whole plane was shuddering from a "windmilling" propeller in engine No. 2. They were now flying on two engines and a prayer. The captain ordered all loose equipment jettisoned to lighten the plane. About then the remaining engines began to sputter as they flew over Belgium.
A little while later, in another area of Belgium, men in a British anti-aircraft battery spotted an American plane landing in a nearby field of potatoes. It did a perfect three-point landing before coming to rest on a small knoll. It was plane No. 545. Immediately the Brits ran to help rescue the crew but were mystified to find the plane empty. The engine was still running and all the equipment was neatly stowed onboard. There was no sign of what happened to the crew!
The next day word of the "Ghost Ship" was published in Stars and Stripes, the GI's newspaper. Soon all over Europe soldiers were talking about this phantom Flying Fortress. I'm sure many compared it to the Mary Celeste — the 1872 sailing ship that was found floating in the Atlantic minus its crew. Nobody could figure out what happen to the nine airmen of plane No. 545.
It wouldn't be until Dec. 8, 1944, that Stars and Stripes finally published the complete story of the Nov. 21 flight. It seems that DeBolt had given up any hope of flying it home and ordered the plane to descend to 2,000 feet. The crew then began to parachute out into an unknown fate. The plane was put on automatic pilot. The last two to bail out were DeBolt and Stone, who jumped out below 800 feet. It was Osborn Stone's first and last jump.
Stone landed in a round park in a village near Brussels. He knew that he was in danger as the Germans were known to be hiding in the nearby woods. Suddenly an elderly man came running towards him. In the man's hand was an ax. He screamed at Stone, "Allez! Allez!" (Quick! Quick!). The Derry man was brought to a school house where he was soon reunited with his comrades; miraculously, all of his crew safe and unhurt. The airmen hid in the school for several days. To show their appreciation for the Americans, the village cooked them a Thanksgiving turkey on a GI stove.
In August, Lt. Stone returned to Derry. He married his Barbara and in time they became the parents of three daughters. The Stones have now been together for 63 years. With his GI Bill benefits, he went to technical school and soon opened a radio-TV repair shop. Later he was employed as an engineer for Sanders and Raytheon working on projects like the Sparrow missile. He retired in 1970. He also spent four years managing America's Stonehenge in North Salem. In 1969, he and John Monty built a 20-meter ski jump at Alexander-Carr Park.
At 90 years old, Osborn Stone's voice is firm and his mind sharp. After spending time with him, it's easy to still see the airman hero of 67 years ago who flew the "Ghost Ship" over Germany. Thank you, Osborn, for your service.
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Rick Holmes is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack's Apples and Derry's libraries.