15.10.1944 376th Fighter Squadron P-51D 44-14219 ‘Scat Cat’, Maj. James B. Cheney
Operation: Patrol over Dümmer See, Germany
Date: 15th October 1944 (Sunday)
Unit: 361st Fighter Group, 376th Fighter Squadron, 8th Air Force
Type: P-51D Scat Cat
Base: Little Walden (Station #165), Essex, England
Location: Dorsten, Germany
Pilot: Maj. James Briggs Cheney O-661448 DFC AAF Age 24. PoW *
* Stalag 7a Moosburg, Bavaria (Work Camps 3324-46 Krumbachstraße and 3368 Munich).
Major James B. Cheney who later became Squadron Commander of the 376th Fighter Squadron at Little Walden, Essex. (Credit: American Air Museum - Museum object reference no. BAM_0356)
REASON FOR LOSS:
Maj. Cheney, the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 376 Fighter Sqn, took off from Little Walden, on his 75th mission, to patrol over the Dümmer See area in Germany.
2nd Lt. Claire P. Chennault, O-763492 described the circumstances of the loss of Maj. Cheney’s P-51 Mustang.
“I was flying Yorkshire White #2 position on Major Cheney’s wing on October 15th. We patrolled our area until 10:30 hrs then let down and strafed a lorry with trailer and two automobiles.
Shortly after we started for home, Maj. Cheney’s plane looked like it was smoking but upon closer observation I believe it was oil leaking from his scoop. Maj. Cheney opened the shutter door and flew for about 5 more minutes then had to descend. He went through a broken overcast at about 3,000 feet and then bailed out between 1500 and 2000 feet. His chute opened instantly and he hit the ground 10 miles east of Wesel, Germany”.
The aircraft had suffered a mechanical failure, streaming oil prior to the engine failing. It crashed at about 11:30 hrs around 7km west of Dorsten which is about 20 km north of Essen in Germany.
What happened to Maj. Cheney after he successfully bailed out was determined by a General Military Government Court convened at Dachau, Germany on the 4th and 5th August 1947.
Two German nationals were charged that they did, at or near Dorsten, Germany on or about the 15th October 1944 wrongfully, encourage, aid, abet and participate in committing assaults upon a member of the United States Army, Maj. James B. Cheney, who was then and there an unarmed, surrendered PoW in the custody of the then German Reich.
The two accused were:
Werner Hess who was a former Leutnant (2nd Lt) and the Signals officer at Stab./Flak-Regiment 46 based at Dorsten, and by profession an Evangelical (Protestant) minister;
Hubert Edler von Svoboda who was a former Oberstleutnant (Lt Col) and Commanding Officer (CO) of Stab./Flak-Regiment 46 from the 25th August 1943 to the 7th December 1944. He was served but was not tried.
The court heard that during the morning of the 15th October 1944 an American airman was captured near Dorsten, Germany. It was alleged that he was the pilot that had strafed a passenger train approaching Dorsten which injured some passengers. A crowd of passengers and farmers who had assembled around the train were also fired upon killing between 15 and 23 people.
Note: Although it is clear that a train was strafed given the after mission statement made by 2nd Lt. Chennault it does not appear that Maj. Cheney was the pilot responsible.
Maj. Cheney was taken to the headquarters (HQ) of Stab./Flak-Regiment 46 which was billeted on the third floor of a Monastery in Dorsten. There he was interrogated, in the presence of Svoboda, by the unit’s Adjutant, Oberleutnant (1st Lt) Reichelt.
In the meantime about 20 German soldiers greatly incensed at the bombing and strafing of the train and passengers had assembled in the hall. Several shouted remarks were heard to the effect that the airman should be killed because of the deed.
Also, on the street in front of the Monastery and just outside the gate an angry hostile crowd had assembled. They were armed with spades and shovels and demanded that the murderer be handed over to them.
Hess was in his office at the HQ when the officer of the day came in and told him about the train bombing and strafing. At this time Reichelt left Svoboda’s office and told Hess that the CO was against the airman being killed but wanted him to be beaten.
Reichelt then ordered Hess to line up the soldiers in the hall and have them standby with something in their hands, and that in about 5 minutes he would push the airman into the hall. After warning the soldiers Hess rushed to the ground floor where he ordered the crowd and soldiers to leave the barracks and that the gate and other entrances be closed.
In the meantime the airman was pushed into the hall who then ran quickly along the hall and down some stairs, being beaten on the way. Hess heard the commotion and started up the stairs and was passed by the airman on his way down. Hess turn round and followed him and arrived at the foot of the stairs just as the airman slipped and fell to the floor.
There two civilians and a policeman threatened the airman. Hess prevented the beating and and ordered further beatings stopped. The airman then clambered onto a nearby jeep where he was set upon by some more soldiers. Hess ordered them to stop, the gate to be opened quickly and the crowd held back while the jeep was quickly driven away to save the airman from the angry crowd.
Hess admitted that he had gladly participated because if he had not been at the HQ that morning others from his unit would be before the court in his stead accused of murder.
Hess was found guilty and sentenced to 6 months imprisonment at the Criminal Prison No.1, Landsberg, Germany, commencing on the 15th May 1947. The final disposition of his sentence is unknown.
It is not known why Svoboda or his adjutant, Reichelt, were not before the court to answer for their involvement in ordering the beatings administered to Maj. Cheney.
None - Survived the war.
Spring 1945, Maj. Howard A. Lane (left) welcomes former Squadron Commander of the 376th Fighter Squadron, Maj. James B. Cheney back to Little Walden from POW camp after the war was over. (Credit: American Air Museum)
Maj. Cheney was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on the 19th April 1944 after 50 combat missions and an Oak Leaf Cluster (OLC) to the DFC on the 5th September 1944. Over the period 7th March 1944 to 16th June 1945 he was awarded the Air Medal (AM) with 3 OLC. On the 15th September 1945 he was awarded the Purple Heart (PH). He retired from the USAAF as a Lt Col.
He authored his own book “Under His Wing” published in 2002 (ISBN 978-0972503914), which describes his experiences during the war.
Maj. Cheney had sustained severe head injuries in the beatings, leaving him with lifelong health complications. James Briggs Cheney passed away aged 91 at the Dayton VA Medical Centre.
James Briggs Cheney (8th February 1920 - 1st October 2011)
On March 20th, 2012 Lt Col. Bernie "Bunyan" Willis - Springfield, OH - Comrade in arms, posted the following in tribute:
"The US has laid to rest a warrior, an officer and a gentleman, "Titus White Leader" will forever be etched on my heart as one of the great influences in my life. He will be sorely missed."
May he rest in peace "Under His Wing"... Check Six, Check Six
Researched by Ralph Snape and Traugott Vitz for Aircrew Remembered and dedicated to the relatives of this pilot. Thanks also to Traugott Vitz for his work on the ‘VitzArchive’.