The Mysterious Fate of William T. “Shorty” Bales, Jr.

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired) 142nd Wing Historian (Volunteer)
  • 371st Fighter Group

Friday, April 13, 1945.  A day after the passing of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Third Reich was collapsing as Allied forces pressed into Germany from the east and west.  It seemed like the war in Europe would be over soon, though the fighting continued.

The 371st Fighter group was part of the Allied push into the enemy’s heartland.  Since moving from Metz, France (Advanced landing Ground Y-34) to Frankfurt/Eschborn, Germany (Y-74) on April 7, the group had flown 90 combat missions.  These were mostly eight-ship formations, reflecting the diminished threat the German Luftwaffe posed at that late stage of the war.

Mission 91, the first go of the day, was flown by the group’s 406th Fighter Squadron, led by Lt. Delroy E. Spray, composed of eight fighters, Red and Yellow flights, four P-47 Thunderbolts each.  One of the pilots in the formation was Capt. William T. “Shorty” Bales, from group staff, flying wingman for 406th Fighter Squadron Commander, Lt. Col. Delaney (Yellow One) as Yellow Two.  They took off at 1242 hours and were on-station by 1310 hours.

“Shorty” Bales from Tennessee

William Telford “Shorty” Bales, Jr.  was born in Morristown, Tennessee on May 1, 1915.  He was the third of four children.  He graduated from Central High School (Chattanooga) in 1932 and was employed by the Chattanooga Daily Times prior to the war.

Bales had achieved an aerial victory over an Me-109 and claimed another -109 damaged on October 20, 1944 in a dogfight over the Black Forest of Germany when he was assigned to the 406th Fighter Squadron.  For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, per HQ XII Tactical Air Command General Orders Number 14, 10 February 1945:  “For outstanding and meritorious Achievement while participating in aerial flight against the enemy.  On 20 October 1944, Captain Bales was strafing a locomotive in the vicinity of Faulenfurst, Germany, when the squadron was attacked by 12 enemy planes.  Although at tremendous tactical disadvantage in being on the deck, Captain Bales with great courage and skill climbed to engage the enemy and in individual combat, destroyed one enemy aircraft and damaged another.  The conduct of Captain Bales was signalized by the highest quality of aggressiveness and his courage and skill reflects great credit upon himself and the Army Air Forces.”

As a member of Group staff, Assistant Operations Officer, Capt. Bales flew a mission with the group’s 404th Fighter Squadron on March 31, 1945 when he shot down an Me-262 jet fighter, catching the craft after it had just taken off.  It was the first jet victory in the group.  Bales later received credit for half an Me-109  aerial victory on April 10, 1945 near Coburg, Germany, scant days before his final fateful mission.

Friday the Thirteenth

The mission on Friday the 13th was armed reconnaissance flown in support of US Army XX Corps, then in the vicinity of Gotha, Germany, south of Berlin.  Red Flight was armed with a single 500-pound general purpose bomb each, with nose and tail fuzes set and 1/10 and 1/40 of a second, respectively; both Red and Yellow flights had their typical loads of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition.  They found about 25 boxcars in the Hainichen railroad marshaling yard on the west side of the town and Red Flight attacked them, dropping their bombs from 4,000 feet altitude and claiming damage to five.  While Red Flight was thus occupied, Yellow Flight strafed motor transport targets of opportunity on the autobahn (motorway) nearby.

While this was going on, two enemy aircraft came into the battlespace on a southeasterly heading.  For the pair of Luftwaffe Me-110 twin-engine fighters, it was an example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

2nd Lt. William L. Sanders of Red was flying as Red Two, had just pulled up after dive-bombing the marshaling yard at Hainichen and reached 5,000 feet when he noticed two twin-engine planes passing just beneath him, on the deck.  He got on his radio and contacted Lt. Col. Delaney, a short distance away to the east strafing and damaging two motor transports heading west along today’s A-4 Autobahn.  Delaney gave him permission to attack. 

Lt. Sanders descended to pursue, then saw already ahead of him were Lt. Col. Delaney and Capt. Bales.   Lt. Col. Delaney indicated that the two twin-engine aircraft called in were at 3:00 relative position to himself.  He ordered Capt. Bales to accompany him in pursuit of the Me-110s which were flying at around 800 feet. 

The two P-47s pulled up from their strafing runs and then caught up on the two Me-110s from behind; Delaney fired on the aircraft to the left.  It broke to the left when he opened fire, and Delaney continued a turning pursuit, turning some 180-degrees, firing when he had opportunity, closing in from 300 to 25 yards.  Delaney then observed the right engine burst into flames, and numerous bullet strikes along the cockpit and wing root.  The Me 110 rolled to the right and then crashed into an open field, burning; he didn't see anyone get out.  Unfortunately, his gun camera failed and combat film for the engagement was not available.  He claimed to have destroyed the Me 110 after expending 1,640 rounds of .50-cal ammunition.

Lt. Sanders described what he saw: "The one Col. Delaney was pursuing broke left, on fire, and the plane Capt. Bales was pursuing, also on fire, kept going straight and then started a turn to the right.  I was going so fast I overshot Capt. Bales and the plane he was pursuing and made a tight turn.  I heard Col. Delaney say he had shot down his plane and it was going in.  I looked off my right wing and saw the plane skidding on the ground, burning.  I went down just behind Col. Delaney and took pictures.  Capt. Bales said that he was bellying in, without giving the reason, and reported again when he was on the ground.  He is now MIA and in his place I make the claim for him of one ME 110 probably destroyed.  I confirm the destruction of one ME 110 by Col. Delaney."

Whether hit by enemy return fire from the rear gunners in the two-seat Messerschmitts, or perhaps inadvertently clipping a high-tension power line, Shorty Bales’ ship, P-47D-28-RA serial number 42-29256, squadron code and letter 4W-A, could fly no more and with little altitude to work with, instead of bailing out he bellied it in.

Lt. Col. Delaney wrote in the Missing Air Crew Report (MACR 14211) submitted after the mission his recollection of what happened to Bales after the engagement with the Me-110s, “Captain Bales was flying on my wing in yellow 2 position. I had signaled him to attack one of two enemy aircraft while I attacked the other. The last time I saw him he was to the rear and slightly low to me. As I pulled up in back of one enemy plane I left him in position in the rear of the other enemy plane. After the conclusion of my encounter, I heard him call on the RT and say “I´ve got to belly in”. The next thing he said was “Hello Delaney, I’m on the ground. I bumped my head, but I´m alright.” I tried to locate his plane on the ground, but was unable to do so. However, I am positive it was in the immediate vicinity of Hainichen.”  And that was the last anyone in the unit heard from Shorty Bales.

Finding Shorty Bales

After the war, the Army had a challenge to confirm the fate of Capt. Bales (orders promoting him to Major came in not long after his loss), as the area he was shot down in was in the postwar occupation sector allotted to the Soviet Union.  The Soviets made it very difficult to find out anything in the territory they now occupied.  On August 24, 1945 Headquarters XIII Tactical Air Command was still perplexed as to his fate, theorizing that he “…should have been picked up on the rolls of POW, unless he made his way back to Allied Military Control, met with an unfortunate accident or unlawful treatment by the enemy.” His return to Allied Military Control was deemed “unlikely.”

HQ XII TAC directed the 371st Fighter Group to send a team to determine the whereabouts of Capt. Bales and his aircraft and that “Particular attention should be given to contacting Allied Military Gov’t, police, public officials, clergy, and various civilians in the area of the crash…”

The Group attempted to do so, first running into interference from the US 26th Infantry Division in occupied Linz, Austria, where the 371st Fighter Group was then based.  The group reported back to HQ XII TAC “Consultation with 26 Division shows that it will be impossible for this unit to proceed further in the matter unless permission to enter the area may be obtained by your Headquarters from higher authority.” 

So, the request went up from XII TAC to HQ Ninth Air Force, and from there to the Commanding General, US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE).  On Oct 11, 1945 permission was granted for search teams to travel to Berlin to obtain Russian passes. The first effort was frustrated in November, with Allied offices in Berlin refusing the search team to continue on, and to return to home station, due to lack of formal clearance and the lack of any necessary coordination with Russian authorities. 

By February 7, 1946, another request for necessary clearance for a search team to go into Russian occupied territory was submitted by HQ USAFE to the Commanding General, U.S. Forces, European Theater (Rear) in Versailles, France.  On 15 February 1946, HQ USFET (Rear) responded to the CG, USAFE and stated that “Only official search teams of the American Graves Registration Command are permitted to enter the Russian Occupied Zone in search of bodies,” and that as of April 14, 1945, Capt. Bales, Jr. was buried in Section I, Grave 13, Zschwackwitz Cemetery Dobelin Germany (No. 52). 

The report then stated that “No further action is needed,” presumably by USAFE elements.  It is here that our local available documentation runs out, with the cause of the fate of Shorty Bales still a mystery.  What happened to him on the ground after he successfully crash-landed his sturdy P-47?

A Mystery Solved

For the modern-day members of the 371st Fighter Group, now Oregon’s 142nd Wing, the circumstance  of Shorty Bales’ death was a mystery, until now.  Enter 2021 and Mr. Ralf Härtel, a freelance journalist from Mittweida, Germany, just west of Hainichen.  Mr. Härtel became interested in why a little German town would be subjected to an air raid so late in the war, and in researching this found out which air unit had flown the raid, and also about the air combat that was part of it.  In order to help solve the mystery he reached out to the 142nd Wing history office and also shared information he had discovered with the wing.

Through review of 371st Fighter Group historical records, Mr. Härtel found that the four 500-lb bombs dropped on Hainachen on April 13 were not aimed at the local factory that produced components of anti-tank guns and rocket launchers, as some people in Hainichen thought, but per U.S. reports, were dropped on the marshaling yard, if a bit inaccurately.  

Three of the four bombs functioned and damaged 13 residential buildings around the marshaling yard as well as the finishing and dyeing portion of a weaving mill.  One person on the ground was killed, five seriously wounded and another 23 were slightly wounded from the attack.  Two other deaths were noted according to town records of that time, possibly related to the raid, e.g. seriously wounded who died and/or victims subsequently discovered.  One bomb which landed in the front yard of a property did not explode.

Using USAAF and local history reports and records, and examining aerial imagery taken of the area after the battle, he determined that Maj. Bales had successfully crash-landed his stricken P-47 near Berbersdorf, about five miles northeast of Hainichen.  Afterward, Bales encountered some local German citizens who shot him, fatally, in the stomach.  He was taken prisoner and then to a hospital in Döbeln, some 13 miles north, where he died the next day.  Bales was then buried in the Zschwakwitz Cemetery in the city.  

Mr. Härtel helped to fill the gap in knowledge. Bales died in the reserve hospital in Döbeln and was buried without a pastor. In February, 1946, a US team found Bale’s grave and confirmed his ultimate fate.  US Army Graves Registration personnel exhumed the remains of Maj. Bales on August 6, 1947 and transferred them to Berlin.  Subsequently he was buried at the Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial, Neuville-en-Condroz, Arrondissement de Liège, Liège, Belgium in Plot D, Row 8, Grave 6. 

Maj. William T. Bales, Jr. was 29 years old when he died, and left behind his wife, Mrs. Katherine (nee Thatcher) Bales, his parents and two siblings. One of seven 371st Fighter Group pilots lost in April, 1945 he was the group’s last combat fatality of World War II.  Maj. Bales was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.

The Me-110 Pilots’ Fates

Mr. Härtel was also able to identify the German pilots and unit involved in this battle.  The Me-110 believed to have been shot down by  Lt. Col. Delaney that day, was flown by Unteroffizier (Corporal) Johann Wiedemann, of Jagdgeschwader 400 (JG 400) based at Brandis Airfield near Leipzig.  JG 400 is known for being the Me-163 Komet unit flying the diminutive Messerschmitt rocket fighter.  The unit maintained some Me-110 aircraft for aerial towing duty.  Neither aircraft carried a second crewmember on that date, which would eliminate rear gunner return fire as a cause for the damage forcing Shorty Bales down.

On April 13, as JG 400 was disbanding, two Me-110s from JG 400 were on an administrative transfer flight from Brandis to Prague-Ruzyne Airfield, Czechoslovakia at the time of the aerial encounter between Döbeln and Hainichen.  According to local oral history, a farmer freed the severely-burned pilot from the wreckage of his aircraft  in a field by the village of Kaltofen, about two and a half miles northeast of Hainichen.  He was transported by horse-drawn cart to Pappendorf, half a mile from Kaltofen,  where he subsequently died. Corporal Wiedemann was then buried in Pappendorf Cemetery, according to Hainichen city archive records.

The Me-110 attacked and reportedly damaged and probably downed by then-Capt. Bales, Corporal Wiedemann’s wingman, Corporal Kurt Schiebeler, survived the encounter and returned to Brandis Airfield.  Corporal Schiebeler flew successfully to Prague later that day.  Brandis Airfield was captured by the US 9th Armored Division on April 16, 1945.

Did a War Crime Occur?

We don’t know details of the incident between William Bales and the German civilians near Berbersdorf, which may have been a violation of the law of war.  If so, it was one of many unfortunate examples of downed Allied aircrew who were killed by German civilians.  Perhaps the most infamous incident was the Rüsselsheim massacre of August 26, 1944 involving the Rogers crew of a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber. 

The role of German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in inciting such lawless behavior by civilians is documented in the historical record.  His propaganda campaign to vilify Allied Airmen and encourage civilian retribution on downed flyers succeeded in provoking an often dangerous, sometimes deadly, response by German civilians – fliegermorde (flyer murder).  In September, 1944, 371st Fighter Group P-47 pilot Lee McDuff was a fortunate flyer being rescued by German soldiers from a civilian mob that beat him unconscious after he bailed out of his stricken Thunderbolt:

Unlike the Rüsselsheim massacre perpetrators who were tried by military tribunal postwar, no one was ever accused or prosecuted for the death of William T. Bales, Jr., perhaps because the incident occurred in what became postwar Soviet-controlled occupation territory.  Lest someone think discussion of this is dusty old history, it’s not.  The issue of war crimes isn’t something confined to the past, as we are aware of reports and the disturbing images of atrocities in the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.

And so, after nearly 80 years, the 142nd Wing now knows the fate of one of its fallen.  There are other mysteries in the unit’s history, but it’s good when any of them can be solved, with the help of people from here in the US and/or from other lands.  Our thanks to Mr. Ralf Härtel for his help with learning about the fate of Maj. William T. “Shorty” Bales, Jr.