The title Duke of Paducah means diferent things to different people. For one group of young men in WWII, it meant a bond of friendship and the ravages of war that would change them forever.
Verne Woods and Stuart Mendelsohn's bond of friendship was as strong as any that could be experienced. War will do that. The pair, a pilot and his co-pilot, had only known one another for seven months, and at the end of 1943, they were faced with the break-up of a crew that had seen the horrors of war from thousands of miles above the ravaged continent of Europe.
Verne, age 22, and Stu, age 24, were the first two members of the crew. They came together in May of 1943 in California at the B-17 transitional school and moved together to Dyersburg, TN to continue their training and complete the roster of what became known as the Mendelsohn crew.
"Stuart and I first came together—came together in the sense of a bonded relationship—on a navigation flight that took us on an eight-hour triangular path from Blythe to Salt Lake City to Phoenix and back again to Blythe. What really brought Stu and me together was the discovery that in growing up, we'd both been book readers and that we both had discovered James Willard Schultz. Both of us had read all the books by this American anthropologist who'd lived among the Plains Indians and who wrote about them in books for young boys. There were a dozen or more of these Schultz books, and Stuart and I, as we bounced along on that long navigation flight, managed between us to remember most of them. After that flight, Stuart and I were no longer just crewmates. We were friends."
The group of young men joined the 91st Bomb Group in England in September and straightaway took on various bombing missions. The Mendelsohn crew was quickly associated with their primary plane, the DUKE OF PADUCAH. Famed nose artist Tony Starcer (known for the Memphis Belle among many others) painted the Duke as a jazz-era, zoot-suit-wearing dude. The crew successfully flew the Duke on many missions over Germany, encountering ground fire and flak as well as German fighters.
Like most crews, the men became family; and they rallied around their leader, Stuart Mendelsohn. Verne recalls the demeanor that helped make Stuart a strong leader. "I judged us to be equally adept at flying a B-17. Stuart usually demonstrated more mature judgment than I was then capable of. I don't recall a single incident when he used abusive language to reprimand an erring crew-member although there were several instances warranting it."
The closing of 1943 in December was symbolic of the end of the Mendelsohn crew. The navigator received a promotion. The bombardier was about to enter training as a navigator, and Stuart would become the new operations officer of the 324th Squadron. Verne was set up to become the pilot of the Duke of Paducah with a new crew at the beginning of 1944.
On December 30, Stuart scheduled the Duke of Paducah to fly its last mission of the year on New Year's Eve. Verne was the pilot, and Stuart decided to schedule himself as the co-pilot and fly one last time with his crew. About the same time, another B-17, The Black Swan, taxied too close to the Duke, and its left wing badly damaged the Duke's gun turret. Amazingly enough, The Black Swan sustained no major damage, so the crew changed to fly the Swan instead.
On the way back from their New Year's Eve bombing run, they encountered two German FW-190s. "Two or three shells crashed through the right cockpit window tearing the frame away," recalls Verne. "Exploding in the cockpit, the shells killed Mendelsohn instantly. The wind coming through the large gap on the right side of the cockpit was deafening."
Verne maintained control of the craft for quite some time, but after a while signaled for everyone else on board to evacuate. He found himself in France, not knowing if anyone else on the Swan survived. He traveled south for over a week, hiding in barns and being taken care of by the sympathetic French. He was eventually caught by the Germans and spent the remainder of the war in Stalag Luft I, a camp for officers.
The Duke of Paducah was repaired within a couple of weeks of being hit by The Black Swan and flew 29 more missions before being scrapped in 1945 after the end of the war in Europe. Verne, freed from the camp at the end of the war, settled with his wife in Massachusetts where he still resides. He works vigilantly to keep the memory of the Duke of Paducah alive along with the hero that served as its pilot.
"Stuart and I belonged to a little London drinking club called the Knightsbridge Studio Club. Once, immediately after a mission, our crew was awarded a 48-hour pass. Stuart and I quickly showered, put on our class-A uniforms and caught a train to London, less than two hours away. I, and I'm sure I speak for Stuart as well, always felt an intense pride in walking down the streets of London in our Class-A uniforms—pinks and greens, we called it, handsome and distinctive—with our crushed hats set at a jaunty angle, the 8th Air Force patch on our sleeves, and with ribbons and pilot wings prominent on our jackets. The two of us just sat at a table near the cocktail pianist and there we spent the whole evening nursing scotch and sodas and requesting the pianist to play favorite songs that evoked memories of girls and dates that seemed so long ago. What made that night special was a kind of secret we harbored from all those crowding the small barroom. The secret was this, hardly a secret at all: we knew that just hours before we had been in a B-17, in combat over Germany, and no one in the barroom could ever suspect this if they happened to look over at us. Just why this knowledge, this thought, this secret was savored so as we sat there talking together with our scotch and sodas I don't know; but because of it, that night has ever since been a precious ornament suspended in memory. If I were to see Stuart again, I would surely ask 'Do you remember that time after a mission when we went to that little club?' I suspect that Stuart would remember it as vividly as I do."
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