Richard L. Thayer
Staff Sergeant, 
U.S. Army Air Force

728th Bomber Squadron
452nd Bomb Group


STAFF SERGEANT RICHARD L. THAYER went into the United States Army shortly after Pearl Harbor. After qualifying for flight duty, he trained as an aerial gunner. He completed the course and was promoted to Sergeant in  1943 and was then sent to Salt Lake City UT to receive further training before being sent overseas. Staff Sergeant Thayer served as a waist-gunner aboard a B-17G bomber, # 42-38124, nicknamed THE PASSIONATE WITCH. The pilot, First Lieutenant Robert M. Cook, named his plane after the 1941 novel "The Passionate Witch" authored by Thorne Smith. This novel was about a meek businessman marrying a beautiful witch, and inspired he film I Married A Witch, starring Frederic March and Veronica Lake. In the 1960's the popular TV show "Bewitched" was based upon this novel. 

The tailgunner of the Passionate Witch, Staff Sergeant John C. McLaughlin, was named by the 8th Air Force as having been the first American bomber gunner to shoot down an enemy fighter over Berlin, during the raid that took place on March 6, 1944. He was credited with shooting down a Focke-Wolfe FW-190, and also for shooting down another German fighter on the same mission.

THE PASSIONATE WITCH took part in a mission to bomb Frankfurt, Germany on March 20, 1944, and on return from Frankfurt mission, was forced to land at the emergency landing field at Dunsfold, England with severe battle damage. The bomber was repaired and was ready to return when a damaged RAF Lancaster with battle damage skidded on landing and collided with THE PASSIONATE WITCH. The plane was a total wreck, and another B-17G, # 42-32082, was subsequently nicknamed THE PASSIONATE WITCH II. The Lancaster had been attacked by German fighters, during which RAF Sergeant Ronald Thomas was mortally wounded. 

On March 28, 1944 the 452nd Bomb Group undertook its 24th mission, a raid on the airfield at Chateudun, about 50 km west-northwest of Orleans, France.

PASSIONATE WITCH II received a direct hit from German anti-aircraft fire in the #4 fuel tank and exploded in mid-air. The right wing broke off, causing the plan to go into a downward spin. PASSIONATE WITCH II crashed 2 km south of the target. 

Five members of the ten-man crew were killed in the crash. They were co-pilot Second Lieutenant Ronald J. Casey, navigator Second Lieutenant John F. Oswalt, bombardier Second Lieutenant John A. Rowland; flight engineer Technical Sergeant Gerald H. Poplett; ball turret gunner Staff Sergeant Fremont H. Granade, and right waist gunner Staff Sergeant Carl A. Blichmann. Five bodies were discovered shortly after the crash and in time were re-interred at the U.S. military cemetery at Solers in Melun, France.  

The pilot, First Lieutenant Robert M. Cook, radioman George A. Silva, left waist gunner Richard L. Thayer and Staff Sergeant McLaughlin managed to bail out of the aircraft before it crashed, and were quickly taken prisoner. 

Margie Thayer Bolanger wrote in May of 2012:

John McLaughlin was with my father, Richard L. Thayer, on the Passionate Witch II during WWII who was one of three airmen that survived the crash over France at high noon on March 28, 1944. Dad spoke often of the war, his time in Stalag 17B, and the crash of their B17.

He also spoke so many times about "McLaughlin" who he liked so much and was one of his crew. It was certainly a miracle my father survived and when he landed just outside the German airfield they were bombing that day he was taken by two German guards who allowed him to go to Mr. McLaughlin. Mr. McLaughlin was laying on the ground, his parachute still attached, and obviously very wounded. He was bleeding from the mouth but when dad asked him if he was in pain he said no. He said, "Dick, will you light me a cigarette?" Dad helped him take a puff off the cigarette and then the Germans pushed dad away from him. Dad believed until his death, January 1, 2001 that McLaughlin died right there on the ground. We were interested to read he did survive a day in a hospital. 

Staff Sergeant McLaughlin died of wounds on March 29, 1944 in the hospital at Orleans, France. He had broken an arm and a leg, and was spitting blood, so it is likely that he died of internal injuries. Staff Sergeant McLaughlin was initially buried in the cemetery at Orleans and later re-interred in Solers.

First Lieutenant Cook was taken to Stalag Luft 1 at Barth-Vogelsang, Prussia 54-12. Staff Sergeant Silva and Staff Sergeant Thayer were sent to Stalag 17B at Braunau Gneikendorf, near the town of Krems, Austria. All three survived the war and returned to the United States.

Kim Thayer Stephens wrote the following concerning her father's experiences before and after being shot down and taken prisoner.

My dad as a POW during WW2 and life after the war

Dad was a POW (prisoner of war) during WW2. He was a right waist gunner on a B-17/Flying Fortress as they were called. Dad said it would take 2 hr. to get into formation while flying with thousands of B-17’s and that the P-51’s made it easier for the B-17 bombers to get to their destinations. Dad was a SSgt. and each plane held 10 men. The men on the plane would become very close. There were 2 pilots, navigator, engineer, radio operator, 2 waist gunners, tail gunner, bombardier, and ball turret. My dad’s plane, Passionate Witch 2, was shot down on 28 March 1944 and he was liberated from POW camp on 5 May 1945. His POW camp was in Krems Austria by Danube River and my dad, Richard Thayer, was only 25 yrs. old. 

Dad had a mission where his first plane, The Passionate Witch, received over 2,000 bullet holes and dad had to man both waist gunner positions due to injuries of the crew. He was shielding the plane from heavy Nazi gunfire while the co-pilot, Lt. Ron Casey of Michigan, was helping with the injuries of the left waist gunner. My dad (the right waist gunner) stood over them even though dad was hit in the face and leg and bleeding badly, but dad commented that his wounds were not that bad and kept on manning both gun positions until they were safely back in England. Dad was then put in hospital due to his injuries. Dad was up for the Congressional Medal of Honor but he couldn’t interview for it since another mission came up about a week later and he requested to be released from hospital to go join his crew on this next mission. Dad did not realize the importance of the Congressional Medal of Honor at the time. He did receive the Silver Star due to his courageous activity on this flight but it was presented to his parents since at the time of the award, dad was already a POW. Dad’s next mission on Passionate Witch II (The original Passionate Witch had been badly damaged and was unable to fly again) resulted in this plane being shot down after having had a wing shot off causing the plane to go into a downward spin. The force kept dad from being able to reach the hatch to get out UNTIL he saw his mother’s face/vision of her praying for him and only THEN was he able to reach the door hatch and open it. The plane blew up shortly after dad got out. Dad had won a pilot’s parachute in a card game and he said that this parachute saved his life from flack numerous times on missions and then especially on this last mission. The Passionate Witch II had only 3 survivors after being shot down. The tail gunner, John McLaughlin died on the ground. George Silva the radio operator, Lt. Robert Cook the pilot, and my dad the right waist gunner were the only ones to survive who then became POW’s. During the war, you usually had to go on 25 missions before being able to go home, but had to accomplish that many without dying or being shot down. Dad thought that the mission where his plane was shot down was probably his 9th or 10th mission. He said that one of his early missions, during the war, resulted in his trousers being shot off but he was not injured.

The Germans hated American flyers for destroying their lives, homes, families….and there was not much left after all the bombings. Dad said he always felt lucky. The German soldiers followed the Geneva Treaty closely on how to treat/handle POW’s which was a blessing. Germans spoke great English. Prior to reaching the prison camp the soldiers were put into this dungeon like area initially with peep holes which was very stinky and dirty and the windows being 15 feet high. Eventually they left this “dungeon like place” in route to the prison camp located in Krems Austria/ Stalag B-17. Due to the German hatred toward Americans flyers, moving Americans to their POW camps via the railroad was dangerous since most Germans wanted to kill American Flyers. Usually there were 10 men in a group heading to Frankfurt where the train station was located. The German soldiers were good to the prisoners trying to protect them from the public. The train took 3 days to get to Krems Austria. POW’s were interrogated for 7-8 days. Bombing was going on all around them. English would bomb at night and Americans would bomb during the day. Hitler’s troops (SS troops) were vicious and so very mean and WOULD kill you if given a chance or reason. Thankfully the POW’s were guarded by the German troops NOT the SS. Many of the POW camps in the Baltic’s had to move often due to so much destruction due to the bombings. Dad being on the Eastern Front never had to move.

There were about 4700 American men in this POW camp.. non- commissioned officers. Russians were located on the camp next door and Germans REALLY hated them, resulting in many deaths due to the bad treatment! There were basketball courts outside. Red Cross would give POW potatoes 2-3 times a day with bread. The food was enough with the Red Cross packages coming. The last winter of the war, Germans stopped the Red Cross packages and POW’s almost died from starvation. They killed rats and mice…anything for protein. Dad craved the bread and potatoes when they were stopped. Toward the end of the war, supplies were so limited and they burned camp furniture for heat. Dad said it was much like the show on TV, Hogan Heroes. Before the war ended, Hitler wanted all animals and POW’s killed so when the allies arrived, they would find nothing…no evidence! Hitler died and the man in charge did not enforce it and so it did not happen. Russians were getting close on the Eastern Front and dad knew the war would soon end. Many POW’s wanted to escape rather than starve to death and a vote was taken. Dad voted no since the Russians were so close. They voted no to dying while trying to escape and would wait and hope to survive until they were rescued. 

POW’s dug tunnels and many of the POW coal miners did a lot of the digging but when the tunnel was almost done, German spies inside the camp would tell authorities and then the Germans would pour sewer liquid into the tunnels and close them up. Tunnels would go 18 ft. down and the men would get of the dirt that was dug out by placing it in their pant cuffs and during roll call pour it out…this happened 6-8 times a day. Americans would get the Russians to stand in during roll call so the POW’s could continue to dig and try to escape. No one escaped through the tunnels that were being dug. Dad did say that many men did well in prison camp physically and mentally but many did poorly. There were lots of bed bugs and hunger.

Dad’s group of about 500 walked to freedom after the war. German Captain told them all about the historic sites on the Danube River like “Richard the Lion Hearted” castle. They were on the road for 30-31 days. The men would divide off and have assignments. Dad’s friend, Oliver, looked for food and he was a good trader and thief! Dad’s assignment was to find fuel. Oliver would sneak out and get back into the group without getting shot. He once brought back a hen and 6 eggs. One egg was iron and dad thought Oliver should have that one! Dad thought that was funny. On the road there was a lot of contaminated water thus resulting in diarrhea! Dad said the young German children were taught to kill Americans and the German soldiers warned them about the children in small villages/towns. 

After the war, dad got into contact with his POW friend, Oliver from Port Authur, Texas. He was part Indian and had four children. Oliver was good to dad and liked him a lot. Dad referred to him as “Ollie”. My dad and mother did end up visiting him 30 years after the war. When they visited him so many years later, dad looked up his number in the directory and called Oliver once they arrived in his town. Dad did not tell him who he really was, and made up a story to see and meet with him at his home. Dad told Oliver he was Mr. Kreg (Krieger’s as they were called in the POW camp) and was selling insurance. Oliver did not want any insurance but dad insisted and then went to his home to try and convince him to buy this insurance. Oliver was very mad since he had told dad already, over the phone, he was not interested. Dad kept pushing the issue to the point that Oliver got so mad he drew back to hit my dad….UNTIL he noticed dad’s nose, remembering dad had a crooked nose due to a break early in his life, and he then recognized him and was thrilled to see dad after all those years. Dad and Oliver were fortunate to survive the prison camp life and return home at the end of the war.

Dad was awarded the Purple Heart 2-3 times but never applied for it. Dad had no formal college education. When he returned from the war, living in Hope, Indiana, dad farmed and ran for sheriff (Columbus, Indiana) and won the election. When dad was sheriff, the family lived in the jail and my mom learned to cook since she had to feed the prisoners! Mom loved the jail life. My brother, Gordie, was born while mom and dad were living in the jail and one prisoner whom mom and dad trusted, taught Gordie his ABC’s. One of the prisoners in jail once told dad that the only person to beat him in an election would have been mom! The prisoners in the jail loved mom and respected dad. . Later, dad ran and became mayor of Columbus, Indiana. Dad and mom ended up with four children in all named Gordie, Margie, Tim and Kim. My dad died in Jan. 2001 at the age of 81. 

Photographs of the Passionate Witch - March 22, 1944

Photographs of the Passionate Witch - March 23, 1944

Passionate Witch was completely wrecked after being struck
on the runway by the British Lancaster bomber at right.

Photographs of the Passionate Witch II - March 28, 1944


Passionate Witch II falls from the skies after being hit by ant-aircraft fire near Chateaudun airfield, France on March 28, 1944. Note the bombs are already falling to the target.

Photographs of the Passionate Witch II - March 28, 1944



Five members of the ten-man crew were killed in the crash. They were co-pilot Second Lieutenant Ronald J. Casey, navigator Second Lieutenant John F. Oswalt, bombardier Second Lieutenant John A. Rowland; flight engineer Technical Sergeant Gerald H. Poplett; ball turret gunner Staff Sergeant Fremont H. Granade, and right waist gunner Staff Sergeant Carl A. Blichmann. Five bodies were discovered shortly after the crash and in time were re-interred at the U.S. military cemetery at Solers in Melun, France.  

The pilot, First Lieutenant Robert M. Cook, radioman George A. Silva, left waist gunner Richard L. Thayer and Staff Sergeant McLaughlin managed to bail out of the aircraft before it crashed, and were quickly taken prisoner. 

Staff Sergeant
Richard L. Thayer,
Standing, at far left

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Staff Sergeant Thayer