812th Bomb Squadron

Bomb Squadron

813th Bomb Squadron

Bomb Squadron

814th Bomb Squadron

Bomb Squadron

How H2X "Mickey" – Got its name

This is the story of Major Fred Rabo and "Mickey Mouse". My late father wrote the following article in 2002 after many years of research and personal meetings with Fred. My father was an 8th Air Force combat veteran and B-17 crewman assigned to the 482nd Bomb Group. He was assigned to the 813th Bomb Squadron. With my father’s passing in 2006, I had always wanted to have this article published for him, Fred Rabo, "Mickey" and all those 8th Air Force "Mickey Operators" of WWII. "Mickey" was the name that became synonymous with USAAF "H2X" radar platform. "Mickey" was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.

Major Fred A. Rabo USAAF
(Courtesy Rabo Family)

This was the "TOP SECRET" U.S. project that involved American's first development and deployment of aircraft equipped with Air to Ground Radar. One of the greatest claims of the Eighth Air Force is that neither enemy fighters nor enemy flak ever turned back a single mission. The same could not be said of European weather. Many missions were scrubbed, aborted or recalled because of the poor weather conditions en route or over the target area. In late 1943, "Mickey" was about to change that. The man who coined the name "Mickey" was the late Lt. Col Fred Rabo, 812th Bomb Squadron Commander and one of the key figures in the deployment of the 482nd Pathfinder Bomb Group. This is their story.

In 1942 and 1943, it became evident that a major problem in completing 8th Bomber Command missions to Europe successfully were the poor weather conditions existing over England and Europe, especially in the winter months. Before WWII started, Gen. Hap Arnold had stated that the U.S. Army Air Corps needed a way to carry out bombing missions in bad weather conditions. Gen. Ira C. Eaker, CO of the Eighth, also recognized this need, and was undoubtedly influenced by RAF leaders with whom he was working closely on the aerial war against Germany. The RAF, who earlier on had faced the same weather problems, had developed radio beam and radar as navigational aids in overcoming these problems. One member of the original 8th Bomber Command cadre that accompanied Gen. Eaker to England, who took up the challenge of finding an answer to the weather problem was Lt. Col. William S. Cowart, Jr., who in mid-1943, journeyed to Washington, D.C., and laid out his plans for a new USAAF Pathfinder group to be established in England. The top brass of the USAAF approved Col. Cowart's plan, and subsequently the 482nd Bomb Group (Pathfinder) was established at Station 102, Alconbury, England on Aug. 20, 1943 with the objective of leading bombardment missions of the Eighth Bomber Command to Europe by the use of radio beam and radar equipment. The 482nd was the only bomb group in the Eighth Air Force to be formed outside of the U.S. in WWII.

Fred Rabo was transferred to assist Col. Cowart in his efforts to establish a pathfinder group. Fred accompanied Col. Cowart back to the U.S. in 1943 to obtain B-17s equipped with the new version of radar developed at the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory, as a modification of the radar (H2S) being used by the RAF in their bombing missions. The M.I.T. radar was known as H2X (AN/APS-15 for the production model). When Fred first saw the B-17's equipped with the hand-built retractable H2X units under the nose of the aircraft at Grenier Field, New Hampshire, he was simply heard to say "that radome looks, Mickey Mouse".

The nickname stuck and subsequently, it was shortened to "Mickey". Throughout the remainder of WWII, H2X radar units were commonly referred to as Mickey units. H2X operators were referred to as "Mickey Operators".

B-17 #23511 equipped with the first hand built H2X set positioned under the nose behind the chin turret
(Courtesy USAAF via Roger Freeman)

Close up view of the H2X Mickey Radome it retracted into the nose, later H2X units replaced the ball turret on H2X equipped ships
(Courtesy USAAF via Roger Freeman)

While in the U.S., Fred interacted with scientists at the M.I.T. Radiation Lab, stateside military, and David T. Griggs, Special Assistant to Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who was very interested in developing the best radar for the USAAF, and previously had collaborated with M.I.T. personnel on the testing of early radar equipment in his own airplane. Griggs had made a survey of British blind bombing methods and had a complete knowledge of radar developments at the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory. With Griggs' assistance, the Eighth Command was able to plan a program of bombing through overcast (BTO) using both British and U.S. equipment to be available by September 1943. As it turned out, the first mission led by the 482nd Pathfinders was on Sept. 27, 1943 to Emden, Germany.

Fred's immediate task was to oversee the testing of 12 B-17Gs, which were equipped with Mickey radar sets that were hand built by scientists at the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory. These Mickey-equipped B-17s were tested at East Boston Airport, Bedford Army Air Base, Massachusetts, Grenier Field, New Hampshire, and the U.S. Army Air Base, Rome, New York.

H2X "Mickey" Scope positioned in Radio compartment on B-17
(Courtesy USAAF via Roger Freeman)

And finally Fred and his crews flew the 12 B-17s, that were so eagerly awaited by General Eaker and staff, to England, arriving at Alconbury in early October 1943. Col. Cowart complimented Fred on a job well-done, and told him he was the new Commanding Officer of the 812th Bomb Squadron, 482nd Bomb Group, and was promoted to Major.

On November 3, 1943, Fred and crews of the 812th Bomb Squadron flew their first operational mission as Mickey Pathfinders to Wilhelmshaven, Germany. The Mickey B-17s led the combat wings of the I and III Air Divisions, and the II Air Division, which followed, also dropped on the Pathfinder target marker flares. A total of 11 Pathfinder aircraft were dispatched and all attacked the primary target and returned.

November 3, 1943 First operational H2X pathfinder led mission of 8th AAF to Wilhelmshaven, Germany
(Courtesy USAAF via Roger Freeman)

The target was the dock area of Wilhelmshaven, which eight previous visual raids had missed. Holes in the clouds directly over the target showed the attack was successful. Reconnaissance photos taken later confirmed that the concentration of bombs around the aiming point was good and that considerable damage had been done. Enemy opposition from flak and fighters was meager, although some attacks were made.

The encouraging performance of the H2X Mickey Pathfinders in November and December 1943 was achieved largely by a small force commanded by Major Rabo. The original 12 B-17s equipped with the hand built M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory H2X sets had led the 8th Air Force in approximately 90% of its blind-bombing missions; a few H2S B-17 Pathfinders accounted for the remainder of the missions. General Spaatz wrote General Arnold: "The few Pathfinders of the 482nd Group have made an outstanding contribution to our war against Germany. By their mastery of bombing through overcast, the 8th Air Force has been able to operate many times during the last few months under weather conditions which heretofore have grounded the force".

It was characteristic of Fred that he would lead a division on what became the first maximum effort mission to Berlin on March 6, 1944. The 482nd BG lost one Mickey Pathfinder B-17G (42-3491), and that B-17 was piloted by Major Fred Rabo. Major Rabo's co-pilot was Lt. John "Red" Morgan, who had received the Medal of Honor for heroism on a mission before joining the 482nd BG. Major Rabo had a crew of 12 on this mission, which included Gen. Russ Wilson as Division Commander, and a radar navigator, as well as a regular navigator. The briefed target was in southeast Berlin, and Major Rabo was leading the 4th Combat Wing of the III Air Division. On the bomb run, the Pathfinder B-17 was hit with three bursts of flak from guns of the Heavy Flak Ableilungen 126 and 307 over Berlin at 1:26 PM. The number three engine (inside on starboard side) caught fire and other parts of the plane were hit and also were burning. Suddenly, the B-17 exploded and Major Rabo, Lt. Morgan and S/Sgts. William F. Westcott and Steve B. Keaton, waist gunners, were able to pull their ripcords and survive. The other eight crew members were killed. Lt. Morgan was just able to get his parachute buckled and opened in time before hitting the ground. Major Rabo landed in Lake Harvel, and was captured soon after.

482nd BG PFF B-17 piloted by Major Fred Rabo and Co-Pilot Lt. John Morgan just seconds before it explodes on the March 6, 1944 Berlin Raid. Note the H2X Mickey unit under the nose.
(Courtesy USAAF)

Major Rabo spent 18 days in a hospital in Berlin recuperating from his injuries. After being interrogated by the Luftwaffe, he was sent to the prisoner-of-war Stalag I at Barth in Pomerania, which was in northeast Germany by the Baltic Sea. Major Rabo, Lt. Morgan, and S/Sgts William E. Westcott and Steve B. Keaton were POWs until they were liberated in May 1945. At the time of liberation, Major Rabo was given the job of making the airport at Barth flyable, so B-17s could land and pick up the POWs. The runways were repaired and B-17s landed and flew the POWs to Camp Lucky Strike in France for processing and eventual return to the U.S.

After returning to the States, now Lt. Col. Rabo was stationed for a time at Luke Field, Arizona, and flew P-51s. Soon thereafter, he left active military service, but remained in the USAF Reserve until the 1960s.

The USAAF recognized the outstanding leadership and contributions of Lt. Col. Fred Rabo by awarding him two Distinguished Flying Crosses, Purple Heart, Air Medal and Three Oak Leaf Clusters, Presidential Unit Citation, POW Medal, Victory Medal, European Theatre of Operations with Six Battle Stars, and American Defense Medal.

Fred was successful and active in farming and ranching in the Chico, California area right up until his passing on July, 1, 2000. He was a 4-H Leader, and enjoyed horseback riding, fishing, hunting, water skiing and boating, and target shooting. For a number of years, Fred owned and operated a gun club that included hunting pheasant and skeet shooting. Fred and Col. Hub Zemke, best known as Commanding Officer of the 56th Fighter Group and Ace in WWII, enjoyed many hours shooting, and occasionally reminiscing about missions to Europe and the months they were both POWs at Stalag I in Barth.

Another important visitor to Fred's Gun Club was Roger Freeman, Eighth Air Force Historian. On one visit Fred was explaining the various shooting options to Roger, when Roger replied, "I don't want to shoot, I just want to drive the tractor".

If one studies the history of the Eighth Air Force Pathfinders, it is clear that Lt. Col. Fred A. Rabo belongs with the Eighth Air Force Pathfinder Pioneers and Radar Pioneers, including Col. Williams S. Cowart, Jr., Gen. Ira C. Eaker, and David T. Griggs.

Fred Rabo should also always be remembered as the person who named the United States Army Air Force's first Air to Ground Radar unit, H2X – "Mickey". An invention that has continually been improved upon over the 65 years since it was first deployed on those first B-17 Pathfinder Flying Fortresses of the 482nd Bomb Group.

8th Army Air Force Veterans of the 482nd Bomb Group Fred A. Rabo and John J. O’Neil discuss H2X Mickey’s origin at the Rabo home in Chico, CA in 1999.