Article by: John J. O’Neil
This is the story of the man who brought "Mickey Mouse" to the Air War in Europe for the U.S. Army Eight Air Force. This wasn't the Mickey Mouse of Walt Disney Studios. This was the "Mickey Mouse" developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory. This was the "TOP SECRET" U.S. project that involved American's first deployment of aircraft equipped with Air to Ground Radar. One of the greatest claims of the Eight Air Force is that neither enemy fighters nor enemy flak ever turned back a single mission. The same couldn't be said of European weather. Many missions were scrubbed, aborted or recalled because of the poor weather conditions to or over to target area. "Mickey Mouse" was about to change that. The man who named "Mickey Mouse" was the late Lt. Col Fred Rabo, Squadron Commander and one of the key figures in the deployment of the 482nd Pathfinder Bomb Group. This is his story.
Fred was born in Redding, California on September 8, 1920. He graduated from Notre Dame School in Chico, California and Chico High School. At high school, in addition to being a good student, he participated in track and football. After gradation from high school, Fred continued his education at Chico State College with a major in Industrial Education. However, as World War II was raging in Europe and elsewhere throughout the world in August 1941, Fred thought it was the best time to join the U.S. Army Air Forces, and carryout a long cherished desire to become a pilot.
Fred did his early training as an Aviation Cadet at Cal Aero Field, Chico, California and completed primary and basic flight training there. He transferred to Stockton Army Air Base in December 1941 for advanced flight training. In February 1942 he earned his pilot's wings and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant. Fred stayed at Stockton until May 1942.
In April 1942, Fred was married to his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Meline. When Fred was transferred to Albuquerque in May 1942, Dorothy went along and lived in a nearby apartment complex. It was at Albuquerque that Fred trained in B-24s, but was later assigned to a B-17 group, which was the airplane Fred would fly in combat. Because of housing shortages, military wives were discouraged from living with their husbands, but Fred and Dorothy managed to live together most of the time until Fred went overseas in October 1942.
Fred completed further training at Geiger Field, Muroc Lake Army Air Base, California and Syracuse Army air Base. Since Geiger Field, Fred was assigned to the 422nd Bomb Squadron of the 305th Bomb Group, which was commanded by a future leader of the U.S. Army Air Forces and USAF, Col. Curtis E. LeMay. Colonel LeMay was a strong believer in intensive training and pushed his men for six additional weeks before being assigned to the new Eighth Bomber Command in England. During the long flight over the Atlantic Ocean to Prestwick, Scotland, the navigator in Col. LeMay's lead B-17 wandered off course. As Col. LeMay was a qualified and experienced navigator, as well as a pilot, it must have been "an eat crow" experience as Col. LeMay had to ask Fred's navigator for a course correction. All worked out well as the B-17s of the 305th landed in Prestwick without further incident.
Under the tutelage of Col. LeMay, the 305th BG became a leader in formation flying and bombing procedures on Eighth missions from England to Europe. Colonel LeMay's tight formation flying, elimination of evasive action during the bomb run, and the procedure for bomb groups dropping bombs when lead airplanes dropped, were all adopted by the Eighth Air Force. Fred and crew flew 15 combat missions from Chelveston, the home base of the 305th, in their B-17, Target for Tonight, and were promoted to Captain.
For a long time it was 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 winter. 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, and who earlier on had faced the same weather problems, and 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.
Although Fred was happy doing mission at the 305th and enjoyed a strong friendship with Col. LeMay, Fred 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), and to simplify matters, Fred renamed this radar "Mickey Mouse." Subsequently, it was shortened to "Mickey" and was thus known throughout the rest of WWII. The nickname for the RAF H2S radar was "Stinky" which was also used by Eighth B-17 Pathfinders.
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 bad 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 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.
Dave Griggs and Fred Rabo hit it off, and Dave told Fred that while he was on temporary duty in the U.S., he could have the use of any military airplane that he wished. Fred chose an AT-6 and used it for traveling around the U.S. In his stateside flying duties, Fred was certified as the only USAAF pilot who could land a B-17 at the East Boston Airport, because the runways were too short. East Boston Airport today is known as Logan International Airport, Boston.
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. 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.
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 Pathfinders accounted for the remainder. 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."
Expansion of the H2X Mickey program was being vigorously promoted by the 8th Air Force, and this was reflected by Spaatz when he added:
"The most critical need of the Strategic Air Forces is for more Pathfinder aircraft. A few H2X planes now will profit our cause more than several hundred in six months."
General Eaker described the Kiel mission of Dec. 13, 1943 to Robert Lovett, Assistant Secretary of War for Air, as follows, and discussed the status of Eighth Air Force Pathfinders, just a few weeks before he would reluctantly leave the Eighth for the Mediterranean.
"We have evidenced evidence from the horse's mouth today that our raid on Dec. 13, 1943 singed the mane and tail if indeed it did not break a few legs at Kiel. The evidence continues to mount in favor of overcast bombing. We have ten H2X and five H25 planes and we were able to get 12 of them out for the Kiel raid, and all worked throughout the mission.
Here is the most interesting thing about the Kiel raid. It was almost an ideal day for overcast bombing. The tops of the clouds were at about 4,000; the markers could be clearly seen by all the combat wings; a good part of North Germany was fogged in or under very low cloud. We had pretty good reason to believe from German radio chatter that they tried to get their single engine fighters up but were unable to make it, probably losing a considerable number operationally. Some of the twin engine fighters came through, but only a very small percentage of what we are accustomed to. Our crews never saw any ground or water within 100 miles of the target. To have the bombs come raining down on the city under these conditions must indeed have been a dismal prospect. I think those who discount and discredit the effect that our overcast bombing on German cities is having on the enemy are unrealistic and unwise. We shall have a lot more evidence both on the technique and the technical development and on enemy reaction before we are through with this thing, if present weather continues. There has been no day since Sept. 17, 1943 when it was possible to have seen targets in Germany well enough to bomb them visually with any hope of success. Our prospects would be bleak indeed was it not for the foresight and good fortune we had to build up this Pathfinder technique and had not our scientists developed Mickey (H2X)."
In early 1944, Berlin had been the primary target of the Eighth Air Force, but mostly because of bad weather, Berlin was not attacked, thus, again on Mar. 4, 1944, Berlin was the briefed target. General Doolittle wanted to lead the Eighth's bombers to Berlin, as he did to Tokyo in 1942, and also Rome. His plan was to fly a P-51 with a wingman ahead of the bombers. General Spaatz was on the fence on the idea, but later, probably backed by Gen. Eisenhower, said no, primarily because Gen. Doolittle knew too much about the upcoming allied invasion of France, and if taken prisoner by the German military, could have been tortured and possibly forced to reveal plans of the invasion.
Berlin was the capital of Germany and the one city that Hermann Goering had boasted would never be bombed by American planes. Although the weather was bad in England and over Europe, 502 USAAF bombers took off on March 4, 1944 for the German capital. The bomber crews were fortunate that no midair collisions or other mishaps occurred while the B-17s were completing their formations over England. As the B-17s approached the border of Germany, a mission recall was issued by 8th Air Force Headquarters, because of the extremely bad weather, and the bomb groups started turning around looking for targets of opportunity on their way back to England. However, one wing (13th Combat Wing) which was led by Lt. Col. Grif Mumford, 95th BG, decided to fly the course as briefed and continue on to Berlin. Lt. Bill Owen and crew were flying the Pathfinder B-17 with this wing and were furnishing radar fixes to Col. Mumford's B-17 on the way to the target. The unbelievably bad weather was causing navigational problems and Lt. Owen took over the lead of the small number of B-17s that made up the force heading for Berlin. At last, the target was reached, and lo and behold there were two groups of USAAF P-51 fighters (4th FG and 357 FG) circling over the city waiting for the bombers. It was the nicest view the bomber crews had since leaving England. The bomb drop was coordinated between Al Engelhardt, radar navigator, and Marshall Thixton, bombardier, and the first bombs of the 8th Air Force were dropped on Berlin, and a 482nd Pathfinder was the first U.S. heavy bomber over Berlin. The P-51s took charge of the 20 or so German enemy fighters that attacked the B-17s and Lt. Chuck Yeager shot down his first German fighter. The return flight to England was s uneventful. The number of B-17s that attacked Berlin on this first mission is given at 29, 30 or 31, but regardless of the number, the first of many 8th Air Force missions to Berlin had been completed successfully with good bombing results.
On March 6, 1944, the 8th Air Force was briefed once again for Berlin. The period of March 4-10, 1944 could be called "Berlin Week," as there were four missions to Berlin in that week. On the March 6th raid everything bad that had been predicted could happen on a mission to Berlin, happened. Berlin was forecasted to be clear, and it was, and the German fighters made an all-out effort to defend their capital city, which combined with highly accurate flak, took its toll on the bombers and fighters of the Eighth. The total losses of the Eighth for the mission were 69 bombers and 11 fighters. The loss of 69 bombers proved to be the highest single-mission loss of the entire 8th Air Force Offensive against Germany.
It was characteristic of Fred that we would lead a division on what became the first big mission big mission to Berlin. He had continued to amass missions and by March 6, 1944 had 21 of the coveted 25-mission tour completed. 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.
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 482nd Bomb Group had functioned as the only pathfinder group in the Eighth Air Force, utilizing primarily radar from the first radar-led mission to Emden on Sept. 27, 1943 to the last radar-led mission to Berlin on March 22, 1944. With the help of these Pathfinders, the Eighth Air Force, instead of being shackled to the ground as in the winter of 1942-43, flew on under the leadership of 482nd crews to set a new combat record. In addition to the 48 day missions led by the 482nd, 16 night missions were flown by the 482nd testing "Oboe" navigational equipment. The major German targets of the 482nd from Sept. 27, 1943 to Mar. 22, 1944 are listed below.
Number of Missions Flown
In early 1944, the Eighth decided to disperse its pathfinder crews and airplanes. The 482nd then began training crews to become pathfinders for assignment in the three air divisions. Thus, in February and March of 1944, the 482nd led combat missions, trained navigators and bombardiers to be pathfinders, and modified new pathfinder aircraft, which with pathfinder personnel would be sent to squadrons throughout the Eighth Air Force.
Although on March 22, 1944, the 482nd led its last daylight bombing mission, crews of the 482nd did lead daylight strikes in support of D-Day operations. After March 22, 1944 the 482nd at Alconbury became a radar training center, a radar modification base, and a radar research and development operation. The 482nd did fly single-plane missions at night into Germany to do mapping by means of scope pictures, as an aid to other Eighth pathfinders. Night missions were also flown to test new and modified radar equipment, and drop bombs and propaganda leaflets.
When the war in Europe ended in early May 1945, the 482nd Pathfinders were transferred to Victorville, California to continue the program of training navigators and bombardiers to be pathfinders for service in the Pacific War. Sadly, by the summer of 1945, those magnificent B-17s and B-24s were obsolescent, and the airplanes at Victorville were the very heavy B-29 bombers.
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."
Fred and Dorothy had five children: Mike, Ron, Nick, Mary Ann Rabo-Gregg and Suzie Miller, and 14 grandchildren. He is also survived by a brother, Deno.
I was fortunate in being able to meet with Fred on several occasions in the 1990s during trips to visit my daughter, Monica, who also lives in Chico. It was most enjoyable to discuss the 482nd Pathfinder missions to Germany and many current topics with Fred. We had talked a few times about doing a book on Fred's life, and sadly we did not pursue it.
My wife, Lillian and I also enjoyed our visits with Fred's wife Dorothy who was a joy to be with. Dorothy also helped me obtain material for this article, for which I sincerely thank her.
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, including Col. Williams S. Cowart, Jr., Gen. Ira C. Eaker, and David T. Griggs.