Members of this informal brotherhood considered themselves fortunate to have survived World War II.

“Would you like to see my Lucky Bastard Club certificate?” Paul Anderson asked me. We had struck up a conversation at the Glenns Ferry Historical Museum in Idaho after I commented on the cap he was wearing, embroidered with the image of a B-24 bomber. Then a museum volunteer in his 80s, Anderson gave a lively commentary on his World War II experiences.

I had never heard of the Lucky Bastard Club, and it turned out I wasn’t alone—a lot of people don’t know about it. The phrase often brings a chuckle when people first hear it, yet it’s actually somber testimony to the fortitude of American airmen who survived a most dangerous period, flying combat missions over Europe.

First Lieutenant Paul I. Anderson served as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator from mid-March to early July 1944. His Lucky Bastard Club certificate states that he “achieved the remarkable record of having sallied forth, and returned, no fewer than thirty times bearing tons and tons of high explosive Goodwill to the Feuhrer [sic] and would-be Feuhrers [sic], through the courtesy of the Eighth Air Force A.A.F….” Anderson was kind enough to give me a copy of his certificate. It was only after I started researching the group’s history that I grasped how important those pieces of paper were to the recipients.

Anderson mentioned to me that “It wasn’t anything official,” and he didn’t know how or where the Lucky Bastard Club had been started. Though its history is sketchy, the informal group seems to have sprung up among American aircrews in England early in WWII. Its purpose was to recognize those who had flown into enemy territory a prescribed number of times, hit their targets and managed to get back to England while being targeted by anti-aircraft fire and swarms of Luftwaffe fighters.

More than 6,500 B-17 and B-24 bombers were lost over Europe during WWII. According to a 1953 Department of the Army report detailing casualties in the European Theater of Operations, 23,805 airmen were killed in action, 9,299 were wounded and 26,064 were captured and interned. Total U.S. Army Air Forces casualties in the European, Mediterranean and North African theaters amounted to a staggering 115,382.

Bomber crews faced tough odds and horrendous conditions. Not only were the Germans trying to blow them out of the sky, they had to perform their jobs in the cramped confines of brutally cold aircraft. Cumbersome fur-lined jackets and boots—even heated suits—could do little to alleviate hours of high-altitude flight at temperatures of 50 below zero. The effects of lengthy, stressful missions—during which they endured bone-chilling cold, constant noise and vibration, equipment malfunctions and the threat of enemy fighters and flak—took a toll on the crews.

The bombers were typically crewed by airmen barely old enough to shave, some of whom earned their wings and began piloting four-engine aircraft before they had a driver’s license. Many weren’t even old enough to vote, or had just reached voting age. When they were deployed, most had never before been to a foreign country. Roy R. “Jack” Fisher, pilot of the B-17 Mission Belle, celebrated his 22nd birthday on March 25, 1945, more than a month after completing his 35th mission.

Once the crewmen reached a target and dropped their bombs, the danger was far from over. Returning home to base in an undamaged airplane was a rarity. “Lucky,” and in some cases “miraculous,” certainly describes the crews of many bombers that limped back to England full of bullet holes, missing chunks of tails and wings, with wounded crewmen aboard. Early in the daylight bombing campaign, it wasn’t unusual for a third to half of the airplanes on a given mission to be lost or damaged.

At the war’s start, a combat tour for bomber crews was 20 missions. Any airman who completed the required number could look forward to being transferred to safer duty. As formation flying and fighter support became more effective, and the Luftwaffe lost many of its most experienced pilots, the number of missions went up to 25, then 30 and finally 35 in the fall of 1944. But the odds of reaching those milestones, no matter what the number, were always against the aircrews. Becoming a member of the Lucky Bastard Club was thus a significant achievement. “It meant you had survived,” Anderson explained. “You had completed your tour, and you were going home.”

Anderson’s tour was supposed to be 30 missions, but he actually flew 32. Each mission is recorded on the back of his Lucky Bastard Club certificate, starting with a sortie to Brunswick, Germany, on March 15, 1944, and ending with a raid on a V-weapon site in France on July 2. He flew two missions on D-Day: one in support of Allied troops hitting the beaches of Normandy and a bombing mission to St. Lô, France.

The Lucky Bastard Club wasn’t confined to the Eighth Air Force in England, though most members did hail from the Eighth. Regardless of where they served, only airmen who had flown their prescribed number of combat missions were inducted into this exclusive fraternity. “Crews of the 95th Bombardment Group that completed 35 missions earned membership in the Lucky Bastard Club,” reported B-17 pilot Eugene Fletcher.

Aircrews often started celebrating the completion of their tour even before they landed from their last mission. As the returning bomber reached England’s coast, it would break out of formation to head directly for base, and the pilots would “pour on the coal.” They would then fly down the runway about 200 feet off the deck, firing off flares. Observers on the ground enjoyed the spectacle. “This was tangible evidence that a crew could live to finish a tour, and it was a real morale booster,” noted Fletcher.

That evening the crewmen would be feted with a Lucky Bastard Club dinner. According to Fletcher, “The whole crew would dress in Class A uniform and come to the Combat Officers Mess Hall, where they were seated at a table of honor with a white tablecloth and given a steak dinner with a bottle of wine.” Each man received his certificate, and there was always a standing ovation from all the officers on hand. The celebration meant a lot to both the new members and those honoring them—not to mention it was the only time they would get a steak dinner in England. “It was all trivial in a sense,” Fletcher added, “but it meant somebody cared.”

When a new CO took over the 95th Bomb Group in late 1944, however, he nixed all such revelry—the celebratory flyover, the flares, the steak dinner and even the Distinguished Flying Cross awards. “We had been present at the awards ceremony when [other] men finished their tours and were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross,” Fletcher said. “It made us proud because we knew that you could not complete a tour…and not exhibit the outstanding heroism and exceptional performance [needed] to win this award….” The new orders seemingly relegated combat missions to the realm of everyday labor. “A crew finishing their missions would not be recognized for what they had done…,” he lamented. “Apparently the art of preparing citations had now become a far too difficult task…in the European Theater of Operations.”

At the end of his own final mission, on December 27, 1944, Fletcher decided he and his crew deserved to celebrate despite the CO’s orders. “While the wrath of a colonel is not to be taken lightly, a 105 millimeter shell exploding under your tail is no great pleasure either,” he commented. “As we made landfall on the coast of England, I shoved the throttles to the fire wall, lowered the nose, and called [for] a heading that would take us straight down the runway at the base. As we went roaring down the runway…at full high rpm, Lucky Sherry looked like a giant Roman candle gone mad, erupting the brightly colored magnesium flares….Old ‘Fireball Red Leader’ was coming home for the last time and our presence was being announced with great hilarity….It was the only time I ever knowingly failed to heed an order.”

Jack Fisher described the completion of his 35th mission, on February 19, 1945, much as Fletcher had chronicled his own final flight: “We buzzed the field, as per custom. Contrary to orders, of course, but what the hell, the enlisted men and I are done. All the months of waiting, worrying, wrestling with the emotions and the fears are over. We survived. And reflecting on the number of men who didn’t, that in itself is a miracle. Now I am a member of the Lucky Bastard Club.”

After the war some men displayed their Lucky Bastard Club certificates in their offices or homes, while others tucked them away for safekeeping. For most, it would remain a cherished memento— not just because it attested to their wartime accomplishments and heroism, but also because it served as a reminder of the many comrades who had not lived to complete their tours.

Paul Anderson probably summed up the sentiments of most returning veterans when we parted company, saying, “You know, those of us who made it back really were lucky bastards.”

 

Freelance writer Richard Bauman’s articles have appeared in more than 400 publications. Recommended reading: The Lucky Bastard Club: Letters to My Bride From the Left Seat, by Roy R. Fisher Jr. with Susan Fisher Anderson; and The Lucky Bastard Club: A B-17 Pilot in Training and in Combat, 1943-45, by Eugene Fletcher.  

Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.