As a teenager in the late 1990s I became fascinated with the Second World War and The Mighty Eighth Air Force. It was at the peak of my obsession that I stumbled across the book B-17s Over Berlin on a shelf at my local Borders store. Within its pages I discovered a group photograph of forty-seven USAAF officers, and in that photograph, by some destiny, I found Joe Noyes.
A Pilot Named Joe
Joseph Herbert Noyes was born on August 11th 1921 in Beach, North Dakota, to Walter and Frances Noyes. He grew up at 410 West Lee Street, in Seattle, Washington, and during high school his great aspiration was to attend The Boeing School of Aeronautics in California. Joe was one of the first of his peers to obtain a driver’s license, a privilege coveted by his younger brothers Bob and Walter. He utilized his license by delivering food for a local grocer.
After graduating from Queen Anne High School in 1940, Joe joined the Washington Army National Guard. He was at Fort Lewis with his unit on December 7th 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to the United States entering the Second World War.
It wasn’t until 1942 that Sergeant Noyes finally saw an opportunity to earn his wings, and he volunteered to become a Flying Sergeant. He thought that meant he would ferry aircraft between the factory and a delivery point. Instead, to his surprise he was among a small group selected specifically to become B-17 co-pilots. With this new assignment, Joe Noyes was promoted to Flight Officer, a rank that nobody had heard of before. He and fellow pilot Paul E. Perceful joked about whether or not this allowed them entry into the officers’ club.
By all accounts Joe was an excellent student pilot. He went through training at Lemoore AAF Flying School, California, and Luke Field, Arizona. Following flight school he was assigned to the 334th Bomb Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, and stationed overseas with them at Horham Airbase, England.
At first Joe was a co-pilot in the right seat beside Harry Conley, but he was promoted to the left seat when Harry became Squadron Commander. Joe inherited Harry’s crew, and commonly flew the B-17 named “Blondie II”. His nickname “Little Joe” was painted under the window where he sat, and beneath that was his fiancée’s name “Donna Davis”.
On August 17th 1943, Joe flew on the infamous Schweinfurt–Regensburg mission. The 334th was assigned to be the lead squadron for the 95th Bomb Group, and the Group Commander Col. John Gerhart, flew in the lead plane as Wing Commander. Harry Conley flew with Col. Gerhart as his co-pilot so that he could keep an eye on Joe, who was flying off their right wing. Harry thought highly of him and said:
“If I have done nothing else in this war, I have turned out a damned good pilot in Joe Noyes.”
On Wednesday, September 15th 1943, Joe and his co-pilot David F. Prees, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, took off from Horham Airbase in the B-17 “Sittin’ Bull”, with eight other crew members on board. It was supposed to be a relatively easy bomb run, with light enemy resistance. Their assigned target was the Billancourt-Renault industrial works, which they successfully hit at 1854 hours.
There are conflicting reports, but what is known is that the B-17 “Sittin’ Bull” never made it back to England. The aircraft, with all engines functional and in no apparent distress, left formation after the bomb run and silently turned back towards France. Harry Conley later wrote about the incident in his memoir, No Foxholes in the Sky.
“We lost Little Joe Noyes and my old crew yesterday. No one saw them go down. They just disappeared out of the formation and were never seen again.”
Joe’s remains were the only ones recovered, offering the families of the other nine crew members little closure. Grief stricken, the relatives of the other men wrote to Joe’s mother in Seattle. The tear-stained airmail envelopes survive to this day, in the possession of one of Joe’s nephews. Some were convinced that their boys survived, but were prisoners of war. Many of them still seek answers.
In October 1943, Joe Noyes washed ashore in Berck-Plage, France. He was initially buried in a small local cemetery, and then reburied at Étaples Military Cemetery. Joe’s mother wrote diligently to Washington State Senator Warren Magnuson, and together they finally had his remains returned to the United States after the war had ended. Today Joe rests at Calvary Cemetery in Seattle.
He left behind his fiancée Donna Davis, who graduated from Queen Anne High School in 1943. For Valentine’s Day 1943, Joe sent her a card that read:
“Though days may come and days may go. Though we’re near or far apart, I’ll always love you. Dear, you know… You’ll always be in my heart. I love you. -Joe.”
Donna saved a pair of his shoes to remember him by.
In his last letter home to his parents, dated September 8th 1943, Joe wrote optimistically about hearing of Italy’s surrender, and that he wanted to finish his 25 missions before the year was over.
“I am sure I will be through by Christmas but I won’t be home just then. Not too long afterwards though I hope.”
Until they are all home…
2LT David F. Prees, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
2LT Frank A. Roth, Union City, New Jersey
2LT Rex A. Rice, Anderson, South Carolina
TSGT Billie E. Clapper, Cowley County, Kansas
Edgar A. Lajoie, Providence, Rhode Island
SSGT Robert H. Willis, Carteret, North Carolina
SSGT Raymond L. Provost, Orange, Texas
SGT Daniel J. Fabritz,
Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania
SSGT William L. Cochran, Galveston County, Texas