“As a teenager 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 (H) 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 clearly thought quite highly of his flying abilities, saying:
“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 for the last time.
As fate would have it, they originally took off in the B-17 “Blondie II” but they spun a prop shortly after getting airborne, and had to return to base. Dedicated to the mission at hand, and knowing that if he didn’t get the job done, someone else would probably have to go in his place, Joe took off again at 1534 hours, flying the B-17 “Sittin’ Bull.”
It was expected to be a relatively easy bomb run, with light enemy resistance. A milk run really. The assigned target that day was the Billancourt-Renault industrial works, which the bomb group successfully hit at 1854 hours.
There are conflicting reports of what happened next, but the fact is the “Sittin’ Bull” never made it back home to England. 15 miles off Beachy Head on the route back, Joe was seen flying in the number 9 spot in the high squadron. At that point and in no apparent difficulty, he was seen to lose altitude and leave his position.
Harry Conley later wrote about the incident in his valuable 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.”
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 bereaved 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. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Seattle.
Joe’s remains were the only ones ever recovered, offering the families of the other nine men little closure. Grief stricken and seeking answers, 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 family members were convinced that their boys had survived, but were taken prisoner of war. Decades have passed without answers.
Joe 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.”
Donna saved a pair of his shoes to remember him by. She still had them in her possession, when I spoke to her over the phone back in 2009.
In his last letter home to his parents, dated September 8th 1943, Joe wrote optimistically about his pending commission and promotion to 1st Lieutenant, and about flying the new Group Commander, Colonel Gerhart (later General Gerhart) across Africa for plane repairs. He had also just heard of Italy’s surrender, and hoped to finish his required 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
2LT Frank A. Roth
Union City, New Jersey
2LT Rex A. Rice
Anderson, South Carolina
TSGT Billie E. Clapper
Cowley County, Kansas
TSGT Edgar A. Lajoie
Providence, Rhode Island
SSGT Robert H. Willis
Carteret, North Carolina
SSGT Raymond L. Provost
SGT Daniel J. Fabritz
Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania
SSGT William L. Cochran
Galveston County, Texas