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by Dr. Marshall Michel
52nd Fighter Wing historian

As the American Eighth Air Force began to expand its heavy bomber raids into Germany from England in mid-1943, one of the keys to success of the raids was keeping the bomber groups in tight formations so the gunners could provide mutual support. However, as the numbers of bombers increased, it proved increasingly challenging to get them organized into the proper groups before they moved to their target.

Assembling a group formation was a stressful and hazardous endeavor, especially since it was necessary to keep radio silence. And it was especially hard when there was cloudy weather over the English bases, clouds that were sometimes self-inflicted. When the temperature and dew point were nearly equal, the bombers climbing to formation altitude would start producing continuous vapor trails from the time they passed through 2,000 feet. Since usually there were many groups taking off at about the same time, these vapor tails could commingle and form a solid overcast over the bomber bases that soon became 15,000 feet to 20,000 feet thick.

The bombers had to take off singly, and during the climb they traveled along a specific route from one radio beacon to another until they broke out of the clouds.
Because the bomber bases were close together, there were large numbers of the same type of bombers in the air at the same time, all trying to join their squadron, then move on and join their group. 

The time required to get all the bombers into their “combat box” formation prior to crossing the North Sea could be up to two hours in bad weather. Even then, some aircraft — and even squadrons — could not find their proper group and had to stagger into Germany out of position or even abort the mission. Because U.S. bomber losses soared in late 1943, this problem had to be solved.

One idea was an Assembly Ship, painted in distinctive colors for each group. The idea was that a group’s bombers would easily be able to identify their Assembly Ship over the assigned rendezvous point by its colors and join it, thus speeding up the whole formation assembly process.

The Assembly Ships were normally old, early models of the B-17 and B-24, and the groups were given carte blanche on the choice of colors and designs.

The groups vied with each other for the most bizarre and highly visible schemes, and the resulting markings were probably the wildest ever seen on military aircraft — psychedelic colors in stripes, checkers or polka dots as well as a wide variety of teeth and fangs covering the entire nose.
Additionally, the Assembly Ships were equipped with white flashing lamps on both sides of the fuselage arranged to form the identification letter of the group. They also carried a large number of colored flares that were fired out of pyrotechnic guns on the fuselage sides.

All armament and armor were removed, and the gunners left behind. The crew was composed of two pilots, a navigator, a radio operator and an observer in the rear to report when the group was in place.

Once the group was in formation, the group leader would take over and the Assembly Ship would return to base. Soon, the Assembly Ships were cynically named “Judas Goats,” leading the other bombers to slaughter. The pilots of the Assembly Ships rotated in the squadrons. One pilot who flew several Assembly Ship missions — in addition to more than 20 real combat missions, for which he received two Distinguished Flying Crosses — was Capt. Jimmy Stewart, the Academy Award winning actor, who was also, later on, a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve.

(For questions or comments, contact Dr. Michel at