Two Ton Tessie: The Story of a Willow Run B-24 Bomber

From Glamor to GloryGloria Swanson was the ultimate Hollywood star. Beautiful and talented, she was the ultimate glamor girl of the silent film era. When she visited the Willow Run Bomber Plant in October of 1943, it was a very big deal.

Glamorous Hollywood silent film era movie star Gloria Swanson, photo credit: Wikipedia

By the 1940s, Gloria Swanson had been replaced on the marquee by newer names, but she was still Hollywood royalty.

Another American icon during WWII was the mighty Willow Run Bomber Plant. Dignitaries and movie stars visited the plant to see the spectacle of B-24 Liberator heavy bombers rolling off the assembly line. When a celebrity toured Willow Run, it was customary to have them sign a bomber fresh off the line while news cameras flashed. Glamorous Gloria Swanson was no exception, gracing bomber #42-52117 with her distinctive signature as the airship left the factory to begin its journey into battle.

Gloria Swanson signs Willow Run B-24 bomber #42-52117, photo credit: Ford Motor Company

But what happened to this particular Willow Run bomber after the crowd went home? Well, thanks to the 449th Bomb Group Association, we can follow Willow Run B-24 bomber #42-52117 on its journey from glamor to glory in World War II.

Map showing the movement of the 449th Bomb Group and Two Ton Tessie overseas to Grottaglie, Italy, photo credit: 449th Bomb Group Association (BGA)

A Bomber Goes to War – In the fall of 1943, US Army Air Forces in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) were being readied for a massive strategic bombing campaign to cripple Nazi Germany’s air force and disrupt fuel production. Newly captured air bases in Italy would provide access to these targets.

Ship #42-52117 was sent to Topeka, where she was assigned to a crew of the 719th Bomb Squadron, 449th Bomb Group, 47th Bomb Wing of the 15th Air Force, under the leadership of pilot George T. Fergus, Jr.

Plane and crew were then transferred to Bruning Army Air Force base in Nebraska, where the crew continued to get acquainted with the plane on test flights over the US. In December of 1943, the Fergus crew flew ship #42-52117 overseas to Italy to fight the Axis powers in Europe.

Grottaglie, Italy – Ship #42-52117 and her crew made their way across the Atlantic to their new air base in Grottaglie. The airfield had been recently captured from the enemy.

The airbase at Grottaglie had recently been captured from Axis forces; bombed-out blimp hangars are visible in this photo, photo credit: 449th BGA

The Grottaglie airbase had been bombed by Allied forces prior to capture, and the buildings had been stripped clean by fleeing German forces and the local population. For a time, living conditions were rough for the B-24 crews of the 449th Bomb Group.

The men swiftly got the base in order, celebrating the holidays at their new home. The Italians were friendly, and each crew attracted a young helper from among the local boys, who would assist with barracks chores in return for payment in chocolate and cigarettes.

Ship #42-52117 is named Two Ton Tessie from Nashville, Tenn., photo credit: 449th BGA

Two Ton Tessie – The Fergus crew decided to give Willow Run bomber #42-52117 a name, “Two Ton Tessie from Nashville, Tenn.” They added colorful nose art of a generously-proportioned blond in an evening gown. According to co-pilot James Kervin, the “Tessie” part of the name was inspired by his wife.

As for Tessie’s tonnage, certainly that could have no connection to Mrs. Kervin. Perhaps the name was also inspired by British singer and banjo player Tessie O’Shea. She was an exuberant, queen-sized entertainer whose signature song, “Two Ton Tessie,” was first recorded in 1939.

Click on the image for a YouTube video of Tessie O’Shea singing her signature song, “Two Ton Tessie”

They call her Two Ton Tessie from Tennessee
Holds ten sweeties upon her knee…
…Two Ton Tessie from Knoxville, I mean a-Memphis,
Oh-ah, Nashville, Tennessee!

During WWII, Tessie O’Shea toured with ENSA (the British equivalent of the American USO) entertaining British and Allied troops.

The O’Shea connection is conjectural, as no written record exists of the true origin of ship #42-52117’s name. But the name’s similarity to the song lyrics, and the nose art’s resemblance to the singer, are striking. British ENSA hosted shows at a theater near Grottaglie that the men of the 449th sometimes attended. So it’s certainly possible that Tessie O’Shea and her song inspired the name.

January, 1944: Missions Begin – Shortly after the first of the year in 1944, the B-24 bombers of the 449th Bomb Group began flying missions over enemy territory.

Two Ton Tessie’s first mission was flown on January 10, 1944 over a rail yard in Yugoslavia. Over the next few months, she went on to bomb strategic targets in Italy, France, Yugoslavia, Austria, Bulgaria, and Romania. Tessie and her crews targeted enemy aircraft factories and airfields, as well as the famous Ploesti oil field and refinery in Romania.

Legendary British Supermarine Spitfire fighters, photo credit: Wikipedia

Ouch:  Two Ton Tessie Sits on a Couple of Spitfires – Two Ton Tessie flew many missions without incident until April 30, 1944. The mission began well, as the bombers formed up and headed for a target at Allesandria, Italy. With no flak or enemy fighters, the bombing run promised to be an easy one.

But then the number one engine stopped. As Tessie began to drop behind the formation, another engine gave out. She began to lose altitude.

Watching the other bombers fade into the distance, the crew abandoned their mission and headed for Allied airbases on the island of Corsica. They jettisoned their bomb load and glided through scenic mountain valleys, all the while steadily losing altitude. As Tessie passed over Genoa, Italy, the crew could clearly see the people walking in the streets.

They barely made it to an RAF (British Royal Air Force) base on Corsica on two of the plane’s four engines. The crew could see some of Britain’s renowned Spitfire fighter planes parked near the landing strip as they approached. But Tessie’s hydraulic system was out, and one of the wheels on the landing gear deflated. When they landed, the bomber veered out of control and plowed into two of the celebrated Spitfires.

The crew was not injured, but in the words of ball gunner William Hamill, “We climbed out of our wreck realizing the we had ruined two precious Spitfires. We were very shortly looking into the faces of a dozen or more unhappy British pilots.”

Two Ton Tessie underwent repairs, and resumed flying missions on May 18, 1944.

Two ton Tessie with her crew, led by pilot George T. Fergus, Jr., photo credit: 449th BGA

Tessie’s Last Mission – Tessie’s fateful 30th bombing mission on May 29, 1944 targeted the Wiener-Neustadt aircraft factory near Vienna. B-24s from the 449th took off from Grottaglie, rendezvoused with more bombers and a fighter escort, then continued in formation to the target.

Tessie was being flown that day by her usual crew: pilot George Fergus, co-pilot James Kervin, navigator Joe Truemper, bombardier Foss Robinson, flight engineer Floyd Caldwell, radio operator George Littlejohn, assistant engineer and waist gunner Russell Bolden, ball turret gunner Harold Fox, waist gunner Donald Walker, and tail gunner Edward Cooley.

Since the ship had recently been overhauled, the airmen were confident she was in good shape. The engines were running smoothly, “purring like four kittens,” in the words of co-pilot Jim Kervin.

About 5 hours into the mission and well over enemy territory, Tessie lost the supercharger on one of her engines. Then, a second turbo blew. Unable to keep up with formation, and knowing they were a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe, they jettisoned their bombs to lighten their load and increase chances of surviving enemy fire. Within minutes, a group of German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters appeared and Tessie was under attack. The plane took damage and Tessie caught fire. Nos. 1 and 2 engines were swiftly knocked out, putting Tessie into a lazy spiral at 19,000 feet.

The order was given for the crew to abandon ship. The last words heard over Tessie’s intercom were from Navigator Joe Truemper saying, “When you hit the ground take a heading of 180 and start walking. Good luck.”

The crew  parachuted out of the plane. As Kervin remembers it, “All ten crew hit the silk. As I floated to earth I saw in the distance Two Ton Tessie slowly and majestically, in flames, gliding into oblivion.”

Map of Two Ton Tessie crash location, photo credit: 449th BGA

Two Ton Tessie crashed near Amstetten, Germany. All ten crewmen survived the jump, and were captured by German forces to become prisoners of war. All survived captivity and were liberated at the end of the war.

And so ends the story of Willow Run B-24 Two Ton Tessie.

Epilogue: Victory, Gloria, Tessie, and… the Beatles? – Allied forces determined early in the war that the final defeat of Germany could only be accomplished by an all-out attack on her oil resources and reserves. With the capture of airbases in Italy, and American aircraft production peaking, this became possible in 1944. 

In the words of German General Feldmarschall Albert Kesselring, “The attack on German oil production in 1944 was the largest factor of all in reducing Germany’s war potential.”

The Willow Run Bomber Plant with its incredible output of a bomber-an-hour, the courageous airmen of the 449th Bomb Group, and a B-24 bomber named Two Ton Tessie all did their part to contribute to this tactical victory, which was a turning point of the European war.

Gloria Swanson, who launched Two Ton Tessie on her path to glory, continued her career as an American icon after the war. She pursued her business interests and explored the budding medium of television. In 1950, she returned to the big screen in director Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard,” one of Hollywood’s most lauded films and the crowning achievement of Swanson’s career.

“Two Ton” Tessie O’Shea and her banjo relocated to the US after the war, where O’Shea enjoyed success on broadway, in movies and on TV. O’Shea even helped introduce the Beatles to America, sharing billing with the “Fab Four” on the famous 1964 episode of the Ed Sullivan Show that marked the Beatles’ first appearance on American TV!

“Two Ton” Tessie O’Shea helped introduce the Beatles to America on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964, photo credit: CBS Archives

About the 449th Bomb Group – The 449th Bomb Group (The Flying Horsemen) was a unit of the 15th Air Force, 47th Bomb Wing, operating in the European Theater of WWII. It is one of the best-chronicled aviation units of World War II.  The 449th was based in Grottaglie, Italy and operated from January, 1944 through April, 1945, receiving two Distinguished Unit Citations.

All squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group flew B-24 Liberator long range heavy bombers. Of an estimated 240 Libs assigned to the 449th, 124 were built at Willow Run, and another 61 were assembled from knock down kits manufactured there.

Sources – 449th Bomb Group: Many thanks to Mark Coffee and Alan Davis of the 449th Bomb Group Association for their invaluable assistance is researching this article. They supplied access to the archives and records of the 449th BG, documents from the archives of the USAF Historical Research Agency, declassified Army Air Force documents including Mission Reports and MACRs, and the remembrances and journals of the airmen of the 449th.

Gloria Swanson: Swanson on Swanson, pub. 1980 by Gloria Swanson, Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star pub. 2013 by Stephen Michael Shearer.

Two Ton Tessie Song and Tessie O’Shea: The Independent UK news online (Tessie O’Shea obituary,) BBC Music, The online collections of York University in California, IMDB, Wikipedia entries Tessie O’Shea / Billy Cotton / ENSA