Sherrard Billings II

Staff Sergeant Sherrard Billings II

Contributed by Dylan Davis
Mentored by Ms. Christina O’Connor
Hingham High School, Massachusetts
2016-2017
Unit: 344th Bombardment Group, 496th Bomber Squadron, Medium
Branch: U.S. Army Air Forces
Service Number: 31093591
Date of Birth: March 8, 1909
Entered the Military: April 29, 1942
Date of Death: June 10, 1944
Hometown: Hingham, Massachusetts
Place of Death: Magneville, Normandy, France
Award(s): Purple Heart, Air Medal
Cemetery: Plot A, Row 19, Grave 25, Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France

Early Life

Birth and Hometown
Arthur and Lona Billings initially settled in Bradford, New Hampshire, where they had first met. Their first child, Mary, was born in 1908. Her brother, Sherrard Billings II, was born the next year on March 8. Shortly after his birth, his parents relocated the family to Hingham, Massachusetts. The Billings family lived in a historic colonial at 648 Main Street from 1910 onward.

Schooling
Sherrard attended Hingham Public Schools, Milton Academy, and Groton School, a boarding academy in Groton, Massachusetts. His uncle and originator of his name, the Reverend Sherrard Billings, was a co-founder of the Groton School. After completing primary and secondary education in Massachusetts, he studied overseas in England for at least one year.

The Interwar Years
Billings’ father Arthur worked as a granite agent, representing granite quarries first in New Hampshire and then in Quincy, a town close to Hingham. By 1920, Arthur Billings likely retired (he was in his mid-60s and listed as unemployed on the 1920 census.) After his father’s death in the 1930s, Billings began working as a real estate salesman, and later, an insurance salesman. He continued to live in Hingham with his mother, while his sister, Mary, moved away after marriage.

Homefront

Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard
Established in April 1942 in Billings’ hometown of Hingham, Massachusetts, around the same time that Billings enlisted, the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard continued operations until July 1945. Using newly developed framing techniques, the yard produced up to six ships every month.

Over the course of the war, the 23,000 workers employed there built 227 ships, mainly destroyer escorts and landing craft. The yard also held the record for fastest build time of a destroyer escort, at a blistering 23 days from laying the keel to launch. Both the U.S. Navy and the British Royal Navy operated ships built in Hingham, although the destroyer escorts were largely sent to the British while many of the landing craft served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot and Hingham-Cohasset Naval Annex
In 1904, the Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot was established primarily for munition storage. During World War II and until the Vietnam War, it served as a resupply base for U.S. Navy warships, including those built at the Bethlehem-Hingham Shipyard.

The Cohasset Naval Annex, several miles away on the border of Hingham and the neighboring town of Cohasset, supplied the ammunition needed at the depot. Constructed in 1941, the annex manufactured mines, torpedoes, and naval ammunition. A network of railroad lines transported the ammunition from the 170 bunkers and manufacturing centers at the annex to the loading stations at the depot. The depot and annex served as the primary ammunition supplier for the U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet during the war.

Military Experience

Enlistment and Training
Billings enlisted in the U.S. Army on April 29, 1942, in Weymouth, Massachusetts. He was 33 years old, well above the average age of an enlisted man in the U.S. Army. Billings was assigned to train as an aerial gunner with the Ninth Air Force in the U.S. Army Air Corps. His training took him to Lowry Field, Colorado, Greenville, North Carolina, and the Avon Park Bombing Range in Florida. Here he trained with the 478th Bomber Squadron of the 336th Bombardment Group. However, he never saw combat with the 336th Bombardment Group, instead transferring upon deployment.

The 344th Bombardment Group
In March 1944, Billings deployed overseas to the Ninth Army Air Force Base in Stansted, England. He was assigned to the 496th Bomber Squadron of the 344th Bombardment Group, nicknamed “The Silver Streaks.” The 344th Bombardment Group was equipped with B-26 Marauder medium bombers, high-performance aircraft that required six crew members: pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, and two gunners. Billings served as a tail gunner aboard a B-26 affectionately dubbed Sweety Baby.

From April to June 1944, Billings flew approximately 20 missions with the 344th Bombardment Group. In preparation for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France planned for the summer of 1944, the 344th Bombardment Group raided railway hubs, marshalling yards, and bridges across Belgium, Holland, and France to cripple German transport capabilities. In addition, they struck German airfields and gun emplacements in northern France as well as industrial areas in Paris and the Low Countries. On May 18, 1944, Billings received the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Clusters for meritorious achievement in flight, after a raid on an airfield in Évreux, France.

B-26 Marauders on D-Day
On D-Day, the B-26 Marauders of the Ninth Air Force attacked the fortifications on Utah Beach before the landings began. Each bomber group was given a specific target. The 344th Bombardment Group was assigned to bomb several gun batteries along Utah Beach, at Beau Guillot, La Madeleine, and Saint-Martin-de-Varreville.

After crossing the English Channel, the B-26s of the Ninth Air Force flew along the Normandy coast at low altitude. Below the cloud cover and parallel to Utah Beach, they achieved nearly pinpoint accuracy. Due to the effectiveness of the B-26 and its crews during the raid, casualties on Utah Beach were relatively low, at 197 killed or wounded. Casualties were far higher on Omaha Beach at around 2,000 because the B-24s of the Eighth Air Force flew perpendicular to Omaha Beach at high altitude, far above the dense clouds. With their view of the beach obscured, bombardiers aboard the B-24s delayed dropping their bombs to avoid hitting American troops approaching the shore. Their bombs fell far inland, leaving defenses on Omaha Beach almost untouched by the raid.

Sweety Baby participated in the raid on D-Day, but Billings did not. Instead, he flew aboard a reserve aircraft that returned to England before the 344th Bombardment Group reached the gun emplacements on Utah Beach. Despite his reserve status, he observed the invasion fleet amassing in the English Channel in preparation for the assault.

Valognes, June 10, 1944
On the morning of June 10, 1944, the leading aircraft of the 344th Bombardment Group departed Stansted, north of London, just before 6:00 a.m. Billings’ aircraft, assigned to the rear of the formation, took off at roughly 6:10 a.m. Their target was the French city of Valognes, northwest of Utah Beach and roughly 12 miles south of the deepwater port of Cherbourg. The raid targeted the highway running through Valognes and the buildings surrounding it. By destroying the surrounding buildings and filling the highway with rubble and craters, the 344th Bombardment Group’s attack effectively created a chokepoint that would delay German troop movement towards Allied forces in the Cotentin Peninsula.

According to after-action reports, all B-26 bombers in the formation, including Sweety Baby, arrived on time and dropped their bombs on the target. The 344th Bombardment Group encountered moderate but accurate antiaircraft fire over Valognes. Billings’ aircraft took a direct hit. According to observers aboard another B-26, the right engine burst into flame and the pilot, Lieutenant Herman Burdette, lost control, entering a steep dive.

Even as the aircraft was burning, the crew managed to pull out of the dive and limp roughly two miles west, only to crash in a field in the small town of Magneville. No parachutes exited the plane before it crashed. Sweety Baby and all six of her crew died in the ensuing explosion.

Unable to help the crew before the aircraft exploded, the residents of Magneville did all they could to recover their bodies and give them a proper burial, ensuring that they would later be identified by the U.S. Army. Many years later, the town erected a memorial dedicated to the crew of Sweety Baby, and continues to recognize their sacrifice in a yearly ceremony.

Billings dressed in flight gear, likely in England. The stress of his many missions shows in the newly-acquired lines on his face, 1944. Courtesy of Ogden FamilyA B-26 Marauder of the 496th Bomber Squadron, leaving a raid on the Nazi airfield at Beauvais-Tillé in France. This aircraft would have flown in formation with Sweety Baby.  National Archives and Records Administration (A18416)

Eulogy

In the early morning of June 10, 1944, as Billings took off from Stansted, self-sacrifice and honor would not have been what inspired him, but rather the hope to return, to see his family and his hometown again. He was not motivated to seek his own lasting recognition; instead, his duty and obligation as a gunner was to protect his crew and their aircraft. He could not have known whether he would make it back to home and family. But in accepting this uncertainty from the moment of his enlistment until his final mission, and holding to duty until the last, Billings became a hero.

This white cross may immortalize his sacrifice; the memorial dedicated to the crew of his aircraft in Magneville may honor them and show the gratitude of the French people. But where Staff Sergeant Sherrard Billings II, his crew, and all casualties of the Normandy campaign must be forever held as heroes is in our collective memory and the memory of generations to come. Let us never forget the sacrifice and the tragedy of the citizen-soldier, of the people who chose to leave behind all they had and gave their lives to defend democracy and oppose authoritarianism. They were ordinary, extraordinary people: the memory of whom we preserve, and the legacy of whom we will protect.

Staff Sergeant Billings’ grave in Normandy American Cemetery, Coleville-sur-Mer, France. Courtesy of Dylan DavisThe unveiling of a memorial dedicated to the crew of Sweety Baby, as well as the crew and passengers of a C-47 that crashed in the same location, in Magneville, France. Courtesy of Mickaël Simon

Reflection

Light drizzle was falling on Utah Beach when I first stepped onto the expanse of sand. Dotted with seaweed and defined by the small dunes overlooking it, Utah Beach’s terrain, as well as its weather, seemed oddly familiar to me. I could have been standing on Coast Guard Beach in Massachusetts but for one factor. Utah inspired a solemn reverence that was undeniably profound: on the muted day that I had the privilege to walk along the shore I could picture the beach as it might have been 73 years ago, studded with obstacles, pitted with the craters of a recent bombardment. I not only knew that a momentous event had taken place where I was stepping: I felt it. I walked and collected sand and shells as a reminder.

My reaction to Omaha Beach was even more visceral. Omaha, in the sunlight and blowing wind, is beautiful, a sweeping crescent sharply delineated by the cliffs and punctuated by clusters of beachside houses. But up in the cliffs are crumbling remnants of pillboxes and machine gun nests clinging to the earth, and by the shore at Vierville, a memorial for the dead. Again, I could picture the beach as it was on D-Day, steel hedgehogs littering it, the landing craft approaching, the German gunners preparing for the assault. It was staggering to stand there and finally understand the terrifying speed of the tide and the seeming impossibility of assaulting the beach. Standing in knee-deep water, I was almost dizzy thinking of the many men who never reached the shore, who drowned from the weight of equipment and fear. I could not stay long, as the tide rises very quickly on Omaha.

Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer was as pristine as the now-untrammeled beaches, if more orderly. But it was no less serene and no less worthy of reverence and awe. I had to hold back tears as my fellow students related the lives and deaths of their Silent Heroes. When I was able to touch the grave of Sherrard Billings II, rub sand into the inscription on his headstone, and deliver his eulogy, I felt as if I had done my part in a noble cause. Relieved and yet fulfilled, weeping but lightened by the realization that his story was now told, if only to approximately 35 people, I returned to watch as visitors stopped at Billings’ grave. Even the younger ones stopped in a moment of contemplation, looking at his name and the rose I laid in front of the headstone. This was the most profound and fulfilling moment of my experience in Normandy, for I felt that I had succeeded by inspiring that contemplation and quiet remembrance.

And I was able to do so beside 14 young people who dedicated their souls to this effort. We shall always remember, and we shall strive to inspire others, lest they forget.

Bibliography

Primary Sources
344th Bomb Group, 1944; World War II Operations Reports, Records of the Army Air Force, 1941-1946, Record Group 18 (Box 1438); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

344th Bomb Group, May 1944-June 1944; World War II Operations Reports, Records of the Army Air Force, 1941-1946, Record Group 18 (Box 1440); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

344th Bomb Group, May 1944-June 1944; World War II Operations Reports, Records of the Army Air Force, 1941-1946, Record Group 18 (Box 1441); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

344th Bomb Group, May 1944-June 1944; World War II Operations Reports, Records of the Army Air Force, 1941-1946, Record Group 18 (Box 1442); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Hingham Journal. “Staff Sgt. Billings Reported Missing in Action Over France.” June 29, 1944.

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Massachusetts. Plymouth County. 1940 U.S. Census. Digital Images. http://www.ancestry.com.

Missing Air Crew Report; Office of the Quartermaster General, Memorial Division, Identification Branch, 1942-1947, MACR 5143; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Missing Air Crew Report; Office of the Quartermaster General, Memorial Division, Identification Branch, 1942-1947, MACR 5708; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Ogden Family Photographs. 1911-1944. Courtesy of Christine Ogden.

Photographs of the U.S. Air Force and Predecessor Agencies, War Theater 12; Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities and Organizations, ca. 1940- ca. 1980, Record Group 342-FH (Box 25); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Photographs of the U.S. Air Force and Predecessor Agencies, War Theater 12; Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities and Organizations, ca. 1940- ca. 1980, Record Group 342-FH (Box 27); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Records for Sherrard Billings II; World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 [Electronic File], Record Group 64; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD [retrieved from the Access to Archival Databases at http://aad.archives.gov/aad/fielded-search.jsp?dt=466, Apr 1, 2017].

Signal Corps Photographs of American Activity, 1900-1981; Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, Record Group 111-SC (Box 278); National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Sherrard Billings II, Individual Deceased Personnel File, Department of the Army.

Sherrard Billings II, Official Military Personnel File, Department of the Army, RG 319, National Archives and Records Administration - St. Louis.

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