The fall and early winter of 1944 marked some of the most critical and dangerous bombing missions of the entire conflict. The Allied ground forces in Europe pushed hard to solidify the progress they had made across the Continent since their remarkable invasion on D-day. They relied on heavy bombing to soften Nazi resistance ahead of them, as well as to cripple the German ability to make more weapons. Late in 1944, the outcome of the war in Europe hung in the balance as the Battle of the Bulge raged.
Against that background, Staff Sergeant Duane Rench and the other members of the crew of the “Nine Lives” were awakened early in the morning of December 31. A briefing revealed that every available plane was headed for Hamburg, Germany, with its oil refineries and submarine pens. From the outset, troubles plagued the formation: fog scrubbed their fighter escort, a heavy tailwind, and defensive firing from the target itself blackened the sky for miles. Once the planes completed their bombing runs, they turned back into that 200 nautical mile wind and, over the North Sea, faced fierce, constant attacks from German fighter planes.
Amid the attacks of the Nazi fighter planes, the bombers best defense was to keep the formation tight by quickly closing the gap left by any planes they lost. During a maneuver presumed to do just that, Rench’s plane and the “Silver Dollar,” the plane flying above them, collided. Amazed eyewitnesses describe the planes remaining locked together “like breeding dragonflies.” Most of the crew on the “Nine Lives” including S/Sgt. Rench died. Some crew aboard the “Silver Dollar” and three from the “Nine Lives” parachuted to safety. The pilot and copilot of “Silver Dollar” chose to take the planes down so that their men had a better chance of parachuting clear of the wreck. As the interlocked planes crashed to the ground, one wing took out a German Headquarters building. Incredibly, although the nose, cockpit, and pilots’ seats were the only parts of the plane that remained in-tact, the two fliers crawled from the wreckage unscathed! Survivors of the incident underwent heavy questioning from their captors. Apparently, German observers from the ground concluded that the 2 planes were actually a new American weapon: the eight engine bomber.
Christmas 1943 found Private Duane Rench of Alma, MI in the midst of his training. To express their support, Rench’s siblings sent him the Heart Shield Bible which, as the title page proclaims, “fits snugly in uniform pocket. The engraved gold-finished steel front cover protects his heart.” While tales can be found that credit the Heart Shield Bible with deflecting bullets, Rench’s is not one of them. Yet his descendants treasure the tenuous link it establishes with the young airman.