How a WWII Bomber Became a “Photo of Death”

YouTube / TJ3 History

Named after a deck of cards, “Extra Joker” was a B-24 assigned to the 451st Bomb Group based in Italy in the summer of 1944. Extra Joker and her crew flew plenty of sorties for two months until August 23, 1944.


A Rule Change

That morning, the 451st was assigned to bomb an industrial target in Austria. But there was a recent rule change that would affect how everything played out.

The new rule stated that the lead bomber of any flight would be outfitted with the new Norden bombsight, a groundbreaking invention that allowed bombardiers to precisely drop their payloads. However, Extra Joker’s bombardier was assigned to be the lead flight bombardier for the mission – but the aircraft had not yet been outfitted with the new bombsight. To fix this issue, it was decided that the crew of Extra Joker would switch planes with another B-24 named “Thunder Mug,” which had the Norden bombsight installed. 

Luck or Divine Intervention?

Aside from switching crews, a photographer by the name of Leo Stoutsenberger was scheduled to join Extra Joker’s new crew. As luck would have it, Stoutsenberger somehow boarded Thunder Mug instead of Extra Joker – the crew did not notice him until they were already in the air.

Shortly after taking off, 3 of the 7 planes in their formation had to return to base due to issues, leaving them with just four B-24s. As the trailing element of the bomb group, they knew how susceptible they were to enemy fighters, but their pleas to rearrange the formation was declined by their Commanding Officer.

Under Enemy Fire

As they neared the target in Austria, a call come from the radio: “Bandits. Six o’clock. High”

All eyes turned to the sky, where a large group of FW 190 fighters could be seen. Suddenly, the 4-plane formation found themselves in deep trouble.

The Germans dove in and opened fire with their cannons, tearing into two of the trailing bombers and shooting them down. They then turned their attention toward the last two leading planes in the formation – Extra Joker and Thunder Mug.

The Right Place At The Right Time?

While the two bomber crews fought for their lives, Leo Stoutsenberger was in just the right position to capture all of the action with his camera. After some time, the Fw 190s were able to shoot down the Extra Joker while its original crew watched in horror. She would explode a few moments later with no parachutes seen right after.

Thunder Mug would be the only surviving plane of their formation. 

(US Air Force Archives)

Survivor’s Guilt

The photographs taken by Stoutsenberger became famous after it was revealed that he was supposed to be on board of that plane. He would later say this:

“I felt guilty helplessly snapping a picture while the men were burning inside. It happened so fast that they didn’t have a chance.” 

This incident would go down as one of the most tragic and faithful stories of the B-24 in WWII.