J. T. Britton, Distinguished Service Cross recipient

J.T. Britton (Reporter-Telegram)J. T. Britton was the last surviving member of the most highly decorated aircrew in U.S. history before he died May 7 at age 91, according to the obituary that was published in the Midland (Texas) Reporter-Telegram.

Two of his crewmates received the Medal of Honor. Britton, who was the copilot, and seven other crew members were awarded the second-highest medal for valor: the Distinguished Service Cross.

The photographic reconnaissance mission was off the Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, and was featured on the History Channel and in numerous books including Martin Caidin's book, Flying Forts: The B-17 in WWII, the family wrote.

The day of that fateful mission began June 16, 1943 when two members of the "Eager Beavers" crew were grounded with malaria. J. T. volunteered to copilot the photo/recon mission over the Bougainville Island in the Pacific. Mapping the terrain was imperative for the best site for an amphibious landing and discovering how many enemy troops and aircraft were reinforcing the island, before the ground troops were sent in. The mission was deemed so dangerous that no one would be ordered to fly - the crew was made entirely of volunteers.

The B-17, "Old 666," was heavily armed with extra machine guns. The first part of the mapping mission was without incident, but as they began the mapping run along Bougainville's west coast, they saw 22 enemy fighters taking off from the island's airfield. Just seconds after completion, the B-17 was attacked head-on by Japanese fighters.

The pilot was mortally wounded in the attack during the fight which lasted more than 45 minutes until enemy aircraft pulled away due to low fuel and ammunition.

With the pilot drifting in and out of consciousness, J.T. headed “Old 666” home, with only a magnetic compass; all the other instruments, including the brakes and flaps, were gone. When they reached New Guinea, the crew in the cockpit would tell Britton how high he was as he brought “Old 666” in and landed without incident.

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This post was contributed by Alana Baranick, a freelance obituary writer. She was the director of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers and chief author of Life on the Death Beat: A Handbook for Obituary Writers before she passed away in 2015.