Veteran Billy Tidwell of Dennis Mississippi Remembered

"He paid the highest price. Never forget!" Wrote author and historian, Thorsten Schulz

By Charlotte Biggs McVay
Posted 11/8/23

“He” was 21 year-old Billy Mack Tidwell of Dennis, Mississippi. He gave the ultimate sacrifice in World War II and was honored with the Distinguished Service Cross, (Posthumously) and was …

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Veteran Billy Tidwell of Dennis Mississippi Remembered

"He paid the highest price. Never forget!" Wrote author and historian, Thorsten Schulz

Monument Plaque that Remembers Those that Lost Their Life in the Crash of the American Maid. Billy Tidwell is Among Those Remembered.
Monument Plaque that Remembers Those that Lost Their Life in the Crash of the American Maid. Billy Tidwell is Among Those Remembered.

“He” was 21 year-old Billy Mack Tidwell of Dennis, Mississippi. He gave the ultimate sacrifice in World War II and was honored with the Distinguished Service Cross, (Posthumously) and was never brought back to his home in the U.S. for burial. This Veteran’s Day we want to honor young Billy, and remember all those who served in our armed forces, both in war time, beginning with the War of Independence, and in today’s conflicts around the world.

Recently I was talking with a member of Billy Tidwell’s extended family, Dr. Phillip Gray, and was fascinated about the story of Billy Mack and how he died so long ago.

Billy was the top turret gunner/engineer on the B-17 “American Maid” that crashed on April 11, 1944, after being shot down by Flak over Keil, Germany. Four members of the 10-man crew died (including Billy), and 6 spent the next 13 months as POW’s.

The story of Billy, came up when Phillip and Margaret were expressing their regret that they did not know of the recent monument dedicated in Osterby, Germany for the crew of the “American Maid” – they would have liked to join other crew family members from across the U.S. to attend the service.

The story of the dedication appeared on a Facebook site, showing the front page story of the memorial service which appeared in a German publication. It read, “On October 12, 2023, a monument was dedicated in Osterby, Germany to the crew of the B-17 “American Maid” that crashed there on April 11, 1944.” Local historian Thorsten Schulz found a living witness to the crash, researched events and started a private facebook page for crew members’ families to organize the memorial 79 years after the crash.  More than a dozen of the crew’s descendants attended the dedication with local officials f Osterby. When asked why they wanted to honor the men who bombed their country, Schulz said to thank them for freeing his county from the Nazis.

 Schulz posted, “Thanks to the skillful airmanship of Co-Pilot William F. Kleine, who made it over the farm houses and came to hold right in front the forrest! Thanks to Bill Tidwell, Top Turret Gunner, who held back the unconscious pilot from slumping on the instruments blocking the rudder. He payed the highest pirce. Never forget!!!

“Billy Tidwell died in the crash at Osterby under very cruel circumstances. He gave his live for 6 comrades to survive. Charles Mott and others tried to rescue him from the burning wreck but his legs were pinned. Flames came closer from the wings to the fuselage and 50 cal. Ammo started exploding. So they had to give up…” Billy received the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery, as well as Charles Mott, was awarded the Silver Star for recovering a medical kit from inside the burning wreck to give aid to the wounded skipper, not caring for his own injuries.

After returning home to the U.S., Charles Mott wrote a detailed historical account called, “My War Experiences” which tells of the men of the “American Mail” from the beginning of his service to his 13 months as a POW.

His story is lengthy and detailed, a great story to read. However, I will only hit on the parts pertaining to Tidwell, who proudly represented the U.S., his state of Mississippi, and county of Tishomingo.

Condensed from Mott’s “My War Experiences:”

The “American Maid” along with other F-17’s were just off the Danish Peninsula when they encountered German planes. All Hell broke loose! Flak bursts filled the sky. Jagged shrapnel punctured the thin skin of both plane and bodies. Ben Totushek, the Pilot, was badly wounded and unconscious. He slumped forward over the stick, making it extremely difficult for the Co-Pilot, Bill Kleine, to regain control of the airplane. The blast also hit Navigator Harvey Durant, full in the face. Billy Tidwell, the Engineer, had managed to get the Pilot off the controls and hold him against the back of the seat, but could not get him out of the seat.

As the U.S. B-17 formation continued to the target and was out of sight, the “American Maid” limped slowly northward, praying that there wouldn’t be any more Flak. Soon Number 3 engine had failed and the plane crashed to the ground. When Mott left the smoking plane he found the first aid kit and was surprised when he got out of the plane to see his crew members kneeling on the ground with their hands clasped behind their heads. Off to the side was an old man with a rifle. Mott said, “He motioned for me to join my comrades, which I did.” We heard screaming and a cry for help coming from within the wrecked plane. Someone made motions to the old man that we wanted to help whoever was screaming. The old man nodded and pointed to the plane. Davis and Swindler walked around the plane to see if anyone was thrown clear. They found the mangled bodies of Kipp and Durant. Both were dead. Pappas, Dole and Mott went to the forward section of the plane and crawled in. The fire was burning fiercely and spreading. There was very little time left. The pilot, Totushek, was still strapped in his seat. He was alive but unconscious. Doyle helped Mott get him out. Doyle then went back into the plane to help Pappas try to free Tidwell. It was Tidwell, who was screaming and calling for help. The top gun turret had broken loose from its mountings and pinned his legs against the rear of the pilot’s seat. They tried pulling the turret away but it would not budge. They tried to pull his legs free but could not. Billy was screaming with pain.

By this time the fire had spread so much and was so hot that the .50 caliber ammunition began to pop off. Pappas and Doyle had to hurry out of the burning plane to save their own lives. They could not free Tidwell. They came to the road in tears with Billy’s screams indelibly stamped into their memories. When Billy stopped screaming the silence was ear-splitting. I often wonder if it was the fire or bullets that took his life. Either way, it was a horrible way to die, said Mott.

Before long, two German Military trucks drove up and discharged some soldiers. They took Lieutenant Totuschek away and we learned later he died.

Sergeants Davis, Doyle, Pappas, Swindler and I (Mott) were herded into the remaining truck. Our three dead comrades were left behind with the still burning plane. Looking back, I was surprised when the old man waved and in a kindly voice, called out, “Auf Wiedersehen.”

The four men, including Billy Mack Tidwell were first buried in Peace Hill Cemetery in Flensburg before VE Day; later two were returned to the U.S. for burial and Tidwell and one other was reburied in the American War Cemetery in Belgium.

Billy Mack Tidwell was born October 27, 1923 in Dennis, Mississippi, the son of Henry and Hestie Keith Tidwell. He was the oldest child among seven children: Billy Mack, Ruth Tidwell Byron, Kathleen Tidwell Nichols, Nadine Tidwell Gray, Mary Tidwell Pharr, Bobbie Tidwell Bostick, and Kelly Tidwell. He also had five half-siblings: Homer Tidwell, Herbie Tidwell, Morris Tidwell, Estie Tidwell, and Eula Tidwell Harrison.

A memorial marker rests at Lindsey Cemetery for Billy. It is placed with other members of the Tidwell family, they too, never forgot!

Billy Mack Tidwell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during World War II. He served in the Army Air Force, Battalion: 333d Bombardment Squadron, Division: 8th Air Force. General Orders: Headquarters, U. S. Army Air Forces in Europe, General Orders No. 79(1946)

Citation: The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress July 9, 1918, takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Staff Sergeant Billy Mack Tidwell (ASN: 14129923), United States Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Gunner on a B-17 Heavy Bomber in the 333d Bombardment Squadron, 94th Bombardment Group (H), EIGHTH Air Force, while participating in a bombing mission on 11 April, 1944, against enemy targets in the European Theater of Operations. The personal courage and zealous devotion to duty displayed by Staff Sergeant Tidwell on this occasion, at the cost of his life, have upheld the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 8th Air Force, and the United Stares Army Air Force.