It’s been almost 70 years since World War II and very few living today remember the “Big War” and the men and women who fought in it. Among the names on the World War II memorial at the Carter County War Memorial Park in downtown Elizabethton is that of John P. Keys, who was killed during a bombing mission over occupied France on August 8, 1944.
Shortly after the United States entered World War II, Keys joined the U.S. armed forces and became the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Keys served as a pilot with the famed 100th Bomb Group, 349th Bomb Squadron crew flying a B-17 bomber nicknamed the “Vargus Venus” over occupied France and into Germany during 1944.
The 100th Bomb Group of the U.S. Army Air Force became known as “The Bloody” Hundredth. Keys and his crew were on a bombing mission over occupied France near St. Sylvian when their show down near Perigny. They were on their 26th mission of the war when shot down. According to an Army report, Keys; B-17 was hit by flak in the number two engine roughly one and one-half minutes before unloading. The tail assembly separated from the aircraft, causing the aircraft to immediately nose down out of formation. Keys and seven member of his nine-member crew were killed in action. His crew included flight officer and co-pilot, Elvin S. Samuelson, 2nd Lt. Patrick H. Lollis, 2nd Lt. Elton Dickens, Sgt. Frank O. Thomas, Sgt. Harry D. Park, Sgt. Peter P. Martin, Sgt. Gilbert A. Borba, Sgt. Joseph A. Costanza, and Sgt. Donald V. Rieger.
An Army report noted that Lt. Dickens bailed out with a serious leg wound, but later died. Sgt. Borba survived and was taken Prisoner of War. Sgt. Constanza did not fly on the fatal mission.
Keys’ crew was no stranger to danger. They had a close call returning to England from a bombing mission in late May of 1944. According to a United Press news report published June 2, 1944, the B-17 was “limping home” one good and one disabled engine. Keys ordered the crew to “throw out everything that can’t shoot,” according to the report. The crew complied, tossing out all removable guns and ammunition as well as some of their clothing. Sgt. Frank Thomas is reported to have thrown out his pants, shirt and underwear, declaring “My pants and my all, I give for my country.”
According to the log of the Vargus Venus, Keys and his crew flew seven missions in May 1944, five missions in June 1944, including one on D-Day; nine missions in July 1944, hitting oil refineries in Bholen/Liepzip, munitions factories in Munich and Hamburg in West Germany a bridge in Auxerre, and a tank factory in Hamburg.
Fifty years after their fatal bombing mission the French village of Perigny memorialized Keys and the crew of the Vargus Venus with a stone memorial. The village lies in the French province of Calvados – the historic province of Normandy – roughly 30 miles southwest of Caen. It is the province where U.S. military men hit the beaches of Normandy and Omaha on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
The memorial contains the names of all crew members engraved on a marble stone and is located in front of the town hall of Perigny.
John Perry Keys was the son of Mr. and Mrs. J.E. Keys of Elizabethton. According to an old Elizabethton STAR, a memorial service honoring Keys was held at the First United Methodist Church in Elizabethton on April 5, 1948.
Truly, a hero was Keys.