During World War II there were numerous ways in which American citizens at home could help the war effort. Victory gardens, rationing, recycling (then known as scrap collection), and most importantly war bonds were all a part of daily life.
But some Americans wanted to do more – a lot more. The employees of the Union Pacific Railroad and the citizens of Sparks, Nevada held war bond drives to buy planes that would fly against the Nazis.
By 1943, the American war effort was in full swing on both fronts. The railroads were busy carrying men and materiel coast to coast to be shipped off to the war abroad. Despite their hard work supporting the cause, the railroad men of the Union Pacific still wanted to do more. So, driven by their patriotism, 65,000 employees voluntarily increased their payroll deductions for war bonds during the months of May and June to the tune of $379,000. For their efforts they were rewarded with being the first railroad group to be honored with a named heavy bomber, a B-17 F called The Spirit of the Union Pacific, in August 1943.
The following spring, inspired by what the Union Pacific Railroad had done, the city of Sparks, Nevada took up an effort to ‘buy a bomber,’ as their rallying cry became. The 6,200 residents of Sparks raised $600,000 in the effort to purchase a bomber, the equivalent of nearly $8 million today. With their nearly $10,000 per resident effort, the citizens of Sparks were honored with a B-25J Mitchell bomber named The Spirit of Sparks.
The Spirit of the Union Pacific arrived in England for combat on September 9, 1943 and was assigned to the 571st Bomb Squadron, 390th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. Between that time and October 10 the plane flew four successful missions before being taken over by Capt. Robert Short and his crew as a replacement for their usual plane Short Stuff. Unfortunately this would be the last mission of the war for The Spirit of the Union Pacific as well as Capt. Short and his crew. On October 10 The Spirit of the Union Pacific and her crew were on a mission to bomb Munster, Germany as part of a larger effort later known as ‘Black Week’ due to the high losses of American bombers. Just short of the target the formation encountered heavy flak and German fighters. The Spirit of the Union Pacific was hit in the #3 engine causing a fire that consumed the plane. Upon realizing the severity of the hit Capt. Short ordered the crew to bail out. Two other crew members bailed out but did not survive and one was likely fatally injured and crashed with the plane. The remaining seven crewmen landed safely but were immediately captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as POW’s.
The Spirit of Sparks arrived in Italy in late 1944 and was assigned to the 321st Bomb Squadron located at Fano, Italy. During its tour The Spirit of Sparks flew over 150 successful missions against Axis positions in Italy and Southern Europe. Lt. Jack Kenyon and his crew flew 30 missions in The Spirit of Sparks in early 1945 taking no casualties before rotating out. Command next passed to Capt. McEldery who despite losing two wingmen in one mission also completed his missions without casualties. Capt. McEldery would be the final commander of the plane though as during transition training for the next crew the new pilot came in for a hard landing that crumpled the wings of the plane ending a very successful career. The plane was scrapped in Italy and used to repair other damaged bombers.
A scale model of The Spirit of Sparks along with a painting done by a crew member who survived 69 missions onboard can be found at the Sparks Heritage Museum in Nevada. Numerous other cities, organizations, companies also purchased planes that served in World War II though little is known about them.