Sgt Leland (Lee) KESSLER
306th Bomb Group, 368th Bomb Squadron
Born in 1921 in Stark, Ohio Lee Kessler enlisted at Fort Hayes, Columbus, Ohio on 11 Jan 1942 having had
4 years high school education and had worked as a sales clerk.
Kessler attended Gunnery School at Las Vegas, NV, and was one of the first combat crewmen assigned to 306BG at Wendover, Utah. Here he started doing portraits and also painted a B-17 mural for the CO. This led to his becoming the 368BS artist. Initially his nose work was simple titling - all that was allowed at that time.
It could all have ended suddenly when his B17 “Meltin Pot” was forced to ditch on its trans-Atlantic flight just off the coast of N Ireland. In the UK he continued painting more elaborate nose arts and received about $5 for painting both sides of a plane's nose. On 17th April 43, the B17 in which he was to turret gunner was badly shot up and was the only one from his squadron to return to base (“Little Savage” 42-5420). After painting seven aircraft as well as the group and all four squadron insignia on the Red Cross Club ceiling, he was shot down on 21st May 43 to become a POW.
His best known nose art was “Eager Beaver” which was returned to the USA and eventually sold to Williamsport Technical Institute, Penn., where it was used as an instructional air frame until 1952. The artwork was then cut out and is still displayed there. His other missions were completed in various Forts, although Kessler did fly three of his combat missions in “Eager Beaver” including its first to Lille on 8 October 42. That B-17 became the only original plane assigned to the 368BS to survive the war and the oldest in the ETO.
After the war he continued painting a wide range of subjects including many aviation pictures and also repainted a renovated Fortress with the Eager Beaver design and several other museum aircraft nose arts. He illustrated the cover for the 306BG History Book "First Over Germany". Lee Kessler is honoured by a display dedicated to him at the MAPS Air Museum and a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/LeeKesslerArt/
© Ray Bowden 29 January 2020