Skies were clear and visibility perfect as the B-17 Flying Fortress dubbed “Vicious Virgin” took off along with 26 other bombers from their base in Polebrook, Northamptonshire, England.
It was May 4, 1943, Maj. Keith Birlem’s 28th birthday, and he would celebrate it with his first combat mission of World War II, a bombing run targeting repurposed Ford and General Motors plants in German-occupied Antwerp, Belgium.
Three and a half years earlier, Birlem had worn the uniform of the Washington Redskins rather than the Army Air Forces, seeing time in three games as a blocking back after a midseason trade brought him over from the Chicago Cardinals. The Cardinals had opened their 1939 season on Sept. 10, nine days after Germany invaded Poland to initiate a six-year cataclysm that cost tens of millions their lives.
Now Birlem was getting his first look at the enemy he had trained to fight. Named the commander of the 508th Bombardment Squadron, 351st Bombardment Group (Heavy) the previous November, Birlem had arrived in England in mid-April along with the rest of the 351st. His group’s first combat mission wouldn’t go off until May 14, but he strapped in on his birthday as the co-pilot alongside Capt. Eddie Broussard of the 303rd Bomb Group to get a feel for the action to come.
Birlem was not the only man in the air that day with name recognition. Co-piloting the B-17 in front of the Vicious Virgin was Capt. Billy Southworth Jr., son of the Hall of Fame St. Louis Cardinals manager. And riding along as a passenger on another bomber was Capt. Clark Gable, who would spend much of 1943 with the 351st producing the film “Combat America.”
The Vicious Virgin and its mates flew southeast over Cambridge to the English Channel, near the mouth of the River Somme, before turning back to the west and regaining land over England, then making a sharp turn back to the southeast near Clacton-on-Sea and heading toward Antwerp. The bombing run was relatively routine to the veterans of Broussard’s 303rd, with no planes lost in the 4 ½ hour mission. But to combat rookie Birlem, a 20-minute skirmish with 30 to 40 German fighters en route proved eye-opening.
“I never thought those Germans would come so close,” Birlem said. “… One FW-190 came right at us. If Capt. Broussard hadn’t pulled up the nose, he would have hit us head on.”
Birlem could not have imagined after landing safely that day that it would be both his first and last combat mission.
Birlem was something of a hometown hero back in northern California. He grew up in San Mateo, the son of an insurance broker, Frederick, who for years had offices in San Francisco’s Financial District.
Birlem attended San Mateo High and went on to San Jose State College, where he starred on both the football and swimming teams. A journalism major, he also worked on the staff of the Spartan Daily newspaper.
The Spartans went 5-4 in 1936, Birlem’s first year playing varsity football, but they were 11-2-1 the following season and won their first 11 games in 1938. That undefeated run, which would end in a 13-12 loss at Hawaii in the season finale, was due in large part to Birlem’s play.
The 190-pound quarterback was considered the “brains” of the Spartan offense, according to a United Press story at the time. Quarterbacks in those days spent their time blocking and running, not throwing (fullback Leroy Zimmerman was San Jose State’s best passer), so Birlem would have been much more in the mold of a Tim Tebow than an Andrew Luck.
Birlem was named to the Little All-America Team – for players at smaller colleges – following the season and in 1939 embarked on a pro career with the Chicago Cardinals. He saw action as a reserve in the Cardinals’ opener and by the second game, at Green Bay, was starting at left end. The Redskins acquired Birlem from the Cardinals in late October and shifted him from end back into the backfield, where he came off the bench in three games as Washington’s season wound down.
Back home, some of Birlem’s former San Jose State teammates were attracting attention from pro scouts, with that increased visibility thanks in part to the former quarterback.
“Birlem’s steady play and the national publicity received by the Spartans is believed the principle [sic] reasons why the professional ranks are turning attention to San Jose,” wrote the San Jose Evening News in November 1939.
Both the fullback Zimmerman and Spartans center Robert Titchenal would sign with the Redskins in the spring of 1940, but they would not be reunited with Birlem. He left pro football that spring, telling Redskins general manager Jack Espey he was joining the military.
Birlem had long aspired to be a pilot but failed several military eye tests during his time at San Jose State. It turned out Birlem’s eyes had been irritated by continued exposure to chlorine when he was on the swim team, so after returning to school to finish up his degree following the 1939 NFL season, Birlem tested again with the Army Air Corps.
He passed, and by the fall of 1940 he had logged more than 70 hours in the air during flight training in California and Texas. According to a Washington Post report that November, Birlem’s only regret in leaving pro football was bidding farewell to the Washington fans.
Birlem continued training through 1941 and 1942, assigned at various times to bases in Texas, Spokane, Wash., and Pueblo, Colo., and rising in rank from first lieutenant to major. In March 1943, shortly before the 351st Bomb Group deployed overseas, Birlem married Mary Jane Porter of Watsonville, Calif.
On May 7, 1943, with the start of combat missions for his squadron still a week away, Birlem lifted off from Polebrook as pilot of the B-17 designated 42-29865.
Also up on a training flight that day was B-17 number 42-29491, piloted by Capt. Roy Snipes, an Indiana native and Ball State University graduate. Each plane carried a 10-man crew – generally broken down into pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, engineer and four gunners.
Back over Polebrook, something went wrong. The two Flying Fortresses collided, and all 20 men aboard were killed. Most of them had never even seen battle.
Word traveled quickly, for the times; Birlem’s family and friends were notified of his death on May 17 – if not necessarily the relevant details. Some reports later had him piloting a bomber over Germany at the time of his death, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame continues to list Birlem – one of 21 NFL players killed during World War II – as having died “trying to land a combat damaged bomber in England.”
The news of Birlem’s death “staggered” San Jose, Buddy Leitch wrote in the Evening News.
“For Birlem, you understand, was a type of youngster who looked upon life’s problems as something that could best be solved with a smile. And a kid who goes around smiling and making other people smile is a kid with friends … lots of them.
“We never could picture easy-going Birlem flying a Fortress of destruction, but he was doing so probably because he felt it his duty to interfere with the existence of those who looked upon life as something hard and cruel and bitter.”
Words that could easily have been used to describe the end for Birlem and the other airmen who lost their lives that day, unable to really contribute to the struggle they had trained to fight.