A 71 Eagle Squadron “Gremlin” Comes Home

  • Published
  • By Dr. Roy Heidicker
  • 4th Fighter Wing Historian
When you say the word "Gremlins" most Americans think of one of two things. Either the films, "Gremlins" and "Gremlins: The New Batch," that portrayed the loveable little fuzz balls that turned into monsters if you fed them after midnight. Or, the 1970 American Motors Corp. car that was voted one of the "50 Worst Cars of All Time" by Time Magazine. However, in World War II "Gremlins" had an entirely different meaning.

In World War II Gremlins meant one of two contradictory things. To most people back then, a Gremlin was a mythological creature whose primary interest was disrupting the engines or mechanical functions of aircraft. If an engine caught fire or the bombs got hung up, the Gremlins would often be blamed. A 1943 cartoon has Bugs Bunny battling a Gremlin at an airfield. In the "Twilight Zone" TV show and movie a Gremlin on the wing is driving William Shatner, and later John Lithgow.

Interestingly enough, in World War II Gremlins were also considered a good luck charm by pilots and aircrew. The 482nd Bombardment Group (Heavy) would bring their good luck Gremlin mascot on B-17 missions over Europe. An American Eagle Squadron pilot also carried a Gremlin as a good luck charm. It is this Gremlin, and this pilot, that concerns us here.

Recently, Lt. Col. Donn Yates, 334th Fighter Squadron commander, received a package in the mail. The package was postmarked as coming from the United Kingdom. The return address was "Squadron Leader R. Willis, RAF Northolt." Little did Yates realize the small item that what was in the package and the giant story that this item would help tell.

Carefully wrapped inside the package was a Gremlin and two notes. Both notes were from Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Richard Willis. During World War II, RAF Pilot Officer James "Jimmy" Harrington was briefly billeted with Willis's grandparents in Bournemouth, England. Harrington carried the Gremlin with him on his missions during the war. At the end of World War II Harrington gave the Gremlin to Willis's father, who was a teenager at the time.

James Cornelius Harrington was born July 26, 1918 in New York City. Consumed with flying as a youngster, he met with the Clayton Knight Committee in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Oct. 27, 1941. The committee liked what they saw and Harrington was chosen to fly for the Royal Air Force. This was before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor so the United States was not yet at war.

Harrington, who was an experienced pilot, completed his refresher training in Bakersfield, California. He journeyed to England and on Sept. 11, 1942 he joined RAF 71 Eagle Squadron at Debden, England. Later that month, before Harrington had flown a single combat mission, 71 Squadron became the 334th Fighter Squadron of the 4th Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force. RAF Pilot Officer Harrington became 2nd Lt. Harrington of the USAAF. Less than two months later, Harrington's Spitfire collided with Bob Sprague's Spitfire. Harrington successfully bailed out, but unfortunately Sprague was killed in the accident.

Subsequently, Harrington was transferred to the 356th Fighter Squadron. When the war ended he gave the Gremlin to the Willis family. After the war, Harrington remained in the Air Force, retiring as a Lt. Col. in 1965. After he retired, Harrington became the private pilot to actor Cliff Robertson, who coincidentally portrayed a former Eagle Squadron pilot in the movie "633 Squadron."

After that, Harrington became a pilot for Saudi Arabian Airlines. On Sept. 3, 1967, Harrington was flying his client to his 23rd wedding. The client, who would only be married to four wives at any one time (he would divorce his older wives as he married new ones), was one of the richest men in the world. The aircraft, a Twin Beechcraft, crashed near Abha, Saudi Arabia. Harrington and his client were killed in the crash. The client was Sheik Mohammed bin Laden. Among his 54 children was Osama bin Laden.

In his note to Yates, Squadron Leader Richard Willis wrote, "I hope you can give this a good home!" The Gremlin that protected Lt. Col. James Harrington through the fiery trials of World War II has finally made it home to the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, the home of the Royal Air Force Eagle Squadrons.