Remembering Operation Chowhound

On May 1, 1945, forty B17s from the 390th Bomb Group lined up near the runway. As usual, their bomb bays were loaded to capacity. However, unlike any other previous mission, this time instead of bombs, they were loaded with food.


Operation Chowhound foodbox preparations.

The Context:
As winter turned to spring in 1945, the tides of WWII had turned in favor of the Allied Forces. The world watched and waited with anticipation, hoping that the war’s end was near.

For the Dutch, Allied victory could not occur soon enough. Four years of German Occupation had taken their toll. The country was experiencing the largest first-world famine in world history, and people were dying by the thousands.

Canal systems were used to drain the low-lying Dutch farmland. Following the invasion, Germans were quick to flood the farm fields.

There was little to no food production. Germans had been quick to flood Dutch farmland following the initial invasion: a tactical maneuver that at once prevented Allies from landing in the area, and manipulated the Dutch people into submission. Agricultural production was nearly halted and rationing was put in place. By fall, 1944, food was scarce.

In September, 1944, Queen Wilhelmina mandated a national railway strike to aid Allied forces. Still loyal to their exiled Queen, Dutch citizens complied. The German administration retaliated, placing an embargo on all food and fuel transports headed to the western Netherlands—home to 4.5 million people.

The embargo was partially lifted in November, 1944. It did little good: by then, brutal cold had set in. Shipping canals were frozen solid, making barge transport impossible. Most hope for relief was obliterated in December when Allied liberation attempts failed at the Rhine River.

The Hunger Winter

The cold weather came early just as food and fuel stocks ran low. People hunted stray animals and pets; they walked dozens of kilometers to trade valuables for food. They chopped down trees, dismantled houses, and burned furniture for fuel. As many as 40,000 children were removed from their families and evacuated from the cities.

The situation became desperate. By the spring of 1945, over 18,000 people had already died of starvation. Food consumption was reduced to tulip bulbs, sugar beets, and water. With food stores set to run dry by late April, the Dutch royalty made pleas for their people.

Audrey Hepburn spent her childhood in the Netherlands during the famine. Despite her later wealth she had lifelong negative medical repercussions.

A Tentative Truce

A truce was needed for food to be safely delivered to Holland. Initial pleas for help were made to Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander. Eisenhower did not have the authority to negotiate a truce, and so redirected Prince Bernhard to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As a ceasefire was negotiated with the Germans, Eisenhower sent directions to heavy bomber units, including the 390th, who engaged in preparations for the missions.

Eisenhower sent directions to heavy bomber units, including the 390th, who engaged in preparations for the missions.

The Germans agreed that participating airplanes would not be fired upon within specified air corridors. In exchange for the ceasefire, the Allies agreed to temporarily cease bombing elsewhere, and to withhold any information regarding the truce from authorities in Berlin. The British Operation “Manna” began on 29 April. The American Operation “Chowhound” commenced on 1 May. Ten American bomb groups participated.

Orders stating that the drop zone will be marked with a white cross. The white cross was typically made from bedsheets (see below).


Operation Chowhound: The Missions

On 1 May, 1945, forty 390th Bombers flew low across the North Sea. The planes were filled to capacity—not just with food rations, but gifts of candy and toys tied to parachutes, made by 390th Bomb Group members.

Smiling Jack heads out over the North Sea during the first Operation Chowhound Mission.

The situation was tense on that first mission. The bombers approached their destinations at lumbering speeds and low altitudes; crews held their breaths and hoped that the ceasefire would hold.

Smiling Jack’s Crew held their breaths.

Any fear of being shot at was soon abated as dramatic scenes unfolded below. Thousands of people had gathered: they were cheering, waving flags and rejoicing. It was a sight that the crews felt deeply, and would never forget.

Photo courtesy of Joseph A. Moller Library, with permission by Hans Onderwater.

“We came in low enough to see the expression on the faces of people who were in the fields….I can speak for the whole crew when I say it brought a lump to our throats.” –Lt. Joseph R. Belgam, Crew #28, 569th Squadron.

Crew #28, 569th Squadron


Dutch gather boxes of food dropped from B-17 heavy bombers.


The 390th Bombardment Group combined with nine other Eighth Air Force bomb groups during Operation Chowhound, dropping over 4181 tons of food. The 390th accounted for 216 of 2,191 effective sorties during these missions.

1 May 1945 Valkenburg 776.8 tons
2 May 1945 Amsterdam 784.2 tons
3 May 1945 Vogelenzang 740.6 tons
5 May 1945 Utrecht 747.3 tons
6 May 1945 Utrecht 706.5 tons
7 May 1945 Vogelenzang 426.0 tons

Food, not bombs, were dropped by the 390th Bomb Group during the first week of May, 1945.


Photos courtesy of the Joseph A. Moller Library, and permission by Hans Onderwater.

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