My dad was the top turret gunner and flight engineer on a B-17G Fortress Heavy Bomber during World War II. That was something that my family always knew. Dad didn’t talk much about it, but we were always very proud of him. What we didn’t know about all of that was that my dad was on the toughest plane ever built. At the time of his service, this little known fact probably wouldn’t have brought much comfort to his parents or siblings, but now, all these years later, it somehow brings a good measure of comfort to my dad’s daughter…me. My dad made it home from the war, of course. I know that there were times that his plane sustained damage, but it always brought the crew home.
The testing of the B-17 Bomber, as is the case with most planes was rigorous. Is this great trial, the B-17 Flying Fortress put up one of most impressive displays, proving not only an effective carrier of firepower in which the plane delivered over a 3rd of the ordnance dropped by the allies in Europe and much of the ordnance dropped in the Pacific, but an astoundingly tough plane. Pilots and crews soon learned that the B-17s, which flew tens of thousands of missions under heavy anti-aircraft and fighter-plane pressure, could take extraordinary damage and still get home.
During the war years, the B-17s proved time and time again just what a wonderful plane they were. While they may not have brought their entire crew home every time they returned, they came home with part of them even with parts of the nose, propellers, and wings missing…and even with a tail that was hanging on by a thread. Of course, if the wing was torn completely off or the plane took a hit that ripped it in half, it did go down, but that is to be expected, as was the case with B-17G-15-BO “Wee Willie,” 322d BS, 91st BG, after direct flak hit on her 128th mission.
Still, the condition in which some of these planes came home would have shocked the builder altogether, if you ask me. I have looked at the pictures of these damaged planes, and I don’t know how they stayed in flight. The “All American,” with the 97th Bomber Group, made without a doubt, the most astonishing return. The plane had a huge gash in it’s tail section from a collision with an enemy fighter, whose wing sliced almost completely through the fuselage. The tail gunner was trapped at the rear of the plane because the floor connecting his section to the rest of the plane was gone. The plane was piloted by Lieutenant Kendrick Bragg, who flew 90 minutes back to base with the tail barely hanging on. One crew member said that the tail wagged like a dog’s tail. The pilot, proceeded to drop his bombs, and then made a U-turn taking the plane in a wide turn over 70 miles, so as not to stress the tail. When the plane landed and came to a complete stop, the tail finally broke off. Now that is one tough plane!!
Many times I have written about my Dad’s time in the war, and what he went through, but I’m not sure I truly understood what he went through. Dad never talked about the war much, and maybe that led us to believe that what he went through wasn’t so bad for him. In reality, I don’t think I knew much about Dad’s service time at all. My nephew loaned me a movie called Fortress, and I was very interested in watching it. I don’t know what I expected it to be, but it was not. Everything on the B-17 happened so very fast.
While the movie was quite graphic, and not one that some people would like to watch, it was based on a true story and it gave me a very different perspective about what it was like to fly in a B-17 Bomber. I knew that the life of a ball turret gunner in combat was a mere twenty minutes, and I knew that during the time Dad was on the B-17, there was at least one ball turret gunner who was killed. They tried to save him, but it was not to be. In an instant it was over.
The Flying Fortress, as the B-17 Bomber was called, was one of the safer parts of the war, but that meant nothing when you are flying to a bomb drop and the enemy doesn’t want you to make it. The movie brought home just how hard it was to really spot the enemy planes. They would say that the enemy was right there, and I found myself thinking, “Where?” Then suddenly there they were, and the men on the plane had been firing for several seconds already. It felt like trying to explain how to spot the enemy, and by the time you get the word “well” out, you have already been hit.
While any gunner position was dangerous, I was struck by how exposed the waist gunners were. In case you don’t know, the waist gunners are the guys that shoot out the side doors of the plane. The doors are open, leaving them with very little protection. They had to be on their toes, because the enemy was shooting for their gun, and if they weren’t paying attention, they were shot before they got a second chance to pay attention. That made things really hard, because they also felt a close commraderie with their partner, the other waist gunner, and if their partner got shot, it was hard to stay on task…but that was hard for any one of the men on the plane.
Watching the men they worked with every day, get shot and killed became a normal thing. Being normal and being able to cope, are two very different things. These men had to hold it together, while quietly falling apart inside. They knew their friend was dead, and yet they had to do their job. They couldn’t grieve. They couldn’t stop. They had to push that picture of their dead friend way back inside themselves, and do their job. Lives depended on it…including their own. I knew that my dad was on a B-17, but until I watched that movie, I really didn’t understand all of what that meant.