Prior to December 7, 1941, the United States had signed a Proclamation of Neutrality. They did not want to get pulled into World War II, any more than they had World War I and any of the other wars they were involved in. Still, I think everyone knew that it was inevitable…even before the Japanese attack. Early on the Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and almost simultaneously at other locations in the Pacific, would end any continued semblance of neutrality, and the United States prepared for war. The response to the attack was quick and decisive. The US Army Air Force (USAAF), under the command of Major General Henry Harley “Hap” Arnold was authorized to equip, man, and train itself into the world’s most powerful air force, and to do so quickly. The first order of business was to establish air force bases. By early 1942, the USAAF had committed to building scores of air bases across the United States. Everyone wanted to help, so a Chamber of Commerce delegation from Casper, Wyoming, traveled to Washington DC, to lobby for one of the proposed air bases. According to Joye Kading, longtime secretary at the Casper Army Air Base, they marketed the “zephyr wind” that whips around the western end of Casper Mountain as part of what made it a perfect location. The USAAF agreed.
In March 1942, the US Army Corps of Engineers leased the old Casper City Hall at Center and Eighth streets in downtown Casper, in preparation for the construction of the new Army Air Base at Casper. The site they selected was a high, flat, sagebrush-covered terrace located nine miles west of town on US Highway 20-26 and adjacent to the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad. After the war, the site became the Natrona County Municipal Airport and the land and all buildings became county property…later the name was changed to Casper-Natrona County International Airport when the airport achieved international status. The Casper Air Base was built in record time. Ground was broken in April, and six months later, on September 1, 1942, the base was officially opened. B-17 bomber crews began their Combat Crew Training School at the facility that consisted of four mile-long runways and around 400 buildings. With in six months, in the spring of 1943, the base transitioned from B-17 to B-24 crew training. Kading said, “The base was built to accommodate 20,000 men to be trained. They would come out there, and they were trained to do the last of their training in the B-17s and the B-24s because they could go around the east end of Casper Mountain and hit the zephyrs…our famous west winds…to take them right up to the sky.” By war’s end, almost 18,000 men had been trained at the Casper Army Air Base.
Not all was fun and games in learning to fly. Pilots did face risks too, as they gained experience. Flying over mountains can bring downdrafts, and turbulence, and it can make for a risky flight for the inexperienced pilot. The base had it’s share of accidents. Kading said, “The fellows hit something in the wind that they didn’t know how to handle, and they would have a plane wreck and they were lost. A lot of our pilots were in training, and we had some of our planes [that] were wrecked in other states. The soldiers’ bodies were then shipped back home to their families.” In the war years, the base was almost a third of the size of the city that was it’s host. On any given day, the base had an average of approximately 2,250 Army Air Force personnel and 800 civilians. I’m told by my Aunt Sandy Pattan that some of my aunts were among the civilians who worked there. The training class sizes varied, with as many as 6,000 in training during peak times. The men arrived in Casper by train, in newly assembled crews, each consisting of two pilots, a navigator, a bombardier, a radioman, flight engineer, and four gunners, to begin a strict regimen of training.
In one record-setting month, crews flew more than 7,500 hours at Casper Army Air Base. The remains of these activities are scattered across the high plains of Wyoming in the form of spent .50-caliber bullets, shells and links, 100-pound practice bomb fragments, and the wreckage of more than 70 aircraft. At the height of training, more than one million .50-caliber rounds and one thousand 100-pound training bombs would be expended per month. Now that, for some reason, amazes me. To think of spent bullets and parts of bombs or planes just lying around in the plains of Wyoming…just amazing, but of course, logical. One hundred forty Casper Army Air Base aviators perished in 90 plane crashes in training. Many more died later in combat. One hundred forty Casper Army Air Base aviators perished in 90 plane crashes between September 1942 and March 1945. Most of the crashes were in Wyoming, but many occurred out of state when the fliers were on longer training flights.
Most of the soldiers who came to Casper were not from Wyoming, but they embraced Wyoming and felt like their time in Casper was very special. Not only did Casper Army Air Base become a part of them forever, but they became a part of it too. Some of the soldiers wanted to show just how special the base was to them, so they decided to paint murals at the enlisted men’s club. Casper artist and art historian, Eric Wimmer, later researched the series of murals that depicted Wyoming’s history, and found that they were painted by some of the soldiers. Wimmer said, “They served for a short time, and then many soldiers were stationed at another base or sent overseas to fight in the war. This became the driving inspiration behind the concept [Cpl.] Leon Tebbetts developed for painting a set of murals in the Servicemen’s Club. He planned to give these temporary residents a history lesson on the state of Wyoming before they left.” The work began in October 1943, Tebbetts and three other soldiers with art backgrounds…JP Morgan, William Doench, and David Rosenblatt…started the series of 15 murals that included American Indians, travel on the trails in pioneer days, and other historic subjects. The murals are still there to this day.
The Casper Army Air Base closed in 1945, when the war ended. Today, the site of the old bomber base is largely intact with 90 of the original buildings still standing, including all six of the original hangars. I know that one of the barracks was moved to North Casper, because my grandfather, George Byer bought it to expand his small house to accommodate his large family of nine children. I remember playing back in that large room as a child. Visitors to the Wyoming Veterans Memorial museum in the base’s former Servicemen’s Club encounter a variety of stories: a gunnery instructor who gained his experience against the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Midway; a base commander who was known as the best machine gunner in the world; and a bomber navigator who was blown out of his B-17 and held prisoner in Germany. In addition, there are accounts of the tragedy of the Casper Mountain bomber crash that I am certain was the crash that my then 8-year-old mother, Collene (Byer) Spencer witnessed. The base was also witness to the adventures of renowned test pilot Chuck Yeager, and saw the time that comedian Bob Hope paid a visit to the soldiers stationed there.
Built in Seattle, Washington by Boeing, the B-17G, which was later converted to a B-17H for use as an emergency air-sea rescue plane. It was equipped with a Higgins A-1 lifeboat attached to the lower fuselage. The plane and crew including Pilot, 1st Lieutenant William C Motsinger; Co-Pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Robert W Ball; Crew, 1st Lieutenant Rollin C Marsh; Engineer, Captain Norman E Zahrt; Navigator, Technical Sergeant Robert W Conger; Gunner, Staff Sergeant Gerard J Doody; Crew, Staff Sergeant Charles J Parkins; Crew, Sergeant Charles Edward Hurn; Crew, Sergeant Elliott Leroy Griffin; and Crew, Sergeant Otis E Anderson Jr; was assigned to the 20th Air Force, 4th Emergency Rescue Squadron. The plane was given no known name or nose art, which happened more than people knew, but it had a Radio Call Sign of “Jukebox 21.”
B-17H Flying Fortress Serial Number 43-38882, aka Jukebox 21, took off from Motoyama Number 1 Airfield on Iwo Jima, on July 25, 1945, on a night search mission for F4U Corsair 81319 that crashed the day before near Arai at roughly over Lat 34° 35′ N, Long 137° 35′ E on the southern coast of Honshu, Japan. The weather was good, and yet Jukebox 21 was lost, without making a distress signal. That fact made the circumstances of the crash hard to figure, and only known when the B-17 failed to return. The crew was officially listed as Missing In Action, and later as killed in action.
The B-17 flew over Maisaka near the Benten Jima bridge, flying northward at an altitude of roughly 984 feet. Crossing the coast, 75mm anti-aircraft guns on the south side of the highway at Benten Jima opened fire on the bomber. Jukebox 21 was hit by anti-aircraft fire, one of the engines began smoking as the plane flew northward, then attempted to circle to the west over Lake Hamana, then southward. Trailing black smoke, one of the engines on the right wing broke off before the bomber crashed at Yakute to the northwest of Arai. Jukebox 21 impacted pine trees before crashing into the ground nose first at Yakute, to the northwest of Arai. Immediately after the crash, Japanese civilians ran to the crash site and observed several mounds of debris and fire and observed the rescue boat in the wreckage. There were no survivors. Thirty minutes after the crash, Japanese Keibodan (wartime guards) reached the crash site and extinguished the fire. The bodies of the ten crew were recovered, all badly burned from the fire and no identification was possible. Afterwards, the bodies of the crew were cremated and buried at the nearby Arai crematorium, along with the body of the Corsair pilot that crashed the previous day.
Twelve Allied aircraft participated in a search over two days under the direction of Major Ivan K Mays. No wreckage was located, and all stations and ships were told to be on the lookout for this bomber. On May 22, 1947 US Army investigators visited Arai to investigate the possibilities of any atrocities in connection with the death of this crew, but found none. During their visit, they interrogated Katsumi Kumagai the former Kempei Tai commander for Arai who explained how the B-17 crashed and how the crew’s bodies were recovered, cremated, and buried. Afterwards, the remains of the crew were recovered and transported to the United States for permanent burial. Somewhat strangely, the Japanese placed a memorial to the men of Jukebox 21 at the Jingu-ji Temple in Kosai, Japan.
In a war, the point is to kill the enemy, or be killed by the enemy. There is no room for soft hearts and compassion…or is there? On December 20, 1943, Charlie Brown, an American B-17 bomber pilot and his crew attempted to bomb an aircraft production facility in Bremen, Germany, as part of a bombing run with a squadron of B-17s. Unfortunately, the interior areas of Germany were better fortified with anti-aircraft guns. As the bombing run reached the factory, and dropped the payload, the 250 anti-aircraft guns which surrounded the factory were fired. Charlie Brown’s B-17, Ye Olde Pub, was hit, disabling two engines and forcing the plane out of formation. It was the habit of the German fighter planes to go after any stragglers, knowing that they were the weaker link. Brown’s damaged B-17 was chased down and several of the crew members were seriously wounded. The hit also knocked out all but one of the plane’s engines.
Thinking the plane was doomed, the fighters turned their attention to other prey. Meanwhile, Ye Olde Pub tried to limp along toward England, hoping not to be spotted. Of course, they knew their hope of escape was quite unlikely, and before long they were spotted by German fighter pilot Franz Stigler, who was refueling. Stigler jumped into his plane and took off, catching up with the wounded plane quickly. Stigler was about to blast the plane, when he saw that the crew was seriously wounded. Stigler, a combat veteran with 22 confirmed kills, was reluctant to attack a defenseless aircraft, so instead pulled alongside the B-17 cockpit and signaled the crew to land. They refused. He then motioned in the direction of Sweden, which would get them on the ground, but also take them out of the war. It didn’t really matter, because the Allied crew didn’t understand.
Unable to convince them to land, but also unwilling to leave them, Stigler flew side-by-side with the stricken bomber, even though he was afraid his own plane might identify him, and his actions might get him executed. As Brown’s B-17 approached the safety of the English Channel, Stigler saluted and peeled off…not really expecting the B-17 to make it safely home. Miraculously, Brown kept the plane in the air and made it to England. Brown often wondered why Stigler hadn’t shot him down, but never expected to know who the unknow German fighter pilot was. Nevertheless, after the war, Brown placed an ad in a World War II newsletter for pilot veterans. Amazingly, Stigler, who had relocated to Canada, saw the ad. The two pilots reunited, both still in shock to see the other, and when Brown ask the question that had been burning in his mind for years…why didn’t Stigler shoot them down? Stigler explained that to shoot at them would have been dishonorable. Charlie Brown was shocked to know that even among the enemy, there could exist such compassion. The two pilots immediately felt like they were forever connected. They remained close friends until their deaths in 2008.
Strange things have been known to happen over the centuries of Earth’s existence. Most end up being clearly explained. Some are explained, but few people believe the explanation, and still others are forever mysteries…destined to have no possible explanation. People, especially those who witness the event, just know that it did happen. Often, wars are filled with strange stories. Everything from bombs killing everyone in an area, except for one lone old woman; to enemy soldiers allowing a soldier to go free, even though the enemy clearly had the upper hand. Of course, some mysteries defy any possible explanation. Such is the case of the Phantom Fortress. If one looks there can be found all manner of oddities and anomalies scattered in the background of the more sensational news of the fighting of a war, coming from land, air, and sea. From ghost ships found floating in the oceans years after they were last seen, their crews mysteriously missing, with no sign of violence or death on board. Of course, the stories run wild, sighting every possibility from UFOs; to disappearance to another dimension; to desertion, though hard to explain, when no trace of the crew ever showed up anywhere else. Still, few were more strange than the Phantom Fortress.
On November 23, 1944, a British Royal Air Force anti-aircraft unit stationed near Cortonburg, Belgium was suddenly surprised to see an American Army Air Corps B-17 bomber, nicknamed the “Flying Fortress,” heading in their direction. Because there was no such landing scheduled and because of the speed of the incoming aircraft it was assumed that it was preparing to make an emergency landing at the base. Still, after checking with the base tower, it was confirmed that that no such B-17 landing was expected. Be that as it may, this plane was coming in for a landing, so the gunner crew watched helplessly as the massive aircraft came hurtling in towards a nearby open, plowed field.
No matter what standards you use, this landing was a messy one to say the least. The plane bounced and swerved along as the terrified gunners looked on. It finally came to a stop dangerously close to their position after one of its wings clipped the ground. Nevertheless, it was still in one piece and had not actually crashed, but it was an incredibly rough landing. The stunned gunners watched as the aircraft sat there looming over the field, its propellers continuing to spin. The minutes ticked by, but no one exited the plane. After waiting 20 minutes with no sign of human activity, and the plane just sitting there with its engines running, the gunner crew decided to go in and investigate. They had no idea what kind of a scene awaited them inside, but what they found, they never could have guessed. Upon opening the entry hatch under the fuselage, they entered. The gunner crew expected that the crew had been injured or was otherwise unable to get out of the plane, but what they found was that the plane was completely empty. Unable to believe what they had just witnessed, especially in light of the empty plane, the gunner crew made a full sweep through the aircraft. The gunner crew reported that it looked like the crew had just recently been there and must have left the aircraft in a hurry. They found chocolate bars unwrapped and half eaten lying about, a row of neatly folded parachutes, with none apparently missing, and jackets that had been neatly hung up.
The superior officer, a John V. Crisp, would say of the eerie scene, “We now made a thorough search and our most remarkable find in the fuselage was about a dozen parachutes neatly wrapped and ready for clipping on. This made the whereabouts of the crew even more mysterious. The Sperry bomb-sight remained in the Perspex nose, quite undamaged, with its cover neatly folded beside it. Back on the navigator’s desk was the code book giving the colours and letters of the day for identification purposes. Various fur-lined flying jackets lay in the fuselage together with a few bars of chocolate, partly consumed in some cases.” Crisp found himself in an awkward position. He knew what he was seeing. He knew that he would have to write up the report on the incident. And most importantly, he knew that his men were looking to him for answers. Where had the crew of the “Phantom Fortress” gone and how had the plane landed on its own? This was not during a time when planes could be programed to land. No one had any idea how this could have come to pass. Crisp told the men to shut the engines down, and they inspected the planes interior further. The men looked for anything that might provide answers. The log book was found opened, and the last cryptic words written in it were “bad flak.” Yet, all of the parachutes seemed to be accounted for and the exterior of the plane did not have evidence of flak damage, or any damage except for what it had incurred in its rough landing, such as the buckled wing and one disabled engine. The log entry just seemed strange considering.
The B-17’s crew was eventually found, alive and well. For their side, they said, “They changed their course towards Brussels, Belgium, at the same time making the plane lighter by dumping and jettisoning any unnecessary or nonessential equipment on board. When the plane still continued to suffer and a second engine on the struggling plane sputtered out, it was decided that the aircraft would be unable to make the journey, and the crew had then decided to bail out. The B-17 was put on autopilot and left to its fate as the crew jumped to safety. No one thought it would make it very far, let alone somehow land, but land it did.” It seemed as if they honestly thought they had been in battle, and even more, that they had bailed out, with parachutes that were miraculously replaced. Still, why did ground crew report all 4 engines working as the bomber had approached, with one being damaged only upon landing, when the report said that 2 engines had been knocked out during the mission? Where was the damage from the claimed enemy fire? Perhaps most mysterious of all, how had a large, cumbersome plane like the B-17 manage to come to a landing without a pilot?
Authorities on the case, as well as crew members of the Phantom Fortress, suggested some theories to explain the mysteries surrounding the event. For instance, with the engines it could have been that the technical difficulties cleared up on their own after the crew had bailed out, making the plane seem to have 4 fully operating engines on approach, although why they would start working again after being taken out remains mysterious. If the engines had been in bad enough shape for the crew to abandon the aircraft it seems odd that they should kick back into working order on their own and continue whirring away even after the rough landing. As to the lack of any apparent visible damage from enemy fire, the gunner crew could have simply missed the damage due to the untrained eyes of the team that initially investigated the plane after it had landed. They were just a gunner crew, not trained aviators, and may have mistaken the damage reported by the B-17 crew as being from the crash. They might not have noticed that the aircraft had sustained battle damage, but then again they were anti-aircraft gunners and might have had some idea. With the parachutes, it was surmised that they had possibly mistaken some spare parachutes as the full compliment. However, this is all speculation, and the mystery has never been totally solved. Still, the biggest mystery simply cannot be explained away. How did the B-17 come to a landing mostly intact without a pilot? Autopilot is one thing, but landing is another beast altogether. As the saying goes, “Flying is easy, landing is hard.” A pilotless B-17 landing by itself with no one on board was unprecedented. It should have careened into the ground to crash into a ball of fire and debris, or at least ended up a heap of twisted wreckage. So how could this happen?
Although no one really knows for sure, the main theory is “that the plane simply lost altitude slowly, at just the right speed, and with just the right angle of descent to come down relatively softly enough to appear as if it was landing, with the B-17’s legendary toughness and sturdy frame managing to hold it together to keep it from disintegrating.” To this, I say, “Come on!! Get serious!!” The odds of all of this happening in just such a way is all but impossible. Also, there is the rather odd detail that this unmanned plane just happened to come down in the exact best place to land under the circumstances, in that wide open field, and not one of the countless other places it could have come down more tragically. Its just too odd. Nevertheless, the mystery landing of the “Phantom Fortress” did happen. The details of how it did remain mysterious and open to speculation. What we do know for sure is that this B-17 was on a bombing mission in Germany, that it did land without a crew in that field, and that the crew members were later found to have been alive and well with quite a story to tell.
On July 19, 1989, in the skies over Alta, Iowa, United Airlines Flight 232, on which my great aunt, Gladys Cooper was a passenger, began the fateful journey to a catastrophic end. At 3:16pm, the rear engine’s fan disk broke apart due to a previously undetected metallurgical defect located in a critical area of the titanium-alloy. Basically that meant that the fan disk shattered, sending shrapnel through the hydraulic lines of all three independent hydraulic systems on board the aircraft. This horrific event caused the rapid loss of all the hydraulic fluid. The subsequent catastrophic disintegration of the disk had resulted in a spray of debris with energy levels that exceeded the level of protection provided by design features of the hydraulic systems that operate the DC-10’s flight controls. The flight crew lost its ability to operate nearly all of them. In the resulting crash landing, the right wing just tapped the runway, causing the plane to cartwheel and break apart as it went careening down the runway and into a corn field. While my Great Aunt Gladys was killed in the crash, the skill of the pilot and flight crew saved 185 lives, including their own.
While listening to an audio book about World War II, and what happens when bombers flew through flak (Fl(ieger)a(bwehr)k(anone)). I knew that on at least one occasion, my dad, Allen Spencer, a Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner on a B-17 in World War II, was tasked with the job of cranking down the landing gear for landing. I don’t know what I had been thinking happened to the landing gear, maybe a close bit of flak the bent something in the gear perhaps, but what had not occurred to me was a catastrophic hit of that flak, causing all hydraulics to be lost. Nevertheless, quite likely that is what happened. It was one of the scenarios discussed in the book. As the hydraulics were lost, the red fluid was all over the floor of the aircraft, and the next thing that was required was to crank down the landing gear, because the gear could not be lowered without hydraulic fluid. Somehow, Dad’s precarious position of hanging out in the open bomb bay doors seemed like such a simple solution to the problem, albeit a heroic act, but the loss of hydraulics could have meant death to the crew. Getting the landing gear down was only part of the problem. What about the flaps, brakes, and such. These planes were in a really bad way.
Of course, my dad’s plane did land safely, given that he became my dad, but years later, when my mother, Collene Spencer’s Aunt Gladys was on a plane crippled by the loss of all hydraulics, I now realize…finally, that when my dad heard about what happened with Flight 232, as we all eventually did, he understood full well, what the flight crew had been faced with. Something I only understood from the view of a spectator…for lack of a better word. He had been there. The Flight 232 situation quite likely took my dad back some 45 years to that day when he had to crank down the landing gear on a B-17 Bomber that had been damaged by flak, probably spilling hydraulic fluid all over the floor where the crew was standing. The experience must have been awful to go through, and the thought of what happened to Flight 232, almost as bad. And yet, in typical World War II veteran style, Dad said nothing, but rather set about comforting his family over the loss.
B-17 crews were a tight group. Mostly these crews flew with the same crew on missions, but sometimes, someone was sick, went home, or was killed, and crews changed. For that reason, it was vital that everyone know their responsibilities. We shouldn’t write about the B-17 as a bomber without writing about the crew. In reality, the crew and their Fortress worked much like one unit. I think the crew came to love the fortress that kept them safe.
In the cockpit, you would find the standard, pilot and co-pilot. The pilot was the commander of the crew. He was in command of the B-17, but he was also responsible for all aspects of crew training, discipline, safety and efficiency at all times, but he was more than the commander, he was also one of the crew, he wasn’t a gunner, but it was his job to bring these men home. The co-pilot was the executive officer. He must be as familiar as the pilot with all aspects of flying the B-17, ready to take over both as pilot and commander, if necessary. The B-17 required a flight crew of two to fly the plane, much like modern day jets. The co-pilot operated the instruments on the right and instruments on the left were run by the pilot. Nevertheless, in an emergency, one could fly the plane.
The navigator had the job of making sure that the plane made it to the target, and back home again. He used one or more ways of navigating: dead reckoning; using charts and visual references; pilotage, using charts along with time, distance, and speed calculations; use of radio navigation aides; and using the sun observations or at night using stars and planets. As the B-17 gets close to the target, the bombardier takes over command of the plane (including flying) as they approached the bomb target. Then, when they arrived at the target he released the bombs. Accurate bombing was crucial and that was the bombardier’s responsibility. If he wasn’t accurate, they could hit a school, a neighborhood, or other civilian area. Later on in WW II, the navigator and bombardier positions were combined into one position done by one man.
The radio operator’s job was communications, working the radios, and keeping the radios in good working order. There was a lot of radio equipment in the B-17 that allowed for both communications and navigation. He maintained a log and was often the photographer of the crew. A good radio operator knew his equipment inside out. But the radio operator was also a trained gunner. The flight engineer was one of the most important people on the plane. He knew all the equipment on the B-17 better than the pilot or any other crew member from the engines to the radio equipment to the armament to the engines to the electrical system and everything else. Many flight engineers served as maintenance crew chiefs before moving to the position of a B-17 flight engineer. The flight engineer was the final person to advise the pilot of the airworthiness of the plane before each mission. A wise pilot listened. The flight engineer doubles as top turret gunner.
A typical crew had four gunners, sometimes less. In a configuration of four gunners there were two waist gunners (right and left), a tail gunner, and a ball turret gunner. The two waist gunners station was in the middle of the plane. As the name implies, the tail gunner’s position was in the tail and the ball turret gunner (a small man) position was in a turret underneath the B-17. Each gunner was responsible for their own armament and ensuring that their guns were in working order. Their whole job was to keep the enemy planes and enemy fire off of the B-17. So close was the relationship that these 10 men shared, that many would go on to remain friends for life, and even name their children after their respected crew mates.
The pilots of the war birds were brave men. They were tasked with staying the course while under heavy anti-aircraft fire and flak. That would be a major undertaking for most of us because in that situation, all our mind can think to do is to turn and run. These men had to stay in place so they could make the bomb runs, or protect those who were. Of course, there were gunners tasked with keeping the enemy planes at bay, but they couldn’t fly the plane to get you home.
United States Army Air Force Lieutenant William R Lawley Jr, was a pilot on a B-17 Bomber on February 20, 1944. It was the first day of “Big Week,” and Lieutenant Lawley’s Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was at the head of a formation of one thousand bombers sent to bomb Germany’s production and aircraft manufacturing facilities. “Big Week” was the Allied plan to spend seven days ruthlessly dropping explosives onto enemy aircraft production facilities deep behind enemy lines. Day and night, wave after wave of American B-17 Flying Fortresses, B-24 Liberators, and British Lancasters blasted shipyards, railroad junctions, power plants, airfields, steel production facilities, dams, and military bases relentlessly, igniting everything from ball bearing plants to oil refineries up into towering explosive fireballs, to make it impossible for anyone in Germany to build a working fighter plane.
Suddenly, the call rang out, “Bandits, incoming, three o’clock high!” Immediately, the gunners began shooting to fight off the enemy planes, while Lawley held the plane steady. The loud, rumbling propellers roared as he pushed open the throttle and smashed through a thick black cloud of anti-aircraft smoke at nearly three hundred miles an hour, all while keeping in tight formation with hundreds of other B-17s. A pair of Nazi Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes screamed by, ripping off thousands of rounds from twin-linked machine guns and heavy 20mm autocannons. Black puffs of enemy artillery popped up all around Lawley’s massive aircraft craft. The enemy fighters screamed past at speeds of over four hundred miles an hour. As the gray Nazi fighters dove down towards another squadron of American bombers below, Lawley’s starboard waist gunner zeroed in on them with his .50-caliber machine gun with a quick burst of tracer fire, but had to release the trigger as a pair of American P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes dropped in to chase them. These Bomber raids were nothing new for Lawley. Born in Alabama, this 23 year old veteran pilot had already flown nine missions over Germany in the last year. This was his tenth mission, but the first at the controls of a brand-new B-17, nicknamed Cabin in the Sky III, because the first two Cabin in the Sky aircraft been blown up.
Suddenly, voices on the intercom called out enemy fighters, this time diving down from behind. With the sun at their backs, blinding the tail gunner, the Focke-Wulfs ignored the deadly clouds of flak ripping apart the sky around them and hurtled straight into the B-17 formation. Their 20mm cannons struck home at one of Lawley’s wingmen, catching her engines on fire and dropping her out of the sky like a brick. Another flak explosion hit even closer, rocking Cabin in the Sky III and peppering one of the engines with shards of metal, causing it to burst into flames. Lawley ordered the copilot to shut it down and kept moving. More calls came in. “Six o’clock low.” “Three o’clock level.” The Nazis were everywhere, attacking from seemingly every direction at once. The B-17s stuck close together, knowing that the only way to survive was to stay close and lay down heavy fields of machine gun fire. As his gunners fired in every direction, Lawley looked through his cockpit window to see a fleet of twenty or so 190s drop down in front of him, pick out targets, and open fire. With a deafening crash, a 20mm high explosive autocannon shell bust through the front window of the pane, exploding in the cockpit. Everything went black.
Lawley snapped awake seconds later, his ears ringing. Alarms were going off all across his console, which was now riddled with shards of shrapnel. His right arm was shattered. Through blurry vision, Lawley saw his co-pilot slumped over dead, his body laying on the control stick pushing it forward, putting the plane was in a steep dive. The loaded bomb racks made matters worse. The pilot-side window was smashed, and broken glass had gone into Lawley’s face, arms, and side. The windshield was so smeared with blood and oil that he could barely see out of it. Another engine was one fire. Lieutenant William Lawley didn’t panic. He did his job. Determined to keep his plane and his crew alive, the veteran USAAF pilot reached out with his shattered right arm, grabbed his dead co-pilot, and somehow pulled him back off the controls. Then, with just his left hand, he manually fought a 15-ton bomber aircraft out of a ninety-degree nosedive at 12,000 feet, leveled it off, and shut down the second burning engine. Looking up, he saw the Focke-Wulf pilots circling around for another pass, so this grim warrior made an evasive turn, dove the plane down into the cloud cover, and accelerated out of there as fast as he could. Other B-17s in the formation had radioed Cabin in the Sky III as Killed in Action, but somehow William Lawley managed to evade the enemy fighters and get the heck out of Leipzig. He flew across Germany, dodging enemy AA positions, then flew in low over the French countryside and ordered the surviving eight members of his crew to grab parachutes and bail out. It was then that he learned all eight crewmen were wounded in the attack, and that two of them were hurt so bad they couldn’t possibly go skydiving right now. Lawley said, “Ok. I’m going to get us home then.” Nobody jumped out of the plane.
The bombardier eventually got the racks unstuck and released his bombs over an unimportant part of the French countryside, but before long another squadron of Me-109 fighters picked up the wounded B-17 on radar and came swooping in for the kill. With his guys running to their guns to bark .50-caliber machine gun fire, Lawley hammered the stick of his crippled plane, dodging and evading with one arm and somehow eluding enemy fighters one more time. In the process, however, he had to use more fuel than he’d have liked, and one of the two remaining engines was now almost completely out of gas. Once the coast was clear and the Messerschmitt fighter planes were gone, Lawley leveled off the plane and promptly passed out from loss of blood. This was the days before autopilot, and Lawley was the only guy who knew how to fly the plane. Luckily his navigator figured out what was up and woke him up pretty much right away.
Cabin in the Sky III somehow reached the English Channel against all odds, received emergency landing permission from a Canadian fighter base on the English coast and, just in case you’re wondering how the heck this could possibly get any worse, when William Lawley hit the button to drop his landing gear, it didn’t deploy. So, limping in with three burned-out engines, “feathering” his only working one by pumping it off and on with small amounts of gas, half blinded by broken glass, exhausted from loss of blood, and with no landing gear, eight wounded crew members, and one good arm, Lieutenant William Lawley attempted to crash land a 15-ton B-17 on a grass airfield about the size of a soccer pitch. He came in hard on his belly, sliding across the airfield, finally coming to a rest just outside the Canadian barracks. Every member of his crew survived. Lawley walked out of the wreckage, spend a few weeks in the hospital, and make a full recovery. He successfully piloted four more bombing missions before the war was over. Did he earn his Modal of Honor? Without a doubt!!
Whenever I come across a book about World War II, and especially about a B-17 Bomber, I want to read it. That subject holds my interest mostly because my dad, Allen Spencer was a top turret gunner and flight engineer on a B-17 bomber stationed at Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England. Lately, I have been “reading” by way of Audible.com, and I must say that having a book read to you, allows you to sit back and enjoy it as if you were watching it unfold before your very eyes. So, when I came across a book called The Lost Airman written by Seth Meyerowitz, I knew I had to hear about it. As the true story began, I found that Arthur Meyerowitz (Seth Meyerowitz’ grandfather) could have been my own dad…at least to the extent that both of them were in the Eight Air Force stationed in England. Arthur was assigned to a B-24 Liberator. At first their experiences were probably almost identical. Arriving at his base, Arthur heard the men who had been there a while, tease the newcomers with things like “You’ll be sorry you came here” or “Look, fresh meat.” I can only imagine how that kind of thing must have felt to the new and often very young airmen…like a swift kick in the gut!! Then the book went on to tell how the airmen felt on their first mission, when no one could eat breakfast, because of the churning in their stomach. Arthur was the flight engineer and top turret gunner, just like my dad had been. It was the job of the flight engineer to check the plane over to ensure that it was fight worthy, and report to the captain. Arthur found problems with their plane, Harmful Lil Armful, and told his captain it needed repairs, but his captain wouldn’t hear of it. He was close to going home, and wanted his last mission out of the way, and besides what did this “newbie” know. He was only on his second mission, and he was filling in for someone else. So, they took off…a catastrophic decision.
This was where and similarities between Arthur’s experiences, and those of my dad ended, because my dad was not shot down like Arthur’s plane was. At the point Arthur’s plane was going down, his pilot and co-pilot showed incredible cowardice, and abandoned the plane first…something that was just not done. Arthur tried to make sure everyone was off, but in the end, one man was stuck and injured. He told Arthur to go and take the newcomer with him, but the newcomer wouldn’t go. He fought Arthur, and actually kicked him off the plane, physically. As Arthur fell, he was sickened by the fact that his pilot and co-pilot jumped first, and that his friends would not be coming home. The pilot and co-pilot spent the rest of the war in a prison camp, but the outcome for Arthur was different, and in fact, miraculous, in more ways than one, because Arthur was not only an airman in the US Army Air Forces, but he was also a Jewish man facing the Nazis in World War II…a perilous place to be.
It was at this point in the book that my interest in it changed, because this could have been the fate of my dad, had his plane been shot down, but it hadn’t. While the outcome for Arthur was better than that of his crew mates, he still went through a harrowing experience, as did those who helped him. Arthur came down in occupied France on December 31, 1943, and in his landing, he badly hurt his back. From that point on, Arthur came in contact with some of the most amazing people on earth in that or any other time. The French resistance network took Arthur in, and over the next six months, they slowly smuggled him and a British Airman out through Spain to the Rock of Gibraltar. These people did this with precision and secrecy. They knew that if they were caught, they would be killed, but they hated the Nazis, and would do anything to fight against the Nazi regime…right up to, and for some, including giving their lives. The chances they took and the hardships they faced…voluntarily, were so far above and beyond the call of duty, that it almost seemed like a fictional movie. You know, the kind where the good guys always win, and the bad guys always lose. Nevertheless, this wasn’t a fictional movie, and the lives lost were real, but Arthur Meyerowitz was not among the lives lost. His was saved because of the selfless acts of so many people in the French Resistance. The story of Arthur Meyerowitz was, for me, so moving that in the end, I cried, and throughout the book, there were moments that I could hardly breathe with the tension of the situations they found themselves in. I felt bad to think it, but I was so thankful that my dad’s B-17 always made it home, and he never had to face the prison camps, or try to escape from a hostile nation. For Arthur, his escape was miraculous, and I believe it was because of the fervent prayers of his family and the undying faith of his mother, who believed that God would bring her son home…and God did.
Years ago, my mom, Collene Spencer told me about witnessing a plane crash as a little girl. I wish I had thought to get more information from her then, but at the time, all I could think of was the vision of the crash she told me about, and specifically the airplane in a corkscrew nosedive toward the ground. She said she didn’t hear any engine sounds, and she thought the plane was a piece of paper at first, but then she realized that it was a plane. I didn’t think to ask where she was at the time…whether she was at home or if the family was rock hunting or something. I wish I had asked more questions, back when I had the chance to do so.
Rather than asking questions, I began to try to research plane crashes in the area over the years of my mom’s childhood. I had expected it to be an easy search, given all the information on crashes that is out there these days. I was wrong, and by the time I decided that I needed more information from my mom, she was gone. I tried asking my aunts about the crash, but they did not remember it. It’s possible that they didn’t see it, and so they were unable to help me with it.
After much research, I have found possibly the only plane crash my mother could have seen at the age she would have had to be…provided she was close to her childhood home when she witnessed the crash. The crash would have been a B-17 bomber on a training maneuver 25 miles north of Casper, Wyoming. The biggest problem with this crash is the 25 mile distance from Casper, but looking north from Casper, you can see a very long way, provided you are near the events center, which could have been a possibility back then. The distance could also explain the lack of engine noise, if the engines were still working as the plane was going down, which is unlikely.
The plane, which crashed on March 3, 1944 was carrying three officers and five enlisted men. There were no survivors in the crash, which is in line with what my mother told me about the crash. The bomber was on a combat training flight, according to Lieutenant Colonel Marcus A. Mullen, station commandant, who said that the cause of the crash was not yet determined but that a board of officers had been named to investigate. The dead were later identified as Captain Charles W. Bley of Berkeley, California, Second Lieutenant Eugene E. Ravera of Newton, New Jersey, Second Lieutenant John A. Williams of Morristown, Tennessee, Staff Sergeant Carl E. Cleveland of Sunbury, Ohio, Sergeant George P. Peterson of Perry, Ohio, Sergeant Vernon E. Arne, Stewart, Illinois, Sergeant Duane T. Zefah of Cushing, Minnesota, and Corporal Elmer L. Walters of Pawpaw, Illinois. I can’t say, for sure, that this was the plane crash my mom saw when she was a little girl, but it is noteworthy, and so worth telling about. I know that the crash was something that my mom never forgot, even though she would have only been eight years old at the time.
The Swamp Ghost began its very short career on December 6, 1941, one day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Swamp Ghost started out as B-17 Flying Fortress, 41-2446 (which is not a tail number, and indicated that the plane was a new purchase) and under that number it was delivered to the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). Eleven days later, the bomber departed California for Hickam Field in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The plane and her crew were based at Wheeler Field in Wahiawa for a very short time, and flew patrol missions for the Navy until February 1942, when the Japanese Troops invaded Rabaul on New Britain and established a base. Of course, this was a threat to the rest of New Guinea and Australia. In response to the invasion, 41-2446 was ordered to Garbutt Field, Townsville, in Queensland, Australia. Swamp Ghost’s crew included Pilot Captain Frederick C. “Fred” Eaton, Co-Pilot Captain Henry M. “Hotfoot” Harlow, Navigator 1st Lieutenant George B. Munroe Jr, Bombardier Sergeant J.J. Trelia, Flight Engineer Technical Sergeant Clarence A. LeMieux, Radio Operator/Gunner Sergeant Howard A. Sorensen, Waist Gunner Sergeant William E. Schwartz, Waist Gunner Technical Sergeant Russell Crawford, and Tail Gunner Staff Sergeant John V. Hall. The only crew change would be Sergeant Richard Oliver, who replaced Bombardier Trelia after he became ill.
Because of the B-17’s long flying range, the Japanese control of Wake Island and Guam, and the Vichy government’s armistice with the Nazi government, 41-2446 island hopped nearly 5,700 detour miles to get to Townsville. They didn’t want to take a chance on running into enemy fighters, if they could help it. On February 22, 1942, nine B-17Es of the 19th Bombing Group were scheduled to take off for Rabaul. Unfortunately, this mission seemed doomed from the start, as nothing would go quite as planned. Out of the nine aircraft, four had to completely abort the mission due to mechanical problems. To further complicate matters, bad weather conditions made it difficult to see up in the air for those who were able to takeoff. Finally, poor visibility separated the five remaining in flight.
I would like to say that was all the problems they ran into, but there’s more. When 41-2446 was to drop its payload, the bomb bay malfunctioned. The crew had to go around for a second pass, where they managed a clear drop over their target. The Japanese were working hard to make this mission fail too. Japanese fire was intense and a flak round managed to punch a hole through the starboard wing of 41-2556. Fortunately for the crew, the wing didn’t detonate. While the crew hoped to make it to Fort Moresby, they were low on fuel. The dog-fight, had seen to that. They would have to land in New Guinea.
Captain Fred Eaton thought he was setting down the bomber in a wheat field, however, they actually landed wheels-up in the middle of Agaiambo swamp. The only good news in this horrific failure of a mission was that the crew was unscathed, except for one with minor cuts and scrapes. Now, they still had to get out of the swamp. It took two days of hacking their way through the razor-sharp kunai grass for the men to reach dry land. They ran into some locals who were chopping wood. The locals took them, horribly bitten by mosquitos and infected with malaria, to their village. After a night of rest, they traveled downriver in canoes, where they were handed over to an Australian magistrate, and eventually arrived at Port Moresby on April 1…thirty six days after their crash. After a week in the hospital, the men returned to combat, but their plane did not. After 41-2446’s crash, Captain Fred Eaton flew 60 more missions. Whenever these missions would take him over the crash site, he would circle it and tell his new crewmembers the story of what happened. I suppose it was therapeutic to re-live the amazing escape from the Agaiambo swamp. This was where the plane’s legend was born. After Eaton returned home, 41-2446 slipped from the public eye for nearly three decades.
Then, in 1972, some Australian soldiers happened upon the crash. After spotting the wreckage from a helicopter, they landed on the aircraft’s wing and found the plane semi-submerged, and strangely intact. The machine guns were in place, and even the coffee thermoses were intact. They nicknamed the plane, Swamp Ghost, and the name stuck. Thanks to warbird collector Charles Darby who included dozens of photographs in his book, Pacific Aircraft Wrecks, word spread in 1979 . Once the fad of recovering World War II aircraft really took off. Trekkers hiked into the site and began stripping the aircraft for keepsakes and sellable items. Despite the stripping, the aircraft structure itself remained remarkably intact, until it was removed from the swamp.
Alfred Hagen, a pilot and commercial builder from Pennsylvania, set his sights on Swamp Ghost and wanted to take it free it from the disintegration of the swamp. In November 2005, he obtained an export permit for the B-17 for $100,000. For four weeks they labored over the aircraft, dismantling it in order to ship it out of the country. The controversy over its removal halted the cargo before it could be shipped to the United States. Eventually, it was cleared for import and by February 2010 it arrived at the Pacific Aviation Museum at Pearl Harbor for display.