Honoring a 70-Year Old Memory of a B-17 Crew Operating in France: Sequestration is Not the Only Reality

2013-07-04 by Robbin Laird

When inside the beltway, one can often lose sense of reality.

One of these realities is how perception matters in the big world out there, and showing up to honor allied memories and to be present in major events is crucial to shaping current and future capabilities.

Woody Allen put it this way: “80 percent of life is showing up.” With sequestration as an excuse, we often are not. 

As Lt. General (retired) Deptula, recently reminded us, the Administration and Congressional dance called sequestration has real consequences: we are enforcing a no fly zone on the United States and not against adversaries.

But not only in the United States is sequestration having its perceptual impacts – the absence of the USAF was certainly noted at Le Bourget and only by a miracle did the USAF have representation at a powerful ceremony held on Noirmoutier island, France, the scene of B-17 raid, and the rescue of downed crewmen after a raid against Nazi air and maritime facilities in this part of France.

For the crew that would fly on July 4, 1943, their training saved their lives. 

As one of the participants in the ceremony, the brother of the co-pilot of the plane crewed by the “Battling Bastards,” commented that if his brother were at the ceremony he would have highlighted the skill and courage of the pilot who landed the Flying Fortress with only one engine operating into the water at low tide.

Training matters. 

For the B-17 crews flying in Europe, every flight into Nazi held territory was their Pointe du Hoche moment: Fighting uphill against tough odds, with the distinct possibility of not coming back without the proper training even less crew members would have survived.

As one B-17 crewmember wrote in his diary on the occasion of his participation in a bombing run against Le Bourget on August 16, 1943,

Soon after daylight the formation was crossing the gray-green water of the English Channel.  My anxiety and tension mounted, as I knew we would invade the lair of Goering’s best.  The veterans had made certain we know what usually happened to new crews on their first meeting with Jerry.  They were not expected to come back – it was as simple as that.” 1

The crew, which flew on July 4, 1943, was part of what history would remember as the Mighty 8th, but it certainly was not yet the Mighty 8th.  It was a group of airmen who were starting to forge an identity.  The crew was from the 92nd Bomber Group, and members of the 407th Bomber Squadron.

Among the targets from May 1943 through February 1944 attacked by this bomber group were the following: shipyards at Kiel, ball-bearing plants at Schewinfurt, submarine installations at Wilhelmshaven, a tire plant at Hanover, airfields near Paris, an aircraft factory at Nantes, and a magnesium mine and reducing plant in Norway.  A pretty wide-ranging and impressive set of targets!  2

The 10-crew members of the July 4, 1943 raid crash landed on Noirmoutier Island, France and became prisoners of the Third Reich.

1943 was turning point year in the war.

But given that only God knows the outcome, warriors in 1943 could sense the turning but not yet feel the victory.  America was engaged in a two front war, with the clear public priority to avenge for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.  President Roosevelt wished to prioritize the effort in Europe but only the Miracle of the Battle of Midway (June 1942) would allow him to have the political space to do so.

1943 began with the Soviet victory at Stalingrad.  The capture of the 6th Army at Stalingrad was first great defeat for the Nazis.  This was to be followed by the surrender of the Afrika Corps in May 1943.

As the crew entered their B-17 on July 4, 1943, they could not know how significant that month would prove to be for the war effort.  They were simply participants in combat in a very significant month in the history of World War II.

The largest tank battle in history was being fought and won by the Russians against the Germans in early July 1943.  The allied invasion of Sicily was to begin on July 10th and Mussolini was to be overthrown by the Italians on July 25, 1943.

And for the Mighty 8th, they were to participate with the British in the largest firestorm bombing in history (up to that point of time).  The joint US-British massive bombing assault on Hamburg began on July 24th and the fires would continue in Hamburg until October.

The raid on July 4, 1943 marked the first anniversary of Eighth Air Force bomber operations from the UK. 

The occasion was marked by a three-pronged assault in force with the 192 1st Wing Fortresses attacking aircraft works at Le Mans and Nantes while 83 planes struck La Pallice.

The report on the bombing activities of the 8th Air Force for activities on July 4, 1943 from the official logs:

8th Bomber Command Mission 71: 192 B-17s are dispatched against aircraft factories at Le Mans and Nanes, France; 166 make a very effective attack; 83 other B-17s are dispatched against submarine yards at La Pallice, France; 71 hit the target between 1201 and 1204 local; U loses 1 and 1 is damaged; causalities are 10 MIA. Bombing is extremely accurate.

So what did it feel like to be a member of a B-17 crew in the summer of 1943?

One source of getting an insider’s feeling at the time was provided by the following comment from a crewmember diary:

The Major hesitated before answering and studied a large chart on the wall crowded with names. See that chart? That’s the combat roster. We’ve been here sixty days, and so far we’ve lost a hundred and one percent of our combat personnel.  3

The ceremony itself culminated in two events: the unveiling of a new monument to the crew of the B-17 overlooking the beach where the plane can still be found and the flying of the last operational B-17 in Europe.

The most compelling part of the ceremony in many ways was the presence of a large number of the generations of French who had organized the 70th anniversary and who attended the events.  Seeing the US and French flags flying everywhere and many World War II vehicles, weapons and uniforms was part of the bonding experience as well.

The representative of the French Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, General (retired) Pierre Niclot emphasized the close relationship between the US and French Air Forces which culminated in the recent Mali operation, the “first in which the USAF went under the command of the French forces to support the operation.”

The USAF representative, Col. Peter Goldfein, emphasized the solidarity among allies and highlighted the importance of the USAF and FAF training and fighting together.

The impact on the older generation – still alive – who saw the plane crash land was quite impressive as well.  The brother of the co-pilot, George Stephenson, provided this insight into the impact upon one resident.

I want you to think back to 70 years ago.  Vision a little girl (Anne Gloire) 12 years old dressed in a beautiful white dress, kipping along the path to her mother’s house near the beach.  The little girl has just received her first communion…. 

Suddenly, Anne hears shooting from all around here – from the soldiers – from the sky – planes flying above her shooting.  Then a very large plane appears with four engines with only one working.  She was afraid it might hit her home.  It crashes in the water not far from shore.  She is terrified and cries for her mother to protect her. 

Then she sees 10 men leave the plane with yellow vests.  The soldiers are shooting at them.  The men come to shore – several wounded by the soldiers.  The soldiers shoved the men and loaded them into trucks and hauled them away.  Anne wonders what would happen to them.

Stephenson then added that on a trip to France some years ago, he meet Anne Gloire and then he called his brother on a cell phone for her to talk directly to his brother.  “This was closure for her.”

Better than any politician, Stephenson summed up the importance of the event. “I think if my brother were here today, he would say that the appearance of his plane above the water gave hope to people in the village that liberation and freedom are coming soon and remains a symbol of freedom to this day.”

But it won’t be if we do not show up. 

Sequestration ultimately is about not showing up.  And speaking of showing up, the sole remaining B-17 flying in Europe, which provided the final statement on the day and on the weekend, was flown by a private group, which is in desperate need of money to keep the plane flying.

These folks are all British.

It is time for Americans to step in and help.  As citizens, we cannot use the excuse of sequestration.

A good way to remember July 4th 2013 would be to help keep the B-17 flying as a symbol of freedom in Europe.

For a link to this organization and an opportunity to help them keep the B-17 flying in Europe go to the following link:

http://www.sallyb.org.uk/

For a special report on the lessons learned from the B-17 experience see the following:

http://www.sldinfo.com/the-b-17-and-its-continuing-legacy/

And in memory of the men who signed the Declaration and to the first signer who wrote his signature large enough “for King George to read it without his glasses,” courage remains the bedrock for the defense of freedom.  And the B-17 story is replete with examples both negative and positive about the support for the defense of freedom.

I put it starkly in an earlier B-17 piece: “Are we Lindburgh or Andrews?”  This ceremony only deepened my conviction that we are facing such a choice in this decade.

http://www.sldinfo.com/remembering-the-b-17-era-are-we-lindbergh-or-andrews/

An earlier version of this piece appeared on Breaking Defense:

http://breakingdefense.com/2013/07/03/french-gather-by-thousands-to-honor-us-pilots-downed-on-fourth-of-july-1943/

The photos in the slideshows above were shot on June 30, 2013 and credited to Second Line of Defense.

The first photo in the first slideshow is of the brother of the co-pilot of the plane delivering a compelling presentation.

The additional photos of the B-17 during flight and of the memorial should be credited to Second Line of Defense and were shot on June 30, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes:

  1. Comer, John (2012-01-05). Combat Crew: The Story of 25 Combat Missions Over Europe From the Daily Journal of a B-17 Gunner (p. 1). Kindle Edition
  2. Air Force Combat Units of World War II, Office of Air Force History, 1983
  3. Comer, John (2012-01-05). Combat Crew: The Story of 25 Combat Missions Over Europe From the Daily Journal of a B-17 Gunner (p. 2). Kindle Edition

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