Remembering the B-17 and Its Crews

06/30/2013 By Robbin Laird

I am here with others to honor the crew of a B-17 which crashed in France on July 4, 1943.

Having been born in 1946, I was a generational beneficiary of my parent’s generation which fought against tyranny and prevailed.

This fight seems a never ending one, and I will address some lessons learned from the B-17 generation that are being played out again in today’s challenging strategic environment.

I have been involved with the evolution of airpower over the past thirty years and had the opportunity and honor to work with the 21st Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne and continue to work with various services involved in shaping 21st century airpower in the defense of freedom.

For make no mistake – air power remains a bedrock capability for the defense of America and its allies.

Checking the impact of a bomb attack on a rail line in occupied France.

In 2007, when Secretary Wynne was visiting Paris to work with the French government on air power issues, we visited Normandy on the weekend.  This visit was as is always is:  a humbling experience.  To see the various locations of the allied assault on Nazi held France is to remind one of the price of freedom, a price that each generation must pay.

Freedom is not bought except with the blood of patriots.  As Herodotus reminds us: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

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. 

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

Remembering 1943

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 BG 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.  2

The 10 crew members of the July 4, 1943 raid crash landed on Noirmoutier Island, France and became prisoners of the Third Reich.  There were on the way to attack NAZI submarine pens which protected the U-boats participating in what became known as the Battle of the Atlantic.

1943 was turning point year in the war. 

Bombing of Avions Potez Aircraft Factory at Meaulte, France . Copy of Original AP Photo, 1943

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 market 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.

Later that month a number of raids would be conducted against Nazi army facilities in France. July 14thBastille Day was marked by three Flying Fortresses attacks in France.  “A factory at Villacoublay was hit by 101, while the Luftwaffe base at Amiens received the wrath of fifty-three B-17s, and another fifty-two bombed Le Bourget Luftwaffe base outside Paris.”  3

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

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. 4

It was July 1943, and it was all coming to a head for us quite soon now. What would it be like? Could we handle it?  After only ten days of orientation in England, I knew we needed more gunnery practice. The truck slowed down and I saw we were approaching our destination.  All day I had been dreading that moment. Most likely the base would be one of those hard-luck outfits who regularly lost high percentages of their aircraft. The worst of all was the 100th Group. Please! Not that unlucky snake-bit command! But logic indicated that the depleted groups would need more replacement crews like us, who had been hurriedly trained and rushed to the 8th Air Force to cover the heavy losses.  5

There was no time for a briefing on the target before takeoff. As soon as we were settled down in the formation Gleichauf came on intercom: “Pilot to crew, Pilot to crew — we’re heading for Kiel in northern Germany. There are several hundred fighters in the area and you can expect a hot reception.Be ready for attacks halfway across the North Sea. This is your first mission — now don’t get excited an’ let ’em come in on us!”

The formation was far better than I expected. Hour after hour we droned on. It would not be long now: if only we could be lucky enough to get by this one!

The way Gleichauf was holding tight formation, I hoped the fighters would not pick us out to be a new crew. Of course I was keyed up to a high pitch and I wondered if I would forget what little I knew about aerial gunnery in the excitement of the first fighter attacks. 6

Flying close to the deck into Germany. Credit: National Archives

Another crew participant on a different B-17 provides insight into what it felt like.

Then, on the way home, some Focke-Wulfs showed up, armed with rockets, and I saw three B-I7s in the different groups around us suddenly blow up and drop through the sky. Just simply blow up and drop through the sky.  

Nowadays, if you come across something awful happening, you always think, ‘My God, it’s just like a movie,’ and that’s what I thought. I had a feeling that the planes weren’t really falling and burning, the men inside them weren’t really dying, and everything would turn out happily in the end. Then, very quietly through the interphone, our tail gunner said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I’ve been hit.’ 

I crawled back to him and found that he’d been wounded in the side of the head – not deeply but enough so he was bleeding pretty bad. Also, he’d got a lot of the plexiglas dust from his shattered turret in his eyes, so he was, at least for the time being, blind. Though he was blind, he was still able to use his hands, and I ordered him to fire his guns whenever he heard from me.

I figured that a few bursts every so often from his fifties would keep the Germans off our tail, and I also figured that it would give the kid something to think about besides the fact that he’d been hit.

When I got back to the nose, the pilot told me that our No. 4 engine had been shot out. Gradually we lost our place in the formation and flew nearly alone over France.  

That’s about the most dangerous thing that can happen to a lame Fort, but the German fighters had luckily given up and we skimmed over the top of the flak all the way to the Channel.”   7

Why Were We In this Position or Lessons Learned?

The first lesson is that conflict with a reactive enemy always yields outcomes you do not anticipate and create deadly situations you have to deal with. 

For example, it was projected that the formations of B-17s would provide them with significant protection against German fighters.  This made sense until after a few encounters, the Germans figured out that attacking the lead plane in the most vulnerable spot on the B-17 would disrupt the formation and lead to a degraded mission. Opps!  The enemy had a vote in the success or failure of US air campaign planning.

A second lesson evident is the need for journalists and analysts to learn modesty – they are not the warriors and they are not the practitioners of the art of warfare. 

Upon observing an initial bombing run in August 1942, the air correspondent for the Sunday Times, Peter Masefield, wrote that “American heavy bombers are fine flying machines, but they are not suited for bombing in Europe.  Their bombs and bomb loads are too small, their armor and armament are low.”  Not content with this, he went on to advise the American leaders that their planes were better suited for ASW duty. 8

A third lesson is that buying the wrong plane matters. 

The B-18 was cheaper but the B-17 was the right plane to buy.  But do to various challenges, the B-18 was built and the B-17 was barely kept alive on life support so that even after a surge there were less than 40 available at the start of the war, and they were in the Pacific.

And never underestimate the intelligence of warriors to know when they are fighting with inferior equipment.  After Pearl Harbor, the B-18 was pressed into service as a major asset in Hawaii “We were told that there were three B-18s flyable and we would take off and find the Jap fleet.  I was scared.  I thought of my slim chances of coming out of this flight alive should we run into some Jap fighters.  Hell! They’d blow us right out of the sky in the these very vulnerable B-18s.”  9

The fourth lesson is that battles among weapons advocates before a war have their impact. 

The fighter advocates did not believe in bombers and the bomber advocates wanted their planes so much that they argued that if properly armed one would not need fighters.  The end result was bomber crews going into arms way over Germany with no fighter escorts under the P-51 turned up later in the war.  This did not need to have happen if the right approach – integrated air operations – had been recognized and adopted from the beginning.

And when the P-51s finally joined with the B-17 massive air raids with great success was possible.

Here are comments on the Bombing of Berlin on February 3, 1945.

Over one thousand Fortresses would take part.  The American bombers would be escorted by more than 900 P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts.  The target was the center of Berlin – more specifically Gestapo headquarters, the Reich Chancellery, the German Air Ministry….”

“The massive American air rad was the worst yet for Germany; the bombers dropped almost twenty-three hundred tons of bombs on the city of Berlin.  For nearly two solid hours, the German capital was pounded by wave after wave of American bombers.”

When the first American bomber hit Berlin, the last bomber in the formation was just over Holland10

The fifth lesson is that buying equipment early enough so that the warriors can train with it and the commander’s figure out what do with it matters as well. 

This lesson was underscored by the decisive failure against the Japanese in the Pacific.

The B-17 was part of the Pearl Harbor and Philippine kick-offs to World War II. It was the B-17 anticipated landings in Pearl Harbor on December 7th that confused American airmen about the air traffic identified early on December 7th

And the largest contingent of B-17s was on the Philippines for the defense of the island against the Japanese threatened invasion. There were 107 P-40 Tomahawk fighters and 35 B-17 bombers were in place in the Philippines at the time of the Japanese attack. The first Japanese Zero shot down by a US aircraft was by a B-17

The B-17 was sent to the Philippines by Arnold and Marshall for the long-range defense of the US forces in the Philippines

To bolster the air arm in the Philippines, in July, Major General Henry ‘Hap’ H. Arnold, Chief of the Army Air Forces, proposed reinforcing the Philippine Army Air Corps by sending four heavy bombardment groups and 2 pursuit squadrons to the Philippines. General George C. Marshall, United States Army Chief of Staff, echoed this concern when on 1 December he stated, “We must get every B-17 to the Philippines as soon as possible.” However, by the time hostilities broke out 6 days later, only 107 P-40 Tomahawk fighters and 35 B-17 bombers were in place in the Philippines.  11

In November 1941, General Marshall expressed his confidence that the B-17s in the Philippines could easily fend of any Japanese attack and set “the paper cities of Japan” ablaze.  But there was a small problem: the B-17s had NEVER trained for such a mission

Two views of flying in formation.

Meanwhile, Major General Brereton, the newly designated Air Commander of the Philippine Air Forces had a different view and concern. With only one airfield he believed the B-17s were extremely vulnerable to elimination by attack from the air and this, of course, turned out to be the case. Amazingly, in spite of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the B-17s were caught on the ground a day later and in a 45 minute attack Clark Field was ruble.

General Brereton flew to Clark field on December 6th to plan a potential bombing mission ataings Formosa should war break out. Because of lack of military intelligence the plan was to attack Takao Harbor based on assumption of presence of Japanese transports and warships. An exercise was planned for December 8th for the entire 19th Bomber Group

Unfortunately, the Japanese had real war plans and real military intelligence. In response to the attack on the Philippines, a single B-17 attacked a Japanese capital ship and severely damaged it. On the way back a pack of zero fighters pursued it and assumed from the amount of gunfire and its speed that the single plane was many more. As a Japanese pilot involved in the destruction of that B-17 commented: “This was our first experience with the B-17 and the airplane’s unusual size caused us to midjudge our firing distance.  In addition, the bomber’s extraordinary speed, for which we had made no allowance, threw our range finders off.”

And in an understatement which reflected a failure in US procurement and war planning: “We had never heard of unescorted bombers in battle.”  12

In other words, the B-17 simply was not used correctly.

MacArthur as Army Chief of Staff Clearly Considered the Army Air Corps as an extension of the ground forces and as a fairly limited coastal defense force. He was at the forefront of resisting the formation of an independent air arm and forcefully underscored that aviation could not independently influence the outcome of war. And when his chance came to use the B-17s to strike Japanese airpower on Formosa, in spite of several hours of fog which kept the Japanese on the ground, did not send the B-17s to do the one mission which they could have done, namely to bomb the Japanese aircraft on the ground in Formosa

B-17s under flak attack over Germany.

Would MacArthur have changed his views if there were enough B-17s in the fleet to demonstrate the “theory” of strategic bombing or of having an “independent effect”? But the aircraft was procured as an experiment and was considered by many to be just that and not an essential element of the American warfighting capabilities.

A final lesson is the importance of leadership in peacetime for survival and success in wartime.  

The Boeing Company was central to the gamble to build the B-17. The Boeing leadership literally bet the future of the company on what would become the B-17 as did several of its test pilots with their lives.

And airpower advocates in the Army Air Corps cultivated leaders who would become central to the War Effort. For example, Col. Frank Andrews, core advocate of strategic bombing brought General George Marshall to the Boeing plant in 1938 and Marshall learned first hand why the B-17 was the priority not the B-18.

The US and Germany made decisions about bombers in almost in the same year which would turn out to have a decisive impact on the outcome. 

The US was deciding AGAINST the B-17 but leaders in the Army Air Corps weighed in to save it.  Maj. Gen. Benjamin D. Foulois, then chief of the Air Corps endorsed the recommendation of one of his field commanders to procure at least a few of the B-17s for an operating squadron to conduct advanced aeronautical tests.

The War Department approved an Air Corps contract with Boeing in January 1936 for thirteen of the aircraft fitted with superchargers and other equipment for high-altitude flight.  In spite of losing the competition and crashing, Brigadier General Augustine Warner Robins, chief of the Air Material Command believed in the plane. He persuaded the War Department to buy 13 of the planes under the experimental provisions of Section K of the National Defense Act (1926).

At the same time, General Frank M. Andrews, commander of the General Headquarters (Army) Air Force weighed in with his support. 13 test models of the Flying Fortress received funding.

Meanwhile that great military strategist, Adolf Hitler decided against the Luftwaffe developing or buying a medium heavy bomber.

In other words, by a thread, history was being made by two different decisions in Berlin and Washington which would affect the outcome of the war to come.

In honoring this crew, we must remember our obligations to history both past and future.  We must learn from their courage and the processes, which put them in harm’s way.  As Secretary Wynne has often commented: We need to buy the equipment and provide the training to avoid the fair fight.

I have prepared two briefings on the B-17, which can be downloaded at the following links:

http://www.slideshare.net/robbinlaird/honoring-the-b17

http://www.slideshare.net/robbinlaird/b-17-world-war-ii-photos

And we have prepared a Special Report as well which can be found here:

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

For a PDF version of this article see the following:

Remembering June 2013

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. Bill Yenne, B-17 at War (Zenith Press, 2006)
  4. 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
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/b17.htm.
  8. Martin Bowman, B-17 Flying Fortress Units of the 8th Air Force (Osprey Publishing, 2000)
  9. Comment from then Private Schaeffer as quoted in Gene Eric Salecker, Fortress Against the Sun (Combined Publishing, 2001), p. 54
  10. Travis L. Ayres, The Bomber Boys (New York: NAL Caliber, 2005)
  11. http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/wwii/articles/macarthursfailures.aspx
  12. Gene Eric Salecker, Fortress Against the Sun (Combined Publishing, 2001), p. 71 and 66

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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