Bebe - Boeing B-17 # 43-37982 N7-K

And It’s Ground Crew
M/Sgt. Earl Southwick, Sgt. Dallas Ebest and Cpl. Fred Whitman
By Dallas Ebest, Ground Crew, 603rd Squadron

But I will begin my story before I met Bebe, N7-K.

I joined the Army Air Corps July 27, 1942. After basic training I was assigned to the 311 Technical Squadron at Sheppard Field, Texas. At the completion of five months mechanic training I was sent to Santa Monica, Calif. to the Douglas Aircraft Factory for a study of the B-17. Upon completion of the course we were sent to Salt Lake City, Utah, Replacement Center. After three weeks of freezing and wading through snow, the good Lord smiled on this southern boy and sent him back to a warm climate, Blythe, Calif. There I was assigned to the 4th Bomb Squadron, 34th Bomb Group. Having had previous experience on B-17s (one year at Kelly Field Texas as a civilian at this B-17 modification Base), I was assigned to a ground crew, where I received my Private First Class stripe.

Two months later I was reassigned to a B-17 cadre that was being formed, (the 398th). We had about six weeks of desert survival and gunnery practice on the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. Upon completion of this training in 100+ degree weather, the 398th boarded a troop train. Three days later, dressed in our summer uniforms, we stepped off the train in Spokane, WA into falling snow.

In Spokane we received our first two B-17s. During our stay there I was promoted to Sergeant. Several of us that were promoted received a one-day 24-hour pass. The problem with the pass was, in the infinitive wisdom of the powers that be, the day started at 0001 hours and ended at 2400 hours, since the pass should be in the same time frame. Who goes on pass at mid-night? No one! So we slept in, had lunch and went to town. I came back and signed in at the orderly room about 2330, read the bulletin board only to find out I had guard duty from 0001 to 0600 (midnight to 6:00 am). Here I am on guard duty walking around the two B-17s and time is really passing slowly, each minute seems like an hour. I did not know that I could walk in my sleep, but I could, up until I walked into a propeller blade, that brought me back to reality. I did stay awake until I finished guard duty and was relieved. Man what a bummer!

Several months later we were moved to Rapid City, South Dakota. Here we received the rest of our B-17s and began our first phase training as a combat unit in preparation for over seas duty. But, before our training was completed we were reclassified to a replacement-training unit. We trained combat crews to go over seas. This situation lasted for about a year. We were reclassified as a combat unit and each squadron was assigned twelve brand new B-17s. The flight crews flew the planes out while the ground personnel went by train to Boston, Mass. Then the 398th ground forces boarded a converted ocean liner and left Boston harbor for an eleven day cruise to England. There were the ground support forces of four bomb groups, over 8000, on board plus the ships crew. The Navy thought that the liner was fast enough to out run any German sub; we took off without a convoy. We either out ran them or none found us and we arrived safely in Liverpool.

We took a train to Royston and upon arriving there we climbed onto trucks and were off to Station 131. I worked with another crew for a few days until 43-37982 arrived. M/Sgt Earl Southwick, our crew chief, Corporal Fred Whitman and I were the whole ground crew. Whatever rank you had did not matter, No chiefs, we were all Indians. Every one worked until the job was finished and the plane was ready to fly for the next day’s mission.

We named the plane Bebe for Southwick’s wife. We also painted on our Group colors and Squadron identification markings on the sides of the fuselage N7-K. Our radio call was Adorn, K King. N7-K completed about 30 missions before being badly shot up. With only two engines still running and losing altitude over Germany the pilot headed for friendly territory in Belgium. If she could only stay in the air. The crew jettisoned everything in the airplane radios, guns, ammo even the ball turret was dropped to lighten the load, even the wooden catwalk was torn loose and tossed overboard. With full throttle and boost she made a safe landing in Belgium. This was either the 10th or the 11th of Oct. 1944 [Editor's note: probably 7 Oct 1944 to Brux, Czechoslovakia, see note below]. The crew was thankful that the proud bird had returned them safely to friendly country. The crew was picked up and brought back to the base and told their story. We all figured that was the end of Bebe, that and she would end up in the scrap pile.

We were given another plane. I don’t recall the tail number but the 603 Squadron identification was N7-V. I remember painting an extra V on the chin turret and three dots and a dash (Morse code for V, Victor). I don’t remember how many missions she completed, but she crashed on base during takeoff on a practice mission.

After losing that plane we received a Pathfinder, a B-17 with all of the latest radar equipment, super hot stuff. This plane had to have an armed guard with it at all times. There were not enough guards for this duty so it fell the lot of the ground crew to guard her most of the time. We worked during the day and one of us would sleep in the plane at night. This arrangement seemed to make the Brass [higher command] happy so we lived with it. When it was my turn to be guard I would sleep on the walkway in the waist area. When the armament people came out to load the bombs they would step over me, most of the time. After being stepped on several times I moved to the tail gunners position where I thought I would be out of the way, wrong again. The first night someone opened the hatch and tossed in a 50 cal. [caliber] machine gun on top of me, (short nap) so back to the walkway. It’s better to be stepped on than having 30 lbs. of iron tossed on me. We had this pathfinder B-17 for several months when the base operations called our engineering office to inform us that Bebe had just landed.

Old 43-37982 was sad a looking lady (not much left) but she was back. After about 6 weeks of work. Changed all 4 engines and 4 superchargers. The mechanics in Belgium had installed 2 engines off of another wreck to get her back into service. The 2 original engines were worn out from the strain of flying with full throttle and boost to keep her in the air. When all of the radio gear and guns were replaced she was again ready for action.

One morning on pre-flight run up one of the superchargers would not reach full boost. After pulling the cowling we discovered that a piece of flak from the previous mission had gone through a small opening in the cowling undetected. The piece of flak had gone completely through the cast aluminum elbow to the carburetor leaving a hole on both sides about an inch and a half in diameter. The combat crew was really complaining about not being able to make this mission for it was a short mission and reasonably a safe one.

I went to supply and acquired some dope and a piece of cloth that we cut out patches for the fabric on the control surfaces. In short I made a “Band-aid” for it. I wrapped several layers of cloth around the elbow to cover the holes and doped it down. In a few minutes the patch was dry, we cranked up the engine and it went to full boost without a problem. The cowling was reinstalled and they left on their milk run and every one was happy. Upon their return we installed a new elbow, luckily the pieces of metal that was shot out of the elbow were lying on the heavy wire screen that covered the air intake and did not damage the engine.

Had this kind of repair been made stateside I could have been court-martialed, but this was a different time and place. We had to do what had to be done to keep the planes in the air. Stateside we would pull the plane off of flying status to perform the 100-hour inspections. In combat we couldn’t do that, since the average mission was about 10 hours long we did running inspections. On every other mission we would perform the inspection on one of the engines. After completing the inspection of the fourth engine we did the fuselage and other maintenance. Our three-man ground crew never had one of our planes turn back from a mission because of mechanical problems. M/Sgt Southwick, our crew chief received the Bronze Star award for this.

On returning from one of her missions over Germany the right wing looked like a piece of Swiss cheese, we counted over one hundred flak holes in the top of the wing. After replacing the wing with one from a wrecked plane she was back in the air again. To my knowledge we had several wounded but never a casualty during the 68 combat missions that Bebe was flown.

I loved to fly and wanted to be a pilot, but 20/25 vision did not qualify for that honor. I did the next best thing; if you can’t fly them, then fix them. When a crew would go on a test flight after installing a major component, an engine, supercharger or a control surface I would always go along. I had the confidence that the plane was in good flying condition and this I believe was passed along to the flight crews and I was often asked to fly with them.

Two days after the war ended we went on a sightseeing flight over the invasion coast to Cologne, then down the Rhine valley and on to Paris. We had good view, we flew at about 1500 feet and could see first hand all of the damage that had been done.

The morning of May 28, 1945 Cpl Fred Whitman, my self and eighteen more, and including the B-17 flight crew (and 1 pet monkey) boarded old # 982 and headed to the USA. Our first leg of our flight ended at Lands End in Wales on the tip of the English Coast. Next stop was an Air Transport Command field in the Azores. Fred and I had to service the plane with gas and oil instead of going right to the mess hall to eat. The refueling truck driver had mentioned that we could eat at the snack bar. We headed for the PX. That was one of the best meals ever. Hamburger, french fries and a chocolate milk shake - food fit for a king. It had been over a year since we had anything like that to eat. The next morning we took off for St. Johns, Newfoundland. There we were snowed in for 3 days.

Our next stop was somewhere in New Hampshire. That was where we said good-bye to Bebe. I have often wondered where she went, most likely to one of the old war bird graveyards in Arizona to be recycled. I would like to think that Bebe is part of a B-52 [super fortress bomber] somewhere still flying in the blue.

This is the life story of Bebe, my B-17G, serial number 43-37982.

Our Flak News Editor, Allen Ostrom was tail gunner on Bebe, you will notice that on most of the drawings that Allen has put in the Flak News of a B-17, it will have the tail number 43-37982.

I met my future wife Geneva Mullins in Rapid City, South Dakota. She is from Nashville, Tenn. We became engaged and we were married June 9, 1945 and we are still on our honeymoon. I enlisted in the Air Force Reserve when I was discharged at the end the war and was called back to active duty in 1951 during the Korean Conflict. I was assigned to the 1700 MATS Maintenance Depot at Kelly AFB. Upon finishing that tour of duty I went into the automotive repair business, and later on acquiring a motorcycle dealership. These took up most of the next 30 years.

My wife Geneva and I were very pleased to be the hosts for the 398th reunion in San Antonio, Texas in 1987. I now spend time on several hobbies like woodworking, ham radio and doing genealogy research on my computers.

I have always wanted to return to Station 131 in England and the Lord willing, maybe I will.

Editor's Notes:

  1. From Fortresses over Nuthampstead regarding 43-37982 page 137: 43-37982 Assigned as a replacement aircraft 31st July 1944. 603-K BE BE. Reported MIA 7th Oct 1944 then to AOC 14th October 1944. Reassigned 18th October 1944. To AOC mission of 29th January 1945. To Valley for return to ZOI 26th May 1945. To Kingman late 1945. (233D/67M)

See also:

  1. Southwick's Ground Crew - 603rd Squadron - 1944 or 1945
  2. Jordan's Crew - 603rd Squadron - 16 August 1944 - likely photo of 43-37982 N7-K Bebe

This story was transcribed for the web site by Ruthanna Doerstler, widow of Wayne Doerstler, 602 Engineer. With special thanks to Geoff Rice for retrieving a copy of it from his files for the transcription.


Personal History Information
  1. Veteran: Dallas Ebest
  2. Pilot, 603rd Squadron
  3. Date of Personal History: June 2006
  4. Author: Dallas Ebest
  5. Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Wally Blackwell