At our 2003 Reunion of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association in Covington, KY, it was pointed out that someone in our assemblage had participated in the destruction of three B-17's, probably a record. That "someone" was me, and I consider it a rather Dubious Distinction. When asked for details, I only replied "I figured that if I got two more, I'd be an ACE, before I learned that they were supposed to be ENEMY PLANES!" To which Hal Weekley replied, "You were closer to an IRON CROSS! (It's great to have friends like Hal!)
But, it is true. I'm not proud of that, because, after my wife, Jane, the B-17 "Flying Fortress" was my first love. Learning to fly one was my major motivation to enlist in the Army Air Corps, which, I soon learned, was a pretty ambitious goal for a farm boy with only a High School education. Despite that, I succeeded, got my WINGS, and was assigned to Roswell Army Air Base, Roswell, NM, for B-17 Transition Training.
It was during that Transition Training, that I "got #1". It happened on the day my instructor took me and a fellow Student Officer up to practice emergency landings. There were just the three of us, not even a flight engineer, on board. By hindsight, that should have told me something! We were learning to handle a crippled plane, with two engines out on the same side. This was simulated by throttling back two engines (#3 & #4) on the right wing to 1200 rpm, where they would be readily available for recovery from an emergency situation. I successfully completed my emergency landing practice with no adverse comments from the instructor.
Then it was my fellow student's turn. I sensed disaster from the start of his first attempt, because he turned from the downwind leg into the base leg too far from the field, making for a very long approach. In order to reach the field, he began "dragging it in", trying to "stretch the glide". Then he committed the cardinal sin of failing to hold the "dead wing", the one with the two dead engines, high. As we approached the end of the runway, that "dead wing" had dropped below horizontal and, I, sensing an impending stall, reached for the #3 & #4 throttles to feed in a little power. The instructor batted my hand aside and, at what seemed like the same instant, the plane stalled out at about 75 feet up and we hit the runway amid one helluva cloud of dust. We scrambled out, without injury, and scooted away from the wreckage. There was neither fire nor explosion, but that war weary B-17-F was now minus its' landing gear and plus about a fifteen degree dogleg bend in the fuselage, just behind the radio room. Needless to say, it never flew again. So, that was #1. Plane destroyed. No one injured. I completed the Training, was assigned a crew as 1st Pilot, and went on to Alexandria Army Base, Alexandria, LA for Operational Training.
After only a couple of weeks at OTU, I experienced an emergency appendectomy and the crew acquired a new pilot and went on without me. I have no idea what became of them. After about ten weeks delay due to hospitalization, medical leave, and awaiting a new crew, I finally completed OTU and went on to Staging for Overseas at Lincoln, NE. We departed the States from Grenier Field at Manchester, NH, bound for Prestwyck, Scotland, via the "Atlantic Bridge". First stop, Goose Bay, Labrador. Next stop, Bluie West One, Narsarsuaq, Greenland, where we landed on Christmas Eve, 1944. That's where I "got #2"!
That incident, which is mentioned on our Web Site (398th.org) in the article about "Bluie West One", occurred on the morning of 29 December 1944 as we were departing for Iceland. I aborted the takeoff part way down the runway, when my Flight Engineer, Fred Bradley, shouted "No air speed! reasoning that it was safer to remain on the ground, than to take off and attempt to navigate the hazardous surrounding terrain and make a safe landing without an air speed indicator. However, we had too much momentum to stop before reaching the end of the runway, so wiped out the landing gear on rough shore ice and came to rest on the 40, or so, inches of ice of the frozen fjord. The right wing was ablaze and flames were licking around the nose as we in the crew scrambled to safety. As we stood back, "counting noses", we were joined by base personnel, who soon realized there was little they could do except stand safely back and let it burn. That airplane, though loaded with 2780 gallons of high-octane gasoline (and all of our personal possessions except the clothes we were wearing), did not explode, but burned itself out, raising a thick cloud of black smoke. (See Web Site for photo.)
Although apparently unhurt, all nine of us were checked out at the base hospital, where the most serious injury found was a sprained ankle on waist gunner John Miller. The entire crew was interrogated, and I suspect that base personnel filed an accident report, but I have no knowledge of their conclusions. Crewmembers in the waist reported seeing fire in the right wing, under the #3 engine, midway down the runway. Does that mean that we would have been in deep trouble as soon as we were airborne, had the takeoff been successful? Although the plane was assigned to the Air Transport Command while being "ferried" to Europe, it was still my responsibility, as Aircraft Commander, to get it there safely. I failed to accomplish that. That was #2. Plane destroyed. Fortunately, nine-man crew uninjured, except for the sprained ankle. Post War note: I have been unable to find any report of the accident, but have learned that the plane was considered a part of the Eighth Air Force when it was destroyed.
After "thumbing" a ride to Iceland in a C-46 cargo plane, and one in a C-54, also a cargo plane, to Prestwyck, Scotland, we rode a train to the Replacement Center at Stone, England, where we finally became a part of the "Mighty Eighth" Air Force. We were assigned to the 398th Bomb Group at Air Force Station 131, Nuthampstead, Herts, arriving there on 23 January 1945. Beginning 6 February 1945, we flew 23 missions by April 10th, and successfully returned Uncle Sam's B-17 to Station 131 undamaged, if numerous flak holes can be ignored, each time!
However, we flew our 24th mission on Friday, 13 April 1945. That was the infamous "RDX Mission", which is described in detail on our Web Site, where we bombed our secondary target, the railroad marshalling yards at Neumunster. That's where I "got" my third B-17.
After our squadron was decimated by the accidental bomb explosion as we came off the target, we nursed that stricken airplane about 180 miles, as measured on a map, on two engines, in spite of the drag from a "windmilling" prop, to a crash landing on a small unpaved airfield. After evacuating the plane and, unsure that we had reached friendly territory, the nine of us watched apprehensively as two van-like vehicles approached. We were much relieved to find that they were U.S. ambulances from a field hospital, which had been set up on the other side of that small field a week or ten days earlier.
We were kept there overnight and then flown back to hospitals in England the next day. Although all of us, except tail gunner Bill Jones, had only slight injuries, we were processed through the hospital chain before returning to duty, which required several days. Jones suffered a fractured vertebra and spent the remainder of his stay in England in a body cast in a general hospital in southwestern England before returning to the "States". He made a full recovery and went back to driving semi-trailers in the Rocky Mountains, among other things, before he died in 1991. As for the plane, it sustained further damage in the landing, caught fire, and burned, again without an explosion. Because of the alertness and generosity of the co-pilot of the MedEvac plane that flew us back to England, I have pictures of the wreckage. (See Website for photo.) That was #3. Plane destroyed. One major injury. Eight minor injuries. All ten planes suffered varying degrees of damage that day, and five were totally destroyed, including mine. (I refuse to accept any credit for the destruction of the other four!)
So, there you have it. I was involved in three plane crashes and walked away from all of them, essentially unharmed. My entire nine-man crew was involved in two of them. Three B-17s were destroyed. Among the crew, there was one major injury and one minor injury, with the others essentially unhurt. None became POWs. All completed 24 missions. All returned to their families and led productive post-war lives.
On a personal note, that ten week delay in OTU, due to my appendectomy, which I considered a misfortune at the time, may have saved my life. Crews who joined the Eighth AF during that time were involved in some of the bloodiest missions, destroying German refineries to shut off their fuel supply. That, the three crashes, and several other similar events, cause me to believe that either I am incredibly lucky, or I do, indeed, have a "Guardian Angel", and a very diligent one! I am certainly one of the few who can look back on my military service during World War II as three years of high adventure and the source of endless pleasure as a member of our Memorial Association during my retirement years.