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A B-17 Story

The Collings Foundation flies across the U.S. for nine months every year with a B-17 Flying Fortress and the only flyable B-24 Liberator. It is their way of keeping the memory of the brave crews who fought and won the war for freedom in the forties, and the magnificent aircraft that allowed them to do it, present and alive in the minds of those of us who fought, and those who benefited from the valor of those crews.

I wrote this story for the Collings Foundation in gratitude for a ride they gave me on their B-17, an airplane long-loved by me since childhood. A dream come true.  It came as a result of having campaigned for a ride for my childhood friend’s father, Jim Olmsted, who was a co-pilot in the 100th Bomb Group. Mr. Olmsted turned down the ride saying “I’ve been shot up, shot at, and shot down in those things”. So I got the ride of a lifetime.

The article below is based on Jim’s interview.

“I am 20 years old and the world is pouring by underneath me at 140 knots. I sit crouched in the Plexiglas-encased nose of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber headed east over Germany. It is 1944 and my country is at war with Germany and Japan and I and my crew of 10 have come to drop bombs on ball bearing manufacturing plants in Berlin and I am afraid.

I have been afraid before. Fifteen times we’ve made this run and fifteen times I’ve come back alive and unhurt. I am beating the odds. Every time we go on a mission the odds are one in twenty-three that we won’t come back.

We’ve been awake since 4 a.m. for our mission briefing. Breakfast was at five – my stomach so tight I could hardly get it down. But I did. I knew I’d need the energy. It’s a long way from Thorpe Abbotts to Berlin – long and cold at altitude. I packed in as many calories as I could this morning. If I’m going to die it’s going to be on a full stomach . . . and I’m gonna be warm!

Take off was at 6 a.m. At least it was supposed to be. Typical English fog delayed us for most of an hour. Then it was another hour and a half for the thousand of us to group up at altitude. A thousand of the largest aircraft in the world with one sole mission: stop Adolf Hitler’s war machine and end this insanity.

At 25,000 feet the earth seems far away. Not far away enough, though, to evade the German flieger-abwehr-kanone meaning flying defense cannon know as “flak” thrown up by the Germans by their 88s and 105s with the sole intent of having it rip into our planes, and us, to bring us crashing into the soil of Deutschland, killing us all.

Remember, this is war. This is not a Hollywood movie where you see John Wayne in a new movie next month. When you die here you really die. Life ends. Mothers, wives, family and friends grieve, their lives changed forever by a pain and emptiness that will never leave them.

And once on our bomb run we have to fly straight through this deadly stuff. We do our best to make it brief and deadly for the Germans, not us.

Heading southeast now at one-six-zero we pick up a following wind to hasten our time over target. We want to get to it, over it, drop our rack of bombs and get the hell out of there, pronto.

And then there are the enemy fighters that come after you on the way in and back, bearers of horror that thread our formation spewing wicked lead at hundreds of rounds per minute.

The Focke-Wulf 190 and ME 109 pilots know their jobs, but so do our gunners. The guys in the waist, chin, ball and top turrets took on all comers bravely, valiantly, leading those flying beasts like they were easy prey back on the farm.

The smell of cordite filled the plane…the smell of fired guns. When they made a kill “Jerry” would explode in a ball of red fire and smoke.
“Bombs Away!” the bombardier cries into the mike and the B-17 lurches up, lightened of its load, suddenly more responsive, and the pilot immediately swings us onto the return path home.

With the turn homeward this hell is only halfway over. Now it’s back through the flak and the fighters one more time until we group up again out of range of the enemy and take an accounting of our bombers in their combat wings. How many are we now? Whom have we lost? Who can make it back to base, and who will have to struggle and possibly bail out over enemy territory?

At last, a good sign. We are joined by our “Little Friends” the P-51 Mustang fighters that will protect us from the German fighters on our return flight. We breathe a little easier.

Now if that shattered starboard wing and aileron assembly will just hold together another 400 miles.

Four hours later we land back at Thorpe Abbotts, the plane and men pounds lighter. The plane is lighter because she dropped her bombs; the men because of the sustained intense terror.

First stop now for the crew is the debriefing with a shot of whiskey offered to take away the post-adrenaline shakes and reestablish some sense of stability to the nervous system.

At the end of the day, I collapse into a fitful sleep on a cotton cot in a cotton tent far away from home until time to climb into the nose for another mission……

And then I blink. And blink again. It’s quiet. I don’t hear the engines. I hear . . . the murmur of people! I open my eyes and, yes, I’m hunched over the Norden bombsight but . . . I’m on the ground! I’m on the tarmac at some airport somewhere. I’m not over Germany again at all. I’m alive and the war is over! My God, how real that was. Sixty years later and just sitting in the nose of this B-17 of The Collings Foundation brought it all back just like it was yesterday.

I’m impressed at the mix of people who have come out to see these airplanes. There are young and old, men and women, boys and girls. Pilots and history buffs, all drawn together by the mystique of these beautiful airplanes.

As I descend the crew ladder to walk among them I hear old pilots of the B-17 and B-24 regaling folks with their tales of combat. Some are laconic, some boastful, but all the real article.

It took all kinds to win that war, and we are the ones that survived. Many, many did not.

Each crew takes pride in their particular aircraft. The “17” crews site their plane’s dependability. The “24” crew cites their plane’s sophistication. Loyalty lingers long. No surprise. These are the airplanes that brought them home alive so they could be here telling these stories of what was the greatest adventure – albeit harrowing – of their lives.

What the visitors here at the airfield today don’t feel is the sweat, the sogginess that drenches your clothes the whole eight hours of the mission. Fear induced sweat. Those wide-eyed patrons, enthralled at the colorful-from-a-distance stories being told, would have a very different experience had they flown a typical mission.

All these memories, once distant, now fresh again as I stand at the leading edge of the port wing looking up at number two engine, remembering, when I hear a young voice from waist level ask politely: “Excuse me, mister, were you in the war? Did you fly in this plane? What was it like?”