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The Best Plane in the War

Newspaper article – Bill Fletcher

Banner Herald / The Daily News
Extra B-17
Sunday August 25, 1985 p 18c
Despite one bad flight, William Fletcher still believes it was the best  (plane) in the war.

By Clint Engel
Staff Writer

The B-17 Flying Fortress, used by the U.S. Air Force in World War II as the mainstay in bombing operations against Hitler’s Third Reich, is regarded by many air force veterans as the best bomber of war.

William H. Fletcher, 66, a former B-17 pilot from Nicholson, is one veteran who holds the plane in high esteem. So much so, in fact, that he traveled to Dayton, Ohio this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Flying Fortress and reunite with crewman who, like Fletcher had flown her.

The first B-17 was built by Boeing in 1935.

Although the last of his 20 missions led to 15 months in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, the former captain who flew with the 100th Bomb Group has only praise for the bomber.

“At the time, it was the greatest fighting machine in the air, no doubt about it,” Fletcher said, drawing on a pipe and recalling war stories. The B-17 could sustain more battle damage than any other aircraft and still return its crew safely to base, he claimed.

“The B-24 pilots tried to claim that their B-24s were the better plane, but they could never convince anyone,” Fletcher said.

He leafed through several books about the Flying Fortress. Every now and then he would point to a picture of a B-17 with a tail or wing mutilated from enemy fire.

“You couldn’t bring a B-24 back like this,” he said. ” You look at some of these planes, the way they come back. It’s unbelievable the way they were shot up.”

During the war, Fletcher and his crew were stationed at Thorpe Abbotts Air Force base in England. Fletcher, then a 21-year-old pilot, was the youngest man in his 10-man crew.

He was the first pilot of B-17 he nicknamed “Fletcher’s Castoria,” after the childrens’ laxative sold in the U.S.

“It’s just a named that I picked,” Fletcher said with a mischievous smile, “I decided that our airplanes had just that effect on the Germans.

While many a  fortress limped back across the English Channel on a wing and a prayer, the poor condition of a substitute bomber cost Fletcher and his crew time in a German prisoner of war camp.

On the morning on February 21 1944, Fletcher and his crew prepared for their 20th mission which would take them on a bombing run over Brunswick, Germany.

They were only six missions Away from returning to the states.

Their last mission had been their longest – 11.5 hours to Posen Poland. They had dropped their 12 bombs and returned safely to base. Although the mission was successful, the plane had been shot in the tail section by a German ground crew. It was the first major damage to the “Castoria.”

With the “Castoria” out for repairs, a substitute B-17 was assigned.

“It was a spare plane,” Fletcher. recalled. “It wasn’t assigned to a permanent crew. It had never been in the best of condition, and I understand that it never really completed a mission.”

The crew took off on their ill-fated mission along with 20 other bombers.

We started having problems almost immediately after takeoff,” Fletcher said. “We had some discussion of whether or not we should abort but I elected to go on and complete the mission.

“Then, the plane seemed to straighten out and we stayed right up with the rest of the group in formation,” he said. “We were about half way into Germany when we started having more problems.”

But Fletcher said problems were no trouble for most B-17s, so he continued toward the target.

“Then suddenly the oil just blew out of the top of one of the engines and the oil pressure dropped to nothing,” he said.

Fletcher was able to “feather” the inoperable engine, changing the pitch of the propeller blades as means to stabilize the plane, and keep the engine from turning.

At that time a decision was made to drop their bomb load.

“We were not over the target, ” he said. “But we were over Germany.”

About fifteen minutes later, a second engine blew. The plane struggling with only two operable engines, began to lose altitude and speed. Fletcher was falling farther away from the rest of the bomb group and decided to return home while the rest of the group continued on their mission.

“We passed over part of Holland and encountered some anti-aircraft fire.” he said. “There was cloud cover underneath so that helped us.”

The enemy usually would not fire at a single bomber.” Fletcher said smiling. “They saved their shells to get a whole wad of bombers.”

Fletcher and his crew were over water and about 120 miles from England when a third engine quit. Now the plane had only one engine working.

It would be a understatement to say Fletcher was in trouble.

With the plane losing altitude quickly, Fletcher was forced to turn the plane around again. The plane landed in a field in Holland, between Haarlem an Amsterdam. Six of the ten Crewmen scattered while Fletcher and three others stayed to destroy the plane, keeping its secrets ouf of the hands of the Germans.

All 10 crewmen were captured within four days and spent the rest of the war in POW camps. Fletcher stayed in Stalag I in Barth, Germany.

Despite his last mission Fletcher did not lose respect for the B-17. The planes condition had failed him and his crew — not the B-17 itself.

“It was the greatest fighting plane to come about at that time,” he said.