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HISTORY CORNER: World War II’s incredible flying fortress

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| October 31, 2021 1:00 AM

The American bomber was so badly shot up, it was a sitting duck for the German Messerschmidt 109 fighter plane. Three engines were out and much of the tail was destroyed. Two crew members were dead and the survivors facing death — but then a miracle happened.

The bomber was a Boeing B-17 nicknamed “Ye Olde Pub,” one of the iconic aircraft of World War II that could fly faster, farther, higher and carry a bigger bomb-load than most bombers of those times — until the Boeing B-29 Super Fortress that dropped the atomic bomb.

It was bristling with machine-guns, posing a nightmare to Luftwaffe fighter pilots.

When Seattle Times reporter Richard Williams saw the Model 299 prototype of the B-17, he called it a “Flying Fortress” and the name stuck ever since.

The U.S. Army Air Corps wanted a plane for use in Hawaii, Alaska and Panama, requiring that it could fly at least 1,020 miles at speeds of 200 to 250 mph, carry a bomb-load of 2,000 pounds and fly at an altitude of 10,000 feet for 10 hours.

The Boeing four-engine design bomber vastly exceeded all of that.

Installing turbo-supercharged radial engines — a uniquely American development — enabled the B-17 to fly at much higher altitudes.

But tragedy struck almost immediately.

On a flight to test new elevator locks on Oct. 30, 1935, Model 299 crashed and burned, killing two on board.

Nevertheless, Boeing beat out its competitors and won the government contract.

The first flight by the B-17 was on July 28, 1935. Incorporated in its design were elements of the earlier Boeing 247 passenger plane, the Boeing XB-15 Giant Bomber and Model 300, which years later would become the Boeing 307 Stratoliner.

The Air Corps ordered 13 service test models and one more for structural testing.

About 12,700 B-17s were built — more than half by Boeing and the rest by Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed.

The B-17’s first taste of warfare was during the attack of Pearl Harbor.

The attack came in two waves — about 20 minutes apart. It was during the interval that 12 unarmed B-17s arrived from California en route to Clark Field in the Philippines. They had left their ammo behind so they could carry extra fuel.

Flying through a gauntlet of Japanese fighters, they managed to land. One landed on a golf course and another was destroyed by Zeros on the runway at Hickam Field. A third was so badly damaged that it was junked to be cannibalized for spare parts.

The rest never made it to the Philippines, but remained in Hawaii and were assigned reconnaissance patrol duty.

Some six months later at the Battle of Midway, 15 Army B-17s took off from Midway and attacked the approaching Japanese fleet, raining down sticks of bombs from high altitude.

“Much was expected of this kind of attack, but no hits were scored,” a U.S. Navy report said, “a result that further war experience would demonstrate was all-too-typical. On the other hand, the Flying Fortresses were little damaged by Japanese anti-aircraft fire and fighters.

“They made several fine photographs of the Japanese carriers maneuvering far below, an indication of the true role of these heavy bombers in contemporary maritime warfare: long-distance reconnaissance by aircraft capable of defending themselves.”

Because U.S. policy in World War II was to defeat the Germans first, the B-17 saw only limited duty in the Pacific.

It would be in Europe that the Flying Fortress would make its mark.

Also on European bombing missions along with the B-17s were the Consolidated B-24 heavy bomber Liberators. There were 18,493 of them built — 5,762 more than the B-17.

The B-24s could fly higher and faster than the Fortresses and could carry 5,000-pound bomb loads 1,700 miles — all of this starting the argument about which was the better bomber, the B-17 or B-24?

Even CBS commentator Andy Rooney didn’t have an answer, writing, “The bomb groups were either B-17s or B-24s, and the B-17s always got the dirty jobs, because they were harder to destroy than the B-24s. The B-24 was faster, more maneuverable and in many ways a better airplane, but it had that one shortcoming: It got shot down more easily.”

Both planes served in many theaters of operation during the war, but the B-17s based in England enjoyed the biggest share of the publicity. Soon, the Flying Fortress was touted as the safest for crew members and best to survive damage.

That’s a debate that will go on forever.

The British had been bombing during daylight, suffering heavy losses, so they switched to night bombings which were safer, but less accurate.

American forces opted for daylight bombings when visibility was better. Equipped with the top secret Norden bombsight, the B-17s achieved better results. One report boldly claimed that the B-17 was the best aircraft to “fight its way in and out of the target area, unescorted, and return home safely.”

Allied bombers operating in Europe suffered high losses mostly because of insufficient fighter escort for protection. Escort fighters from England had limited range and had to turn back before the bombers reached their target.

The escorts would then rejoin the bombers on the way home. Knowing this, German fighters delayed their attacks until the escorts were out of range.

Then, in late 1943, the introduction of the North America P-51 Mustang fighter for escort duty changed everything.

Considered by many as the hottest fighter plane of World War II, the P-51 clobbered the Luftwaffe, putting victory in Europe in sight.

Charlie Brown’s B-17 Ye Olde Pub was returning from bombing over Germany when he was attacked by German fighters. One engine was out and another losing power. Riddled with holes and losing speed, the bomber had to drop out of formation.

Seeing the struggling bomber, the German pilots quickly scrambled.

Luftwaffe ace Major Franz Stigler jumped into his Messerschmidt 109 and caught up with Charlie’s plane — but didn’t make the easy kill.

Flying close to the bomber’s cockpit, Stigler could see crew members trying to attend their wounded. Charlie Brown, too, was wounded. It was his first mission as aircraft commander.

Stigler hand-signaled him to land and surrender, but Brown couldn’t understand the signal and kept flying toward England, expecting the worst. But to his amazement, the German still didn’t shoot him down.

Stigler was recalling the words of one of his commanding officers during his time fighting in North Africa who said, “If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself.”

“To me,” Stigler said, “it was just like they were in a parachute. I saw them and I couldn't shoot them down.”

“The B-17 was like a sieve and there was blood everywhere,” Stigler wrote long after the war. “I could see the crew was having a terrible time dealing with their wounded and struggling to stay in the air. I was amazed that the aircraft could fly.

“I thought to myself, how can I shoot something like that? I cannot kill these half dead people. I saw badly wounded and defenseless men on board, rather than just the airplane, which was our normal target. It was one thing to shoot at an airplane, but in this case, I saw the men.

“I just couldn’t do it.”

Instead, he escorted the plane to the English Channel, then returned to German airspace before Allied fighters shot him down.

He also couldn’t talk about it after he returned, because of the certainty of facing a court-martial — and possibly a firing squad.

Stigler needed only one more kill to earn the high honor of the Knight’s Cross.

His act of mercy is reminiscent of the Allies and Germans in World War I who stopped fighting on Christmas Eve and met in No-Man’s Land to kick a soccer ball around and exchange gifts.

After the war, Charlie Brown continued to serve in the newly created U.S. Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel. He then became a Foreign Service Officer.

In 1986, Charlie began a four-year search for Franz and found him in Canada, then a successful businessman, and the two became close friends for the rest of their lives.

Both died in 2008.

All wars have their moments to remember — sometimes they are really good ones …

• • •

Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

• • •

Exhausted B-17 still flying …

After flying an early model B-17 in the Pacific Campaign, Major Francis Brady wrote in his diary: “It’s no wonder it doesn’t work well. It’s had over 1400 combat hours on it and has been shot up 12 times besides losing its tail on landing twice, (and on) the way home we lost the #3 engine about an hour out from Guadalcanal. Really a bag of bolts.”

Nine-O-Nine’s record missions

Nine-O-Nine was a Boeing B-17G-30-BO Flying Fortress heavy bomber, of the 323rd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group, that completed 140 combat missions during World War II, believed to be the U.S. Eighth Air Force record for flying the most missions, and never losing any crew members.

Second miracle for Charlie Brown …

Not only did Luftwaffe ace Franz Stigler not send the crippled B-17 to its doom, but pilot Charlie Brown also survived a death plunge. Suffering from a wound and loss of oxygen because the breathing equipment was knocked out, he lost consciousness and the plane spiraled toward the ground. He came to and managed to pull out just in time and regain altitude.

They called it ‘The Flying Coffin’ …

Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft Company and North American Aviation together made more than 18,300 Liberators — the most of any airplane ever made. They were uncomfortable for crew members and hard to fly. Almost all of them were cut for scrap after the war.

German B-17s?

Approximately 40 B-17s were captured and refurbished by the German Luftwaffe, with about a dozen put back into the air — with a swastika painted on the tail.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’ first gun was a .30mm caliber machine-gun mounted in the nose of the prototype XB-17 (Model 299). The last production B-17G models had 13 .50mm caliber guns, bristling from all sides.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The first experimental model of the B-17 bomber crashed on its first test flight, killing three on board, but Boeing was allowed to continue developing the aircraft, with more than 12,000 eventually being built.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Crew of famed B-17 “Memphis Belle,” one of first the U.S. Army Air Corps B-17 heavy bombers to complete 25 combat missions in World War II.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Precision bombing by 100 B-17s on a Focke-Wulf aircraft plant at Marienburg, Germany, on Oct. 9, 1943.

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U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO

This B-17F named “All American III” was almost cut in half by a collision with a Luftwaffe Me 109 over Tunisia, but the pilot was able to bring the bomber home safely, with the tail gunner miraculously surviving.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

American B-17 pilot Charlie Brown, right, and Luftwaffe Me 109 fighter pilot Franz Stigler became close friends in the 1980s after Brown tracked down the German pilot who saved him.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Boeing B-17Es seen under construction at the Seattle plant during World War II (1943).

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Starting in 1942, women were trained as pilots to ferry more than 70 types of aircraft, including B-17s, as members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) due to a shortage of pilots. Shown here from left are: Frances Green, Margaret Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn with B-17 “Pistol Packin' Mama” behind them.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

The best fighter escort aircraft protecting B-17s on their bombing missions over Europe was the P-51 Mustang, also flown in the Korean War.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

This B-17C Flying Fortress arrived at Hickam Field from California at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was hit during the approach and broke apart on landing, with crew members surviving — except a flight surgeon killed by strafing while fleeing the wreck (Dec. 7, 1941).

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THE MACARTHUR MEMORIAL

General Douglas MacArthur’s assigned B-17 named “Bataan” was the aircraft he used during the Pacific Campaign.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

While on a bombing mission over Cologne, Germany, this 8th Air Force B-17 was hit in the bombardier nose compartment, killing him, but the plane made it back to home base in England (1944).

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GOOGLE IMAGES

Artwork on the nose section of military aircraft, or nose art, was popular during World War II on B-17s and other warbirds.

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USAF PHOTO/TECH. SGT. TIM CHACON

View from the bombardier compartment in a later model of the B-17.

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USAF

B-17 formation flying through flak while dropping bombs on Berlin (1944).

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