Famous B-17 Crewmen
Some of these "ordinary kids" went on to fame and fortune
by Paul Koskela
Copyright © 1999 by the Confederate Air Force and Paul Koskela. All rights reserved.
A B-17G crew consisted of ten men: four officers (pilot, co-pilot, navigator and bombardier) in the forward part of the airplane to handle offense, and ix enlisted men (flight engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, two waist gunners, ball turret gunner and tail gunner) to defend the airplane. They flew until they completed the required number of missions, were killed, wounded or shot down and captured. According to the book, “One Last Look,” the life expectancy of an 8th Air Force bomber and crew in 1943 to 1944 was about 15 missions. One B-17 navigator, a former insurance company actuary, told his pilot, “Mathematically there just ain’t any way we’re gonna live through this thing.”
These were ordinary “kids” from every walk of life, mostly in their teens or early twenties. They were formed into bomber crews “by-the-numbers,” a process which created groupings that often had astounding cohesiveness.
They were volunteers who could transfer from flying status to any other duty but seldom did because of personal pride and a feeling of responsibility to the rest of their crew. Harry Elegreet, former bomber flight engineer and Confederate Air Force Lobo Wing member, said, “Kids or not, they were tough guys. If America ever asked, they’d do it all over again. Ever since, Hollywood actors have made a good living by imitating them in movies.” A 379th Bomber Group navigator noted, “We were merely young men accepting our times.”
Among those young men were sports figures, film stars, politicians and other notable personalities. Some became heroes. Others went on to outstanding careers after the war. Many became CAF members. Some of their stories are included here.
In the dark, early days of the war in the Pacific, the heroism of Capt. Cohn Kelly made him a legend overnight. There are differing accounts of Kelly’s exploits. The “Valor” column in the June 1994 issue of Air Force magazine is based on mission briefings by members of Kelly’s crew, and is probably the most accurate. By this account, Kelly was ordered to bomb Japanese airfields on Formosa, 500 miles from his base at Clark Field, Philippines, on Dec. 10, 1941. As the lone unescorted B-17 passed over a large Japanese landing force on the north coast of Luzon, they saw a cruiser supported by destroyers. They radioed Clark Field for permission to attack but got only the reply “stand by.”
Kelly made the decision to attack the cruiser and damaged it with one of this bomber’s three 600-pound bombs. On the return flight to Clark, Kelly’s plane was attacked by Japanese fighters. With the left wing and fuselage on fire, Kelly ordered his crew to bail out while he remained at the controls. The plane exploded before Kelly escaped. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for sacrificing his own life to save his crew. He was the first of many B-17 crewmen decorated for bravery.
Kelly’s B-17 was shot down by Saburo Sakai, who later became Japan’s second-highest-scoring ace. At one time, Sakai’s autograph was on the rudder of the CAF’s Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero.
Former Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry was a B-17 pilot for 30 combat missions in Europe. He survived a crash landing that sheared off both wings of his bomber. Actor James Stewart was a B-17 instructor who then went to Europe to fly 20 missions in B-24s.
Actor Clark Gable enlisted in the Army Air Force (AAF) as a 41-year-old private. He went to Officer Candidate School, graduated as a second lieutenant and quickly became a captain. He was assigned to make a film promoting aerial gunners because casualties were high, and the AAF had trouble getting volunteers. According to different accounts of his military service, Gable flew between one and six combat missions. It’s certain he flew a “milk run” to Antwerp on May 4, 1943, in the B-17 “Eight Ball” of the 359th Bomber Squadron. This was the first B-17 escort mission for Bud Mahurin, who later became a leading P-47 ace.
Correspondents and photographers also flew on B-17s.
Andy Rooney, syndicated columnist and commentator, applied for and was accepted as correspondent for “The Stars and Stripes.” As an “inexperienced kid,” he learned journalism during the war from Ernie Pyle, Walter Cronkite and other professionals.
On Feb. 26, 1943, Rooney flew a mission to Wilhelmshaven with the 306th Bomb Group on the B-17 “Banshee.” On this flight, flak blew off part of the plexiglass nose and cut off the navigator’s oxygen. Rooney revived the navigator with a portable oxygen bottle. Forty years later, Rooney met the tail gunner at a reunion and learned that he lost two fingers on that mission, as his hands had frozen to his guns. in the preface of “One Last Look,” Rooney recalled, “I was there when they came back from a raid deep in Germany, and one of the pilots radioed in that he was going to have to make an emergency landing. He had only two engines left and his hydraulic system was gone. He couldn’t lower the wheels and there was something even worse. The ball turret gunner was trapped in the plastic bubble beneath the belly of the bomber.
“Later I talked with the crewmen who survived that landing. Their friend in the ball turret had been calm, they said. They had talked to him. He knew what they had to do. He understood. The B-17 slammed down on its belly and onto the ball turret with their comrade trapped inside.”
Wilbur Richardson, B-17 ball turret gunner and CAF Southern California Wing member, said only a few gunners were trapped like in Rooney’s story. Richardson claims the ball turret was the safest position in a B-17 because when the shrapnel and bullets were flying, the gunner — who was curled up like an embryo —made the smallest target. Waist gunners, in their unprotected standing positions, were the most vulnerable crew members.
Walter Cronkite flew in B-17s as a journalist. Bob Post, NY Times reporter, was shot down and killed on a B-17 mission. Cal Worthington, known for his late night television commercials for used cars in the Los Angeles area (Me and my dog Spot), was a B-17 pilot for the 390th Bomber Group, 568th Bomber Squadron, in Europe. On his final mission on April 29, 1944, 579 B-17s were met by more than 350 German fighters. He thought his luck had run out, but he finished his tour.
Famed LIFE magazine photographer Margaret Bourke White was the first woman to fly with a United States combat squadron over enemy territory. Despite the risks, she was given permission to fly with “Little Bill,” a 12th Air Force B-17 in Algeria on Jan. 22, 1943. She said later she minded only the 38-degree-below-zero temperature while hanging out over the open bomb bay. She recalled how her breath froze in her oxygen mask hose and her fingers went numb. She tried shooting photos with her head and shoulders exposed at the radio operator’s gun hatch, but the slipstream was too strong. She finally took most of her photos from the waist gun positions.
Many CAF members served as B-17 crew members, including Lefty Gardner. Gardner, recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross, was a B-17 and B-24 pilot for the 34th Bomb Group, 18th Bomber Squadron in Europe. He flew 20 missions in B-24s, then transferred to B-17s for 14 more missions.
Gardner recalled one of his commanding officers saying, “I don’t like you, Gardner. I’m making you Tail-End-Charlie until I’m rid of you.” Gardner got through 12 missions flying that position. On the 13th mission, the commanding officer was on leave and the acting commanding officer positioned Gardner’s plane elsewhere in the formation. He was shot down that day.
Ground crews also had to “sweat out” the missions as they awaited the return of their aircraft and crew. The following description of the tension surrounding the return of a crippled B-17 is from a newspaper story filed by famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle: “It was time for our planes to be coming back from their mission, and one by one they did, settling down on the field in the lazy sun. Finally they were all in, all that is except one. Operations reported a B-17 was missing.
“Radio reports identified it as ‘Yankee Queen.’ It had begun losing altitude after the target run. Ten men were in that plane, and the loss of ten men cast a pall over the base. Further reports indicated that time was running out. We had already seen death that afternoon. I stood beneath the wing of one plane as they lowered down its dead pilot. So young, I thought.
“Then far off in the dusk, a red flare shot into the air. We saw the plane.. .just a tiny speck. It seemed almost on the ground, it was so low, and we could see it was barely moving, barely staying in the air. Crippled and alone and two hours behind all the rest, it was dragging itself home.
“At that moment, I felt something close to human love for that faithful battered machine, that far speck struggling towards us with such pathetic slowness. No one thought the plane would ever make the field, but on it came, so slowly that it was painful to watch.
“On it came, clearing the tops of parked planes, reaching for the runway. Could it? Would it? It cleared the last plane and settled slowly. As the plane rolled down the runway, the thousands of men around that vast field suddenly realized that they were weak and could hear their hearts pounding. Our ten dead men were miraculously back from the grave.” One of those was John Asmussen, member of CAF’s Air Group One Wing.
(Note: Some information for this story came from past issues of the newsletter; “B-17 Combat Crewmen & Wingmen, “P0. Box 482, South Gate, Calif. 90280, and the book, “Aerial Gunners: the Unknown Aces WWII.’)
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