|LSFM B-17G Thunderbird in flight with a B-52H at 2006 Defenders of Liberty Airshow at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., May 12, 2006.|
|Type||Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress|
|Manufacturer||Douglas Aircraft Company|
|In service||November 1943 to 22 March 1945|
|Fate||Retired to the Kingman, Arizona aircraft disposal plant|
|Preserved at||Currently flying with the Lone Star Flight Museum|
I flew several of my 32 combat missions over Germany with the 359th Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group (H) of the Eighth Air Force out of our Base at Molesworth, England in this airplane. It’s tail markings are accurate, it is the insignia of the 303rd. The plane was destined to be destroyed in Arizona after the war but was rescued, rehabilitated and placed in the Lone Star Air Museum in Galveston, Texas. I actually flew again in this airplane a couple of years ago with Governor Rick Perry and his father. The Governor’s father was a tail gunner in a similar B-17 and I was a tail gunner in this very airplane for several of my missions.
The chorus of those singing the praises of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Bomber has existed almost from the time the airplane went into service. It soon proved itself to be indeed a flying fortress armed with ten 50 caliber heavy machine guns. When flying in tight formation the 17 planes offered enemy fighters a wall of 50 caliber fire from 270 machine guns. It is a wonder that any enemy planes were able to shoot down B-17’s but they unfortunately did. Frequently it was because a plane was unable to stay in the formation and as a plane flying alone it was an easy target.
Shortly after Christmas 1944 my crew traveled to Savannah, Georgia to the Boeing plant there and picked up a brand new B-17G (recognizable by the gun turret under the nose of the aircraft) similar to Old Thunderbird and began our flight to deliver it to the 8th Air Force in England. We flew to Bangor, Maine where bad weather forced us to spend a couple of days on the ground. Then we flew to St. John, Newfoundland where again bad weather grounded us. Then we flew to Goose Bay, Laborador where a blizzard kept us gounded for a few more days. Then on to Bluie West One on the west coast of Greenland where we refueled and took off again, barely missing an iceberg floating in the fiord at the end of the runway. Next we landed at Reykjavik, Iceland. After refueling there we flew on to Prestwick, Scotland where we left the aircraft and traveled to Wales by train for assignment to a base.
Beginning with the B-29 (the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima) all bombers have been pressurized just like modern commercial aircraft. The B-17 was not pressurized. On the contrary, it was more like a flying sieve! The wind whistled through it. The cockpit where the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer sat was relatively air tight but even so there were places where the air could penetrate the airplane. But the waist and the tail were like wind tunnels. We wore heavy leather flight suits lined with sheepskin, but while those suits may have saved us from freezing to death, with the outside temperature at 25,000 feet in the winter usually between 30 and 60 degrees BELOW ZERO our hands and feet would get very cold. The suits had electrical heat wiring sewn into the waist of the suit but that only meant that your stomach got toasted while the rest of you shivered. I first encountered the problem of extreme cold on the flight from Reykjavik to Prestwick when the temperature inside the B-17 measured 50 degrees below zero.
From Wales we traveled by bus to Molesworth, England in Bedfordshire just northwest of Cambridge. Here is a photo of the Molesworth Airbase as it appears today:
Most of the World War II airbases in England have been closed and demolished, but the Molesworth base was kept and modernized and is used by the RAF and the USAF as a Joint Forces intelligence center.
I must confess that I was not happy at being assigned to the 303rd Bomb Group because when the Group was formed in Boise, Idaho in 1942 they chose to nickname the group “Hell’s Angels.” I was not yet thinking again about becoming a priest, but even so, as a Catholic I did not like to be part of a group so named. Eventually I got used to seeing the name but no one of our Group ever referred to it by that name and so it became a non-issue with me. Still, in retrospect I think that it was ironic that God let me serve in a Group with that nickname; God has a weird sense of humor The Group nickname became famous when Clark Gable flew with us making promotional movies for the war effort at home.
Most of the month of January was spent in training flights over England. Those flights were really enjoyable for me for several reasons. First of all, I was an Anglophile. By the time I arrived at Rice I had read all of Shakespeare’s historical plays and I knew a lot about English history. Then, at Rice one of my classes was in Architectural History and I had learned a lot about the Gothic cathedrals of Europe. Many of those training flights in the last two weeks of January and the first two weeks of February 1945 were low level flights and I had an opportunity to study and photograph some of the great cathedrals like, Lincoln, Durham, Peterborough, Ely and York.
By the second week of February the period of training flights was over and it was time for us to fly our first combat mission. Our first mission occurred (with great irony) on Saint Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1944. There is something antiseptic about strategic bombing. Our target was the railroad station in the city of Dresden. We joined a column of 1,000 other B-17 and B -24 bombers and flew at 25,o00 feet to and back from Dresden. By the time we got to Dresden we were flying in continuous clouds formed by the engine contrails of the bombers. There was very little flak and no fighter attacks, but there were midair collisions. When 27 bombers of a squadron are flying in a tight formation of nine low aircraft, nine middle aircraft and nine upper aircraft and you were trying to hold a tight formation for protection from fighters even while flying through clouds it was inevitable that B-17’s would crash into each other. The effect on a crew when you see two planes in your formation collide is indescribable. There is usually an explosion followed by the falling bodies and wreckage of the two planes. For me midair collisions were worst than fighter attacks and flak.
The pilot-captain of our crew was Lieutenant William Beasley. Beasley had been a tank officer in the tank corps. He decided he wanted to fly and so before the war started he transferred to the Army Air Corps and began to fly. He was a great guy, a good pilot and officer. The only problem for our crew is that he flew the B-17 with the same firm control that he manuevered his tank and in formation flying that meant that he would put the wingtip of our plane practically in the waist window of the B-17 alongside of us. The prop wash from the other planes engines made for a very rough ride for us and it was very dangerous and one of the more scary aspects of aerial combat.
In the briefing before the mission the intelligence officer told us that the mission was simply to destroy the railway station in the middle of Dresden. What he did not tell us, and perhaps he did not know, was that Air Marshall Tedder of the RAF after months of trying had finally convinced the allied high command that our strategic bombing should begin to focus on German cities in order to destroy the morale of the German population. So, for four days 1,000 US bombers by day and almost as many RAF bombers by night pounded Dresden. The result was a holocaust. We never saw Dresden. The smoke was so dense over the target from the firestorm that the bombing created that we were bombing blind. Of course at the time none of us in the air knew that the total destruction of Dresden was deliberate and well planned. After the war when I saw the result of our four days of bombing Dresden I was filled with guilt and shame. The human death toll was estimated to be 300,000 persons. The immorality of the Dresden raid will be a black mark on our military history forever even though the idea for the Dresden holocaust originated with British Air Marshall Tedder. Air warfare is so impersonal that at the time one does not feel guilt, but later the reality of what was done sinks in. Truly, war is hell and strategic bombing should be directed at military targets such as industry and fortifications and not at civilian populations.
This is not the place for a long dissertation on the correctness of the Church’s teaching that there can be such a thing as a just war. Suffice it to say that there was never any doubt in my mind that the western democracies had every right and obligation to prevent the Third Reich from establishing itself throughout the whole world and the atrocities committed by the Japanese military would have justified our war against Japan.