The flying fortress
With bombers as with all machines, the rule is—first decide what you want the machine to do, and then allow the designer to build it with that purpose in view. If Britain had had a thousand longrange day bombers at the beginning of the war, she might be worse off than she is today, when she is using bombers built for the purpose her air chiefs had in mind in 1936, when they began to think of bombing again. Similarly, if the United States had had to rely on the Lancasters in the Pacific, the air war might have taken a very different turn, for the big bombers would not have been capable of achieving those shining exploits that now spangle the honor shield of the United States bombardment squadrons.
If you were to ask me for an accurate description of the B-17, I would call it a flying battleship, rather than a bomber. The Flying Fortress was designed to be exactly that. As a flying battleship, it has distinguished itself wherever it has been in action. As a highaltitude bomber, carrying a medium load of bombs, it is the ace of the war skies.
The Fortress has borne the brunt of America's air offensive in this war. It has probably had more publicity than any other bomber and every word of it has been merited. When war broke out, General Arnold, who commands the United States Army Air Forces, said that the B-17 was "the guts and backbone of our world-wide aerial offensive." He added that it has no equal in the air.
Behind every successful plane there is a definite idea coupled with good basic design. Most of the planes of the United States are civilians in uniform, and the Boeing Fortress is no exception. It comes from a famous family of warplanes and passenger planes. The name Boeing was first heard of in 1916, when William Boeing, in his oneroom shop in Seattle, built a plane to carry mail.
From that small beginning have come many famous planes which give the Fortress an interesting pedigree. One of these planes that played a big part in the creation of the Fortress was the Boeing Monomail, the first of the low-wing monoplanes of all-metal construction . The Monomail operated on the Boeing Air Transport route. It carried five passengers and 750 pounds of cargo at a speed of 140 miles per hour, which is quite fast when you consider that the Monomail appeared in the beginning of the 1930's. The Monomail was actually a single-engined bomber. Boeing's, which had produced a pursuit plane for the Army which was a sensation in its day, built the B-9 as the first twin-engined all-metal bomber. It was sometimes called the "Flying Pencil" because of its long, slim fuselage.
The B-9 was the fastest machine for its weight in the air. From it the Boeing engineers developed a twin-engined passenger plane that was the nearest thing to a Pullman car with wings. This fitted in admirably with Ernst Udet's quip at American planes—that they were made "to live in," while the Germans designed planes to fight in.
Boeing engineers learned a great deal from the slim, deadly B-9. Already they were looking at the vast horizon ahead. There seemed no limit to the size of an airplane. They could build a bigger and better bomber. With their increased knowledge of aerodynamics and with the availability of more powerful engines, there was no reason why a bomber should not be able to outfly a fighter plane, faster and higher.
Military thinkers had advanced little from the days of World War I, especially in regard to bombers. People remembered the De Havilland 9a Liberty two-seater bombers that had battled German pursuits in the war skies of Europe, and the lumbering night bombers built by the British and Germans. The pursuit ship, or fighter, as we know it today, was the bomber's enemy. It could outfly and outmaneuver a bomber, and consequently the bombers, if flying by day, would have to be protected by squadrons of fighter planes. The astonishing development of speed in passenger planes gave Boeing designers the idea. What if they could give a big bomber the speed of a fighter, and greater altitude! What if they could give it a range that would enable it to fly across the American continent nonstop? The importance of the last item cannot be overestimated. America is a vast country. Her long coastlines might be attacked at any point.
To meet such an attack, which would certainly come by sea and by seaborne aircraft, the United States Army needed such a long-range aircraft.
It was in 1934 that the Boeing engineers decided to put their dreams to paper. They decided that the United States Army must have a big bomber which would serve it as the battleship served the Navy. It was a bold conception, the first glimpse of the war of the future. The great bomber was to be able to fight its way throughenemy skies like a battleship and to maneuver in squadrons, to undertake precision bombing, to undertake long journeys. Its captain and crew would live aboard like the crew of a ship. It would fulfill predictions of many prophets, particularly that of England's late Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, who in 1911 looked forward to the day when airplanes would fly in formation and fight prolonged battles over enemy territory.
In those days few people in America were thinking of ever going to war. The Army Air Corps was practically the same strength as it had been at the close of the last war, and there was little demand for military planes. Boeing designers, however, were convinced that they had something. They talked to the Army and found receptive ears. What they said amounted to this: "We can build an all-metal, four-engined bomber that will outfly and outclimb any current pursuit plane you can send up against it, and it will still carry more than twice the load of a twin-engined bomber."
When people who know talk like that, they usually have sound justification for what they say. Such a suggestion coming from a nonaeronautical mind, however enthusiastic, might have been rejected . It did seem that the Boeing people were certainly sticking out their necks. All airplane design, you must remember, is a matter of compromise. The man who builds a bomber thinks in terms of weight lifting first, then speed and altitude. The fighter plane's designer thinks in terms of speed and altitude. To expect a fighter to be a bomber, or a bomber to be a fighter, is asking too much.
Boeing's, however, had good basis for their confidence. They had built the fastest pursuit planes and excellent bombers. They had an impressive line of long-distance airliners to their credit.
The first model of the B-17 crashed during a test flight, after doing a 2000-mile stretch at an average speed of 250 miles per hour.
The crash was due not to structural defects, but to the inadvertent fixing of the elevators which prevented the pilot from controlling the machine at take-off. This did not discourage the designers. Their next model, put on test, did everything they had claimed for it. It flew faster and higher than any existing bombers and showed its tail to Army pursuit planes. Added to this, it handled as easily as a smaller plane. Army pilots were soon throwing the big giants about and demonstrating their maneuverability. The Army liked the new Fortress and placed an order for thirteen, which immediately began to break air records.
One by one these records piled up. The new aerial giant was making air history. An East to West transcontinental record of twelve hours and fifty minutes was established. Six Fortresses flew from Langley Field to Buenos Aires. Fortresses flown by pilots of the United States Second Bombardment Group flew 1,800,000 miles on their test period without mishap. Later models of the Fortress captured several international records. One carried 31,167 pounds of payload to 8200 feet; another carried over 4000 pounds for 3107 miles in just over eighteen hours, and still another reached 34,025 feet with a load of 11,023 pounds, taking the record from the German Junkers company. A still later model on delivery flight averaged 265 miles per hour from California to New York at a height of 26,000 feet.
The design was justified! The first Boeing four-engined bomber was known as the 299. This was followed by the B-17, which was replaced by the B-17 A, an experimental model. From this was evolved the B-17B of which thirty-nine were built for the United States Army, between July, of armament and armor plating for crew protection. The first B-17's to see action in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor were short many essentials, but as swiftly as the combat reports came in, Boeing engineers began their improvements. The most important addition was a stinger turret in the tail, with two .50-caliber guns; then a power turret was fitted to the top of the fuselage in front, a new type of revolving turret was fixed underneath, and a series of gun ports were arranged along the length of the fuselage to enable the radio operators and flight engineers to help the gunners beat off enemy attacks.
Other improvements were the fitting of self-sealing tanks, more powerful engines, and the huge dorsal fin which is a distinguishing feature of the new B-17F. There were other modifications too, ranging from the new Plexiglas nose to the exhaust dampers for night flying. The present model is said to be 5o per cent faster than the first, but it weighs an additional seven tons.
The latest model Fortress, known as the B-17G, is the most heavily armed of all. In order to meet the threat of frontal attack by fighter planes, which caused the loss of a large number of the big bombers on operational flights, a chin turret with two additional .5o-caliber guns has been fitted. This turret is operated by remote control, and is a useful addition to the bomber's armament. The normal bomb load remains the same, about three tons, but by the addition of two bomb racks fitted under the wings an additional two tons of bombs can be carried. It should be remembered, however, that this extra weight entails sacrifice of fuel, and an exceedingly long take-off run.
There is one type of Fortress, however, which we only hear about from the Germans, who complain indignantly over their radio of American bombers being used as flying flak-ships. These bombers they claim carry no bomb loads, but devote their cargo capacity to ammunition. They are equipped with an exceedingly numerous quota of guns, and fly on the outside of the bomber formations from where they pour an astonishing volume of fire power at attacking fighters. "Our brave fighter pilots have a new problem," said a German radio commentator. "They are called upon to attack planes which look like bombers but are in reality four-engined fighters, their fire power making the attack extremely hazardous."
Goering recently paid an unconscious tribute to the value of United States precision bombing in hindering German war production . Up to the fall of 1943 the German fighter pilots had made a practice of concentrating their attacks on the out-riding members of the Fortress bomber formations. Their tactics were to cripple a Fortress, and cause it to straggle out of formation, and then knock it off. Goering recently issued orders to the effect that this practice must stop. The Luftwaffe fighters are to attack the main formation and prevent the bombers from reaching their targets. Any flier who attacks stragglers will be removed from his squadron and sent to the Russian front as an infantryman. The reason for the order is clear.
Goering knows that one bomber shot down out of a formation cannot stop a bombardment attack. Downing that single bomber, though, may use up the ammunition of an entire fighter squadron which might more usefully be engaged in breaking up the main formation in its flight to the target.
The B-17G is probably the last of the Fortress types, its successor being the new B-29 super-bomber, complete details of which are a secret.
Bomber design, backed by the immense resources of this great industrial nation, ages quickly, and whether we have a B-17F or a B-17L, the models are always a little out of date by the time they see action in large numbers. According to Colonel McDaniel, Commandant of the United States Army Air Forces' four-engined training school at Hendricks Field, Florida, our aircraft factories will soon be turning out a bomber so huge that the Flying Fortress will be used as a transition training plane. Add to this that General Arnold spoke of the Fortress as the last of the small bombers, and we get some idea of what Uncle Sam is planning for the immediate future.
It is unlikely that any bomber, however, will measure up to the exploits of the doughty Fortress, which from the time it drew first blood under British colors, until the last of its models flies in the war skies, will continue to cover itself and its crew with glory.
The name "Fortress" is now a legend. When the Japs struck at Pearl Harbor, the United States Nineteenth Bombardment Group was faced with the task of hitting back. Many of their machines had been damaged. They had to operate over great distances, working from emergency airfields, and battle against every inconvenience that can beset fliers. The Fortresses of the Nineteenth Bombardment Group were soon to make history.
The first exploit of one of these old-model Fortresses was when Captain Colin Kelly's bombardier, Meyer Levin, sank the Japanese battleship Haruna from a height of 18,000 feet. Levin had only three bombs in his bomb bay but he managed to score one hit and one near miss, which did damage sufficient to leave the Jap's battleship sinking in flames.
Details of the work of Fortress pilots and their crews were scanty in those days, but the Japanese paid a striking tribute to the flying battleship, which must have caused Boeing designers to smile.
Shortly after the outbreak of war, a Jap announcer issued a warning to pilots that "the American B-17 four-engined fighter was an extremely effective weapon." These early Fortresses, as we have seen, were not as well armed as their descendants. One morning in 1941, shortly before Christmas , Lieutenant Hewitt Wheless was piloting a B-17 which was attacked by eighteen Jap Zero fighters. The Zeros evidently thought that the Fortress was an easy prey. They came in to attack in formation, and the Fortress gunners were ready for them. After a short sharp encounter, six of the Zeros were shot down in flames.
The others broke off the encounter. When Wheless and his men got back to their base, there were over 1500 holes in the plane.
Everywhere the Fortress bombardiers were demonstrating the accuracy of American daylight bombing. Captain H. C. Smelser, pilot of a Fortress, was searching for a Jap convoy off the Philippines when he was attacked by Zeros. "We were cruising over the sea at about 4000 feet, when tracer bullets suddenly began to dance all around our plane. While the boys were shooting it out with them, I ducked into some clouds and then climbed to about 15,000 feet. When we broke clear of the clouds, there below us was the most perfect target I've ever seen, a Jap convoy of thirty ships, escorted by four warships , lined up two abreast and hardly a ship's length apart. As they were heading directly into the light, they couldn't see us coming up behind them. I desynchronized my engines and Lieutenant Marion Wheeler, the bombardier, gave me the directions for our target run.
"As we came over them, Wheeler planted eight 600-pound bombs smack in the middle of the column of ships. There were six ships sinking before we left. If we had had a few more B-17's, we could have wiped out the whole convoy in two minutes." Captain Smelser afterwards referred to Lieutenant Wheeler as "the best bombardier in the Pacific." To the six ships in that convoy Wheeler bracketed a heavy cruiser off Bali, and destroyed two transports in the Macassar Straits at 27,000 feet.
Stories of Fortress exploits in the Pacific began to come in rapidly. It was a Fortress that evacuated General Douglas MacArthur and his wife and son, with President Manuel Quezon, from the Philippine Islands to Australia. B-17's took part in the battle of the Coral Sea, along with Navy dive and torpedo bombers which were attacking the Jap fleet from low altitude. Then came the Battle of Midway, in which Fortresses and Liberators sank at least three Japanese carriers and scored a decisive victory over Jap sea power.
Commented General Arnold: "The Fortress has no peer in its field today." Colonel Walter C. Sweeney, Jr., of San Francisco, leader of a squadron of B-17's, took them in three attacks during the Midway battle. He reported that pilots of the Japanese ship-based fighters did not press home their attacks on the Fortresses, with the result that not a single one of his squadron was shot down, although in one attack his gunners disposed of three and possibly four Zeros. Jap pilots obviously feared the fire power of the Fortresses. They usually made one pass at the big bombers from below, fired a few shots, and then rolled over on their backs to break action. Some of the Fortresses were hit by antiaircraft fire, and several of them came home on two engines. Said Colonel Sweeney of the battle: "These big bombers will win the war."
By the time the war is through, the battle honors of the Fortress will probably fill several books. They have featured in practically every major air battle that has taken place. General MacArthur sent Fortresses to attack the Jap fleet based at Rabaul in August, 1942.
All returned, with a score of seven enemy fighters known to be knocked out. The Japanese have met Fortresses in the Aleutians, but the toughest battles in which they have participated have been in the icy skies over German-occupied Europe.
Daylight raids on Europe were exceedingly rare when the first B-17's dropped their wheels to land on Britain's airfields, which had been hurriedly prepared for the new giants. The R.A.F. could only use its heavy bombers for daylight raids when the mission was of the greatest urgency, such as the Lancaster raid on Augsburg. A big bomber unprotected by fighters was thought to be easy meat for the deadly FW-190's and Me-109's with which Goering was policing the airlanes to the Ruhr and to Berlin. No bomber, however fast, however well-armed, could expect to stand up against the assaults of these machines!
There was some wonderfully careless talk at the time on the project. Writers whipped up a controversy. Some went so far as to say that American bombers were totally unsuitable for the task ahead of them, and the British were reported as having given friendly advice to General Eaker, then in charge of the United States Bomber Command in England, to this effect. All kinds of arguments were produced, and many of them by people who had never been nearer to a bomber than seeing its picture in a newsreel. While Fortresses had been successful against Japanese Zero fighters, with their thin skins and light armor they would have no chance against the heavily armed German fighters. Jap Zeros had small caliber bullets, clamored the critics, while German fighters had cannon shells. They would simply murder the Forts. It would be suicide. Even with their thirteen .50-caliber guns, continued the talkers, the B-17's would not have a dog's chance of warding off the German planes. If several fighters went after a Fortress, it would be as good as lost.
Those who believed in the Fortress said little at the time. They remembered , perhaps, that the Fortress had four engine lives as against the one of the fighter plane, that it had two or perhaps three pilot lives, and that it had a fire power of four foot pounds per minute.
They reflected too that a squadron of twelve Forts could put up such a terrific protective cross fire that by all laws of ballistics nothing that flew could come through it still flying.
For weeks the words raged, and armchair air tacticians were shooting each other down with bitter shafts. Then in August, 1942, General Ira Eaker led the first all-Fortress raid against Rouen. Said an R.A.F. man who was present when the four-motored giants soared away from the airfield: "It was the tensest moment I can remember.
I had the same horrible feeling as when I saw my first bull-fight in Spain. A bull-fight is the most nauseating exhibition you can imagine, but no one who sees it can resist succumbing to the terrific suspense, when he realizes it is the man—or the bull. I felt rather that way.
Would any of those Forts come back? They really did look like 'Flying Targets,' you know!" The B-17 formation was screened by squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes. At 25,000 feet, the pilots saw Rouen shimmering in the summer air beneath them, through gaps in the huge wads of cottonwool clouds. The bombardiers took over; the gunners crouched waiting at their guns. Down went the bombs, up came the tell-tale plumes of smoke, showing in such regular patterns that the target area looked as if it had been planted with rows of giant whiteflowering shrubs. "It was like dropping apples in a barrow," said one bombardier.
Then came the trouble. A cluster of yellow-nosed Focke-Wulf 190's, Goering's crack fighters, came boring out of the upper skies. Some of them pierced the screen of R.A.F. Spitfires, and headed for the massive invaders, their cannon and guns spitting and belching.
An American sergeant in one Fortress got one of the Focke-Wulfs in his sights. He pressed his trigger and the fighter dissolved in flaming fragments. Gunners of the other Forts opened up also, and the Spitfires chopped at the remainder of the German formation, losing two of their number in the process.
General Eaker, flying in a Fortress named Yankee Doodle, led his squadron back to the airfield intact. There were bullet holes, and some wounded men, but no losses. As Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, head of the R.A.F. Bomber Command, said in his telegram of congratulations: "Yankee Doodle went to town and can stick another well-deserved feather in his cap." Other raids followed. In each the American heavies proved they could hand out severe punishment. Twelve Fortresses returning from one raid were attacked by twenty FW-190's. The Fortress gunners were credited with shooting down four of the enemy fighters and damaging ten more. All the Fortresses returned safely, although one was severely damaged.
This was the last bomber in the rear of a V formation. Nine Focke-Wulfs swooped on it and poured a damaging burst of fire into the cockpit. One shell wounded the pilot and killed the co-pilot.
Another ripped a large hole in the fuselage, while another burst knocked out one of the gun turrets. The bombardier happened to be a "washed out" aviation cadet, who had got as far as advanced pilot training. He managed to remove the wounded pilot from the controls and flew the machine home to make a perfect landing, thus demonstrating the "nine lives" of the Fortress and his own American courage and resourcefulness.
Meanwhile the aviation world held its breath. Were the Forts impregnable or were they just having abnormal luck? On the thirteenth raid undertaken by the big planes over France, Fortress gunners bagged thirteen Focke-Wulf and Messerschmitt fighters. Thirteen raids without a single machine lost, thirteen fighters down.
It only needed to be Friday, the thirteenth, to complete the circle. But the German fighters were licking their wounds and planning how to down these Boeings. They probably worked on the theory that no machine is impregnable and impervious to heavy fire power.
The vulnerable spots of the flying battleship were obvious: the pilot's cabin, where a well-placed explosive shell might kill the pilot, the co-pilot, and the navigator, destroy the gasoline tanks, and the pipelines to the engines. To hit them was a problem! Getting in close was essential, but how to avoid the devastating fire of those .50-calibers? The Germans well knew that the Fort was a veritable porcupine of fire. To attack it from the tail, normal procedure for dealing with a bomber, was useless. If the tail gunner didn't get you, the top gunner might, and you would run the risk of being ripped with bullets by the waist gunners, in their improvised gun ports.
In one quarter only, the fire power of the B-17 was limited. The arc of sky immediately ahead and above the line of the leading edge of the wings. With this in mind, the Germans evolved their new tactics. Why not attack the bombers in the front and from above? Pilots were instructed to dive head-on at the bombers from a steep angle, and then execute a half roll and remain on their backs, still diving. At the moment his machine was upside down, the pilot would open fire, aiming either at the pilot's "office" or at the engines.
The conception of this maneuver was brilliant. While executing it, the fighters would present the least possible target to the Fortress gunners: first their frontal silhouette, next the same reversed; then as the machine continued its dive, only the slim belly of the fuselage.
That the Germans respected the marksmanship of United States gunners is shown by the fact that they fitted specially heavy belly armor to the fighters assigned to destroy the Forts.
When you realize that the fighters were diving at over 400 miles per hour, and that the forward speed of the Fortress would be in the neighborhood of 300 miles per hour, you get an idea of the problem presented to the American gunners by this method of attack, especially since the Germans' attack was made at such a difficult angle.
The advantage was all on the side of the German fighter planes. A light fighter coming toward you at an angle, say one o'clock in fliers' parlance, at 400 miles an hour (plus your own forward speed), moving in two directions at once (rolling on its lateral axis as well as going forward) presents an almost impossible target, and a small one as well. The FW-109 is only 29 feet long and has a span of 34 feet, 5 inches. On the other hand, the Fortress, which measures 103 feet, 9 inches from wing tip to wing tip and is 73 feet and 9 inches long, is a comparatively large target, particularly when on a course of level keel. The Germans certainly used their brains to best advantage.
On October 9, 1942, the B-17E's made their fourteenth raid. More than a hundred United States bombers, Liberators and Fortresses , escorted by Spitfires, set out to raid Lille, the great industrial center of northern France. The bombers arrived over their target well screened by the fighters and delivered a terrific pounding to the city, dropping some 1300 tons of bombs.
Then came the stiffest test of these daylight battleships. Some three hundred German FW-190's and Me-109's broke through the fighter screen and dived on the bombers like angry hornets. A battle royal ensued. It was each Fortress for itself. Fortress gunners acquitted themselves well, and soon the air was full of tell-tale parachutes.
One by one the fighters broke away, some in flames, some smoking, and some slightly crippled.
They came in again and again, and managed to separate two of the American giants. One Fort was in flames; another had fallen out of formation with two engines smoking badly. From another the crew was bailing out; according to crew members of one of its wingmates, "They seemed to fall through a mass of whirling German fighters."
One Fortress squadron leader saved a damaged member of his squadron by reducing the speed of all his planes and forming a convoy around it. The concentrated cross fire put up by the gunners successfully beat off all attacks on the limping plane. When the raiders returned, only four of the big bombers were missing: three over enemy territory, one in the Channel. The crew of the latter were rescued.
The controversy over the value of the B-17's began all over again. The first reports issued by the United States Bomber Command credited Fortress gunners with shooting down forty-eight German planes and damaging nineteen more. The Spitfire escort were credited with destroying five German fighters. This was one of many occasions on which the bombers have registered a higher score than their fighter escorts.
The critics were still not convinced. They hinted that the American gunners in the excitement of the battle were unable to keep an accurate check of the number of machines they had destroyed.
Presently new figures began to be compiled, using the proven method of not allowing credit unless at least three people have seen the enemy plane go down out of control. The United States Bomber Command began its inquiry—the final box score was 102 German fighters put out of action for the loss of four Fortresses.
The Germans, however, seemed to have begun to take the measure of B-17's, and as the raids continued, the loss began to fall in line with the average expectation of machines destroyed on night raids.
The Fortresses, however, demonstrated that they could take far more punishment than any other machine in the air, and gradually the great bombers piled up "personal records" that have never been equalled by any type of aircraft.
Of course, the Fortress starts with an advantage over the British heavies. Whereas the R.A.F. knows its individual planes merely by letters, the Fortress crews christened their machines with a variety of attractive names. There were Phyllis, Suzy Q, The Memphis Belle, Hell's Angel, Tilly the Toiler, Dinah Mite, and a host of others.
Many of them will be remembered long after the war is over. The story of Phyllis was cabled round the world. Phyllis was one of a squadron taking part in a bombing mission over an aircraft factory in Meaulte, France, when she was attacked by thirty FW190 's on her homeward journey. She was flying at a great height, and all the crew members were using their oxygen equipment. The first burst of Focke-Wulf fire broke the oxygen leads and disabled one of the port engines. The sudden lack of oxygen was such a shock that two of the gunners fainted. The navigator slumped over his table. Lieutenant Charlie Paine, the pilot, still had his senses.
He put Phyllis into a steep dive so that the gunners would be revived by the lower altitude.
Behind them came the fighters, weaving and twisting like hounds chasing a stag. Ahead of Phyllis was more trouble, a solid wall of antiaircraft fire from the ground. Lieutenant Paine did not hesitate.
He went right through the barrage with bits and pieces chipping off Phyllis and shrapnel clattering against her metal sides. Once through the barrage, the pilot had breathing time. The fighters had made a detour to avoid their own antiaircraft fire. Phyllis wasn't feeling so well. She had a gaping shell hole in one wing, and her tail looked as if it had been clawed by some giant bird. (Bent Taucher, the tail gunner, said he was too busy shooting Germans to notice that anything had happened, but when they landed he was seen counting several large holes a few inches from where his head had been.
Two of her engines were now out of action, and some of the controls had been shot away. The Focke-Wulfs came in again to "worry" her to the death. The gunners went to work each time a German fighter came within range, and let him have it. One of the Germans scored a direct hit on the upper turret. The cannon shell burst just inside, and the gunner, Thomas Coburn, was badly cut about the head. Blinded with blood he kept on firing until he collapsed and fell unconscious between the two pilots. Phyllis' nose kept going up instead of down, and Paine and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Robert Young, had to stand up and lean on the controls with all their strength before she finally responded to pressure.
The German gunners must have been getting angry at her continued resistance. One Focke-Wulf pilot flew in so close that the American crew thought he was going to ram them amidships. Concentrated fire by two of them, however, with their .50 caliber guns, changed that pilot's mind. He went down and exploded a few feet beneath the giant plane he had hoped to finish.
Then came what one of the crew members described as "a glimpse of heaven," the English coast. The Focke-Wulfs quickly turned and made for home. Thirteen of them had been shot down.
Phyllis was now feeling very sick. She had only two engines working , and her landing gear had been wrecked by a direct hit from antiaircraft fire. Her fuselage was riddled with bullets, and as she came over the airfield her pilot found he could not open her flaps.
Neither would the ajlerons work. Damage to the tail had disabled one of the elevators, and Paine would have to attempt a belly landing.
He started to throttle back his two remaining engines and found they would not respond. The first time he came in over the field, Phyllis was going so fast that he could not bring her down safely. He pulled her up at the last minute, and the tail knocked off a portion of roof from a building at the edge of the field.
Paine was not to be discouraged. Phyllis had brought them home, and he was determined to get her down safely. He made one more try, and a few feet above the ground he switched off the engines.
Phyllis subsided gently and slid along the ground on her belly. Said Paine, looking at the almost unbelievable damage done the machine by the Focke-Wulfs: "The girl friend certainly brought us through!" One of the fightingest Fortresses ever to get in newspaper print in two continents was a lady called Suzy Q. This member of the Nineteenth Bombardment Group arrived at Boeing Field early in 1943 after flying home from her Pacific base. Suzy Q had been in action since the outbreak of war. On her nose was painted an astonishing list of places she had visited, and on her side was a panel bearing twenty-six rising suns, to tell the world that Suzy's gunners had knocked off twenty-six Japanese planes.
Along the sides of her graceful fuselage, in her tail, and on her wings were many patches. They covered bullet holes she had received in battles over the Macassar Straits, Java, Borneo, the Celebes, Rabaul, and New Guinea. Suzy had been at war without let-up. She had logged more than 2000 hours in the air and had been hit more times than you could count; yet not one of her crew had been killed or injured.
During an attack on Rabaul, Suzy was doing a bit of low flying. Cruising around a few feet above the ground, her pilot spotted a Jap military camp. He decided it needed attention and went in. As the incendiary bombs began to fall, Japanese antiaircraft opened fire from the top of a hill. Suzy's gunners finished off this interruption with a low-flying strafe, and she then turned to cruise over the encampment for an hour or so, completing its destruction.
Some of the tales told of Suzy Q are unorthodox for even a welltrained bomber. On one occasion, she ran out of fuel and had to be brought down in a small clearing in the northern Australia bushland . The spot was isolated, and there were no means of assistance near by. The crew went four days without food while they waited for gasoline to be dropped. They filled in time building a runway from which Suzy Q could take off after the fuel arrived. It must have looked pathetically small, being only about a quarter of the size usually required for a Fortress take-off.
Lieutenant Colonel Felix Hardison, Suzy's commander, headed her toward the sea and opened up her motors with the brakes still on. Suzy quivered like a race-horse and then, as the brakes were released, she tore into the air as if shot by a rubber band.
One of Suzy's heaviest tasks was supporting Marine landings in the Solomons. Suzy, along with other ships of the Nineteenth Bombardment Squadron, was credited with destroying more than i50 Japanese planes on the ground. During the battle of the Macassar Straits, Suzy's squadron claimed to have destroyed 35,000 Japs in one sortie. Her bombardier is credited with having sunk more enemy ships than any other bombardier in action.
When Suzy Q flew back to America, she brought with her a crew which probably at that time carried more decorations than any other bomber crew in the United States Army Air Forces. All of them were recommended for the DFC, and all wore the blue band with oak leaf clusters that meant their group had been cited three times by the Secretary of War and once by the President. Lieutenant Colonel Hardison earned nine World War II decorations while flying Suzy. Said he, looking at his battered old plane: "'You know, there are three beautiful things in this world—a woman, a thoroughbred horse, and a Flying Fortress."
The crew commented: "Suzy Q should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. She never failed us. She crossed the Equator four times, and flew thirty-five thousand miles around the world." One Fortress, or a combination of Fortresses that joined forces under stress of combat, has an equal claim to fame- as Suzy. His name is Alexander the Swoose. Alexander was named the Swoose—halfswan , half-goose—when in Australia half of the original plane remained intact and a new half was assembled from parts salvaged from other Fortresses. His first half had seen nine months' action before Alexander became a Swoose. Alexander fought in the Philippines , in the Macassar Straits, in Java, in the East Indies, and over Australia. He spent the early days of the war blasting the Japs on land and sea, and he is credited with sinking a number of their warships . The exact score has not been revealed, but Alexander's crew are mighty proud of him.
When the Philippines were evacuated, Alexander was the last known survivor of his squadron and General Brett chose him for his personal airplane. From that moment the battered veteran began to pile up an astonishing mileage. He flew far enough to take him fifteen times around the world, and he is said to have broken the existing Australia-to-America record. • Not all of these flights were plain sailing. Once he was carrying General Brett and Brigadier General Ralph Royce on a routine flight over the Australian desert when the navigator lost his way.
They roamed around for eight hours, in which they encountered every type of weather Australia had to offer—lightning, rain, electrical storms, and a terrific wind. The radio was out of action and everything went wrong. Finally they landed safely and were later located.
Another time, Alexander was used as a hospital ship, flying over a thousand miles with a soldier who had been badly wounded by Japanese bomb splinters. Today Alexander the Swoose is decorated with three stars to denote that he is the flagship of a lieutenant general.
General Arnold, the Commanding General of the United States Army Air Forces, who has always believed in the big bomber, told the story of another Fort, Thunderbird, when he visited the Seattle War Show in October, 1943. Seattle is the home of the Boeing Aircraft Company which manufactures the Fortress. Attending the meeting was Thunderbird in person, battle-scarred and tattered, a tribute to the toughness of American-built planes and the gallantry of American fighting fliers.
"Thunderbird," said the General, "is a veteran of the Tunisian campaign. She brought her crew back to an air base near Tunis on two engines.
"Thunderbird was three days late, for she had had to stop at Pantelleria to get patched up. She was the first Fortress to land on that bomb-cratered island, but her pilot put her down on the field as if she were a crate of eggs.
"That was the second time Thunderbird had performed such a feat—twice shot to pieces by 'flak,' by hostile fighters, in almost unflyable condition, she had come home.
"On this day at Messina, Thunderbird, after being hit repeatedly by shell fragments, dove from 23,000 feet down to water level with the two port engines blazing and a swarm of fighters on her tail.
"Other B-17 crews on the mission saw her go down and reported she could 'never pull out of a dive like that.' Our young American airmen are good—they seldom lose their heads when under the most critical conditions. This pilot was no exception—he talked calmly to his crew. 'Don't waste your ammo . . . take it easy ... let them come in close. . . . We're going to be all right.' "The crew obeyed instructions and calmly manned their guns; and one after another the Nazi fighters closed in—and were shot down, until nine crashed into the sea.
"There were over fifty bullet holes in the Fort; the gas was so low that to reach North Africa was out of the question, so Pantelleria had to be their goal. It was Friday when they made it, and on Sunday, after emergency repairs, they flew back to Tunis. As an anticlimax each member of the crew brought with him a big Pantelleria cheese, as they said, to prove their story—that a landing had been made on Pantelleria.
"There was a lot of handshaking at the base, with many saying, 'Boy, I sure thought you were dead'—too much so, for all their clothes had been packed, ready to send to their next of kin." No wonder General Arnold, himself a veteran flier, is proud of his young men and the machines they fly.
Scarcely a day passes without a Fortress getting its name in the newspapers through a staggering feat of endurance. One bomber named Jenny was renamed Flaming Jenny after flying back from a raid on northern France aflame from nose to tail. Two engines had been put out of action. Jenny had fought off sixty Nazi fighters and had been wounded in two thousand different places. Her scars healed and her blisters painted over, she continued on operational work.
Few of the B-17's operating over Europe are without scars. Some have piled up an astonishing total of war flying hours. The Memphis Belle recently flew to America under her own power after having taken part in twenty-five raids over the continent of Europe, during which she flew over twenty thousand miles.
General Arnold greeted the battle-scarred lady. "The grandest thing of all," he said, "is that the same crew is bringing her back today that flew her away eight months ago." On the sides of The Memphis Belle are painted eight swastikas to denote the number of German planes she has definitely accounted for. Her crew of ten have twenty-one decorations—the odd one is the Purple Heart awarded to Sergeant Quinlan, only member of the crew to be wounded throughout the operations. The Memphis Belle herself has had over a hundred wounds.
In the Middle East and North Africa, B- 17's were heavily engaged. They sank Italian battleships at Maddalena, and at Bizerte destroyed airfields galore. On one flight a squadron of Forts accounted for fifty-two enemy planes in the air and on the ground. An R.A.F. spokesman said: "We didn't believe in daylight bombing. We do now. The Americans knew what they were talking about. It has worked out well. With our night bombers, we now have an undreamed-of round-the-clock hitting power. We can do with all the big bombers you send us." All of which adds up to the fact that the Fortress is a first-class bomber of which Americans can be proud.