Early this morning I went to a small general aviation airport about a 1 ¼ mile from my house. Sitting on the flight line were a B-17G “Nine-O-Nine” and B-24J “Witchcraft” that had flown in the day before. They were there for tours and for flights for the public. It was about 08:10 when I arrived and I asked the personnel in the small terminal if it was OK for me to walk out to the bombers and take photographs. They said sure. For about 20 minutes I was the only person out there with the bombers. I was happily taking photographs under a brilliant blue cloudless sky when I was joined by an USAF vet from the Viet-Nam War. As we were standing next to the B-17G “Nine-O-Nine” talking about the aircraft, an older white haired gentleman walked up. He was wearing a brown bomber jacket with the 8th Airforce patch on the shoulder and a B-17G painted on the back. His ball cap was embroidered 385th Bomber Group.

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In 1944 he had been assigned to the 385th Bombardment Group, 8th Airforce, based in Great Britain . He was a navigator in a B-17G just like the Nine-O-Nine sitting next to us. During his service in the Flying Fortress he had survived 26 missions over Germany . While we were talking the flight crew for the Nine-O-Nine arrived and started setting up the area for tours and for flights in the afternoon. As we talked, suddenly the whir of the bomb bay mechanism on the B-17 started up, and the bomb bay doors swung open right next to us. We walked over and stood inside the bomb bay. He pointed out the very narrow catwalk over the bomb bay that connected the forward half of the ship containing bombardier, navigator, pilot, copilot and engineer with the rear half of the ship that contained the radio operator, two waist gunners, ball turret gunner and tail gunner. He mentioned that it was a scary feeling to cross the catwalk when the plane was airborne and the doors were open but that sometimes it was necessary. Sometimes personnel from the front would have to go back to assist wounded in the rear half, although he never had to do this. We talked about many things such as the emergency hand crank for lowering the landing gear. I thought that it would be tough to turn the crank but he assured me that with all of the adrenaline flowing, it was not. For him the worst time was not when fighters or flak hit over Germany . By then you were reacting to events and in your battle drill. No, the worst time for him was when he woke up in the morning that a mission was scheduled. The waiting and anticipation were tougher to handle than the actual mission.

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He said he flew in a lucky ship and nobody in his crew had been killed or even wounded in his 26 missions over Germany , even though death was all around him. Early models of the B-17 were vulnerable to head on attacks by fighters. To strengthen the nose the B-17G had a powered operated chin turret added. When fighters attacked the bombardier would control the powered chin turret. Also in the nose were two side machine guns. The navigator would man one of those. In one mission over Germany his squadron was being attacked by fighters from the right side. He jumped up to the right nose machine gun, drew a bead on a fighter boring in, and depressed the firing levers. Nothing happened. He looked down and saw that there was a warped link in the .50 cal ammo belt. Before the gun would fire he would have to remove the bad link. At –40F you can’t touch bare metal with unprotected skin, so he removed his heavy insulated flight gloves and put on some thin silk gloves provided for the purpose and removed the bad link and relinked the belt. By the time this was over he looked out but the fighters were gone. As he looked to the right and left, he noticed that the two B-17s that had been wingmen on the right and left were also gone. While he worked on the ammo belt, they had been clawed down by the fighters during the attack but his ship was untouched. Like he said, his ship was lucky. I asked which was worse, the Me-109 or FW-190 but he said they were about the same. The only aircraft that really scared him were the Me-262s, which were coming on line during his tour. He said there was no way the bomber’s guns could touch them.

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If you have a chance to talk to any WWII veteran from any service from any country, do so. What they have to say is inspiring as well as being extremely interesting. Bravery is not just limited the vets of the USAAF, USMC, USN, USCG or the US Army. The pilots of those Messerschmidts and FWs, Spitfires and Lancasters , Zeros and Yaks were just as brave as the very young men in the Forts and Liberators. Wherever you live there are probably still a small group of veterans of the greatest conflict the world has ever seen, who would probably appreciate your interest and appreciation in what they lived through.

Steve Backer