There was a tragic accident in Connecticut this morning when a vintage B-17G, “Nine O Nine,” crashed. The plane was a frequent visitor to our area, to San Luis Obispo County. My son and I saw this beautiful airplane, restored to resemble the 1943 original, which flew 140 combat missions with the 91st Bomb Group without a fatality. The chief of the B-17’s ground crew won a Bronze Star because his airplane flew 126 consecutive missions without aborting for a mechanical failure.
That streak ran out this morning, when this ship, built in 1944, lost an engine and went down just short of the runway.
I wrote a book about aviators from my area— San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara Counties.
I learned that a bomber squadron was usually made up of twenty B-17s like “Nine O Nine.” On maximum effort days—in the spring of 1944—there would be eight hundred to a thousand of these airplanes, both B-17s and B-24s, going into the air in shifts all over East Anglia. They would rattle dishes and wedding crystal in the modest homes below as they assembled and headed east.
Typically, B-17 pilots were twenty-two years old. Gunners were teenagers. There were liars among them as young as fifteen. San Luis Obispo County lost eighteen of these young fliers during World War II, both in combat and in horrific training accidents from Texas to Montana to South Carolina.
Among the young men who made it overseas, one, from Arroyo Grande, died when his B-17 flew into the side of Mount Skiddaw in England’s Lake District. Another, from Morro Bay, was shattered in his co-pilot’s seat by a cannon round from a Focke-Wulf 190. A San Luis Obispo navigator died when a Messerschmitt 109 collided with his B-17. A Templeton B-24 gunner took off on a mission that was scrubbed because of weather; when his bomber crashed returning to base, his aircrew were the only Eighth Air Force casualties that day.
At least two local men served in “Nine O Nine’s” 91st Bomb Group.
Robert Abbey Dickson’s B-17, “Wheel and Deal,” was brought down by antiaircraft fire over the Ruhr Valley in 1943. Dickson bailed out and when he hit the ground, the first German he met was an angry farmer armed with a vintage World War I Mauser. The young American was rescued by two Luftwaffe soldiers who rode up on a motorcycle and sidecar and fetched him back to their 88-mm gun emplacement. It suddenly occurred to Dickson that this might be the gun that had brought his bomber down.
But it was lunchtime. The first thing Dickson’s captors did was to offer him a bowl of potato soup.
Henry Hall of Cayucos was a twenty-year-old gunner on “Black Monday,” in March 1944, when Eighth Air Force undertook a “maximum” effort mission, with nearly a thousand heavies sent into the air. At this point in the war, the B-17s and B-24s weren’t just strategic weapons. They were bait, intended to bring up German fighters so state-of-the-art American fighters, like the P-51, could begin to winnow the young Germans down. But the winnowing that Hall saw involved Americans. Hall watched, horrified, as an Me-109’s attack on a nearby B-17 took effect. The plane’s right-wing landing gear dropped lazily. Then it began to go in, and on its way down, it clipped two more B-17s and sent them in, as well. That mission turned out to be fruitless: the target was obscured and Hall’s ship dropped its bombload on a “target of opportunity,” a German village—one, Hall thought, that had done little harm to any Americans— on its way home. It was a terrible day for Hall’s aircrew.
What kept them together, I learned, and kept them flying in unpressurized cabins where hypoxia and frostbite were common, when they endured sudden, terrifying attacks from German fighters so fast that no gunner could track them—those fighters, too, were flown by twenty-two year-olds—and when flak sliced through wings, fuselage, air hoses and human beings, was their devotion to each other.
You could not let your friends down.
I learned, too, that among their best friends were the British schoolchildren who lined airfield fences along the tarmac at the start of every mission.
They were there to wave goodbye to their Americans, who were loud and boisterous, friendly and incredibly generous, with endless supplies of Hershey bars, because these young men had grown up in the Depression, and they knew what the British children, after their six years of war, knew. They knew what deprivation was like.
So those children were there for their Yanks.