The old pilot

Sometimes the best stories
are sitting right there …
87

With flak everywhere and fighters tearing through your formation, a B17 cockpit was a really busy place. Mistakes were frequently deadly

He sat up front on the left by himself in church every week. His wife was long since gone. He was quiet and old. As is so often the case in a small town like ours, he was also a patient of mine.

This particular day he saw me for gout. I knew he was a military pilot but nothing more. I casually asked him what he had done during the war.

“B17s,” he said with a wistful smile. He loved the plane. He described it as sturdy. He had flown 25 combat missions over Europe. His eyes twinkled as he spoke.

I explained I had also been a military pilot, though in a totally different machine and during a totally different time. I made some vapid joke about how military aviators got all the girls. He agreed wholeheartedly.

He said he was in the running to snag the prettiest girl in his high school class. It had come down to him and another of his classmates who had also joined the Army Air Corps to fly during the war. He then insouciantly stated, “But he went down in a P38 over the Pacific.”

Apparently while my friend was in Europe the girl found somebody else, but it was the casualness of the statement that was so shocking. I graduated from a small high school. Our class was very close. My first classmate to die was in a plane crash while we were in college. This man had known loss on a totally different scale.

Just over 16 million Americans served in uniform during World War II and 407,316 of them died. That’s out of a population of 140 million. Everybody knew somebody who had given their life for their country. People like this man knew quite a few.

Two of the B17’s 10 crewmen worked up front.

Imagine being hit by one of your fellow aircraft 500-lb. bombs. Such things
happened frequently in close formations and were usually fatal to the receiving plane.

An Unexpected Treasure

As is my custom I imposed upon the man for a quick war story. Anyone who has ever seen me as a patient now has some insights into why the waits can be so long at times. I innocently asked what his most memorable mission had been. He thought for a moment, his mind clearly rolling back to a different place.

He was on a strategic bombing mission over Italy somewhere. There weren’t many fighters this run, but the flak was murderous. As the massive formations of heavy bombers jostled to avoid getting blown to hell by antiaircraft bursts, one of the boxes drifted unduly. This man’s formation found itself underneath another just as they released their bombs. An errant 500-pounder caught the nose of his B17 just ahead of the cockpit.

“I suppose we were fortunate the thing didn’t detonate,” he said flatly. Instead it simply tore the nose off his plane and dropped it some four miles to the distant ground below. Along with it went two of his closest friends. The bombardier and navigator, two men with whom he had lived and flown for months, were simply gone.

He hadn’t time to mourn. The B17 was never designed to fly with the nose torn off. He said the wind and the cold were unimaginable. He told me shredded aluminum and disincorporated chunks of airplane shrieked and flopped like a wildly unbalanced washing machine in the slipstream. He said the vibration was indescribable. Trying to keep the eviscerated airplane trimmed up and flying was a piece of pilotage the likes of which I find frankly breathtaking. This old man sitting in my clinic kept that crippled plane flying for another two hours.

He eventually nursed the disabled warplane down at his home field. He explained they considered bailing out, but none of them fancied spending the rest of the war in a prison camp, presuming they even survived the fall. At 22 years old, he was the pilot-in-command. It had been his call. It was a legitimate miracle the big bomber did not disintegrate enroute. Once he landed and got out of the plane, the reality of his loss set in.

This rugged plane frequently brought its crews home despite some of the most egregious damage.

The B17 Flying Fortress was a pilot’s airplane. Tough, forgiving and easy to fly,
the Flying Fort saved many an American life in the flak-riddled skies over Europe.
The B17 Flying Fortress was unbelievably tough.

Ruminations

The amazing thing was how little emotion there was in his voice as he related this experience. I lost two friends while I was in uniform, and I still feel a little bit empty inside when I think about them. This man lost two friends three feet in front of his face, and then he still had the presence of mind to nurse his decapitated airplane two hours back to safety. He described these events as though he were driving to the grocery store.

The man sat up front in church on the left. He typically kept to himself and blended in with the crowd. You’d never have known his was the face of a legitimate American hero.

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