The Amazing Story of the B-17 Flying Fortress
The 398th was a B-17 bomb group in the 8th Air Force 1st Air Division during World War II. The US Eighth Air Force was the largest of the Army Air Forces, engaged in heavy bombing of enemy targets in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber aircraft which was heavily used in the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II.
From its pre-war inception, the USAAC (later USAAF) touted the aircraft as a strategic weapon; it was a potent, high-flying, long-range bomber that was able to defend itself, and to return home despite extensive battle damage. It quickly took on mythic proportions, and widely circulated stories and photos of B-17s surviving battle damage increased its iconic status.
The 398th were stationed in Nuthampstead, England during the final year of the conflict where they ran 195 combat missions. Thanks to the hard work of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association, the locations, combat diaries, log books and missions are all documented on the web. They have also collected priceless memories from “friends of the 398th” – both Brits who remember the 398th while stationed in England and other squadrons who flew with them.
You could spend all day on this website and never get bored. It’s an amazing collection.
I received permission from the association to share one story with you and it was difficult to decide. You know me, though, I’m a sucker for a happy ending. And this happy ending against unbelievable odds has to be read:
It Was A Fortress Coming Home by Allen Ostrom tells the story of the B-17 Flying Fortress on the 15th of October 1944. 90-year-old Allen Ostrom is the military historian for the 389th Bomb Group. The story starts on the ground:
“They’re 20 minutes early. Can’t be the 398th.”
They could hear it before they could see it! Something was coming home. But what?
All eyes turned toward the northeast, aligning with the main runway, each ground guy and stood-down airman straining to make out this “wail of a Banshee,” as one called it.
Not like a single B-17 with its characteristic deep roar of the engines blended with four thrashing propellers. This was a howl! Like a powerful wind blowing into a huge whistle.
Then it came into view. It WAS a B-17!
The B-17 Flying Fortress took a direct hit over Cologne, Germany. The crew had just dropped their bombs and were turning away when a flak burst took out the nose of the aircraft.
The togglier was killed instantly. Here’s a front view of the Flying Fortress that day:
The full size view and more photographs of the damage are on http://www.398th.org/.
Lt. deLancey described the scene from the cockpit:
“Part of the nose peeled back and obstructed my vision and that of my co-pilot, 1st Lt. Phillip H. Stahlman of Shippenville, Pennsylvania. What little there was left in front of me looked like a scrap heap. The wind was rushing through. Our feet were exposed to the open air at nearly 30,000 feet above the ground. The temperature was unbearable.”
They had no oxygen, no maps, no radio and and practically no instruments. They descended and turned back towards allied territory.
By this time they were down to 2,000 feet.
“We finally agreed that we were over Belgium and were flying in a southwesterly direction,” said the pilot.
“About this time a pair of P-51’s showed up and flew a loose formation on us across Belgium. I often wondered what they thought as they looked at the mess up front.”
Amazingly, the American crew made their way over France and found England where the skill of the flight crew came into its own:
“Once over England, LeDoux soon picked up landmarks and gave me course corrections taking us directly to Nuthampstead. It was just a great bit of navigation. Ray just stood there on the flight deck and gave us the headings from memory.”
They weren’t safe on the ground yet, though, and Allen Ostrom’s account had me at the edge of my seat until the very end:
Nearing the field, Stahlman let the landing gear down. That was an assurance. But a check of the hydraulic pump sent another spray of oil to the cockpit floor. Probably no brakes!
Nevertheless, a flare from Ruckel’s pistol had to announce the “ready or not” landing. No “downwind leg” and “final approach” this time. Straight in!
“The landing was strictly by guess and feel,” said DeLancey. “Without instruments, I suspect I came in a little hot. Also, I had to lean to the left to see straight ahead.
1st Lieutenant Lawrence deLancey was awarded a Silver Start for bringing a plane home that, by all rights, had no business flying. The navigator, 2nd Lt Raymond J. LeDoux, received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Read the whole account at It Was A Fortress Coming Home.
I recommend also taking a look at the 398th Veterans’ WWII Personal Histories and read, well, everything. And you can also watch the 398th Timeless Voices Interviews and see and hear the men tell their stories first hand in an amazing collection of oral history. This is an outstanding selection of real stories from real people, with hidden gems such as Nunzio Addabbo, 398th Navigator explaining how he paid for his flying lessons at 17 by picking blueberries and James (Dean) Hill, 398th Pilot remembering flying the bomber: seeing the flak coming up and knowing you had to fly through it.
The 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association have created a truly wonderful website to share their stories and memories with a wider audience. The next time you see Kipling’s words “Lest we forget” on Remembrance / Memorial / Anzac Day, take a moment to savour treasures such as this one.