Of all the inanimate objects that have been important to my life, none that involved death were more important than the B-17.
There have always been stories of war because death is of ultimate importance, and war is often about death. Of all the inanimate objects that have been important to my life, none that involved death were more important than the B-17. It was built by the Boeing Aircraft Corporation, although the "B" in "B-17" doesn't stand for "Boeing"; it means "bomber." Modest of them.
My memories of this plane and its history came to mind recently when I received a book edited by Steven K. Harris called "The B-17 Remembered." The book and a letter were sent to me by Nancy Hogan, a trustee of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, WA. Ms. Hogan included an invitation to ceremonies at the museum marking the 75th Anniversary of the first flight of the B-17. The B-17 was one of the great weapons of World War II.
Unfortunately, I can't attend the ceremony, but the invitation sparked some persistent memories.
One of the many great experiences I had as a reporter in World War II was on board a B-17 bombing industries around the city of Wilhelmshaven, Germany. (You notice I say "industries." We never talked about bombing people or cities.) I probably should go back to Wilhelmshaven — on the ground — but I doubt if I ever will. There are too many places to go in one's life, and life is more important than going back to places.
On Feb. 23, 1943, I went on a bombing raid on Wilhelmshaven in a B-17. That's something you never forget. It was as close to death as I ever came, and I was 24 years old. Artillery shells exploded in the air around us and we were attacked by German fighter planes, FW 190s and Messerschmitt 109s. I haven't forgotten them, either.
Several times a week, Air Force public relations alerted reporters that there was going to be a bombing raid. The reporters living in London boarded a train in the morning to be at one of the airfields when the bombers returned — if they returned.
On one of those raids, I was up front, in the nose of the bomber, sitting behind the pilot and co-pilot and across from the navigator at his little table. I could see the German fighter planes out the window boring down on us, guns blazing. You notice I'm not saying I wasn't scared. I kept asking myself why I volunteered to go on a bombing raid. It had always seemed wrong to me that I wrote about the airmen without ever joining them, so I volunteered to go on a raid.
When they flew over Germany after crossing the English Channel, some of our bombers were always shot down. The bomb groups were either B-17s or B-24s, and the B-17s always got the dirty jobs because they were harder to destroy than the B-24s. The B-24 was faster, more maneuverable and in many ways a better airplane but it had that one shortcoming: It got shot down more easily.
The B-26 Mustang was a smaller, two-engine bomber that they should not have wasted time and money making. It didn't carry a heavy load, had limited firepower and was a poor weapon. This sort of thing happens a lot in war, I think, and we never know about inadequate weapons or vehicles until the war is over.
They made one early mistake with the B-17. As the story goes, they built it so big and wide that they had to remove its wings to tow it onto the airfield because the streets of the town where it was made were too narrow to accommodate it.
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