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This one is about my tryst with history. One of the only six remaining airworthy World War-2 B-17 bombers left on earth, was on display in my town last Sunday. When I entered the fuselage of the plane, it was a transforming experience. The emotions I felt almost choked me up. I decided to make my wanderings through the belly of the beast, sound as if I was watching you, a crew member, just taken off from Benghazi Field, the base of the USAAF 376th Bombardment Group. You are the ball turret gunner, slung under the belly of the plane. It is a star-studded, moonless night and looking down, the darkness of the Mediterranean 30000 ft below is disquieting. It is August 1943. Operation Tidal Wave, the most expensive air raid in the history of armed conflict, the bombing of the oil refineries at Ploiesti, Romania that were fuelling the Nazi war effort, is on……….

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Guess who that incredibly good-looking guy in half-pants is… (Photo courtesy: Spunkybong)

As you approach the bomber, the first thing you notice is the nose art, a picture of the pin-up girl of the war years, Betty Grable and the words ‘Sentimental Journey’ slapped on with a flourish, just below the cockpit window. Nose art and plane names used to be standard features on every single American World War-2 aircraft (and still does, today).

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Nose Art. A name and a picture, a woman most of the time, but there are cartoons characters too. The name could be a girlfriend’s or a wife’s or just something abstract, like ‘Sentimental Journey’. I guess it was an inner desire to humanize a killing machine, often with a humorous touch (Photo courtesy: Spunkybong)

The entry is $5 and when it is your turn, you climb gingerly up the ladder and stick your head inside the fuselage. Your eyes are now at floor level and you are appalled. There is just enough space to wriggle through and you have got to be very careful. Immediately above is a bulkhead that won’t let you continue climbing into the bomber erect, unless you fancy a concussion and early dementia.

You will have to hoist yourself with your elbows onto the floor and twist a bit to the right and sort of slither in on your elbows and knees. If you are nearing 60 and have erectile dysfunction, a B-17 bomber isn’t the place for you to be in. Sorry I mentioned erectile dysfunction. I know it has absolutely nothing to do with this piece. Sex always slips into my posts. Believe me, I would have sought therapy long back, if I could afford it.

Before I begin introducing the crew to you, here’s a little sketch that shows where everybody is stationed and what everyone is supposed to do….

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Crew positions on the B-17G. Today’s B2 (Spirit) has just two crew and conventional fire power over six times more deadly than what the B-17 had. (Image courtesy: Wikimedia)

Okay, so now you have an idea. Having completed the entry maneuver, you can now stand up to your full height. You are now facing the flight engineer, Staff Sergeant Archibald Mathies’s tiny cubicle. Mathies is 24 and diminutive, as all bomber crew have to be. There’s standing space only and he stands all through the 6 hour ride to the target and back. If the bomber is under attack from above from those gull-winged Ju-87 Stukas, he lets loose with the single M2 Browning Machine Gun, that sticks out saucily from the top turret.

The M2 is a terrifying air-cooled, belt-fed mother that spews out .50 inch rounds, 10 every second, in a murderous rampage that can tear metal to shreds at a range of two kilometers. If you are in the way, the round will go through you and your twin, if he happens to be standing right behind you.

I got that ‘twin bro’ thing from an Alistair Maclean that I had read as a kid. I think it was his ‘When eight bells toll’ that mentioned it on the very first page, where Maclean waxes eloquent on what a Peacemaker Colt .45 is capable of. But I digress. Old men frequently do.

Sentimental Journey has altogether 13 of those lethal babies, the M2s. Except the pilot and co-pilot, who have got to fly this bucket to the target and back, every other crew has to man at least one M2, besides their normal duties, should the occasion arise.

You turn toward the front of the bomber. Up ahead, within touching distance are the pilot and co-pilot. You can almost hear 1st Lt. Donald J. Gott, 21, pilot and overall commander, repeating ‘check’ as co-pilot, 2nd Lt. William E. Metzger Jr., also 21, goes through each item on the check-list. Their voices are a forced casual banter, masking the tension that comes from knowing that the odds that you will return from the raid are 25/75. Gott and Metzger are officers and so are the bombardier and navigator. (I’ll let you meet them in just a while). The 6 remaining crew are enlisted men.

You crouch a little and there are two more men up front. The man right in front of you at a lower level, is the navigator, 24-year old 1st Lt. Walter E. Truemper. Truemper has a tiny wooden bench to sit on and a tinier table with charts and a headset. He also has an M2 to man, which pokes out of the fuselage top.

Further down, right up front at the nose, the most forward position in the plane, is the bombardier, 2nd Lt. David R. Kingsley, 25, of Portland, Oregon. Kingsley is protected from the onrushing -60 ̊C, 250mph wind by a plexi-glass bubble. Poking out menacingly through the bubble, are two M2s that are his responsibility to man.

Besides the two guns, as bombardier, Kingsley is the lynch-pin of the sortie. If he turns out to be a schmuck, you get to come back without hitting the target and then have colleagues make fun of you, at the mess hall. Worse still, you could stray into a schwarm of blood-thirsty Me109s. (I’ll explain what a schwarm is, in the next para).

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Nose turret and the bombardier’s perch (Photo courtesy: Spunkybong)

The B-17 bristles with machine guns. It has to. Even though it is extremely robust in design and can withstand an awful lot of punishment in the form of anti-aircraft shelling, there are roving Messerschmitt109 wolf packs, which are highly skilled 4-fighter teams known by the Germans as schwarms, that roam the skies in search of lumbering bombers like yours. Their 20mm cannons can rip a B-17 fuselage to shreds, destroying vital links and control cables and rendering the bomber unfit to remain in the air.

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The Messerschmitt schwarm (Image courtesy: Freespace.virgin.net)

You now do a turn-around very carefully, without scraping your elbow against metallic thingamabobs poking out all over the place. You start moving toward the rear of the bomber cautiously. The moment you pass by Flight Engineer Mathies’ cubicle, you are on a 6-inch wide fabricated gangway and all around and below is cavernous emptiness with the bomb doors in the bottom.

Slung inside that space are 8 sinister-looking, cylindrical olive-green objects with fins in the rear. Stenciled in white on each is more gobbledegook that essentially means that six of them are 500kg high-explosive fragmentation bombs and two are incendiary. The 6 frag bombs will destroy every erect structure around the impact site and the 2 incendiary babies will burn so hot that they suck all the oxygen out of the air within a radius of about 4000 yards, killing by asphyxiation, the survivors who were just going to mutter, “Phew, that was close,” after managing to escape the frag bombs.

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3 Frag bombs and 1 Incendiary. There is one more set of 4 on the other side. Who said war was fun? Okay, maybe Attila the Hun did. (Photo courtesy: Spunkybong)

You hold on to rails on both sides and walk the gangway, your steps carefully placed, one after the other.  At 36000 feet, a squall is buffeting the B-17 and it takes all your strength and concentration to stay on the gangway so you won’t fall and hit those bombs, ricochet and come to rest against the ribs on the ice-cold bomb doors.

Thankfully, the gangway is a short walk and you find yourself in this tiny space with a bench and table. On the table is a large black box with dials and needles flickering across frequency ranges. A man is hunched over, headphones clamped over his ears, trying to understand the incoming radio signal above the din of the four huge Wright Cyclone engines.

Meet the radio operator, Tech. Sargent Forrest Lee Vosler, 21, of Lyndonville, New York. If he hadn’t mentioned it you would have missed the lone M2 poking out of the Perspex above his head. He leaves his radio and mans the gun when there is a Fritz hurtling down on him.

At the moment, Vosler is pre-occupied. He is screaming into the mike,” Broadsword calling Danny Boy, come in Broadsword. Over.”

“Danny Boy to Broadsword, did you deliver the plums and the jelly beans? Over.”

“We missed, but Father McCrea got ‘em, Broadsword. Fritz is wide awake now, that’s for sure. Hope they haven’t run out of marshmallows down there. Next transmission at 0600. Over and out.”

“Bar-B-Que Boris.”

“Sautéed Sepp.”

“Fried Fritz.” Vosler lets loose a manic giggle.

(That ‘broadsword calling dannyboy’ bit was Alistair Maclean again, Where Eagles Dare, slightly modified. I’m incorrigible).

Past the radio room, you walk directly over the bottom ball gun turret with its twin M2s. This is your own little hell hole. You sit there all by yourself, cut off from the rest of the crew, unable to determine what is happening elsewhere inside the aircraft, praying everything is okay. You are so used to raw terror that it doesn’t bother you anymore. Besides, you love the way the turret swivels every which way, by a mere touch on the built-in triggers on the hand-grips. And the view, Gott-im-himmel, you have the best panoramic view of all. That’s why you always have your Brownie-Reflex ready.

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The bottom ball turret, your own little perch (Photo courtesy: Spunkybong)

You cross over and squeeze past the two waist gunners. Staff Sargent Maynard Harrison Smith, 29, is the oldest crew member, affectionately addressed by the rest as Daddy Smith. Port side is Henry Eugene “Red” Erwin Sr., 21. They sit looking out through plexi-glass bubbles on opposite sides of the fuselage somewhere around the mid-section of the bomber. The Messerscmitt109s always target gunners first and Smith and Erwin know it. They are two very grim-faced, scowling dudes whom you would like to leave well alone and move on and that is exactly what you do.

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The waist gunner’s toy, the M2 Browning. There is another one on the opposite side. (Photo courtesy: Spunkybong)

You are now approaching the back of the plane and space is getting even more restricted as the fuselage tapers. You are nearing the man whose life-expectancy is the lowest among all the crew members, the tail gunner, Lloyd Herbert “Pete” Hughes, Jr., 21. Hughes has to hunch over in a kneeling position, like the way folk kneel in a church. Ironic, considering that he is the one who has to pray the hardest.

Tailing Messerschmitts always get the tail gunner first. More often than not, a B-17 limps back with the tail turret blown out, the gunner either dead or simply not there anymore. Percentages that Hughes will come out of this war alive, are in single digits. Interestingly Pete Hughes is the most frivolous, always pulling some gag and making everybody laugh.

Considering the risk he runs, Hughes gets some privileges – free cigarettes and drinks at the mess hall and if during a mission, bail-out becomes necessary, he gets to jump first.

So, there, now we know you and all your buddies in there.

The men whom I mentioned by their names were not really there last Sunday. But those names are of real USAAF aviators who flew in B-17s like the Sentimental Journey and they all have one common denominator. They were all awarded the US Military’s highest decoration for conspicuous valor on the battlefield, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

There was another thing that these gents had in common – the fact that they willfully gave their lives, some who chose to remain inside burning planes instead of bailing out and saving themselves, in order to nurse their severely wounded colleagues who were too incapacitated to be able to evacuate. Others died trying to steer their planes away from inhabited areas. Two gave away their parachutes to others whose chutes had been damaged.

‘Sentimental Journey’ is a beautifully restored B-17 with all original parts. Designed by Boeing and built at the Douglas Aircraft Corporation (later to be known as McDonnell Douglas), she was delivered to the US Army Air Force in March 1945, at the fag end of the war. She did not see combat, though she performed many other non-combat military and civilian duties faithfully. Yes, bombers are female.

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Sentimental Journey (Photo courtesy: Spunkybong)

Since 1947, Sentimental Journey has had many avatars – photo-mapping aircraft out of Clark Air Force Base in Manila, air-sea rescue off Elgin Air Force Base in Florida, mother ship for target drone squadron off Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, till she got transferred to participate in aerial reconnaissance during atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s.

Finally, January 1959, technology having rendered her redundant, the old lady was sent into storage at the AMARG aircraft storage facility at Tucson, Arizona, known as the ‘Boneyard’, a sort of retirement home where she was content for a while to be among 4400 other similarly retired American military aircraft. Her retirement however, was short-lived. After a few months at AMARG, she was acquired by a private aviation company to fight forest fires, a task she carried out with exemplary diligence for the next 18 years.

In 1978, Sentimental Journey was donated to a museum, the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) and around that time, she got her name, Sentimental Journey, taken from the title of a Doris Day song from 1940s. She also got herself the Betty Grable nose art around the same time.

Once in possession of the plane, CAF began a decade long restoration program. Having been in all sorts of civilian duties for so long, Sentimental Journey looked like anything but a real B-17. There were no turrets, no guns and the bomb bay doors had rusted from all the water the plane had been lugging around in its forest-fire fighting avatar.

Restoration began in 1981. The turrets were painstakingly located and installed. The upper turret was difficult to find but one was eventually located at the “Bomber Gas Station” , a real gas station-cum-restaurant in Milwaukie, Oregon, where a real B-17 had been sitting on top of the station, its wings sheltering the pumps, for over three decades. It had a beautifully preserved upper gun turret and the owners agreed to hand it over to CAF.

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Bomber Gas Station, Milwaukee, Oregon(Photo source:oregonencyclopedia.org)

Boeing pitched in and helped locate the other turrets, some of which were sitting brand new, in their warehouses at Seattle. I understand that Pratt and Whitney helped with the engines, which though originally Wright Cyclone, were later made in Pratt and Whitney during the war.

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B-17 engines being assembled at Pratt and Whitney during the 2nd World War (Photo courtesy: Pratt and Whitney) 

 

Sentimental Journey remains with CAF museum as on date, either on display at their Mesa, Arizona, facilities or flying around and wowing ordinary folk like us.