B-17
4 min read

There was someone I did not know with my friend Jim at one of the tables in the University of Cincinnati student union. I had come there with a classmate for a coffee break from our industrial design class. Our instructor was a design professional who knew not to hover over us after we had been given all the criteria of a new problem. He treated us as adults and knew we would work diligently on the problem even if we weren’t in class. Once we had the problem we would likely spend almost every moment working on it, even in our sleep.

Jim and the other person were already drinking coffee when we arrived. We were introduced and I learned his name was Hugh. I was surprised to learn he was one of the many WWII vets studying on the GI Bill. I was additionally surprised to learn he was already in law school. He appeared to be about 17. When I commented on his youthful appearance, he said that often surprised people.

Not only was Hugh a vet, he was a B-17 bomber pilot in the Eighth Air Force, flying from England in 1943 when the odds of survival were almost nil. The Air Force lost more people than the Navy and Marine Corps, combined. When he met the nine men of his bomber crew they were a little uneasy about flying with a kid, but they flew with him for 25 missions, one of the crews lucky enough to make it. By then, none of them cared if he looked like a teenager.

Hugh told us while in training he and his crew had landed at a combination civil/military airport to refuel and get lunch in the airport cafeteria while there. The cafeteria’s balcony where they were eating faced the airport terminal apron where his B-17 was parked. While eating their lunch, Hugh decided to get charts from the plane to study before departing.

B-17

Trouble is exactly what many bomber crews found over Germany.

There were two older ladies eating at a nearby table. As Hugh walked down the stairs and through the gate to the airplane, one of the ladies stood up and called out to Hugh, “Don’t go out there, sonny. You’ll get in trouble.” She had mistaken him for a teenager without authority to be in that area, so was totally startled when he swung up into the belly hatch of the B-17 and briefly appeared in the cockpit. Later, she was still watching and saw him fly the plane away with all the crew aboard. She was likely astonished about the children who were fighting WWII.

I never saw Hugh again at school. About five years later, I moved to a smaller Ohio town to join a design partnership with my former college roommate. Our office was in a building which housed civil engineering firm and an attorney’s office. This was the next time I encountered Hugh. He had established a law practice in the same town and his office was in the same building. We gradually realized we had previously met and became friends.

One night as we were both leaving the building, I ran into him in the hall at the doorway. I knew the late night TV movie was to be Twelve O’clock High, a film about a B-17 group in England. I asked if he was going to watch it. He instantly went white and said, “Hell no, I saw it once before. It had actual combat footage and scared me almost as much as when we were flying those missions.” He told me that many of the crews could not get in their aircraft unless they had a drink. They had to hold on to some part of the plane to keep from shaking until they got busy with duties they could perform by rote.

Once they were in the air and busy, they were under control even when they were flying through flak (anti-aircraft fire) and facing German fighters flying through their formations at a closure rate of 500 miles an hour, firing at them as they went through. Many B-17s did not return. He and his crew saw many of them go down, hoping to see the opening parachutes of their crews. There were no parachutes from others that disappeared in a blast of flame.

I think I mentioned meeting him at school and the comment made by the lady warning him not to go out to his airplane. After a pause, he said, “That lady had no idea of the truth she had spoken when she said, ‘Don’t go out there, sonny. You’ll get in trouble.’ It was more trouble than any of us could ever imagine. If we had imagined, we might not have gone.”

George Frost
12 replies
  1. mike harper
    mike harper says:

    I am a certified and licensed old phart.
    As a young engineer at FMC Corp working on manufacturing M113’s and other stuff, I met a survivor of the Potesti raids. He was the US Government rep for the project. We became friends. He told me of his experience. Flew home with his eyes closed and arms wrapped around part of the B24. He was called to testify at a congressional hearing and went by rail from California to DC. Never flew again.
    Being of a certain age my experience goes from watching WW1 vets march in a 4th of July parade, to my son in law’s service in Afghanistan. Spent a small amount of time in the Vietnam war zone.

    Reply
    • Dale Hill
      Dale Hill says:

      Mike, I too am a certified, licensed old phart. Both my grandfathers served in WWI, the American one was in a unit that was annihilated and he was one of the lucky ones to survive. The British one was an infantryman, he too survived some tough times. Both parents served in WWII, my Dad landed at Normandy on D+20 as an artilleryman and was with Patton’s 3rd Army as it advanced into Germany. My Mom was in the British artillery — an all woman anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) unit that was on the European Continent outside of Antwerp on VE Day defending the rear areas from German airplanes. I served in Vietnam and managed to survive 165 missions over North & South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I sometimes got the shakes after a particularly tense mission when debriefing — the debriefer would ask, “Did you take any AAA?” When I replied in the affirmative, they would ask, “How much?” and I would guess how many rounds fired by the number of tracers I saw (one tracer per every 5 rounds). When they asked the last question, “Were they accurate?”, I would get to thinking and that is when it was time to go to the bar and have a stiff drink. BTW, when visiting a Lockheed-Martin facility to meet one of their engineers, I discovered over lunch that he had waded ashore at Normandy at the tender age of 17!

      Reply
    • Thomas J Roth
      Thomas J Roth says:

      Ploesti – Ploesti raids were low level raids over heavily defended oil facilities. Heavy casualties.

      Reply
  2. Ian Goldie
    Ian Goldie says:

    Great article. The story speaks the truth. Not everyone was a steely eyed superhero. and yet heroes they were in the true sense….not the over-used platitude Just to face such odds and know it was remarkable. My Dad was one.

    Reply
  3. Phil Ruble
    Phil Ruble says:

    Great story! I’ve read a lot of WWII flying stories but the comments Hugh made really drove home how terrifying that must have been. My uncle was a Colonel and P-47 pilot in WWII and was strafing a German train with two other 47’s from his squadron. The box car sides suddenly dropped down to reveal AA guns that ended up shooting all three of them down. He was the only survivor since he was able to crash land in a field, but the Germans captured him. He spent the rest of the war in prison camp. After the war, he never flew again. As a kid growing up fascinated with airplanes and WWII, I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t fly or want to talk about it. My dad was able to convince me to not bring it up with him. Towards the end of his life, he opened up a little and shared how terrible it was.

    Reply
  4. Bruce Knight
    Bruce Knight says:

    What an amazing article. Like others here my father served in WWII- he was in the New Zealand army and was captured by German forces in Athens, and spent 4 years in a hard labor POW camp in Bad Salza/Sondershausen, in the German province of Thuringia. I am writing his war-time memoirs, and from the chapter after D-Day:

    “ As the war progressed, the POW’s became aware that there had been a turning point. First, the bombers- Americans during the day and British at night.

    “After the Normandy D-Day invasions we were told by the guards that an invasion had been attempted, but had been crushed, and every single allied soldier had been killed. Various other propagandas were told to us, most consisting of half-truths that implied that the allied countries were losing the war. One day we were even told that England had been invaded and the King was in a prison camp not far from Bad Sulza!!”

    But one day, all the prisoners in the camp watched what they could not believe. Air raid sirens started- they used to test them but they were never used in anger. What Lou and the others saw remained in their heads for the rest of their days. The sky became black with allied bombers, the ground shook from the massive rumblings of their engines. It was like night time in the middle of the day. This was a big day for them, as they realised that the allied forces were indeed pushing into the German heartland. The Americans had arrived! The next day they returned, and the day after that- every day for weeks, they became so common that no-one even looked at them anymore. The American bombers came by day, with the British by night. They could only imagine what was about to happen.

    “Allied bombers on the way to Dresden used Sondershausen as a turning point on way to bomb the city- the noise of hundreds of [of bombers] passing over was huge. The bomb doors were open and P.O.W.s could see the bombs. From the massive fires in Dresden- Lou read a letter from his parents by the sky lit up from the flames, in the middle of the night.”

    Some of the aircrew who survived being shot down arrived at the camp and disclosed to the POW’s what had actually happened at D-Day, and after. This was soon confirmed by the noise of tanks and heavy armor approaching in the distance, and sounded to Lou like a never-ending thunderstorm approaching. The Russians and the Americans approached from the east and west respectively- Lou recalls seeing many German tanks and armed vehicles heading west at high speed, to be captured by the Americans and not the Russians. Works of art that had been seized by the Germans when Paris was invaded were hidden in some of the mines, Lou never knew if they were ever retrieved.”

    Reply
  5. Dennis Quinn
    Dennis Quinn says:

    My best friend’s Dad, growing up, would tell us stories about flying B-17s. He went in early with 12 of his college buddies from Princeton. All of them were pilots. He started in the 8th in 1942 in England. After a hand-full of missions there, was transferred to N Africa in support of Operation Torch. He did 52 missions in the left seat, none of his college buddies survived the war. One out of 13…

    Reply
  6. Joe Bowers
    Joe Bowers says:

    My dad was a liaison pilot flying L-4’s spotting for the 86th Infantry Division Artillery battalions.
    He never really talked about the action he saw in France and Austria. He would only answer
    a question indirectly. Went from Pvt. to Major during his career in the Army. Awarded the Air Medal
    a couple of times. He retired after 20+ years. The Army tried to get him to come back in around the time
    that Vietnam was beginning. He turned them down. Never flew himself afterward.

    Reply
  7. Jeff_G
    Jeff_G says:

    My father was a gunner in a B-25 and later a tail gunner in a B-17. He would never talk about the war, even as we as kids pestered him about his experiences, particularly after watching an episode of Combat, on TV. Finally one day he sat me and my brother down and briefly explained what war really was. Those that didn’t come back and those who came back but never made it out of the plane.
    A few years ago I went to a AOPA show and there was a B-17. I had never seen one up close. As I stood in the rear looking at this tiny plastic space tears ran down my face as I saw my father in there. They were the greatest generation.

    Reply
  8. Robert Hogan
    Robert Hogan says:

    My father was a B-17 Mechanic during WW2 and was based in England, a number of years ago, we were sitting in a bar having a drink, I had ask him before about his time in the service, and he didn’t like to talk about it,so many of the crew members around the base never returned after there missions, this particular day he was in a talkative mood, he was in his early 20’s at the time, he told me he had gone on a bombing mission once, as he picked me off the floor, I said you did what, he said, he wanted to be part of the war, I said dad were you crazy, do you realize we might not have been sitting here today and worst yet, I wouldn’t have been born. They were young and foolish, he worked on the B-17’s and made sure they were airworthy, many of the airplanes he worked on never returned, the men and women of his generation were truly our greatest generation.
    Robert Hogan

    Reply
  9. Mac McLauchlan
    Mac McLauchlan says:

    Back in 1964 after 8 years as an RAF fighter pilot I was a First Officer on the Viscount flight of British European Airways operating the Internal German Services between Berlin and West Germany. On a layover in Cologne walking with my ex Bomber Command Captain I commented that the Cathedral was still standing despite the 1000 bomber raid now over 20 years past. His laconic comment, “Yes, Mac, it was the Aiming Point!” Bomber Command losses equalled that of the British Army officer corps in WW1. If any reader is in London, please visit the Bomber Command Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Worth a visit.

    Reply

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