This is a report on how two B-17s on different missions received flak hits in their bomb bays and almost in identical locations, and were flown back to Italy by their courageous crews.THE FIRST BOMB BAY HIT
On July 14, 1944, the Robert P. Goesling Crew (816th) flew on a mission to bomb the Shell Oil Refinery at Budapest. Bob Goesling reports “The mission followed the normal pattern until we were over the target with our bomb bay doors open. All of a sudden there was the loudest noise and most violent concussion we had ever experienced from flak. We realized we had received a direct flak hit and could get no reaction from the controls on Co-pilot Bud Abbott’s side of the plane where the controls reacted as if they had been severed by the blast. We also noted the plane was not perpendicular to the wings (sort of curved due to the air frame being warped). When the automatic pilot was kicked in, it brought the slack controls back into limited use, making it possible to gain control over our direction, so we headed toward our Group formation. Once we were stabilized, Bud moved over to the left seat and I began an inspection of the damage we had received, to also determine the plane’s ability to continue its flight, to fight off enemy fighters, and our fuel resources.
“I found the bomb bay catwalk had been blasted where it terminated at the radio room wall, hundreds of holes in the fuselage skin, and all electrical facilities had been knocked out. It was at this time that a plane from another squadron dropped out of formation to fly escort for us as we were behind the Group formation and losing altitude. I have never been able to identify that plane or its crew, but they still have our undying gratitude for this unselfish gesture. The damage to our plane is reflected in the way our crew members worked as a well-trained team to keep the plane in the air long enough to reach Italy and a base with a long runway.”
Four Wounded by Flak Barrage –
Bud Abbott, Co-pilot, remembers this fateful day, “When the anti-aircraft shell hit and exploded in the bomb bay, our plane jumped and filled with dust and smoke. The radio room was demolished, the skin between the bomb bay and the right wing fuel tank was blown away and gasoline was leaking from the burning tank. When the shell burst, Tom Lewicki, the radio man was seated at the radio table. The underside of the table absorbed the shell fragments, saving Tom’s life but leaving him with extensive damage to his legs which still exists today. Others receiving wounds were Navigator Bernard H. Garhart, Waist Gunners Ted White and Leo E. Dano.
The bomb bay fire was extinguished by Robert V. Johnson, Jr., Bombardier, and Richard S. Varner, Ball Turret Gunner. This team then began the sensitive job of prying four fully armed bombs from the racks to get at another bomb wedged in the upper rack. The job to empty the bomb bay took 45 minutes, using the only tools available – a large screwdriver and a pair of pliers, and was possible because one bomb bay door had been blown off when the shell exploded. The oxygen system was completely destroyed, requiring the plane to drop to a lower altitude.”
Dan Berardi, Tail Gunner, recalls, “George E. Freitag, Engineer-Gunner made the initial inspection report of the damage sustained and gave first aid to the wounded before returning to the flight deck and his responsibilities to the pilots and his upper gun turret. Word from our Pilot to lighten the plane by throwing overboard all heavy equipment kept us busy for quite a while. Everything happened so rapidly and was so critical and demanding, it is still difficult to put it in sequence.”
Ted White, Waist Gunner, mentions his personal recollections of this amazing event, “Flying through heavy flak is somewhat like a child gaining respect for bees and hornets after having been stung. But being hit by a flak shell while over a target is something that will forever be remembered and hoped will never happen again. I received two wounds that I hardly noticed during our efforts to keep the plane flying while jettisoning heavy equipment, ammo, etc. from the plane. Later I noticed my wrist bleeding. A piece of flak had passed through the wrist and out the other side. And a short while later I felt a dampness on one side of my buttocks, where blood was seeping through my clothes. After we landed, and having been taken to a hospital, a flak fragment about half the size of a dime was removed.”
Parachutes Aid in Successful Landing –
Bob Goesling once again continues the narrative of a well-remembered mission, “Each crew member performed at maximum effectiveness, except Tom Lewicki who was too seriously wounded to move and under sedation. On reaching the Yugoslavian Coast, the No. 3 engine gave out and efforts to transfer fuel proved futile. After what seemed like hours, we realized that we would make it back to Italy. A check of the hydraulic system showed it was empty, indicating we would have no brakes when landing. A check of the landing gear showed its power source was non-existent and would have to be cranked into position.
“Needing a long runway, and immediate hospital facilities, we decided to land at Foggia Main. With no radio capability, we depended on emergency flares to warn of our approach. Our Bombardier, Bob Johnson, devised a braking system utilizing parachutes (attached to each waist gun mount) which were opened as we touched down. A cross wind, catching the parachutes caused the plane to swing around and head for a row of parked planes. Fortunately we came to a stop before adding to our day of mishaps.”
An official survey of the flak-riddled plane revealed a total of 30,748 holes, an Air Force record.
Each crew member was awarded a Silver Star. And each of the four wounded members were presented with the Purple Heart, making this the “Most Decorated One Mission Crew” in Air Force history. Bob Goesling was also nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross, making this an outstanding crew and a truly remarkable mission for the records.
A SECOND UNBELIEVABLE BOMB BAY HIT
It was July 14, 1944 when the Goesling-Abbott Crew (816th) experienced a direct hit in their plane’s bomb bay and on October 7, 1944 the Glass-Holden Crew (815th) received a flak hit in almost the exact location in their bomb bay and flew their crippled plane back home. This was the crew’s first mission, the target Vienna, Austria. Over the target, with the bomb bay doors open at 28,000 ft. a flak shell exploded at the radio room door, blowing a huge opening (about 7 x 5 ft.) in the right side of the fuselage.
Perry W. Holden, serving as Co-pilot, states, “We were directly over the target when I felt a violent jolt behind the flight deck. We soon began to lose altitude and began to fall behind the formation. Those of us in the forward section of the plane were too busy to learn what the jolt had indicated.”
Junior Monroe, Tail Gunner, adds this information on what it meant in the aft section; he says, “When the explosion occurred, my intercommunication system went out, and face mask no longer supplied oxygen. I backed out of the tail position and looked forward. Crew members were laying everywhere and there was a huge hole in the right side of the fuselage. I grabbed a walk-around oxygen bottle and began first aid for Waist Gunner John A. Austin who was bleeding from many holes in his right side. I gave him a shot of morphine and dusted his major wounds with sulfa.
“Next I tried to raise the ball turret with Dwight F. Jost, using the manual crank, but the mechanism was jammed solid. I then broke the exposed glass and removed Jost’s face mask. He was unconscious. Next I checked Waist Gunner Hyman Sacker, but he was dead. I moved on into what had been the radio room and found Radio Gunner William B. Amborn dead.”
Damage Reported to Pilot –
“As I moved toward the bomb bay catwalk I noted that three 1,000 lb. fully-armed bombs had not fallen out before we were hit. Reaching the flight deck, I reported to Pilot Walter L. Glass Jr. and Co-pilot Perry W. Holden that there was a hole in the side of the fuselage that a car could be driven through, those who were wounded and those dead in the aft section, plus the three bombs remaining in the bomb bay.”
Co-pilot Holden continues his report, “Our Engineer-Gunner Marlin R. Boyer and Junior Monroe, with the aid of a screwdriver, were able to trip the bomb release for the three bombs in the bomb bay racks, removing that hazard. At this time No. 4 engine caught fire but was quickly extinguished. However, the feathering mechanism failed to function and the propeller began to windmill, with the accompanying vibration causing the propeller shaft to seize, bringing the propeller to a stop.
“Our oxygen system was destroyed so we dropped down to 7,000 ft. We had no radio facilities, the hydraulic system was useless, one engine inoperative, right rudder controls non-existent, and most parachutes full of holes, plus gravely wounded aboard. There was no other choice than to attempt to land with an extended ball turret containing an unconscious crew member with its guns pointed forward and downward at a 45 degree angle (a crucial problem when landing).
“When we arrived over our base at Sterparone, red flares were fired and a straight-in approach was made using a tail-high landing with the ball turret clearing the ground by inches. Gunner Josh was removed from the ball turret with the aid of crowbars and a torch. He was still unconscious and hospitalized with serious brain concussion, serious enough to return him to stateside medical facilities.”
Walter Glass was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his success in bringing home a plane so badly damaged and with seriously wounded crew members aboard.
WHY WE ADMIRE THE B-17
The two preceding reports confirm why the B-17 was admired by those who flew them on combat missions. The plane so clearly demonstrated the strength and reliability that provided confidence in its ability to return to base after receiving extensive battle damage that would have destroyed lesser aircraft.
The B-17 design began with Boeing Aircraft Company’s model 299 in 1934 which made its first flight on a trip from Seattle to Dayton, Ohio on August 10, 1935. The Army Air Corps accepted the design and designated it as the B-17, also placing an order for thirteen Flying Fortresses.
Small orders for additional models of B-17s (B-C-D) continued as improvements increased its capabilities. Model “E” resulted in an order for 512 planes and when Model “F” was produced, an open order resulted in 3,205 being built. In 1943 another open order was issued for the B-17G, resulting in 8,680 being built. The maximum number of B-17s turned out in a single day was 16 planes. The last plane off the assembly line was on April 13, 1945 – it was No. 12,731 of the entire series.
The 483rd Bomb Group and the B-17 are synonymous; together they achieved goals other groups would envy. The B-17s that brought the Goesling-Abbott Crew and the Glass-Holden Crew home are examples of the aircraft we admired and trusted. Bob Goesling said, “The B-17 was a fine tribute to the American aircraft builders, and the dedication of the maintenance crews was superb. Not once did I have a problem with the operation of any B-17, and in those cases when we received extensive battle damage, the plane’s rugged construction and outstanding maintenance saved the day.”
H.E. Abbott had this to say about the B-17, “After a thorough inspection by the Boeing technical representative at Foggia Main, he reported that the main strut that ran down the center of the aircraft was the only thing that kept the plane from separating at the waist when the shell exploded against the bomb bay wall.”