As spring turned to summer in the year 1942, America had been at war for all of four months, during which time the only military action involving our forces had taken place in the Pacific theater. On the European side of the Atlantic, Britain had barely avoided a German invasion, and was hanging onto life by no more than brave hope (and hard-won convoys of supplies from the U.S.) Our ground troops were a long way from being ready to play a role, while our Allies – including the Russians – were clamoring for some kind of American participation to hang their dwindling hopes on. It was at this time and under this kind of pressure that the U.S. Army Air Force sent the first contingents of B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers to newly-carved-out air fields in England, to augment the night-bombing efforts of that country’s Royal Air Force. Unlike their British counterparts, the Americans had rooted their WWII offensive strategy in the doctrine of “Daylight Precision Bombing”, based in part (and as it turned out incorrectly), on the belief that bombers such as the B-17s and B-24s flying at high altitude in box-like formations, had sufficient combined defensive firepower to survive in enemy-controlled airspace.
Activated at McDill Field, Florida in February, 1942, the 97th Bomb Group (Heavy) of the U.S. 8th Air Force with four squadrons, became the first USAAF unit deployed to England, where its novice crews flew the first American bombing missions against Nazi-occupied Europe and was destined to be the vanguard of those thousands which would follow. With Major Paul H. Tibbetts flying and with Colonel Frank Armstrong (under whom, as a Major General, the author would serve in another war) in the right hand seat, a B-17 named “Butcher Shop” would lead the very first mission.
[It is worthy of note here that Tibbetts would lead the first mission against Germany itself, the first raid on Berlin, and then across the world, the first B-29 raid against the Japanese Homeland; and it would be Tibbetts flying the “Enola Gay” who would drop the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. His is viewed by Al Cooper as one of the most remarkable and unheralded personal stories to come out of WWII]
The 97th Group, however, would soon fly from East Anglia to North Africa, where its four squadrons, the 340th, 341st, 342nd and 414th would become part of the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean Campaign and Operation Torch under the overall command of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
For the WWII-era historian, there is a special sense of intimacy in being able to access the briefing notes and personal letters left behind by young men in the prime of youth, going out each day to face odds in the unfriendly skies from which so many would fail to return; in the case of the 97th they were expected to carry out an unbelievable 50 missions before going home. With appropriate nose artwork, they flew in planes named “Smokey Stover”, “Sweet Adeline”, “Snoozin’ Susan” and “Pistol Packin’ Mama”. I found it especially chilling to read about one particular mission, involving a B-17F named “All American” of the 414th Squadron flying out of Chateauddun-du-Rhumel in northeast Algeria on February 1, 1943, to bomb the docks at Tunis.
En route to the target with pilot Kendrick Bragg, Jr. of Savannah, Ga. in command, a German Messerschmitt Bf-109 went out of control, colliding with the bomber, nearly cutting the flying fortress in half, severing most of the control cables to the rudder and stabilizer and leaving the tail section literally hanging by a few metal threads.
When crew members attempted to pull the tail gunner, Sam Sarpolus, from his fragile position using nylon cords stripped from parachutes, the loss of his weight threatened to cause the tail’s complete collapse, so he returned to his station voluntarily while Bragg and co-pilot George Engle fought to keep “All American” flying. The plane continued on to the target, but when Bombardier Ralph Burbridge opened the Bomb bay doors, the resulting gale blew one of the waist gunners back into the tail, making matters even worse. More parachutes had to be sacrificed in order to pull him back to safety, and away from the now flailing appendage.
Then, and only after their bombs had been delivered, they headed for home – two-and-a half hours away! With the tail section threatening to break away with every small movement, backup control cables obviously functioning on borrowed time, and only five parachutes left, the entire ten-man crew committed themselves to stay together for a crash landing at their home base. With crew members literally holding the disintegrating aircraft together, “All American” finally slid to a stop at the end of the runway. As the grateful tail gunner clambered from his position, the entire tail section separated and fell to the ground. The waiting ambulance was waved away. Not a single man was hurt or wounded.
In my revered collection of WWII musical memorabilia resides a 1943 recording of “The Four Vagabonds” rendering a number made popular by such stories titled “Coming In On a Wing & a Prayer” It seemed only fitting to give it one more play as I write today’s final paragraph.
Note: Many thanks are due to “All American” Navigator 1st Lt. Harry C. Neussle of Lansdowne, Pa. whose notes and letters home made it possible to piece this story together.
In a famous photograph taken from an accompanying bomber, the B-17 “All American” is shown just after its mid-air collision with a German fighter. Pieces of the Me. 109 are still imbedded in the nearly-severed fuselage.
Photo courtesy of the Neussle Family
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress had a well-known reputation for bringing its crew home despite severe battle damage. Still, the collision and return of the “All American” got a lot of attention.
Photo courtesy of the Neussle Family.