The Flying Fortress
Copyright 2005 by Wally Hoffman
This is a talk I gave at the Dedication of
The Flying Fortress became a name all remember from WW II. It is time we finally recognize those women who struggled long hours in constructing these mighty warriors of the sky. Through their dedication and loving care they put life into this plane who sustained the lives of so many of us in winning the air battle over Europe.
There were two reasons we managed to survive those bombing trips over Germany in an “aluminum coffin”.
The first was the plane; the B-17 Flying fortress. She became alive once the engines were started and with the crew settled into their positions the plane became a veritable part of us. We knew full well the Fortress, if it had only a final gasp of breath and although being totally battered and bent with hardly anything left, would somehow get us home.
You don’t fly a Fortress for months for years without becoming intimate with that gallant lady in the most respectful sense. You know her sturdy construction, the manner in which she flies and every detail about her, as she sustains not only my life but also each life in my crew. You know that this lady would never give up without a valiant struggle. With her engines shot out or burning, or with a wing cut to pieces and the vertical fin and rudder in shattered pieces, or with the oxygen system blazing she is somehow still going to fly. With their aircraft in such a state, the pilots, all too often smeared in blood with enemy steel in their bodies and with the control cables shot to ribbons struggled hand in hand with the gallant lady to survive. Many times these bombers could well have been abandoned but still flew home with badly wounded crewmen who were not able to depart the plane. Which brings up the other reason we survived.
The second reason we managed to survive was the crew. Ten men flew along with you who not only gave everything they had, but also dug deeper when the circumstances turned crucial. Once in the air there existed a total devotion to each other and to the plane. Often, we could have abandoned a plane due to severe damage, but would still attempt to fly home if a badly injured crewman could not eject. Whether due to flak or fighter fire when crewmembers were wounded some might well die, as there was no medical assistance until the plane landed back at base many hours later. If the plane weren’t under current attack, crew members would immediately rip off their oxygen masks at 28,000 feet, and in the sub zero bitter cold rush to the aid of the injured crewman with the hope they could somehow keep him alive until we landed and thence to a hospital.. To be able to give them morphine you had to put the morphine ampoule under your armpit in order to thaw it out, and then once inserted to keep your finger over the point of insertion for it would squirt back out because of the high altitude. How do you keep from being sick looking at all the blood and gore from someone who is very close to you. But you do the best you can.
We would watch helplessly as another Fortress in the same formation started to slip and slide out of the combat formation. Flames pouring from an engine on fire with the fuel streaming and burning as it engulfs the plane. Soon she is falling off on her side as the Fortress picking up more speed, begins her death throes. Then the Queen begins to shudder as her nose pointed skyward. The plane hangs on the edge of a stall and buffets in warning of a final disaster. The plane hangs almost on her nose, to when there is no lift as the last of the aerodynamics is gone. The nose drops and slews to the side wallowing in a helpless skid. The nose comes back up again, but the wings are almost vertical and she seems to emit a sad groan and then quits. You can almost hear the groan as she falls back into a vertical spin to her death. The Fortress dies hard, as do the 10 men of the crew inside her. This was their Fortress they made come alive, trying to hold on to that last thin thread keeping her in the air.
With tears in our eyes we watch and count the parachutes all the while loudly shouting, "Get Out—Get Out". Those men were our friends, our buddies we drank and played poker with, sitting around in a BS session talking about the world of tomorrow. We knew all too well there was very little chance of tomorrow for any of us.
Some survived, and came home. But the question always remains: “Why Us”? Why not them?
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