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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

"It is funny you mentioned that Irish" (Bombers)

I ended up going down this rabbit hole Saturday night late. I was searching for information about a B-17 pilot from Alabama who was shot down over Romania in February of '45. He was the only survivor out of his ship.  His chute was on fire and he thought he was a "goner". As his chute disappeared and his velocity increased towards earth, death was not meant for him at that time. He landed in a sedimentation pond at the lower end of field and stuck up to his neck in mud. Before he could get out, the Germans were upon him. He was taken into captivity and moved twice in front of the advancing Russians. At the third camp he awoke one morning to find all the Germans gone and the gates open. Thinking it might be a trap, he and the other POWs stayed put until the Ruskies arrived. Two weeks later he was back in England. This is not the story I was looking for, but this is one HELLUVA story about some men that nursed a damaged ship 600 miles back to Italy using engine power to steer and eventually land the plane. 

The Saga of "Sweet Pea"
courtesy of
2nd Bomb Group Association History
"Defenders of Liberty"

Sweet Pea returned to Amendola Air Base in Foggia, Italy
and immediately upon landing came to a stop and collapsed
as you see it here.  The Flying Fortress was indeed a special plane.

These two photos are courtesy of OldMilitaryPictures.com

The 2nd Bomb Group
B-17 # 38078 on Mission 279
to Debrecen, Hungary
Marshalling Yards on
Sept. 21 1944

The Flight Crew Story
This raid produced one of the great flying fortress survival stories of the war.  2nd Lt Guy M Miller and crew of "Sweet Pea" were approaching the target when an 88mm anti-aircraft shell slammed into the plane's mid-section exploded, and nearly tore the Fortress in two.  Huge sections of the waist on both sides instantly disappeared, control cables were cut, electrical and communications systems went powerless and silent.  Half of the bombs fell out of the bomb bay, the lower turret was jammed with the gunner inside, and the explosion blew deadly debris in all directions.  The left waist gunner, Elmer H Buss was killed instantly.  The right waist gunner, James F. Maguire had multiple wounds but was saved by his back pack parachute serving as a flak suit, saving his life.  The tail gunner, S/Sgt James E Totty was mortally wounded and died on the airplane.  The radio operator, S/Sgt Anthony Ferrara was peppered like buckshot with shrapnel fragments in the chest.

The stunned crew started its battle for survival.  Lt Miller and his copilot, Lt Thomas M. Rybovich struggled for control of the airplane and begin assessing what they had left to do it with.  Most of the control cables were cut and his major control was through use of the engines which  miraculously, were undamaged.

Lt. Miller thought about ordering bail out but decided against that when he learned he had one dead, three wounded, and one stuck in the ball turret.  The wounded were gathered in the radio room for first aid.  The bombardier/gunner, S/Sgt Robert R Mullen came back from the nose section and helped Sgt Gerald McGuire, upper turret gunner, bring the mortally wounded S/Sgt Totty from the tail to the radio room.  McGuire did finally succeed in freeing Cpl William F Steuck from the ball turret.  Later it was learned that turret was resting on only three safety fingers which were all that kept the turret from falling out of the airplane with Steuck inside.  There were still six bombs hung up in the racks and Mullen climbed into the bomb bay and released them one by one with a screw driver.

Against seemingly impossible odds, Lts Miller and Rybovich now faced the reality of trying to nurse their mangled airplane and its battered crew across several hundred miles of enemy territory and almost 600 miles back to base. Navigator, 2nd Lt. Theodore Davich plotted a course and the pilots very gingerly set what was left of "Sweet Pea" on the long trek homeward.  (This account is set out in the book "Defenders of Liberty" but I thought  it such an outstanding achievement for this crew I would repeat it here.)

A First Hand Account of the Landing from Someone on the Ground
The story as told by Jack Botts, Radio Operator, 414th Sqdn, 97th BG, Amendola, Italy.
I was with the 97th BG, and we also had bombed the Debreczen target that day.  I was standing on top of our plane, swabbing out the top turret barrels, when somebody pointed off to the south.  There was this plane, making wide swings about 5 miles away, obviously trying to line up with our runways.  We couldn't see damage from that distance, but were curious because of the odd maneuvering and the distress flares being fired. 
The plane passed us about 100 yards away as it landed, and we all yelled in surprise at the big hole through its waist.  Four of us jumped into a jeep and drove over to where it stopped.  The tail wheel had collapsed about half way down the dirt runway (between a steel mat and an asphalt strip), causing the plane to ride to a stop on the ball turret. 
We arrived at the plane with several other jeeps just as the crew was getting out.  Somebody yelled that the ball gunner was still in the ball, so a couple other guys and I opened the turret and pulled out the gunner, who was in bad shape emotionally.  He had not been able to move the ball nor communicate with the rest of the crew.  One photo shows the turret hatch laying on the ground where it fell when we opened it. 
Another account that I read reported that the ball gunner had been freed from the ball on the way back from the target.  It's a small matter, but it still stands out in my mind after nearly 65 years.  My wife and I revisited Amendola in 1990 and the Italian air base that is there now was laid out much as it was way back then. 
That was one of the finest flying feats I had ever witnessed, since there were no tail controls in that plane.  We in the 97th always had a good relationship with those in the 2nd BG, and I wish all its surviving members well.   Best wishes to you.

The 2nd Bomb Group sheet metal and engineering crew
that put "Sweet Pea" back together.

Putting the final touches on the body work. Most of metal came from
parts of other Fortresses that had been junked.   Sweet Pea was returned
to duty and the original pilot, Lt Guy M. Miller took her up on her final
mission.  After that she was put into ferry service between Amendola and
Casablanca  (pictures compliments of former S/Sgt James Reiman)
The Ground Crew Story
                The story as told by S/Sgt James Reiman in an email received July 7, 2003
"A tough old bird flew again!  I was inducted into the service in Saginaw, Michigan March 1943.  After basic training it was off to sheet metal school 555 and then shipped overseas to Casablanca, North Africa for more training.  Several months later several of us from the 339th Air Service Squadron were sent to Amendola Air Field near Foggia, Italy.  We were immediately attached to the 2nd Bomb Group.  I was in sheet metal work repairing many B-17s.  On this day, September 21, 1944 the mission left our field early morning and after the mission was complete the main body of crews returned to our base on schedule as usual.  We could tell that certain planes did not make it back.  It had to have been about 2 hours later when we heard this lone B-17 with what sounded like engine trouble coming into our base.  We were working in our repair area near the third runway, a dirt runway which was built for emergency landings.   As I looked up at the B-17, the fuselage physically appeared to be swinging from side to side.  I couldn't help but think that the pilot and co-pilot were doing one heck of a job bringing her in.  They held her tail up off the ground as long as they could and the tail had not snapped off yet.  It came to a stop just a short distance from our work area.  Little did I know of the condition of the crew until later.  I walked over to look at the damage which was a lot of sheet metal work and said to myself, "God, you could drive a army jeep through the hole of the waist of that B-17".  It was resting on the ball turret under the B-17 as it collapsed  from lack of stability in the center area.  I examined the damage and realized that the only thing holding the plane together was the four metal struts on top and bottom of the fuselage.  They had to have been very weak from the trip and the explosion of the shell.

It was standard procedure that we work in pairs to complete our work as it would speed up completion time.  After we salvaged the parts, my partner, Emmett Shearer, of then Oakland, California, and myself repaired the plane.  Sweet Pea went back into service shortly after but only as a transport plane.  She had seen the last of combat by now.  I cannot remember how many days and hours we put into the repair, but the area of repair was a vital part of the aircraft and everything had to be done just right.  I do remember that Boeing considered it the most damaged B-17 that ever came back after being hit while on a mission.  Emmett said he saw a picture of it in Washington DC at the museum and also in the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington.

To this day, I vividly remember the sight of Sweet Pea coming into the runway and what pride Emmett and I shared in completing what was told to us as an impossible task.  Today E. A. lives in Washington State and I still live in Michigan.  We can still recall those days and our comradeship throughout the war."

E. A. Shearer (left) and James Reiman (right) at Amendola.
Thanks to a lot men for your help in this story! And sspecially
Brian Reiman.  ( DFC

More photos and stories HERE.


  1. The B-17 - not only one of the most beautiful and iconic aircraft to grace the sky, but also one of the toughest .

  2. My father was a B-17 pilot flying out of Eye, England during '44 and '45. He flew several missions right after the war ended, taking food to starving folks in Belgium (called a "chowhound run") and also ferrying a group of French POWs from Yugoslavia (where they had been used as slave labor by the Germans) back to France. He was asked to do this because he spoke French, being one generation away from his French-Canadian roots.

    The photo that I use when I comment is an actual photo of him and his crew next to their B-17 in England.

  3. An incredible story. The ball turret gunners were named correctly, as they were (IMHO) the most vulnerable crewman.

    In Mobile, AL there is an outdoor museum down at the waterfront where the USS Alabama battleship is tied to a dock, along with one of our WWII diesel subs (old age - can't recall which one). They also had an SR-71, along with other planes. Their B-17 is parked right next to a B-52 (my father flew both). By itself, the B-17 looks like a big airplane. Next to that B-52, it looks like a Piper Cub, but with four engines. Movement in the B-17 was a bit tricky, as every bit of its fuselage was crammed with necessary equipment. IIRC, to go from the waist past the radio "room" and up into the cockpit (and down into the bombardier's space) you had to almost crawl in a couple of spots.

    Thanks for these posts, Irish. That was - and still is - indeed a magnificent aircraft. It brought my dad and his entire crew safely through their part of the war, with no serious injuries, even when he had to land his plane on a very short metal airstrip in Holland (a British fighter airstrip forward-placed toward the end of the war) due to the loss of two engines to flak.

  4. Thanks for sharing Reg T. What was the name of your father's plane? Is is marked today on display as it was when your daddy flew it during the war? By the way, the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park is well worth seeing. I believe the name of the submarine there is the USS Drum. Jeffery

  5. Jeffery,

    Sorry, My dad passed away in 1973, and he never talked of the war. What I know I learned from the three guys still alive in 2006. His ball turret crewman, James Starner, wrote on someone's blog (another ball turret gunner) asking for info about my father. I discovered his question one day, when I put in a search for any info about my father.

    Jim filled me in on some of what took place during their time together, and gave me the addresses for the other two, Dave Gabriel and Julian Smiley. I spoke to Jim on the phone, and exchanged letters. Dave Gabriel wrote to me after our initial phone conversation, and Julian just wrote. I never thought to ask about the name. I joined the 490th Bomb Group* which maintained records of their members and anyone else that they knew had flown or worked for/with the group. I think I've got the tail numbers listed in the info I got from them. If so, I'll do a search and get back to you with what I find out, if anything.

    *He was in the 849th Squadron of the 490th Bomb Group, where Col. Bostrom was his Squadron Commander.

    By the way, my b-i-l was a Batteryman on the USS Piper during the war. Towards the end of the war with Japan, they patrolled the shallow Japan Sea up until Japan surrendered. He passed away in 2006.

    You probably already know this, but I was told the Alabama was used in the filming of "Under Siege", one of Steven Seagal's movies (one of the better ones, made before he got fat).

  6. I know about veterans who "didn't talk about the war". My granddaddy on my daddy's side was that way. He landed at Omaha Beach. I did manage to pry a few stories out of him, but was fortunate to have known a man who was ten years his younger that served with him and was on the same landing craft, etc.

    There is a lot of information out there if you are lucky enough to find it. You have a good headstart with the squadron number, bomb group, and commanding officer. The serial number and name of the plane will help too.

    I did not know about "Under Siege". I did know that much of "USS Indianapolis" Men of Courage" was filmed on board the USS Alabama. That is a good movie and a great story. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Indianapolis:_Men_of_Courage

    I'd be more than happy to hear of any finding you come across.

    Kindest regards,



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