Serenade to the Big Bird: the B-17 from Prototype to Active Operations, part two

“…flak batteries got busy before we got there and threw up a few acres of steel and smoke over their town… ‘How we gonna get through that?’

From Serenade to the Big Bird by Lt. Bert Stiles, USAAF. Stiles was assigned to the 401st Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group at Bassingbourn, England.

His memoir is about the time he spent as co-pilot of a B-17 “Flying Fortress” in combat  over Europe in 1944.

B17s flying through flak

Few bomb runs inside Germany itself were free of anti-aircraft fire–flak–until late in the war. Here another is seen B-17 flying though heavy flak over Germany. (US Air Force photo)

“We didn’t see any flak until after bombs- away. Then a group just above and in back of us flew right into a nest of it. I saw a Fort take a direct hit on the number three engine. The flames splashed and licked toward the trailing edge, and some of them went shooting over the top turret. The pilot skidded the plane off to the left, trying to fan the flames away, and the crew began falling out of the escape hatches…The Fort swung around in a flaming one-eighty-degree turn and blew up way down below.”

Serenade to the Big Bird by Lt. Bert Stiles

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Boeing B-17G Wee-Willie 42-31333 LG-W, 323th squadron of 91st bombing group, over Kranenburg, Germany, after port wing blown off by flak. Only the pilot, Lieutenant Robert E. Fuller, survived. (US Air Force photo). 

The photo above must have been a terrifying sight to witness.

Stiles knew the war had to fought–he volunteered for the air corps– but he wasn’t a flag waver. He was actually the complete opposite: he was a pacifist before the war and during his time in combat he hated the war and the killing. Stiles writes over and over again in his book that the people of the globe must realize that we are all the same and we need to figure out a way to stop killing each other.  Seventy years later, we obviously haven’t figured it out.

Stiles wrote of returning to their base in England after a bombing attack on Munich:

“We were going home. Home is where the props stop spinning. I looked around, very tired. From up there it all looked so green and beautiful and what we had done so sort of horrible.”

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B-17 over Marienburg . Photo from US National Archive  and Records Administration. (NARA) The caption below is from NARA as well. 

“The first big raid by the 8th Air Force was on a Focke Wulf plant at Marienburg. Coming back, the Germans were up in full force and we lost at least 80 ships – 800 men, many of them pals.” 1943. Army Air Forces. (OWI)  NARA FILE #: 208-YE-7 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 1087.

The acronym OWI in the second to last sentence identifies the photo as having been issued by the US Office of War Information which added the caption. Whether the caption was attached to the photo received from the USAAF or whether they made it up is hard to know. Regardless, the caption is completely wrong.  A search of the records of the US Army Air Forces in World War Two (www.usaaf.net/chron/43/oct43.htm) provided the following information:

On 8 October 1943:  “96 of 100 B-17’s hit the industrial area in Marienburg, Germany at 1253-1302 hours; they claim 9-2-0 Luftwaffe aircraft; 2 B-17’s are lost and 13 damaged; casualties are 3 WIA and 21 MIA.”

Hence the caption on the photo from the NARA must be incorrect since the official records state only two B-17s were lost. You come across confusion like this in World War Two records all the time so I am always skeptical about everything I read or see. It isn’t that people were being jerks, there is such a massive amount of photos and records and maps that lots of these items were mislabeled during or after the war.

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Lt. Bert Stiles, author of Serenade to the Big Bird. Photo courtesy of the History Channel site which included Stiles in a documentary series: http://www.history.com/shows/wwii-in-hd

Toward the end of his tour, he saw two bombers collide in mid-air over Germany. We don’t think about it now but we lost thousands of planes in training, to pilot error and from mid-air collisions when the aircraft were flying in close formation–which the Forts did.

“I looked back and saw a tail and some chunks trickling past.

‘Two Forts,’ Mock said. ‘One goddamn plane just cut the other in half.’

Two Forts out of our group. Mid-air collision…In the wing ahead of us a Fort powdered. [meaning the plane disintegrated in a huge explosion usually caused by German flak hitting the bomb load]. A chunk of it slipped down on to the wing of another. The Tokyo tanks blew. Half a Fort plunged down into the element below. They all went down in a sickening blown-up red mass. Chunks of Forts and tears of flame slowly fell out of the sky.”

[Tokyo tanks were individual fuel tanks fitted internally into the wings of the B-17 to give the aircraft greater range. The men called them ‘Tokyo tanks’ to illustrate how far they could fly with the extra fuel. Obviously, they couldn’t fly to Tokyo. It just made a good rhyme with ‘tanks’]

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B-17 damaged over Cologne. This more resembles collision damage than flak damage but I can’t find the details of the photo. (US Air Force photo)

Upon completion of twenty missions, he was temporarily relived as co-pilot of  his original aircraft. He doesn’t specify the reason. But he does say he went to the “Flak House” which were rest homes set up in the country side of England for air crew who were suffering from the intense stress of aerial combat. One could walk, lie in the sun, swim, play games of all sorts and most of all sleep undisturbed for as long as you wanted. Female volunteers from the Red Cross staffed these rest homes which were under the 8th Air Force and supervised by the medical staff.

While Stiles is not specific about the time, it seems he spent about a month at one of these “Flak Houses” and returned to duty as a co-pilot on a different B-17, his original crew having completed their tour and returned to the US. After completing his tour of duty in bombers–twelve more missions for his total requirement of thirty-two, Stiles could have returned to the US and become a flight instructor. Had he done so he may  have become one of the best writers of his time. But he transferred to fighters and was killed in action on 26 November 1944.

He was a brave man, not because he wasn’t scared. Only an idiot wouldn’t have been terrified by flying in a tight formation of B-17s through flak and attacks by German fighters. But he got into the Big Bird for his thirty-two mission tour and flew them in spite of being scared out of his wits, which to me is the measure a person’s bravery. One acts in spite of fear, not because you have no fear.

There are so many guys like Bert Stiles who completed an honorable tour of duty in combat and could have gone home but stayed to fly more missions against the Nazis. I wonder if they had become so used to the war and to the adrenaline of combat that they could not imagine a world without war. Even Bert Stiles who hated the war, must have found a strange compulsion in it.

I have read Serenade to the Big Bird three or four times and each time I find more things to think about. If you read it, you will notice that Stiles has such a broad concept of the world and the people on the globe that he insists we have to sit down and talk and get along somehow. Unfortunately, we have not managed to do this very well. Stiles would have been disappointed by this had he lived.

 

Lest We Forget

Lt. Bert Stiles

US Army Air Corps

30 August 1920 to 26 November 1944

Killed in action over Hanover, Germany while in air combat.

Ardennes_American_Cemetery_and_Memorial

Bert Stiles is buried in the World War Two Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial in Neupré, Belguim.
Photo courtesy of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

From the poem, For the Fallen, by Lawrence Binyon, 1914.

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/