Down in one pieces

This article first appeared in one of the few way-back-when iPad issues of airscape. (Which was a real joy, by the way, and which I’d start again tomorrow if your aviation business was prepared to sponsor it…)

It remains an incredible story of skill, from the dedicated workers who built B-17s to the men who flew them in combat. Plus, given that the mythical versions are about due to float to the surface of the internet again, it’s worth getting the real facts back on the record.

The All American

Getting home from any WW2 bombing mission was never certain, but for the crew of All American – B17F-5-BO 41-24406 – it was anything but. 

Flying Flit Gun navigator Cliff Cutforth’s immortal shot of All American with her tail almost completely sliced away. (National Museum of the Air Force, 050524-F-1234P-015)

Even by early 1943, the All American crew were veterans. They were alongside Yankee Doodle flown by General Ira Eaker, and ahead of Butcher Shop flown by Major Paul Tibbets (yes, that Ira Eaker and that Paul Tibbets), on the 8th Air Force’s first heavy bomber raid to Rouen on August 17th, 1942. 

In the six months since, the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and their 414th Squadron had been transferred to the 12th Air Force in North Africa and flown repeated trips to the docks at Tunis. 

Staged from the 97th’s base near Biskra, Algeria, the raids were almost routine: It was about 300 miles each way, there’d be fighters on the way in, flak over the target, and fighters again on the way out. 

The second one attacked All American

On this day, February 1st, 1943, two Me 109s attacked together from the formation’s right front, as the bombers left the target area at 13:25 hours. One went after the lead ship, flown by Major Robert J Coulter, and sent that B-17 down smoking. The second attacked All American. 

(Above and Below) All American’s damage from the starboard side, showing the deep slash through her tail fillet. (ww2db.com)

As this one rolled to dive below and behind the B-17, defensive fire killed or at least wounded the pilot (thought to be 16-victory ace Feldwebel Erich Paczia, of 6/Jg 53, flying an Me 109G-4/Trop, WNr. 16093). 

‘Some damage to the tail section’

B-17 #41-24406 ‘All American’

The Messerschmitt passed just over the fuselage of the bomber and its wing struck the aft fuselage. All American lurched upward, but pilot Ken Bragg Jr and Co-pilot G. Boyd Jr found they could use their throttles to manage the pitch. 

Flight engineer and top turret gunner T/Sgt Joe James advised that they’d “received some damage to the tail section”.

Bragg instructed his crew to put on their parachutes. The other bombers kept formation on their crippled comrades until they were outside the enemy fighter range, then flew on ahead to base. 

Before the other B-17s left, Lieutenant Charles “Cliff” Cutforth navigator of Flying Flit Gun (B-17F-5-BO 41-24412, assigned to the 340th BS), took a now-famous photo of the stricken All American as it flew home over the desert.

Amazingly, some richly coloured photos of Flying Flit Gun still exist. They were taken at Polebrook, England in 1942 (before the 97th BG transferred to Biskra) by Life magazine’s remarkable Margaret Bourke-White. You can see them here. 

The tail section was swinging

The Messerschmitt’s wing had sliced through three-quarters of All American’s aft fuselage, including control cables, hydraulic and oxygen systems. The left-hand horizontal stabiliser was completely gone and the tail section was swinging up to 18 inches out of alignment. Tail gunner Sgt. Sam Sarpolus scrambled forward with his gear. 

Unfortunately I can’t be positive, but I’d guess these are three of the All American’s non-com crew, posing with the ship after their remarkable return to Biskra.

Not knowing the speed remaining tail section might now stall at (assuming it stayed on), Bragg made several practice approaches at altitude as flew back to base. When they reached Biskra, they fired three emergency flares and orbited the base at 2,000 feet waiting for a green flare indicating the field was clear. 

No business, Doc

Bragg and Boyd made a wide circle onto a long final approach, easing the aircraft down with its throttles until they felt the main wheels touch the ground. With no hydraulics, there was no way to lower the tailwheel, so as the B17 settled into its three point attitude the tail dragged along the ground. But it still held.

Bent but not broken… Resting on the tailcone, what remained of All American’s tail section after landing at Biskra. (National Museum of the Air Force, 060517-F-1234S-006)

When the aircraft stopped an ambulance rolled up alongside, but Bragg apparently called out ‘No business, Doc.’ 

Incredibly, no-one had been hurt. Even more incredibly, I believe the entire crew survived the war. And most amazing of all, 41-24406 was repaired and returned to service. She was eventually ‘salvaged’, or converted to parts, in March 1945.

 

The All American crew – 414th Squadron, 97 BG(H)

All American‘s against-the-odds return inspired the 414th Squadron patch – a symbol of luck, skill and survival that endures to this day.

Pilot – Ken Bragg Jr.

Copilot – G. Boyd Jr.

Navigator – Harry C. Nuessle

Bombardier – Ralph Burbridge

Engineer – Joe C. James

Radio Operator – Paul A. Galloway

Today, the 414th is an expeditionary recon squadron operating MQ-1B Predator drones. But the All American name, patch and story lives on.

Ball Turret Gunner – Elton Conda

Waist Gunner – Michael Zuk

Tail Gunner – Sam T. Sarpolus

Ground Crew Chief – Hank Hyland

 

The fog of peace?

The original letter and photo All American navigator Lt. Harry Nuessle sent home to his wife. The text reads CENSOR Should there be some law, rule or regulation against sending the picture below to my wife, please seal the flap and return – it is an unduplicatable shot and one I should hate to lose. This image is all over the internet, but the original is still in an album kept by Harry’s daughter Linda. Click to enlarge. (Nuessle Collection, via reddog1944.com)

So, that’s what actually happened. But the story is haunted by a number of laughably inaccurate retellings online that simply refuse to die. Given how hopelessly unlikely the details in those versions are, and the fact that primary source accounts are so easily available, there are a few reputable websites that should be embarrassed to be giving those alternative versions oxygen. And yet they do. 

I’ve done my best to distill the truth by cross-checking a number of different sources, including accounts by the crewmen themselves.

So, as a public service, you’ll know it’s time to sneer and move on if you find yourself reading any of the following ‘details’:

  • The bomber made a wide turn back toward England.
    From Tunis? Seriously? That’s 1,200 miles.
  • Crossing France, Europe or the Channel.
    As above.
  • They bravely fought off further determined attacks by German fighters.
    There were none.
  • The crew used their guns to turn the plane.
    There was no more shooting after the collision – navigational, defensive, or otherwise. Besides, they ailerons were fine.
All American back on the ground at Biskra, Algeria, on February 1st, 1943. I suspect (but can’t be positive) that’s pilot Ken Bragg Jr standing midships and Navigator Harry Neussle by the tail.
  • The rear gunner stayed at his post in the almost detached tail, to stabilise it and the ship.
    Sarpolus didn’t, and didn’t need to. 
  • The crew used parachute shrouds to lash the tail section together for the flight home.
    They had their parachutes on, like sensible men.
  • A P-51 escort pilot took that famous air-to-air photo.
    Simply nonsense. It was clearly Flying Flit Gun’s navigator, Cliff Cutforth.
  • The ‘rugged old bird’ only broke in two after the crew had climbed out.
    Even after landing without its tailwheel, the B-17 never broke in two, and it’s unlikely it would have been repaired and returned to service (for two more years!) if it had. Photos at Biskra clearly show daylight under the damaged section. 
  • Again, likely but (not definitely) All American’s Navigator Harry Neussle, posing by the tail of his B-17 – while incredulous groundcrew inspect the damage.

19 thoughts on “Down in one pieces

  1. I had so much fun reading this!! It’s a fascinating story. It makes my little fender bender accident seem like nothing 😀

    And those color pictures are so clear they’re almost too clear haha.

    1. Oh dear! Did you bend your own car or the company ambulance?? Margaret Bourke-White has left us a little tunnel through time, hasn’t she? I’m fairly confident in saying she would have had some of the best equipment available. But for my money, she is the real star of those photos. She was one inspiring lady.

  2. I have seen the one about using their parachute cords to lash the plane together. My thoughts were that parachute cord would never have held the tail on anyway, plus, if the tail was in danger of imminent separation, they’d have bailed out anyway! What is they say say about not letting the truth get in the way of a good story?!!!

    1. Ha! I think in most cases it was probably a case of not letting a little effort get in the way of finishing an article! The thing is, this lily doesn’t need gilding. It’s already an amazing story.

    1. This one is example is my constant reminder to be careful with my facts and diligent in my research. It only takes one lazy writer to fill in a few details with guesswork and the fiction takes on a life of its own. And once those grains of fantasy get published, it’s like trying to get pee out of swimming pool.

    1. yes, good observation Nick. The B-17 itself gets a lot of credit in these stories, but of course it was the crews that did as much to bring the broken ones home. In a later interview, Bombardier Ralph Burbridge, singled out co-pilot Godfrey Murphy for special credit: “Ken [Bragg] was a good pilot and our co-pilot – Godfrey Murphy – was too. Co-pilots don’t get very much attention but he was a very good pilot.”
      Ultimately, as airlines rediscovered much later, it’s about teamwork.

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