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.
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.
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’
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.
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.
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)
Pilot – Ken Bragg Jr.
Copilot – G. Boyd Jr.
Navigator – Harry C. Nuessle
Bombardier – Ralph Burbridge
Engineer – Joe C. James
Radio Operator – Paul A. Galloway
Ball Turret Gunner – Elton Conda
Waist Gunner – Michael Zuk
Tail Gunner – Sam T. Sarpolus
Ground Crew Chief – Hank Hyland
The fog of peace?
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.
- 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.
- 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.