Combat Zone: Memories of a B-17 Pilot

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2008 18:16

By 1940, 21-year-old Howard Hutchinson was “sick and tired” of the hard labor that comprised life on the family farm. He enlisted in the US Army Air Corps, leaving behind his father’s Missouri acreage and his own hometown sweetheart, Elaine.

The romance survived the separation, and Elaine and Howard were married in March 1942, in the wake of Pearl Harbor when, as Elaine recalls, “all the guys didn’t know from one day to the next when they were going to be sent out.”

Apart from Howard’s World War II service, the two have been inseparable for the 66 years since. Howard’s love affair with the B-17 dates back almost as far, to when he was first stationed on the flight line at March Field “mainly wiping grease off parts – but they were B-17 parts, so it was okay.”

His extensive training, first as a bombardier and later as a bomber pilot, took him across the Western states in the early years of the war.

“When I got my wings and commission as a bomber pilot, we were asked for three choices what planes we wanted to fly, so I put down B-17, B-17 and B-17,” said Hutch, a retired phone company worker who moved to Tuolumne County in 1959. “I knew more about the B-17 than most of the instructors because I worked on them years before.”

There would be another great love in his life, when daughter Pamela was born in 1948 and the joy of parenthood supplanted the sad gravity of combat.

But before those happier days, there was a war of uncertain outcome in which the B-17 played a historic role.

Hutch, as he was known to his fellow airmen in the 423rd Squadron, flew 35 B-17 bombing missions over Germany and occupied Europe, attached to the Eighth Air Force’s 306th Bombardment Group based in Thurleigh, England.

Their missions, all daytime raids, averaged seven hours, but some lasted for nine. Most went deep into enemy territory, often without fighter escort. For the airmen, most in their early 20s, it was deadly business: Of the more than 12,000 B-17s that flew over occupied Europe during the war, about one-third were lost in combat.

“The worst part of any mission was when you were about to enter enemy territory and you could see the group ahead of you getting peppered by flak and you knew you would be there in two minutes,” Hutch recalled.

On 24 of Hutch’s nearly three dozen missions his “Flying Fortress,” as the Boeing bombers were known, was hit by enemy fire.

On the thirty-fourth mission, his B-17G – a four-engine behemoth with a wingspan of more than 103 feet – sustained near-catastrophic damage seconds after dropping its bomb load on a German air field.

Seven of the nine men aboard that flight have passed away in the six decades since. Remaining are Hutchinson, 89, of Columbia, and his copilot, Taylor Reidel, a retired educator and banker who lives in College Station, Texas.

“My first mission was in August 1944, and by then they had changed the mission count from 25 to 35 per crew member,” recalled Reidel, now 86, in a phone interview. “They added those 10 missions because the danger had decreased – the Germans didn’t have the ability to attack as they did before. The long-range fighters helped a lot, took out more of the Germans, so the bombers had better protection. We still lost a lot of aircraft, but not as many as in the early years of the war.”

Bombing runs typically involved three squadrons of 12 planes each, one flying lead position and the other two following high and low, Hutch noted.

The B-17G had the advantage of a chin turret, added to thwart German fighters’ head-on attacks. Heated flight suits were another innovation, helping crew members cope with temperatures that averaged 40-below.

“They’d just come out with them before we got there because they’d had a lot of frostbites, people who’d lost limbs, hands, feet, everything,” Hutch said.

He remembers sweating profusely in the battery-powered suits, electric gloves and heated moccasins. And he remembers the noise: the roar of the 1,200-horsepower engines, the booming staccato of guns just a few feet above and below him.

But lodged most firmly in his memory are the events of his 34th mission.

On January 10, 1945, Hutch, Reidel and the seven other airmen left Thurleigh at 6:45 am en route to the target, a German air field at Gymnich. The mission was of average length, about 7 hours, but what happened at the flight’s midpoint was far from average.

Here are the two men’s memories of that day, starting with Hutch:

“We’d bombed the target from about 30,000 feet and we were just leaving. The bomb bay doors were closing when a 108-mm German shell came through and shot up the main spar, the turbos, the landing flap motors, all radio communication … We didn’t have anything left hardly, but the plane felt like it would hold together.

The main spar is the main structure fore and aft. It’s built with a channel at the top and one at the bottom, with cross-braces. It shot the whole works out of it. Why the plane held together nobody knew. Any other plane would have folded.

There were nine of us on board. Pilot, copilot, flight engineer, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, ball-turret gunner, waist gunner, and tail gunner.

When it went off, I was about 10 feet from the point of explosion but had the bulkhead in between. The crew members were on each side of the bulkheads, so nobody was in there and nobody got hurt. It tore up everything in there.

The worst thing was that I lost the turbo superchargers, and you don’t stay at 33,000 feet without your turbos because your engine has nothing to breath, no oxygen for the fuel. When you lose the turbos, you lose the engines. I’d lost the intercom, couldn’t talk to the crew, but they’d all heard the explosion and came forward to see what it was.

We had maybe 250 or 300 miles to get back to Thurleigh. Our average airspeed was about 155 miles per hour. It was a lucky break that the bombs were gone. I don’t know what would have happened if they’d been there.

It was kind of a weird feeling, the plane was a little flexible fore and aft, you could feel it at that point. It was like flying a plane with a broken back.

I immediately went down to about 15,000 feet. The internal blowers, which were built into the Wright engines, would keep it going from that point … after I thought about it for awhile, we went on down to 10,000 feet so we wouldn’t have to wear our oxygen masks. Most of the crew were standing behind me by this time.

I called the base engineer and asked him if the plane would hold together without the main spar. He said maybe, but it wouldn’t hold up for a landing, and advised us to bail out over England.

You’re scared to death but have to stay cool. I told them all, have your chutes on and be prepared to bail out – I can’t give you any warning because it will happen suddenly. I was worried because I had to come across the Channel; as you go from land to water, a lot of times you get rough air.

I asked the crew, I said, it’s your decision if you want to bail out, I don’t know if it will hold together or not …

We finally made the decision. I was going to stay with it no matter what. I figured I could land it, given my experience at flying a B-17. I had faith in the airplane.

We were in a bad position, but you’re doing everything automatically, you don’t even think about it. You’re used to emergency procedures, I could feather the engines, feather the prop – when you lose an engine you feather the engine so it splits the wind – they drill that into you in training.

I just believed in that airplane. I figured it would fold up on landing, but that we could survive it. Mainly I wanted to bring the airplane back. Ours was the only one that had damage that day, but I’d gotten hit on 24 of the 35 missions somewhere on the plane.

My copilot, Taylor Reidel, seemed to have faith in me; he knew I had more experience. He’d flown on most of my missions.

Reidel recalled the aftermath of the explosion, and the anxious moments as the crew debated whether or not to bail out.

“Being in enemy hands was a concern because this happened right after we went over the target, so we had quite a mission just to get back to the North Atlantic and England. It was a constant assessment – you kept checking the damage to see if flying had made it worse or not. But after we assessed the damage we felt we had a good chance to get back to the English Channel. And we had utmost confident in Hutch’s ability …

He was just an excellent pilot, intelligent, knew what he was doing and knew how to relate to the crew as a leader, so everybody had confidence in his ability to get the job done.”

Hutch, meanwhile, placed his confidence in his beloved B-17, at the same time cognizant of the open bomb doors, the springy flex of the big plane, and widespread systems damage. He recalls his relief when clear skies made for an unexpectedly easy Channel crossing, then the struggle on to Thurleigh.

His memories of the final minutes of Mission 34:

“When we made it across the Channel with no problems, I figured we could make it all the way. When we landed they had the whole field watching. They put it on the speaker for the ones on the flight line.

There was nobody heard the breaks squeal or anything, no bounce, it just landed like it was on grease.

I didn’t go to pieces until after it was all over, after I’d landed and I looked at the damage. We immediately shut it down, coasted to a stop. I didn’t dare use the brakes so we just rolled to a stop, then we got out and I hollered to the crew to get out. Some of them kissed the ground, I don’t remember if I did. They shored up the plane before they towed it back to the hangar.

I talked it over with the base engineering officer. He saw the damage and he was flabbergasted, he couldn’t believe it. He didn’t believe it would hold together that long.

I talked to different ones; they wanted to know how I made that good landing. I just kept a little lighter hand on the controls, just feeling for the runway, and it was on there before I even knew it.

I’d never made such a good landing … Somebody was helping me that day.”

For his service during World War II, Howard Hutchinson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, seven air medals, the European Theater ribbon with two battle stars (Battle of the Bulge and Battle of Caen, France), American Defense Medal, American Campaign, and Victory Medal. He is equally proud of an honor bestowed on him in 2005: a Lifetime Service Award from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 3154 of Sonora, for more than 40 years of distinguished service.

Beyond Gymnich: More Mission Memories

The mission to Gymnich was just one example of the hazards B-17 pilots faced. Here are Hutch’s memories of four other missions in 1944 and 1945:

“On a mission to Ruhland we got hit by fighters and I got pushed out of formation to prevent a mid-air collision. When you’re out of formation you’re a sitting duck for fighters. I was spotted by a Focke Wulf 109 coming in at one o’clock high and a Messerschmitt 109 coming in at five o’clock low. I pulled toward the FW109 to mess up his pursuit curve and it worked. He went into a high-speed stall real close to us and my top turret-gunner shot him down. In the meantime, the ME109 came under us and the ball-turret gunner got a probable kill, as nobody could see the airplane to confirm it. We lost a total of nine B-17s out of two squadrons that day. The next day the Eighth Air Force sent up four groups of P-51s flying in bomber formation and the Germans fell for it. The P-51s had a ball, got most of the Germans and didn’t lose a plane.”

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“I got hit in the # 3 engine and oil was coming out fast. It would freeze on the wing and keep building up. It was about 3 inches thick and distributed the air flow over the wing. The vibration was so bad I had to get down to a lower altitude to thaw it off. Yes, the oil will freeze at 70 below. I could have shut the engine down but I had many miles to go, and we were lucky the fighters didn’t find us. The crew chief said I used three gallons of oil.”

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“I was on the bomb run at the rocket experimental site at Peenemunde. My copilot was in the hospital, so I was given a first pilot on his first mission as copilot. We lost oil pressure on #3 engine. The copilot saw it and thought it was #4, feathered 4 and then saw his mistake and feathered #3. I quickly unfeathered both engines and got back in formation in time to drop our bombs, then I gave the copilot hell – 600 miles from England with both engines dead on one side. As it turned out the oil line to the instrument was shot out, just as I thought.”

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“The lead pilot lost #4 engine and had to leave the formation, so I had to take over. As I took over the formation, a burst of flack shattered the glass nose, blowing glass in the bombardier’s face and he went into shock. We knew nothing about first aid and so they turned up the heat in his electric suit and almost cooked him – he was shivering from shock, not from cold. When we got him home he was red as a beet. He survived, and was back flying in three days.”

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2008 18:16
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