As long as I can remember, I’ve always been in love with B-17s. The fact that my dad was a navigator in one during World War II is probably what initially sparked my interest. I know it’s what influenced me to join the Air Force in 1966. The B-17 has become an iconic image of almost mythological power that triggers a nostalgia for something I’ve experienced only vicariously. The B-17 represents WWII more than any other aircraft of that time. It’s a beautiful design, incredibly photogenic, and undeniably romantic (to those of a certain age). And yes, the B-17 was a war machine, with all that implies.
My father’s connection to this story makes it a very personal one for me. Typical of most combat veterans, he didn’t talk much about what he’d experienced or what it felt like. He’d talk about the technical aspects of it, but not much else. I regret not asking him more about this, what he did between missions, how he passed the time, if he visited the town, went to pubs, made friends of the locals, and so forth. And I wish I’d asked more about the missions themselves. One story I know, and I don’t remember if he told me or if my mom passed it on, is that once when they’d returned to base after a mission, he noticed a hole in the flooring close to his navigator’s station. A chunk of flak had blown up through the plane and out the top. He hadn’t been aware of it at all when it happened. They were always that close to a bad end. By the time my dad was flying combat missions in 1944, our fighter planes had longer range and could accompany bombers most of the way to the target. This meant Germany no longer put up fighters to attack the bombers. But there was still plenty of anti-aircraft fire. The Germans didn’t even bother shooting at the bombers themselves; they’d simply fire shells in box patterns over the target area. There was flak everywhere and no way to avoid it. You just had to fly through it and hope for the best.
A story my mom told me is that on one mission a B-17 in front of my dad’s took a direct hit that blew it out of the sky, no survivors. One of his best friends was on that plane. My dad suffered depression through the 1950s. I’m sure that was connected to stuff like this. I don’t know how people who’ve been through combat come back to their lives. Certainly not the same.
Another story is that my dad was on one of his worst missions the day I was born. This probably is just a story, though I’d like to believe it’s true. Here’s the telegram my grandmother sent to my dad in England, two days after I was born on July 31, 1944.
I didn’t know many details of my dad’s military career until after he died in 1975 and I acquired his service records. I didn’t really go into them in any detail for a long time, but I’ve taken a much closer look in preparation for this post. He enlisted in the army in January 1941 at age 23 and trained as an MP, a military policeman. He was a cop! I never knew this. He went through OCS from August to October of 1942. He came out a 2nd Lieutenant, and for the next nine months served as a company commander at Camp Clark, an Italian POW camp in Nevada, Missouri. I knew about the Japanese internment camps during the war, but wasn’t aware there were hundreds of camps in this country for German and Italian prisoners of war. By the end of the war there were 425,000 POWs (mostly German) at camps here. I had no idea of the scale of this. I don’t remember my dad ever talking about this phase of his military service. In July 1943 he transferred to the Army Air Corps to train as a pilot. He was eliminated from flight school, then began training as a navigator.
My dad was navigator on B-17s for eighteen months; six months of this time was in the European Theater (“Theater” is an interesting way to designate a region of warfare). He was stationed in England from July to December 1944 with the 325th Bomb Squadron of the 92nd Bombardment Group (Heavy). The base was RAF Podington, six miles southeast of Wellingborough, in Bedfordshire, north of London. He flew thirty combat missions in a B-17G, the final version of that aircraft. Eleven of these missions were flown as lead navigator, meaning he was directly responsible for the direction to and from the target for a formation of as many as 400 aircraft. Like a human GPS. He also assisted the bombardier in locating the aiming point of the target. Each mission lasted about ten hours from takeoff to the return landing. B-17s had ten-man crews, four officers (pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier) and six enlisted men. The name of my dad’s plane was “El Lobo” (The Wolf). Below is a photo of my dad, Milton Hicks (center,) with four of his crewmates.
He was discharged in November 1945 and returned to resume farming on the Iowa farm he and his father before him had grown up on. I grew up on it, too, though I didn’t stay and become a farmer. He was always interested in aviation and passed that on to me. Every summer there was an air show at the airport in Sioux City. Most years we attended that. We liked to watch a CBS documentary series called Air Power, which was produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Air Force and showed the rise of aviation as a military weapon. Narrated by Walter Cronkite and filled with archival footage, it originally aired on Sunday evenings from November 1956 to May 1957, with reruns during the summer and fall of 1958.
At some point my dad bought a balsa-wood model kit of a B-17. He began working on it with his usual precise care, but for some reason never completed it. The unfinished model remained on a shelf in his workshop in our basement for years.
My dad had many photos he’d taken while in England, many at the base. I vividly remember one of a B-17G with the nose completely blown out. These aircraft were notoriously tough. They could take a lot of punishment and still fly. I wish I had these pictures, but after he died, they somehow disappeared.
My interest in B-17s reached a culmination of sorts in 2003 when I took a short ride in one. I’d heard of the Collings Foundation, an organization located in Massachusetts that had a large number of restored aircraft, many of WWII vintage. I knew that one of these was a B-17G, and that they took it and other planes on their annual Wings of Freedom Tour. These would stop at airports around the country where the public could see the planes and also take a ride in them. When I learned they would be at an airport in Farmingdale, New York, it didn’t take long for me to sign up for a ride. I think it was in October. I took a train to Farmingdale and a cab to the airport.
The 30-minute flight cost $400, but I’ve never regretted it for a minute. It was worth every penny. I wanted to get an idea of what it was like for my dad. The vibration and noise was extreme, but it wasn’t like we were flying at 30,000 feet in heated suits and on oxygen. We weren’t in the air for the ten hours most missions lasted. Most importantly, people on the ground weren’t shooting at us and we weren’t flying through clouds of flak. Other than those minor differences, I think it brought me an inch or two closer to what it might have been like for him at the time. I don’t know how any of those guys did it.
Here are some photos I took that day. *****
A disturbing footnote to my B-17 ride is that this same aircraft crashed during a similar flight last October in Connecticut. Seven people, including the pilot, co-pilot, and five passengers were killed after the aircraft crashed short of the runway during an emergency landing following engine trouble. The 74-year-old aircraft was a total loss. The Collings Foundation began preparing a replacement B-17 for passenger flights, but in March 2020, the FAA revoked their permission to resume such flights.
This B-17 flew safely for 13 years after my flight, but it feels weird knowing what happened.
I think the staying power of the B-17 can be witnessed by its presence in popular culture. This is probably more relevant for people of my generation and earlier than it is for subsequent ones, but B-17s have been prominent in feature films, documentaries, TV shows, books, even comics, board games, and more.
Below are some of the films.
Flying Fortress (Walter Forde, director – 1942). The RAF had acquired a number of B-17Cs from the U.S. in early 1941, which I hadn’t known. The premise of Flying Fortress, per Wikipedia, is this: “During the Blitz, an arrogant American pilot becomes increasingly committed to the Allied cause after ferrying B-17 bombers from Canada to England. After joining the Royale Canadian Airforce and being assigned to an RAF squadron, he finally takes part in a Flying Fortress bombing raid on Berlin.” I’ve not seen this film, and in fact had not heard of it. I have the feeling it may lean a little heavy on melodrama, but since it’s one of the first to feature B-17s, it’s of interest.
Air Force (Howard Hawks, director – 1943). Tells the story of an unarmed B-17 and its crew flying to Hickam Field in Hawaii on December 6, 1941. They arrive just in time for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s pretty good. — available on Amazon Prime.
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, director – 1944). Documents the 25th mission of the title plane. Wyler shot this in 1943, operating one of the cameras himself. — available on YouTube.
Note: A feature film directed by Michael Caton-Jones titled Memphis Belle was released in 1990. It purports to be a dramatization of the Memphis Belle’s final combat mission depicted in the Wyler documentary, but has virtually nothing to do with anything that actually happened. Filled with every cliché and stereotype you can imagine, this is a phony film, quite bad. Because of the subject matter, I’d been looking forward to it, but was very disappointed. It has a nice sense of period, but that’s about all. I didn’t like it in 1990 and I still didn’t like it when I saw again a few days ago. It’s available on Amazon Prime in case you want to see for yourself.
The Cold Blue (Erik Nelson, director – 2018). Excellent documentary utilizing footage (digitally restored) shot by William Wyler in 1943 for the making of The Memphis Belle. Intercut with this footage are present-day interviews with surviving pilots and crew members who flew on B-17s during the war. — available for streaming on HBO.
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, director – 1946). A truly great film about the difficulties experienced by several returning veterans following the end of the war. Frederick March’s first sight of his wife (Myrna Loy) at the end of a long hallway when he enters his home after years away is incredibly powerful. In a devastating scene near the end at a scrapyard for decommissioned aircraft, former airman Dana Andrews hoists himself into the nose of a B-17 and just sits there with his memories. This is a classic film, one of the best. — available on Amazon Prime.
Twelve O’Clock High (Henry King, director – 1949). With Gregory Peck as the commander of an 8th Air Force base in England during the war. A very good film. — available on Amazon Prime.
The War Lover (Philip Leacock, director – 1962). Based on the novel by John Hersey, with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner as pilot and co-pilot flying B-17s out of a base in England. McQueen’s character is in love with death. He played a similar character the same year in another World War II picture, the very tough Hell Is For Heroes, directed by Don Siegel.
One thing I especially like about The War Lover, regardless of whether it’s a good film or not, is the use of several restored B-17s. All of the scenes with the aircraft feel very authentic. This was well before CGI. — available on Amazon Prime.
There’s more, but this is enough for now. Part two, with supplemental material, will appear shortly. In the meantime, I’d like to dedicate this post to my dad, Theodore Milton Hicks (1917-1975), gone too soon at age 57. I wish he was still around to tell me what he thought about this post, and all the stuff I got wrong. — Ted Hicks