Wounded B-17            Back to War / Back Home

Thanks to Moose for sending this one!  In all of my history learning, I'd never heard of this particular episode.  Turns out, lots of folks are already familiar to it, but I wasn't.  This is just plain cool.  No other way about it.

A mid-air collision on February  1, 1943, between a B-17 and a German fighter over the  Tunis dock area, became the subject of one of the most  famous photographs of World War II. An enemy fighter  attacking a 97th Bomb Group formation went out of  control, probably with a wounded pilot then continued  its crashing descent into the rear of the fuselage of a  Fortress named All American, piloted by Lt. Kendrick R.  Bragg, of the 414th Bomb Squadron. When it struck, the  fighter broke apart, but left some pieces in the B-17.  The left horizontal stabilizer of the Fortress and left  elevator were completely torn away. The two right  engines were out and one on the left had a serious oil  pump leak. The vertical fin and the rudder had been  damaged, the fuselage had been cut almost completely  through connected only at two small parts of the frame  and the radios, electrical and oxygen systems were  damaged. There was also a hole in the top that was over  16 feet long and 4 feet wide at its widest and the split  in the fuselage went all the way to the top gunners  turret.

Although the tail actually  bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the  plane turned and all the control cables were severed,  except one single elevator cable still worked, and the  aircraft still flew - miraculously! The tail gunner was  trapped because there was no floor connecting the tail  to the rest of the plane. The waist and tail gunners  used parts of the German fighter and their own parachute  harnesses in an attempt to keep the tail from ripping  off and the two sides of the fuselage from splitting  apart. While the crew was trying to keep the bomber from  coming apart, the pilot continued on his bomb run and  released his bombs over the target.

When the bomb bay doors were  opened, the wind turbulence was so great that it blew  one of the waist gunners into the broken tail section.  It took several minutes and four crew members to pass  him ropes from parachutes and haul him back into the  forward part of the plane. When they tried to do the  same for the tail gunner, the tail began flapping so  hard that it began to break off. The weight of the  gunner was adding some stability to the tail section, so  he went back to his position.

The turn back toward England had  to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting off. They  actually covered almost 70 miles to make the turn home.  The bomber was so badly damaged that it was losing  altitude and speed and was soon alone in the sky. For a  brief time, two more Me-109 German fighters attacked the  All American. Despite the extensive damage, all of the  machine gunners were able to respond to these attacks  and soon drove off the fighters. The two waist gunners  stood up with their heads sticking out through the hole  in the top of the fuselage to aim and fire their machine  guns. The tail gunner had to shoot in short bursts  because the recoil was actually causing the plane to  turn.

Allied P-51 fighters intercepted  the All American as it crossed over the Channel and took  one of the pictures shown. They also radioed to the base  describing that the empennage was waving like a fish  tail and that the plane would not make it and to send  out boats to rescue the crew when they bailed out. The  fighters stayed with the Fortress taking hand signals  from Lt. Bragg and relaying them to the base. Lt. Bragg  signaled that 5 parachutes and the spare had been "used"  so five of the crew could not bail out. He made the  decision that if they could not bail out safely, then he  would stay with the plane and land it.

Two and a half hours after being  hit, the aircraft made its final turn to line up with  the runway while it was still over 40 miles away. It  descended into an emergency landing and a normal  roll-out on its landing gear.

When the ambulance pulled  alongside, it was waved off because not a single member  of the crew had been injured. No one could believe that  the aircraft could still fly in such a condition. The  Fortress sat placidly until the crew all exited through  the door in the fuselage and the tail gunner had climbed  down a ladder, at which time the entire rear section of  the aircraft collapsed onto the ground. The rugged old  bird had done its job.

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