This one's for DRAGON SOLDIER and all Aviators

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Long Thrust VI:
GREAT photos, Bouy! (y)
Have you guys seen that famous 1943 LIFE magazine photo of an in-flight B-17, torn nearly in half after colliding with an enemy fighter?  (I have that photo but am unable to post it -- maybe one of you could.)  The on-board bombardier, Lt. Ralph Burbridge, was my cousin.

The All American’s Final Mission
The pilot of this now-famous B-17 recalls her last flight

The All American (124406) was on a mission to Bizerta, Tunisia on February 1st 1943.  It was classified as a routine mission against Rommel’s force – some called it a “milk run”.

The enemy fighters attacked at 1350 on a clear almost cloudless day.  The All American was in tight formation with the other bombers, flying at 28,000 feet.  The enemy aircraft made their passes at the 17’s while antiaircraft fire belched skyward.

The bombers located the target (the wharf area of Bizerta) and the bombardiers dropped the bombs. With the bomb bays empty, the aircraft started home.

Kendrick R. Bragg, Jr. was the pilot of the All American and recalls what happened after leaving Bizerta.  “As we left the target and headed home, the fast enemy ME-109’s once more rose to pounce on us.  Suddenly I noticed two of them far to the north sneaking along in the same direction that we were going.  

They were out of range and harmless for the moment, but I told our gunners to keep an eye on them.  “We were flying Number 2 position off the right wind of the lead plane piloted by Captain Coulter.  He, too, had seen the two fighter planes and I saw his top turret swing around toward the nose to protect the plane’s most vulnerable quarter.

“I scanned the skies, then looked again at the two enemy craft.  They had suddenly turned and were racing toward us.  The two small specks increased rapidly in size as they came nearer.  Evidently they were planning a frontal attack, determined to shoot it out nose to nose.  This was the most difficult kind of attack but was the surest way of sending a Fortress down.  

“On they came, one plane about thirty seconds behind the other.  They were ready for a one-two punch with their terrific firing power.  We were flying in tight formation now with Captain Coulter.  He began a slight dive to avoid the oncoming fighter, and I followed.  They patterned us, managing to stay about level with us.  In a split second they were in shooting range and our forward gunners opened fire.  Brilliant tracer bullets flew in both directions, as though a score of boys were fighting it out with Roman candles.  

“The first attacker half-rolled into inverted flight to make a quick get-away.  As he did I saw Captain Coulter’s bomber burst into smoke and start earthward in an uncontrolled spiral.  The second enemy fighter was now our primary concern.  As she followed her leader into a roll our gunners found the mark.  Fifty-caliber bullets ripped into the pilot’s ****pit.   The Nazi pilot was disposed of, but the plane streaked on toward us.  I rammed the stick forward in a violent attempt to avoid collision.  The rate of closure of the two planes was close to 600 miles-an-jour and my action seemed sluggish.  I flinched as the fighter passed inches over my head and then I felt a slight thud like a coughing engine.

“I checked the engines and the controls.  The trim tabs were not working.  I tried to level the All American but she insisted on climbing.  It was only with the pressure from knees and hands that I was able to hold her in anything like a straight line.  The copilot tired his controls.  He got the same reaction.  But we found by throttling back the engines we could keep her on a fairly even keel.  I tired to call the pilot of the lead plane which had gone down only a moment before.  There was no answer.

“Pilot from top-turret” came an excited voice over the intercom.  I was busy with the controls.  “Come in top-turret.  What’s the matter with you”? I asked.  “Sir we’ve received some damage in the tail section.  I think you should have a look.”

“We were at 12,000 feet now and no longer needed our oxygen masks.  I turned the controls over to the copilot and went toward the rear of the plane. As I opened the door of the radio compartment and looked back into the fuselage I was stunned.  A torn mass of shredded metal greeted my eyes.  Wires were dangling and sheets of metal were flapping as the air rushed in through the torn wreckage.  Three-fourths of the plane had been cut completely through by the enemy fighter and a large piece of the ME-109’s wing was lodged in the tail of our plane.

“The opening made by the German fighter was larger than the exit door.  It left our tail section hanging on by a few slender spars an a narrow strip of metallic skin.  Lieutenant Bragg climbed into the upper turret to assess the damage from the outside and discovered that the tail section was swinging as much as a foot and a half out of line with the front of the plane.  To make matters worse, the left horizontal stabilizer was missing, explaining why the airplane was so difficult to handle.

Bragg decided to try and make it back to Biskra.  He returned to the seat, ordered everyone to an emergency exit, then began the long journey home.  He recalls their arrival:  “As we neared the field we fired three emergency flares, then circled at 2,000 feet while the other planes cleared the runways.  We could see the alert crews, ambulances, and crash trucks making ready for us.

“Without radio contact with the field we had to wait for the signal that all was clear and ready for us.  When we got the signal I lowered the landing gear and flaps to test the reaction of the All American.  They seemed to go reasonably well, considering.  We had two alternatives.  We could attempt a landing or we could bail out over the field and let the plane fly alone until she crashed – always a dangerous thing to do.  I had made up my mind to set her down.  She had brought us safely through so far; I knew she would complete the mission.  The crew decided to ride her down too.

“A green flare from the field signaled that all was clear for our attempt at landing.  I made a long, careful approach to the strip with the partial power until the front wheels touched the leveled earth.  As I cut the throttles, I eased the stick forward to hold the tail section high until it eased down of its own weight as we lost speed.

“The tail touched the earth and I could feel the grating as she dragged without tail wheel along the desert sands.  She came to a stop and I ordered the copilot to cut the engines.  We were home.”    

1st Lt. Bragg standing by the mostly severed tail section.

Note from Long Thrust VI on this article:

The bombardier, 1st Lt. Ralph Burbridge (Bottom right in crew photo above), was married to my first cousin.  He told me the crew had faith in the pilot's flying skill & chose to land with him rather than jump to safety.  Once landed, they opened a fuselage trap door causing the plane to fall completely in two.  Ralph flew throughout the war, including 8th Air Force's first Berlin raid.

NOTE:  A Boeing engineer who inspected it stated that the airplane would not fly in such condition. Later the 124406 was rebuilt and returned to action by the 50th Service Squadron.  Three survived from Captain Coulter’s bomber; Alfred D. Blair, bombardier; Ralph Birk, navigator and Sergeant Knight, tail-gunner entered a prison camp until the war was over.                    

The plane in the pic above flew into Phoneix a few years back and I took some pics of it.  Bought the T-shirt too.  It's owned by the Collings Foundation out of Massachusetts.

Here's a link to their site.  Some great planes!


Quote from: EX-CG-GM on December 16, 2007, 02:03:51 pm

The plane in the pic above flew into Phoneix a few years back and I took some pics of it.  Bought the T-shirt too.  It's owned by the Collings Foundation out of Massachusetts.

Here's a link to their site.  Some great planes!


Click on the photo for a direct link to the foundation's Photo Album

Nine-o-Nine, I've never gotten to see that Fort up close...  Actually have some right-seat time in "Texas Raiders", though...

But as my siggy shows, these, are the two gals I've spent the most time in.

Membership has its privileges...


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