In 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the Iowans you're about to meet were just teenagers. But by the end of the war, what they'd accomplished had helped save the world. First up, a group called the Fly Boys. Despite their frivolous nickname, the crew members of B-17 bombers experienced one of the highest casualty rates of the war. We begin with the 65-year-old memories of strategic bombing strikes that changed the course of the war.
Announcer: These last moments are the most vulnerable minutes of the mission. Although the planes are under intensive anti-aircraft fire, the bombardiers must be precise and accurate.
McGillivray: ...the Air Force troop over the top, and they got our number. And that was coming out; you couldn't believe it. Went into the nose, blew the nose off that airplane, and down it went. We never saw a chute. The first reunion fifteen years ago, here's Jake Smart, 84 years old, with a wooden leg. We asked him what happened. He blew clear -- him and the copilot were blown clear of the airplane. Leg was blown off. He landed two miles from a German air field, they picked him up, and he survived.
Announcer: In 1943 this plane is a giant among bombers. An air crew of ten men fly it, and a ground crew of ten men service it. The newspapers call it the Flying Fortress. The airmen call it the 17.
Scott: The B-17, it was a real rugged airplane. It would come back -- we had holes in it several different times, and it would take a lot of damage and still get home and land.
McCutchen: A guy in an air crew probably got more lead throwed at him than even an infantryman, but the good thing about being in the air force was we had a good bed to sleep in and good food when we got back.
Narrator: For the bomber crews, a soft bed and a hot meal were the only benefits for flying through the machine gunfire of German fighter planes, the flak explosions from anti-aircraft guns, and the freezing temperatures of high-altitude flying. And today, with a refurbished B-17 known as the aluminum overcast, these World War II veterans have a tangible reminder of the fears they faced and the courage they displayed each time their crew was airborne.
Catterson: There was crews that brought home some planes that it was just impossible to bring them home almost.
Harper: The best I can describe what it was like to fly a B-17 would be like driving a semi truck without power steering. See, everything was cable controlled. There was no boosts and it was strictly an arm-strong method of wrestling that airplane.
Narrator: At the age of 21, Clair Harper piloted 15 long-range bombing missions and wrote just as many farewell letters.
Harper: This clipping appeared in "Stars and Stripes" and was on the first bombing mission that I flew. The bombing mission was 75 miles east of Berlin. It was an oil refinery, and I flew it on the 15th of March. And this plane going down in flames was a buddy of mine who got hit with flak as we were starting our bomb run. I flew five consecutive days. And at the end of the fifth day, I was no longer afraid of dying. In fact, you'd welcome it because you were so scared, you would see that flak ahead of the airplane and pray to god that the next burst wouldn't hit you.
Sorden: Our plane was shot down over Bremen in October of 1943. And I bailed out and delayed the opening of my parachute for quite some time. I was probably about 4,000 feet when I opened it. In fact, the plane landed within -- it landed a little before I did, and I was so close to it that I could feel burning -- the heat from the burning plane.
Harper: This particular mission, the one that we flew on the 24th of March over Berlin, was some 1,500 miles at 35,000 feet, which was the highest mission I’d ever flown. And if you'd have taken your hand out of your leather flying glove and touched any part of the airplane, it would have stuck right there. It was very, very cold up there. After a mission coming home, why, we'd have what we'd call an in-flight lunch. And if you can imagine eating a cheese sandwich that had been frozen with an oxygen mask on, that was our in-flight lunches coming back from a bombing mission.
Kuntz: This is the tail gun here. It's two twin 50-calibre machine guns, and it was manned by one person in the back. He took care of anything that came up behind him. The top turret was manned by the engineer. He stood in essentially a cylinder, and it was operated by foot pedals which he turned and could control the direction of the guns from that position. When he wasn't in that, he acted as engineer and assisted the pilot and copilot. The ball turret probably was the most deadliest of all the guns for the German fighters. If they saw a ball turret not turning, why, they'd come in and really come in from the bottom and got them.
This nose section carried two people up there; it carried a bombardier and it carried a navigator. The bombardier is the one who sits furthest forward, and he was the one that controlled the bomb sight and he also controlled the chin turret. The navigator, he controlled the side guns in the nose section up here. This is probably the most vulnerable section in the airplane in combat as far as casualty wise.
Announcer: German fighters attacked the bombers head-on rolling through the formation. In this way they hope to kill the American pilots, thus disabling the bombers. There are some attacks from the rear, but the tail and flanks of the American bombers are generally well protected.
Long: When they brought me to the hospital. They put me up on a table. This blue-eyed German head doctor looks at me and he says --
Narrator: Parachuting out of a B-17 bomber moments before it plummeted into the Baltic sea, Harry Long was one of only two crew members to survive.
Long: If you were English, I’d cut that leg off. But since you're American, I’ll try to save it.
Narrator: And for this airman, the war was over, and the memory of his only bombing mission is a stark reminder of the danger these crews faced.
Announcer: Men took what they had to take. Some men gave everything they had to give.
Narrator: Despite the horrors of war, there were moments of honor.
Sorden: While I was coming down in air, two Wolf fighter pilots came toward me. And I was trying to yank my parachute cords to try and throw their aim off, but they just -- when they got close to me, they divided and went on each side of me. And the one that I was looking at waved his hands at me as -- as he went by, and both of them I think wiggled their wings at me. They knew that I wasn't going anywhere since I was that far into Germany.