World War II is now about 65 years into
history, but the discussions still persist when old, but
not so bold, airmen get together and
the conversation turns to the comparative qualities of the
Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress versus the
Consolidated B-24 Liberator.
Although the B-24 was a faster, longer
range aircraft with a heavier bomb load, there was a greater
satisfaction with the crews who flew the
B-17. The design of the B-24 with its high fuselage fuel tanks
and light weight construction made it
vulnerable to catching fire.
There were a total of over 18,000 B-24's
manufactured to 12,000 B-17's. The cost of a B-24 was about
$300,000 compared to $240,000 for a
Aesthetically, there was no
comparison. The B-17 was a handsome bird with its imposing vertical
while the B-24 resembled a large
oversized box with wings attached to either side. In fact it was
often referred to as the "Flying
The crews who flew the B-17 were
impressed with its sheer ruggedness and durability which meant
that even though shot to pieces over
Germany the old bird would get them back home to England to
a hot meal and a warm sack.
The following is one airman's story
about his B-17, the Lucy Lou:
My name is Eddie Stearns and I was
aT/Sgt. in the 406th Bomb Squadron of the 305th Bomb Group
(Heavy) stationed at Cheddington Air
Field at Tring, England in 1944. Among a total of 47 combat
missions I flew (only 35 were required)
one stands out more vividly today, some 65 years later,
from all the rest.
At our briefing one particular night in
late October of 1944, our mission was to drop leaflets on a German
city advising the civilians to evacuate
as it was in our plans to level their home town. On another target
dropped leaflets on German troops
advising them their cause, although important to them, was now
With the leaflets they could surrender
to Allied troops and receive food and humane treatment. Later, in
the Korean War these leaftets became
known as "safe conduct" passes.
So, in our beloved "Lucy Lou" we took
off from Cheddington, alone and without fighter escort, at
2200 hours into the black of night.. Our
crew was made up of the following men with whom I'd flown
a great number of missions, except for
the pilot and copilot who were new to the rest of us. As a
result I don't recall either of their
names which is just as well, as you will see.
The crew were:
Navigator: Gunderson - He
later became a Brig. General
Waist gunners: Joe Roden and Bill
Tail gunner: Walt Ruggles
Ball turret gunner: Herb Bobinger
Flight Engineer: I - Eddie Stearns
Pilot and Co-pilot: Unknown
Our flight took us across the English
Channel, over France and deep into Germany. Although we
did not encounter any German night
fighter aircraft, we were pummeled mercilessly with German
flak guns every time we stumbled over a
blackened out German city. Antiaircraft artillery always
seems worse at night as those rounds
come up to meet us like fiery tennis balls which exploded
all around us. We could hear the
shrapnel raining down on us like so much hail in a violent thunder
storm in Oklahoma. Some
pieces penetrated the skin of the aircraft and rattled around on the
of the fuselage, too hot to handle.
Fortunately, not a single crewman was hit.
After completing our leaflet drops we
headed for home. By this time every German 88 mm gun
in occupied France was alerted to our
presence and we really caught the blunt end of their
anger. A lucky hit for them took out
our #1 engine which we were able to feather. Being an
outboard engine it didn't affect our
airspeed too much and we were able to maintain our
altitude at 24,000 ft..
Our good luck didn't last long as
shortly thereafter an explosive round of some kind hit our
#4 engine setting it on fire.
Fortunately, we were able to extinguish the flame and we
proceeded on toward England. The loss
of two engines began to have a disastrous effect on our
airspeed and we began to lose altitude.
The pilot ordered us to salvo everything we could to
lighten the load, so out went our .50
caliber machine guns, ammunition and ammo cans.
Everything that wasn't nailed down,
except for parachutes, was thrown overboard.
Limping along, losing altitude on two
engines, we thought things couldn't get any worse, but it did.
Another lucky AAA battery down below got
our #3 engine. With only one engine it seemed
there was no way to keep Lucy Lou in the
air, so the pilot gave the order to "Bail Out".
I immediately approached the pilot and
told him that #2 was purring great and that we had
plenty of fuel. With the 5 degrees
more flap I could give him, I thought we could at least make it
to the Channel and friendly territory..
I certainly didn't want to bail out in the middle of the night
into German occupied Europe saturated
with flak. The pilot came back again, saying "I want
everyone to bail out and that's a
Angrily, I countered by telling him to
get out of his seat and I'd fly the machine. (My pilot back in
Rapid City, SD had taught me a lot
about flyng the '17. I learned to do "lazy eights" and fly
formation with two engines out on the
same side. In fact I had 50 hours of stick time when I arrived in
England.) At this point in time I saw the pilot go for his .45,
but I had drawn my
pistol first and I took his weapon
from him. Turning, I saw the copilot reaching toward his right
side, so I pointed my .45 between his
eyes and he surrendered his weapon to me, also. I told the pilot
to fly the plane or bail out and I would
take it home. He "chickened" out saying there was too much
flak although just a minute earlier he
had given all of us the order to bail out into thick of it.
So, the pilot continued to fly the
plane as I adjusted the flaps and began transfering fuel from one
to another to keep the plane balanced
and flying even. Our airspeed dropped dangerously low and
we began to lose altitude. By the time
we reached the English Channel we had dropped from
24,000 to 10,000 ft.. Now with
another 200 miles to Cheddington, we continued to limp along on
that one faithful old Cyclone engine.
Thankfully, it was an inboard engine, or all would have
been in vain. We called the tower and
they sent fire trucks out to meet us. We were home with
5,000 ft. to spare, with the engine
running on fumes as we were that low on fuel. There was no
need for any ambulance because
miraculously no one had been hit by the showers of flak we had
When I got to debriefing Lt. Col.
Alber, our CO, asked me if I had disobeyed a direct order by an
officer in the face of combat. (You
see he had talked to the pilots before he got to me.) As I
"Yes, Sir", I handed the two .45's to
him that I had in my pockets. With a puzzled look on his face
he asked why in the world would I
have the pilots' weapons. I replied saying, "When I saw them
going for their pistols I feared for my
life, thinking they would shoot me for disobeying their orders
to bail ou. Since
I was standing I was able to draw my weapon first and with it, aimed
at their eyes,
they forfeited their .45's to me."
Under the circumstances, the Colonel
said that I would be court-martialed the following morning.
He further advised that no one was to
discuss the matter with anyone to prevent any collaboration
of stories. To enforce this order he
placed an MP in our barracks that night to keep us all separated.
I didn't sleep too well that night
wondering how the following day's hearing would affect my
T/Sgt. stripes and my AAF career. As
we entered Col. Aber's office next day at 0800 hours escorted
by the MP we found 10 chairs, one for
each crew member, aligned properly in the outer office.
Col, Aber called us in one at a time and
as he asked thought-provoking questions, his secretary was
recording all of the conversation.
After all 10 of us had been questioned thoroughly he called the
whole group into his inner office. It
was then that he said that he found several inconsistencies in the
testimony of two of the crew, but the
stories of the remaining eight were true as a die. Therefore,
he was going with the majority. It was
at that point in time I began to breathe more easily.
He then said to me that since I was the
one being charged, "How do you plead? Guilty or Not Gulty?"
I anwered, "Guilty with exceptions,
Sir." When he asked about the exceptions, I told him what I had
heard from our ground crews, that on
two occasions these pilots when shot up on other missions had
directed their crews to jettison all loose equipment and bail out.
Then with a much lighter load they had
proceeded to fly home and land safely.
As the Colonel checked the records and saw where these
men had flown home without their crews,
he face got redder than a GI stove with the draft wide open.
Holding his composure the best he
could, he rose to his feet, straightened up and thrust out his
chest. In no uncertain words, he told
them they were a couple of the biggest cowards he had
seen and that they were a disgrace to
the AAF uniforms they were wearing. Cooling down a bit,
he ordered them to return to
their barracks and pack their B-4 bags. He said as soon as orders
could be cut, they would be on their
way to a place they wouldn't like.
As for me, I was restricted to the base
for one week except when I was flying missions.
As for Lucy Lou, she lived to fly
again! Although resembling a sieve, she was patched up; in fact,
I made some of the sheet metal repairs
on her myself. All of her tired and spent engines were replaced
with brand new Wright Cyclone R-1820-97
engines which breathed new life into her weary veins.
When I left for home some time later,
she was still invading the skies of Germany exposing
herself to all the firepower Hitler's
flak batteries and Luftwaffe could muster.
Although this experience occurred many
years ago, a day never passes without my recalling the day that
our beloved Lucy Lou brought us home from imminent disaster on a
"wing and a prayer"----along with one beautiful No. 2 engine that