Our B-17 Got Us Home

EDDIE STEARNS' STORY as told to Dave Lower

 

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 B-17.
 
Aesthetically,  there was no comparison.  The B-17 was a handsome bird with its imposing vertical stablizer
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 Boxcar".
 
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 we
dropped leaflets on German troops advising  them their cause, although important to them,  was now lost.
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
Bombardier:           Seferna
Waist gunners:      Joe Roden and Bill Taylor
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 floor
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 direct order".
 
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 tank
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
passed through.
 
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 answered,
"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 had heart.
 
Eddie Stearns


Epilogue to Eddie Stearns'   "Our B-17 Got Us Home"

 

 

Ft. Smith Air Show Miho, Japan 1950.

Sweet Miss Lillian

Eddie Stearns' Story

 

 Back