Even though they were one of the most effective weapons of the war, the B-17 was a plane that was constantly in danger from enemy fighters. To make matters worse, the plane’s anti-aircraft gun was among the most powerful of the war, yet it was the most inaccurate. As a result, many gunners had to dive the plane as they were approaching their targets, hoping to avoid enemy fire.

In 1944, on his first mission, Robert “Bobby” Jackson was flying a B-17 over France. An intense flak burst caught Jackson’s plane and wounded him. The crew tried to reach the English coast, but Jackson’s injuries were too severe and he died before they reached their final destination.

When World War II was winding down, the United States Air Force was suffering from a severe shortage of trained pilots, which were needed to fly the B-17 bombers. To give these pilots the military flying experience they needed, they began sending them on low-level bombing missions over occupied Europe.

“I slid back to the open hatch, squatted in front of it, and rolled out without thinking about it or having time to be scared.”

Our B-17G, Ole Worrybird, slipped slowly away from the rest of the 334th Bombardment Squadron and dropped farther and further behind as two of its four engines were taken out by antiaircraft fire. I thought to myself, “Those men are flying back to England,” but will we make it? We were still flying above Germany after completing a bombing mission. The remaining 95th Bombardment Group planes quickly vanished over the horizon. The date of my infamy was November 2, 1944, around half past noon.

First Lieutenant Bill Pozolo, our pilot, came over the microphone and called a roll call to see whether everyone on his crew was okay. Until he called the tail gunner’s name, everyone answered affirmatively. There was no response. The pilot called once more. There is still no response. The closest crew members, the waist gunners, couldn’t see the tail gunner unless they crawled back into the plane’s small tail section on their hands and knees.

“Leo, go back and see if he’s OK,” I overheard the pilot say. Staff Sergeant Leo Moser was a waist gunner who was also rather large.

Over the intercom, I heard Leo say, “Roger,” and he slid back into the tail area, pulling a portable oxygen bottle. He returned over the intercom in about a minute. “Waist gunner to pilot, he’s gone,” he said this time, his voice strained.

“What do you mean, gone?” inquired the pilot.

“My God, guy, he got struck by flak; he’s dead,” Leo said, his voice cracking. Later, I learnt that Leo had pulled the tail gunner, Staff Sergeant James Martin, down to the waist section with great effort to see if he could tend to his wounds.

With a calm voice, our pilot responded. “Everyone, take it easy. We’re going to be just fine.”

The intricacies of that flight, as well as the circumstances leading up to it, are etched in my memory after more than 75 years.

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last After enrolling in January 1943, author Bill Livingstone’s one and only mission in November 1944 became one he would never forget. (Photo credit: Bill Livingstone)

AN ORDERLY ENTERED THE QUonset hut where I was napping at the 95th Bomb Group’s base—Station 119 at Horham Airfield in Suffolk, England—TWO DAYS BEFORE, on October 31. He said, “Hey, Livingstone.” “Wake up,” says the narrator.

I pushed myself up on one elbow and shook the drowsiness from my mind. “Yeah?”

“The major has requested your presence.”

I had only been with the 95th Bomb Group for about a month when I was assigned as an aerial gunnery instructor. But, aside from a week spent training on a new gun site at a Royal Air Force installation near Bath, I’d spent the majority of my time wasting my time while waiting for the “training equipment” that someone said was on its way from the United States. “Gunnery instructor” was later discovered to be a euphemism for “replacement gunner.” Although it was a little frightening, I was looking forward to flying a mission.

“Sergeant Livingstone, the nose gunner on Willis Pozolo’s crew is sick,” stated Major Harry M. Conley, commander of the 334th Bomb Squadron—a tall, good-looking Gregory Peck-type gentleman. I’d love it if you could stand in for him on one of our missions.”

I responded eagerly, “Yes, sir,” as I recall.

The major appeared to be relieved. “Good. Go to supply, acquire a flight suit, and report to the briefing room at oh-five-hundred tomorrow morning for a practice mission; the day after tomorrow, you’ll fly a combat mission with the Ole Worrybird crew.”

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last Pilot Bill Pozolo (top, back row center) gathers with his crew from a previous trip; James Martin (second from left), Tony Capone (second from right), and Leo Moser (far right) are in the front row. (Association of the 95th Bomb Group)

“GENTLEMEN, the 95th’s aim today is Merseburg’s Leuna oil refinery.”

The 350 airmen crammed into the cigarette-smoke-filled room early on November 2 groaned with fear at the briefing officer’s words. By 1944, they posed little threat from hostile planes, but powerful antiaircraft defenses on the ground made Merseburg the second-most feared target in Nazi Germany, after Berlin.

At dawn, our “big-ass bird,” as we affectionately called the B-17, with its four 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial engines, roared down the runway and lifted into England’s perennial overcast.

I was dressed in a leather helmet, a fleece-lined jacket, pants, and flight boots for the flight, which I wore over an electrically heated outfit. My standard olive-drab wool Army Air Forces uniform and long johns were worn underneath. Then there was my flak jacket and dishpan-shaped flak helmet, as well as my chest-pack parachute and harness. Not to mention my oxygen mask. No, I wasn’t overheated because the temperature was 41 degrees below zero at 29,000 feet above sea level. In those days, there was no such thing as cabin heat.

I sat on a stool near the front of the plane, almost surrounded by the Plexiglas nose cone. I was not only the nose gunner, but also the togglier—the guy who flipped the bomb-dropping toggle switch. (Our squadron’s lead plane was the only one with a bombardier.)

“Pilot to togglier, time to ready the bombs,” our pilot said over the intercom after nearly five hours of flying over dense cloud cover.

“Roger,” I said, and returned to the bomb bay’s tiny catwalk after connecting my oxygen mask to a “walk-around” oxygen bottle. With pliers in hand, I leaned away from the catwalk toward the noses of the ten 500-pound bombs that hung one above the other on each side, and removed the cotter pins that kept the explosives from accidently arming.

After completing that task, I returned to my sky-high picture window. The only thing that had changed in the 10 minutes it took to arm the bombs was that the clouds below had thinned down and I could see characteristics on the ground like rivers and trees.

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last The author passed the time at Horham Airfield (above and below) in England while waiting for his first mission. (Association of the 95th Bomb Group)

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last

I observed a little dark cloud immediately ahead of us about 15 minutes before noon, and I heard the pilot say over the microphone, “Flak, twelve o’clock.”

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I recall thinking to myself, “This is just like the newsreels I’ve been seeing in movie theaters for the past two years.” The flak jacket I’d draped over the bottom section of the Plexiglas nose cone flopped back over my right foot when I heard what sounded like a paper bag pop. The Plexiglas had a little hole in it, so I quickly replaced the flak jacket.

I returned my gaze to the navigator, First Lieutenant Bob Strachan, a 24 combat mission veteran (he, too, was filling in for this mission). He was hunched over a couple of flak jackets, with another slung over his head. On my first mission, I sat in the nose cone, dumbfounded and oblivious to what was going on around me.

“Pilot to togglier, open the bomb bay doors,” I heard over the intercom. I turned the bomb bay door switch and reminded myself to stay focused on our squadron’s lead plane.

I watched the smoke flare signal drop from the lead plane’s bomb bay after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably about 60 seconds. I pressed my index finger against the explosive toggle switch.

There they were, ten bombs dropped from the belly of the lead jet. The toggle switch was flipped. As if we’d struck an air thermal updraft, Ole Worrybird instantly turned two-and-a-half tons lighter, and I felt the force of gravity on my seat. To get out of the flak zone, our entire squadron banked hard to starboard; we were out in 30 seconds. What a breath of fresh air.

But a few minutes later, I realized we were roughly 1,000 feet behind the rest of our squadron, and we were falling behind. “Attention crew,” said the pilot over the intercom. He stated, “We’ve lost number one and number three.” I instantly examined the number one engine, which had a feathered propeller that was immobile. “They must have hit a hydraulic line,” the pilot stated as I turned to gaze at number three. I’m afraid I won’t be able to feather number three. It’s a windmill.” It’s bad news. A propeller that spins in the wind adds drag to the plane, slowing it down. When the pilot said, “Roll,” he meant it.

Our radio operator, Tech Sergeant Tony Capone, was unable to call for assistance since he was required to maintain radio silence so as not to give away our position to hostile aircraft. However, when two P-51 Mustang fighters noticed that we were slipping behind, they began performing “lazy-eights” over Ole Worrybird to fend off any hostile fighters.

Ole Worrybird’s entire electric system shorted out around that time. We couldn’t use the intercom or the radio, and we couldn’t shoot the electrically operated. Machine guns with a caliber of 50 caliber. Worse, the two surviving engines’ superchargers had stopped working. Our airspeed plummeted to 100 miles per hour as Ole Worrybird sank to roughly 2,500 feet.

Later, I discovered that the waist crew felt we were going down and tried but failed to open the escape hatch in the waist compartment while we were flying through the flak and doing evasive action. They decided to drop the ball turret completely, leaving a four-foot diameter hole in the plane’s bottom; bailing out through that would be simple. When Leo Moser shouted—mistakenly—“We’re out of control,” Tony Capone, the radioman, was seated on the radio room floor with his feet dangling through the hole. Tony slid out into thin air after saying, “Jump.” When they watched his parachute bloom, their shock subsided little.

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last After being hit by flak over Germany, a B-17 burns. Bombers were vulnerable to attack because they had to fly straight and level for several minutes during a bomb run. (From the National Archives)

Bob Strachan, the navigator, couldn’t tell the pilot where we were without the help of an electric compass. He gazed out the windows and then back to his charts several times, attempting to determine our location by comparing the layout of the little towns, rivers, and roads below us to those on his charts.

The two escort P-51s ran out of fuel at 1 p.m., half an hour after we dropped our bombs. We battled on behind them over the plains of northwest Germany as they dipped their wings and flew toward England. Seeing them fly away gave me an odd sense of isolation. The two warriors vanished from view quickly.

Our pilot saw a little airfield fifteen minutes later and thought that, because we were flying so low, it would be wiser to land and be taken prisoner rather than risk being shot down over the front lines. The majority of ground combat took place in Holland and Belgium, not Germany, during the time. There was also the prospect that we might be able to avoid being apprehended.

Our pilot urged the crew leader, Tech Sergeant Raymond Hill, to slow down our landing gear as we circled above the small airport. One tire simply cranked down, but the other was stuck and wouldn’t move.

Meanwhile, when the rest of us realized our pilot was planning to land, I told Strachan that the highly classified Norden bombsight should be destroyed first. I achieved this by pointing my right index finger at the bombsight while raising my thumb like a gun. Bob shook his head and pointed to his hip, where he might have kept a pistol, but he didn’t. The Army Air Forces had decided earlier in the war that its commanders’ Colt.45s got them into more trouble than they got them out of, therefore they no longer carried them into combat. Bob, on the other hand, agreed with me and motioned for me to return to the plane’s nose section’s escape hatch. He handed me the bombsight, which he had unbolted and given to me; I opened the hatch door against the wind and dropped it. I recall seeing it get smaller and smaller until it vanished.

Over the engines’ scream, I heard Bob shout, “Bill.” I started crawling back toward the front of the nose section. He gestured behind me when I looked up. Second Lieutenant Bart MacNeill, our copilot, was crouched in front of the hatch door I had just closed when I peered over my shoulder. He yanked on the red jettison handle, the hatch door burst open, and Bart rolled out into thin air. When I returned Bob’s gaze, he motioned for me to follow MacNeill out the door.

I had no understanding what was going on or why the copilot had decided to leave the plane. I slid back to the open hatch, squatted in front of it, and rolled out without thinking about it or having time to be terrified. That was the point at which I realized what had transpired.

As I plummeted to the ground, I looked down to see Ole Worrybird, about 100 yards away, nosing down at a 45-degree angle. Flames trailed back to the tail assembly from the right wing. I saw the belly of a German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 pull up from what must have been a second attack on our plane beyond the plane. The crew, the most of whom had completed 16 combat missions, had now descended like peas from a pod from Ole Worrybird.

I thought to myself, I’m plenty clear of the plane; there’s no need to count to ten like they taught us in gunnery training. I grabbed the front of the chest pack’s aluminum handle and yanked it hard. As I continued to plummet headfirst, the chute trailed behind me. With a loud pop, it sprang open quickly. The abrupt stop jerked me around violently, and everything fell silent.

I observed this amazing hunk of machinery as it angled increasingly more sharply toward the ground with a macabre fascination. It smashed into a hedgerow about a half-mile away in 30 seconds, exploding in a huge ball of flame and black smoke. What a disgraceful conclusion for such a proud plane.

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last A group of American airmen is apprehended by Luftwaffe forces (top). The author and other crew members of the Ole Worrybird spent time in a number of POW camps before ending up in the enormous Stalag VII/A at Moosburg, Germany, which is where the ID badges below came from. (MFA Productions LLC, 2012)

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last Brian Jenkins (Brian Jenkins)

MY FEET, BUTT, AND HEAD HIT THE GROUND HARD WITHIN A COUPLE OF MINUTES. I reflected on how fortunate I was to still be wearing my flak helmet. In a huge plowed field with no shelter in sight, I rolled onto my stomach, reached my knees, collapsed my chute, and stood up.

The seven Ole Worrybird crewmen, sans James Martin and Tony Capone, were stretched out on the ground less than 100 yards apart after the bailout, near enough to holler at each other. My downwind neighbor yelled that the man beyond him, who was the first to land, had been injured. I relayed the message and rushed over to our copilot, Lieutenant MacNeill, who was lying on the ground with a shattered leg and a disgusted expression on his face. Even for first-time bailouts without paratrooper boots, injuries like this were uncommon.

We quickly gathered around our fallen copilot and were debating our options when a grizzled little old farmer appeared out of nowhere, waving his arms and shouting in either German or Dutch. We couldn’t understand what he was saying, but we could tell by his frantic gestures that he wanted us to get out of there. I imagine he didn’t want us to get caught on his property, where he could be accused of assisting the enemy.

We weren’t sure where we were—in Germany, Belgium, or Holland—so I raised my hands to the farmer to silence him. “England,” I answered, pointing to the north. Then I said, “France,” pointing to the west. “What is this?” I finally inquired, pointing straight down at the earth.

He didn’t comprehend those words, but he knew what I was asking because he turned his shriveled-up face to me and exclaimed, “Geermony!”—his English equivalent of “Deutschland.”

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last Livingstone’s mother’s maiden name, his medium-sized nose, and his kräftig—powerful—build are all noted on a normal German POW identity card. (Photo credit: Bill Livingstone)

We were in enemy territory at two o’clock in the afternoon, with no cover or hiding place in sight. When we noticed a dust cloud rising behind a motorcycle and a small, camouflage-colored panel vehicle bounding through the plowed field in our direction, we didn’t know what to do. “That’s it,” someone said. We’ve had enough.”

A dozen German Wehrmacht soldiers streamed out of the rear of the truck, their guns aimed, as the trucks came to a halt 30 feet away from us. “Oben, oben!” they yelled. They were clearly looking for us to raise our hands. This is exactly what we did, completely surrendered.

A small gathering of citizens quickly assembled to watch the “Yonkee Schreckenfliegers” (Yankee Terror Flyers). They had lots of opportunities to witness us bail out of the flaming Ole Worrybird because we had spent about 10 minutes circling the short landing site. I was initially concerned because I was aware of the outrage felt by German residents as a result of the Allied bombing of their country. However, unlike the Germans who lived in cities, these country inhabitants had been mostly isolated from the war’s awful effects.

Finally, the troops loaded our copilot into the sidecar of a motorcycle and drove him to a hospital. The remainder of us were forced to gather our parachutes and marched down a country road. We arrived at a little Wehrmacht outpost after about three miles, where we began our tour as prisoners of war.

The surviving six of us debated our fate and retraced Ole Worrybird’s last journey that night, billeted in a cold, damp stable. I and the others spent the next six months in Nazi Germany’s POW camps. One of our crewmen ran up Tony Capone again at our final camp, Stalag VII/A near Moosburg in southern Bavaria, which I kept in touch with until his death in 2018. We were horribly housed, always hungry and typically cold, but we always knew we’d return home to our parents and loved ones in the end. We had no choice except to wait it out. Out of all the days of my 96 years, the single day that took me there is the most vividly remembered.

The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last On April 29, 1945, former POWs commemorate the release of Stalag VII/A. During his time as a POW, the author recalls, “We were badly housed, often hungry, and generally too cold.” But he believed in a happy conclusion, and he was right. (Special Collections of the United States Air Force Library)

This story appeared in the World War II magazine in October 2023. 

This article broadly covered the following related topics:

  • how many bomber crews completed 25 missions
  • b17 bomber
  • boeing b-17 flying fortress
  • b17
  • b-17
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