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A Mighty Fortress: Lead Bomber Over Europe

A Mighty Fortress: Lead Bomber Over Europe

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A Mighty Fortress: Lead Bomber Over Europe

279 pagine
3 ore
Mar 5, 2008


“In a fascinating way, Chuck Alling recalls his days as a pilot flying B-17s over Germany. He is truly a member of ‘The Greatest Generation’” (Former Pres. George H.W. Bush).
A Mighty Fortress is the personal account of the captain and crew of a lead bomber in the enormous formation raids made by the Eighth Air Force during the last few months of the Second World War. It is an extraordinary tale of heroism and bravery on the part of the entire crew of just one B-17 amongst hundreds—but the one B-17 that meant most to them.
Having flown twenty-seven missions before the war ended, Alling tells what it was like to be there, in the skies over enemy territory, constantly on the lookout for German fighters; of the enormity of some of the raids they were part of and the consequences for those on the ground; of the planes around them that fell out of the sky under enemy attack; of the horror and the determination to succeed. From a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters, this book gives a unique insight into the lives of one crew of one plane as the war neared its end.
Mar 5, 2008

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A Mighty Fortress - Chuck Alling

Photo on pages xiv, 20, 26, 44, 50, 68, 76, 90, 106, 120, 138, 150, 160, and 172 courtesy of USAAF.

Published by


908 Darby Road, Havertown, PA 19083.

© 2002 by Charles Alling

All Rights Reserved. No Part Of This Publication May Be Reproduced, Stored In A Retrieval System Or Transmitted, In Any Form Or By Any Means, Electronic, Mechanical, Photocopying, Recording Or Otherwise, Without the prior permission of the publishers.

Typeset and design by K&P Publishing.

ISBN 1-932033-01-7

Digital Edition ISBN 978-1-61200-0497

Cataloging-in-Publication data is available from the Library of Congress

First edition, first printing



This work is dedicated to

Prudence Prudy Kelsey Alling


and to

Ray Baskin and Bill Wright

and the other members of my crew:

Glen Banks

Jack Brame

Eddie Edwards

Willie Green

Mort Narva

Chuck Williams


This is a personal story. It’s about what was. Every passage, every episode and every fact is true. It’s about war—World War II, as seen through the eyes of one pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress in the Eighth Air Force. Once I had flown overseas to our base in Mendlesham, England, I said goodbye to life as I knew it. Over the next eight months, I flew twenty-seven missions over Germany, France, and Czechoslovakia, with more than two hundred and twenty hours flying over enemy territory.

When I revisit those moments, I am reminded of how fortunate I am. I do not understand why we made it back alive when so many others should have and didn’t. For those who flew in the Eighth Air Force, I suspect we all may have felt, at some point, that we were living on the edge, knowing that each flight could be the last. This unspoken understanding, this common bond, inspired deep, lasting friendships. This was my experience with my crew. We were bound together with undivided affection and devotion for each other.

This book is a recollection of only those combat missions, experiences, and thoughts that are deeply imbedded in my mind. Before each sortie, Intelligence officers would brief us on what to expect. And then at the start of each flight, our Flying Fortress would lift herself gracefully, carrying between two and three tons of bombs. We’d break through the clouds with the sunlight dancing and sparkling on her silver wings. Behind us and to either side, flying in tight formation, were hundreds of planes, a formidable and a majestic sight.

I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with pride for my crew, the Eighth Air Force, and my country. That gave me the strength I needed to carry on. I often savored those brief, peaceful moments, lulled by the hum of our engines, as we flew east over the English Channel, heading for enemy territory. Then, at times, all hell would break loose. But with a leap of faith, hope, and prayer—and a lot of luck—we made it through, and beyond.

Years passed before I had any desire to contact my crew. I have often wondered why. Now it seems so clear. After VE Day, when I returned to the States and left the service, I was anxious to break away from the past and begin a new life. I was focused on a new beginning, a new direction. My crew, all dear to my heart, must have wanted to do the same, and I am sure each one of us decided privately to look ahead and not back. Over half a century passed; still, I always had a hunch that eventually I would retrace my steps.

Fifty-four years after the war, for some inexplicable reason, I felt bound and determined to find my crew. I made calls all over the country. It was the first time I had initiated contact since we had all said goodbye after our return to the States in 1945. Of the nine of us, after an exhaustive search, I was unable to locate Mort Narva, my radar navigator; Eddie Edwards, my radio operator; and Chuck Williams, my left waist gunner. I soon learned that Glen Banks, my co-pilot; Willie Green, my crew chief; and Jack Brame, my right waist gunner had died. I could locate only two surviving members: Ray Baskin, my navigator, and Bill Wright, my bombardier. When I called them on the phone, there was a moment of silence on the other end. Ray couldn’t believe it, after all those years, and neither could Bill. Bill broke the stunned silence on the line, You mean you’re still alive? That’s utterly impossible!

The three of us knew a reunion was long overdue. We decided to meet in a central location, choosing Savannah, Georgia. On November 25, 1999, we gathered at the Hampton Inn. Ray and Bill met just before I arrived. After long hugs, they sat down together and renewed their friendship. Minutes later, nervous with anticipation, I walked in the entrance of the inn, the doors spun around, the wind whisked in and carried me along with it. I asked the clerk at the desk the whereabouts of my friends, fearing that after so much time I would not recognize them, and I entered the lounge where they were waiting. I cannot begin to explain the warmth I felt at that moment, and the joy that we were together again.

Inset: Reunion of the crew of the Miss Prudy in Savannah, Georgia, November 1999. Charles Alling could only find two of his crew (top) when he searched for them fifty-four years after the war. Left to Right: Bill Wright, Charles Alling, Ray Baskin. (Top photo: USAAF)

That was the start of our five-day reunion. I knew that if it didn’t happen then, it would never happen at all. I am also certain that if I had ever walked past Ray or Bill on the street, I would have thought they were perfect strangers.

The next morning, we left for one of Georgia’s Golden Isles, twelve miles east of Savannah, accessible only by boat. This would be the first and only time we had ever talked about our shared experiences. At the house we threw over gear into our rooms and headed out for a walk on the beach. Our pace, if you can call it that, was slow and deliberate, not because we were checking our footing—though on other terrain that would be of some concern—but because we were deep in thought about our combat missions from September 1944 to April 1945.

The three of us were full of spirit and willing to capture and recall our war experiences. We had, after all, shared the same space in a cold, damp Nissen hut for nearly a year. It had taken a lot of energy to maintain our composure and strength living in those quarters but we had found creative ways to make the Nissen hut a comfortable place—surrounding ourselves with photographs of loved ones that we tucked away carefully in our footlockers.

Now here we were, walking together once again, but this time on a vast stretch of beach with no one in sight for miles. Seagulls flew over head, dropping shells onto the beach, reminding us of flak in the skies over Europe. The shells fell onto the hard sand, cracked and split open, spreading the gulls’ next meal before them. As we followed the water’s edge, I was lulled by the waves washing against the shore. Bottle-nosed dolphins played in the surf, gliding along the crests of waves and guiding us along the water’s edge. The dolphins reminded me of our Little Friends, the P-47 and P-51 fighters that had guided our bomb group to and from enemy territory, protecting us from the Luftwaffe.

When we would fly back to our air base in England after a bombing raid, it was usually Bill who had broken the silence. Over the next few days, as we walked the beach and explored the island, Bill now initiated many of the conversations that helped us recount our past. Stopping in his tracks he’d say, Well, I want to tell you something and this is God’s honest-to-goodness truth. Now listen!

The command issued, we came to attention, but one time, he wanted to ask us something. What was the time you were most scared? I mean, really scared—when you were certain that you were going to die? He didn’t pause to hear our answer; he knew it. On January 20, 1945, we had our first terrifying brush with death and had survived only by a miracle. That was the worst of countless other occasions when a burst of flak, a fighter’s cannon, or a mid-air collision could have brought us unexpectedly to our doom. With each step, sinking deeply into the fine sand that curled around our toes, leaving only our footprints to wash away in the tide, we now told each other how it had been and dared to relive our many close calls.

After our reunion, I returned home determined to write our story. I climbed the folding ladder up to our third floor attic, where I crawled on my hands and knees in the dark, searching for musty cartons of war mementos. I found two boxes full of letters, photographs, and other memorabilia that had been stowed away years before, deliberately out of reach and out of mind.

I wasn’t sure where or how to begin this project until I realized the process was similar to painting a picture. The greatest effort is taking the first step to raise the brush to the canvas. So I started, putting down in long-hand small passages and bits of memories for this book, fortunate to have guidance and inspiration along the way.

I extend my heartfelt gratitude to those who gave me their support and guidance:

Ray Baskin and Bill Wright. Thanks for your special insights, your lasting memories, and long friendship.

My daughter and editor, Beth Alling Hildt. You took over this manuscript after I had given it the best I had. This ever-loving, talented, and beautiful woman burned the midnight oil, unearthed my past, provided significant historical research, added pertinent poetry, molded the manuscript, and stepped up the pace.

My wife, Gail. You helped clear my thoughts and provided precision and imagination when needed, so I could unravel my recollections of a half century ago.

My assistant, Becky Welch. You were always there when I called, always encouraging, and took the extra mile as you typed and never complained.

My good friend, Peter Huchthausen. Your article about Dresden ignited the spark that got me moving on this project. I thank you, also, for your counsel and good friendship.

My literary agent, Alex Hoyt. You’ve had great faith in me and I am indebted to you for seeing this process through.

My publisher, David Farns worth. Your decision to take on this project is more important to me than you can imagine.

My cheerleaders, Monty Scharff, M. L. Norton, Gil Perkins, Junie O’Brien, and Clarke Oler. You were always willing to read my manuscripts, and your enthusiasm and encouragement were constant.

My son-in-law, Brad Hildt. I will always appreciate your humor, compassion, tireless devotion, and your insistence that I limit your acknowledgment to a single page.

Librarians, Carol Whitten and Merry Hermans at the Kennebunk Free Library, and Mary Prokop at the Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum in Savannah, Georgia. I will never forget your tenacious research.

Betty Atwood, Gerry Hotchkiss, Dave Richard son, Charlie and Clare Rimmer, Phil and Betsy McMaster, John Corse, Dave Binger, Jack and Joan Wuerth, and Barry Boardman. Your lively contributions to this process were invaluable.

And finally, my devoted, handsome, black labrador retriever, Archie. You nipped and tugged at my pant legs, sensing my recovery from a life threatening illness that nearly brought this project to an abrupt halt. Each nip, pull, and tug was an encouraging signal that it was time to move forward to see the completion of this book.


Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even Eagle flew.

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

—John Gillespie Magee Jr.

In December, 1941, Pilot Officer John Magee, a nineteen-year-old American who served with the Royal Canadian Air Force in England, was killed when his Spitfire had a mid-air collision. Several months before his death, he composed this sonnet, a copy of which he mailed to his parents in the United States.

Ten years after the war, I was seated next to his father, John Magee Sr., at a dinner in New York. I suspect he always carried this sonnet with him. That night he gave me a copy.

—Charles Alling


Through a Glass, Darkly

December 6, 1941 At 9:30 P.M., a Navy commander climbed the stairs to the second story of the White House, entered a large oval study, and gave President Franklin D. Roosevelt an intercepted and decoded cable from the Japanese government to its ambassador in Washington. The president pored over the rather lengthy cable for about ten minutes. He then handed it to Harry Hopkins, his chief foreign policy aide. Hopkins read with dismay what amounted to a Japanese rejection of all attempts to peacefully resolve the differences between the United States and Japan. He handed the cable back to the president. A moment passed. Then Roosevelt turned to Hopkins and said, This means war. Hopkins nodded, adding that the Japanese would strike when they were ready and wherever they chose. It was unfortunate, he suggested to the president, that the United States could not strike first, since the alternative was to suffer surprise attacks on its own Pacific interests or on those of the European nations who were also embroiled against Germany.

No, Roosevelt replied, we can’t do that. We are a democracy and a peaceful people. The United States could not strike first; it would have to wait for the blow which would subsequently turn the wars in Europe and Asia into a World War. Neither Roosevelt nor Hopkins realized, as they discussed the issue late into the night of December 6, 1941, that the Japanese Combined Fleet had already crept to within striking distance of America’s primary naval base in the Pacific. Their wait would be over in only a few hours.¹

December 7, 1941 It was a quiet Sunday afternoon at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. My roommate, Bill Blelock, and I were reading in our room. At 2:30, a friend rushed in shouting the alarming news: the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. We became glued to a small radio in our room, listening in disbelief to the news, searching for reports that provided answers to an endless stream of questions. That single event would change countless lives and transform both America and the world. Two days later, President Roosevelt addressed the nation and declared: We are going to win the war. He also promised, We are going to win the peace that follows.

The following morning, Bill and I walked into town from campus to enlist. Bill joined the Marines and I signed up for the Army Air Corps. I stood in a line with scores of young men eager to add their names to a list and eager to defend their country. There was never a shred of doubt that this was the right thing to do. America had been attacked. I returned to campus after signing papers for the Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. A few days later, I received a letter from the Air Corps stating that with a backlog of applications, I would have a six to twelve month wait. That was fine with me as it would give me time to complete my sophomore year. But studies were often overshadowed by even greater attention paid to the U.S. build-up and its deployment of forces.

Two weeks later, over Christmas, I was home in Montclair, New Jersey, for vacation break, and I called

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