The Fate of B-17 ‘Break A Leg’ – December 13, 1943

by Bob Sparrow

B-17 flack    The sky was full of Messerschmitts and he’d been hit – multiple times. Billows of smoke were pouring out of both cowlings on the right wing; the steady hum from the four, 1,200 horsepower engines had turned to sputters and chokes. He struggled to level the plane, which was losing altitude. It was pure chaos in the rear of ‘Break A Leg’, his B-17 Flying Fortress, named for the good luck term that actors use before going on stage to perform – he needed some good luck now! The waist gunner had been hit and was slumped over his .50 caliber machine gun; the ball turret gunner laid in a pool of his own blood at the bottom of the turret. He struggled to steady the plane as best he could given the severe damage done to his right leg, which had been hit by shrapnel.  He turned and yelled for the remaining crew members to take off their flack jackets, put on their chutes and get the hell out of the airplane – “Now!” He literally had to hank his co-pilot out of his seat and ordered him to organize the evacuation of the surviving crew members.

He grimaced in pain as he tried to head the aircraft south towards friendly territory. The co-pilot asked about the condition of the pilot’s blood-soaked right leg as he looked at his shredded flight suit pant leg. The pilot said, “Get moving – that’s an order”. The co-pilot hesitated, took a last look at him, said, “Yes sir” and ducked through the hatch out of the cockpit. The rear of plane was in flames as the tail gunner crawled out from his battle position, dazed and bleeding. B-17The chin turret hatch swung opened and the gunner pulled himself onto the main deck, dirty and sweaty, but unharmed. Yelling above the cacophony of the deafening noise engulfing the plane, the co-pilot orchestrated the evacuation of the crew.

The cockpit was filling with smoke as visibility diminished, but an eerie calm came over the pilot, in spite of his dire situation. His mind flashed back over the last few days. Earlier that morning he had taken off from his base outside of London on a mission to bomb industrial sites in southern Germany. It was to be his last bombing mission before he was scheduled to rotate back to the States for Christmas. He had spoken on the phone to his wife and twin girls just two days earlier and could not wait to get home to see them.

He was disoriented and weak from loss of blood, but struggled to turn the plane southward towards Switzerland. planefireAs he tried to clear his head and orient himself in hopes of finding an open landing area, his plane crashed into a snow-covered hillside and exploded into a ball of fire.

That story came from my eerie experience during a visit last month to the March Field Air Museum in Riverside, CA, as I sat in the pilot’s seat of a B-17 and simultaneously felt a chill and that déjà vu feeling, like I’d been there . . . many times before. That’s when the above story played like a movie in my mind. I’ve never been a big fan of reincarnation, but that experience gave me pause. I was born on Dec. 14, 1943 . . . with a broken right leg.


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