B17crew

As many as 10,000 Frenchmen — and a few Americans — gathered Sunday to honor an American bomber crew downed 70 years ago on July 4, 1943 off of a small island in northern France. A young French girl, Anne, saw the American fly boys captured by the Nazis after their plane went down in the shallow water, where it sometime appears to this day as the tides change. For her, the plane was proof of America’s commitment to France and to its coming liberation.

Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, attended the ceremony and saw the only operational B-17 in Europe fly by in commemoration. His video of the sole B-17 flying in Europe should give you goosebumps. Here’s his account of the day and what he thinks its signifies. The Editor.

NOIRMOUTIER ISLAND, FRANCE: Inside the Beltway, one can often lose one’s sense of reality. One of these realities is how much perception matters in the big world out there. For example, showing up to honor allied memories and to be present in major events is crucial to shaping current and future capabilities.

As American Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dave Deptula, recently reminded us, the dance called sequestration between the Obama administration and Congress has real consequences: we are enforcing a no-fly zone on the United States and not against adversaries.

It’s not only in the US that sequestration is affecting how allies, observers and potential enemies see us. The absence of the US Air Force from last month’s Paris Air Show at Le Bourget was certainly noted. And it was only by a miracle that the Air Force was represented at a powerful ceremony held on Noirmoutier Island, France, the scene of a World War II B-17 raid, and the rescue of downed crewmen after a raid against Nazi air and maritime facilities in this part of France.

B17memorial

For the crew that would fly on July 4, 1943, their training saved their lives. As one of the participants in the ceremony, the brother of the co-pilot of the plane crewed by the “Battling Bastards,” commented that if his brother were at the ceremony he would have highlighted the skill and courage of the pilot who landed the Flying Fortress in the water at low tide with only one working engine.

Training matters. For the B-17 crews flying in Europe, every flight into Nazi held territory was their Pointe du Hoc moment: Fighting uphill against tough odds, with the distinct possibility of not coming back without the proper training even fewer crew members would have survived.

As one B-17 crewmember wrote in his diary about a bombing run against Le Bourget on August 16, 1943,

Soon after daylight the formation was crossing the gray-green water of the English Channel. My anxiety and tension mounted, as I knew we would invade the lair of Goering’s best. The veterans had made certain we know what usually happened to new crews on their first meeting with Jerry. They were not expected to come back – it was as simple as that.”

The crew, which flew on July 4, 1943, was part of what history would remember as the Mighty 8th, but it certainly was not yet the Mighty 8th. It was a group of airmen just starting to forge an identity. The crew was from the 92nd Bomber Group, and members of the 407th Bomber Squadron.

Among the targets from May 1943 through February 1944 attacked by this bomber group were: shipyards at Kiel; ball-bearing plants at Schewinfurt; submarine installations at Wilhelmshaven; a tire plant at Hanover; airfields near Paris; an aircraft factory at Nantes; and a magnesium mine and reducing plant in Norway. A pretty wide-ranging and impressive set of targets!

The 10-crew members of the July 4, 1943 raid crash landed on Noirmoutier Island, France and became prisoners of the Third Reich.

They crashed during the turning point of the war. But given that only God knows the outcome, warriors in 1943 could sense the turning but not yet feel the victory. America was engaged in a two front war, with the clear public priority to avenge for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt wished to prioritize the effort in Europe but only the Miracle of the Battle of Midway (June 1942) would allow him to have the political space to do so.

The year 1943 began with the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. The capture of the 6th Army at Stalingrad was the first great defeat for the Nazis. This was to be followed by the surrender of the Afrika Corps in May 1943.

The largest tank battle in history was being fought and won by the Russians against the Germans in early July 1943. The allied invasion of Sicily was to begin on July 10th and Mussolini was to be overthrown by the Italians on July 25, 1943.

As the American crew entered their B-17 on July 4, 1943, they could not know how significant that month would prove to be for the war effort.

And for the Mighty 8th, they were to participate with the British in the largest firestorm bombing in history (up to that point of time) a joint US-British massive bombing assault on Hamburg. It began on July 24th and the fires burned in Hamburg until October.

The raid on July 4, 1943 marked the first anniversary of Eighth Air Force bomber operations from the UK. The occasion was marked by a three-pronged assault in force with the 192 1st Wing Fortresses attacking aircraft works at Le Mans and Nantes while 83 planes struck La Pallice.

Here’s the report on the bombing activities of the 8th Air Force for activities on July 4, 1943 from the official logs:

8th Bomber Command Mission 71: 192 B-17s are dispatched against aircraft factories at Le Mans and Nanes, France; 166 make a very effective attack; 83 other B-17s are dispatched against submarine yards at La Pallice, France; 71 hit the target between 1201 and 1204 local; U loses 1 and 1 is damaged; causalities are 10 MIA. Bombing is extremely accurate.

So what did it feel like to be a member of a B-17 crew in the summer of 1943?

One source of getting an insider’s feeling at the time was provided by the following comment from the crewmember diary mentioned above:

The Major hesitated before answering and studied a large chart on the wall crowded with names. See that chart? That’s the combat roster. We’ve been here 60 days, and so far we’ve lost a hundred and one percent of our combat personnel.

The French ceremony itself culminated in two events: the unveiling of a new monument to the crew of the B-17. It overlooks the beach where the plane can still be found.

The most compelling part of the ceremony in many ways was the presence of several generations of French who had organized the 70th anniversary. Seeing the US and French flags flying everywhere and many World War II vehicles, weapons and uniforms was part of the bonding experience as well.

The representative of the French Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, General (retired) Pierre Niclot emphasized the close relationship between the US and French Air Forces which culminated in the recent Mali operation, the “first in which the USAF went under the command of the French forces to support the operation.”

The US Air Force representative, Col. Peter Goldfein, emphasized solidarity among allies and highlighted the importance of the American and Fnrech air forces training and fighting together.

The impact on the older generation – still alive – who saw the plane crash land was quite impressive as well. The brother of the co-pilot, George Stephenson, told this story.

I want you to think back to 70 years ago. Vision a little girl (Anne Gloire) 12 years old dressed in a beautiful white dress, skipping along the path to her mother’s house near the beach. The little girl has just received her first communion….

Suddenly, Anne hears shooting from all around here – from the soldiers – from the sky – planes flying above her shooting. Then a very large plane appears with four engines with only one working. She was afraid it might hit her home. It crashes in the water not far from shore. She is terrified and cries for her mother to protect her.

Then she sees 10 men leave the plane with yellow vests. The soldiers are shooting at them. The men come to shore – several wounded by the soldiers. The soldiers shoved the men and loaded them into trucks and hauled them away. Anne wonders what would happen to them.


Stephenson told the thousands of French citizens gathered that on a trip to France some years ago, he meet Anne. He called his brother, the co-pilot, on a cell phone and they spoke. “This was closure for her.”

Better than any politician, Stephenson summed up the importance of the event: “I think today my brother today would say that the periodic appearance of his plane above the water gave hope to people in the village that liberation and freedom are coming soon and remains a symbol of freedom to this day.”

It won’t be if we do not show up. Sequestration — the damaging automatic budget cuts mandated by law — ultimately is about not showing up. And speaking of showing up, the sole remaining B-17 flying in Europe was flown by a private group, which is in desperate need of money to keep the plane flying. These folks are all British. It is time for Americans to step in and help. As citizens, we cannot use the excuse of sequestration.

B17still

To help them keep the B-17 flying in Europe, click here.

To read a special report on the lessons learned from the B-17 experience, click here.

The video was shot by Chloe Laird. The photos are courtesy of Second Line of Defense, a website owned by Robbin Laird.

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  • Don Bacon

    B-17′s over France signify different things to different people. Take later on, in 1945. Howard Zinn, subsequently a great anti-war author, was a bombardier in a B-17 over Royan in 1945.

    In mid-April 1945, the war in Europe was essentially over. Everyone knew it was ending. There was no military reason to attack the Germans stationed near Royan, France, much less to burn the French men, women, and children in the town to death.

    The British had already destroyed the town in January, similarly bombing it because of its vicinity to German troops, in what was widely called a tragic mistake. This tragic mistake was rationalized as an inevitable part of war, just as were the horrific firebombings that successfully reached German targets, just as was the later bombing of Royan with napalm. It was a new weapon that needed to be tested.

    More than 3,000 French civilians were in the town, of whom half were killed or injured, horribly burned, in the air raids. They didn’t die in vain. We have the writings of Howard Zinn, 1922-2010, whose mind was reformed as a B-17 bombardier.

    “We are not politicians, but citizens. We have no office to hold on to, only our consciences, which insist on telling the truth. That, history suggests, is the most realistic thing a citizen can do.” — Howard Zinn, RIP

    • http://defense.aol.com/ Colin Clark

      Don, War sucks. It also happens. We repeatedly firebombed Japan, killing more citizens than were killed by the atomic bombs. Even though more people died in the fire bombings, very few people criticized the fire bombings. Japan refused and refused and refused to surrender. So we warned them and then used the two bombs to kill hundreds of thousands of Japanese. They surrendered. The use of massive and overwhelming force, horrible and indiscriminate as it can be, is sometimes necessary. Our weapons are much more accurate today. Far fewer civilians as a percentage of the dead are killed today by Americans than were killed in Vietnam, Korea, Japan or the other theaters of war during World War II. But death and destruction remain the essence of war, and that is unlikely to change.

    • CharlesHouston

      With great hindsight we know that the Germans were about to be defeated. But at the time could the Allies have known for sure? Were the Germans about to turn back air raids with their jet fighters? Were they about to fire more accurate rockets? At what point does the likely victor slow down and stop trying as hard as they can to win? Will that allow the aggressors to kill more captive people? Slowing down would have allowed the Nazis to rule longer, would have allowed the concentration camps to run longer, etc.

      Did Howard Zinn write against dictatorships such as the Nazis and the Communists?

      If the town had been destroyed by the British in January, how could there have been much additional destruction?

      • Siscosdad

        Sequestration is more like a punishment foisted on us because of decades of American politicians wasting money. Our money. Our country. And now we find that the French people don’t hate us, only some politicians and a few civilians who resent that we had to save their butts…twice…from the Germans. They still owe us $50 billion in aid money, that they refuse to pay back.

        • CharlesHouston

          Siscosdad – did you read the actual news story or have any comments about it? You appear to be confused, what are you taking??

  • 92550RJM

    I would most definitely contribute if I weren’t unemployed and unsure what the future holds. I plead with everyone capable of doing so to send a little something to this group to help keep the B17 flying. Thank you and God bless you.

  • jglalone

    So many French and British citizens were killed during WWII. It is terribly sad. Yet, they fought on. They were all heroes. Our soldiers and their families were heroes, but there was a very minimal number of non-military Americans who lost their lives. It was a necessary war, unlike some of the others that followed. I can’t imagine enduring what the British and French peoples had to endure before peace was restored. It seems to me that war could be avoided perhaps if people of a nation wpi;d go after cruel, despotic, greedy, unethical and immoral leaders as soon as it is evident that those leaders are corrupt and dangerous to anyone and everyone, putting an end to their power hold!!

    • NJHuguenot

      So we should have left Saddam Hussein and Muamar Ghadafy in power? Helped Mubarak stay in power? Should we fly in and put Morsi back in power or take down Assad? I’ll bet you say no.

  • Terri Rizzo

    This response proves the French are an admirable people. Vive la France!

  • NJHuguenot

    What does the Sequestration have to do with all of this?

    • Rob Carey

      guess you didnt read the article

      • NJHuguenot

        Ah but I did. The headline doesn’t let on that some Liberal is going to give us a diatribe against the President’s Sequestration. Read the other letters? Everyone here is posting the same thing and not mentioning the Sequestration. Only a Liberal would have centered their attention it.

        • Mark Samuels

          Or a Conservative, like yourself and your comment, hypocrite.

          • NJHuguenot

            The hypocrites here are the author of what should have been a human interest story that was turned into a pollitical diatribe. The other hypocrite is yourself who can’t see that or does and won’t acknowlege its inappropriateness.

  • CSR-921

    No one has ever said that war is pleasant. War is a violent and I mean VIOLENT way to settle our differences whatever they might be because we have not learned to come to terms any other way. Some might argue war is necessary to curb population growth, that would be saying we, humans, are in reality so stupid, and selfish, that we cannot and will not figure a way to live in harmony with one another and our limited environment and resources. Sooner or later we will come to a point where our home, the Earth, cannot sustain us. When that time comes the mother of ALL wars hand I hand with diseases and natural calamities will bring our numbers back to a comfortable level. Then we will forget and start the cycle all over again. Does anyone know or care how many people have been killed in battle during the last 2000 years?

  • john moton

    The French did not have to have a ceramony for those 10 soul’s who were risking their life’s for a people they did not know and the other’s that came after them. The French men and woman and the few American’s and the British that were flying the plane did not have to be there they were just saying thank you to those airmen who gave up there live’s to help another when they new between right and wrong to liberate a people and other’s like them around the world,that know what it’s like to fight for freedom past and present. So remember while you sit behind that ‘puter screen
    fight in the cmment page for this article and other’s like this, look out your window to see people walking up and down your street,children playing with their parent’s or each other the elderly lady across the street in her flower garden , just remember freedom is not free.

  • basketpam

    Every human being but especially Americans should know that there is a time for politics to play a part in something and there are times when it should just be kept silent and locked away in the back closet. Unfortunately all too often the media is unable to do this and especially AOL. As a major internet provider AOL has an obligation to screen what they run, somehow that ethical responsibility never seems to reach those in charge. This story should have ONLY been about a group of very decent French citizens who are making an effort to be decent human beings and show they don’t forget the sacrifices Americans made on their behalf against real evil in this world 70 years ago. It’s a shame someone called Robbin Laird and AOL couldn’t show the same decency.

  • Bob Perkins

    We never hear about the tens of thousands of French who DIDN’T welcome the Allies coming to free their country from the Nazis and who welcomed the Germans as “liberators” of a sort who would give their government some discipline and backbone. Thus we had Vichy France ( many other French joined the Resistance and faught the Nazis wherever possible) who collaborated with the Nazis in order to save their country from being totally occupied physically by the Germans. Those French were treated as vassals and even helped with the elimination of Jews. Hitler figured the Brits would do the same thing but was frustrated by the Royal Air Force and the guts of the English people. He finally put off the invasion of England (never happened) and went ahead and invaded Russia. Big mistake. In any case there are French today who admit that all those white crosses of American dead burried on French soil represent the many French who didn’t have to die because of their “cooperation” with the Nazis. You young folks should really read some history . . .

  • Tammy

    The memorials to the US and British military throughout Brittany are amazing. The US cemetaries there are kept beautifully. The appreciation they have for our vets is more than we show to them ourselves. Everyone should take that trip. You won’t believe what you find there.

  • posthuf

    Didja notice …

    hp did a story on a R governor getting illicit donations in the amount of a few hundred thousand $, but wouldn’t allow andy comments?

    I’m forced, but that, to say that 99% of the comments they expected would be asking why hp FAILED to make similar accusations and ask similar questions when obama received tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of $$ in foreign campaign contributions in not one, but TWO elections.

    But that’s ok, move along folks, nothing to see here. No media coverup of what any one of you would call a crime.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001098349375 William Popp

    France, Thank you for remembering those who gave their lives to help you be
    free.

  • Gregg Stephenson

    Thank you for posting this. My Uncle – H.V. Stephenson was the co-pilot of this B17 and it was my father GORDON Stephenson who made the speech that you quote. It was an amazingly emotional event for my father and I. Neither of us could have imagined that there would have been such a large crowd of people there to remember the war and what happened on the 4th of July 1943. It was truly a humbling experience to be part of.

    Kind regards,
    Gregg Stephenson

    • Jayn Inglethron

      Gregg,
      My mother & your uncle Hubert are cousins, please contact me so we can talk & connect.
      Jayn Inglethron