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November 13th, 2013 ~ Vol. 83 No. 44
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer
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The mutilated tail section of "All American B-17
“What a show, what a fight, boys
We really hit our target for tonight
How we sing as we limp through the air
Look below, there's our field over there
With just one motor gone
We can still carry on
Comin' in on a wing and a prayer”

Song by Harold Adamson & Jimmie McHugh -1943


Every now and then a fascinating email comes our way that we feel bound to share with all those connected to us. We do it all the time. We ship power point presentations, emails stacked with dozens of images and you tube links to our friends and family. Items that we have found interesting and shareable. We even stuff those links and pictures into our facebook pages for our friends who share them with their friends on and on ad infinitum.

We all know, or should know, that there is a likelihood that some of these amazing stories are not fact based but we fire them off anyways. I know better, most of the time, but a few weeks ago an email story complete with great pictures came my way. It was a war story about a B-17 bomber that somehow survived a mid-air collision. I couldn’t wait to share it. Then I noticed that parts of the story didn’t quite add up to me so I decided to dig a little deeper.

While the pictures are real and the basics of the story are also, some of what was in the email was pure unadulterated fiction. Why anyone would weave such fantastical embellishments into a perfectly good story is beyond me.

So for those of you who have come across the email entitled “WW II B17 Survival Story!” here is the true story. Ralph Burbridge, the bombardier for that B-17 named “All American,” recounted his version of it from his home in Des Moines, Iowa this year just before he passed away at 93.

February 1, 1943 the All American, based out of Biskra in the Sahara Desert, was part of a bombing run made on the city of Tunis, Tunisia by the 414th Bombardment Squadron of the US Eighth Air Force. They were attacked by Messerschmitts before and after they dropped their bombs and just as they were moving out of the German defenders range two Messerschmitts came at the All American and the lead bomber in the formation.

According to Burbridge: “They came in to attack us, one of them directly at the nose of the lead ship and one at our plane. I covered one coming at us with the .30-caliber front nose gun and Harry (Nuessle, the navigator) covered the other plane with the .50-caliber gun on the right side of the nose.”


They managed to take out the “Jerry” attacking the lead ship but the other attacker bore down on Burbridge’s bomber who said: “his wings looked as though they were afire from his flaming guns.” At the very last moment the German pilot went into a classic roll to avoid hitting the bomber. Bombardier Burbridge went on to say: ““But about halfway through his roll either my fire or fire from the lead ship must have killed the pilot or disabled the plane. He never completed his intended roll and rapid pass under our ship.”

What happened next was that the attacker collided with the B-17 and tore an immense hole in the back end of the bomber and lopped off half of the tail section leaving the plane extremely unstable with the other half of the tail section and the rudder about to fall off at any time.

The rest of the formation slowed and surrounded the crippled B-17 until it was out of enemy territory and then left her to limp home on her own. All ten crew were uninjured and parachuted up in case the tail did fall off. They eventually made it back to base and managed to land with no tail wheel. When ground crews boarded her to investigate the tail section promptly fell off.

So there are some amazing pictures that go with this story including a picture taken by Clifford Cutforth, a crew member of another B-17 called Flint Gun. It shows All American flying along somewhere over the North African desert with an enormous gash in her back end. The navigator for this bomber sent a letter home with the picture taken by Cutforth and in a note said the following: “Censor. Should there be some law, rule or regulation against sending the picture below to my wife, please seal the flap above and return—it is an unduplicatable shot and one I should hate to lose.”

In the jacked up email that I first came across there are several egregious errors including the fact that the plane made it safely back to England which is entirely impossible logistics wise.

Some of the embellishments are way out there like the following paragraph: “When the bomb bay doors were opened, the wind turbulence was so great that it blew one of the waist gunners into the broken tail section. It took several minutes and four crew members to pass him ropes from parachutes and haul him back into the forward part of the plane. When they tried to do the same for the tail gunner, the tail began flapping so hard that it began to break off. The weight of the gunner was adding some stability to the tail section, so he went back to his position.”

The damage to the bomber was done after their bombing run, not before. There is even a paragraph describing how P-51 fighters intercepted the bomber over the English Channel and using only hand signals determined there was only 5 operation parachutes and that they radioed back to base to put boats in the water in case the bomber ditched into the channel. Utter nonsense! The pictures of the bomber were taken at their desert base in North Africa.

So, bottom line is, as we all know, check some of these great stories out for authenticity. I like snopes.com myself. It is a good filter for fact versus fiction. I found it interesting that even Burbridge got it wrong in his interview. He said that the song "Coming home on a wing and a prayer" was written for this incident but in fact it was not. It is about another B-17 on another North Africa mission in January of that year that made its own miraculous survival flight. So hard to find the real story sometimes!
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November 13th, 2013 ~ Vol. 83 No. 44
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