Great American Planes - B-17
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Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

B-17
Above: USAAF photo: Early B-17's at March Field in California prior to Dec. 7, 1941. Click on image to enlarge.
During the 1930’s Boeing built the B-9 and B-10 for the Army, but most Americans did not see the need for a bomber if we were not at war, and the top brass in Washington were influenced by the Naval point of view, which was that our power overseas would be projected by great battleships. Army generals, who wanted a strong bomber, had a hard time making their case.

In 1934, the Army put out a bid for a bomber that could carry 2-1/2 tons of bombs, fly 200 miles per hour, and have a range of 2,000 miles. Boeing developed the model 299, and came out ahead of the Martin B-10 and the Douglas B-18 in a 3-way competition In August, 1935. The 299 was designated as the B-17. Tragically, Boeing's only 299 crashed in a botched take-off. So the Army ordered a small number of Douglas B-18.

Even though the crash was not due to any fault in the plane, Boeing went back to the drawing board to improve upon the design. A year later, the Army ordered a small number of the improved B-17. The U.S. was still not at war, but the RAF ordered the B-17 for its defense against Germany. However the Brits were disappointed with the plane, which they believed need more armament.

Boeing again went back to the drawing board, designing a new larger tail, adding to the length and overall weight, and adding a tail gun, along with waist guns, an upper turret, and a lower ball turret.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Above: The B-17 model G on the field at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. The B-17 G is the configuration that was built in the thousands during the War, and the version most widely known. You can see how this plane earned the name "Flying Fortress." It has a total of 13 .50 cal. machine guns pointed in every direction. It was planned as a bomber that could defend itself against enemy fighters without having to rely upon escort planes. The B-17 was a long-range bomber, and the pursuit planes early in the War, did not have the range that would be needed.
Right after Pearl Harbor when the US knew it would be committed to the war in both the European Theatre and the Pacific Theatre, the Army wanted as many B-17's as it could get. Boeing modernized and its No. 2 plant near Seattle with more automated production. The company hired thousands of new workers, including many women. And production was also shared by Martin and Douglas, the two aircraft companies whose own designs had lost the competition. At the peak of production during the War, the three plants were producing 130 of the new bombers every week. The Boeing plant was turning out sixteen per day.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Above and below: The B-17G exhibit at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton, Ohilo. Also on display: the Wright R-1820 Radial engine. Click on either image to enlarge.
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Of the 12,736 B-17's built for WW2, 8,680 were the Model G shown here. With the cockpit on an upper deck, and the engines in the wings, the nose of the plane was devoted to armament and the bombardier. When the plane got close to its target, the bombardier in the nose section, with an advanced gun sight, would take over the steering to zone in on the target. Not until after the bombs had been dropped did the pilot have any control to avoid enemy fire. It was up to the gunners facing in every direction to handle the plane's defense, and there was no defense against flak.
B-17G Basics
(Variants vary)
Length: 74 ft. 4 in.
Wingspan: 103 ft. 9 in.
Weight: 65,000 lbs. loaded
First Test Flight: July 28, 1935
Number Built: 12,726
Top Speed: 300 mph
Range: 1,850 to 3,700 miles
Cruising Speed: 170 - 180 mph
Ceiling: 35,000 ft.
Power: (4) Wright R-1850 (1823-cubic-inch) 9-cylinder, 1200 hp radial engines
Armament: 11-13 machine guns, 9,600 lb. bomb capacity.

B-17 Missions over Germany

The 8th Air Force consisted of hundreds of B-17 Flying Fortresses making bombing runs over Nazi Germany and German held military positions in occupied Europe. B-17 losses sere so extensive that American commanders had to reconsider the strategic value of these dangerous missions. But the bombing was key to Allied victory. It shut down a lot of German war machinery manufacturing and seriously disrupted their supply routes. Finally, in early 1944, the P-51 Mustang came to the rescue. They had the range to escort the bombers all the way to German targets and back. The Luftwaffe planes that had been used to attack the bombers were no match for the Mustang. Major General James Doolittle also ordered the Mustangs to attack German fighters wherever they could be found… including at their base air fields. By the summer of 1944, the strength of the Luftwaffe had been greatly diminished, and the British, as well as the Americans, were flying daytime bombing raids.
B-17
Above: A squadron of B-17's flies through a cloud of flak as it nears its target over Nazi Germany. There was no defense against the intense anti-aircraft guns protecting German assets. You just had to set your bomb sight on your target and hope for good luck. Sometimes an entire squadron (6 planes) would fail to return to base.
Damaged B-17 made it back to base
Above: A B-17 made it back to its base in England with its nose section demolished by German defenses. The bombardier was killed, but the rest of the crew survived. One advantage that American planes had was that they were built rugged and could often take a lot of hits without going down. The B-17's were among the most durable. Click on image to enlarge.
The heaviest deployment of B-17's was in bombing missions over Nazi Germany flying from air bases in the south and east of England. While the RAF was flying bombing missions at night and hitting general area targets, it fell to the Americans to fly missions in daylight without the cover of darkness so they could navigate to and hit very specific targets. Fighter planes were able to accompany the B-17's part, but only part, of the way because they didn't have the range. After that, the B-17's were on their own and subject to ruthless attacks from squadrons of Luftwaffe fighters. The most dangerous part of the mission was the approach to the target, where the German defenses would be the strongest. It has been speculated (and there is no way to have an exact count) that B-17's, with their array of thirteen .50 cal. machine guns, shot down more German planes over Europe than all other Allied planes combined. Despite that, their losses were huge.

One defense perfected by Air Force Colonel Curtis Lemay was the "Combat Box" in which the planes would fly in a very carefully designed tight grouping. A squadron in this formation would be able to coordinate and focus a total of seventy-eight .50 cal. machine guns on incoming fighters. The combat box was no defense from flak though.

How Many Heroes?

A total of seventeen men earned the Medal of Honor for their service on a B-17 during World War 2. Nine men earned a Medal of Honor serving on B-24’s, two men flying the Douglas SBD, two men flying the Lockheed P-38, eight men flying the Grumman F4F, one man flying the Grumman F6F, two men flying the P-51 Mustang, two men flying the P-47 Thunderbolt. That is a total of 43 men who earned America's highest honor serving in these eight great planes during World War 2. But what about all the others? What about the men on B-17's whose stories will never be told because no one on the plane lived to tell it? Of course I understand that what makes the Medal of Honor special is that not many receive it, but I believe that every young man who climbed aboard a B-17 headed for Germany knowing his odds of coming back alive grew slimmer with each mission was a genuine hero.
Below: B-17-15-BO, 322nd squadron, 91st bombing group, going down over Kranenburg, Germany after a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. It was the plane's 128th mission. Only the pilot survived. (God knows how.) Click on image to enlarge.
B-17 going down over Germany

Staff Sergeant Maynard Smith

grew up in Michigan, the son of a successful attorney and a school teacher. He had a reputation for being spoiled and getting himself into trouble. He ended up in front of a judge who gave him a choice between jail and the military. Smith enlisted in the army in 1942 and enrolled in Gunnery School planning on a faster promotion. He was assigned to the 423rd Squadron, 306th Bomb Group in Turleigh, England. On his first mission he was stationed in the ball gun turret of a B-17. After dropping their bombs on the intended target, German U-boat pens on the western coast of France, the squadron made a navigation error on the way back to the base in Southern England and ran into heavy flak and a squadron of German fighters over a heavily defended German base. Smith’s plane was hit badly causing a fire and several men to be badly wounded. Smith worked furiously to put the fire out, while continuing to man a remaining .50 caliber machine gun, and tend to the wounded. He got the fire out going through all the extinguishers and then by throwing burning debris and live ammunition out of the plane through holes that had melted in the fuselage. The plane made it back to base despite massive damage, having been hit by an estimated 3,500 enemy rounds and pieces of shrapnel. Two men who had bailed out over water were never found. Smith was credited with saving the lives of six of the crew.
More on the story at the web site of the National Museum of the US Air Force.
Medal of Honor recipient Maynard Smith
Above: U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson presents Medal of Honor award to Maynard Smith. Below: Smith mans a B-17 waist gun. Click on either photo to enlarge.
B-17 Waist gunner Maynard Smith
B-17 Flying Fortress

B-17 Flying Fortress on Display West to East

Castle Air Museum, Atwater, CA
https://www.castleairmuseum.org

AMVETS Chapter 56, Mefford Field, Tulare,CA
http://www.ruudleeuw.com/usa08-mefford.htm

Palm Springs Air Museum, Palm Springs, CA
https://palmspringsairmuseum.org

Lyon Air Museum, Santa Ana, CA (Airworthy)
http://www.lyonairmuseum.org

March Field Air Museum, Moreno Valley, CA
https://www.marchfield.org


Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, McMinnville, OR
http://www.evergreenmuseum.org

Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA
http://www.museumofflight.org

Offutt AFB, Offutt AFB, NE
http://www.offutt.af.mil

Lackland AFB, San Antonio, TX
http://www.military.com/base-guide/lackland-air-force-base

Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston, TX (Airworthy)
https://www.lonestarflight.org

Dyess Linear Air Park, Dyess AFB, Abilene, TX
http://www.dyess.af.mil

Barksdale Global Power Museum, Barksdale AFB, LA
http://www.barksdaleglobalpowermuseum.com


National World War II Museum, New Orleans, LA
https://www.nationalww2museum.org

Yankee Air Force, Bellevue, MI (Airworthy)
http://yankeeairmuseum.org

National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB. Dayton, OH
http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil

Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, Eglin AFB, FL
http://www.evergreenmuseum.org

National Warplane Museum, Genesco, NY (Airworthy)
https://nwmairshow.com

Collings Foundation, Stow, MA (Airworthy)
http://www.collingsfoundation.org

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Above: Restored B-17 at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Photo by DSDugan. Click on image to enlarge

The National World War II Museum

is dedicated to telling the story of the "American Spirit" during the most significant world conflict in human history. The museum celebrates "the American spirit, the teamwork, optimism, courage, and sacrifice of the men and women who fought on the battlefront and the Home Front.

This B-17E was on its way to Europe to join the fight in 1942 when it had to make an emergency landing in Greenland. While her crew was rescued, the plane had to be abandoned. Ohio businessman Bob Ready and 23 volunteers spent more than 80,000 hours restoring the plane before it was put on display at the museum in 2013.

It is one of several restored B-17's in museums and on display around the country.

https://www.nationalww2museum.org

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