The crippled B-17, Triple Nickel, straggled behind the group formation. Like a mortally wounded animal cut from the herd and beset by wolves, the bomber was under attacked from three German Bf-109 fighters. The bomber shuddered and shook as the 109s’ 20mm cannon shells ripped through its thin aluminum skin destroying everything in their path.
‘Ringgggggg! Ringgggggg! Ringgggggg!’
The bailout bell. Three short rings—the signal for the crew to attach their parachutes and standby to abandon the aircraft.
The bell startled Banner. Carrying an oxygen bottle—without oxygen at 27,000 feet, he would be unconscious in thirty seconds, dead in two minutes—he’d made his way back to mid-ship to tend the wounded right-waist gunner and take over his position. But the man was already dead, lying on a pile of expended machine gun shells.
Plugging the cord dangling from his headphones into the gunner’s interphone jackbox, he squeezed his throat mic. “Banner to Pilot!” Nothing. He tried again. “Banner to Pilot!” Still nothing. The interphone—the system that allowed communications between crew members—was out.
He had to get back to the cockpit. Opposite him, the left-waist gunner’s eyes were wild with terror as he fumbled for his chest parachute on the floor. Before he could grasp it, one of the fighters began another run, coming straight at him. He quickly charged his .50-caliber Browning machine gun and fired a sustained burst. While he fired, Banner grabbed the man’s chute, and attached it to the ‘D’ rings on his parachute harness.
Then he turned back to the right-waist gun and fired a quick burst at the fighter as he passed overhead. The fighter broke off, trailing thick smoke.
In the ball-turret below, the gunner also heard the bell. There was no space in the turret for a parachute; it was left in the cabin above. If the gunner was to have any chance of survival, he had to get out. He rotated the turret with his twin .50-caliber machine guns pointed straight down, positioning the hatch so it could be opened inside the airplane. He’d been in the turret for hours, however, curled in an almost fetal position. Stiff from the cramped turret and mind-numbing cold, he didn’t have the strength to get out. All he could do was open the hatch, stretch his arms through and call for help.
Banner saw the waving arms and heard the gunner’s cry. Going to him, he gripped the frozen gunner under his arms and pulled him out. Disconnected, his oxygen hose dangled from his mask. Quickly taking a spare oxygen cylinder from a nearby rack, Banner connected the hose—the gunner nodded he could breathe. He found the man’s chest pack and clipped it to his harness.
To make himself heard over the noise of machine gun fire, Banner pulled his oxygen mask slightly away from his face, and shouted in the man’s ear, “Interphone is out! When you hear the long bell, get out as fast as you can. Don’t wait. Tell the others.”
The gunner nodded his understanding, then tried to stand—Banner steadied him. Then he gave him an encouraging slap on the back as the gunner went to take over the unmanned waist gun.
Banner started again for the cockpit. Opening the bulkhead door to the radio compartment, he was met with a fierce blast of wind from a ragged line of 20mm holes that crossed the compartment diagonally left to right, destroying everything in their path—cabling, wiring, radio equipment, and people. The radio operator lay dead on the floor, cut almost in half by one of the explosive rounds.
In the bomb bay, he negotiated the narrow catwalk leading to the nose and flight deck. Suddenly, cannon fire stitched another line of holes down the left side of the wounded bomber—across the nose, cockpit, left wing, and down the fuselage—just missing him as he dropped to the deck. After the fighter passed, he hurried on, pausing only for a second to check on the men in the nose compartment—the navigator and bombardier were dead. Opening the flight deck door, he stumbled into the cockpit. At that moment, the plane fell into a steep dive.
The pilot was dead—gravity draping his body over the controls. The co-pilot frantically hauled back on his control column, but the weight of the pilot’s body was too much to overcome by himself.
Banner quickly disconnected the dead pilot’s hose from the oxygen regulator and connected his own. After a few deep breaths, he pulled the limp pilot back away from the yoke, grabbed hold of the controls and hauled back for all he was worth. A quick glance out his window showed both left engines were on fire. Over the roar of the engines, he yelled to the co-pilot, “Fuel Shut-Off and Fire Bottles on one and two! ... Feather one and two!”
The co-pilot was a new replacement on his first mission. The boy was clearly terrified, but did what he’d been trained to—with one hand still struggling with the yoke, he toggled the necessary switches with the other.
The plane continued its dive, seemingly forever, until slowly they slowly brought her nose up and leveled off. They had dropped over 10,000 feet. With the help of the top-turret gunner, Banner dragged the pilot—Colonel Swanson, the group’s commander—from his seat and propped him up against the cockpit wall. Taking his seat, Banner quickly checked the instrument panel and evaluated their situation.
For the moment the plane was under control. But with only two engines they would continue to lose airspeed and altitude. His left wing was riddled with holes, its control surfaces—ailerons and flaps—questionable. He had no rudder control, the pedals were non-responsive. The fire suppression system had put out the fires, but the wing was trailing gas. The fire could re-start at any time.
He checked the engine gages again. His right outboard engine—number four—was running rough and overheating, losing oil and manifold pressure. Suddenly the engine seized and burst into flame. Before he could give the order, the co-pilot shut off the engine’s fuel supply, activated the Fire Bottle, and feathered the prop—earning a nod from Banner.
One engine left. There was no way they could stay in the air; they’d had too much damage. Acknowledging the hopelessness of the situation, Banner hit the bailout bell—one long continuous ring, signaling the crew it was time to go.
The top turret gunner dropped down from his raised platform just aft of the co-pilot. Banner caught his attention and motioned him over. Removing his oxygen mask—it was no longer needed at their current altitude—he shouted over the noise in the cockpit.
“Get everyone out as fast as you can! I’ll try to hold her!”
The gunner nodded, acknowledging the order and hurried from the flight deck. The crew would be bailing out, but with no interphone , Banner had no way of knowing when they’d gone.
Banner wanted out, too. ... His heart raced, and despite the icy cold wind rushing in through the holes in the windscreen—his face glistened with sweat. His knuckles were white with effort as both hands gripped the shuddering control column. He had to give the crew time to escape.
“That means you, too, Lieutenant.” He didn’t know the co-pilot’s name.
“I’ll stay, sir.” he replied with a weak attempt at a grin. “You can’t hold her by yourself.”
Banner didn’t have time to argue. His remaining engine—number three—unable to maintain airspeed suddenly began to sputter and cough. One engine didn’t have enough thrust to keep them in the air. As if in agreement, the plane suddenly fell into another dive. They were losing altitude fast.
Instinctively Banner fell back on the pilot’s basic rule—never stop flying the airplane.
Banner and the co-pilot struggled with the controls, managing to bring the nose up slightly into a shallower dive, but that was as good as it was going to get. Banner searched the patchwork quilt of farmland and forest below, looking for a piece of ground long enough, flat enough, and clear enough for him to try to set her down.
They’d passed 900 feet, when he spotted a long cleared field ahead. He called for full flaps and cut all power to reduce speed—his feet, from habit, working the useless rudder pedals to keep her straight. They approached the clearing over a section of forest. Their angle of descent was still steep, not nearly shallow enough, but they just might make it—if they could get over the trees.
They were coming in low, their passage breaking the tops off trees. As if in retaliation, the trees tore at the wings and battered the belly and tail—but this drag helped to reduce their speed.
Then they were past, the ground coming up fast.
“Brace yourself!” Banner yelled, as the plane slammed into the ground in a bone-jarring thud, its momentum plowing a deep furrow across the field, over a rock berm and into the tree line beyond where they came to a sudden and violent stop.
Then everything went black.
It was eerily quiet when Banner slowly regained consciousness, amazed he was still alive. He hurt all over, and blood ran from a gash on his forehead down the right side of his face. Wiping the blood away, he looked over at the co-pilot. The boy was dead—his neck broken. There was nothing he could do for him. His first mission had been his last.
Except for the shattered windscreen through which jagged stubs of tree branches projected like spears, the cockpit was intact. The bomber’s nose—crushed by the impact—was buried amongst the trees. From what he could see out his side window, the fuselage seemed mostly in one piece.
He struggled out of his harness and shakily got to his feet. He looked again at the co-pilot, the boy’s head resting on his shoulder at an unnatural angle. He was so young—they were all young.
Wanting to at least know the boy’s name, he gently pulled his dog tags from under his shirt and read what was written—Kelso, Martin L.
Banner had to get out of the plane. His best chance was the main crew door in the tail. Wiping blood from his eye again, he carefully picked his way back to the waist. But there the fuselage suddenly ended—the tail section crushed like a used beer can. He’d have to find another way.
He spotted a large tear in the top of the fuselage. Grunting from the pain in his ribs, he boosted himself up, squeezed through the gap, then slid down the side of the plane. The air reeked of aviation gas from leaking tanks. Smoke drifted up into the sky, but so far there was no fire
Holding his head in both hands, Banner leaned back against the fuselage—dizzy and nauseated. Suddenly he bent double, wrapped his arms around his middle and vomited. After a few moments, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and straightened.
Through the blinding pain in his head, he forced himself to focus—Which way to go?
His best chance was to head northwest toward the French coast and hope to make contact with the French Resistance, the Maquis.
No one had come after him, yet. He still had some time. One thing was certain: he had to get far away from the plane.
He looked around to get his bearings. Behind him lay the open field they’d plowed across; in front, the trees that had stopped them. To the left and right, were more fields, bounded by small stone walls. There were no visible farmhouses, buildings, or people, not even animals—and, thank God, no Germans.
Banner checked his watch—1620. It was still light, the sun wouldn’t set until much later this time of year. And it was warm, but it was April—the temperature would drop sharply after sunset. Wearing only his leather flying jacket and flight coveralls over his uniform, he would need to find shelter for the night.
Orienting himself to the northwest, he pushed off into the woods. He started at a slow jog, but his ribs hurt too much to keep that up and quickly settled into a slow, steady pace.
The ‘woods’ soon became a thick and dark forest, the canopy above blocking out the sunlight. Occasionally, the branches of the tall trees allowed sunlight to shine through.
When he thought it safe, he stopped in a sunlit clearing for a rest and to take stock of what he had to evade capture—his Colt .45-caliber sidearm with two extra magazines, a small compass concealed in the top snap of his flight jacket, a silk map of France and Germany hidden in the lining, a pack of cigarettes, and a book of matches.
Pulling the top snap from his jacket, he prized up the cover with a fingernail to reveal the compass within. He took a quick bearing to locate northwest, corrected his direction, and continued walking. His best plan would be to travel and forage at night, hide and sleep during the day. But first he had to put some distance between himself and the plane.
As he walked, Banner replayed the events of the day in his mind. It should have been an easy mission—a ‘milk run’. He should be back in England right now, not on the run in Occupied France.
How the hell did he get into this mess. . . .
‘Banner’ was Brigadier General Frank Banner—six-foot-two and well-built with light brown hair and penetrating blue eyes. He’d only recently pinned on his star, and at thirty-seven, was young for his rank.
He’d gone on the mission as a favor to his long-time friend and mentor, Major General Wiley Stone, Commander of the Eighth’s First Bomb Wing. Banner owed Stone. Stone had a problem—one of his bomb groups had become known as a ‘hard luck’ group, and Stone had to know why.
The 909th had looked good on paper. Its Commander, Colonel Ed Swanson, was a veteran of the First War. While older than most group commanders, he was considered top notch and idolized by his men. But since arriving in England, their mission success rate had been very poor. Their bombing accuracy was mediocre, at best, and their losses were higher than any group in the Wing. They were acquiring a bad reputation, and it was beginning to affect the other groups. Nobody wanted to fly with them.
It was just to be a shallow penetration raid into Occupied France—the marshalling yards at Amiens. Banner had taken his previous group to Amiens and back, many times. It was a ‘milk run’.
It hadn’t taken Banner long to determine the source of the problem—Swanson may have been a good pilot and administrator, but he was way over his head as a wartime group commander leading combat missions.
They had launched with three under-strength squadrons—nineteen B-17 Flying Fortresses, or ‘Forts’ from their base at Aylesham. This number was reduced when one ran off the runway on take-off. Two more aborted over the Channel, leaving a strike force of only 16 B-17s.
The formation had been reasonably closed-up to start. But as they crossed the English Channel, they’d become strung out. Each B-17 was armed with twelve .50-caliber Browning machine guns. By failing to maintain a tight formation, the group had lost the protection they would have had from the interlocking crossfire of those guns.
They were easy prey, then, when the Bf-109s attacked. The Forts’ gunners were mostly ineffective. Firing discipline and accuracy was poor—many wasted ammunition in sustained bursts. Some were just as apt to hit one of their own as the enemy. Only their P-47 fighter escort—at the very limit of their range—saved them from all out slaughter.
One bomber was lost to the fighters, and several others, including the Triple Nickel, were badly shot up. As the formation approached their Initial Aiming Point, the flak was thick and accurate. Between the fighters and the flak, only fourteen bombers made it to the target.
Banner had observed the bomb run from the nose. The formation was scattered all over the sky. One B-17 in the low squadron, out of position, flew into the path of a stick of 500-pound bombs dropping from an aircraft in the high squadron above. The plane’s left stabilizer was sheared off. As Banner watched, the plane dropped into a steep dive, out of control. He counted only six chutes before the plane disappeared into the clouds.
The bombing accuracy of the group was hit and miss. Fourteen individual bombardiers sighted and dropped their bombs independently. Some, unnerved by the fighters and the flak, pickled their bombs too early, while others were late. Banner doubted many had hit, or even come close to, the target.
It was the worst performance he’d seen by a bomb group. In his mind, it was due to poor leadership and poor training. If Swanson hadn’t been killed, he would have recommended he be relieved of his command.
As soon as the formation turned away from the target, the fighters had reappeared. That’s when the Triple Nickel had been hit again and had dropped out of formation. . . .
He was suddenly jolted back to the present as he heard a loud explosion, followed by several secondary detonations. Even through the trees, it lit up the sky—a bright and spreading glow.
The Triple Nickel’s gas tanks. ... and the .50-caliber cooking off. That should attract every Kraut from miles around.
Banner increased his pace. He stayed concealed in the woods, alternately walking and resting, until he came to a road. He rested again and observed the road. After thirty minutes, all he’d seen was an old man and a boy on a horse-drawn hay wagon. As the road headed in the right direction—northwest—he decided to travel parallel to it hoping for a signpost or something that might indicate his location. Once he knew that, he’d use the map in the lining of his jacket to plot his escape route.
The sun had gone down some time ago, and the temperature had dropped with each passing hour. He turned up his collar and hunched in his jacket. Shaking with cold, he wrapped his arms around him for warmth, but the cold continued to seep into his body.
The gash on his forehead had finally stopped bleeding, but his head throb unmercifully. Every muscle and joint in his body hurt, and his ribs complained with every breath. He was cold-soaked and exhausted. He had to stop.
Making out a building ahead, he withdrew his Colt .45 from his shoulder holster, pulled back the receiver and chambered a round, leaving the hammer cocked. He approached warily—alert for unpleasant surprises. It was an abandoned bombed-out barn—a piece of its roof still intact. He cautiously entered—No one home.
It was decidedly risky, but he had to rest. It was almost midnight. He could get warm, sleep for a few hours, and be gone well before sunrise.
His body craved sleep. He found a stall, and had barely covered himself with straw for warmth and put his head down before he was asleep—the cocked .45 still in his hand.
While Banner slept, back in England, General Wiley Stone worried and paced.
Stone was a tall, distinguished looking two-star in his mid-fifties, with steel-gray hair, deep-set brown eyes, and a distinctively square jaw. He was also Frank Banner’s best friend.
When Colonel Swanson’s—and Banner’s—plane was reported missing, Stone had immediately driven to the 909th’s base. He was briefed by Major Brian Herrick, the group’s S-2 Intelligence chief—so far, all they knew was Colonel Swanson hadn’t been able to maintain speed and altitude and had turned the group over to his alternate lead. Herrick said he expected to have more information after the aircrews completed their post-mission Interrogation and all the reports were in.
Returning to Pinetree—code name for his headquarters at Wycombe Abbey, a former girls school located about thirty miles southeast of London—Stone summoned his S-2, Lieutenant Colonel John Bradley, to his office. He briefed him about the missing plane and instructed him to coordinate with Major Herrick for further information. “Query all our sources on the ground. Pull out all the stops; I want that plane found. Am I clear, Colonel?”
The hours passed with only bits and pieces of new information—they were seen being attacked by a trio of Bf-109s ... they were on fire and in a dive ... nobody saw any parachutes. . . .
Later than evening Stone was updated again by Colonel Bradley.
“We have a good idea now where they went down, General. From the crews’ reports—and their positions at the time of the sightings—the Triple Nickel was last seen going down about here.” Bradley indicated an area on the wall map with a pointer. “From all reports, she’d been shot up pretty bad, and was in a dive with two engines on fire.”
“We already knew that, Colonel.” Stone said, annoyed the lack of new information. “Don’t you have anything new? Sightings, reports from sources on the ground?”
“No, sir. Not yet. As I informed you, there’s very little Resistance activity in that area. We’ve sent a request to a Marquis group north of there to investigate, but it will take time. . . .”
Stone could see Bradley was holding back. “Do you have something you want to say, Colonel?”
Bradley hesitated, then said what he knew Stone didn’t want to hear. “I’m sorry, sir. I know General Banner is a personal friend. But, ... It’s doubtful they could’ve pulled out of the dive described, not with two engines out. And no parachutes were sighted. It’s unlikely anyone could have survived. I think all we’ll find is where they crashed.”
“Thank you, Colonel. You could be right, but I’m not willing to give up just yet. Keeping looking. And keep after that Resistance group. ... If there’s any new information, I want to hear about it ... no matter the time.”
“Yes, sir. Of course.”
“Thank you, Colonel. That will be all.”
Bradley stepped back and saluted. On his way to the door, he turned. “I really hope I’m wrong, General.”
“Thank you, John.”
After Bradley left, Stone turned out the lights. Going to his window and opening the blackout curtains, he stared out into the night. Frank Banner was out there somewhere—because of him. He hoped his request hadn’t cost his friend his life.