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Former Crew Members On B-17s Remember Tough Times
Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Trever N. Thurman
When World War II began in September 1939, the United States was not directly involved, but it did support the efforts of the allied countries against Germany.
However, the war in Northern Europe from 1942 to mid 1944 was exclusively an air war in which the United States and the American-made B-17 Flying Fortress played a major role.
Image caption: Drawing of B-17 in action by Mario Alatorie.
Numerous films, such as “Memphis Belle,” have documented and dramatized the heroics of those who served the war effort aboard the B-17.
Nevertheless, the real story is painted through memories of those who actually flew in these planes and were fortunate enough to return. Some of the crew members on B-17s who flew in the skies over Europe during those dark days of World War II are area residents; this is their story.
In June 1943, the formation of a tactical air force in Britain was the initial step toward the invasion of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. At first, hundreds and gradually thousands of medium and heavy bombers softened German defenses in France and Germany to prepare the way for the ground troops who would eventually invade.
The news accounts about the war were not always accurate or, because of a strict government censorship policy, the people back home only saw what the government wanted them to. At the height of the war, hundreds of lives were lost daily, and both sides suffered heavy casualties. El Paso newspapers published only stories of American might striking at the evils of Hitler’s Third Reich. Very seldom did they report the total loss of American lives from a single battle.
It was the consensus of the media and government that if the public learned that American boys were dying by the hundreds, it would lose faith in the possibility of winning and would stop supporting the war effort.
The idea of daylight bombing was implemented by the Americans who thought this was the only way to win the war. The British bombed at night and caused equal damage and considered daylight raids suicidal. The Americans thought that if they could see the target during the daylight hours, they could maintain pinpoint precision, and accidental bombings of heavily populated civilian areas could be avoided.
All historical accounts have shown that just the opposite was true. Daylight raids were suicidal until after the invasion of Normandy because only then could fighter escorts travel with the bombers for the entire mission instead of turning around and returning to England to refuel.
The B-17 was impressive. Each bomber carried a ten-man crew consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, bombardier/nose gunner, navigator/nose gunner, radio operator/gunner, flight engineer/upper turret gunner, ball turret gunner, two waist gunners and a tail gunner. There was no question as to why they named this bomber the Flying Fortress, as the gunners were armed with .50-caliber machine-guns, a total of thirteen throughout the plane, which could carry a maximum bomb load of 12,800 pounds.
Guy Dority, an area resident, served as a radio operator/gunner on the first American-manned B-17 to fly the skies over Europe. The name “Jarrin Jenny” graced the nose of the plane Dority helped man. He recalls, “I was a member of one of the first American bomber crews to land in England on July 1, 1942. Shortly before we left the United States, however, we landed at Biggs (Army Air Field) for refueling. I remember that there were no barracks available so they put us up in a hotel downtown. Well, we really enjoyed that, especially since we usually flew around the clock and slept at our posts.”
At 66, Dority spends time serving as a volunteer tour guide at the War Eagles Air Museum in Santa Teresa, N.M. (See related story.) Although the War Eagles Air Museum does not have a B-17 in its collection, an artist’s rendition of the “Jarrin Jenny” hangs on the wall leading into the hangars where the planes are housed.
A large glass display case holds Dority’s belongings from the war. Prominent in the case are the boots and flight jacket he wore over the skies of Europe. Also located in the case are the pins from the bombs his plane dropped, each labeled with the date and destination of the bombing mission.
“When we arrived overseas,” Dority remembers, “there were only five other B-17s besides us. Shortly thereafter, all six flight groups were called into a morning briefing. We were asked several questions, the likes of which none of us thought twice about. They asked us if we had life insurance; if so, would we like to increase it? It didn’t sink in until later that we were not expected to return from this suicide mission. Well, that day we all made it back home, all six planes, although the repair bill was enormous.”
Dority goes on to say that the war was never really real to him until he was wounded. “We were giving air support when a piece of flak punctured the side of the plane, hitting me in the right side of the head. Luckily, I was wearing my flak helmet and vest. I started to bleed a great deal and I kept telling my friends not to take my helmet off because I was sure that my ear would fall clean off. Fortunately, my ear didn’t fall off, and we made it back in one piece again.”
In all, Dority flew fifty missions in seven different B-17s. Of the original crew, only three remain alive today, and they keep in touch as often as they can.
Another survivor of the B-17 is Steven Thomas, who served as a ball-turret gunner. His memories are not quite as pleasant as Dority’s. He remembers the day he witnessed his brother’s death. “I was sitting in the ball turret when I saw the plane my brother was in explode in a fiery ball of metal. All because a piece of flak hit an armed bomb. On the way back, I managed to shoot down two enemy planes, but nothing will ever erase the sight of my brother’s plane as it went down. I felt so hopeless.”
No doubt there are as many stories as there are survivors of the B-17s, and other men in El Paso were touched by the heroics of the crews who manned these magnificent planes.