Thursday, June 23, 2011

The OTHER Greatest Generation

Our greatest generation, those men and women who got us through World War II, keeps getting smaller as time marches on.  In fact, it is estimated 1,000 to 1,200 men and women who lived through the Great Depression and volunteered to serve during the war are dying every day.  In just a few short years we will see the sad story on the news telling us how the very last World War II soldier has passed on.
This really hits home with me since I firmly believe that one of the most important stories regarding World War II to get across to students has to be the various stories of the people who participated in the war effort.   They volunteered, they participated, and they sacrificed.  In today’s society of entitlement and sensationalism I think it’s important for students to see a different view regarding citizenship.

Sonlight Pictures Blog explains the importance of teaching about the greatest generation much more eloquently than I can stating, “They understood that the world doesn’t revolve around them, but instead they were simply a piece of the puzzle within it and it was up to them to determine how important of a piece they would become.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t just a generation of men and women rapidly leaving us.   Another generation is almost gone.

I’m talking about the generation of heavy bombers with four engines developed in the 1930s for the United Army Air Corp.  

Yes, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress planes.

The B-17 could fly long range distances, was able to defend itself and could often withstand heavy damage in order to make its way home.  Of the 1.5 million metric tons of bombs dropped on Germany approximately 640,000 tons were dropped from B-17s.

During the early 30s several companies were vying for the bomber contract from the U.S. government.  In 1934, there was a “fly-off” held where the prototypes were rolled out.  Boeing’s model was quite impressive….so much so a reporter with the Seattle Times dubbed the plane a flying fortress due to the multiple machine-gun installations.   Boeing eventually trademarked the name, and it stuck.

Boeing got the contract nod, but in 1935, during a second test evaluation flight the crew forgot to engage the “gust lock”, a device that held the bomber’s moveable control surfaces in place while the aircraft was parked on the ground.  Once airborne the plane went into a steep climb, but stalled.  It then nosed over and crashed killing two crew members.  Boeing was disqualified from the contract.

However, by January, 1936 a legal loophole was found and Boeing was considered once again.  The B-17 Flying Fortress evolved as it underwent several design advances.

Discussing the use of B-17s in the war effort can bring up other interesting points for students to analyze.   There are several well documented missions and interesting pilots and crew members.  It’s important to remember Lt. Col. Nancy Love and Betty Gillies as they were the first women to fly a B-17 in 1943.   Another interesting dynamic to examine has to do with families divided by the war.  American born Captain Werner G. Goering flew B-17s.  Ironically, his uncle was commander of the German Luftwaffe, Herman Goering.  Hollywood and the world of sports had their presence in the B-17s as well.  Clark Gable had five missions under his belt as a waist gunner while Tom Landry claimed 30 missions.   Norman Lear, Gene Roddenberry, and one of my personal favorites, Jimmy Stewart all served on B-17s as well as several others.

The main image at the top of this post is a drawing created by Lt. Col. C. Ross Greening who created many such drawings while being held a prisoner at Stalag Luft 1 in Bath, Germany during 1944-45.  Greening had quite a distinguished career as a Doolittle Raider.  As a POW he distinguished himself with his art as this article suggests.

Since the war many of the B-17s have been maintained and exhibited at museums and various air shows across the nation.   However, like the men and women who flew them they are becoming worn and parts are becoming harder to locate.   Wikipedia advises there are a total of 51 surviving airframes worldwide with only 10 actively flying.

Courtesy of
Just the other day we lost another one…..the Liberty Belle, when it burned after making a crash landing per this Chicago Tribune article found here.  The Liberty Belle belonged to the Liberty Foundation.  More information regarding the plane can be found here.

You can see a video here of the Liberty Belle taking off from Peachtree-Dekalb Airport in Georgia and this video is from Rocky Mountain Municipal Airport.

The crash scene can be seen here.


Dan Edwards said...

Very interesting.... when I was in college, working at a restaurant, one of our regular customers, a chain-smoking chiropractor, had been a tail gunner in B-17's during WWII. He wouldn't talk about it. One of my uncles, my Dad's oldest brother, was C-47 pilot, and shot down dropping paras over Cherbourgh Peninsula in early morning hours of D-Day. He wouldn't talk about it until later in life. Was POW at Stalag Luft III and Moosburg until liberated by Patton's troops. There is a book about his adventures/experiences I can send you if you are interested in reading it.

EHT said...

I always love your comments. You add such interesting "stuff" to whatever I write about. :) Yes, I would be very interested in the book. Please email me at