Last of the B-17 boys
Five US veterans of the 457th Bomb Group returned to the city for a reunion
THEY were the heroes of the skies who fought in a fearful battle of the air but, in Winston Churchill’s words, never once “flinched or failed” in their duty.
During the Second World War, brave B-17 crews from the 457th bomb group were tasked with destroying German targets, facing danger at every turn.
While some of the American airmen safely returned to the US air base at Glatton airfield, in Conington, near Peterborough, many lost their lives.
This week, five 457th bomber veterans travelled from the USA to a reunion in the Mayor’s parlour at Peterborough Town Hall.
Reunions have been staged every few years, but due to their advancing years, the servicemen fear this may have been the last time some of them will meet to share their awe-inspiring stories.
Among those who made the trip from America on Wednesday was Don Osborne. The Californian (87) walks with a stick and his eyes filled with sorrow as he recalled how he lost three members of his nine-man crew when their plane was shot down over Hamburg in October 1944.
The plane erupted into a raging fireball and exploded. Thankfully, Mr Osborne was able to parachute out and survived, only to be captured and kept as a prisoner of war for seven months.
He said: “We were five miles up when German anti-aircraft clipped the plane, caught fire and blew up. I remember all of it.
“My arm was broken up pretty bad, I thought I had lost it. When I opened the parachute, it was about 200ft up. I decided not to open it earlier because the atmosphere was so thin and there’s a danger of passing out.”
The gently-spoken ex-gunner has now written a book, entitled Bailout, as a heartfelt tribute to the men who served with the eight airforce,
The 457th bomb group was part of the eight airforce, part of the United States Air Force Global Strike Command.
Mr Osborne was just 22 when he was shot down on his 14th bombing raid. His crew were soaring 26,000ft over Hamburg, when the plane was hit by the antiaircraft fire, which blew a large hole in the wing.
Within seconds, flames were bursting from the engine and the pilot had issued a call to bail out.
After releasing the ball turret gunner, who was trapped, Mr Osborne kicked the escape hatch and jumped. As he fell to the ground, he watched the aircraft explode behind him.
Recalling the ordeal with a whisper, his memories were as sharp as if they had happened yesterday. He said: “As I approached the ground, I saw I was going to land in a cow pasture and remember a cow watching me with its big, brown eyes. I hit the ground hard and as I looked up, I saw two German soldiers, one with a rifle pointed in my face.”
They took his pistol and scanned the skies for another parachute. They spotted one and chased after it and he was spared.
But that was not the end of Mr Osborne’s ordeal.
German civilians gathered and tended his broken arm and bandaged his burnt face, before commandeering a girl’s bicycle and taking him to a burns centre.
He spent the night in jail and then seven long months as a prisoner of war, where his weight dropped dramatically.
He was interrogated regularly and was forced to wear the same clothes permanently.
But he said his strong faith kept him going and, one morning, he knew freedom was close when German guards disappeared and a home-made US flag was hoisted up outside the camp gate.
Eight days later, on VE Day, he and the other prisoners of war were put on a plane to Paris.
He said: “I don’t think of myself as a hero. I placed my trust in God and tried to live my life one day at a time.
“When I think of the thousands that died, I think God had a hand in what happened to me.”
Another 457th group member James Bass (88) has been back to the reunion in Peterborough six times.
The sprightly ex-wireless operator still works as an attorney in Tennessee and was in Peterborough with his family, including grand-daughter Emily (15).
Despite the scale of their missions, Mr Bass said the airmen never lost sight of their goal.
He flew on a total of 22 sorties and saw some of his best friends die in front of his eyes.
He said: “We were based at Conington but it was known as Glatton because of the similarity of names of the airfields in Conington and Coningsby.
“We were part of the eight airforce, whose objective was to provide tactical support to ground troops and bombing the factories, industrial complexes, rail and transport centres in order to disrupt the Germans’ potential to build up an army that could win the war.”
He said the moments when his heart raced most were when the planes first entered enemy airspace. He also remembered the terror of take-off.
He said: “There were always nerve-
wracking experiences, especially on take-off when the plane had full bomb and gas loads. We would pray we would just get off the ground. There was always danger over enemy territory, both from the standpoints of fights and artillery fire. Some of our friends didn’t survive.”
Mr Bass was 23 during his service and endured an intense, turmoil-filled six months.
He said: “We will always remember this because it was a definitive time of our life, not only for our own personal experiences, but also for the world.
“We had a mission which brought us to Conington. It was never a question of whether we would win the war, it was when.”
And he remembers Peterborough as a longed-for escape from the harsh realities of base life.
He said: “We were the closest base to Peterborough. I remember Bridge Street, Long Causeway and Broadway, which had a couple of theatres and the Bull Hotel. It was much smaller back then, but it is not a lot different to today. “We looked forward to going there.” The reunions hold a special place in the heart of the veterans and former servicemen, including Mr Bass, have tried to attend every one.
He said: “We always look forward to the reunions. I hope to come back again but don’t know how many more I’ll be able to make, although I am still active.”
Granddaughter Emily (15) said her grandfather was her hero. She said: “What he did was incredible. He served his country well and is the reason we are here today. It’s important to remember what they did. “I’m very proud of him, he’s one of my heroes.”
The 457th bomb group flew from February 1944 to April 1945 on 237 missions.
In total, 790 of the 2,000 American servicemen based at Conington Airbase during the Second World War were killed in action.
A memorial to the fallen was erected beside Conington Airbase in 2004, with 50 veterans attending the ceremony.
There is also a pilot’s bust, dubbed the “stone airman”, which stands in Conington churchyard with the inscription, “watching, waiting; dedicated to those who did not return”.
MEMORIES: Mayor Keith Sharp (centre) examines a painting of a B17 bomber in the Mayor’s Parlour with veterans John Pearson, James Bass, Will Fluman and Bill Siler.
Veteran Will Fluman (second left) is pictured with a crew from the 457th Bomb Group at Conington airfield next to a wrecked aircraft. RETURN: Veteran Don Osborne who was based at Conington, and (inset top) in wartime uniform.