Last of the B-17 boys

Five US vet­er­ans of the 457th Bomb Group re­turned to the city for a re­union

The Peterborough Evening Telegraph - - Your Telegraph - By ASHA ME­HTA asha.me­hta@pe­ter­bor­oughto­day.co.uk

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”.

Pic­tures: BEN DAVIS

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.

(METP-01-06-10BD109)

MIS­SIONS:

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.

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