During WWII, the two bombers that carried the load in European air war for the Americans were the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. In my latest work-in-progress I am trying to decide which airplane my hero/navigator would have flown. My first thought was to use the B-17 since it seemed more glamorous, but with more research about both planes, I found that the Liberator was quite a plane, too. After all, Jimmy Stewart flew the B-24. How’s that for glamor?
Almost everyone has heard of the iconic B-17. When we think of bombers of that era, images come to mind of planes shot full of holes, with sections blown off and engines not functioning, yet landing safely on air fields in England. Those images are usually of B-17’s. Its crews loved the Flying Fortress because it took lots of damage and still brought them home.
Anyone remember the Memphis Belle? It was the first bomber that finished the required 25 missions in 1943. (Mission requirements were increased to 30 and then to 35 in 1944) Major William Wyler, the famous director and movie maker, as part of the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces, directed a film depicting the final flight of the Memphis Belle. The footage became the documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.” As a morale booster for the Army and the folks back home, the crew, the plane and the movie toured the US selling war bonds and recruiting flyers for the Army Air Force. In 1990, Hollywood made a movie about that last flight, “The Memphis Belle.” Both films depict the lives of bomber crews in WWII and are well worth seeing.
But what about the B-24 Liberator? In researching accounts of WWII bomber crew members, I discovered that Jimmy Stewart (Yes! the movie star) flew combat missions over Europe in B-24’s. Starr Smith wrote in “Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot”about Jimmy enlisting before the war even started. He earned his wings and became an instructor flying B-17’s. Apparently the military feared Stewart would be harmed if sent overseas, which frustrated Stewart. Finally in 1943 his wish for combat duty came true with his assignment to the 445th Bomber Group, part of the Eighth Air Force. He quickly learned to fly the B-24 and within months received orders for England. Captain Stewart commanded the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomber Group and regularly flew combat missions. Promoted to Major and transferred to the 453rd Bomber Group as Operations Officer, Stewart continued to fly combat missions, including flying on D-Day (June 6, 1944). In July 1944, Lt. Colonel Stewart’s transfer to Second Combat Wing Headquarters severely limited his combat flying. In his twenty-three months overseas, Stewart flew 20 combat missions over Europe, all in B-24 Liberators.
Data for a head to head comparison of the B-17 and the B-24 can be found on several websites for anyone who likes statistics. One interesting difference I found was that the B-17 was slower than the B-24. The difference in speed meant that the two bombers could not fly in the same formations, although they were often sent on the same missions. But the B-17 could fly at higher altitudes. There is no doubt that the Flying Fortress crews and the Liberator crews each believed their plane the best and maintained an ongoing, good-natured rivalry.
Some believe that the B-17 got better press during the war and many thought it a better looking plane. It is definitely the one most people associate with WWII.
So, which plane will I use in my book? I haven’t decided. But I’m leaning toward the B-24 because it’s less known and because I have found some good books to use as reference material. Among them are: “A Reason To Live” by John Harold Robinson who flew as a gunner and engineer on a B-24; “Lucky Penny’s Tail” by Gregory J. Matenkoski recounting the story of Edmund Survilla, a tail gunner on a B-24; and “Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot” by Starr Smith.
For additional research, I plan to travel to Savannah, Georgia, to visit the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum sometime in the near future. This museum should give me additional details and insight into the WWII air war. Wouldn’t I love to take a ride on one of those old planes? I’m watching for an opportunity.