Pilot Wally Paton (second row, second from left) with his crew in front of the B-17
“Pilot Wally Paton never gave the order to bail out, despite the condition of his B-17 on May 11, 1944. The day began with orders to bomb a ball bearing plant in Saarbrucken, Germany. The day ended with a kiss on the airfield at Molesworth, England, and a shot of scotch. In between the ten airmen who did their job on a plane called ‘Knock-out Dropper’ straddled the thin line between life and death for some ten hours. ‘That was the toughest mission we ever flew,’ said Paton, a first lieutenant in the 359th Bomber Squadron, 303rd Bomber Group….’There was a whole squadron of crippled airplanes flying back to the base that day. The subject of bailing never came up. No one was injured and no one wanted to be caught in enemy territory. All we wanted was to get home after a successful mission…’” excerpt from Journey Home – Nogales International Times interview with Wally Paton
Last May, some 73 years after my dad flew that harrowing mission over Germany, the B-17 flew into Sikorsky Airport, about 20 minutes from my home. The plane was traveling around the country providing tours and rides. When I heard on my local news that May 31st would be her last day here, I dropped everything and headed for Sikorsky. Pulling into the parking lot, I was awestruck. I hadn’t imagined her that big.
B-17 at Sikorsky Airport, May 31, 2017
With a shiny steel exterior, a massive wing span sporting four monster engines, and gun turrets back, front and under, she is well nicknamed – “the flying fortress.” Clouds moved in while we were there, so pilots were delaying passenger rides until the sky cleared. I never got to ride in her, but I did get an extensive tour of the inside and outside of the plane and by chance got to talk to a Veteran who had flown the B-17’s.
Gun inside the B-17
I had been there perhaps an hour when the WWII veteran made an unexpected appearance. People gathered around him like he was a celebrity, wanting to hear a story or just catch a word with one of the “greatest generation.” I waited my turn as I wanted to spend a little time with this hero having just written about my Dad’s experiences as a pilot in WWII for my book, Journey Home. Finally, it was my turn to have his full attention. He pointed out where the bombs were housed – he related a story about the time the bombs got stuck and they had to go in there and manually push them. He talked about enemy fire and bullet holes in the plane and friends he had lost in battle.
I had an opportunity to talk to a WWII veteran who flew the B-17’s, just like Dad
When I got home, I wrote my brother, George, about the experience. It had been an exciting and deeply emotional day and I wanted to share it with him. He wrote back his own story about his fondest memory of the B-17.
“In the 1990’s the Owl’s Head (Maine) airport was putting on a air show and was going to have three WWII planes on hand, one being the B-17. I couldn’t pass that up. I went up there with my rather large video camera of the era. It was Friday afternoon and a small crowd was waiting for the three planes to fly in. The first was a small fighter (P-38, I think) – I filmed it landing. Then a CD-3 (small cargo plane) did the same. Then it came, hearing it first, then looking up – a B-17 – overhead. It flew down past the end of the runway, banked hard making a 180 turn and approached the runway. During the hard turn I could see the distinctive profile of the wings with all four engines. It landed and taxied right up to me with all four engines firing away and then shut down, the propellers slowly stopped. I filmed it all. I got to go on board and was surprised at how cramped the interior is. I squeezed past into the pilot’s seat and tried to imagine Dad sitting there with his co-pilot inches away. The gun turret was directly overhead and the navigation compartment right below. I squeezed through the bomb bay area and out to the tail – each area having defensive gun turrets along the way.
Pilot and co-pilot seats – B-17
During my next visit to Patagonia, I told Dad I had a surprise for him. I sat him and Mom down and played the video on the TV. I said there were a few vintage planes on the film and I wanted to see if he could identify them. First the fighter appears and he remembered flying alongside many of them during the first part of his missions. The CD-3 was next and he remembered seeing a lot of those back then delivering parts and soldiers. He talked about it for a few minutes as I paused the film. I proceeded and then the B-17 came into view and he said ‘Oh my God, it’s a 17’ and he couldn’t take his eyes off the screen. ‘It’s been a long time since I have seen one of those in the air,’ he said. You could tell he was really moved seeing one of those iron birds still flying. It landed and taxied right up to him, shut down the engines and then the plane sat there in silence, as did Dad. I told him how I had filmed it. He didn’t say much at first – just looked and remembered what those days during the war were like seeing scores of the 17’s coming and going. He was surprised and pleased to see what once was the aircraft he flew 31 bombing missions in and had somehow survived it all, which many didn’t.” – George Paton
A young man named Rishi Sharma, just 19 years old, is currently traveling around the country interviewing surviving WWII veterans. His mission – to interview all those vets who are still with us before their story is lost forever. My Dad will not be among those this young man interviews – he passed away in 2001. Fortunately for our family, my dad was interviewed in 2000 by Dr. Robert Whitcomb, a research entomologist who had retired to the Patagonia, Arizona area and enjoyed interviewing and writing about WWII veterans. We have the taped interviews and manuscript. Both Dr. Whitcomb and my Dad passed away before the manuscript reached final form, but his wife Judith offered to share the tapes with the family. What an incredible gift to hear my dad’s voice talking about his war experiences.
As we honor today, Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2017, the men and women who sacrificed so much for our freedom, I am reminded of these special memories of my dad as well as the “simple act of kindness” of Judith Whitcomb in sharing his story with us. Many of those who served were just 19 and 20 years old at the time – one day graduating from high school and just a few months later sitting in a bomber risking everything to protect our country.
“I’m glad I participated in the War,” Paton said. “I don’t feel like I did anything extraordinary. I did my job like every other American.” – Wally Paton, Nogales International Times
Dad earned four Oak Leaf Clusters, a Distinguished Flying Cross and two combat ribbons.
Pretty extraordinary, I’d say.
“She was a great plane, Paton said with a smile. Everyone depended on her to get us through every battle and she did.” Wally Paton, Nogales International Times
Ball Gunner Turret – gunner was protected only by glass in a very cramped space
Back of B-17 with Gunner Turret
Pilot’s check List – B-17