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The Homefront, Then and Now

Against All Odds

The wounded All-American and crewmen
The name stenciled on the front of the fuselage of the B-17 read "All-American, " but it was the rear of fuselage that became famous, because it was sliced nearly off by a damaged German Messerschmidt as it fell to earth. Why it didn't take the B-17 with it is astill a puzzle and a wonder today.

It was February 1, 1943. LT. Kendrick R. Bragg's plane, part of the 414th Bomb Squadron, shuddered at the impact, and the fighter broke into pieces, most of which kept falling. Some parts remained in the bomber. With the B-17's tail bouncing and swaying, Bragg fought for control as the crew used their parachute harnesses and parts of the German fighter to tie the plane together. They were without two engines, and the radios, electrical and oxygen systems were damaged. All control cables were torn away except for one single elevator cable. But they were still in the air, and Bragg continued on his bomb run over the docks of Tunis, North Africa, and released his load over the target.

But the open bomb bay doors funneled the wind through the plane to the 16 X 4- foot gash cut above and behind them. It took one of the waist gunners with it, hurling him over the hole in the plane's floor into the broken tail section, where the tail gunner was already trapped.

Four crew members spent several desperate minutes rigging ropes from parachutes and pulled the gunner back into the front part of the plane. But when they tried the same with the tail gunner, the tail flapped so hard it began to break off. His weight evidently was stabilizing the tail, so he had to stay where he was, hanging on for dear life.

Negotiating a very wide, slow turn, the pilot headed back toward Britain. Loosing altitude and speed, the bomber was attacked by two more German fighters. The gunners, two of them standing with their heads exposed through the crack, managed to drive them off. Allied P-51s met the All-American over the English channel and one of them, incredulous that it was still aloft, took a photo. They predicted a crash was imminent and requested boats be launched to pick up crewmen who parachuted.

But five parachutes were not available -- they were holding the plane together. Bragg decided since they could not all parachute, he would take the plane on in. Two and a half hours after being hit, he did just that. He waved off the ambulance that approached; they all climbed out uninjured. The tail gunner was last down the ladder and as he hit the ground so did the rear of the aircraft. Having survived the worst the Germans could throw at it, the wounded plane quickly became the target of camera lenses.

Its crew were left with an unforgettable memory and several incredible photos, one showed the plane, bearing its terrible gash, still aloft over the Channel. Navigator Harry C Nuessle sent it to his wife, labeled "Damage Courtesy of Willie Messerschmidt. R.I.P."  Read More 
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Memories on display
My book release party last March seemed to stir coals of memory to life, making them glow again. After my presentation and reading were over, my friends and colleagues who remembered the years of World War II wanted to talk about those sometimes traumatic, sometimes funny, always memorable times.

Topics popped up. Food rationing. How butter disappeared and we were able to buy only lard, a totally unappetizing stark-white lump you dropped in a mixing bowl. The unfortunate person (usually a child who had spent an unaccustomed amount of time with a bar of soap) given the chore of turning it into "butter" then squeezed a capsule of garishly orange food coloring and dribbled its startling contents onto the white blob.

What followed had, unfortunately, to be hands-on. Small, reluctant fingers squishing unceremoniously through greasy lard, over and over and over, trying to convince the lard it was destined to be sunny yellow. To encourage the dye to change from drips of dark reddish orange to streaks of lighter orange. And I do mean streaks. No matter how many times I squished the repulsive stuff through my hands the two products refused to blend. Separate but equal was their mantra. Eventually, when the heat of my hands threatened to liquify the whole pound, mother let me give up the futile struggle, but the plate of "butter" I carried to the table (after another interminable bout with the soap) fooled no one. We had another thing to hold against Hitler and Tojo.

People talked about scrap metal drives. How we had all scoured our basements and cupboards and closets for any kind of metal that could be made into armaments. How youth organizations spent Saturdays once a month walking their neighborhoods pulling red wagons they piled with each household's tin cans - washed, ends cut out and labels removed, flattened with a stomp and put out in a paper sack on the front porch. How we carefully peeled the tin foil from each stick of gum's wrapper and rolled it onto our ball of foil saved to donate to the cause. How towns pulled Civil War canons from their place of honor in the town square and shipped them away to be made into modern guns.

Old cars - railroad engines - toy trucks - bicycles - all were welcome. One party attendee remembered how, in a burst of super patriotism, he had donated his sister's bicycle to the scrap drive. His mother was not impressed with his sacrifice. How we all sacrificed time to the 35-mile-per-hour Victory Speed Limit. How we did without zippers, bobby pins and safety pins.

I remember how, the afternoon of my book release party, people lingered, talking, remembering, sharing stories and experiences. That why I decided to start this blog. I'll talk about those war days, try to bring out some interesting facts, and recognize that even today there are repercussions, continuations and parallels of that intense time.

I hope you'll "tune in," as we did in those days to "Your Hit Parade," to see what's on top this time, and perhaps, share some of your own memories. Read More 
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