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Found: That B-17 Tail Gunner Story

Illustration for article titled Found: That B-17 Tail Gunner Story
Illustration: Bob Stevens (Air Force Magazine, April 1989)

This excerpt hails from Bob Stevens’ “There I was...”, published in the April 1989 issue of Air Force Magazine:

Battle damage is part and parcel of any air war. We go back to “The Big One” for these stories. It’s not that we’re old fashioned; ghastly new weaponry has made these stories e.g. there are not many crew members from later wars walking around and talking about taking a SAM up the tailpipe!


The hairiest flak story has to be the tail gunner who -trapped in the severed tail- “flew”, ala falling leaf, 20,000 ft. to the deck!

(various sources say he landed in a tree, others -a snowbank) -The point is: he lived!


It turns out that I still have an old stack of Air Force mags. It’s not much of a collection, but an assortment of about 40 issues, with dates ranging from 1985-1995. Dunno why these never got thrown out, but man there’s some cool stuff here.

Almost every issue includes Bob Stevens’ “There I Was...” on the last page, and this one was no exception. It was in rough shape though, with the cover and the first/last few pages falling off. Dog-ears and tears all over, too.


(EDIT: Kinja’s slideshow feature appears to be broken. Here are links to images 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, & 7. Jump to #6 for the tail gunner story.)


Details of the incident are sparse here, and it turns out the part about the tail being “shot off” must have been fabricated by my own mind trying to fill in the blanks. Apparently it didn’t fly like a glider per se, but more like a “falling leaf”, which is consistent with the suspicions we were having about its aerodynamics.

There’s also a note that some sources (none of which are cited) disagree over whether the gunner landed in a tree or snowbank. Perhaps there was some confusion between this tale and the story of Nicholas Alkemade, whose fall was softened by both tree branches AND a snowdrift.


I was also starting to question whether the tail pictured was even supposed to be a B-17 at all. That is, until I received this reply from Curly on yesterday’s post:


Armed with new search terms, I came upon more sources, corroborating the tale. Here are some links:

James Raley - WWII Serviceman - 301BG - 353 Squadron

B-17 Flying Fortress Units of the MTO

Bombing Europe: The Illustrated Exploits of the Fifteenth Air Force

And this book, “the unabridged true story Raley wrote in in 1945 from notes he kept in his journal.”! (Thanks O.C.!)


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