Mary Dodge Allen

Pursuing a lifelong love of writing.

Gordon's B-17 Bomber Flight - 2015

 Uncle Gordon's 36th B-17 Mission:



    It had been over 70 years since my Uncle Gordon, a WWII pilot, flew his last mission in a B-17 bomber. On the second Sunday in February, the last day of the Wings of Freedom Tour at the Venice airport, this veteran of 35 bombing missions over Germany completed his 36th mission in the restored B-17 bomber, Nine O Nine. On this flight, Gordon didn’t have to face deadly explosions of German antiaircraft fire, known as flak, or machine gun fire from German ME 109 fighter planes. The only ones shooting at him were family members, who took several photos of him during the flight.


    Uncle Gordon, 94, was the last surviving member of his ten-man B-17 flight crew. They flew in the 709th Squadron of the 447th Bomb Group, in the U. S. ‘Mighty’ Eighth Air Force, and were stationed at Rattlesden airfield, near the small town of Bury St Edmunds, northeast of London. At the time they flew, from November, 1944 to March, 1945, the required tour of duty had been raised from 25 to 35 bombing missions because of the shortage of trained crews. One-third of all B-17 crews did not survive a full tour of this hazardous duty, even though the four-engine bomber, nicknamed the Flying Fortress, was heavily armed with a dozen .50 caliber machine guns.


    After the war, Gordon worked as an air traffic controller until his retirement in the 1970s. He was part of the first group of controllers who opened the towers at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, the Miami Airport, and the airports in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Alaska. He also served with the Air Force Reserve until 1955, working as a part-time flight instructor, and retiring with the rank of Captain.


    As soon as word got around the air show that a former WWII B-17 pilot was about to fly in the Nine O Nine, a crowd surrounded Uncle Gordon. Many of them shook his hand to thank him for his service and asked if they could have their pictures taken with him. Others asked him about his WWII experiences. He told them that he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942, a few months after Pearl Harbor. “I knew I would be drafted,” he said. “And if I had to serve, I wanted to be a pilot. I remember, as a boy, looking up whenever a plane flew overhead and wishing I was inside it, looking down.”


    He was able to explain the tactics of ME 109 fighters, who attacked the B-17 formations head on. They would dive, guns blazing, and then they would flip almost upside down to expose their heavily-armored undersides, which could better withstand the .50 caliber fire delivered by the B-17 gunners. Gordon said that the Flying Fortress was a rugged plane. Often, his plane made it back to base with numerous flak holes in the fuselage, and a few times with only two of its four engines operational.


    Uncle Gordon boarded the Nine O Nine and sat in the chair that would have been occupied by the crew’s radio operator. As the plane’s four powerful engines roared to life, he straightened up. His blue eyes took on a faraway look, as if he was reliving memories of his previous missions, flown so long ago. During the 30-minute flight, he often leaned forward to look through the bomb bay at the cockpit. When the B-17 touched down again, Gordon smiled and gave me a thumbs up. This Captain’s 36th mission:  successfully completed.