As in life, there are miracles in war. Jim Armstrong’s exploits as a B-17 pilot speak volumes about amazing survival, but one of his waist gunners, Olen Grant, lived to tell a story beyond belief.
Sept. 6, 1943 – Stuttgart, Germany: Of 338 B-17s that bomb Stuttgart that day, at least 45 Flying Fortresses and their crews are lost. Not one bomb hit the intended target.
German fighters ambush Jim Armstrong and his crew immediately after the disastrous bombing run.
“They shot us to pieces,” he said. “I tried to reach cloud cover, but we didn’t quite make it.”
Fire erupts behind the pilot’s seat. Armstrong’s hair is singed, his face and hands burned. Waist gunner Olen Grant takes a round in his right temple that exits through his right eyeball. Attempting to aid Grant, the top turret gunner dies instantly from a round through his head.
As the German fighters press the attack, Pilot Armstrong knows the B-17 is doomed. He orders ‘‘hit the silk’’ over German-occupied France.
For better chances of survival, Armstrong ”trims” the heavy bomber for level flight, then parachutes from the Fortress. In the confusion, two flyboys are left aboard the B-17: the dead top turret gunner and waist gunner Grant.
Armstrong recalled, “We were already dangerously low, so I was able to watch the bomber glide down. It never banked or nosedived; it stayed level as if landing itself. I couldn’t believe it. She made a perfect belly-landing, wheels up, in a sugar beet field all by her lonesome.”
The sugar beet field was next to an airfield near the town of Etrepagny in Normandy. The Germans dispatched troops and a French ambulance to the scene, thinking an American pilot had crash-landed the B-17, which meant possible survivors were aboard, and more importantly, feasible intelligence material.
French firemen extinguished the flames, and the Germans searched for survivors. Olen Grant was still alive. Helped to his feet, Grant walked out of the B-17 under his own power into the waiting ambulance. Bleeding profusely, his right eyeball dangling on his right cheek, Grant was taken to a local hospital, stabilized, then ferried to a German Air Force (Luftwaffe) hospital in Paris.
His right eye could not be saved, but Grant made a complete recovery and eventually came home in a prisoner swap. He now resides in Hot Springs, Ark.
Armstrong’s own odyssey is worthy of a book. Initially fed and hidden by French villagers, Armstrong later walked undetected for 50 miles in the direction of Paris. One family (ironically Russians) gave Armstrong milk, butter, a change of clothes, an apple and a satchel of food.
Eventually found and safeguarded by the French Resistance, Armstrong was taken to the coastal town Douarnenez and joined 31 other airmen for a boat ride back to England.
Armstrong stated, “I’ll always be grateful to the French people. Many paid with their lives to help Allied airmen.”
Armstrong retired several years ago after a long career as a Presbyterian minister.