Mention All-American in Tuscaloosa or the remotest corner of Alabama and you'll hear names like running back Eddie Lacy or quarterback A.J. McCarron, two of the numerous young athletes instrumental in the Crimson Tide's most recent National Championship. Another young athlete, by every definition an All-American and 23 years old at the time, flew into aviation history on Feb. 1, 1943 as pilot of the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber named All-American.
Lt. Kendrick "Sonny" Bragg was born and raised in Savannah. An outstanding athlete, after graduating from Savannah High School, he attended Duke University and played in the 1938 Rose Bowl. Bragg later attended the University of Miami on a diving scholarship. His athletic prowess, leadership proficiency and coolness under pressure would serve him well in World War II and save the lives of his crew, with a little help from another All American.
As members of the 414th Squadron, 97 Bomb Group, Lt. Bragg and his crew were en route to bomb the Tunis dock area on Feb. 1, 1943 aboard the B-17 All American, when a German fighter (the pilot either wounded or dead) sliced through the rear of the B-17's fuselage. Almost cut in half, All American shuttered and recoiled but somehow continued to fly without a left horizontal stabilizer or left elevator, both completely torn away.
The tail gunner, Sam Sarpolus, could not escape because the floor connecting his position to the rest of the bomber had been blown away. An open slice along the top of the bomber was 16 feet long and four feet wide at one section, the electrical system and oxygen system severely damaged, and all the control cables had been severed except for a single elevator cable. The tail section twisted and bobbed and swayed like a fishing cork in the strong wind.
Tail gunner Sarpolus, and two waist gunners used their parachute harnesses and even parts of the German fighter to bind and hopefully hold the fuselage in one piece. When Sarpolus tried to leave the tail section with the help of the two waist gunners the fuselage started splitting apart. Without further ado, Sarpolus withdrew to the tail gunner's position to stabilize the fuselage and await his fate.
Another All-American, Lt. Bragg, fought the controls while continuing the mission with the two right engines out and one of the left engines leaking oil. Other B-17 crews saw the damage to All American and wondered how she was still airborne. Many took photographs of the broken Flying Fortress as she approached the target area and her bombardier opened the bomb bay doors.
The wind turbulence blowing up and through the open bomb bay doors was so fierce it blew a waist gunner into the damaged tail section. It took four of the crew tossing him ropes from parachutes to pull him to safety.
Bombs away! Their mission done, Lt. Bragg gently turned All American for home, a turn that covered 70 miles to keep the tail from breaking off. They were alone, a crippled B-17 in enemy skies, losing altitude and precious speed. Suddenly, in the distance, two Me109 German fighters were sweeping in for an attack.
The All American had come too far to give up now. Every machine gun responded to the attacking fighters. The waist gunners, their heads stuck through the hole in the top of the fuselage, fired at the attacking Germans. The tail gunner joined the fray, but only fired in short bursts because the recoil from his .50 calibers actually caused the bomber to turn. Either out of respect or frustration, the Me109s gave up the fight and abandoned All-American to her destiny.
American P-51 Mustang fighters finally arrived to escort All American back to her base, but upon seeing the extensive damage hand-signaled (the B-17's radio had been knocked out) for the crew to bail out. Having used their parachute cords to virtually ‘tie' the fuselage back together, the crew of All American no longer had a bail out option. Lt. Bragg was bringing her home.
The All-American boy from Savannah lined up All American with the runway from 40 miles out as the P-51 Mustangs watched the tail section flutter like a fish out of water. It had been 2.5 hours since the German fighter sliced through the fuselage of the Flying Fortress Everyone knew she would break apart upon landing.
Lt. Bragg descended into an emergency landing, the crippled bomber touched the runway and ambulances rushed to the scene. The good thing was All American was still intact; her crew exiting the fuselage, tail gunner Sarpolus scaling down a ladder and not one crew member was injured. The ambulances were waved off, not needed.
Once her crew was home unharmed, All American's whole tail section collapsed onto the ground. The tough war bird had done her job.
Incredibly, Boeing B-17F-5-BO (S/N 41-24406) the "All-American" was repaired and returned to combat with the 353rd Bomb Squadron, 301st Bomb Group. She survived the war.
The other All-American, Lt. Bragg survived the war, attended and graduated from Princeton University with a degree in architecture which he practiced for 30 years in New Jersey, Puerto Rico, but for the most part, in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. He died at Duke University Hospital in 1999. Bragg's unbelievable exploit in World War II is said to have inspired the famous song "On a Wing and a Prayer."
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website aveteransstory.us.