On Dec. 7, 1941, Floridian Jim Armstrong listened to the radio with his classmates on the second floor of Harrison Hall at Georgia Tech. As the disaster at Pearl Harbor unfolded, sophomore Armstrong realized his books would soon be exchanged for bullets and bombs.
Easy going and friendly, Jim Armstrong introduced himself on the Sept. 22, Honor Flight from Conyers. When I asked about his experiences in World War II, Jim calmly said, "I flew a B-17." A few weeks later, l learned that Jim Armstrong flew and survived the most dreadful bombing missions flown by the 8th Air Force over Nazi Germany.
When he returned home to Florida, Armstrong attempted to join the Civil Air Patrol. "They said I had high blood pressure, so I got turned down," he said, shrugging his shoulders. Ironically, Armstrong took and passed the Army Air Corps physical at McDill Field in Tampa. "Go figure," he said with a smile.
The ROTC curriculum at Georgia Tech had prepared Armstrong for the basics of military life, so Army indoctrination at Craig Field in Selma, Ala. proved to be a cake walk. "After that, the cake walk got a lot harder," he said.
Training stops along the way:
•Lakeland, Fla.: Barnstormers taught Armstrong stalls, spins, landings and takeoffs in the venerable Stearman PT-17 bi-plane. A natural, Armstrong soloed after five hours of instruction.
•Bainbridge, Ga. in Aug. '42: Armstrong mastered the all-metal more powerful Vultee BT-13 Valiant, one of the most outstanding trainers of World War II.
•Columbus, Miss.: advanced training on twin-engine aircraft, like the AT-17, A-10, and AT-9. Armstrong needed the training.
•Hendricks Field in Sebring, Fla.: an introduction to the legendary four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress.
"The B-17 was a great bomber, easy to fly and easy to land," Armstrong recalled. "But God blesses small children and cocky pilots. My mom lived in Bradenton, just south of Tampa, so one day I buzzed her house with my instructor aboard. She was outside waving and very proud of her pilot son." When asked at what altitude he buzzed his mother's home, Armstrong said, "Well, we clipped a few Australian Pines, if that answers your question. It scared my instructor to death, but we didn't get in trouble."
•Salt Lake City, Utah: bombing practice.
•Boise, Idaho: picked up his new crew.
•Walla Walla, Wash.: additional bombing techniques. Armstrong: "One of the instructors was Jimmy Stewart, the actor. He was a good pilot."
Time for war: En route stops at Salina, Rapid City, Detroit, Bangor, Goose Bay, Greenland and finally across the pond to Jolly Old England. His assignment: 8th Air Force, the 547th Squadron, 303 Main Group at Grafton Underwood in Northamptonshire.
Armstrong and crew received ground training from the Royal Air Force on German air tactics. They flew a few ‘Milk runs,' easy missions with P-47 fighters as escort. Then the morning came for the first ‘Big One' - their target: Hamburg, Germany.
Troubles began immediately. "We had a load of incendiaries and I kept watching our lead plane as we approached our target, the foundries by the wharfs around Hamburg," Armstrong said. "When the lead plane opened its bomb bay doors, we were supposed to open ours. Well, ours didn't open. I yelled at our bombardier over the intercom to force them open, but they wouldn't budge. I didn't want to return to England with a bomb bay full of incendiaries; it's just too dangerous to l
and that way, so I pulled the Red Ball."
The ‘Red Ball' is on the left of the pilot's seat. In case of emergency, a B-17 pilot can release the bomb load. Armstrong said, "After I pulled the Red Ball, the load dropped and their weight knocked the bomb bay doors opened." Armstrong shook his head. "If Hitler could have seen the destruction at Hamburg, he may have stopped the war, but I guess he was still hiding in Berlin."
The B-17s approached Hamburg stacked three-high, the low flight, middle flight and the high flight. Armstrong recalled the losses, "We lost every B-17 in the low flight. We were still losing planes en route home over the North Sea and I was worried about the bomb bay doors stuck open. I screamed at the bombardier to put some screws back in the door; he screamed back, ‘You put the damn screws in!' We eventually made it home OK."
On one mission over the Ruhr Valley, Armstrong's flight bombed from 30,000 feet which is near the max ceiling for a B-17. "The altitude didn't help," he said. "The German fighters still pounced on us. We lost a lot of planes to fighters, and the un-Godly flak over the Ruhr."
On what it felt like to be under fighter attack: "The pilot had to stay focused on the mission. We flew tight formations and collisions were a real possibility. The German fighters liked the head-on approach. Sometimes as many as six fighters would line up and come straight at our formation and we could only pray they didn't line up on us. Our only protection was the top turret. Chin turrets were installed on later model B-17s. We flew later missions real low to see if a change in tactics would help; it didn't, our groups still got shot to pieces. You prayed a lot, I remember that."
Armstrong and crew flew into history on Aug. 17, '43, on the first raid to aircraft factories at Regensburg and the massive ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. The 8th Air Force paid a steep price for the raid - 60 B-17s with their 10 man crews.
"It was a disaster," Armstrong said. "They had planned a two-prong attack with one flight going on to Africa instead of returning to England. Well, there were no repair facilities in Africa. Curtis LeMay led that group. Our group lost five B-17s, one was ablaze right above us but we couldn't break formation. A German fighter chewed us up after the bomb run, strafing one engine and the side of the plane. Chunks of metal flew off our B-17. I had to feather the prop but we made it home on three engines. We lost a lot of people that day, a whole lot."
Sept. 6, 1943 over Stuttgart, Germany: 338 B-17s bomb Stuttgart; at least 45 B-17s and crews are lost. Not one bomb hit the target. Messerschmidt 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 fighters ambushed Armstrong's B-17 after the disastrous bombing run. "They raked us over pretty good," Armstrong said. "I tried to reach cloud-cover but we didn't quite make it."
A raging fire behind the pilot's seat singes Armstrong's hair and burns his hands and face. A waist gunner lies in a pool of his own blood from a round through his right temple and right eyeball. The top turret gunner tries to aid the waist gunner but dies instantly from a round through his head as the German fighters swarm like an angry hive of killer bees.
On fire and trailing smoke, with dead and wounded still aboard, Armstrong's B-17 is going down in enemy territory.
To be continued next week.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, freelance writer and columnist. You can contact him at email@example.com.