Bomber brings back WWII memories for Nipomo man

High winds sweeping along the Santa Maria Public Airport runway couldn’t keep 88-year-old Joel Johnson from crossing the tarmac for an up-close look at a restored B-17 parked outside the Radisson hotel Tuesday.  A 10-year Nipomo resident, Johnson fought back tears as he examined the World War II bomber nicknamed Aluminum Overcast.  “Strange. Strange,” he said later of the emotions he felt but couldn’t describe as memories of his 30 B-17 missions against Germany came flooding back.

Aluminum Overcast is owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association of Oshkosh, Wis., and it was at the Santa Maria Airport for flights and on-ground public tours Tuesday and Wednesday as part of the EAA’s “Salute to Veterans Tour.”

After hearing it would be visiting, Johnson’s friend and Blacklake neighbor Dennis Bryan decided to drive him down to see the plane .

“The first time I got in (a B-17), the wing looked so long,” Johnson said. “Now, it doesn’t look like anything, compared to what they build today. But it was a great airplane. It could take a lot of damage.”  Johnson should know. On six of his 30 missions as a co-pilot in 1944 and ’45, his B-17 returned with damage — an engine knocked out or full of holes from flak.

On his third mission, his plane had an anti-aircraft shell go through a lead wing, injuring the navigator and flight engineer, knocking out the superchargers and preventing the crew from dropping 17 of their 20 bombs.

But the worst damage came on Johnson’s 23rd mission — to bomb an aspirin factory in Bitterfield, Germany, on March 17, 1945.  Despite heavy weather, the B-17s bombed their target in an uneventful raid, and Johnson said they “settled down for the cruise home.”

“Suddenly, there was a B-17 right there,” he said, gesturing forward. “It just hit us. I don’t know where it came from. There was nothing we could do.”  The No. 3 and 4 engines on Johnson’s plane cut the other B-17 in two.  “We flew together for a while, then he dropped away,” he recalled. “It happened so fast, we really didn’t feel anything.”

The nose of Johnson’s plane was demolished. The nose gunner was pinned to the ceiling, and the navigator was left hanging halfway out of the plane with no parachute, but he managed to pull himself back in, Johnson said.

After the uninjured nose gunner was extricated and moved back to the waist guns, Johnson sent the navigator back down to check out the nose.  “He came back and said, ‘There’s a body on my navigation table,’” Johnson said. “That was kind of eerie. I’d checked everyone on the plane. I knew then that we’d picked someone up.”  The body turned out to be the radio operator from the other B-17.

Propellers on both the No. 3 and 4 nine-cylinder radial engines were bent. Although the No. 3 engine was out, it was windmilling, and together the props were creating so much vibration that Johnson was afraid the wing would fall off.  “The tail gunner wanted to bail out,” he said. “The navigator couldn’t function — he was half crazy.”

Johnson managed to feather the No. 3 props and throttle back the No. 4 engine to reduce the vibration. But with some of the instruments out, the odds of getting home were slim.

They were sending out a “mayday” when “another miracle happened,” Johnson said. A P-47 suddenly appeared, and its pilot guided them to a base the U.S. had recently captured in Holland.  “He swept the runway for us,” Johnson said. “We had one shot for a landing. We had no airspeed indicator, and we only had two engines.”  Despite the heavy damage, the plane landed safely, and all the crew survived. But the incident has haunted Johnson all these years.

During his visit to the Aluminum Overcast last week, he bought two detailed B-17 model kits he hopes to use to re-create the collision.  “I want to figure out what happened,” he said.

Posted in Local, Santa Maria Times on Monday, May 2, 2011