Aviation History: January 2000 Letters | HistoryNet

Aviation History: January 2000 Letters

9/23/2000 • Aviation History Archives

Biplane Oversight

In the “Enduring Heritage” article in the July 1999 issue, the author describes the Boeing Model 226/P-26A Peashooter as the only fighter built by Boeing. That is not true. It was the only monoplane fighter, and the last fighter. But before that there was a long series of biplane fighters built by Boeing, such as the PW-9, FB-1, FB-2, FB-3, FB-4, FB-5 and the P-12. Let’s not overlook them.

John A. Niemeyer
Eagle Point, Ore.


Twelve O’Clock High

I am writing regarding the excellent article by Chuck Dunning, “Twelve O’Clock High: Fact to Fiction,” in the September 1999 issue. In the middle 1970s my late wife, Elaine Jones, and I were the house guests of Grover Loening at his estate in Key Biscayne, Fla. General Ira Eaker and his wife were house guests during that same weekend.

I had occasion to spend quite a bit of time with General Eaker, and he told me the true story of Twelve O’Clock High. I believe he said that the colonel who he had had to relieve of command was his brother-in-law, and that he knew that it was going to wreck his career. He acknowledged that a number of the characters in the film were composites, but he filled in many of the blanks and told me what happened to some of these people after the period covered in the movie. When he had finished, I remarked to him that I was amazed Hollywood had gotten it so right, and he said “that was no accident–I was the technical director of the movie, and could yeasay or naysay every word of it!”

Nick Jones
Sheldon, S.C.


The author responds: Eaker’s relationship with Colonel Overacker, both prior to and after Overacker’s relief as commanding officer of the 306th Bomb Group, is covered with some detail in DeWitt Copp’s book Forged in Fire: Strategy and Decisions in the Air War over Europe, 1940­1945. According to Copp, Eaker was not Overacker’s brother-in-law, but their wives were close friends and the couples had known each other for years. The decision to relieve Overacker was hard for Eaker. He was planning to reassign Overacker as head of the B-17 Combat Crew Replacement Center and have him remain in England. Before Overacker assumed those duties, however, Eaker asked the colonel and another officer to prepare a report on Eighth Air Force training and equipment needs and present it to ranking Army Air Forces officers in Washington, D.C. Much to Eaker’s chagrin, the two officers used this opportunity to harshly criticize Eaker’s strategy for daylight bombing and say that it was doomed to failure. Infuriated, Eaker pointed out how Frank Armstrong had completely turned the morale of the 306th around in just six weeks. He went on to say that he not only did not want Overacker back in England, but he wanted him to have no contact with any bomb groups on their way to England. One has to assume that this was also the end of their friendship.


On page 45 of the September issue, there is a photograph captioned “Sy Bartlett with an unidentified friend.” On the following page Dunning relates how Bartlett and co-author Beirne Lay, Jr., chose the title for their story when actress Ellen Drew, Bartlett’s wife at the time, told them “Twelve O’clock High” would be an excellent title. Unless my eyes are seriously mistaken, the “unidentified friend” with Sy Bartlett in the photo is none other than the prescient Ellen Drew.

Gordon D. Sharp, Jr.
Kingston, Pa.


The author responds: The photo in question was obtained from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Evidently they were unable to identify the woman. However, I have since compared the woman in that photo to a wedding picture of Sy Bartlett and Ellen Drew that ran in the August 18, 1941, issue of The New York Times (they were married at Lake Tahoe on August 16, 1941). Based on my comparison, I believe you are right. Thank you for your help in clearing up this mystery.


While I was impressed with the investigative research done by Chuck Dunning, I could not help noticing a factual error concerning the plane and crew of Piccadilly Lily. This B-17F of “The Bloody Hundredth” (100th Bomb Group) perished on October 8, 1943, over Bremen–rather than on November 8, 1943, as stated in the article. On that day, Lieutenant Murphy and 2nd Lt. Marshall F. Lee (co-pilot) were killed after attempting to keep the aircraft steady for the crew to bail out. It should be pointed out that the whole major battle sequence at the end of Twelve O’Clock High that Mr. Dunning refers to is almost verbatim from the Saturday Evening Post article Beirne Lay, Jr., wrote, not just a few passages. If Lay had not switched planes at the last minute on the Regensburg mission, courtesy of a suggestion by a squadron CO, we would not have this brilliant book or movie. The aircraft Lay should have flown in was hit by fighters and exploded.

The book and movie played a major part in keeping the history and memory of the Eighth Air Force and the B-17 alive and well. Now would someone please publish a new hardbound edition of Twelve O’Clock High, complete with photos from the movie, out-take photos, etc., and both this article and the one by John Farmer in American Aviation Historical Society Journal as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the book?

Michael Faley
100th Bomb Group Photo Archives
Studio City, Calif.


The author responds: You are correct that Piccadilly Lily was shot down on October 8 rather than November 8, 1943. That was my mistake. There is a book that gives quite a bit of detail on the final moments of Piccadilly Lily called We’re Poor Little Lambs: The Last Mission of Crew 22 and Piccadilly Lily, by Paul Andrews. According to Andrews, on that mission, Lieutenant Murphy’s co-pilot was Captain Alvin L. Barker, the 351st Squadron’s operations officer. Lieutenant Marshall Lee actually flew in the ball turret, and the ball turret gunner manned the radio room gun. The plane carried 11 crewmen that day. After Murphy ordered the crew to bail out, Lieutenant Lee returned to the cockpit to see if he could help. Lee, Barker and Murphy were still there when the fuel tanks exploded. Piccadilly Lily was leading the low squadron that day; the 100th Bomb Group and the 13th Wing was led by Major John Kidd and Captain Everett Blakely in Just A Snappin’.

You are also correct about Beirne Lay’s changing planes before the Regensburg mission. According to Harry Crosby’s A Wing and a Prayer and Richard LeStrange’s Century Bombers, Lay was originally assigned to Roy Claytor’s B-17, Alice From Dallas, which was flying in the last element of the low squadron. However, Major Gale Cleven put himself into the low squadron that day, and, according to Crosby, he had Lay moved to Piccadilly Lily in another squadron so that he, Cleven, would be the ranking officer in the low squadron. Mortally crippled by flak, Alice From Dallas was one of the first 100th BG planes to go down that day. Two crew members were killed, three became POWs, and five, including Claytor, evaded capture and made it back to England.


I should like to add some information and make a slight correction to Chuck Dunning’s fine article. When Colonel Lay took command of the 487th Bomb Group at Alamogordo, many of us had read his I Wanted Wings or had seen the much different movie version. Some of us were a bit leery that we might become material for future works. It didn’t work out that way.

I was a couple of hundred feet behind him when his B-24 and three others were shot down by flak over Châteaudun on May 11, 1944. I certainly never expected to see him again, but early in August he turned up at the officers club at Lavenham wearing a red beret. He had a flair for the dramatic. I remember no signs of guilt on his part. Indeed, there was not much reason for him to feel any. The reason we took a beating over Châteaudun was that we had been assigned an altitude of 12,000 feet. We were new to combat, but even we knew that was stupid. It was not Colonel Lay’s decision.

In 1955 I wrote to him for advice on a writing career, mentioning my recollection of his loss and recovery. His answer was cordial and helpful. My guess is that his feelings were more disappointment than guilt. As an evadee he could not return to combat over Europe, so he could never become Frank Savage.

William E. Colburn
Atlanta, Ga.


Another Perspective

I was 12 years old when Mortsel, Belgium, was bombed. On Monday, April 5, 1943, around noon, six American heavy bomber groups took off from different bases in England. Led by the 306th Bomb Group, they set a course to Mortsel, a densely populated suburb of Antwerp in Belgium occupied by the Germans. Brigadier General Frank Armstrong was in the leading B-17 of the 306th Bomb Group, which guided the bomber force of 104 Flying Fortresses and Liberators to the Erla Works, used by the Luftwaffe for overhauling their Me-109s. Only four bombs hit the target. The others dispersed in residential quarters, hitting three schools as well. If the attack had been planned for one day earlier, a Sunday, many schoolchildren would have survived the massacre. In addition to the 936 deaths, 1,342 civilians were wounded.

For Armstrong, it was his last mission in Europe. From A History of Strategic Bombing, by Lee Kennett, I quote: “The (Allied) attacks were haphazard and those who ordered them and carried them out were indifferent to the fate of the population.” In view of the part Armstrong played in an attack that caused the death of many Allied civilians–of whom 209 were children under the age of 15–it would only be human should the general have suffered from collapse. According to Mr. Dunning, the general did not. That’s a pity, because it would have shown that he was not indifferent to the fate of the innocent population of occupied Belgium.

Even today, 56 years later, the events of April 5, 1943, are very rarely mentioned in history books. This past April a memorial was inaugurated in the heart of Mortsel to commemorate the blackest day in its history.

A. Rely
Mortsel, Belgium


Seattle Museum Mistakes

In M.L. Williams’ very interesting article about Tom Cathcart and the Seattle Museum of Flight (“Enduring Heritage,” November 1999) there are two errors. The A-12 in the museum is not the only A-12 in existence. There is one in the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In addition, the picture of the airplane under restoration is misidentifed as a 1947 Stinson 108. It is actually a Howard DGA-15.

Calvin G. Bass
Tulsa, Okla.


The author responds: As my young daughter would say, “My bad.” You are correct. The aircraft in question is actually a Howard DGA-15 (1941), and the mistake was mine. The same hangar holds the two aircraft, and they are both red and orange. I will never again verify my facts by pointing and asking about the “red one.” As for the A-12 and drone, I certainly could have been more clear. It is a fact that the A-12 and its drone displayed together in Seattle are unique and “world’s only.”


Refueling Revisions

I found the September “People & Planes” by Robert Hucker quite interesting–until I got to the reference to the Jackson/O’Brine flight on page 64. The sentence “The two men remained aloft for 420 hours, 17 minutes, a total of 171Ž2 days in the air, a figure that would not be exceeded until space capsules began orbiting the earth four decades later” really irritates me. Their official record of 420 hours, 17 minutes and their unofficial record of 647 hours, 28 minutes was broken by Fred and Al Key of Meridian, Miss., flying a Curtiss Robin named Ole Miss. They landed at what is now Key Field in Meridian at 6:06 p.m. on July 1, 1935, after being airborne for 653 hours, 34 minutes. This was a new world record that was not broken until June 1973 by Skylab II. Ole Miss is now in the National Air and Space Museum in gallery 105.

My own interest in aviation started back when Ole Miss was flying around Meridian during the record attempts. One of the first things I did every morning was to go outside and listen for Ole Miss. The sound she made was unforgettable. I went on to a career in aviation.

J.B. “Sonny” Williamson
Jackson, Miss.


The story by Robert Hucker neglected to mention refueling from a speeding car. He said that 71Ž2 days was not exceeded until space capsules orbited the earth. Many flights have been made refueling from a speeding car. One was the Aeronca Sedan Sunkist Lady, flown by Dick Riedel and Bill Barris at Fullerton, Calif. They took off at 11:44 a.m. on March 15, 1949, and had a ground crew fly ahead in another Aeronca and refuel from a jeep at each refueling point. They returned to Fullerton almost a month after leaving, remaining in the air until 5:44 p.m. on April 14, 1949, when they landed at Fullerton after 1,008 hours and more than 75,000 miles in the air. The record was broken less than 6 months later in Yuma at 1,124 hours, and again in Las Vegas in 1958.

Richard D. Maresh
Fullerton, Calif.


Goodyear Info Requested

I wonder if any of your readers know something about Goodyear two-place flying boats. Back in the mid-1960s I landed my plane at an airfield north of Akron, Ohio, and as I wandered around looking in the hangars I came across three flying boats painted yellow and blue (Goodyear colors) all cut up and disassembled. The wings and bodies were there, but I did not see any engines, which I presume were pusher-type motors.

I hope any readers who have information about these unusual airplanes, which may have been made prior to WWII and probably were experimental types, will respond to your letters column.

David G. Brainard
Prescott, Ariz.

One Response to Aviation History: January 2000 Letters

  1. K McDonald says:

    Well said, A Rely, regarding Mortsel. See also JG26 Luftwaffe fighter wing war diaries vol 2, by Donald Caldwell regarding the attack and mentioning the Belgian Ambassador’s rebuke in Washington.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

, , , ,

Sponsored Content: