Recalling the uncommon valor and the somber sacrifice of war

Md. veterans recount harrowing flights in B-17s

May 27, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Hurtling toward a bombing target near Rostock, Germany, on Feb. 24, 1944, the tail gunner of a B-17 nicknamed Dear Mom suddenly caught sight of an approaching enemy aircraft amid exploding black puffs of flak.

Co-pilot James Keller of Baltimore was on his 21st such mission in World War II - four more of these harrowing flights over Germany's heartland and he had a ticket home.

But in a flash, a shattering explosion rocked the left wing.

"Oh, my God. ... Oh, Libby!" screamed Keller, calling for his maker and his fiancee, Elizabeth, back on Bentalou Street.

Keller's action in the next crucial minutes would decide the fate of the 10-man crew of Dear Mom, now tilting wildly out of control at 21,000 feet and threatening to crash in Nazi territory.

Those were times when uncommon valor was commonplace, when the world depended on fliers and riflemen and sailors and paratroopers to restore peace, to end the extermination of a people. More than 50 years later, these warriors who survived the Depression and World War II would become known as the "Greatest Generation."

Memorial Day ushers in the summer and offers holiday sales. But veterans reserve the day as a personal, somber reminder of the ultimate sacrifices made, from Belleau Wood and Tarawa to Chosin Reservoir and Ia Drang Valley, and beyond. They observe this holiday with a wisdom only they possess.

And now, these World War II vets are dying at nearly 1,000 a day, and their treasured stories are going with them.

Many have begun shedding their warrior's silence, telling their stories in classrooms, on Web sites and cable television - including Keller and another Baltimorean, Lt. Lou Ellis, who would gamble against the same awful odds aboard his B-17, Little Patches. They're finally letting go of images seared into their beings, of memories long kept private.

In the cockpit of Dear Mom, Keller fought to keep the plane aloft. Meanwhile, his crew's .50-caliber machine guns were blazing, keeping the Luftwaffe fighters away. Nobody had time to jettison the bombs, a heavy drag on the aircraft.

His pilot was dazed, and Keller couldn't reach the autopilot controls. Even with his oxygen mask secured to his face, he felt strength ebbing from his body, the deadly embrace of unconsciousness beckoning.

Suddenly, the pilot snapped out of shock and activated the autopilot. As Dear Mom stopped shuddering and its path smoothed out, Keller's grip of the controls slipped. He passed out as the ship banked and headed back to base at Snetterton, England.

Against bitter odds

Keller survived one of the most treacherous assignments of the war, flying B-17s in daylight raids. The odds for those who made bombing runs over Germany were brutal - an American air crewman based in England had a 1-in-3 chance of surviving 25 missions.

There were times when the casualty rate was 60 percent for the U.S. 8th Air Force. In some of the murderous runs over Berlin, only two bombers out of 21 returned. The 100th Bomb Group, known as the "Bloody 100th," lost 177 planes in combat and 52 in accidents. If the Germans shot down a B-17, they killed or captured four officers and six enlisted men.

"I don't know which was worse, the sustained infantry fighting on the ground across France or flying bombing missions over Germany," said CBS television commentator Andy Rooney, who did both as an Army sergeant and combat correspondent in World War II.

"On the ground, there was the constant misery," said Rooney. "But in the 8th Air Force you could eat dinner off plates, go into London and meet a girl, then go fly into the worst kind of terror one could imagine. And the odds were stacked against you if you were in a B-17."

When Lieutenant Keller returned home from Europe, he had won the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal with four clusters. His days with the 338th Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group were history.

Keller, a retired printer, is 84 now. He lives in a comfortable little home near Sue Creek in Essex. His beloved Libby died in 1999, after 55 years of marriage, but his twin daughters, a son, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren keep him happy.

He remains active in his hunting club in Pocomoke City. He has a little runabout on a trailer - it's named Dear Mom. Occasionally, you can find him sipping a cold beer at the local American Legion hall.

"During the war I was scared all the time. ... I saw a lot of hits in the air because our bombing formations were huge, hundreds of planes sometimes, and the German anti-aircraft fire was so thick," Keller said. "When one of our planes got hit, you could watch the parachutes open and you'd count them. And when you got back to England, you would hear who didn't come back, see the empty bunks.

"I never made friends with anybody over there because they, or you, would be gone so fast. It hurt too much to lose the few that I became buddies with."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.