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The stunning photo of the Flying Fortress with one wing blown off

by Till Daisd
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The B-17G Flying Fortress “Wee Willie” was destroyed after completing 128 missions

The main image in this post is “Wee Willie,” a Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress 42-31333, going down after being struck by anti-aircraft artillery over Stendal, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, on April 8, 1945. It is one of the most spectacular photographs of World War II.

This horrific image was captured by the automatic bomb strike camera of a B-17, as Dan Sharp explains in his book Spitfires over Berlin. The photo sequence captures the last 18 seconds of B-17G 42-31333 “Wee Willie” over Stendal, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, after it was struck by an 88mm flak burst. This aircraft was the 302nd Boeing B-17G to roll off the production line at Boeing Plant 2, King County Washington.

In the first image, the port wing of Willie has already sheared off, and it is spinning over its tail while engulfed in flames.

B-17 Wee Willie

The second image, which, as we’ve already noted, is widely used to illustrate the atrocities that American aircrews had to endure during the daytime bombing campaign over Germany, captures the plane as it enters its final seconds of flight. There were still all nine crew members inside.

The story behind the horrific photo of the B-17 Flying Fortress with one wing blown off, plummeting to its doom

In the last photograph, ‘Wee Willie’ has exploded. The fuselage, wings, and tail are torn apart and fall to the ground, burning.

B-17G Wee Willie

‘Wee Willie’ was part of a 73-bomber raid on the locomotive repair shops at Stendal and was flown by Lt. Robert E. Fuller for this sortie.

The official report from the 322nd noted that the operation was a remarkable success: “The high squadron was furnished by the 322nd, led by Lt. Johnson. Strike photographs for the high squadron’s bombs show an excellent concentration of hits covering the aiming point.

“Almost the entire concentration lies within a 1000ft circle over the MPI. Meagre to moderate tracking AA fire on the bomb run which was extremely accurate, resulted in minor damage to 13 aircraft and major damage to four in the group. The high and lead squadrons each lost one aircraft in the target area from flak damage.”

Lt. Peter Pastras was the pilot of the B-17G-50-B0 42-102504 Times A-Wastin’, which was lost from the 401st, the lead squadron. A navigator on another B-17, Lt. Mike Fodroci, saw its demise. He observed the four gun batteries on the ground following bursts of flak through the lead formation as they drew ever closer to The A-Wastin’ until the fourth one went straight into the bomb bay of the aircraft, which was still open.

In his report, he states, “The pilot must have been killed instantly, for the ship pulled up and veered to the right, climbing directly over our ship. Captain Shelby put our ship into a dive so steep that I was thrown up against the astro hatch of the ceiling in the nose — seems I hung there for a brief second or two.

“I also observed that a bad fire was burning on the aircraft’s forward bomb bay area and that the co-pilot was trying to climb out of the small window with his backpack on. Somehow, we saw three chutes emerge from #504 as she spun toward the earth.”

The B-17 exploded in midair, killing all of the crew members except for two—engineer Lyle Jones and radio operator Bob A. Smith—who were captured on the ground. Bob Morris, the co-pilot of the Times A-Wastin, was also killed. Wee Willie, 42-31333, was the high squadron’s lost aircraft.

S/Sgt. George Little, a gunner on board a 401st B-17, writes in the Missing Air Crew Report: “I observed 42-31333 receive a direct flak hit approximately between the bomb bay and the number two engine. The aircraft immediately started a vertical dive. The aircraft fuselage was on fire, and when it had dropped approximately 5000ft the left wing fell off.

“It continued down, and when the fuselage was about 3000ft from the ground, it exploded, and then exploded again when it hit the ground. I saw no crew members leave the aircraft or parachutes.”

Another witness who saw what happened at “Wee Willie’s” end was able to provide an even more precise account of what occurred. On any given mission, around a third of the B-17 aircraft were outfitted with bomb-strike cameras. These were fitted under the floor in the radio room, and the lens cone was exposed to the elements.

The cameras were set to run automatically from “bombs away” until the film ran out or until a predefined number of exposures had been made. Every six seconds, they took an exposure, and then the system wound the film onto the camera in preparation for the next picture.

In this manner, it was sometimes possible to assess the images to determine whether a mission was successful or unsuccessful. The three images above were taken during the final 18 seconds of “Wee Willie” by the automated camera on another B-17 that was flying alongside or below it.

Lt. Robert E. Fuller was blown clear out of the cockpit, and Willie was torn apart by an explosion that tore right through the fuselage just before the final of the three. He opened his parachute and made it through the descent somehow. The rest of his crew perished in the incident.

Fuller’s destiny is unknown, despite the fact that it is noted that he was taken prisoner; in some sources, he is simply listed as “killed in action” along with his crew. After completing 127 missions, “Wee Willie” was destroyed on mission 128.

Spitfires over Berlin is published by Mortons Books and is available to order here.

Photo by U.S. Air Force via American Air Museum in Britain

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