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From Spokane to Germany and back, the last flight of the B-17 Strictly GI

"The first big raid by the 8th Air Force was on a Focke Wulf plant at Marienburg. Coming back, the Germans were up in full force and we lost at least 80 ships - 800 men, many of them pals." (Army Air Forces/Good Free Photos/Released)

Strictly GI, a battered B-17 with its windshield already gone, was trying to make its way back from the bombing run over the synthetic fuel factory at Ludwigshafen, Germany, when a pair of anti-aircraft rounds hit.

The plane began losing altitude and filling with smoke. When fire broke out behind a starboard engine, the pilot, Lt. Niels Jensen, turned to others in the cockpit.

“He said, ‘Let’s get out of this thing,’ ” Richard Klein, then the plane’s bombardier, recalled recently.

For Klein and most other men on Strictly GI, that bombing run on Sept. 9, 1944, was their first mission of the war. For everyone on board, it was their last.

Klein and most of the crew had arrived at the airfield in Bassingbourn, England, a couple weeks earlier and had finished up with ground training at the base. For a new crew’s first mission, however, the practice of the 91st Bomb Group was to assign an experienced pilot and another experienced crew member to the plane.

Jensen and Staff Sgt. Stanley Morris, a 19-year-old waist gunner from Spokane, were assigned to Strictly GI that day rather than their regular crew that had been in England since June.

The intercom within the plane had been knocked out by an anti-aircraft hit, and movement from the cockpit to the rest the plane was blocked by smoke and fire. The pilot, copilot, navigator and Klein could only drop through the hatch for the cockpit crew with parachutes, hoping the others would see them and follow.

As he fell through the sky, Klein looked up for the rest of the crew as the crippled B-17 descended into the cloud cover and was gone. Soon the clouds also swallowed him up.

Sifting through 75 years

In a forest near the German village of Speyerdorf, about 20 miles southwest of Ludwigshafen and about 350 miles east of Bassingbourn, a research team is carefully sweeping an area with metal detectors and sifting dirt through screens where some 75 years ago Strictly GI – officially listed in U.S. Army Air Forces records as B-17G 43-37594 – crashed.

Most of the local memory of that crash has faded and the area was replanted with trees after the war, said Erik Wieman, the head of the Historical Research Community Rhineland Palatinate crew that is doing the excavation. But a retired forestry worker, who saw the plane after it crashed and worked in the area after the war, was able to point them to the right location.

“In a few years, it will be much more difficult to find these sites because there will be no eyewitnesses left,” Wieman wrote in a recent email. “Our main goal is to find these sites, inform the families and plant a memorial stone.”

Before they finish excavating the site near Speyerdorf, they hope to find the relatives of all the members of the crew on Strictly GI.

From North Central to England

Stanley Morris was 18 and just out of North Central High School when he enlisted in the Army in June 1943. His north Spokane family had a history of military service, and one ancestor had marched with Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to Savannah during the Civil War, according to family histories.

The United States had been at war for a year and a half, in the Pacific and in Europe, and all able-bodied young men were subject to the draft. After signing up for the Army Air Corps, Morris was trained as a gunner on a B-17, arriving at age 19 with a replacement crew at RAF Bassingbourn, near Cambridge, England, in June 1944. The crew was assigned to the 323rd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, which for two years had been conducting bombing raids over Nazi-held Europe.

In June, Morris wrote home to his parents, Scott and Ada Morris, that the crew had a good trip across the Atlantic and arrived to what he assumed was typical English weather, cold and rainy. He was struggling to figure out British money, but he liked the country very much.

“The English people, so far, have proven to be very friendly,” he wrote in a V-Mail letter, the system troops overseas used to communicate with home. They really go for their tea and crumpets and “make good tea, but you should taste their coffee.”

The crew was a melting pot of young Americans. Lt. Oscar Snow, the crew’s pilot, was from Arkansas, while its copilot, Lt. Niels Jensen, was from New York. Lt. Robert Fitzpatrick from Massachusetts, radio operator Francis Dietzler was from Philadelphia, and Morris’ fellow gunners were from Ohio, New Jersey and West Virginia.

The 8th Air Force, which is the unit portrayed in the 1949 Gregory Peck movie “12 O’Clock High,” had suffered heavy casualties from continuous bombing missions, first at night and later during the day. One of its main units, the 91st Bomb Group, would record the highest number of casualties of any bomb group, losing 197 bombers, with 906 men killed in action and an estimated 1,150 taken as prisoners of war.

By the summer of 1944, however, the 8th was seeing fewer casualties, partly because the United States’ new fighter, the P-51, had longer range, allowing it to accompany bombers all the way to the target to protect them from German fighters. But the P-51s provided no protection against German anti-aircraft artillery batteries that dotted the countryside around factories and military installations.

Morris was in one of 13 replacement units that arrived in June for the 323rd Bomb Squadron, the unit’s daily reports show. After 10 days of ground training, they took part in their first mission, but the weather was so bad the crews couldn’t see the target and didn’t drop bombs. Three days later, they were part of a nine-plane mission over Munich, where the bombs were dropped but the results weren’t certain.

“Well, we did a lot of flying yesterday. It’s not as exciting as I thought it would be, though,” Morris wrote his parents in a V-Mail letter, saying he’d received the Bible they’d sent but mail service was otherwise pretty lousy. “How’s everybody at home, now?”

The crew began flying long-range missions every few days, weather permitting, but not always in the same bomber. They occasionally flew Strictly GI, tail number 7594, but more frequently flew Winged Victory, tail number 7563.

Flying Fortresses in England

The B-17G that would eventually become Strictly GI – planes got their names from their combat units, not the factory – rolled off the assembly line in Seattle in late 1943. The Boeing-designed B-17 was dubbed the Flying Fortress because of its significant armaments: machine guns mounted in the nose, tail, top, underneath, and machine guns mounted at an opening on either side, slightly more than halfway between the nose and tail in the fuselage, known as the waist guns.

The first prototype flew in 1935, and the U.S. Army Air Corps began ordering them in 1938. Boeing produced about 600 of four models before the United States entered the war, but production ramped up in 1942 as the War Department ordered additional lines at Douglas in Long Beach and Vega Aircraft in Burbank. By the end of the war, the three assembly lines would turn out 12,731 B-17s.

After final assembly and test flights in early 1944, 43-37594 was flown first to an airfield in Cheyenne, Wyoming, then to Bangor, Maine, and across the Atlantic in early June to Bassingbourn, where it was assigned to the 323rd Bomb Squadron, one of four units of 91st Bomb Group. The 91st was one of 24 bomb groups, each with four squadrons, of the U.S. Army 8th Air Force scattered across the British countryside, flying B-17s over the English Channel and into Nazi-controlled Europe.

At the beginning of 1944, B-17 crews could be sent home after they completed 30 missions. After D-Day, however, the 30-mission standard was suspended, and crews were told they would remain “available for immediate duty, regardless of the number of missions they have flown,” squadron daily reports show.

Synthetic fuel

August was a good month for the squadron, with 174 sorties – planes going out on various missions and returning – resulting in no losses and only one bomber severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Weather was bad at the start of September, so the squadron didn’t fly a mission until Sept. 5, with Ludwigshafen as the target.

As part of the Allied strategy to defeat Nazi Germany, the United States and Great Britain bombed the factories that supplied the German war effort, as well as army bases, naval yards and airfields. Among the key targets in 1944 were synthetic fuel factories like the one in Ludwigshafen, just north of Heidelberg.

Germany had no oil fields within its borders, and by 1944 its efforts to capture petroleum-producing areas in the Middle East and the Soviet Union had failed. The fuel for its ships, planes and vehicles came from a process that synthesized gasoline from coal.

Daily reports for the 323rd show that Ludwigshafen was among its targets starting in January, and by September it was still on the list. On Sept. 5, 12 bombers hit the area, but the weather was so cloudy the results couldn’t be determined. Another mission was launched on Sept. 8, but again the results couldn’t be observed. On Sept. 9, the squadron sent out 12 bombers, including a crew that had arrived from the United States in August that was flying its first mission.

Jensen and Morris, experienced hands after some 16 missions, were assigned to fly with the new crew in Strictly GI. Snow and the other members of their regular crew didn’t fly that mission, based on the squadron’s daily reports.

In previous bombing missions over Ludwigshafen, bombers from the 323rd had experienced heavy resistance from German fighters and anti-aircraft. The squadron suffered one death and one serious injury in those earlier missions but had managed to bring all planes back to Bassingbourn.

But Strictly GI wasn’t going to make it back.

Prisoner of war

Lt. Richard Klein dropped through the cloud cover, opened his parachute and looked in vain for other crew members as he floated to the ground in a small German town. He said recently he can’t remember the name of the town, but does remember quickly being surrounded by townspeople and three or four German security officers.

“They circled around me like I was something strange,” he said. One of the officers asked in German a question crews had been told to expect: Do you have a pistol? Although air crews were issued pistols, they had stopped carrying them on missions, because if the answer to that question was yes, they sometimes were shot immediately.

He said no. The townspeople gathered up his parachute and took off with it, the guards took him to a small booth to wait. Eventually, an army staff car with the top down, a driver in front and German officers in the back, showed up, ordered him to get in and took him to a bomb shelter where other downed airmen, including Lt. Dale Burkhead, the copilot from the Strictly GI, were also being held.

Eventually, they were taken to Stalag Luft 1, a large prisoner of war camp for Allied airmen near the city of Barth, run by the Luftwaffe, the German air force. There were at least 2,000 prisoners there in various compounds, Klein said, some who had been there for years. He was placed in a room with 15 other prisoners, a rookie among veterans.

“They said I could still taste the last steak I had in the States,” he said recently. Klein would remain at Stalag Luft 1 for nine months, getting occasional updates on the war from British prisoners who seemed to have a radio somewhere in their compound. As the war was drawing to a close, the camp was liberated by the Soviet army on its way to Berlin. Within a week, American bombers were landing at the nearby airfield, loading up the prisoners and taking them to camp in France before sending them by ship back to the United States, where they were eventually discharged.

Originally from Detroit, Klein went to college after the war, earned his engineering degree and later worked in procurement for Boeing. Now 97, he’s retired and living in Southern California.

He never saw the other two members of the crew who bailed out of Strictly GI, although military records show all four were captured, survived the war as POWs and were sent home.

“I never really knew what did happen to the ship after I lost it in the cloud bank,” he said recently. “I often wondered what did happen” to the rest of the crew.

Years of doubt

In the War Department “Missing Air Crew Report” filed by the 323rd Bomb Squadron after the mission, all crew members were initially listed as Missing in Action. But three people on other planes reported seeing the plane explode.

There’s no description of the explosion or the altitude, but a large portion of the plane slammed into the forest near Speyerdorf.

Some large parts of the B-17 were removed by the German government shortly after the crash. But much of it was left there and eventually overgrown by the forest. The excavating crew has found an array of exploded ammunition and pieces of bomber machinery in its search.

The bodies of Morris and the other four crewmen on board were retrieved from the wreckage after the crash and buried in a cemetery in nearby Mussbach. In 1950, the bodies were exhumed and shipped home to their families. Stanley Morris’ coffin was reburied that May at Fairmont Memorial Cemetery in a spot that would eventually be between his parents and one of his sisters.

His nephew, Jerry Morris, said recently that while he never met his uncle, he remembers his grandparents and other family members talking about when the body came home. The family was ordered not to open the casket, Jerry Morris said. They didn’t, but that always left a sliver of doubt in his grandparents’ minds.

“For many, many years, they weren’t sure he was in it,” Jerry Morris said.

His grandparents had a Blue Star in their window after Stanley Morris enlisted, signifying a family member was serving in the war. If that person died in service, a family typically replaced it with a Gold Star. “They never changed the star in the window.”

The family was sent Morris’ Purple Heart and Air Medal after he died. After his grandparents died, his uncle’s medals and some other mementos moved back and forth between Jerry and his father, Eldon Morris. One day, they took the medals and some photos to a shop and had them framed.

But his dog tags didn’t arrive for nearly 20 years, said Donna Horton, Stanley’s niece and Jerry’s cousin. Someone found them in a box in a car, although the full details are no longer clear, she recalled.

“They just showed up,” Horton said of the identification tags. “My grandparents thought maybe he was around, it was a case of mistaken identity.”

Family members were surprised when contacted by The Spokesman-Review with information that a group in Germany was excavating the crash site of the plane in which their uncle perished. But they were pleased the community was thinking of putting up a memorial to the plane and its crew, who were, after all, enemies 75 years ago.

Linda Childs, another of Stanley Morris’ nieces, said she lived in Germany for years while her husband was in the military, and said that while the effort surprised her at first, it seemed less so as she thought about it.

“They value history, I think, more than we do,” Childs said.

Helping the families know

The crash of a U.S. Army Air Forces B-17 was extremely common in September 1944. Strictly GI is one of 197 downed B-17s listed in that September’s Missing Air Crew reports on the Aviation Archeological Investigation and Research website. Overall, the U.S. Army Air Forces lost 814 planes of all types that month in Europe and the Pacific theater.

Two months later, the crew that Morris and Jensen arrived with had to bail out of Winged Victory over Germany. They were captured and became prisoners of war.

Wieman said many aircraft crashed in that region of Germany because of the bombing raids on nearby Ludwigshafen and Mannheim. In 2016, the research group began excavations after finding more than 20 sites.

After he began finding airplane parts and doing some research, Wieman said he wanted to know if the families of the men killed knew anything about the crashes. Usually, they didn’t. He wanted to make the sites visible again.

“On the surface you cannot see anything anymore, but there is still enough in the ground to tell the stories of these men that were bound to be forgotten,” he wrote in an email. “That’s what I want to prevent. These are historical and fateful places. These men and what they did for our freedom should not be forgotten.”

They plan to unveil a memorial at the crash site of a British Halifax bomber this year, and one for the crash of a C-47 transport next year. The Speyerdorf memorial for the crew of Strictly GI may go up in 2021 if the excavation is complete by then, and Wieman hopes some family members of all the crew – both those who perished in the crash and those who survived – will attend.


© 2019 The Spokesman-Review