World War II veteran and former B-17 bomber radio operator Edwin Bell took his old seat at the radio console in the restored B-17 Bomber “Ye Olde Pub” as if he were riding in the family minivan on the way to a picnic in the park.
Bell would turn 96 in five days, but he has the energy and enthusiasm of a man 30 years younger. His flight logbook notes he last worked the radios during wartime in 1944 when he was in his early 20s. He was the guest of honor on the lovingly restored B-17 bomber at the Smyrna Airport on Sept. 14.
Bell related several of his exploits, making light of the experiences of 35 combat missions.
“I was really good when we went to ‘radio silence.’ I probably did that best of all,” he said.
Bell also described one mission in which it sounded like hail was striking the aircraft, but it wasn’t the weather. “It was flak. A shell went completely through the right wing and exploded above us.”
Bell and his now spouse of 62 years, Edith (now deceased), served three tours of duty at Sewart Air Force Base, and considered Smyrna their home. Bell remains a member of American Legion Post 288 in Smyrna.
Smyrna Airport, once Sewart Air Force Base, was built during World War II to host B-17 and B-24 aircraft and crews for training and operations. “Ye Olde Pub” fit right in all these years later.
“Ye Olde Pub” offered flights to the public this past weekend. The public flights help to offset the more than $5,000 per flight hour it costs to keep the more than 75-year-old aircraft in the sky at airports around the country instead of gathering dust in a museum.
Of the 12,731 B-17s produced, only 47 have survived, and less than a dozen are airworthy, according to the National Museum of the Air Force.
“Ye Olde Pub’s” pilot Jim Lawrence said mechanic Mike Wilson keeps “Ye Olde Pub” in “immaculate shape.”
An unexpected rescuer
The current “Ye Olde Pub” started life as “Madras Maiden,” a B-17 G model that was built in 1944, never saw combat, and was earmarked as the test bed for the Pathfinder Radar project to help make the bombers more accurate on their missions. It has been restored and painted to resemble the original “Ye Olde Pub”.
The original “Ye Olde Pub” was severely damaged in combat, yet survived its first bombing mission over Bremen, Germany, to land safely in England, under Top Secret circumstances.
As described by the Liberty Foundation, “Ye Olde Pub’s” pilot, 2nd Lt. Charlie Brown, was nursing his critically damaged aircraft back home after their bomb run, with the plexiglass nose shattered by flak, an engine out and another engine damaged. The tail gunner had been killed, and most of the rest of the crew was wounded. Half of the rudder was shot away, as was the left rear elevator.
The damaged, bleeding aircraft and crew were spotted by German Messerschmitt pilots, including Franz Stigler, an ace with 27 victories. Remembering the words of one of his previous commanders (“If I ever see or hear of you shooting at a man in a parachute, I will shoot you myself”), Stigler later said of the defenseless aircraft and crew: “To me, it was just like they were in a parachute, I saw them, and I couldn’t shoot them down.”
Stigler escorted the crippled B-17 all the way to the English Channel so it wouldn’t be shot by others. Brown flew the remaining 250 miles back to fighter base RAF Seething under Allied escort. He described the German pilot’s conduct, which was declared Top Secret.
Stigler kept his mouth shut about the incident, as he would have probably faced a firing squad for his conduct. The two men found each other in 1990, and became fast friends until their deaths a few months apart in 2008. The entire incident is the subject of the 2012 book “A Higher Call” by Adam Makos.
Lawrence said, “It’s an honor and a privilege to fly this aircraft. We would like to help the current generations understand. So many high schoolers that experience ‘Ye Olde Pub’ say, ‘I had absolutely no idea.’ Families of World War II veterans appreciate the experience so they can understand what their fathers or grandfathers went through. It’s incredible to be a part of this.”