Posted in B-17, Old Movies, WWII

My Top Five WWII Air Corps Movies

Movies, Movies, Movies! I’ve been on a movie kick lately, especially the old ones that I love. This month I’m talking about my top five favorite WWII Air Corps movies. Love those fly boys.

5. A Guy Named Joe (1943)

Starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, and Van Johnson, in his first major role, this movie is romance within a romance with some flying and a ghost thrown in. Tracy, a B-25 bomber pilot, loves Dunne, an American flying with the British Air Transport Auxiliary. Tracy goes down with his plane after bombing a German ship. Then Tracy finds himself in heaven. A year later Tracy is sent to help a new pilot, played by Johnson, when he encounters a still grieving Dunn. Johnson and Dunne gradually fall in love (the second romance.) I’ll skip the exciting and danger-filled ending so you will have to find the movie and watch it for yourself.

4. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Depicting the famous Doolittle raid in 1942 is an all-star cast with Van Johnson, Phillis Thaxter, Robert Walker, Robert Mitchum and Spencer Tracy as Doolittle. Asked to volunteer for a secret mission, the men train to take off on very short runways. When their B-25 bombers are loaded on an aircraft carrier they know why. At sea they learn that they will bomb Tokyo. Spotted by a Japanese ship the planes must take off early. When they drop bombs on Tokyo the Japanese are completely surprised. Running low on fuel the crews must ditch in China and hope to reach allies. Despite severe wounds, the Chinese manage to get them out to return home. It’s an exciting and heart-wrenching movie.

3. Memphis Belle (1990)

Based on a documentary made by William Wyler during WWII, Memphis Belle depicts the 25th bombing mission for the crew – the the first to reach the number of missions required to go home. Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, and Harry Connick, Jr., and several other young actors play the pilots and crew. The movie is an exciting, nail-biting ride depicting an actual bombing mission over Europe and what the men went through. Like I said earlier, love those flyboys.

2. The War Lover (1962)

In the War Lover Steve McQueen plays an arrogant bomber pilot who, when not flying, goes to London to party. Despite his antics and ignoring orders, McQueen is the best pilot in the squadron and trusted by his co-pilot played by Robert Wagner. The love interest is Shirley Ann Field who chooses Wagner over McQueen. Wagner becomes disillusioned by McQueen’s attitude and actions. After their falling out, McQueen tries to force his attentions on Field who rejects him. On a long bombing mission their bomber is shot up badly and crew members are wounded or killed. They limp back toward England. Over the channel McQueen orders everyone to bail out. Wagner waits for McQueen to jump. Instead McQueen pushes Wagner out of the bomber, then tries to fly back to base alone. He crashes into the white cliffs. A sad ending which depicts the stress on pilots and their belief in inevitable death.

1. Twelve O’clock High (1949)

The absolute best Air Corps movie ever made, bar none. Even WWII veterans say it is an accurate depiction of what a Group leader, played by Gregory Peck, went through. The cast includes Dean Jagger, who won the best supporting actor Oscar, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, and Millard Mitchell. Sent in to straighten out a poorly performing Group, Peck’s strict rules and abrupt manner have everyone requesting a transfer. Using delaying tactics, Peck whips the Group into shape and earns their respect by flying with them in the lead plane. Like his predecessor Peck becomes to involved with and attached to his men. The stress of leading so many to their deaths finally causes him to break. A great movie that everyone should see, even if you aren’t a WWII buff like me.

Do you have a favorite WWII Air Corps movie? Let me know in the comments.

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Posted in History, Research, WWII

B-17 or B-24?

During WWII, the two bombers that carried the load in European air war for the Americans were the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. In my latest work-in-progress I am trying to decide which airplane my hero/navigator would have flown.  My first thought was to use the B-17 since it seemed more glamorous, but with more research about both planes, I found that the Liberator was quite a plane, too. After all, Jimmy Stewart flew the B-24. How’s that for glamor?

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
Almost everyone has heard of the iconic B-17. When we think of bombers of that era, images come to mind of planes shot full  of holes, with sections blown off and engines not functioning, yet landing safely on air fields in England. Those images are usually of B-17’s. Its crews loved the Flying Fortress because it took lots of damage and still brought them home.

Memphis Belle

Anyone remember the Memphis Belle? It was the first bomber that finished the required 25 missions in 1943. (Mission requirements were increased to 30 and then to 35 in 1944)  Major William Wyler, the famous director and movie maker, as part of the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Forces, directed a film depicting the final flight of the Memphis Belle. The footage became the documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.”  As a morale booster for the Army and the folks back home, the crew, the plane and the movie toured the US selling war bonds and recruiting flyers for the Army Air Force. In 1990, Hollywood made a movie about that last flight, “The Memphis Belle.” Both films depict the lives of bomber crews in WWII and are well worth seeing.

Consolidated B-24 Liberator
But what about the B-24 Liberator? In researching accounts of WWII  bomber crew members, I discovered that Jimmy Stewart (Yes! the movie star) flew combat missions over Europe in B-24’s. Starr Smith wrote in “Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot”about Jimmy enlisting before the war even started. He earned his wings and became an instructor flying B-17’s. Apparently the military feared Stewart would be  harmed if sent overseas, which frustrated Stewart. Finally in 1943 his wish for combat duty came true with his assignment to the 445th Bomber Group, part of the Eighth Air Force.  He quickly learned to fly the B-24 and within months received orders for England. Captain Stewart commanded the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomber Group and regularly flew combat missions. Promoted to Major and transferred to the 453rd Bomber Group as Operations Officer, Stewart continued to fly combat missions, including flying on D-Day (June 6, 1944). In July 1944, Lt. Colonel Stewart’s transfer to Second Combat Wing Headquarters severely limited his combat flying.  In his twenty-three months overseas, Stewart flew 20 combat missions over Europe, all in B-24 Liberators.

Jimmy Stewart
Data for a head to head comparison of the B-17 and the B-24 can be found on several websites for anyone who likes statistics.  One interesting difference I found was that the B-17 was slower than the B-24.  The difference in speed meant that the two bombers could not fly in the same formations, although they were often sent on the same missions.  But the B-17 could fly at higher altitudes. There is no doubt that the Flying Fortress crews and the Liberator crews each believed their plane the best and maintained an ongoing, good-natured rivalry.

Some believe that the B-17 got better press during the war and many thought it a better looking plane. It is definitely the one most people associate with WWII.

So, which plane will I use in my book? I haven’t decided. But I’m leaning toward the B-24 because it’s less known and because I have found some good books to use as reference material. Among them are:  “A Reason To Live” by John Harold Robinson who flew as a gunner and engineer on a B-24; “Lucky Penny’s Tail” by Gregory J. Matenkoski recounting the story of Edmund Survilla, a tail gunner on a B-24; and “Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot” by Starr Smith.

For additional research, I plan to travel to Savannah, Georgia, to visit the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum sometime in the near future. This museum should give me additional details and insight into the WWII air war.  Wouldn’t I love to take a ride on one of those old planes? I’m watching for an opportunity.