Meadville Tribune

Local News

July 20, 2013

World War II pilot recalls days in cockpit of historic B-17

FAIRFIELD TOWNSHIP — Nearly 60 years after the end of World War II, B-17 Flying Fortress pilot Paul Fullerton is still on a mission.

This weekend that mission takes the 88-year-old from the Crawford County farm that’s been in his family for 200 years to Erie International Airport for a sortie with an old friend — a B-17 that appeared in the 1990 Hollywood move “Memphis Belle.” Fullerton’s been on this plane, which is on display for walk-through tours and flights today and Sunday, and sat in the cockpit. And during the war, he trained on the real Memphis Belle, the legendary B-17 from which the movie took its name.

The weekend visit will be no shiny, happy walk down memory lane, however. Although Fullerton describes his World War II service as a high point in his life in terms of achievements, he’ll tell you in his humble, matter-of-fact way, “the memories are not really all that great.”

What keeps Fullerton coming back to events like these is the special opportunity they provide. “A lot of the friends I have are very interested in it” — B-17s and air service in World War II — and attending these events allows Fullerton to serve as a teacher and guide them and others who attend. His motivation? “We lost a lot of friends. Their lives should be remembered for something.”

Eager to take flight

Even as he dug into the earth of the family farm, Fullerton’s head was in the clouds. He was fascinated by aviation, so when the Air Force opened pilot school to those without a college degree, he was among the first to sign up. Then it was off to the rigorous training at spots across West Virginia, Georgia and Florida. A good number of cadets washed out, but not Fullerton. He was pursuing his passion.

Like nearly every American of that day, Fullerton was familiar with the Memphis Belle B-17 from its 1943 cross-country tour to promote the sale of war bonds. The plane and its crew was one of the first to complete 25 missions over Europe with both plane and crew intact. They were brought back to the states to boost morale and engage the civilian population. In 1944 the War Department produced a documentary about the plane and crew titled “Memphis Belle: Story of a Flying Fortress.” The plane and crew were stars.

“They made a big deal about finishing 25 because the losses (among air crews) were so high,” Fullerton recalled.

So it was both a thrill and, as it turns out, an omen, when one day, walking out to a B-17 he was assigned to for a training mission Fullerton noticed “Memphis Belle” written on the fuselage, along with the famous pinup girl who carried the name.

The realization that he would be lucky to be alive after just 25 missions hit, but he didn’t — couldn’t — dwell on it. The training was very demanding and “they kept you so busy you didn’t have time to worry much about anything except what was coming up the next day.” It was a theme that would follow him to Italy, where he went into combat over Europe with the 301st Bomb Group.

Facing the enemy

A frayed, old black and white photograph is among Fullerton’s war mementos. The picture was shot aloft, showing B-17s in flight. The casual viewer might think the image is of poor quality or that it has deteriorated over the years. It’s literally covered in black spots and blotches. Those are the anti-aircraft shells going off.

“Some of the most miserable times of my life are going through those flak barrages,” Fullerton recalled. The B-17s were made of thin sheets of aluminum, unarmored but for a few small spots — like the bottom of the pilot’s seat — and the helmets and flak jackets the men wore. “Imagine taking a handful of gravel and throwing it — spraying it — up against a metal barrel,” Fullerton said. “That’s what it sounded like.” He counted 102 holes in his plane after one mission.

Keeping the huge bomber under control when it was filled with tons of ordnance and fuel was a physical feat in and of itself. “Sometimes you’d wonder if you were going to make it even before you got into combat,” Fullerton recalled. There was no power steering and plenty of turbulence, not only from Mother Nature but also from the propellers of the fellow four-engined B-17s in your formation. “It was no fun flying in formation. Flying in formation can really wear you down,” said Fullerton, pointing out that it was so difficult that standard operating procedure was to have the pilot and co-pilot switch places every 15 minutes.

Staying in formation was literally a matter of life and death. The formation was designed to give the B-17s’ .50 caliber machine guns full coverage of the sky above, below, in front and behind. Fall out of that formation, and you’d likely become easy pickings for the faster, more maneuverable enemy fighters.

Mother Nature wasn’t always on your side, either. Flying in formation through cloud cover was nerve-wracking, to say the least. Pilots did their best to stay together without the advantage of today’s navigation technology. In these situations, “everything went helter-skelter and you just had to deal with it,” Fullerton said.

Keeping it together

While functioning under these conditions may seem amazing to outsiders, Fullerton explains matter-of-factly “people can get used to anything.”

One of the keys in combat, as in training, was staying busy, and the crew’s schedule of preparation, planning, work and missions kept them that way. Fullerton said that on mission days they were up and at it by 4 a.m. and it wasn’t uncommon to keep going all day.

There was also a strong sense of holding things together for your fellow airmen.

“You didn’t want to fail your buddies no matter what happened,” Fullerton explained. “You knew you could make it through because other people had.”

But not everyone made it through.

As if to underscore the danger of these missions, Fullerton spent several months early in his deployment to Italy flying transportation missions due to the loss of part of his combat crew.

When they arrived for duty, the 10-man crew was broken up in order to fly with and learn from more experienced crews. During this time, several of Fullerton’s men were aboard a plane that lost two engines during a mission. They ended up emergency landing behind Russian lines. The men weren’t badly hurt but it took them months to get back to the base in Italy.

And there were ever-present reminders that this day could be their last. During one point of the deployment, it seemed the group lost a plane a week, Fullerton recalled.

He dealt with that and more, completing 28 combat missions with his crew intact, more even than the Memphis Belle.

Although this is truly a death-defying accomplishment, always modest, Fullerton is quick to put his achievement in the context of others’ experiences. It helped, he said, that he served toward the end of the war when there were fewer enemy fighter planes in the air and more allied fighters available to escort the B-17s.

“Everybody thinks it’s (his service record) so great but it’s not a big deal to me,” he said.

Can-do spirit lives

When the war ended, Fullerton came home to his sweetheart, married and went on to serve in the Border Patrol as a pilot and even in the Pennsylvania National Guard, leading infantrymen. He retired in 1977 with a total of 26 years serving in positions with the federal government.

Today, when people wonder if Americans are tough enough to match the military accomplishments of the World War II generation, Fullerton dismisses the concern.

“You do what you have to do,” he said. “They (Americans today) would probably do the same thing if they were in the same situation because thousands and thousands of others have done it.

“These young people in the military are still doing the same thing,” Fullerton said, underscoring their toughness and commitment by pointing out that many serve multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They are the ones who need to have the credit.”

You can go

The Memphis Belle B-17 Flying Fortress used in the 1990 Hollywood movie is now at 1605 Asbury Road, Erie.

The public can view the plane up close and tour the interior for free today and Sunday from 3 p.m. to sunset. The public can access the plane through North Coast Flight School’s offices at 1605 Asbury Road.

Flights are available today and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $450 per person. Flights can booked online at libertyfoundation.org or by calling (918) 340-0243.

Flights, the sale of souvenirs and donations are the only source of revenue for the nonprofit living history museum that operates the plane, the Liberty Foundation. The Foundation does not receive government support.

You can watch

The original 1944 War Department documentary about the Memphis Belle titled “Memphis Belle: Story of a Flying Fortress” can be viewed online at youtube.com. Another more recent documentary on YouTube, “Memphis Belle 1943,” uses much of the same footage but also includes some scenes of the plane’s tour of the states after it completed 25 missions over Europe.

Did you know?

The Memphis Belle B-17 Flying Fortress that completed 25 combat missions in World War II is now being restored at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton, Ohio. You can learn more at nationalmuseum.af.mil/exhibits/restoration online.

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