Monday, June 27, 2011

Turret Gunners Survive WWII Bombing Missions

June 27, 2011
LOCKPORT — Everett Fitchlee was struck by shrapnel while serving as a turret gunner on a B-17 over Germany in World War II and was recovering in a hospital when his bomber, the “Asterisk,” went down.

Only three members of his crew survived the Nov. 30, 1944 crash on a mission to Merseburg, Germany and they were taken as prisoners of war.

Fitchlee, 87, and Bill Pace are the only survivors of the Flying Fortress that the crew called “Ass-ta-risk.” Fitchlee lives on Stone Road. Pace lives in Florida.

There were tears when the friends reunited 20 years after the war.

Fitchlee was the flight engineer, the gunner in turret on top. William A. Pace was the waist gunner — that is the crewman who fires out of the belly of the bomber. Both came close to death.

Fitchlee was born and raised in Royalton Center. A 1942 graduate of Lockport High School, he joined the Army in 1943 and, after basic training in Florida, traveled by train to Los Angeles at Curtis Wright to become a flight engineer.

“You had to know about aircraft, to try to fix things,” he said.

Fitchlee was assigned to the 390th Air Group and was stationed in Framlingham, England. He was in the same wing as Howard Roth of Lockport. “We probably flew missions together and didn’t know it,” he said.

Fitchlee was credited with 30 combat missions over France and Germany. There were more flights, but crews were not credited with a mission unless they dropped their bombs.

The top turret was a prime target of the enemy and on one mission over Germany, the Asterisk was it. “They fire those 88 millimeters put up to your altitude and those things would bust. Shrapnel was flying all over. I got a piece of that flak you see flying around in the air. I got a ton of flak they took out of my back.”

The Asterisk made it back to the base where they shot up a red flair and landed safely. “There were holes in the plane. That old plane was a rugged aircraft.”

Fitchlee was given morphine and was hospitalized, but the Asterisk was patched up and returned to duty. On a mission over a ball bearing factory in Germany, the lead plane was hit and fell on the Asterisk, splitting it in half.

Three crew members became prisoners of war, one of them was Case.

Fitchlee and Case were reunited in Connecticut. “I didn’t know details until years later,” he said. “We lost a lot of aircraft that day.”

Case could only hook one side of parachute and he floated right out of the ball. “He’s falling, trying to get the other side of parachute hooked on, flopping around. The ground is coming up, and he pulled the rip chord,” Fitchlee said.

While Pace was collecting parachute, some people in the village came out and captured him. They put a rope around his neck. “They were going to hang him,” Fitchlee said. “Along comes a German soldier on a motorcycle and he stopped them. He took his rifle out and said, ‘Take that rope off.’ He put Bill on back of the motorcycle and took him where he got interrogated.”

The German soldier spoke English. He came from Chicago, and while in Germany the war broke out. “They wouldn’t let him out of the country. They put him in the army,” Fitchlee said.

Pace was put in Stalag 1. Fitchlee returned to action with another plane, another crew.

On one mission, he could see the enemy close up. “We lost an engine and couldn’t keep up. We were sitting ducks. I saw this plane (ME-292, a new German jet) coming in the distance. He was on us so fast, he went off left wing, I could see his face, that’s how close he was. He went zipping by us,” Fitchlee said. “We called for a fighter escort. Two 51s showed and he made a second pass. He shot at us this time. You have to lead a country mile to hit him. He was going so fast. That’s the last we saw him.”

On another mission, the temperature hit 65 below zero. The moisture from breathing would freeze in the mask.

“I got my ears frozen,” Fitchlee said. “Did they burn when I came down, oh man! I was grounded for a few days. I had to wait to heal up until I could fly again.”

Fitchlee returned to Lockport after the war and married Ruth Behl in 1946. They were married 43 years and have had three children. He got a job as a tool and dye maker and worked at Harrison Radiator for 36 years.

He still goes to reunions and was happy to have the opportunity to be a passenger of the Liberty Belle flying fortress in 2007.

Case kept a piece of barbed wire from Stalag 1. Fitchlee has a piece of shrapnel.

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