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VOL. 41 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 13, 2017

‘The only one left’ recalls deadly B-17 missions

Public can get flights, tours of WWII bomber this weekend

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Jacob “Mac” McClenny in “Little Chapel,” a plane he flew out of England on bombing raids to Hitler’s Europe.

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When I tap on the thin, aluminum skin of the B-17 Flying Fortress, I think about how, just a few miles away Jacob “Mac” McClenny has just celebrated his 97th birthday, despite the fact that some 70 years earlier Nazi anti-aircraft artillery had done its best to knock him and his crew out of the sky.

“We got hit quite a bit,” says Mac of his wartime experience spent inside B-17s, describing how Nazi flak shells would explode around him, sending shrapnel through this skin as he and his crew fought hard to get 8,000-pounds of bombs to the target and drop them on Hitler and his pals. The flak shrapnel easily could travel completely through the aluminum tube. It also could – and often did – kill or maim the men inside.

I was inside the Madras Maiden – a B-17 that had flown into Smyrna Airport mid-afternoon Monday – after being invited as part of area news media given the opportunity to go for a short flight. Unfortunately, that flight – held to entice media into giving publicity to Saturday’s flights and tours for the general public – had limped into the airport with its No. 3 engine feathered.

“I was about 20 miles north when I saw the rivulets of oil,” says Bob Hill, pilot of this flying warship. It’s his role as a volunteer for the Liberty Foundation to take the B-17 all over the nation to remind people of the bravery of guys like Mac and to educate and inspire younger generations.

“I had to feather No. 3,” he adds, as he points at the shimmering oil on that engine’s exterior.

He says “it should be a simple fix” for the Liberty Foundation’s mechanic. The plane, he says, will be ready to take media up later in the week. And it certainly will be fit for the public flights Saturday. But as pilot of Madras Maiden, he didn’t want to take chances with that oil-cloaked engine.

As a lifelong member of the media, I sure didn’t question the B-17 pilot known at airports all across the country as Captain Bob. So, I’m OK walking through a safely parked plane.

Then I think of Mac. Just this same morning I had called him with one more question about his days as a B-17 war pilot – I’d already had a couple of interviews with him – but he had cut the conversation short because he was cooking breakfast for his wife and himself.

I can’t say for sure, but I’ll bet he’ll be smiling and looking at the skies over Murfreesboro with his one good eye – “the right one is bad because of a mini-stroke,” he tells me – on Saturday when this plane makes several trips through the skies of Rutherford County.

“A B-17 has a sound of its own,” Mac says in one of our conversations from his home in Murfreesboro. “I can still tell a B-17 when it flies over.”

These flights are held by the Liberty Foundation – and piloted by Captain Bob – to help promote the Liberty Foundation’s “mission of honoring veterans, educate current and future generations as to the high price of freedom and to preserve our aviation history,” the organization’s press releases states.

Jacob “Mac” McClenny during World War II

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While I didn’t get off the ground, I was able to clamber around inside the plane and to chat more with Captain Bob, 61, an FAA employee and longtime cargo pilot who volunteers his weekends to barnstorm the country firing up both imagination and patriotism.

OK, so the 74-foot, 4-inch long plane with the 103-foot, 9-inch wingspan was not going to take me for aerial adventures as I’d hoped, but not only had I toured plane, I had – in the days prior – made the acquaintance of Mac, one of the last ones left.

“Use to be we’d have 10 (B-17 vets) at each stop,” says Captain Bob. Now they are few and far between, vanished like most of The Greatest Generation. Still their families can visit to see up close what all those dinner-table reminiscences were about. And others, from school kids to senior adults, can come out here to fire up their patriotism and perhaps dream.

Just about every Baby Boomer has seen plenty of Hollywood images of this craft from years ago when we watched “Twelve O’Clock High” (the mid-’60s TV show which was inspired by the classic 1949 big-screen drama).

Few of us get a chance to get inside one of these, so even though I didn’t get to go for the Monday flight, I was able to smell and feel the interior and the exterior of the plane. I also had seen it as it traveled the tarmac to the airport terminal, where the media waited. The loud sound that Mac had told me of was even evident then, though in a muted, crippled sort of way.

Mac McClenny beat considerable odds by walking away from World War II and his B-17 bomber. Crews on heavy bombers during the war had a 23 percent chance of making it back alive, according to Bob Hill, pilot of the Madras Maiden.

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Captain Bob – both on “flight day” and in a previous interview – says the B-17 Flying Fortress and the P-51 fighter plane – major staples of the war that saved the world – “are quintessential examples of America’s World War II air power.”

“I look at it as I hope we inspire people,” he adds.

Mac, the 97-year-old who was cooking breakfast earlier this day, says the B-17 owns a big piece of his heart.

“It’s just the kind of airplane you learn to love,” explains this truly gentle man and proud veteran pilot, who dropped bombs and dodged flak and somehow survived not only the war but the 72 years since.

Mac’s love of B-17s actually was born in Little Chapel, a plane he flew out of England on bombing raids to Hitler’s Europe. “My first mission was January 20, 1945.”

On that day Mac was at the controls of the Little Chapel, and he shared piloting duties with Bob Porter from Portland, Oregon. When one man tired of wrestling with the cables that connected the controls to the rest of the plane, the other would take over. There was nothing digital nor even hydraulic about this proud airplane.

“I was the commanding officer,” he says of his first war-time flight of Little Chapel. “We were flying 36 planes in formation and we had cloud cover beneath us and we missed the target.

The Madras Maiden, a World War II-era B-17 bomber, will be available for rides and tours this weekend at Smyrna Airport as part of the Liberty Foundation’s mission of honoring veterans.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

“Two days later, the target was clear and we went, 12 planes in formation, back there. The anti-aircraft was pretty hot.

“Aircraft were getting shot down. We looked around for someone else to go with back to base.”

They were alone. “Out of those 12 airplanes, we were the only ones that made it back to base.”

Most of the other B-17s were lost, casualties of war. He reckons that others from the formation limped to land in Belgium, which by then had been liberated from the Nazis.

The Madras Maiden never went to war, but it’s doing its part to honor those that did.

Captain Bob, by the way, is – when not flying warplanes – FAA Safety Team Program manager. “Essentially my job is to compose pilot safety seminars and also to develop airman safety education material,” the Mount Juliet resident notes.

As a volunteer pilot-historian, he’s had plenty of flights in other planes. But, judging by the tone of his voice, the Liberty Foundation’s Madras Maiden – the craft I’m aboard – and B-17s in general hold a special place in his heart.

He’s also proud to be the high-flying purveyor of history and to be able to commemorate the death-defying heroism of guys like Mac as well as the majority who did not defy death, who were blasted from the sky.

“If you did serve on a heavy bomber, you had a 23 percent chance that you would return from the mission. That means 77 percent were lost.

The ball turret gunner was in a particularly precarious position, hanging from the belly of the B-17. The ball turret is one of eight machine gun locations on the aircraft.

-- Lyle Graves | The Ledger

“Most likely you weren’t going to survive that tour,” Bob says.

Survival was more hope than reality for the brave men of the Eighth Air Force who carried tons of bombs addressed to Hitler in the bellies of the aircraft. "We only flew air combat for 2½ years. 26,000 killed, 100,000 wounded, 33,000 became prisoners of war.”

He grows somber when he admits not seeing many vets any more is a heart-aching reality. “Over the years, you would see the same veterans at each stop,” he says. “Sadly, of course, the cycle of life: They pass away.”

Then he smiles. “A lot of people have asked me ‘Do you think about World War II when you’re flying that airplane?’ No, I don’t, I am focused on what I’m doing. I don’t daydream.”

It is between flights that he has time to think about the heroes he has been fortunate enough to meet during these tours.

“In those quiet times around the airplane or at home, I think about the people I’ve met and what they tell me about their experiences” in Flying Fortresses.

“One fellow, Al Kramer, in Manchester, New Hampshire, was shot down on a Stuttgart mission in December of 1943. It took six months with the French underground before he and three others were smuggled out in the small hold of a fishing vessel.”

The view from the nose of the Madras Maiden, where the bombadier would sit during bombing runs. B-17s typically had 10 crew members, eight of whom operated machine guns, some in addition to other duties.

-- David Laprad | The Ledger

“I’ve also heard some funny stories. Some that kind of make you smile,” Captain Bob adds.

That’s why I relish the time spent with each veteran of that war, the Greatest Generation. It’s why I was delighted to be able to speak with Mac, who in the past did take one of the B-17 flights during a Liberty Foundation stop in Smyrna. “My daughter took me… they let me ride for free since I was a B-17 pilot.”

The public will be allowed to share this bit of history Saturday, Oct. 14. The airplane will be on display from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. at the Smyrna Airport. Flights begin at 10. The cost to fly is $450 per person, $410 for Liberty Foundation members. Expensive? Sure, but the operating cost is $4,500 per flight hour, Bob tells me.

Ground tours are free. These tours will begin in the afternoon, after the flights are concluded.

Mac, the wise old pilot who fought against the odds, went on to fly air rescue missions in the B-17 after the war, dropping boats that had been strapped below the bomb bay to help save those who were struggling in the water.

A bit safer than flying over Hitler’s Germany where flak shells exploded all around his plane, often hitting it.

“One of our most-serious ones was when an 88-millimeter anti-aircraft artillery projectile got in the wing. It didn’t explode. There were a lot of incendiary pieces hitting the plane,” he recalls.

“We had already hit our target. It was Cologne. We were on the way out and we saw something hurtling through the air.

“It hit the left wing and stayed there. It didn’t explode. We didn’t see anything wrong, so we started home,” the projectile still lodged in the wing. Now it is in his Murfreesboro study.

He acquired that almost deadly little souvenir on the third of his 24 missions out of England as Allied forces dropped bombs from above while infantrymen and others slogged across European soil with the target being, of course, to kill Hitler or at least to save humanity.

“When we got home (to the base in England), I crawled up into that wing and dug out that big piece.

“The crew wanted to draw straws for it, but I said ‘no deal. I got in there and got it.’”

“It weighed 8 pounds,” he remembers. “I got the biggest part.”

While sitting in his study with that bit of a reminder of the third of his 24 missions, not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his World War II experiences in the B-17.

“It was a little difficult when moving in formation. It was one of the biggest airplanes flying, but it was too sensitive. It kind of caused that airplane to wallow around too much,” he says.

“When we were flying missions over Germany, we were hitting minus 50 degrees,” says Mac of his regular flights at about 25,000 feet in the non-pressurized aircraft.

“We had heaters and we wore heavy clothing. We wore a lot of leather. Stuff like a Mae West (inflatable life preserver to be used if the plane didn’t make it back across the English Channel), a flak suit, a parachute and an anti-exposure suit, so we were pretty well insulated,” he explains.

An Army Air Corps lieutenant during war-time, Mac stayed in what became the Air Force in 1947 until 1965, when he retired as a lieutenant colonel and went to work at Lockheed as an engineering inspector for military aircraft.

After leaving the company’s Marietta, Georgia, plant, he and his family moved to Murfreesboro, a city they had learned to love during his years stationed at Sewart Air Force Base, now the Smyrna Airport.

Mac has no plans to visit the B-17 this time around. But it is in his heart every day.

Also in his heart are the memories of the co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, flight engineer (also top-turret gunner), radio operator, two waist gunners, the tail gunner and the ball-turret gunner …. the men who with him survived 24 missions in the war against the Nazis.

“I think I’m the only one left.”