Someone recently told me that there are only 15 B-17s that are considered flyable today and less than three dozen more that are either on static display or are restorable derelicts. Can you imagine what an impressive sight it would be to see a formation of 12 to 15 B-17s fly by?
However impressive such a flight would be today, it would be only a scant shadow of the huge bomber formations that roared over “”Fortress Europe”" during the latter years of World War II.
The inevitable question, “”Where are the warbirds?”", always comes up at air shows. People want to see, hear and touch the fighters and bombers that their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers and cousins flew in the war. So great is their popularity that it’s no wonder artists use them in their paintings.
Robert Bailey’s painting, “”Ruhr Valley Raiders,”" is a good example. It shows the B-17 “”Nine-O-Nine”" and other Flying Fortresses from the 91st Bomb Group over Germany’s heartland in early 1944. They are being attacked by cannon-armed Me 109s designed specifically to shoot down heavy bombers.
“”The crews who returned to Bassingbourn were not the same as they left,”" says Mike Coenen in the artist’s flyer for the print. “”They had experienced a terror high over Germany that few can imagine. German fighters, anti-aircraft shells, sub-zero temperatures and the loss of close friends had altered their lives forever. The world has turned many times since those dark days when men of the 91st BG began building their proud history — a history based on duty, personal sacrifice and a belief in God and country. The fields around Bassingbourn have returned to their rural past as the men and machines have all but faded into the mists of time. What remains, as if distilled through the years, is the legend of the ‘Ragged Irregulars’ — the men who answered freedom’s call with their blood, sweat, and tears.”"
Bailey’s growing series of paintings depicting both Allied and Axis aircraft of World War II are popular for more than one reason. Not only does he show these aircraft in dramatic action, but each print is signed by a number of men from the subject group or mission. His prints of “”Ruhr Valley Raiders”" have anywhere from six to 60 signatures of men who served with the 91st BG.
It’s not as hard to find someone who flew these missions as it is to find the planes, even though their number is dwindling rapidly. I recently attended a dinner meeting where the guest speaker was one of the “”code talkers”" from World War II who served with Col. Tibbets. Sitting across from me was Wilbur Richardson, who told me that he was celebrating the 61st anniversary of his last combat mission that day.
He was a ball-turret gunner on a B-17 with the 94th BG stationed at St. Marys-in-the-Marsh. He joined the group in April 1944 and during his tour of duty he witnessed many unique sights that probably will never be seen again. From his ball-turret he had a box seat view of the action around and below his B-17. On D-Day he flew two missions during which he got to see the vast armada that carried men and material to the beaches of Normandy.
On one flight he saw a three-gun salvo from one of the forward turrets of a battleship. From his perch high above the scene, he watched in awe as the three projectiles were spit from the gun barrels in a cloud of black smoke. He continued to watch them as they arched across the sky until they exploded on the target. Each of those 16-inch projectiles was roughly 3 feet long and weighed more than a ton.
It must have been awesome to view the Earth from beneath a B-17. Of course he had twin 50s in front of him and a metal seat below him, but there was little else but Plexiglas between him and the Earth more than 20,000 feet below.
He saw huge bomber formations from his vantage point and was even on a 1,000-plane raid – 1,000 bombers that is, which doesn’t include the hundreds of fighter escorts. Fighter pilots who have been on these massive raids say that a bomber formation of that size could be 200 miles long.
Richardson flew 30 missions in 79 days. His last mission was on July 13, 1944, when he was carried away from the plane on a stretcher. He spent the next six weeks in a hospital recovering from his wounds. With memories like that, you might think he wouldn’t care to see another Flying Fortress. But when he has the opportunity, he tours with the B-17 “”Sentimental Journey.”"
Granted, not everyone appreciates prints that depict warbirds, especially those showing the brutal reality of aerial combat. But art is many things. It can be aesthetically pleasing or relaxing, but it also can be thought provoking.
Many of us have memories of those times or of those who served in World War II. We must never forget those who made our freedom possible and what it cost them.
Larry W. Bledsoe is an avid aviation historian and writer. He can be contacted at 909-986-1103 or at BledsoeAvArt.com.