Famous Photograph Has a Pittsburgh Connection

In October, 1944, Americans throughout the country opened their newspapers and saw this photograph of a B-17 Flying Fortress grotesquely flayed open by enemy anti-aircraft fire.  The accompanying story recounted the crew’s miraculous flight back to an English air base after coming under attack during a bombing mission over Cologne, Germany.  Nine of the ten crew members survived the explosion, which took off the nose of the plane.  The sole casualty was S/Sgt. George Edward Abbott, a waist gunner turned togglier, who was from Mt. Lebanon, PA.

I live less than a mile from George Abbott’s former home.  I had seen this photograph many times over the years.  During the war, the photo helped to publicize the sturdiness of B-17s in the air war against Germany.  I had no idea that my community in Mt. Lebanon was connected to this photo until I received a letter from Bertha Abbott Thomas, George’s sister, who now lives in Florida.

Bert was a young girl in 1943 when her older brother George went off to war.  Like millions of other 18-year-olds, George wanted to fly and joined the Army Air Corps.  By 1944, he was serving as a waist gunner on a B-17 crew in the Eighth Air Force in England.  His job was to fend off German fighters as his heavy bomber raided enemy territory.

Some time that summer, George received additional duty.  By 1944, so many B-17 bombardiers had been killed that the Air Corps began recruiting waist gunners like George to serve as stand-ins, called “toggliers.”  Toggliers didn’t receive bombardier’s pay, nor rank (bombardiers were officers, and George remained a sergeant), but they did get the hazardous job of operating the bomb bay doors in the exposed nose position of the plane.

George was at the bomb release switch in the nose of the Flying Fortress on October 15, 1944, when his ten-man crew, led by pilot Lt. Lawrence DeLancey, reached its target over the railroad yards near Cologne, Germany.  Anti-aircraft explosions bracketed the airplane as George flipped the switch to release its payload.  The B-17, now thousands of pounds lighter, surged upward.  Seconds later, the plane rocked violently.  A German shell had pierced the nose turret and exploded, killing George in an instant.  Somehow, the plane’s navigator, Lt. Ray LeDoux, survived the impact, even though he was sitting three feet from George when the plane was hit.

The skin that had once covered the B-17’s nose was now folded back over the cockpit, obstructing the pilot’s view.  The explosion had knocked out the instruments and radio, severed the rudder controls, and, most critical at 27,000 feet, cut the oxygen supply.  The nine other crew members—all but George—were alive.  The plane had plunged to 2,000 feet, low enough to breathe, and Lt. DeLancey regained control of the the ship.  He and LeDoux decided to attempt a return back to England, 300 miles away, rather than bail out over enemy territory.

LeDoux navigated entirely by sight, picking out landmarks through the cockpit’s side windows.  After the plane reached the British coastline, people on the ground began hearing a loud haunting wail overhead.  Air base crews heard the crippled B-17 make its approach before they ever saw it.  With its nose torn off, the plane sounded like a giant whistle flying through the air, emitting an unearthly howl that drowned out the roar of the plane’s four powerful engines.

Spectators stood agog at the sight of the B-17 as its landed safely and taxied on the runway.  The shaken crew members climbed down from the twisted hulk and promptly received pills from a flight surgeon—presumably something stronger than the shots of whiskey usually handed out after mission.  They would each get a couple weeks off for “flak leave.”  By early November, most were back in the air, flying once again through the flak.

The photograph of the crippled B-17 was meant to be inspirational.  Here was a badly damaged plane that should have gone down over Germany but instead returned its surviving crew to safety.

But the happy ending wasn’t shared by Mt. Lebanon’s Abbott family.  Sixty-eight years may be a long time, but the decades can’t dim Bertha Abbott Thomas’s memories of her brother George Edward Abbott, a young man who once strolled down the sidewalks outside my door.