8 April 1945

In one of the most dramatic photographic images of World War II, Wee Willie, Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress 42-31333, is going down after hit by antiaircraft artillery over Stendal, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, 8 April 1945. (U.S. Air Force)
In one of the most dramatic photographic images of World War II, Wee Willie, Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress 42-31333, is going down after hit by antiaircraft artillery over Stendal, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, 8 April 1945. (U.S. Air Force)

8 April 1945: Wee Willie, a Flying Fortress heavy bomber, left its base at Air Force Station 121 (RAF Bassingbourne, Cambridgeshire, England), on its 129th combat mission over western Europe. The aircraft commander was 1st Lieutenant Robert E. Fuller, U.S. Army Air Forces.

Wee Willie was a B-17G-15-BO, serial number 42-31333, built by the Boeing Airplane Company’s Plant 2, Seattle, Washington. It was delivered to the United States Army Air Forces at Cheyenne, Wyoming on 22 October 1943, and arrived at Bassingbourne 20 December 1943. It was assigned to the 322nd Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), 91st Bombardment Group (Heavy), 1st Air Division, 8th Air Force. The identification letters LG W were painted on both sides of its fuselage, and a white triangle with a black letter A on the top of its right wing and both sides of its vertical fin.

Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress 42-31333, Wee Willie, December 1944. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress 42-31333, Wee Willie, December 1944. (U.S. Air Force)

On 8 April 1945, the 322nd Bombardment Squadron was part of an attack against the locomotive repair facilities at the railroad marshaling yards in Stendal, Saxony-Anhalt Germany. The squadron was bombing through clouds using H2S ground search radar to identify the target area. Antiaircraft gunfire (flak) was moderate, causing major damage to four B-17s and minor damage to thirteen others. Two bombers from the 91st Bomb Group were lost, including Wee Willie.

The Missing Air Crew Report, MACR 13881, included a statement  from a witness:

“We were flying over the target at 20,500 feet [6,248 meters] altitude when I observed aircraft B-17G, 42-31333 to receive a direct flak hit approximately between the bomb bay and #2 engine. The aircraft immediately started into a vertical dive. The fuselage was on fire and when it had dropped approximately 5,000 feet [1,524 meters] the left wing fell off. It continued down and when the fuselage was about 3,000 feet [914.4 meters] from the ground it exploded and then exploded again when it hit the ground. I saw no crew member leave the aircraft or parachutes open.”

This photographic image precedes the one above. The Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress 42-31333, Wee Willie, is engulfed in flame. The left wing has separated and is crossing over the fuselage. (U.S. Air Force)
This photographic image precedes the one above. The Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress 42-31333, Wee Willie, is engulfed in flame. The left wing has separated and is crossing over the fuselage. (U.S. Air Force)

The pilot, Lieutenant Fuller, did bail out of the doomed bomber. He was captured and spent the remainder of the war as a POW. The other 8 crew members, however were killed.

1st Lieutenant Robert E. Fuller, O-774609, California. Aircraft Commander/Pilot—Prisoner of War

2nd Lieutenant Woodrow A. Lien, O-778858, Montana. Co-pilot—Killed in Action

Technical Sergeant Francis J. McCarthy, 14148856, Tennessee. Navigator—Killed in Action

Staff Sergeant Richard D. Proudfit, 14166848, Mississippi. Togglier—Killed in Action

Staff Sergeant Wylie McNatt, Jr., 38365470, Texas. Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner—Killed in Action

Staff Sergeant William H. Cassiday, 32346219, New York. Ball Turret Gunner—Killed in Action

Staff Sergeant Ralph J. Leffelman, 19112019, Washington. Radio Operator/Top Gunner—Killed in Action

Staff Sergeant James D. Houtchens, 37483248, Nebraska. Waist Gunner—Killed in Action

Sergeant Le Moyne Miller, 33920597, Pennsylvania. Tail Gunner—Killed in Action

In the third photograph of the sequence, Wee Willie has exploded and fragments of the wings and fuselage streak downward in flame. (U.S. Air Force)
In the third photograph of the sequence, Wee Willie has exploded and fragments of the wings and fuselage streak downward in flame. (U.S. Air Force)

Wee Willie was the oldest B-17G still in service with the 91st Bomb Group, and the next to last B-17 lost to enemy action by the group before cessation of hostilities. The War in Europe came to an end with the unconditional surrender of Germany just 31 days later, 8 May 1945.

Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress, Wee Willie, and its flight crew at Air Force Station 121, RAF Bassingbourne, 14 February 1944. The bomber is still nearly new with no mission markings yet displayed. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress, Wee Willie, and its flight crew at Air Force Station 121, RAF Bassingbourne, 14 February 1944. The bomber is still nearly new with no mission markings yet displayed. (U.S. Air Force)

During the 129 missions Wee Willie flew in its 1 year, 3 months, 20 days at war, many airmen served as its crew members. The men in this photograph are not identified, and the date it was taken is not known. A battle-scarred veteran, Wee Willie now has markings showing 106 missions completed. These men are representative all all the aircrews who fought and died in the skies over Europe. (U.S. Air Force)
During the 129 missions Wee Willie flew in its 1 year, 3 months, 20 days at war, many airmen served as its crew members. The men in this photograph are not identified, and the date it was taken is not known. A battle-scarred veteran, Wee Willie now has markings showing 106 missions completed. These men are representative all all the aircrews who fought and died in the skies over Europe. (U.S. Air Force) [Update: The officer in the front row, right, has been identified as 2nd Lieutenant Jess Ziccarello, the navigator for this crew. Thanks to his son, Rick Ziccarello, for the identification.]
© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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