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 it was hit by antiaircraft artillery over Stendal, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, 8 April 1945. (American Air Museum in Britain, Roger Freeman Collection.)

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, LG W, 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. (American Air Museum in Britain)

The pilot, Lieutenant Fuller, did escape from the doomed bomber. He was captured and spent the remainder of the war as a Prisoner of War. The other eight  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. (American Air Museum in Britain, Roger Freeman Collection)

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 30 days later, 7 May 1945.

Boeing B-17G-15-BO Flying Fortress, LG W, “Wee Willie,” and its flight crew at Air Force Station 121, RAF Bassingbourne, 12 February 1944. The bomber is still nearly new, having flown 6 combat missions, 31 January 1943–3 February 1944, when it was damaged by anti-aircraft artllery over Wilhelmsahaven, Germany. “Wee Willie” was out of action until 20 February 1944. Standing, left to right: 1st Lt. John A. Moeller, co-pilot; 2nd Lt. Harry Lerner, navigator; S/Sgt Robert Kelley, waist gunner; S/Sgt Martin, ball turret gunner; Lt. Joe Gagliano, bombardier; 1st Lt. Paul D. Jessop, pilot. Kneeling, left to right: S/Sgt MacElroy, waist gunner; S/Sgt Shoupe, radio operator; S/Sgt Southworth, engineer/top turret gunner; and S/Sgt Joe Zastinich, tail gunner. Waist gunner S/Sgt Henry F. Osowski was wounded on the Wilhelmshaven mission and is not in this photograph. (American Air Museum in Britain)
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 the aircrews who fought and died in the skies over Europe. The officer kneeling 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. (American Air Museum in Britain)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 thoughts on “8 April 1945

  1. Looks like it was a field converted B-17F. The 42-**** number indicates it was manufactured in 1942. Not sure on the theatre date, may not be entirely correct.

    1. Thanks, Ron. “Wee Willie” was not a field-modified B-17F. And no, the 42 does not represent the year the airplane was manufactured. It is the fiscal year when funding for the contract for that block of airplanes was approved. B-17G production began in July 1943. 42-31333 was the first Block 15 Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress: B-17G-15-BO, Boeing serial number 6446. It was built at Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle, Washington, in October 1943. 42-31333 was delivered to a modification center at Cheyenne, Wyoming, 22 October 1943, and then on to Grand Island AAF, Nebraska, 3 November 1943, and Memphis, Tennessee, 9 November 1943. It arrived at Bassingbourne, England 20 December 1943. The airplane was assigned to the 322nd Bombardment Squadron, 91st Bombardment Group, and given fuselage identification code LG W. “Wee Willie” was damaged in combat 3 February 1944 and one of its gunners wounded. The bomber was out of service until 20 February 1944.

      1. Thanks Bryan. Always enjoy checking up on your notes about the “Wee Willie”. My dad is turning 95 in a couple of months. Lost mom late 2017. Dad sometimes gives us all a little bit of history. When he feels up to giving the young ones some info about what it was like. It sure would be great to get some writing from you to him. Anyone is welcomed to write him. Do you know if there are any crew from “Wee Willie” flight teams still around? My Dad is Lt. Col. Jess V. Ziccarello Ret. USAF. Thanks for all the work you have done over the years.

        1. Thank you, Rick. I constantly update articles as I find new information. Just recently, I changed all of the photographs of Wee Willie with larger format, higher definition images. That’s an interesting question about surviving members of Wee Willie combat crews. In 129 missions, I would guess that no less than 50 men, and very likely many more than that, would have flown on that B-17. I do know that the 91st Bombardment Group has a reunion scheduled 16–19 May 2018 in Dayton, Ohio, coinciding with the opening of the Memphis Belle exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. A membership contact for the Group is Jody Kelly, Oxnard, CA. (805) 984-7706; e-mail: [email protected]

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