This is a verbatim account of Russell M. Bragg’s first combat mission, while a B-17 pilot at the 403rd Bomb Squadron, described in a letter to a friend in July 1979:
The day of my first mission I flew a solo B-17 raid in under a low overcast to hit Jap bombers on their airfield at Gasmata, New Britain. Because of the overcast I had to stay below 2000’ (about 20 B-17 wing-spans and not a lot of room to maneuver in) in order to see the targets at all. Anyhow, on the first pass we caught them by surprise and came away clean leaving two of six Jap bombers burning in their revetments. But on the second “go” they really had us zeroed in, and we took some fierce cannon hits at essentially point-blank range. The first flak shell to hit entered the cockpit and literally blew the hell out of my “office.” It was an unbelievable shambles-which was alright because the concussion was so bad I didn’t want to believe it anyway!!! A second later the next shell exploded in our open bomb-bay where hanging on the bomb shackles on one side we were carrying an extra long-range fuel bladder (500 gallons of 130 octane aviation fuel). The shrapnel punctured that bladder in how many places I’ll never know, but it began burning like a giant torch as the 200 mph slipstream sucked out streamers of burning fuel that flamed all the way back past the tail. We were, to say the least, in an untenable position!
Yet-we were a pretty tenacious bunch of guys! Later, I was thankful that bladder had still been chock full at the time it was hit-otherwise it would have exploded on the spot with free tickets to the hereafter for all aboard. As it happened, my crew chief/top turret gunner momentarily opened the forward entrance door to the bomb-bay trying to grab the salvo “T”-handle just inside the doorway. His intentions were “right on” as they say, but all he got for his pains was his eyebrows burned off, some scorching around the face, and the “T”-handle with a severed 6 inches of dangling cable attached to it. I immediately jerked the pilot’s jettison handle beside my seat (which now had only 3 legs instead of 4-on-the-floor) and we got rid of that hot potato just as I pulled up out of sight into the overcast. That burning bladder tumbling down out of the overcast must have hit the ground just about the end of their revetment area (we didn’t come back a third time to find out because we had enough other problems aboard to keep us busy all the way home!).
Anyhow, seeing that burning mess falling down out of the overcast the Japs must have thought (understandably) that they had finished us off, or at least we’d never make it home. Confirmation of that view came that night via short-wave when Tokyo Rose broadcasting her Zero Hour program out of Djojakarta (Netherlands East Indies) triumphantly announced that the invincible Japanese Imperial forces had shot down a heavy bomber over Gasmata, New Britain that afternoon. Well, that was the first I’d heard about it!!!-but I was perfectly happy they had made a mistake.
It had taken us several hours to make it back home which, at that time, was Jackson Strip-7 miles into the boonies East of Port Moresby. On the way home amongst the shambles of the cockpit I picked up one brassy looking conical object which turned out to be the nicely numbered and hand-indexed altitude/timer nose piece from the shell that had so quickly wrecked my “office.” Now somewhat dented and misshapen it still looked better than we did.
At crew de-briefing following our return from mission this brassy artifact became a much looked-at item. Everyone seemed to take a fancy to it. After all, few people so far had survived that special session of “togetherness” one gets when a closed cockpit is shared intimately with an exploding cannon shell-much less shake hands with it and bring home its nose timer. (Of course, it hadn’t really been fun and games-my co-pilot, top turret gunner and I were all in various stages of deafness for the next three or four days and we all nursed our private cuts, nicks, bruises, and what-not-still not entirely confident all our parts were hooked on where they ought to be. Must have been the effect of the concussion.)
Anyhow, at the end of the de-briefing I asked Bill Graham, our Group Intelligence Officer, if I could have the nose piece for a souvenir after Tech Intelligence got through probing it. He said: “You sure can. Let’s see, now-where is it?” Suddenly, it was nowhere to be found!!! Some smart-ass had walked off with it already! After all we’d been through that day it seemed like the straw to break the camel’s back-admittedly, no big thing, but I still felt badly that someone would filch it-until I realized that just maybe it had found its way into the pocket of someone on our own crew. In that case I felt better for he would have paid for it that day every bit as much as I. To this day I have no idea who became its proud possessor.
While I’m at it-narrating this first-mission experience-I might mention that the B-17 I used that day I had “borrowed” from our 65th Bomb Squadron. Someone had already christened it the “Loose Goose” in large letters on the side of the nose. A not-too-well-done painting of a goose in flight dribbling a string of bombs behind it kept the lettering company. At post-flight aircraft inspection I had looked up at that painting and thought: “Migawd, Old Girl, you’re really a Loose Goose after this one!” I gave her back to the 65th for repairs but, needless to say, I never forgot her. Nor did I forget the priceless lessons she taught me that day about “hanging in there” no matter how tough and hopeless things seemed. I didn’t know it then, but I needed that education for the next 72 missions to come, and for countless more in other times and places. I’m sorry she took such a beating, but she did a grand job and brought us all home.