Valor: Gauntlet of Fire

Sept. 1, 1986

Stories of heroism and loyalty among Eighth Air Force B-17 crews and about the stamina of that great airplane abound, but few can equal that of the mission of April 11, 1944, flown by Lt. Edward Michael, pilot of the Bertie Lee. It was the 26th time over enemy territory for all but three of the crew. Their target: a ball-bearing factory at Stettin, 75 miles beyond Berlin. The Bertie Lee, a 305th Bomb Group Fortress based at Chelveston, was in the last element of the bomber stream and was carrying a load of 42, 100-pound incendiaries.

At 10:45 a.m., about four hours after takeoff, the Bertie Lee took the first of many hits as flak tore a large hole in her left wing. A few minutes later, the crew watched as 13 B-24s of another formation were shot down by enemy fighters. The Luftwaffe was out in force that morning.

Thirty miles south of Berlin, more than 100 fighters struck the B-17s in the most desperate attack Michael had ever seen. In a second attack, Michael’s B-17 was hit by 20-mm shells. Two engines and most of the instruments were knocked out, the top turret damaged, and Michael was seriously wounded in the right thigh. The Bertie Lee was forced to drop out of formation as Michael fought to gain control of the badly damaged bomber. Then a crewman reported that the incendiaries were on fire. The burning bombs couldn’t be released. It was a matter of minutes before they exploded or melted control cables running through the bomb bay.

Michael ordered the crew of the apparently doomed B-17 to bail out. All but copilot 2d Lt. Franklin Westberg took to their chutes or so Michael thought. Westberg refused to go until Michael, bleeding profusely, was safely out. Before they could resolve that issue, fighters struck again. Michael dove into a cloud bank, breaking out at 2,500 feet just as the wounded flight engineer, Sgt. Jewel Phillips, staggered into the cockpit, unable to put his chute on. A surprised Michael helped Phillips with the chute and watched him go out the lower hatch.

The bombs now had been burning for about 20 minutes. Michael and Westberg, knowing they already had stretched their luck, were preparing to bail out when the nose gun began to fire. With his intercom out, bombardier 2d Lt. John Lieber wasn’t aware of the fire or that most of the crew was gone. His own chute lay in shreds, torn by a 20-mm shell. When he refused to take Michael’s chute, Michael and Westberg climbed back into their seats, determined to stay with Lieber and perhaps to crash-land in France if the bomber held together that long.

Lieber was finally able to release the bombs, which had burned through the left side of the fuselage, destroying all control cables and wiring on that side of the plane. To make the situation even more desperate, the bomb bay doors wouldn’t close, further slowing the Bertie Lee as she limped along on two engines. But now there was at least a remote chance of making it back to England. Then the fighters came in again, and Michael headed for the deck. In one of five attacks, the windshield was shattered, leaving no forward visibility as they wallowed along at treetop height, taking hits from ground fire that knocked out the rudder and damaged the elevators.

Two and a half hours after the Bertie Lee was first hit, the North Sea appeared ahead. At long last, land came in sight, below them an RAF field at Grimsby. Again, Michael ordered Westberg and Lieber to use the two remaining chutes. With two engines and most of the instruments out, the landing gear and flaps inoperative, a badly shot up tail, bomb bay doors open, the ball turret gun pointing straight down, no forward visibility, and a pilot on the verge of collapse, the odds were against surviving a crash landing. Again, Westberg and Lieber refused.

In a feat of superb airmanship, Michael put the B-17 down safely on the turf at Grimsby. As it skidded to a stop, he passed out from shock and loss of blood. During seven weeks in hospitals and the months that followed, Michael was obsessed by the thought that all of his crew would have returned if he hadn’t sensibly ordered them to bail out. Were they dead or alive?

Gradually information filtered in that six crew members were POWs. Only Phillips, who had been on his first mission, was not accounted for. Then Michael was ordered to Washington. There, on Jan. 10, 1945, President Roosevelt awarded him the Medal of Honor. That same day, word arrived that Phillips was safe in a POW camp. Retired Lt. Col. Ed Michael still can’t say which, for him, was the greater event of that eventful day.

Published September 1986. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.