One by one, folks checking out a World War II B-17 Flying Fortress at the Capital City Airport on Sunday peeled away from the aircraft and gravitated toward a 98-year-old veteran pilot who served in the Army Air Corps and was parked in a wheelchair on the tarmac, casually telling his war stories.
As a B-17 aircraft commander with the 8th Air Force, 401st Bomb Group, James Nolan and his nine-man crew flew 30 combat missions over Germany, including one that was eerily similar to an incident experienced by the pilot of “Madras Maiden,” the Flying Fortress he and his daughter, Patti Nolan, were visiting at the Frankfort airport.
While on the way to bomb a German target, Nolan’s plane, “Hell’s Angels Out of Chute 13,” had a feathered engine, but rather than go to Switzerland, the crew stuck to their mission. On the way home, a German ME 252 twin jet pulled up beside Nolan’s aircraft.
“It just sat there and then the pilot saluted me. I returned his salute and then peeled off and left,” he recalled. “I believe he could have come in on my nose with guns and rockets firing and caused major problems, like shooting us down.”
An event akin to Nolan’s also happened to Charles “Charlie” Brown, the pilot of “Madras Maiden,” which has since been rechristened as “Ye Olde Pub.” The B-17 bomber was headed home after a successful bomb run on Bremen, Germany, when, after taking enemy fire for more than 10 minutes, it was severely damaged by a dozen enemy fighters.
With most of the crew wounded and the bomber only operating at about 40% of its power, Brown’s B-17 was spotted by German ace Franz Stigler, who was refueling and rearming at an airfield. The enemy pilot caught up with Brown’s crippled plane, but instead of opening fire on it he flew in a formation on the port side wing so his fellow German anti-aircraft units would not target it. Stigler then escorted the B-17 over the coast to open water and departed with a salute.
Nolan, who braved the stifling late September heat for the chance to see one of the few remaining airworthy B-17s left, was stationed at an airbase in Deenthorpe, England, where he slept on a cot in a Nissen hut with a potbelly stove. In the mess hall, he ate powdered eggs off tin trays and drank juice that was nicknamed “panther piss” for breakfast.
“If it was a tough mission, we got real eggs and milk,” the veteran said.
With the meal complete, the crew would be briefed on their mission and shown the target on the map.
“Then we saw the route to and from the target and expected fighters and flak to be encountered,” Nolan added. “Catholics like me could go to a small room for a priest to give us Communion and bless.”
The pilot made all of his takeoffs and after each mission was given a jigger of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes before debriefing. Though he didn’t smoke, Nolan kept all the cigarettes.
Later, he brought them with him when he picked up French soldiers who were liberated by U.S. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in Linz, Austria.
“The French soldiers really enjoyed the cigarettes,” Nolan remembered. “They were looking out the window crying as I circled Paris to land the plane, especially as they saw their homes, churches and schools.”
Originally from Weymouth, Massachusetts, Nolan has lived in Frankfort with his daughter Patti for the past nine years. While he spoke about his experiences as a B-17 pilot in the shadow of “Ye Olde Pub’s” wings, a crowd slowly began to form around him. Some folks took out their cellphones to snap photos and others recorded videos of him speaking. Most just stood, listening.
On Wednesday, just days after “Ye Olde Pub” stopped in Frankfort, a different B-17 crashed at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut, killing seven of the 13 people on board.
Of the 12,731 B-17 produced during World War II, only nine remain airworthy.