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Every Mile Mattered

During World War Two, my Dad blew up aircraft engines in South Bend, Indiana.

No, he was not a German saboteur.

He supervised a team of technicians tasked with discovering the physical limits of the Wright-R-1820 Cyclone engines then being installed on the famous B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft. At times, they literally ran engines without oil. Once those extreme limits were found, engineers began work on extending the life of those engines. Fifty miles does not seem too far for us today, but in wartime that distance meant the difference between life and death for American aircrews.

Navigator Harry Crosby explained how important Dad’s work was in his memoir On a Wing and a Prayer. Seven out of twenty-one four-engine B-17s on a mission to Bremen on October 8, 1943 did not return. Of the ten crewmen on Crosby’s aircraft, five were wounded and another man killed.

Here are a few excerpts about the return flight from his B-17’s mission after encounters with German flak and fighters. As they reached the North Sea, Pilot Blake yells, “I am not sure this crate will fly. Dump everything out.” Those who could still move tossed every single thing overboard that was not bolted down—bombsight, machine guns, pistols. clothing, boots, even spent cartridge casings. “Our right aileron is flapping, the stabilizer is shredded. Only two engines are working full time. The plane is riddled with holes, some of them as big as a basket.” Up front, “Blake and Kidd are fighting the controls. They are flying old 393 with pure strength. Both of them are wet with sweat.” Then, suddenly, the English coast appears. “Prepare to crash land. All to emergency positions.” No power left to maneuver, but then an airfield appeared and Navigator Crosby wrote what they all felt, “Nothing ever looked so good in my life.” They were safe in England thanks to those Cyclone engines made back in America.

Dad always said that he never did anything important in the war. I think this particular aircrew, as well as many others, would strenuously disagree. Fifty miles for Crosby and his mates meant living to see their homes and families instead of drowning in the North Sea. If Dad had been there when they landed, those survivors would have shaken his hand, embraced him vigorously, kissed his cheeks, and bought him more beer than he could possibly drink.

Airmen and their families never knew what went on behind the scenes at that Studebaker plant in South Bend, but Dad and his team had helped to answer a torrent of prayers from people they would never meet.

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