Last Flight of Miss Prissy

Following is the historical record of the LAST FLIGHT OF MISS PRISSY written by Ralph F. Bates, which appeared in the Nov/Dec 1994 issue of the PATRIOT, the March, 1995 issue of ARMY magazine, and in the Feb 1999 issue of AEROPLANE magazine in Poland. Pictures of Miss Prissy also appeared in The B-17 in COLOR, 1986, Squadron/Signal Publishers.

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Lt. Ralph Bates

March 22 1945, 3:45 am
Four young flying officers lay cocoon-like in their sleeping bags. A clerk arrived in the tent, clipboard in hand, shaking my shoulder and asking me to sign. I, Lt Ralph Bates, was now responsible to see that my officers, Lt Don Kallock, copilot, Lt Don Fischer, navigator, and Lt Irving Jacobs, bombardier–got up out of the sack. The enlisted were doing likewise in their tent. On the way to briefing a familiar anxiety came over me: How was the weather? What will our target be? Would the flak be heavy? What about enemy fighters? Will our fighter escort protect us? Will we make it back?

“Our target is the oil depot in Ruhland, a city 75 miles south of Berlin, one of the last operational refineries left in Germany,” said the operations officer, his wand pointing to the top of the map, “it is our longest mission to date, so watch fuel consumption. Fighters are expected, ME 262 jets, but they can only send up a few because of lack of fuel and spare parts. P-51 fighters will be your escort, but heavy flak is expected over the target. Set your watches.”

Now it was time to hop into the four-bys, take the bumpy ride over to the supply shed and pick up our gear. After a visual check outside the plane, we tossed our flight bags into the belly hatch, then swung ourselves up into Miss Prissy [named after her former commander Capt. Godby’s recently born baby daughter, Priscilla.]

Checklists completed, we were now at the end of the steel-matting runway waiting for the go-ahead. At 71,000 pounds and carrying a light bomb load, we were still way over the 65,000 maximum specified weight, which gave us pause since we would be taking off uphill. Our runway was higher at one end than the other and had a drop-off; thus it was not unusual to have the B-17 that had just taken off ahead of us sink down and disappear off the steppe and disappear. We were near panic until at last it rose into view. During the previous year, a couple of them didn’t make it. Now it was our turn. Knowing the dangers that lay ahead of us this day, I noticed it took longer for the butterflies in my stomach to let up. But as soon as I began the takeoff run, the only thought I had was to keep a tight reign on that rather ponderous B-17 machine. Flight Engineer, Sgt. Howard K, Brewer, stood over my right shoulder calling off the speed: “50…60…70…75…80… come on, Baby!” It was pins and needles until at last Miss Prissy lifted proudly off the runway and we felt the lift under her wings.

MissPrissy

Miss Prissy

Thus Twenty-eight B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the 483rd Bombardment Group took off from Sterparone Italy to drop 280 five hundred pound bombs on a fuel depot at Ruhland, Germany, a city south of Berlin. Three other groups of seven bombers were part of the same formation. Each of our four squadrons were in tight formation, and Miss Prissy, which I piloted, was flying to the rear of our squadron. What an awesome sight when we rendezvoused, a giant attack force of up to 1,000 B-17 and B-24 bombers. On the long ride to Ruhland, we took time to check out our equipment and grab frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (liquids were out because of the sub-zero air wafting around us, even though our plane ostensibly had heaters). We now approached the target area. Late in the war, the Germans concentrated more flak units around the few remaining targets and were using improved techniques. Those black puffs of smoke drifting by our windows proved that the flak guns below had our altitude figured out perfectly. The attack stiffened as we passed the initial point. This was when the bombardiers began calibrating their bombsights–all B-17 now must fly straight and level, which on this mission took seven gut-wrenching minutes. It was brutal. Many in our Group saw Lt Deveroux Bush’s plane get a direct flak hit. It was engulfed in explosions and all ten aboard died. At the same time was terrifying to hear flak ricocheting against us–the force of the explosions lifting and buffeting our plane. One shell blasted a large hole next to radioman McCauley. Smoke was filling the interior. Miss Prissy was trembling from nose to tail. God help us. Nevertheless, all bombardiers glued their eyes on the lead B-17, for when the bombs dropped from her, it was time for our man to toggle. It was always a relief to drop the bombs because then our group could make some turns and change altitude in an attempt to evade flak. But the flak continued, and enemy fighters were spotted. After we dropped our ten 500 pound bombs, several of the new Me-262 jet fighters swooped up behind us in tandem right through their own flak. [The closing speed of a frontal attack would have been much too great so they had to attack from the rear, which made us in the lower echelon more vulnerable.] They fired 30mm canon, which were armed to explode on contact, which caused extensive damage and fires in both wings, especially to the right one.

At first it was hard for the gunners to identify the jets because they as they flew by through our contrails a strange refraction of light occurred, hindering them. They even thought they were friendly aircraft at first. Then, switching to intercom, I heard the boys shouting, “Fighters six o’clock!” Our ball, tail and top-turret 50 caliber guns started rattling just before a frightening explosion rocked the ship. Then another explosion occurred. After the Me 262 jets had paused behind us for the attack, we could see them swinging swiftly up and away. But the jets hit their targets as wave after wave flew by. The battle turned into one mighty convulsive frenzy as additional explosions rocked Miss Prissy. In all, there were oil fires, hydraulic fluid fires and fires fed by high-octane gasoline from our wing tanks.

“Feather number four engine!” Feathered. “Full turbo on number one and two!” The port engines were running, but on the starboard, number three was almost useless with most of its sparkplugs damaged, and number four was out. Engineer Sgt. Brewer started pumping gas from the right wing into the left wing because the starboard engines were practically nil. The shredded, dangling parts of our wings were literally burning away.

The engineer, navigator and bombardier were wounded, though not seriously. Amid the chaos, however, our gunners helped bag one ME 262 and possibly another. Despite all our efforts we couldn’t keep the right wing from tipping uncontrollably down; thus we gradually left the protection of the formation. I gave the crew the option of staying or bailing out. That’s when Charlie, our radioman, severely wounded in the chest, and four aerial gunners in the rear of our bomber bailed out and became prisoners of the Germans. The rest of us were left to keep a badly damaged B-17 heavy bomber airborne until we could pass over hostile German territory.

Only seconds had passed and we were going down. Stu Oberg, right wing gunner of Thomas Cobb’s crew, later told me that he saw our airplane just as we were hit by the jets. He thought we were finished. Bam! At that very second his plane was also badly hit! We were in a flat, clockwise spin, large fires spewing out from both wings. Miss Prissy shook so severely that it took the copilot, engineer and myself to handle her.

To bail out was our immediate reaction. In fact, the copilot rose from his seat a couple times, ready to bail out, though changed his mind. But we remembered that Hitler had recently told his troops not to take any more POWs. And if we did bail out, we would be at the mercy of enemy fighters as we parachuted down, who took delight in firing at the men under those parachutes, and of even more violence from the enemy on the ground. Torn between the two deadly options, we decided to stay with the plane.

At least two of those who bailed out were attacked by fighters on the way down. Those who bailed out didn’t see the five of us–the engineer, navigator, bombardier, co-pilot and myself–again. They only saw the plane going down in flames, even looked for us in vain in the POW camps. Conclusion: we must have died in a fiery crash. We had now descended from 22,000 and were holding steady at 5,000 feet and the fires were abating. When we saw enemy aircraft in the vicinity and we bolted upright thinking we were dead meat, but they ignored us instead of finishing us off. They must have taken one good look at us and decided that we were finished anyway.

Our problems were far from over. Unfortunately, our bomb run took us on a northeast direction further into Germany, but the nearest friendly territory, Poland, lay in the opposite direction. Simple–just turn right and head toward friendly territory. But the stubborn wreck of a plane refused to turn! If we tried to turn right the right wing would start dipping down out of control. If we turned left, that would have taken us even deeper into enemy territory, so we manipulated the trim tabs which enabled us to turn very gradually right, which took us in a big circle north of Berlin. Another major problem reared its ugly head, if we went above 112 miles an hour, Miss Prissy would shake and shudder dangerously, but If we went under 102 miles an hour, the right wing would start to dip again, and we would start to lose control.

We figured that by now we must have crossed over the German and Russian front lines, but must have been protected by the angels from the ground fire that low-flying aircraft always attracted when flying over the front lines. Just then we spied a double-track railroad, which we followed, thinking it would lead us to an airfield. To get there we had to descend through some puffy clouds, which caused the plane shake and shudder, and the weakened wings to flex dangerously. We soon spotted an airfield where a number of small planes were parked and fired a green flare, the designated color of the day. When we saw a green flare appear on the ground immediately, we knew we were with friends. But a major problem loomed ahead. We still had to land! Yet another bad situation had to be dealt with: Though we were fortunate to be heading in the right direction, we had to approach a strange airfield with a short runway while flying at 102 mph, which was much too fast. Now we had no choice. Miss Prissy was threatening to stall at any second, but we managed to barely clear the airport fence. The right wheel, damaged by flak, wasn’t yet in locked position. (We had no idea if indeed the tire was still inflated). Coming into the airstrip. The airplane was now actually a missile waiting to explode: Hydraulic fluid leaked everywhere, oxygen was leaking out of dangling masks just waiting to cause more fires, and it was doubtful that we still had enough hydraulic fluid to stop.

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Miss Prissy

I waited until just before we landed to let down the wing flaps, I let them down–that was a no-no–because just then what was left of the right wing flap broke off! Not good, because the right wheel would not go down and engineer Sgt Brewer was all the while trying to lower it by the slow process of manually cranking it. However, we were almost on the ground; in fact, the right wing was almost scraping the runway. But with Co-pilot Kallock and Brewer’s help, I managed to land hard on the right wheel that Sgt. Brewer had just cranked down. We discovered later that the right landing gear was made inoperable by a large piece of flak, which had also embedded itself deep into the right tire, but the tire held up, thank God. After losing so much hydraulic fluid, would we have enough pressure left to stop? Yes, and what a relief when we finally stopped at the end of the runway!

We were completely limp. Suddenly we realized that we no longer needed the loving protection of Miss Prissy, so we were ecstatic to hop out and put our feet once again on solid ground. At that time we still had no idea how much we owed the airmen who had so lovingly maintained Miss Prissy, nor how much we had depended on each other, nor how much the Lord had cared for us. Russian soldiers were approaching. One of them appeared to be a general. Looking at the damage, we couldn’t believe our craft could have flown. Amazingly, all five of us could stand in the place that was once a part of the left wing. And that hole wasn’t half as big as the one in the right wing! But what stunned me most was when I stuck several fingers past the protective lining and fully into one of the large fuel tanks in the right wing where fire had burned through! Further inspection revealed evidence of 13 fires in the right wing and two in the left. All main spars in the right wing were riddled with shrapnel. Only the incredibly strong wing construction saved us. We were surprised to find several unexploded 30-mm shells there. Both magnetos were shot out on number four engine. On number three, one magneto was shot out, and all but four of 12 spark plugs were hit. (Later measurements showed that about 266 square feet, or nearly 20 percent, of our total wing surface had been destroyed, not counting some significant shredded area tears and many smaller holes).

It took awhile for it all to sink in, but we shuddered to think how close we came to giving it all for our country. Miss Prissy, B-17 #46538did give her all–well almost–as we shall see below.

Lt. Ralph Bates receiving his flying wings.

Lt. Ralph Bates receiving his flying wings.

November 3rd, 1942, Binghamton NY
I signed up for duty in the Air Force Reserve as a pilot. In February, 1943 I was in a train on my way to basic training in Atlantic City, then to preflight training at Montgomery Army Air Base, Alabama, next, three months of college remedial training at the University of Vermont, three stages of pilot training in Arkansas, after which I received my wings in March of 1944. I was soon at aircraft commander training  [B-17] at Lockbourne Army Air Base, Ohio, and finally sent to overseas combat training at Sioux City Army Air Base, Iowa. I had already been shaken up by a wheels-up landing in an advanced trainer in Arkansas, frightened during a giant roller-coaster ride in a severe thunderstorm near Dayton Ohio, and horrified when we flew through the wreckage of two B-17s that had collided directly in front of us during a mock enemy attack near Sioux City. But nothing was going to stop the buildup of America’s giant air armada in training. Shortly, I joined my fledgling crew at Lincoln Army Air Base, Nebraska . There, B-17 bombers often took off over the city of Lincoln at about 5 am. But the citizens were unhappy with the racket, so the Base Commander then ordered all bombers to take off over Lincoln!

 

But we were ecstatic when we took possession of a brand new B-17G. We were on our way to the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. What should we name her, we thought? After stops in New Hampshire, Newfoundland, the Azores, Morocco and Algeria, we landed at Sterparone Air Base in Southern Italy. There we became part of the 817th Squadron of the 483rd Bombardment Group of the Fifteenth Air Force. Immediately our prized B-17 was assigned to a more seasoned crew and we were given a tired B-17 patched together from three wrecked planes!

Ralph F. Bates, wife Ruth, son Phil (circa 1954).

Ralph F. Bates, wife Ruth, son Phil.

Ralph Bates, son Phil and daughter-in-law Debi (circa 2014).

Ralph Bates, son Phil and daughter-in-law Debi (circa 2014).

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