Stories of the pilots of B-17 bombers in WWII

I get an email invitation from a former student, photographer, and retired English teacher, Jim Copes, and I’m off and running. We have several interests in common: teaching English, directing plays, and meeting military veterans. With military veterans, I do the talking and he takes the photographs of them and the planes they flew.

Recently, we were at the Urbana, Ohio, airport, Grimes Field, named in honor of that company that produces millions of aircraft lights. I’m especially excited because volunteers at the museum there are restoring a B-17 bomber, the very bomber my favorite uncle, Bill Adams, flew in World War II. Our outing this time promises to be especially exciting because I have been promised I will meet Captain Earl Miller, World War II pilot of a B-17, who lives in Cedarville, OH.

I look around among the faces for one that seems to be old enough, someone in his 90s, and there he is, Captain Miller, 96. He seems as delighted to see me as I am to see him, and I shove into his hands the 8-by-10, black-and-white photo of my uncle and his crew posed at the nose of a B-17. I spill out a few comments about Major William “Ellis” Adams, and then I’m eager to hear Captain Miller’s story.

Captain Miller was a graduate of Butler University when he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps on February 8, 1942. He was already a pilot, because he had received “good pay as a private pilot” while enrolled in college where he was an accounting major.

Assigned to the 94th Bomb Group of Squadron 333, Stationed 60 miles northeast of London at Bury St. Edmonds and using the Royal Air Force Rougham airfield outside of town, he flew bombing raids into France and Germany during World War II..

I told him I had no idea how large the bombs the B-17 carried until I read Andy Rooney’s book ,My War, on his role as a war correspondent and saw on the cover the photo of Rooney standing in front of the huge bombs. Miller began to educate me, “Yes, we normally carried 12 bombs of 500 pounds, but we used 1000 pounders for the submarine pens.”

I saw such pens at La Rochelle, France, four years ago, and I was eager to know if he had bombed that pen. “Maybe,” was his response, but he went on to describe a double strike on August 17, 1943, on a Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, Germany, and a ball bearing factory in Schweinfurt, Ger4many. After the raids, they flew to British-occupied North Africa where they landed in the desert. 600 men were lost on that double raid. Exhausted, as the raid had been a 12-hour one from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., those who survived stayed a week in the desert and slept under the aircraft.

Miller had crews of 10 and on his 17th raid (25 raids were required and this was later raised to 35, shades of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22), a gunner was killed and another gunner “almost lost both his legs.”

Miller came home on the Queen Mary in October 1945, married his college sweetheart ,Georgianna Smith, and they had three children, a daughter and two sons. His medical doctor son served in the Air Force, of course, and his college professor son teaches engineering at Cedarville College. Both were proud that day to be with their father, to listen to his stories, and, on occasion, to prompt him.

I connected with Captain Miller, and as I held his hand, in some ways I was touching my mother’s baby brother, Major William “Ellis” Adams: a Pearl Harbor survivor and a combat pilot in World War II and Korea (DOB” 9/7/1919- DOD: 5/2/1991).

Uncle Bill felt insulted by a teacher at Benham High School, so he left school before graduating and started working as a mechanic at the Black Motor Company in Cumberland. When he joined the Army Air Corps, he was still a mechanic until he survived the devastating bombing of Pearl Harbor. The military determined that he was intelligent and motivated and sent him to flight school, He took advantage of all schooling offered and advanced in the ranks, reaching the role of major and then spending 20 years in civil service, giving advice, from a pilot’s perspective, a when solicited, to the military.

My memories of him relate to his coming home on leaves, always visiting his mother, Viva Adams, in Cumberland, KY. He also spent time chatting with Dave Disney, C. R. Chrisman, and the other men who gathered at Black Motor Company to discuss the events of the day. At times he was at the VFW club talking with the veterans who understood what war meant . Jake Creech was his wife’s father, and he’d go to his garden, pick lush vegetables, and sit on the front porch with the white “Gone with the Wind” columns as I called them, to chat with the family. After World War II he was stationed in Occupied Japan, and when that tour ended, brought gifts home: china, Christmas ornaments, charm bracelets for each niece, and a kimono for his favorite niece, Frances. After all, Frances was the one who ironed his uniforms at the rate of one dollar for a shirt and a pair of pants. She reports, “The starch had to be just right; the n I sprinkled them with water, again, just right; rolled them up, just right; and ironed then until they were slick with not a wrinkle anywhere and the creases exactly where they should be.”

I can’t close my column without telling you as this Fourth of July comes around of the pride I feel in all the men in my family who have served as well as all the men in yours. We celebrate them today.

I celebrate my husbands, my sons, my uncles, my father who was a civilian worker wiring LSTs in Bremerton, Wash.

One final little story: Without Uncle Bill, I wouldn’t be here. On one of his leaves, Mother was proud to show him what a compliant baby I was. With no children of his own, he was quick to take one look and say, “That baby is dying.” They wrapped me up and hurried to see Dr. D.M. Fields, my uncle, who verified Uncle Bill’s diagnosis. The problem was that Mother had three births in three years, was already pregnant again, and was herself malnourished. Uncle Bill diagnosed, Uncle Doc confirmed, and Mother changed me from breast milk to bottle. And I’ve been a live wire ever since , a “ring- tailed monkey” as my father used to call me.

On this Fourth of July, Uncle Bill, rest in peace at the Huff Cemetery in Cumberland, KY, surrounded by your wife, your baby daughter, your parents, and your sister. You were of the Greatest Generation.

And, Captain Miller, another of the Greatest Generation, may you continue to live a happy, healthy life. Know I still want to interview you for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project and that Air Force son of yours who said he didn’t do anything much in the military.

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