Friday, June 26, 2009

Old Seventy; Requiem for a B-17

This article, based on a relative's personal notes and official records, appeared in the June 2009 edition of "Warbirds Magazine."

Over 12,000 B-17 variants were produced during World War II. Only a few, like the Memphis Belle, have left deep tracks in the sands of history allowing historians to follow their movements during their often brief life in the Army Air Corps. Of the “B” series only one, serial number 38-215, has left a significant trail.

Through letters, personal journals, after action reports and government records 38-215, later nicknamed “Old Seventy,” can be followed from her November, 1939 delivery at March Field to her fatal Aleutian crash July 18, 1942. During her life she played a number of roles: test platform for cold weather operations, patrol plane under Navy control, bomber and weather reconnaissance aircraft.
The B-17B series was born in the middle of the depression when the Army had to beg for each development dollar from a reluctant Congress. A direct descendant of the model 299, launched in 1935 and the 13 YB-17s, ordered for testing in 1936, the “B” series included a number of design upgrades including superchargers, a larger tail, new nose, hydraulic brakes and revised gun and bombardier positions. It is arguably the first “production” version of the B-17 and the first assigned to active bombardment groups; one on the Atlantic coast and one on the Pacific side. Only 39 B-17Bs were built and none survived the war yet they made a valuable contributions to the further development of the “C,” “D” and ultimately the first model worthy of the “Fortress” moniker, the “E” series.
Old Seventy spent the first months of her career in California, between March Field and the Sacramento Air Depot. In early 1940 orders were issued for the transfer of Old Seventy and her sister ship, 38-216, to the new Army Cold Weather Test Detachment at Ladd Field (now Fort Wainright), then under construction near Fairbanks, Alaska. The detachment would be charged with testing aircraft, equipment, maintenance procedures and other Army gear in the frigid northland. While bush and commercial pilots had been developing skills for Arctic flight operations, the Army lacked cold weather experience.
Old Seventy, 38-216 and the Cold Weather Test Detachment (CWTD) would provide that knowledge.
On April 14, 1940 Major Dale Gaffney, Lt. Marvin Walseth and 16 others were detached to Ladd to pave the way for aircraft and technicians to follow. They arrived to find a field under construction so set up their first operations in nearby Fairbanks.
At March Field technicians went to work on the two Alaska bound B-17Bs to prepare them for their Arctic assignment. Guns and bomb racks were removed, replaced with test equipment. Day-glow orange was applied to the wing tips and tails of the silver birds and a new symbol, a bomb carrying polar bear, was applied to each fuselage. Old Seventy received a large “1” on the fuselage and smaller one on the tail. 38-216 received a similar “2.”
On October 4, 1940 the two planes departed March Field carrying six officers and eighteen men. Arriving at Ladd bundled in heavy parkas they were surprised by the moderate fall weather and the lack of snow. They would soon learn why Fairbanks was selected as the cold weather test site.
Anchorage based General Simon Buckner, newly assigned Commander of the Alaska Defense Forces, favored the big plane for his frequent aerial tours and soon the planes were making appearances at remote fields all over the territory. While single engine bush planes were common, the big bombers were a novelty in the north. They were so noteworthy that on several occasions in October and November the Anchorage newspaper reported on the arrivals and departures of the planes. In one case they noted it “stayed on the ground for 15 minutes.”
In addition to testing work Old Seventy made frequent trips to Alaska’s interior, inventorying available landing sites for use in flying emergencies and in time of war. At then end of November Lt. Walseth, Gaffney’s adjutant, flew to Fort Yukon and then out over the Arctic Ocean. On December 1st he was off to Nome to pick up fur parkas and mucklucks locals were making for the Army. In a letter home he reported…“believe me, it was a great treat for all the people over there and for all of us as the field was rolly and not a foot too long. We just got in and off.”
The winter testing had fallen into a routine when tragedy stuck the small Ladd flying community. In early February Captain R. S. Freeman flew 38-216 to the Sacramento Air Depot with reports concerning the winter flight operations at Ladd. On February 6th, enroute from Sacramento to Wright Field, the plane crashed into a Nevada mountain killing all aboard. Old Seventy was now the only four engine bomber operating in the Alaska Territory.
Later that month Lt. Walseth filed a report of the first year’s activities of the Ladd CWTD. He reported that Old Seventy had flown over 324 hours in just six months at temperatures ranging from -47 degrees to +50 degrees F. During that time a number of changes had been made to the aircraft including the installation of:
· 1000 watt engine oil immersion heaters.
· A B-17C style cabin heating system with boiler units on two engines. (First orders for the “C” series planes had been placed in July of 1940)
· Six outlets for heated flying suits.
· 100 amp, type E-85, generators replacing the 50 amp models.
· Defroster for bombardier’s aiming window.
He also reported on the testing of electric flying suits from General Electric and United States Rubber. Flight crews had found them wanting for Arctic use. One had caught fire. All had cold spots and failed to maintain temperature when the generators were not producing while idling on the ground. Worse “…if a man had to leave his ship…a man with good emergency equipment and good non-heated flying clothing would have a chance of surviving….A man in … electrically
heated outfits would be helpless….”
On April 30th Ladd nearly lost its remaining B-17B. As Walseth reported after a night flight, “Almost had to leave it [the plane] as the propeller governor broke and the engine ran away. Tore itself all to pieces, cylinder broke off, etc. In fact almost completely demolished. That is about the worst experience I have had.”
Grounded until a new engine could be shipped to Ladd her next trip didn’t occur until the end of May when Old Seventy flew at 15,000 feet non-stop to Sacramento making the 2400 mile flight in eleven hours. At Sacramento she received a complete overhaul and some features from the “C” series were added. The most visible change was the replacement of the “tear drop” gun blisters on the waist with flush mounted openings that produced less drag and gave better gun angles.
After nearly a month on the ground Walseth completed Old Seventy’s trip to the lower ’48 via San Antonio, Maxwell Field and Wright Field in Dayton. In July she returned to Ladd to enjoy the last months of peace on the northern frontier.
When war was thrust upon the United States, December 7th, 1941, Old Seventy was one of the few more modern aircraft available in the Alaska territory. But since the CWTD reported directly to Wright Field, General Buckner didn’t even include it in his aircraft count. On January 3, 1942 Buckner advised Army Headquarters that “There is not at the present time a single up-to-date fighting plane in the Alaska Defense Command.” The best he could muster were “seven obsolescent medium bombing planes [B-18s] and sixteen equally outmoded pursuit planes. [P-36s]”
As 1942 progressed the Anchorage based 36th Bombardment Squadron began cobbling together a fighting force. Old Seventy was transferred to the 36th. In March a single B-17E arrived from Wright Field followed in May by three LB-30s, an export version of the B-24. All but Old Seventy had rudimentary radar. This was the air fleet ordered to the NW Sea Frontier Command at the Kodiak Navy Base in late May. The same intelligence intercepts that set up the Midway battle included warnings of a Japanese attack on Alaska. The question was, where would it occur?
Old Seventy arrived at Kodiak with Lieutenants Jack Marks and Richard Ragle at the controls. The crew was given a top secret briefing and informed they were to be assigned to Navy Patrol Wing 4 and operate from to a new, secret base on Umnak Island in the Aleutian chain. But their mission had been so secret that they’d departed Ladd with a sick engine and without bombsight, bomb shackles, guns, ammunition and other essential fighting gear. Before she could go to war she had to be converted from a test platform to a fighting ship.
She returned to Ladd on May 26th and, with ground crews working 24 hours a day, finally arrived at Umnak on June 2, ready to join the fight.
For the next six weeks Old Seventy would be in almost constant motion. The day they arrived at Umnak they were fueled, armed and, at 1800, sent on patrol looking for the Japanese fleet. Aleutian weather, which haunted most flights, forced her to fly under the 400 foot cloud ceiling. Returning at 0530, the third, they learned of the Dutch Harbor attack, refueled and took off again.
With Marks and Ragle at the controls they ran into Japanese planes returning from Dutch Harbor and the waist gunner, Sgt. K. E. Nelson, claimed a kill. He also put 50 holes in the tail of Old Seventy! Flying beneath the 250 foot ceiling they followed the retreating enemy planes and came upon what they believed was the entire Japanese fleet. They dropped their bombs under heavy clouds and returned to base.
The next few days Old Seventy was in the air more than on the ground chasing phantom fleets over the unforgiving waters. At one point she nearly attacked an island rising from the foggy mists.
On June 4th she lost her bomb bay doors when her bombs released following a violent maneuver to avoid a cloud shrouded mountain side. Later they were forced to shut down number two engine when the cowling worked loose and nearly caught the propeller. While flying at reduced speed they were jumped by Japanese planes. Only the dense cloud cover allowed them to avert disaster.
By the 6th of June the constant flying was taking a toll on her. After an early morning patrol, departing at 0435, followed by a mid-day patrol, departing at 1150, she was serviced and in the air again at 1545. Shortly after takeoff one engine failed. She turned toward Anchorage on three engines with two generators out, severe icing and two superchargers acting erratically. More generator problems finally forced Old Seventy down at the small village of Naknek at 2320.
They made emergency repairs and returned to the fight only to be disabled on the 7th by a faulty fuel transfer pump, disabled during an earlier encounter with a Japanese fighter.
On the 9th she was assigned on a bombing run to Kiska, where the Japanese were establishing a base. Old Seventy’s problems began to mount. She was too old and slow to keep up with the B-24s that were arriving to expand the strike force. Only by pushing her to the limit could she keep up with the newer, faster, planes. She made the trip on the 9th but, on the 10th, number two engine failed and she had to abort. A ground check revealed that two cylinders lacked compression. She needed a new engine and the nearest spare was at Ladd.
She returned from Ladd sporting new Army green livery, replacing the international orange paint job from her testing days. Since she was not in the same league as the newer bombers she was given a new and important solo role, weather reconnaissance and redesignated YB-17B. Weather was a nightmare in the Aleutians; low ceiling, fog, high winds. Worse, storms came from the west so flights taking off from Umnak had no idea what they would encounter on their 600 mile flight to Kiska. Old Seventy’s new job was to serve as lead scout feeding weather information back to base operations.
Former Lieutenant Walseth, now Major, took over Old Seventy in July. The pace for both aircraft and crews remained grueling. In a letter to his family Walseth reported that, “Most of our flights run around ten hours. Sometimes two or three in succession but when possible every other day. After three successive flights it takes about a week to recover, which none of us get. So we are generally quite worn down. The war we are fighting up here is a long slow process as everything depends on the weather. All the fronts move toward us so the [Japanese] sort of have an edge on us as they know what’s coming and we don’t.”
And the grind continued. Out shown by the newer, faster models, Old Seventy continued to contribute to the fight in her own, independent way. Finally, on July 18 she failed to return from a solo photo reconnaissance mission. The old lady was gone.
The diary of Lt. Billy Wheeler, of the 36th Bombardment Squadron, describes what happened. “The weather at Umnak [on the 18th] was bad as usual. The visibility was as low as 100 feet and a sea fog surrounded the island during the greater part of the day. Several days after the report of the loss, Major Walseth’s ship was found on Cape Udak, the Southwest end of Umnak Island…[The crew was] buried near the Nikolski village, a short distance from the crash scene. These were the only burials in the squadron, bodies are rarely found in our job. It was assumed that Walseth had made a landfall on Umnak and had endeavored to follow the coastline to the field. An unexpected land projection caught him. He crashed only twenty feet from the top.”
Old Seventy’s contribution to the war effort ended 32 months after it began in the California sunshine. Piloted by a succession of young men she provided valuable lessons concerning the operation of aircraft in cold climates. The groundwork she and her crew laid made life easier for those who followed and helped insure the other 12,000 B-17 aircraft truly performed like “Flying Fortresses.”

Origin of the Name “Old Seventy”

The origin of the name “Old Seventy” remains a mystery.

Major Walseth, the pilot on its ill fated last mission, never refers to the name in his correspondence. He flew the plane extensively from its arrival in Alaska in October of 1940 until the Pearl Harbor attack. In early 1942, with many pilots and only one plane, other pilots were often at her controls. In May of 1942 Captain Marks flew her on her first combat missions with Lt Ragle as co-pilot. Both Marks and Ragle refer to her as Old Seventy as do authors who wrote extensively about the Aleutian campaign.
Ragle, who survived the war, suggested that the name may have come from a radio call sign given her by the Navy during her brief stint as a Navy patrol plane in late May and early June of 1942. Even he couldn’t recall specific details.
But the name stuck. And Old Seventy, the only “B” series bomber to see extensive combat action following Pearl Harbor, will live on in history with that moniker.
Where Are They Now?

Major, later General, Gaffney remained in Alaska and took over responsibility for the Ferry Command which managed the Lend Lease program that was ferrying planes to Fairbanks where they were turned over to our Russian allies.
Lieutenant, later Captain, Ragle returned to Ladd Field and played a major role in the Ferry Command under Gaffney.
Both Gaffney and Ragle survived the war.
Lieutenant Wheeler, who left behind an extensive diary of the 36th Bombardment Sq. activities, survived the Aleutian campaign and returned to Seattle with the remnants of the Squadron after it was disbanded following victory in the Aleutians. The author has no record of his other war time activities.
Major Marks and his crew perished in a B-17E shot down on a July 17 raid over Kiska.
Major Walseth and his crew perished on a remote corner of Umnak Island the next day.
General Buckner went on to lead the 10th Army on Okinawa where he was killed in action.


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