Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 17, 2006

Twelve O'Clock High

When Art told me he was going to a movie about B-17s from World War II, I knew he'd like me to go along. But I'd been working on several major projects and I didn't think I could spare the time.

I wasn't exactly "tuned in" to the significance of "Twelve O'Clock High" either, referring to it as "High Noon" at one point. There's quite a difference. The former is a World War II movie starring Gregory Peck and the latter is a Western starring Gary Cooper!

But once Art explained a bit about the movie, I knew I'd go. Ever since he found out where in England his Uncle Pete was stationed as a B-17 pilot, Art has been consumed with finding out what he can about the Flying Fortress war birds and the men who flew them.

Although Pete died three decades ago, Art has been able to piece together some of his uncle's World War II experiences from Pete's letters to his parents and siblings, a scrapbook that included Pete's missions kept by his sister Arline and Internet research.

The breakthrough came with a letter Pete's daughter Judy had. It contained the return address: BG457 BS749 - 749th Bomb Squad of the 457th Bomb Group. Art found a lot of information from a Web site of the 457th, including maps and pictures of the base, its location near Glatton, and descriptions of every mission. He searched the photos on the site to see if he could find one of his uncle. He didn't. But he was surprised to see someone else he knew: John, his former boss at K-State, who had also been a B-17 pilot and was with the same bomb group.

What a small world!

It was John who had alerted Art about the movie being on campus.

We arrived, paid our 25-cent admittance fees, got our free boxes of popcorn and joined the small group in the theater. The audience was mainly young people. John and his wife Mildred were already there.

"You can't beat this for a cheap date," John said with a smile, adding, "I wonder how many of these kids had a grandfather who was in World War II."

Art looked around the theater and replied, "I don't know, but it's obvious you are the only one here who was also there."

The movie is based on the 306th Bomb Group, one of the first three to arrive in Europe before any other Americans were there. From the reviews Art read and from John's comments afterward, the movie seemed to be exceptionally accurate. All of the battle footage was from the war, shot by either the U.S. Army Air Corps or the German Luftwaffe. The movie's title came from the method of identifying where an aircraft was coming in for an attack. The B-17's nose was 12 o'clock. The usual way for the Luftwaffe fighter pilots to attack was to rise above the formation of B-17s and dive at them from the front at high speed - "12 o'clock high."

The movie also accurately portrayed the average pilot and airplane commander as being 21 and responsible for the 10 men on his ship - at an age when in peace time he wouldn't yet have graduated from college.

As the movie played, I found myself dreading the men's early-morning briefings because I didn't know who would return from the bombing missions and who would not. I was becoming attached to them and didn't want to see any of them killed.

The loss rates were so high that at one briefing, their commander told them to give up all thoughts of returning home. Using a phrase actually spoken at a briefing to crews in Italy, he said, "Think of yourself as already dead."

A veteran of the 306th described his reaction to the movie.

"The picture brings back the memories of excitement, terror and relief . . . 287 of us flew to England on Oct. 21, 1942; 87 survived . . ."

Most of those who survived the war came home and didn't look back, rarely speaking of their experiences. As a result, most of us have little to no understanding of what they went through. Now, I know at least some of what they went through - and Art can understand his Uncle Pete just a bit better.

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