Stricken B-17 "All American" miraculously flying after collision with a German fighter, photographed by the crew of another bomber in her formation.

Stricken B-17 “All American” miraculously flying after collision with a German fighter,
photographed by the crew of another bomber in her formation.

We got this email in our inbox the other day, purporting to tell the story of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, “All American.” The story, accompanied with some incredible pictures, told of the plane, mortally wounded, getting her crew home safely. We were pretty sure we had seen this email, sent from a friend (who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, ad infinitum) before at some time in the past, but reading it over, some things about the chain email just didn’t make sense, so we decided to do some research.

We’ve decided to reproduce the email, as it’s certainly compelling prose, however it’s fiction.

B-17 All American 01
B-17 “All American”
(414th Squadron, 97BG) Crew:
Pilot- Ken Bragg Jr.
Copilot- G. Boyd Jr.
Navigator- Harry C. Nuessle
Bombardier- Ralph Burbridge
Engineer- Joe C. James
Radio Operator- Paul A. Galloway
Ball Turret Gunner- Elton Conda
Waist Gunner- Michael Zuk
Tail Gunner- Sam T. Sarpolus
Ground Crew Chief- Hank Hyland

B-17 in 1943
A mid-air collision on February 1, 1943, between a B-17 and a German fighter over the Tunis dock area, became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of WWII. An enemy fighter attacking a 97th Bomb Group formation went out of control, probably with a wounded pilot then continued its crashing descent into the rear of the fuselage of a Flying Fortress named “All American”, piloted by Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg, of the 414th Bomb Squadron. When it struck, the fighter broke apart, but left some pieces in the B-17. The left horizontal stabilizer of the Fortress and left elevator were completely torn away. The two right engines were out and one on the left had a serious oil pump leak. The vertical fin and the rudder had been damaged, the fuselage had been cut almost completely through, connected only at two small parts of the frame and the radios, electrical and oxygen systems were damaged. There was also a hole in the top that was over 16 feet long and 4feet wide at its widest and the split in the fuselage went all the way to the top gunner’s turret.

Although the tail actually bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the plane turned and all the control cables were severed, except one single elevator cable still worked, and the aircraft still miraculously flew! The tail gunner was trapped because there was no floor connecting the tail to the rest of the plane. The waist and tail gunners used parts of the German fighter and their own parachute harnesses in an attempt to keep the tail from ripping off and the two sides of the fuselage from splitting apart. While the crew was trying to keep the bomber from coming apart, the pilot continued on his bomb run and released his bombs over the target.

B-17 All American 02When the bomb bay doors were opened, the wind turbulence was so great that it blew one of the waist gunners into the broken tail section. It took several minutes and four crew members to pass him ropes from parachutes and haul him back into the forward part of the plane. When they tried to do the same for the tail gunner, the tail began flapping so hard that it began to break off. The weight of the gunner was adding some stability to the tail section, so he went back to his position.

The turn back toward England had to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting off. They actually covered almost 70 miles to make the turn home. The bomber was so badly damaged that it was losing altitude and speed and was soon alone in the sky. For a brief time, two more Me-109 German fighters attacked the All American. Despite the extensive damage, all of the machine gunners were able to respond to these attacks and soon drove off the fighters. The two waist gunners stood up with their heads sticking out through the hole in the top of the fuselage to aim and fire their machine guns. The tail gunner had to shoot in short bursts because the recoil was actually causing the plane to turn.

B-17 All American 03Allied P-51 fighters intercepted the “All American” as it crossed over the Channel and took one of the pictures shown. They also radioed to the base describing that the appendage was waving like a fish tail and that the plane would not make it and to send out boats to rescue the crew when they bailed out. The fighters stayed with the Fortress taking hand signals from Lt. Bragg and relaying them to the base. Lt. Bragg signaled that 5 parachutes and the spare had been “used” so five of the crew could not bail out. He made the decision that if they could not bail out safely, then he would stay with the plane to land it.

Two and a half hours after being hit, the aircraft made its final turn to line up with the runway while it was still over 40 miles away. It descended into an emergency landing and a normal roll-out on its landing gear. When the ambulance pulled alongside, it was waved off because not a single member of the crew had been injured. No one could believe that the aircraft could still fly in such a condition. The Fortress sat placidly until the crew all exited through the door in the fuselage and the tail gunner had climbed down a ladder, at which time the entire rear section of the aircraft collapsed. This old bird had done its job and brought the crew home and all in one piece.
I love these old war stories especially the ones with a happy ending!
Maybe pass this on to someone who will also appreciate this amazing story.


Well it is an amazing story, that much is certain. Though in reading it, the damage pictured didn’t seem to align with the damage described, a bombing mission to Tunis in northern Africa, dispatched from England is an impossibility (not to mention having to overfly the entirety of Axis-occupied Europe to do it), and the plane appears to be on the ground in a desert, which to the best of our knowledge, England is most decidedly not. There are several other problems within the story both large and small, but to completely dissect it would take forever and it would time away from the REAL story of the “All American.”

image096The “All American” was actually based near Biskra, Algeria, a much more reasonable +/- 300 miles from Tunis. On the fateful day in question, the All American was part of a formation of bombers attacking the German-controlled seaport. Braving heavy flak and German fighters on the way in, the “All American” and her crew managed to drop their bombs and were on their way back to base when the German fighter planes began attacking again, pursuing them to the fighters’ maximum return range, when the attacks ended. However, two more Messerschmitts appeared and came in for the attack.

ATT00019One of the fighters went straight for the nose of the lead bomber of the formation and the other came for the nose of “All American.” The crew of “All American” fired at the plane coming for them from their nose turret while firing at the fighter heading for the lead bomber from the right side nose gun. Between the fire of All American and the lead bomber, the fighter going after that plane was disabled and sent down, smoke pouring from it as it descended. The fighter that was attacking the “All American,” head-on and guns blazing, began a roll to pull away, but halfway through the maneuver, gunfire from either “All American” or the lead bomber must have killed or incapacitated the fighter pilot and the plane never completed the collision-avoiding maneuver.

ATT00031The fighter passed over ‘All American,” to say with inches to spare would be inaccurate as the plane tore a significant hole in the rear of the fuselage and removed the left horizontal stabilizer. The remaining parts of the tail section, the vertical and right stabilizer seemed like they could shake loose at any moment. Miraculously, none of the B-17′s crew were injured and the men all donned their parachutes, ready to abandon the plane should the tail break off.

ATT00013The other crews in the formation, seeing that the B-17 was crippled, but remaining aloft, slowed to a speed the injured bird could maintain and formed a formation around her until they were out from enemy territory. Once the formation was outside of the maximum range for the German fighter planes, the rest of the formation went on ahead and “All American” limped on alone. The Flying Fortress landed safely, though without her tail wheel which unsurprisingly was inoperative.

ATT00034As one would imagine making it safely to the ground was an emotional experience for both the flight and ground crews, a testament to the bravery of her crew, her compatriots and the legendary robustness of the Boeing B-17, that stands quite well all on its own without the additional fantastical embellishments.

There is an excellent article with an interview with Ralph Burbridge, the bombardier on “All American” in which you can read his first person account of this mission, as well as his other wartime experiences, though the article incorrectly introduces a bit of misinformation of its own.* Sadly, Burbridge passed away earlier this year at the age of 93.

*The Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh song “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer” was not written about “All American.” The hit song, released in 1943, recounted the amazing survival of another 97th Bomb Group B-17, “Thunderbird.” The plane had been given up as lost on a January 12, 1943 mission to Tripoli but her pilot, Lieutenant John Cronkhite managed to get her back to Biskra though thoroughly shot up, with both starboard engines out and fuel tanks nearly dry. He landed with no brakes and ground-looped the plane when he ran out of runway, but that’s a story for another day.


  1. Stephan Wilkinson says:

    Steve Birdsall covered this whole thing many years ago in one of his B-17 books. You didn’t need to do any research beyond that. I remember seeing this phony-baloney e-mail six months ago and immediately realizing that it was totally bogus, which is typical of so many of these Internet-fostered myths, some of which are actually turned into books.

    I’m a writer for Aviation History and Air & Space Smithsonian magazines, so I see all too much of this.

    • Jordan Hankins says:

      Hello. My uncle, Curtis A. Reese, flew as bombardier in B-17F that was shot down 9/23/1943 over Hannover, Germany. It was said to be the FIRST lost USA plane after Allies started night bombing. They had partial RAF support. This was from 422nd Squadron, 305th Bomb Group, Chelveston, England. Can you verify this? Thank you.

      • Perhaps you can clarify the circumstances of the raid your uncle’s aircraft was lost on. Was it a night time raid? The RAF had been conducting their heavy bombing efforts against Axis forces more or less exclusively at night from well before significant US involvement in the European conflict. The first RAF 1000 bomber raid (against Cologne) took place on the night of May 30th/31st 1942 as an example, but smaller efforts had occurred almost nightly for some time before that. The strategy for the US forces raiding during the day, followed by the RAF at night took effect during 1942, but it wasn’t until early to mid 1943 that the US strategic bombing offensive took effect with regular large numbers of heavy bombers.

      • Randi Simpson says:

        My father, waist gunner, was stationed also at Chelveston, England, same squadron and bomb group. He was shot down in October 1943 and ended up in Stalag 17B. Wonder if they knew each other…too late to know from my end.

    • james J. Deeney says:

      A lot of B17 info is covered by jack Scoltock’s Book- The Meltin’ Pot now on Kindle.

  2. Both “fact” & “fiction” are great story’s! Either way, the crew responded with incredible courage.

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  4. Zach Hering says:

    Why does it appear that engine 1 is missing it’s prop?

    • Brian Zander says:

      My guess would be that by the time that particular photo was taken the props had been removed for parts salvage. Looks like Eng 3 and 4 a missing props too.

    • And there working under engine 2 which is the o ly one to appear to have a prop so my guess would be taking them off too.

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  6. It’s a spectacular tale, but even your “revision” has some inaccuracies. The true story is that the American 97th Bomb Wing, based in Algeria, flew a mission to the Tunisian port of Bizerte, not “Tunis Dock”.

    When they were returning home, about 50km west of Tunis, a German Bf109G fighter, piloted by a 16-victory ace, Erich Paczia, crashed into the B17 leading the formation, “Flaming Mayme”, destroying it. The remains of Paczia’s aircraft then went on to strike the tail of the photographic subject – B17 “All American III”.

    Paczia and seven of the crew from B17 “Flaming Mayme” were killed, and another three members of the “Flaming Mayme” crew became POWs (named Birk, Knight and Blair).

    • Thank You James O ! When I find accounts like this I ALWAYS wonder what has been left out ! All to often these stories are chopped and sauced for various reasons. Where did you get this information by the way ?

    • Richard Wann says:

      Reading your remarks about this B17 incident, it appears that you are very well versed in bombing raids from Tunisia in early 1943. My father’s cousin, whom I just discovered existed about a year ago, was a navigator on a B17 that was hit by flack and crashed. There were 8-9 parachutes seen, if I am reading the right information. It was either April 12th or 13th in Castelventrano, Italy. I’m looking for any information that may be available. His aircraft was 42-24394 and the MACR #16302. His name was Harry Arthur Wann, Jr. 301st BG, 353rd squadron.

      My uncle is still alive and in his early 90′s. They were childhood friends. He doesn’t know this history of his cousin, at least not what role he played or even that he was on a B17. He was in Luzanne in Infantry.

      Any information would be appreciated.

      R. Wann
      Noblesville, IN

  7. Wow what a totaly amazing Story and Pics.about the B-17 and it’s Grew.Looking at the Pics.iss

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  9. Jeremy Eckerman says:

    I have some insight into this, as Sam Sarpolus was my great uncle.

    Yes, they were based in North Africa.

    The hit was, according to him, delivered by the Me109. The pilot was believed to have been dead at the controls.

    The communication lines were severed–the surviving crew believed him to be dead until he tried to climb forward. This incident got him the nickname “Lonesome Sam”.

    He survived the war, was wounded (later mission) and lost part of his left hand. He returned and started a farm in St. Clair, MI, served as a police constable, then retired to Tucson, AZ, where he passed in the late 1980s.

    • Jeremy Eckerman says:

      I have some flight line photos, crew photos, and my great uncle’s dress uniform tucked away.

      • WarbirdsNews says:

        Those pictures would be fabulous.If you care to share them with us please contact me.

      • William W. Bunner, Sr. says:

        I am curious as to the Radio Operator on the B-17 “All American”. His name was shown as Paul A .Galloway. I had a Half brother by that name. He was in the Air Force in the late or middle 1940′s. Paul Arnold Galloway. He died in 1948 of TB. in Arizona. It you have ant info on him I would be pleased to receive it.
        William W. Bunner, Sr.

    • Vic Sarpolus says:


      Yes, remember Sam telling me as a kid about that amazing day when we would visit the dairy farm in St. Clair.
      Sam Sarpolus was my Uncle, my Dads brother small world.
      If you get this I have added my email address above.
      It appears we are related Take Care.

  10. Jeremy Eckerman says:

    Correction: right hand was maimed, not left.

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  12. Jim Rogers says:

    Anyone know Charles Foley, an enlisted Air Corps photographer on another aircraft on that mission?

  13. Susan Boyd Moore says:

    My father, LT Melville Guy Boyd, Jr, was the co-pilot on this mission at all of 21 years old. I grew up on his war stories, but until recently, was unaware of the photographs. On a wing and a prayer, indeed! My father survived the war. On 4 July 1943, his B17 was shot down and crashed on île D’Oléron, France. The bombardier, John Dunbar, was the only crew not killed or captured and documented everything in his book Escape Through the Pyrenees. At the end of the war, my dad was transported to the hospital at Ft. Dix, NJ and put under the care of LT Loretta M. Carney, RN, who became his wife and my mother. M. Guy Boyd passed away 30 April 1966 as a result of injuries incurred asa POW.

    • Well GOD Bless your father and all of you descendants.
      I had an uncle navigator that flew in a Coronado crew.
      He and another crew member had disentary and had also completed their mission total, but the crew didn’t want to break up so they continued to fly and were shot down in the Celebes Islands.
      They were all beheaded by the Japanese after they dug their own graves. The report was collected from Nuns living on the island and were eye witnesses. There is a good book on these crews “Black Cat Raiders of the Pacific”.

  14. If I may politely offer a correction to a recurring error: The copilot on ALL AMERICAN was a LT Godfrey Engle (whose signature is hard to read). Engle deployed with the 414th BS, 97th BG and was an instructor pilot at Rapid City Army Air Base following his combat tour. I personally met the man and saw the originals of many of these pix in his photo album, to include PM Churchill touring their base. LT Boyd’s famous 100th BG would have flown from England, while ALL AMERICAN’s 97th BG operated from North Africa. LT Boyd may have survived a different collision over Europe; it happened a lot.

    • Just wanted to say that I have a Shadow Box that was left to me by my Grandfather. He was in the Plane next to this. He had taken the picture and I have it in a shadow box with his medals. My aunt which is his daughter has the issue of LIFE Magazine that has the picture on the cover. There were only a few because LIFE didn’t have rights at the time to put it on the cover at the time.

  15. Randy Merritt says:

    My father was a bombardier on the Picadilly Lily. which he flew 31 missions on. They were shot down. He passed in 1983 and I am trying to get info on him. I know there were 2 picadilly lilys his plane was the G model. His legal name was James King Merritt, his nick name was Hyde but some called him Shady. his 8th airforce bomber coat says Shady. He was from Federal Wyoming.

  16. I was a lead pilot in the 398th BG. I flew 30 missions including 15 lead missions. My rank then was !st Lt. About 50 years later ,after a review by the Air Force, my rank was changed to captain. I am a member of the Eighth Air Force Historical Society and a member of the 398th Society. I contributed to the Aluminum Ovecast and have visited the B17 in the Moody Gardens Air Museum in Galveson, Texas.

    • Wow Herb… thanks so much for writing in! We’d love to hear more about your experiences if you have the time to relate them.

    • My Dad was a B17 pilot, he flew 60 missions with Patton. I know that he brought two planes back that could only be used for parts. I wish I knew more, I was 13 when he died and was not mature enough to ask questions. The one thing I remember is that he said that sitting at meals and seeing friends missing that didn’t make it back.

    • Capt. Mann, my dad was a ball turret gunner on the Van Opdorp crew in the 398th BGH, 602nd squadron. I am a member of the 398th Memorial Association and have done some photographic work for the website. I have taken a ride on Aluminum Overcast and was brought to near tears by the thought of how much courage it takes to climb into an aluminum tube that will be a target for both fighters and ground guns several times a week, knowing that every moment may be your last. My dad told me once how it felt to see, from his grandstand seat below the plane, crews he knew spin down, giving their all for us back home. So sad. Thank you so much for what you did. We can never repay the debt.

  17. CLIFF BECK says:


    • Jack Spink says:

      Thank you for your service Cliff Beck.

      I only have one criticism Sir. It is in no way a complaint towards you or your comments. I would just ask that you not write in all CAPS please, for 2 reasons, The first one is that I personally find it hardly to read, but secondly, it is generally thought that anything written in capitals is yelling at the reader and I am sure that was never your intent. I hope you take this the way I intend it and that you are in no was offended by my comments. I found the info you wrote quite interesting. Thank you again for your service and for the info.

      • Kevin in L.A. says:

        Jack, seriously… a living link to our heroic past comes to share his experiences, and you berate him for all caps?!? What’s wrong with the world?

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  19. Patti Pyle says:

    My uncle, Patrick (Pat) F. Sullivan, Jr. of Sanderson, TX, was co-pilot on B-17 shot down behind the lines over France or Germany. . He parachuted, was taken prisoner for a time. I have a photo taken from a plane flying above, of his plane going down in flames. I will try to find the photo. Does anyone know him or any of the crew of that plane. Will do more research.

    Niece Patti Pyle

  20. Arlee Johnson says:

    Is there any info about a B-17 that crashed in Puget Sound off Steilicum, WA. in summer 1943. My husband witnessed it. He was 15.
    Arlee Johnson

  21. Albert E. Slocombe says:

    I’m a WW11 British Vet ( Royal Artillery) but I’m living with a retired Lt.Col
    John Joseph Rogers in a long term care facility and I would like to find out more about his short-lived active war-time flying service with the USAAF over Northern Europe. He was pilot of a B17 (Flying Fortress) with the
    452nd. Bomber Group. At the time of his war-time service he was a young
    USAAF officer. He joined up in 1942 but was shot down over Poland on his
    3rd. mission. He and his crew all landed safely via parachute and he was allocated to Stalag 1 Luftwaffen POW cam near BARTH in Germany.
    He was liberated in 1944 by elements of the British 7th. Amored Division.
    IF you have any photos of John, or his squadron or Bomber Group I would be so grateful if you could get them to me at my E.Mail address.
    John is having memory problems but he will always brighten up and become much more alert when I start talking about our experiences in WW11
    Thank you
    Albert E. Slocombe

  22. Barbara Gode Wiles says:

    My dad, Donald R. Gode was a tail gunner on a B-17 that flew out of Foggia, Italy. (The Mighty 8th, 97th bombardment group). He passed away 3 years ago at the age of 90 but not before finally telling stories about WWII that he wouldnt share with us while we were kids. He wanted us to know what they all went through and to know the little things like when you bailed from an plane, your shoes were around your neck or in your coat and not on our feet.

  23. Jonathon says:

    Ken Bragg the pilot of this B17 was married to my aunts cousin here in the V.I. grew up hearing this story all my life have the picture of the plane and him on my wall at home.passing the story on to my kids and grandchildren! He was a great man full of life!!!

  24. Kit Kittle (Ralph Kittle, Jr.) says:

    My father, Ralph Kittle, was the pilot of The City of Savannah of the 388th bomb group, shot down on the crews’ 13th mission, after bombing Plauen, Germany, on March 5, 1945. That is the name given to the beautifully restored B-17 at the 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler, Georgia. It was dedicated in February of this year, a wonderful day.
    Less than 6 weeks ago, I received an email from a 20 year-old man in the Czech Republic, who 6 months ago found the crash site of the original City of Savannah. He is clever enough to have figured which plane he found and through the internet found me. He is full of questions about the crew and the missions of this plane and is already extremely knowledgable. I just received a package from him that contains small relics that he recovered at the crash site, a very moving experience. I sent him a baseball cap and T-shirt sold at the museum with the CIty of Savannah logo and outline of the plane and told him that no one has more reason to wear that City of Savannah hat than him. It is remarkable to meet a young man who has such a strong grasp of and interest in history, and startling to be the recipient of those relics of war.

  25. Randal McFarlane says:

    My late father in law was a flight engineer / top turret gunner on Hilmer Landholt’s crew with 815th BS. 483rd BG based in Foggia area of Italy . Was severely wounded in action over Italy . Aircraft was called Chief Wahoo. Any info or pics welcome .,

  26. bob poller says:

    All of you folks are an amazing group. You are not just interested in history and the “story”, a unique story of bravery and spirit for freedom, of liberty, and America…even if some of the details are slim from over 70 years ago. But consider your passion for the bravery of such men…and what’s going on since, including Viet Nam, Korea, Iran, Syria, ISIS, drones, Trump or Clinton, and the families of America’s servicemen and women serving today…all those young folks in uniform today who
    represent the best of America and willing to fight for “freedom” It seems youhave shown your past interests and efforts in keeping America strong and free. Liberty is not cheap, and we all know vets who have spent their life with the pains of war, even today, as North Korea is again saber rattling.
    Thanks for your comments. I was a ROTC Air Force reserve who studied loading bombs on aircraft and prepared for the Soviets to bomb us in Florida from Cuba. The Bay of Pigs never happeded due to politicians, (I assume)
    To all you servicemen and their families, for all the many wars since WWII, thanks for your service. I still wear my dog tags.

  27. My Uncle Frank Clemons was B17 pilot. I made a You Tube video as tribute to my Uncle and his crew. There was no crew photo taken so I’m still trying to get crew photos and his crash site off the shores of Cuxhaven Germany. Four of the ten men survived, my Uncle did not. Please watch the full story.

  28. One thing we can be sure of: The B17 was a tough and rugged Plane

    • That it was, and Boeing loved to brag about its survivability. I recall at least one Boeing ad in a wartime National Geographic that used the in-air photo of All American III cut nearly in two to show the ruggedness and great airworthiness of the B-17.

  29. steve berman says:

    This bird represents what that generation of Americans were all about. They grew up in the Depression and when called to War didnt hide from their duty. Strength and devotion were common place then and nobody apologized for America,especially their Commander in Cheif

  30. Lowell Knobloch says:

    My father Ernst Knobloch was in the 97th BG 414th Sqdn. He was asst. crew chief on the B-17 Kwityurbitchin II. He served in England, North Africa, and Foggia , Italy (Ammendola). He served 33 months without leave.
    James Bracewell from Iowa, also in my fathers group verified the story that the All American was stationed in Africa and landed there not in England. James also flew the first 11 day light bombing raids from England, he was a tail gunner.

  31. Von L, from looking closely at the letter with crew signatures on it, G. Boyd Jr. does seem to be the name and signature of the co-pilot. The signature is fairly clear and certainly not Godfrey Engle. Anyone else notice this?

  32. my great grandpa took the picture

  33. My great grandpa took the picture. When he was flying.

  34. Romulo A. Reyes says:

    For me, WW1 & WW2 brought about the bravest and most courageous of soldiers, both ours or the enemies’.
    They literally face their deaths once asked to go to their area of conflict.
    I salute all of them.
    But for me , the flyboys really the best there is. Imagine facing machine gun, Ak-aks, counter foghter planes, and they have no place to cover, just using their expertise with the machines at their hands!
    I envy their courage! God bless all of them!

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