Document created: 31 October 03
Air University Review, January-February 1973
William G. Holder
A vast majority of the B-17s met a rather inglorious end following World War II. Most either faced the scrapper’s torch or ended up as aluminum ingots. Almost all these combat-weary Flying Fortresses met their demise across the waters; very few made their way back to the States. This fact is sorely realized today, what with the burgeoning of aircraft museums around the world. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, there are only three Forts left in existence that actually saw combat. These are the Swoose, which is awaiting the day it will be displayed at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. Then there is the Memphis Belle, displayed in Memphis, Tennessee. The third Fort, which like the Memphis Belle served with the 91st Bomb Group, has just returned to the States, eventually to be restored and displayed in the magnificent new Air Force Museum. Yes, after almost thirty years, the Shoo-Shoo Baby has come home.
The Baby was (or should we say “is”?) a late-model B-17G, serial number 42-32076, that was assigned to the 401st Bomb Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group. Lieutenant Paul C. McDuffee was assigned as her original pilot. The favorite song of Crew Chief Hank Cordes was “Shoo-Shoo Baby”; hence it was inevitable that the song title would adorn the nose of the then-new Fort, along with a rather scantily clad young lady.
In all the long list of 340 missions made by the 91st, surely the strangest entry of all was this notation: “9–4–44, Gdynia—recalled” and immediately below, on the same date, was “1 A/C Marienburg, Completed.” Though in the early days the group sometimes had to struggle to get more than half a dozen planes in the air, this was certainly the only case in Eighth Air Force history for which a group got mission credit with only one aircraft participating.
And it all started out as a perfectly normal morning for pilot Paul McDuffee and the crew of the Shoo-Shoo Baby. At briefing, the weight was hanging way up on the wall, so everyone knew at once it would be a long, mean one. Gdynia, a Polish rail and shipping center, was the target. The group was to assemble at altitude over East Anglia and proceed from there.
As usual, the weather was miserable, with fog, zero visibility, and a heavy overcast. The crews went through the “set and sweat” period, waiting for a mission scrub that never came. Instead, the planes took off, only to be swallowed up immediately in the overcast.
Shoo-Shoo Baby cut through a thin layer of overcast into clear air at several thousand feet, without another plane in sight, and then plunged into a layer above that seemed endless. McDuffee and the crew kept looking and climbing higher and higher, reaching for the top, scared stiff at the thought of several dozen other Forts struggling just as blindly through the mess and likely to make contact at any moment.
At 30,600 feet the plane broke clear, almost in the middle of a group of B-24s. “We were within wing tip distance of the last plane in the formation,” McDuffee recalled, “and the slipstream bounces nearly tore the wings off. We were all petrified!”
Except for the 24s, there was not a plane in sight. They flew in circles for some minutes, looking in vain for other 91st planes. Checks indicated that Baby’s radio was working, and no message of any change in plans or a recall had been received.
Finally, far off in the distance appeared a group of B-17s, and Shoo-Shoo Baby headed for an intercept. When she closed up, however, the crew could see it was not the 91st but another First Division group. At the moment, McDuffee was not choosy and decided to tuck in where he could and ride with the herd. The only open spot was deputy lead, so Shoo-Shoo Baby slid in there, despite protestations and general shaking of fists by the other pilots in the formation. With radio silence ordered, that was about all they could do.
“We’d found a home,” McDuffee declared, “and we weren’t about to be dispossessed!”
The group was apparently going to a target other than the one assigned to the 91st, for the heading was approximately 40 degrees, which carried them up near the tip of Sweden before they swung right on a 145-degree heading.
“When we approached the coast the navigator immediately picked up Gdynia and Danzig, which obviously were not the targets, and we changed to a course of 190 degrees. About that time we hit a terrific flak barrage and hundreds of fighters,” McDuffee remembered. “We opened the bomb-bay doors and headed for the target when the others did, though we really didn’t know what it was. After turning off the target run, we noticed that six B-17s had been lost.”
On the way to the coast, Shoo-Shoo Baby encountered a mystery that no one to this day has been able to explain. “A shell burst ahead and above us, emitting what appeared to be a big puff of brown smoke. Immediately, another burst just above us, and the whole plane was covered with what looked to be brown tobacco juice. The windows and windshields were completely covered, and the wipers only made it worse. The only way we could see to fly for the rest of the trip was to slide back the windows a bit and sort of stick one eye out.”
About halfway across the North Sea coming back, Shoo-Shoo Baby left her unknown friends and set course for Bassingbourn. The plane landed safely after 12 hours and 55 minutes in the air, and all four engines quit simultaneously on the taxi strip—all the fuel was gone.
In talking to the tower, McDuffee asked how many others had gotten back OK. “Nobody,” said the tower man, and then before shock could totally overwhelm the crew, “Nobody else went. We had a recall.”
“Waiting for us to come in was Colonel Claude Putnam and some major general,” McDuffee recalled. “We were sure that our names were mud! When I stepped out of the plane after all those hours of flying, I fell to my knees; and when Colonel Putnam came up, I asked him not to be too hard on us, since I was already on my knees.”
“He just laughed and said that we’d been to Marienburg, that our flight reflected honor on the 91st, that the general was pleased and had said the 91st would get group credit for our [lone] mission.”
Why didn’t Shoo-Shoo Baby get the recall? A freak accident had disabled the radio so that it appeared to function normally but did not receive. So the crew never got the recall.
The “tobacco juice”? They never did discover what it was. All his buddies claim that McDuffee flew through a blivet for sure, but, as he says, “Who ever saw a blivet flying at 30,000 feet?”
McDuffee flew his 30th mission in the Baby on the 24th of May 1944, having flown several missions with Lieutenant Robert J. Guenther as his copilot, preparatory to Guenther’s taking over the aircraft commander post.
Then commander duties were handed over to Bob Guenther, who would be Baby’s second and final military boss. It was then, supposedly, that the nose got the additional “Shoo” that appears in the only known wartime picture of the plane. But there appears to be some uncertainty about this.
After several missions with Guenther at the helm, the Baby was faced with an extremely tough one: a mission to Poznań, Poland, that approached the capacity of the B-17. The mission length was approximately 1450 miles. The flight is well remembered by one of the crew members, J. M. Lowdermilk:
“The navigator always got to the plane late, as the rest of the crew was ready to go, and I remember that as I walked up to the plane Bob [Guenther] asked me if I knew the way to Sweden because we might run out of gas. I stated that I did and that I had the course charted. This was all in jest, but I have often wondered what would have happened had this been overheard by the ground crew, since actually we did go to Sweden.
“We had trouble on take-off with a full gas and bomb load. The supercharger on number three engine overheated but after take-off was operational. We rendezvoused with many other B-17s over the English Channel, and the plotted course was toward Berlin, then doglegged around Berlin, to Poznań, where the bombs were to be dropped, north to the Baltic Sea, out across Denmark, and finally back down the English Channel to home.
“Soon after we crossed the German border, we lost number three engine, I believe because of losing oil pressure. Bob could not get the prop feathered. It continued to windmill the entire trip with no vibration. We attempted to stay in formation with three engines but found this impossible and had to drop out. We continued on course to the best of my ability. We were losing altitude but continued to the target and dropped our bombs. Flying alone toward the Baltic Sea, we saw many German fighters attacking formations of B-17s and could not understand why they didn’t pick us out as a straggler. Before we reached the Baltic Sea, we lost the second engine, and the decision had to be made to go to Sweden because we could not make it back to England. Bob asked for a course to Sweden, and I charted one to a little town called Ystad in the very southernmost part of Sweden.
“All loose equipment, including machine guns, radio equipment, and clothing, was thrown overboard in order to lighten the ship. An attempt was made to drop the ball turret, but it wouldn’t move.
“As we approached the coastline, Bob was interested in knowing whether or not it was Sweden. I confidently stated that it was, but after the flak started coming up as we got over land, I wasn’t so sure. All of it was low, and I believe the Swedes were just telling us ‘Don’t try anything.’ Just before we reached land we lost the third engine, and we were losing altitude fast. A Swedish fighter came up and led us to Malmö, Sweden, where a B-24, also in trouble, landed just ahead of us. Actually, we had to swing wide to keep from colliding.
“At this point I blew my chance to be a hero. The B-17 carried a navigational aid called a Geebox. This instrument had a red button that was to be pushed in case of emergency, to prevent certain information from falling into the hands of the enemy. I was so glad to get down on the ground and out of the plane that I failed to push the button.
“We were removed from the plane by Swedish soldiers with rifles and machine guns. Most of us were wearing heated flight suits over long underwear, and we were a sorry-looking sight coming off the plane.”
The pilot, Bob Guenther, now a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, explains: “None of us except the engineer ever saw Shoo-Shoo Baby again. The engineer went along with the Swedes to help them take her to the internment area.
“We were taken into a building, where we submitted name, rank, and serial number. We were told that the American authorities would be informed of our presence. Within the next few days, we were transported to a resort camp called Lokabrun near Ludvika. Treatment there was good. We had two men to the room and maid service. There was a detachment of Swedish soldiers in the camp, but things were very informal. We soon bought civilian clothes and bicycles, and each week we were allowed a 24-hour pass from camp and a 3-day pass each month. We went to Stockholm a number of times, were arrested there for taking pictures of the naval harbor, and generally had a good time.
“During late October, 1944, we were taken to Stockholm, and on October 29 a white B-24 with a civilian crew took us out at night under cloud cover across Norway and into northern Scotland. I was loaded into the bomb bay with what seemed like 30 other men. We returned to our base in England and then back to the States.”
Following the war, the Baby was officially given to Sweden by the United States. She was modified into a transport by SAAB, served with the Danish Air Lines, and then with the Royal Danish Air Force. In 1954 the plane was sold to the Babb Company and then to the Institute Géographique National in France for work as a survey aircraft. Her last mission in performing that function was in 1961. She has not flown since.
Steve Birdsall, the Australian air historian, traced her through years of hard tracking. He found her engineless and parked on the ramp at Creil, France, in a somewhat battered condition. He brought his find to the attention of the 91st Bomb Group Memorial Association and initiated efforts to save Shoo-Shoo Baby from the scrap heap. As Birdsall pointed out, “This veteran was the last combat B-17 to survive, and she deserves a better fate.”
When found, the Baby had undergone a number of rather extensive modifications to perform the many jobs she had done since the fateful Poland raid. All the original equipment had been stripped out, and seats had been installed. The waist-gun positions had been closed up and windows with curtains put in. The complete nose section had been removed and a considerably longer nose installed. A military-type nose will be installed when the aircraft is restored. There were also some windows” installed in the floor for the geographic missions she performed. The tail turret was completely “metaled” over. Her sides carried the SAAB commercial markings.
French officials, as a gesture of friendship between the United States and France, presented the B-17 to Secretary of the Air Force Robert C. Seamans, Jr., for preservation by the Air Force Museum. The journey from France to the Air Force Museum required the assistance of the United States Air Forces in Europe to disassemble and crate the plane for truck shipment to Germany and eventual airlift to the United States. From Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany the Baby was flown directly to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, home of the Air Force Museum. Baby traveled in style, in the belly of a giant C-5A transport.
On hand at Wright-Pat were several of Shoo-Shoo Baby’s old friends. Wartime pilot Paul McDuffee, now a Tampa, Florida, insurance man, and retired Major General Stanley T. Wray, once 91st Bomb Group Commander, were waiting among the reception committee.
“It’s been twenty-eight years,” said McDuffee as he watched the disassembled bomber being unloaded. “I’ve just got to go over and kiss her.” And he did it!
The Air Force Museum, over the next two or three years, plans to get the Baby back as near as possible to her fighting trim. Then she will probably replace the Museum’s present B-17, which did not see combat.
The 91st Bomb Group Memorial Association is quite excited about the acquisition and plans to hold one of its upcoming reunions at Dayton so the members will be able to see her. The organization boasts some 1700 veterans of the group, commonly known as Wray’s Ragged Irregulars.”
As one 91st veteran put it, “When we flew in the likes of her, we were nothing but a bunch of pimply-faced kids. But she now sure brings back a lot of memories to a lot of old fifty-year-olds.”
Welcome home, Baby!
Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio
Recently photographs are by Len Pytel, and all are by courtesy of the Air Force Museum.
William G. Holder (B.S.A.E., Purdue University) is a space systems analyst with the Foreign Technology Division, Air Force System Command, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. He has worked with the Boeing Company on the Bomarc B and the Saturn V. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, he served three years as an air defense guided missile instructor. Mr. Holder is the author of numerous technical and historical articles and books, including Saturn V—The Moon Rocket (1969).
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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