A B17 Flying Fortress Bomber Crew - World War II

By Earl Benham


The Author

The Book

B-17 Bomber






Earl completed radio school at Scott Field, Illinois and gunnery school at Harlingen, Texas before joining the crew in the early spring of 1943 at Moses Lake, Washington.

From the formation of the crew at Moses Lake, Earl tells the unforgettable history of Crew 13:

  • Flight training at three different bases.
  • The flight to England in their B-17.
  • Their assignment to the 100th Bomb Group on October 13, 1943.
  • Earl flew the complete combat tour with this one crew.
  • Crew first assigned the B-17F named Hard Luck. 14 missions in this airplane.

This book features several authentic stories or incidents while on various missions along with a brief report on each mission, including dates, targets, bomb loads, etc.

There are many remembrances and many photos of the crew, and there are also photos of other men we all knew.

All combat crews have different experiences, but this book is about the very real experiences of one flight crew. Therefore, the title, "With Crew 13."

B17 flying fortress flight crew 13

CREW #13

We formed our crew at Moses Lake, Washington. We trained together as a crew in the U.S.A. prior to flying our B-17 to England. We Joined the 100th Bomb Group in England on October 13, 1943. We were assigned Airplane B-17 Model F. # 413 The name of this airplane was "Hard Luck".. We flew this B-17 until given a new model B-17 G. We called this one"Hard Luck 2" Crew members at the time of our first combat flight, were the original from Moses Lake Washington. Except our co-pilot Jack Ogg who joined the crew at the 100th base, replacing our original Co-pilot Bertrand McNeil.

Starting with us on our first combat flight. Crew members:

Pilot -- Loren C Van Steenis.
Co-pilot -- Jack Ogg
Navigator (killed In Action) -- Harold C. Becker
Bombardier (Wounded in Action) -- Lester D. Torbett
Flight Engineer -- Archie K. Holladay
Radio Operator -- Earl Benham
Asst. Radio Operator & Ball Turret -- Robert N. Goodman
Armorer Gunner (wounded in action) -- James L. Yarnall
Asst. Engineer -- Edward C. Butchino
Tail Gunner & Formation Observer -- Walter A.Schneider

Jim Yarnall
was grounded because of wounds. Holladay and Benham finished their tours May 1st, 1944 with 28 combat missions each. Van Steenis finished on the next mission (May 7th 1944) with 28 combat missions. Schneider also finished on the May 7th mission with 28 combat missions.

On that flight tragedy struck, and the Navigator, Becker, was killed. The Bombardier Torbett was seriously wounded and grounded. Goodman finished his tour on May 24, 1944 with 28 Combat Missions. I am not certain when the rest of the crew finished. They were Jack Ogg, Edward Butchino, veteran crew members, all finished their missions and returned to the USA.

The crew was assigned the B-17F "Hard Luck" (23413 with fuselage letters ZR-J) She was delivered to the 100th on October 13th, 1943. This became one of the 100th's better-known planes. After setting an ETO record of 600 hours on her original engines (made by Studebaker) this venerable old ship was lost on the 14 Aug 1944 Ludwigshafen mission. All her crew (Donald Cielewich crew) bailed out and were taken prisoner, although it is thought some may have evaded. It was the 63rd combat mission for "Hard Luck"

A Group Lead

April 22, 1944: We were briefed to lead the Group. This time was to be a trip to Hamm, Germany -- Bombing altitude of 23,000 feet. We would carry ten 500 lb. demolition bombs.

We were leading most of the Eighth Air Force for this mission and had our Group Commander, Colonel Kelly with us. The Colonel was on his first mission with the group and was riding as observer in our plane. The Command pilot was our Squadron Commander, Major Bucky Elton.

Our co-pilot, Jack Ogg, rode in the tail, this bumped our regular tail gunner, S/Sgt Walter Schneider from the mission. Ogg was a young man of twenty-one and been our co-pilot since we joined the 100th.

There were no special problems on this flight, our fighter escort was good -- German fighters did not bother us. Flak over the target (Hamm) was extremely heavy, although I did not hear of anyone in our Group being seriously hurt.

We took off at 3 P.M. and landed at 9:30 P.M.-- a flight of six and one half hours. Our navigator performed a super job and I think he received special commendation for his efforts.

Colonel Kelly, our new Group Commander, tragically was killed one week later over the coast of France, as were most of the lead crew he was flying with. The target was V-weapon launching ramp at Sottevast.

The Day I Finished my Tour; with 28 Missions

May 1st, 1944 -- The impossible day, I finished the tour requirement of 28 missions. On this my final missions, we were briefed for an airfield near Metz, France.

Our escort was the best I had seen. We had P-38s, P-47s, and P-51s. Complete coverage to an from the target. In spite of this great protection four German fighters made a blazing attack, coming out of the sun and down through the formation. I could not understand how they were able to get through the tight escort undetected -- no damage to any of the planes near us that I heard off.

After hitting our target we headed for home, crossed the Channel safely and made our approach to land. The pilot asked the engineer and I if we would care to make a low pass over the field to celebrate competing our tours. (The flight engineer, T/Sgt Holladay and I had both finished) We both said, "land as safely as possible, no showing off." No need to temp fate anymore than was necessary. I have regretted slightly over the years we didn't put on a show of exuberance.

As we landed safely a fast thought entered my mind -- why did I make it through a tour when so many did not -- It was a great experience to feel it was over, no need to wonder why.

I remembered the initial briefing officer who had doubted any of us would complete the then required twenty-five missions -- I had completed twenty-eight combat missions. No credit to myself, I had a good crew and a lot of luck. It had been a long way from Moses Lake, Washington -- I called it "The fortunes of war," -- Unexplainable....

The last time I saw Van (Loen C. Van Steenis - crew pilot)

A man of cool nerves and logic. These were necessary attributes for combat flying. Van had the natural ability that helped bring our crew through our training and the combat tour. I flew all of my missions (28), except one with Van at the controls. He was with us from Moses Lake, Washington. Van was selected to fly non-combat for a General after he finished his tour. He asked me and the engineer ("Hap" Holladay) to go with him -- I gladly would have but the General had his engineer and radio man who stayed with him.

My only flight in England after completing my tour was to take Van to his new assignment. As we shook hands and said, "Hope to see you again." I thought, how little to say to a man who had taken us through so many rough missions. What could one say? It seemed impossible to say any more. Perhaps by then all of us had pushed emotions into the back of our minds. I don't even recall the field where we left him. No matter, I knew I would always remember him as a great pilot for our crew..

Leaving the 100th for The USA

Late July, 1944
Holladay (Archie K. Holladay - the Engineer) and I were called to Operations to sign our release papers. We were on our way to the United States of America.

One thing we noticed, there was no band assembled to give us a rousing send off. I wondered if many people knew, or cared if we left Thorpe Abbotts or stayed. I knew there were many assignments more important under consideration by those still actively engaged in the war...Holladay and I were "has beens" our days in the E.T.O. were over, at least for now. At the time we thought we might be coming back if the war lasted another year.

I packed my bags, getting ready to leave and wanted to take a few items as souvenirs. Some of the items I wanted to take were; British Helmet, Oxygen mask, Mae West life jacket that I had worn on every mission as we flew over water on them all, Flying boots, and Colt 45 pistol -- So many things I wanted to keep.

Holladay and I may have said goodbyes to some, I really can't recall that we did. By this time we not very sentimental. We were leaving a place that was to be dismantled -- we didn't know it then but this was our last view of it, as we knew it, during our combat tour. The experiences we had at Thorpe Abbotts were and are overwhelming. Later, much later, we realized how many fond memories of the people we had known there....

Leaving England

I arose early the first morning at sea and went out on deck. The cool ocean air was very invigorating. I noticed we were well out into the North Atlantic; England was disappearing into the misty horizon. There was a brief feeling of nostalgia, perhaps more of a longing to return. I though of the many people I had known, some only briefly, of the devastation of war, and what I had seen of it. I was hoping it would never have to be duplicated and yet I knew this was not over. Not yet. On this morning I thought of our crew, the men of Crew #13. The morning seemed to me to be the ending of our start from Moses Lake, Washington. Would I ever see any of them again? In my estimation the war could not have been won without the efforts of such men. The Air Force is composed of many men of such caliber.. For this reason a man could be proud to have had some part in it.

In Conclusion

When reviewing the description of these missions, you must be reminded of the terrible destructive forces involved. We faced an eneny who started the war with vast destructive forces and we retaliated with even greater force, leading to the final conclusion of the war.

The men flying combat were faced with vastly different situations, some with tragic results for many of them. These experiences were unlike any these young men had ever faced or imagined -- yet they faced them. Time has and will continue to dim many of the emotions of those difficult days. Future generations will have only dim memories of these instances. Many will be forgotten or unknown as they dim into the background of life. Some literature, such as this, must remain for verification and to maintain an aspect of history and enable many to view these events, if only in retrospect...Maybe they will wonder about them -- maybe remember...


(A brief description of each flight from my diary written at the time. Earl Benham)

Nov 1943(day not listed..pw)
Our first intended mission was scrubbed just before take off.

Nov 5th 1943
Briefed for Gelsenkerken (Gilsenkirchen), Germany. We flew as spare. Bomb load, eight 500 lb. demos. Runaway supercharger at take off. Oxygen leak at 20,000 ft. We returned to base. No mission credit.

Nov 7th 1943
Briefed for Duren, Germany. Bomb load Demos and incendiaries.. At bombs away nine bombs failed to release from bomb racks. Torbett and Yarnel released them over the Channel on the way to base.

Nov 16th 1943
Briefed for Rujkan, Norway. Bomb load, five 1000 lb demos. Target 60 miles west of Olso, Norway. A hydro electric plant also used for development of heavy water used for development of atomic bomb..Target destroyed. I sent strike report to base, giving results.

Nov 19th 1943
Briefed for Gelsenkirchen, Germany. Bomb load Demos. Took off in cloudy weather, target overcast. Mission led by pathfinder.

Nov 26th 1943
Briefed for airfield at Paris, France. Bomb load twelve 500 lb Demos. Target overcast, we were ordered to return to base without dropping bombs. We could not bomb France blind.. Flak heavy over target, not many enemy fighters in area..We landed at base with full bomb load.

Nov 29th 1943
Briefed for Bremen, Germany. Several enemy fighters.... we had good escort of P-47s Ten FW-190s made head on passes.

Nov 30th 1943
Briefed for Solingen, Germany. Our pilot passed out at 18,000 ft...We descended to lower altitude to revive him. Salvoed bombs in Channel. Returned to base.

Dec 10th 1943
Briefed for Emden, Germany..Bombs were incendiaries. .We flew as spares. No place to fill in. Dropped bombs in Channel and returned to base. No mission credit.

Dec 14th 1943
Briefed for Berlin, Germany. Mission scrubbed before take off. Returned to briefing room and were briefed for Kiel, Germany. This mission also scrubbed half hour before take off.

Dec 16th 1943
Briefed for Bremen, Germany..Bomb load, eight 500 lb Demos and 20 incendairies..We flew as spare..Had a runaway supercharger on take off..We landed on the second attempt in heavy fog..Changed to new airplane..No place to fill in..Returned to base landed in thick fog with full bomb load. No mission credit.

Dec 22 1943
Briefed for Munster, Germany. Full load of incendiaries. Pathfinder mission, complete overcast over target..Light flak..P47 & P38 escort very good..We took off in the rain.

Dec 24th 1943
Briefed for NO BALL target near Abbeville and Dieppi, France. Bomb load 300 lb Demos..Altitude over target 12,000 ft. Our base was fogged on return, had a difficult time landing.

Dec 29th 1943
Briefed for Ludwigshaven, Germany..Flew as spares..Full load of incendaries..Took off at 8:30 a.m...No place to fill in. We returned to base with full bomb load..No mission credit. Landed at 12:30 after a 4 hr. flight.

Jan 4th 1944
Briefed for Kiel, Germany..Bomb load, ten 500 lb Demos..Pathfinder mission,Target overcast..Bombed from 29,000 ft..Flak heavy and accurate.

Jan 5th 1944
Briefed for Elbeipid, Germany. A ball bearing plant. We hit the 2nd. alternate target at Nuess, a bolt and nut factory. Bombed from 26,000 ft. Temperature 52 below zero..Flak very heavy..P47 escort very good.

Jan 7th 1944
Briefed for Ludwigshaven. Germany..A Chemical, Power and Rubber plant..Bomb load, ten 500 lb Demos..Pathfinder mission..Target overcast.Flak thick over target and passing over Duren..P47 & Spitfire escort very good..One bomb failed to release over target, Yarnel and Torbett loosened it over Channel. Target completely destroyed..Bombed from 23,000 ft..Our base closed in with fog., I brought the plane over the field with radio directional system.

Jan 15th 1944
Briefed for Halberstadt, Germany..Mission scrubbed after briefing because of heavy fog.

Jan 19th 1944
Briefed for installation on French Coast--Mission scrubbed on hour before take off..-- Our crew had special delayed action bombs which could not be unloaded on the ground.-- Necessary to drop them in the Channel. We took off in very bad weather and dropped then 40 miles out over the North Sea. We almost ran into a barrage balloon on the way back to base. the bomb load was twelve 500 lb.Demos..--..No mission credit.

Jan 20th 1944
Briefed for installation on French Coast. Scrubbed one hour before take off time.

Jan 21 1943
Briefed for installation on French Coast. Bombed from 20,000 ft. Each squadron made their own individual bomb rum..--..Flak very heavy, our airplane had several holes, most of the planes were hit by flak..--..The flak made it a rough mission.

Jan 24th 1943
Briefed for Frankfurt, Germany. Took off in dark at 7 a.m. -- Heavy contrails at 15,000 ft. had difficult time grouping formations. Were 150 miles over enemy territory when we were recalled to base. -- Came out across Holland so did not drop bombs. -- Salvoed in Channel.

Jan 25th 1944
Part of our crew flew to a field near Cambridge. We took another pilot on business.

Jan 26th 1944
Briefed for Frankfurt, Germany. Mission scrubbed before take off.-- Another mission to the French Coast was also scrubbed

Jan 31st 1944
Briefed or Frankfurt, Germany. -- Mission scrubbed 30 mins before take off.

Feb 4th 1944
Briefed for Frankfurt, Germany. Bomb load, ten 500 lb..--..Pathfinder mission.-- Bombed from 25,000ft. at 300 m.p.h. Flak very thick, some enemy fighter attacks. Very little escort.--.Had a very rough landing at base because of strong cross winds. My first and only mission with a different pilot. Our pilot sick with cold. Lt Harris was the pilot.

Feb 8th 1944 Flew a short practice formation flight.

Feb 9th 1944
Briefed for Halberstadt, Germany.-- We took off at 7 a.m. and were recalled at 8 a.m. - landed at 10 a.m. with full bomb load. -- No mission credit.

Feb 11th 1944 Flew a short practice formation flight.

Feb 12th 1944 Flew a short practice formation flight.

Feb 13th 1944 Bombed installations on French Coast. Flak very accurate bursting close to airplane. Good fighter escort..--..Bombing altitude 12,000 ft.

Feb 15th 1944 Flew short practice formation flight.

Feb 21th 1944
Briefed for Brunswick, Germany- Pathfinder mission.-- Bombed airfield and railroad marshaling yards. -- Excellent fighter support..Light flak. -- Bombed from 2200 ft.

Feb 22nd1944
Briefed for Schwienfurt, Germany.-- Bomb load, ten 500 lb Demos.-- Took off in snow flurries, climbed to 22,000 ft. Heavy contrails made grouping difficult. Visibility almost zero at times. We headed out across Channel badly formed..--Recalled.-- Landed at base with full bomb load.

Feb 23rd 1944
Briefed for Schwienfurt, Germany. Mission scrubbed after hour postponement.

Feb 24th 1944
Briefed for Posan, Poland. -- Bomb load, ten 500 lb Demos. Attacked by enemy fighters over Denmark. Our waist gunner (Yarnall
) was wounded in the shoulder and hand.-- Target was overcast; could not bomb. We changed course and dropped bombs on Rostock, Germany. -- Some flak, more fighters attacked on the way out, plane hit by a few shells. Landed O.K. at base, a long flight, a bit over ten hours. Yarnall
was grounded because of his injuries.

Feb 25th 1944
Briefed for Regansberg (Regensberg), Germany. Bomb load, ten 500 lb. Demos..Good fighter escort.-- Flak very heavy over target, we were hit by several pieces. We came to base on three engines.-- base badly clouded up, landed O.K., a nine and half hour trip.-- Target was hit in clear visibility.

Feb 26th 1944
Briefed for Friedrichshaven, Germany.-- Bomb load forty-two 100 lb. incendiaries. Mission scrubbed just before take off.

We went on a nine day leave at this time....

Mar 14th 1944
Flew a practice mission.

Mar 15th 1944
Flew a practice mission.

Mar 16th 1944
Test flew a new airplane (Hard Luck II) -- Were group lead.

Mar 17th 1955
Briefed for Oberfafinshaven, with Munich as secondary. Mission scrubbed before take off, returned to briefing room and were briefed for Frankfurt, Germany. This mission also canceled because of fog that did not lift.

Mar 18th 1944
Briefed for an airfield and installations five miles north of Augsburg, Germany. -- bomb load, ten 500 lb Demos.-- We were hit by flak as we crossed the French Coast on the way in. We were flying group lead. Torbett, our bombardier, was hit. He was not able to operate and we left the formation and returned to base.

Mar 25th 1944
Flew practice mission.

Mar 26th 1944
Briefed for Leipzig. Germany, a factory making JU-88s. Mission was scrubbed at taxi time. Were scheduled as group lead. We were up at 2 a.m. and flew a four hour practice mission on the afternoon.

Mar 27th 1944
Briefed for an airfield 15 miles from Bordeaux, France. Bomb load, ten 500 lb Demos. Flak very heavy over the target, bombing altitude 23,000 ft. We hit target with good concentration. The 8th Air Force bombed several targets in the area, saw smoke of several targets. Group lead mission and we led the group.

Apr 7th 1944
Briefed for Quackenbruck (Quakenbruck) , Germany. Mission scrubbed before take off.

Apr 8th 1944
Briefed for Quackenbruck (Quakenbruck) , Germany airfield again, bomb load, thirty-eight 100 lb bombs.- Bombing altitude 20,000 ft..-- Good fighter escort.

Apr 9th 1944
Briefed for Posan, Poland, aircraft plant. Bomb load, incendiaries.-- Took off in bad weather, formations were split up over North Sea in heavy cloud formation. The group could not be reformed. Returned to England, could not land at our base because of weather. Landed at a B-24 base and returned to our base when the weather cleared later that day.

Apr 11th 1944
Briefed for Posnan, Poland. Bomb load, five 1000 lb Demos. Took off at 7 a.m. - We flew across the North Sea in very bad weather. Formations were badly formed as we crossed the coast of Denmark. We met strong formations of enemy fighters. Many B-17s lost in out division. -- Target was overcast, we changed course and bombed railroad marshaling yards at Rostock, Germany. Flak very heavy over target. We met many enemy fighters on way out. Met out P-38 fighter escort on the way out. Landed at 5 p.m., field closed in. A long rough mission very similar to Feb. 24th when out Armor gunner Yarnall
was injured.

Apr 18th 1944
Flew a practice bombing flight, just our crew.

Apr 20th 1944
Briefed for installations on French Coast. Took off at 4 p.m., Bomb load, twelve 500 lb. Demos.-- Also took two 1000 lb demos. The two 1000 lb. demos were attached to the underside of the wing, one on each side. First and only time we carried them that way. - Flak over target very heavy and accurate. Landed at base 8:35 p.m.

Apr 22nd 1944
Briefed for Hamm, Germany. Target, the railroad marshaling yards. Bomb load, ten 500 lb demos.-- Bombing altitude 23,000 ft. Flak very heavy over target. We had a good escort. Our crew led the Group and most of the 8th Air Force. Our Group C. O. Colonel Kelly flew with us as an observer. Our Squadron C.O., Major Elton, flew with us as co-pilot. Our crew co-pilot flew as tail gunner. Took off at 3 p.m. and landed at 9:30 p.m. Think we led the wing.

Apr 24th 1944
Flew a practice mission.

Apr 25th 1944
We (our crew) flew a weather mission for the group. We were called at 1:45 a.m.
Briefed to take off at 4:30 a.m., a German air raid delayed take off until 5:30 a.m. We went to 20,000 ft, Navigator took wind readings which we radioed to base. After mission left the coast of England - returned to base at 9:30 a.m. Our flight took us over London. No mission credit.

Apr 26th 1944
Briefed for Brunswich (Brunswick), Germany, bombed by pathfinder. Bomb load forty-two incendiaries.- Flak heavy over target, good escort..-- Took off at 5:10 a.m. landed at 12:20 p.m.

Apr 27th 1944
Briefed for a target near Cherbourg, France. Bomb load, sixteen armor piercing bombs. Bombing altitude 18,000 ft. -- Flak thick over target

Apr 27th 1944
We returned to base and were briefed for an airfield near Paris, France. Bomb load, twelve 500 lb. demos. Took off at 3:30 p.m. Some flak over target, bombed secondary as primary was overcast. Landed at 9:30 p.m. ---- Two missions this one day..

May 1st 1944
Briefed for Metz, France, marshaling yards. Bomb load six 1000 lb demos. Took off at 3:30 p.m. --- Fighter escort very good. We had full support with P47s, P38s and P51s. Some light flak over target and four enemy fighters made an attack on out group..--- Landed O.K.


(The following data on the May 7th 1944 Berlin mission is supplied by Walter A. Schneider)

May 7th 1944
Briefed for Berlin, Germany. Bomb load, ten 500 lb. demos. - Heavy flak and very accurate; Navigator(Harold C. Becker) killed. - Bombardier (L. Torbett) was wounded. This was the last mission for the following members of the crew.

Pilot Van Stennis
Tail Gunner Schneider
Bombardier Torbett (wounded)
Navigator Harold C. Becker (KIA)