An incredulous man went in search of a stone, and was moved to write a book.
A doctor who wanted to be an artist pondered the ring-pulls of beverage cans.
And there was once a machine called the B-17. Its legend will never be dimmed.
All these pieces come together in the terrible and wonderful story of Mi Amigo.
This is a letter I hope is never mailed...
...My final word is that I'm glad to have been able to lay down my life for a cause which I believed was just and right.
As dusk fell on 22 February, 1944, a Flying Fortress fell from the sky over Sheffield, and crashed in woodland at the edge of a city park. In spite of the efforts of townsfolk, none of its crew of ten could be saved. Accounts of the incident were sparse from the beginning, and soon they became confused and embellished. Some of the mysteries surrounding the stricken aircraft's final hours could perhaps be resolved by the chroniclers of the formidable 8th Air Force. Some of them might never be explained.
The paucity of information about the last flight of Mi Amigo has itself become part of the myth. Commentators have speculated that the truth is too harrowing to be lightly told. We should remember, though, that this was just one sorrow among a relentless litany of sorrows. More than 40 other aircraft, and more than 400 other airmen of the Mighty 8th, were lost on that very same day. No single tragedy could merit special attention. All of the telegrams were brief.
Under such circumstances, the reminiscences that take the place of a more formal record have a poignant and intimate quality. For many years, the fate of Mi Amigo was almost unknown outside the families of her aircrew and the veterans of the Royal Air Force Association who diligently mark her anniversary.
But some tales, even half-complete ones, possess a remarkable power. They endure quietly in the folklore of the community that bore witness, until they bloom in the imagination of succeeding generations. They bloom because they weigh on the heart and summon the spirit at one and the same time.
This is such a story.
14 October, 1943 was a fateful day in the history of the 305th Bomb Group. Fifteen of its B-17 Flying Fortresses set out from their base at Chelveston, Northamptonshire, taking part in one of the huge daylight raids that characterised this middle phase of World War II. Their target was a notorious one, a ball bearing plant at Schweinfurt, and its tenacious defence had already inflicted grievous losses in an earlier sortie. Sixty bombers failed to return from the mission. Of the 305th's complement only two came home; the worst percentage loss endured by any allied bomber squadron in the entire war.
Far away in Seattle, a B-17G rolled out of the Boeing plant on the same date. Her serial number was 42/31322, and the bomber born on Black Thursday was destined for a dreadful fate of her own.
The G-variant of the B-17 incorporated features adopted as a direct result of the first disaster over Schweinfurt. The aircraft underwent several refinements throughout its European war service, and nearly all of them were to enhance its defensive firepower against fighter attack.
The B-17G was the ultimate version, and it was equipped with no less than thirteen 0.5" machine guns. The distinctive chin turret with its forward-pointing twin cannon was added at this time. These guns were remote-controlled, under the charge of the bombardier. Eight of the crew of ten were called upon to operate the various machine guns in the event of a dogfight. Sometimes it was still not enough.
The newborn B-17 spent the rest of 1943 flying around the United States, progressively acquiring the accessories of war. She sojourned in Illinois, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. They furnished her with her fearsome guns, and with radio and navigational instruments, and they attached her bomb-racks. Within the Perspex nose canopy, they fitted the latest precision Norden bombsight.
It was appropriate in its way that the aircraft became all-American in the course of its augmentation. It would have a crew to match; young men, bright and optimistic. They were Everymen from Everywhere:
- Lt John Kriegshauser (Missouri) - pilot
- 2nd Lt Lyle Curtis (Idaho) - co-pilot
- 2nd Lt John Humphrey (Illinois) - navigator
- 2nd Lt Melchor Hernandez (California) - bombardier
- S/Sgt Harry Estabrooks (Kansas) - engineer and top-turret gunner
- Sgt Charles Tuttle (Kentucky) - ball-turret gunner
- S/Sgt Robert Mayfield (Illinois) - radio operator
- Sgt Vito Ambrosio (New York) - right waist gunner
- M/Sgt G. Malcolm Williams (Oklahoma) - left waist gunner
- Sgt Maurice Robbins (Texas) - tail gunner
This crew was assembled at Geiger Field, Spokane, WA. It was destined to train together for longer than it would fight together, though in truth such an outcome was not unusual.
On the day that they all died, the youngest of these men was 21 years of age and the eldest 24. Lyle's wife was carrying a daughter he would never see. Vito's wife had spent a single day with her new husband before he left for England.
They came to Europe via Newfoundland, over-flying Greenland and Iceland before touching down at Prestwick in Scotland on 16 January, 1944. Within a fortnight, Mi Amigo was at Chelveston, and they painted a large letter 'G' in a triangle on both flanks of her tail. Now she was marked as part of the 305th Bomb Group. In a little over three weeks, she would fly fourteen successful missions.
At this stage of the war, with the Luftwaffe's combat effectiveness still at a high level, bomber crews completing twenty-five missions would be allowed to return home to the United States. Many did not get that far. The average number of missions flown by a B-17 crew was fifteen. As the end of February 1944 drew near, Mi Amigo's luck was due to run out.
David Harvey was not a native of Sheffield, but he had already been a resident there for fifteen years when he chanced upon a story that he found hard to believe. A book discovered in the Imperial War Museum's repository at Duxford said that a Flying Fortress had crashed in his home city, and moreover in a part of it that he knew well.
Harvey was already a devoted researcher of the air war in Europe, and he was incredulous for two reasons. First, he knew that no planes of this type were stationed as far north as the Yorkshire city and that an off-course bomber returning home in distress would be expected to come down much closer to the east coast. Second, he couldn't understand why his friends (who were well aware of his interest) had never mentioned the incident.
There was even supposed to be a memorial stone in a park where he had often taken his children to play. He went looking for it.
The stone weighs half a ton, carries not one but two bronze plaques, stands about fifty metres from a busy café and is surrounded by ten oak trees deliberately planted to commemorate the lost airmen. In spite of this, it's deceptively easy to overlook. David Harvey didn't find it immediately, but when he did find it, he knew at once that he must tell the story.
Harvey's deeply moving little book was published in 1997. It remains the only substantive public account of the legend of Sheffield's Flying Fortress.
Superstition and sentimentality combine in the naming of a warplane. This one acquired its personality with the help of its Spanish-speaking bombardier. Melchor Hernandez surely did think of the craft as his friend, and the others acquiesced.
Mi Amigo was a good name. Discreet and reassuring, it belied the terrible purpose of the recipient. It captured the reliance of ten men on this unnatural thing of the skies, and it suggested their calm acceptance of their lot. It wasn't a vain name, or a defiant name. Mi Amigo still sounds like the choice of men who considered themselves neither heroic nor wronged.
She would have had nose-art. Sadly, there is no record of the image she bore. The only known photographs of Mi Amigo depict her smouldering remains among the trees, with only her tail recognisable.
Even her colouring is uncertain. Some eye-witnesses, who saw her while the fire was contained within the fuselage, claim she was the natural silver-grey of her aluminium skin. The intact tail, though, appears to have been painted in a drab camouflage shade. Depictions of the 305th BG's livery are inconclusive.
The Allies were committed to bombing round the clock. While the RAF carried out the night-raids, the 8th Air Force was assigned to daylight missions. For the Americans, camouflage was probably ineffective. A best guess is that Mi Amigo was mainly silver, with a tail plane in green and black.
They called it Big Week, that third week of February 1944. The air war was coming down to a simple equation. British and American bombers strove to destroy Germany's aircraft factories, and Germany's existing fighters strove to stop them. It became clear to the Allies that mass raids might overwhelm the Luftwaffe's defensive capacity, and Big Week was intended to do just that.
The first three days of bombing wreaked impressive destruction from Rostock to Augsburg, but the allied losses were also severe. Part of the problem was that the Americans were stretching their own capacity in terms of fighter escort. The plane of choice for that role was the medium-range P51-D Mustang, but these were new entrants to the theatre and not yet up to the numerical strength needed to cover bombardment of this intensity.
So it was that Col. Curtis Le May assented to fresh plans for his 305th Bomb Group. This contingent of the much larger force would attack the Germans' principal northern fighter base itself, at Alborg in Denmark. The intention was to compromise the Luftwaffe's defensive response. If they engaged the bombers bound for Germany, then they might have nowhere to come home to. If they chose to defend their airfield, then there might be no factories left to build their successors.
Kriegshauser and his crew would have learned this in the briefing room at dawn on 22 February, only minutes before taking to the air. The ground crew would have readied Mi Amigo during the night, including the stowing of her 4000-lb bomb load.
It was a morning like many others, though the weather was already poor and worsening. Mi Amigo's four Wright Cyclone engines powered up to their full 5000 horsepower as the Aldis lamp at the end of the runway winked her turn. Moments later, she climbed into the gunmetal skies of a wintry Northamptonshire morning for the last time.
In about 1992, a doctor called Tony Kemplen decided that it was now or never as far as his artistic ambitions were concerned. He put his career in General Practice on hold, and enrolled on the Fine Arts degree course as a mature student at Sheffield Hallam University. Some time later, looking for inspiration for a project, he was strolling through one of the green spaces on Sheffield's west side. He noticed the ring-pulls of aluminium drinks cans littering the ground around the café in Endcliffe Park.
Kemplen had heard the story of Mi Amigo, and knew that many aeroplanes including the Flying Fortresses were made of aluminium. What if some of this aluminium had been strewn over this slope before, in the wreckage of an American bomber that crashed here fifty years ago?
By around noon on that Tuesday in February, 1944, the 305th were over the coast of Denmark. The sky was blotted with the deadly black smoke-puffs of flak from 88mm anti-aircraft guns. Worse still, the cloud-cover was solid, and the bombers had little hope of locating their target. If the nature of the mission had been different, the bombers might have turned for home sooner. This time, though, it was imperative to maintain the threat, and so draw the teeth of the German fighter squadrons.
The first wave of Focke Wulf 190 fighters came out of the cloud close to the formation, leaving the gunners little time to respond. Judging that manoeuvrability was now the most urgent need, the squadron leader jettisoned his bombs. The rest of his convoy immediately followed suit, and the unburdened bombers climbed and wheeled back out to sea. For a little while, the enemy aircraft disengaged.
In the Park
Close to the bottom end of Hunterhouse Road at Hunters Bar, Fred Nichols had an electrical repair shop. Jeff and Tony, for a while yet too young for their call-up, were working there that afternoon. The kids who would soon be playing football in the park were still at their lessons. Some of them might already have been thinking about those precious minutes of abandon between the school bell and the fall of darkness.
In the streets nearby, there were bakers and bar-keepers, a dentist and a clergyman and many more who would all tell their stories in the days to come. For now, though, none of them can have imagined what they were destined to see.
Big Week went well for the 305th. They deployed 300,000 tons of munitions for the loss of seven aircraft. Even the Alborg sortie, with a zero bomb-count, could be judged a success, since it prevented the interception of the raid on Rostock.
Two planes didn't make it back from Denmark. 42/31409 went down into the sea, its engines crippled by sustained enemy fire. Mi Amigo also took heavy damage, but Kriegshauser resisted the Focke Wulfs' efforts to isolate his craft from the main formation. The plane was still airborne when the Germans fell away, with ammunition and visibility compromised. She was by now well out over the North Sea, heading west in dense cloud.
Observers from neighbouring aircraft later gave a consistent, if detached, account. For whatever reason, Mi Amigo could not effect radio communication. More than one of her engines was misfiring, and her skin was in tatters. She was having difficulty maintaining altitude, and soon began to fall behind.
There was no effective way to assist a bomber in this situation. Its crew could not bale out over water, since they would die of hypothermia within minutes if they entered the sea. The first battle was simply a matter of regaining land, and after that it would be down to luck and the skill of the pilot. The squadron leader did all that he could, by assigning one plane to try and nurse Mi Amigo home. That done, he lead the rest back to Chelveston at full speed.
Mi Amigo was now almost alone. An hour before, the clouds had probably saved her. Now they became her nemesis. A tight escort was impossible because of the risk of collision. The nursemaid lost the stricken B17 some five hundred miles off the English coast, and, after a few minutes of tentative patrolling, the search had to be abandoned. Mi Amigo, it was assumed, had lost her struggle, and had plunged into the cold sea.
Mi Amigo did not crash for another four hours. What happened in the intervening time will never be known. We can only try to piece together John Kriegshauser's dilemma from the known facts.
At some point, she went off course, her flight ending a hundred miles north of her home base. This suggests that her navigational equipment was disabled, and possibly that the two crewmen in that area of the aircraft (the navigator and the bombardier) were incapacitated. The condition of the rest of the crew is unknown, though the fact that enemy fighters appear to have been able to sit on her tail and strafe her engines might mean that the tail-gunner and ball-turret gunner had also been lost.
Kriegshauser must have been aware of another aspect of his crew's welfare, too. The six men behind the cockpit of a B17 were exposed to severe cold when flying at altitude (in fact they wore electrically-heated suits for this reason). Waist-gunners in particular sometimes literally froze onto the aircraft's fabric, and so injured men who could not support themselves were prone to suffer a horrible death.
Mi Amigo's pilot may well have been faced with a dreadful choice. For the reason above, he would have wanted to fly at low altitude in warmer air. The damaged engines, on the other hand, might have denied him the power to ascend, so that the height he started with would be all he could ever have. We can surmise that the approach to the English coast was a slow, and perhaps irresistible, descent.
The condition of the engines may also explain why Mi Amigo flew so far inland (around a hundred miles) without apparently trying to make a landing. The weather conditions give a further clue. Though it was still daylight, cloud cover was complete down to about 500 feet. Kriegshauser probably judged that he would have insufficient power to abort a blind approach, and so chose instead to fly on for as long as he could, hoping that the cloud would clear. It never did.
This is the Ordnance Survey grid reference of the place where Mi Amigo came to earth. It's also the partial name of Kemplen's exhibition.
The artwork is diverse, all of it beautifully judged and executed, all of it deeply touching.
There are playing cards, a perfect symbol of the lives of young men wiling away hours on the very brink of fate.
There is the ten of hearts, each spot a portrait, and almost too much.
It was just before five o'clock in Endcliffe Park. Youngsters chased their football in the failing light. They heard her before they saw her.
Some accounts say that the aircraft tried to put down in that tiny green space, but that the pilot pulled up the nose when he saw the children, and hit the hill instead.
Some say that it circled, that it rolled, that it clipped the trees even as it broke the cloud. Some say that the engines stuttered at the last.
This can't all be true, and yet none of it really matters. All that can be said for sure is that photographs prove that the aircraft was pointing down the hill when it crashed. If Kriegshauser's last act was to save the footballers, he carried it out by bringing the plane down too soon, rather than by over flying the field.
Mi Amigo shed her tail, and slewed to a halt among the trees, her wings and fuselage more or less intact. Fire broke out internally, but for the first couple of minutes the astonished onlookers were able to draw close. The children were shooed away, since at least one man's corpse was thrown clear, though no public record identifies him.
Some observers describe cries from within. Some say that they begged for help, and others that they pleaded with would-be rescuers to get away. One young Sheffielder said he tried to pull an airman clear, but the man's legs were trapped and the flames consumed him.
Nobody seems to have considered the possibility of live bombs on board. It was only once the fire took hold, and ammunition began to crack and whine, that the huddle of people on the hill dispersed in search of shelter. The inferno, when it came, was shocking in its intensity. An hour after the crash, as the last natural light faded away, the remains of Mi Amigo were ashes and blackened shards of metal, and all hope had gone.
There is an annual service on the Sunday closest to 22 February. Wreaths are laid at the crash site. The service is read in St Augustine's at Brocco Bank. The anniversary is kept by the Royal Air Force Association.
Jeff Hawkins was one of the young electrical apprentices at Fred Nichols'. His account is especially coherent and eloquent. He describes the immediate aftermath but also the scene three days later, when the authorities re-opened the park and children combed the slope for souvenirs. The clearance of debris seems to have been slapdash, for Jeff himself recovered a broken watch, stopped at two minutes past five, and someone else found a misshapen signet ring. The stream at the bottom of the bank yielded a pair of flying goggles.
Charles Tuttle, Harry Estabrooks and Maurice Robbins still lie in the American Military Cemetry at Madingley, Cambridgeshire, along with nearly four thousand of their countrymen who gave their lives in the defence of Europe between 1942 and 1945. The other seven were interred here briefly, too, but their remains were later reburied in the land of their families.
There are at least two h2g2 Researchers, one American and one English, who possess a copy of David Harvey's little book. This Entry can't add anything to that account, and it might never have been written, but on the evening of 5 November, 2005, the Englishman drove past Endcliffe Park, and there were trails of fire and showers of sparks in the sky above the fateful hill.
John Kriegshauser DFC was an unassuming young man from St Louis, with a job in a shoe factory, a 1936 Ford Sedan and a fiancée called Peg. His letters show that he believed in the cause he fought for and he knew the risks he took. He fought to save his aircraft and his friends until the very last.
Nowadays, the schoolchildren of Sheffield learn about Mi Amigo, and about John's sacrifice, and the sacrifice of many others like him. The city's vitality, manifest in its children, is part of their legacy.
It was a terrible war. The destruction wrought by allied bombing should never be forgotten, but the picture sometimes painted of a merciless toll inflicted on German cities is not the whole story. Big Week opened the floodgates, it's true, but the price of ascendancy was paid by thousands of young airmen before it, and by no small number afterwards.
At the time of writing, it's the onset of winter in Sheffield, making the copse on the slope cold and grey and a little eerie. There were no children there today, as the light faded like it did on that evening half a century ago. Mi Amigo was there, though. Her presence can still be felt.
How many places like this must there be? Nothing about this story, neither the aircraft nor the place, is unique. Nothing about it is even unusual. All of this happened so many times that we become numb to it.
But we shan't forget. Not now. Not ever. Let Mi Amigo stand for what we should aspire to and for what we must never repeat, an enigma for all time.