For one veteran, ride in B-17 was a trip into past

For one veteran, ride in B-17 was a trip into past
Douglas Dowell, 88, sits at the radio operator’s desk in a B-17 bomber. Dowell completed 33 missions during World War II as an engineer and top turret gunner with the 8th Air Force, 379th bomb group. Photos by Tony Cagala

EL CAJON — His first mission: a target over Schweinfurt, Germany. The date, April 13, 1944 — it was a Friday.Douglas Dowell, then a 19-year-old kid, boarded his B-17 bomber with a crew of nine other kids his age and prepared to take off from their airfield in Kimbolton, England. Their plane was one of 550 other bombers from the 8th Air Force, 379th bomb group.Dowell, now 88 years old, and who served as the top turret gunner and engineer on his first plane the Powerful Katrinka (named after the pilot’s wife), still remembers the missions he flew in, completing 33 in all.

“I remember the first one very well,” Dowell said. “We started with 550 airplanes and we lost 55 exactly over the target. So being a whiz at mathematics even then in those days, I lost some of my virginity,” he added.

When he made it back from that first mission, he looked at his plane and counted the more than 300 holes in it either from flak or from enemy planes’ bullets.

“When you first start, you think, ‘I’m never going to get hit. The other guys get hurt.’ But then when you see 10 percent gone in that first mission, you begin to think, I’ve got to fly 24 more. You think, ‘Well, am I going to make it or not?’”

Dowell said that luckily, kids forget that. “And you just keep going, which I did.”

Dowell and his crew kept taking to the air.

“You didn’t have much choice,” he said. “You’re in service, and of course the war (is) going on, they want you to do something, you do it. And I was happy. I enjoyed the Air Force. I enjoyed all 26 years being in the Air Force. It’s a little scary at times,” he said.

Dowell served from 1942 to 1968.

His grandson is also in the Air Force, following in his footsteps, he said, something that makes him very proud.

Dowell received a call from Scott Maher with the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit flying museum that tours the country with historic planes from World War II. The tours give people a chance to see the military machines that helped win a war and introduce them to the men who flew in the planes.

Maher invited Dowell to return to the plane that had brought him through danger and back to safety for a chance to fly once again.

It was a chance that Dowell didn’t pass up.

And it was a rare chance, too, this being one of only eight of the B-17 airframes still flying, according to Liberty Foundation volunteer pilot Bob Hill. The plane, a replica of the Memphis Belle, the first bomber to complete 25 missions, (the number of missions needing to be completed before going home) was also used in the 1990 film of the same name.

When Dowell completed his 25th mission, the word he used to describe the feeling: “Happy.”

Though he would go on to fly in eight more missions during the war.

The first thing you realize when flying in the B-17, also referred to as the Flying Fortress because of its durability, was how cold it was, Dowell explained.

“The B-17 had very, very poor heaters,” he said. “And if you fly in the waist, and I had flown in that waist a few missions, the windows are open…and your machine gun was pointing out the window and so the air was coming in and it was somewhere between -40 (degrees) and -60 (degrees) depending on what altitude you were at. Cold,” he said.

“And the heated suits that we wore, the blue suits, never worked properly… so you were always cold. I guess I’m still cold today,” he said.

The Liberty Foundation is offering flights and tours of the B-17 Flying Fortress March 23 and March 24 at Gillespie Field. The plane is a replica of the Memphis Belle, the first to complete 25 missions. The plane was also used in the 1990 movie of the same name. Photo by Tony Cagala

For Dowell, it seemed the memories of what he had seen and been through during the war were still just below the surface, fighting back tears when asked about the past.

He had some good memories, he said, but also, he had lost an awful lot of friends, even classmates from his high school that flew in his same bomber group. “One kid from Iowa City, which is close to where I went to high school, who I became very close to, was flying in the nose one time and the (enemy) aircraft blew the nose off. That got me,” Douglas said.

Much of what Dowell did during his missions was standing in the top turret, helping the pilot to stay in formation with the rest of the bombers, or scanning the skies for enemy fighters and firing at the German ME-109s and the FW-190s that came in.

“And we did a lot of that,” Dowell said. “As far as I know, I never hit an airplane. I would like to have, but I didn’t.”

Still, it was extremely difficult to tell whether you did or not, he explained. “You got all of those airplanes firing at the enemy and you never know, did my bullet hit, or did his bullet hit, or did none of them hit?”

As a volunteer pilot of the B-17, Hill said he was glad that he only gets to play a B-17 pilot instead of being an 18, 19, or 20-year-old kid flying in the cold skies and getting shot at over Europe.

“That must have been nightmarish,” Hill said. “When you speak to the veterans, they would tell you that they didn’t mind the fighters as much because they could shoot back and that, at least, gave them some degree of satisfaction.

“But the anti-aircraft fire that would be shot at the airplane, which they termed, ‘flak,’ which is exploding shells, and it just threw steel all through the sky, they feared that because it was random.”

As for why it’s important to remember these planes and the men who flew in them, Dowell said he couldn’t answer that, except to say, “I think it’s good that the young kids of today know that a lot of work and a lot of people died for them. And I hope that they are instilled with the same sense of duty that we were.”

The Liberty Foundation is hosting the Memphis Belle, available for tours and for flights at Gillespie Field March 23 and March 24. Visit libertyfoundation.org for more information.

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  1. Chuck Wells says:

    God Bless Mr. Dowell and all the brave men of the Mighty 8th Air Force! I am grateful to them that our national language is not German. :)

    One correction, the Powerful Katrinka was named after the Crew Chief’s wife, not the pilot. His name was John “Bud” Sterling. My dad, Joe Wells, was the copilot of the Powerful Katrinka on June 25, 1944, the day she was shot down on a mission to Toulouse France.

  2. I’m wondering if Douglas knows that one of his former crew mates is still living in California. Peter Kasak was one of his Pilots. I have Peter’s contact data if he would like to contact him. I know he was with the Kasak crew on at least two missions on board Swamp Fire.

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