Wes in WWII

Wes flew with a crew of 10 on a B17(G) called "Blind Date." They joined the 385th Air Expeditionary Group, part of the Eighth Air Force stationed at the RAF Great Ashfield. The Eighth Air Force would fly over 2,000 bombers and 1,000 fighters on some missions.

About 3350 crew members flew for the 385th between February 1943 and the end of the war. About 42% of the 3350 were "lost." The first mission for Wes was in November of 1944 and it is likely that the survival rate was better during the time that Wes flew. The Normandy invasion happened in June of 1944 so Wes flew at a time that the Allies were re-taking Europe. Around 0.4% of the US troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom were "lost," so the casualty rate for B17 co-pilots was about 100 times greater than for troops sent to Iraq.

The 385th had approximately fifty B17's at any one time and with these they kept about 25 planes serviceable. There were fifteen other B17 groups and three B24 groups scattered around East Anglia, England. The 385th lost 129 B17's to combat and 80 B17's to various crashes.

Most information in this page comes from a scrapbook put together by Bill Whithead, the pilot of Wes's crew. Bill made a copy for each crew member.

The pictures above and below were taken by Public Relations. The one below was taken after the last mission when the crew had flown together for eleven months. This was the last time the crew was together as a group. The "Waist Gunner" is missing from this picture because he was at radar training.

Wes is at the upper left in this picture. Each member of a flight crew carefully protected and maintained his flight equipment (which they are wearing in this photo). This equipment included electrically heated underwear worn over longjohns. The flight bag contained fleece lined shoes, pants, jacket, parachute, parachute harness, Mae West and other necessities. Flack helmets were always left in the plane. (During World War II, Allied aircrew called their yellow inflatable, vest-like life preserver jackets "Mae Wests" partly from rhyming slang for "breasts" and "life vest" and partly because of the resemblance to her torso.)

The list to the right is from Bill Whitehead's log of missions. Take a look at #3, #8, #19, #20, #22, #34 and #35.

In this diagram of crew positions one person is shown jumping out of the plane. Two gunners are in the nose of the plane. The pilot and co-Pilot sit in the cockpit. Behind them is the navigator. In the middle of the plane is one gunner (aiming at upper right) and the ball turret gunner sitting in the ball which is lowered after takeoff and raised before landing. In the tail is another gunner.

The square on the tail of the plane (in the above diagram) indicates it is from the third division. The "G" in the square indicates the 385th Bomb Group. The "T" identifies the airplane within the group.

The caption to these pictures reads: Sully [Wes] and I [Bill Whitehead] alternated at the controls each 15 minutes. I took this picture [right] of him while he was flying. On most of our missions we flew #2 or deputy lead for our squadron. Sully had to look across me to fly off the lead ship to our left. The window was kept open so the steam from our heated gloves on the cold throttles would not frost the windshield.

Wes in the cockpit of the B17 at the Palm Springs Air Museum.

'Belle' fails to impress this B-17 co-pilot

Commentary by J. Wesley Sullivan (1990)

The most outrageous sequence in the multi-flawed movie Memphis Belle has the co-pilot of a B-17 deserting his post while in the target area to fire the guns in the tail of the plane. He wants to bag a German M-109.

This so-called "feel-good" movie, playing to packed houses across the country, is dedicated to those of us who flew B-17s with the Eighth Air Force in World War II. But as a B-17 pilot who flew 35 combat missions in the co-pilot seat, I cringe at the impression the movie must leave with the audience.

No only does the co-pilot put his personal whims above his duty, the entire crew acts like they were on a fraternity hazing party during their final mission, playing pranks on one another and getting into mid-air brawls. The bombardier is trying to recover from a drunken spree. And all this is presented as a tribute to those who flew.

Moreover, the audience loved it. I almost feel like a spoilsport pointing out the film's inconsistencies and stupidities.

Part of my problem, I suppose, comes from the fact that I viewed the original Memphis Belle movie on my VCR the afternoon before I saw the current version at a downtown Salem theater.

The original film, produced during World War II by the father of the new film's co-producer, didn't have to Hollywoodize the plot to achieve drama and suspense. It is comprised of film actually taken on the 25th and final mission of the Memphis Belle.

In the real-life version, there was plenty of excitement, air-to-air combat, flak and suspense associated with landing a damaged plane. But the crew is shown reacting as the professionals they were.

I can relate to the crew of the Memphis Belle because, like our crew, they were assigned to a tough target on their final mission and barely made it home. In our case, we learned in the pre-dawn briefing that we were going go Berlin, the most heavily defended target in the Third Reich. Like the Memphis Belle, we had to assume lead of the group when our lead plane was shot down. As we were turning off the bomb run, we were hit by flak and our left aileron was immobilized. We were left turning over Berlin as our group flew away.

Slowly, we cranked the 19-foot tail of the plane to compensate for the aileron, fearful that at any time the rudder cable would break with the strain. We limped home against a headwind, at 85 mph groundspeed, from the heart of Germany, not sure how the plane would react upon landing.

I identified completely with the Memphis Bell crewman who kissed the ground upon landing from that final mission.

Perhaps knowing too much about what actually happened distracts from seeing the movie. For example, those of us who flew in B-17s know how cramped the conditions were. No one moved back and forth through the bomb bay unless it was absolutely necessary. The new movie makes the B-17 seem like a hotel room.

The new version has the crewmen talking to one another with their oxygen masks off at 25,000 feet -- necessary for Hollywood but downright dangerous in real life.

The new version has flak hitting the pilot's bottle of tomato soup and spattering it around the cockpit. We wouldn't have carried soup. It would have been frozen solid at 40-below zero.

The movie actually has an enlisted man addressing one of the crew's officers as "sir" during an informal talk. Formality quickly was left behind among all crew members, men who were risking their lives together in a very special way day after day.

That may be why crews still get together, from all parts of the country, year after year, at reunions.

Come to think of it, perhaps the new version of Memphis Belle will serve a worthwhile purpose after all. It will give us something to talk about besides those old war stories we now know so well.