There are many versions of All American's journey — in some, the crew used "parts of the German fighter and their own parachute harnesses" to keep the B-17 Flying Fortress together. In others, she hobbles home to England from battle in Africa.
The legends circulate but the truth is just as mind-blowing — as the pictures can well attest.
The story begins, as all good war stories do, in the shit...
On Feb. 1, 1943, Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg and his crew from the 414th Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group received orders to attack German-controlled seaports at Bizerte and Tunis, Tunisia from Biskra, Algeria. After a successful bombing run in spite of enemy flak, they proceeded to return to base when they were attacked by German Messerschmitt Me 109 fighters.
One of the fighters attacked the lead bomber while the other went for All American. Her crew fought off both attacks, firing at their own Me 109 with their nose turret and supporting the lead bomber with shots from the right side nose gun. The dual attack against the lead fighter took the enemy bird down, while the fighter attacking All American began evasive maneuvers.
According to the crew, they must have killed or incapacitated the pilot before he could complete his movement. The Messerschmitt tore through All American, ripping a jagged gash in the rear fuselage and tearing off the left horizontal stabilizer.
"I rammed the controls forward in a violent attempt to avoid collision... I flinched as the fighter passed inches over my head and then I felt a slight thud like a coughing engine. I checked the engines and controls. The trim tabs were not working. I tried to level All American but she insisted on climbing. It was only by the pressure from knees and hands that I was able to hold her in anything like a straight line," recalled Bragg.
Miraculously, All American was still airborne.
Her wingmen remained aloft, slowing to escort the injured bird through enemy territory.
"As we neared the field we fired three emergency flares, then we circled at 2000 feet while the other planes in our formation made their landings and cleared the runways... I lowered the landing gear and flaps to test the reaction of All American. They seemed to go reasonably well, considering," Bragg recounted. "I made a long, careful approach to the strip with partial power until the front wheels touched the leveled earth and I could feel the grating as she dragged without a tail wheel along the desert sands. She came to a stop and I ordered the co-pilot to cut the engines. We were home."
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