Allen Penrose: The Life of a B-17 Pilot

By ALLEN PENROSE

As told to Jim Hamilton

Allen Penrose

Allen Penrose

Early Life

My name is Allen Ellwood Penrose. I was born in Jacksonville (Tuolumne County), California. My parents were Earl Ellwood and Verna Leona Penrose. I was a middle child among ten children: Olive, Sidney, Richard, Spencer, Rodney, Al, me, Wayne, Dolores, Robert and Juanita.

Five of us boys served in the military. My father worked for the Division of Highways, which is now CalTrans. Jacksonville was at the backwater end of Lake Don Pedro. When the dam was raised, Jacksonville was flooded and is now under 200 feet of water.

After December 7, 1941, I went to welding school and got a job as a welder’s helper at Moore Dry Dock in East Oakland, California. After getting my journeyman welder credentials, I transferred to Kaiser Shipyard #3 in Richmond, California. Although I enjoyed the work and the pay, I realized that I would have to volunteer or be drafted.

In the fall of 1942, I went to 49 4th Street in San Francisco and took the Navy pilot physical exam. In early March 1943, the Navy asked me to report back and informed me that in about two months, I would be one of two applicants accepted for the pilot program. I was elated, but as I walked down the hallway, I spotted a large sign that said the Army Air Corps had immediate openings for pilots. I told them that I had passed the Navy exam but had to wait two months. The Air Corps recruiter told me they had immediate openings. I had two weeks to get my affairs in order.

On April 1, 1943, I enlisted in the Army Air Corps. My parents took me to an assigned place on East 14th Street in Oakland where a bus took me to the Presidio in Monterey for processing and assignment.

Eva and Allen on their wedding day, Dec. 31, 1943

Eva and Allen on their wedding day, Dec. 31, 1943

Basic Military Training

From the Presidio I was transferred to Fresno for basic military training. It was very hot (120 degrees) and dusty on the drill field. While marching and doing calisthenics,
I watched the B-17 formations overhead and hoped I would fly one of them some day.

Following basic training 70 of us were sent to Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, for academic aviation training. While there, on August 23, 1943, I was informed that my mother had passed away following surgery. I was given orders to take the train from Chicago to Manteca, California, to go to my mom’s funeral.

While on leave I got engaged to my high school sweetheart, Eva Emily Acker, who I had known since April 1, 1941. We both attended Sonora High School.

On entering Carroll College, the group was to be housed on the second floor of the girl’s dorm. After the first night, they knew this wasn’t a good idea, as there was an immediate merger of the occupants of the first and second floors. Another housing plan was quickly developed. While at the college, we were spoiled by the local ladies cooking us special dinners and altering our uniforms to fit.

We also formed a fast pitch softball team and frequently played a team from the Fox Head 400 Brewery. After each game we were invited to the brewery for a party. This was really living.

After a few months, we were transferred to Santa Ana Army Air Base in Southern California for Preflight Training.

Preflight Training

Our stay was an intense exposure to lots of academic and physical training. We learned flight theory, weather, navigation, Morse code, math and physics. Gunnery practice was a surprise, as the instructor was Lt. Paul Dawson, the football coach at Sonora High School. We soon learned that everything we did was done with precision, whether we were marching or making up our bunk.

Being loud, I was elected flight leader, meaning I was responsible for the conduct of my assigned cadets. I had to make sure that they were up and ready for barracks inspection, meals and training assignments, and that everyone marched in step to functions.

We had a first lieutenant named Jessen who was a washed-out aviation cadet. “I’m going to wash out as many of you as I can,” he told us.

We had one guy named Ozmik who was never in step. I got my butt chewed out many times because of him. In fact, I got restricted to the base on several weekends because of him. I was the one who got dressed down, as I was their leader. The title stayed with me my entire cadet career, but I can’t remember any awards I received for it.

On New Year’s Eve 1943, I committed myself for a lifetime and married my sweetheart, Eva Emily Acker, at the Santa Ana Army Air Base.

PT -13 Stearman

PT -13 Stearman

Primary Flight Training

Following preflight training we were transferred to Twenty-nine Palms for primary flight training. Except for a short flight in a Piper Cub in Wisconsin, this was our first exposure to a real aircraft. We trained in PT-13 Stearman trainer, a very capable biplane. This plane was a great aerobatic aircraft and nice to fly, but it was tricky to land. A lot of cadets experienced ground loops due to the narrow spread of the landing gear.  After four hours of instruction, my instructor told me I was ready to solo. Panic mode set in, but I told him I would give it a try. Fortunately we were at a satellite field which didn’t have much traffic. I practiced for a while and then flew back to the main base solo. I did it, but not without some anxious moments.

As I was on final approach, I noticed another aircraft coming down the runway from the opposite direction. “What do I do now?” The other plane was a Bell P-39 Airacobra buzzing the field. He went up and over me like I wasn’t there. I completed the landing and parked the aircraft. I realized I had soloed and could fly alone.

Basic Flight Training

We were transferred to War Eagle Field, Lancaster, California, for basic flight training. There we were introduced to the Vultee BT-13 Valiant aircraft, which was larger and more powerful than the Stearman. Because of its wide wheel spread, it was easy to land without ground looping. The only flaw was its tendency to stall on the final approach turn. Cadets would get the nose too high and go too slow, and it would stall out, usually with fatal results.

Lancaster was a nice area close to Los Angeles, so I was able to visit Eva, who was staying with friends.

Advanced Flight Training

We were shipped to Pecos, Texas, for advanced training. Pecos was in the middle of nowhere with lots of heat, wind, dust and tarantulas. In Advanced Training we flew the twin engine Cessna UC-78 (Bamboo Bomber), built primarily of wood. It was very easy to fly and do maneuvers you wouldn’t dare try in other aircraft. This training was our first exposure to night flying.

One night we were assigned a cross-country flight between towns in Texas and New Mexico. When we returned, we could not get the landing gear down. A bit of panic set in. On the UC-78 there is a panel between the seats that you can remove and manually lower the gear. My co-pilot, Bob Parish, tried to get the gear down and couldn’t do it.  I told the tower we couldn’t lower the gear, were getting low on fuel, and I was going to land.

They said, “No, you stay up there until you run out of fuel and then make a ‘dead stick’ landing.”

I said, “No way. I am responsible for this airplane and two cadets. I know I can make a good landing with power but don’t know if I will undershoot or overshoot the runway without power. I’m coming in.”

As soon as the low-fuel warning lights came on we landed with power. There was considerable damage to the engines and propellers. My co-pilot and I figured this would probably wash us out of the program, and we had only a few weeks to go.

There was an investigation, and the base commander was a real sharp cookie. He asked, “Why did you do that? The tower told you to stay up there.”

“I’m responsible for piloting the airplane,” I said. “I’m responsible for myself and my co-pilot, and I wanted to make sure I got the three of us down.”

He said, “You did the right thing. You were in charge, and you did what you thought was the best thing for you and the airplane. Get out of here.”
The rest of our stay in Texas was rather routine. We graduated September 8, 1944. We were so proud of our commissions as Second Lieutenants and receiving our pilot wings.

After graduation we were given a couple of weeks off, and I returned to Sonora to visit Eva and my family.

B-17 Training

My next assignment was to Indian Wells, Nevada, just north of Las Vegas. This was my first exposure to the B-17, and I was shocked to see how big it was.

It seemed like the wings went on forever. Indian Wells was a fighter-training base, and we were to tow targets with our B-17s for the fighter pilots. I had to learn a lot about the B-17 in a hurry.

My pilot was a regular B-17 pilot and I flew as his co-pilot. After a few flights I was allowed to fly from the left seat, and this helped a lot in later flight training. We would trade off as pilot and co-pilot. It was good training for both of us, and we were both MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) 1091, four engine pilots.

It was good training because by the time I arrived at El Paso, I knew more about the B-17 than anyone on our crew. It was a super airplane to fly and easy to land because it had such a wide landing gear. It didn’t want to pull one way or the other like some of the planes in primary training that wanted to ground loop.

Indian Wells was a good assignment because we could make frequent trips into Las Vegas to the Last Frontier Hotel/Casino. I think it was the only casino in Las Vegas at the time.

Following a short stay at Indian Wells, the base commander asked for 50 volunteers for immediate overseas training. I was one of the first to volunteer. We were sent to Lincoln, Nebraska, where they made up the aircrews. Once a crew was assigned, we were sent to Biggs Field in El Paso, Texas.

At Biggs Field we learned routine, night flying, bomb dropping and formation flying. In formation flying you are sticking your wing almost right into the other plane’s side window, if you do it right.

The engines had a turbo booster, and I used that more than the throttles to stay in formation because it was gentler. If you got too spread out you would lose your defensive box.

On one night flight, our runway was right next to the hangers and parked B-17 aircraft. The instructor was flying and circling the airport. Finally I got sick of what he was doing and said, “If we are going to shoot landings, we better get a little closer to the airport.”

He said, “Well, if you are so damn smart, you take over.”

I jumped in the seat and got right over in the line of airplanes going in. When we landed there was one hell of a strong crosswind, and I had never landed a B-17 in a crosswind. I landed perfectly and taxied over to the hangar area.

The instructor pilot jumped out of the airplane and said, “You’re checked out. Go on up there and practice.”

On our second takeoff they changed runways, and we had nothing but desert alongside us. As we reached takeoff speed we felt a horrible vibration. I thought we had thrown a propeller, and I reduced power to abort takeoff.

As we reduced speed we realized that it wasn’t a propeller but a blown left tire. I got on the brakes, but to no avail and then headed right out through the desert, which seemed to go forever. Fortunately there was no damage to the aircraft or the crew.

Had this happened on our previous takeoff, we would have caused an awful crash with all the parked aircraft. They took us in and checked us out for drinking and so forth. What the hell, the tire blew. It didn’t have anything to do with the crew.

Following our training at Biggs field, our crew was transferred back to Lincoln, Nebraska. They issued us a brand new B-17G model with only seven hours on it. It had a formation stick, which was a new device like the ones fighter airplanes used. It was mounted on the left side, and I fooled around with it for a bit. It was so electronically sensitive that I realized I could wipe out a whole squadron with that stick. So I refused to use it. We made several shakedown flights with this new plane, and it was great.

Squadron emblems

Squadron emblems

Overseas Duty

We were finally given our orders to transfer to Manchester, New Hampshire, where we received orders for our overseas destination. We were given secret orders to head for Goose Bay, Labrador, but told not to open them until we passed Bangor, Maine. We were delighted to learn that we were joining the 15th Air Force in Italy.

When we arrived at Goose Bay, all along the runway there was ice and snow as high as our aircraft. There was no room for error making a landing here. We spent the night and then flew to Reykjavik, Iceland. I couldn’t believe how many B-17s and B-24s were headed there also. As we approached Iceland, we were informed by radio that there was a terrific windstorm. When we touched down, we didn’t have to use the brakes as the wind stopped us right there. They told us to put on our engine covers, and it was very difficult because of the wind, but we did the best we could.

Shortly after we reached our assigned barracks the storm hit, the worst storm they had had in many years. The snow was as high as the buildings. We spent 17 days there, and I saw the same movie 17 times. Finally the weather improved, and we went out to find our aircraft and get them ready for the next leg. There was not an engine cover in sight.

Our next leg was to Valley, Wales (on the Isle of Anglesey) and then on to Marrakech, Morocco. As we passed the Rock of Gibraltar on our way to Morocco, Axis Sally, the German radio voice, welcomed us to Europe and hoped that we had our affairs in order because many of us wouldn’t be going home. Unfortunately she was right.

In Morocco we found out that the latrines didn’t have urinals, just two footprints on the floor in front of a pipe. No place to read a newspaper. It was interesting to be flying over ancient cities like Oran and Algiers. After an overnight stay in Tunis, we flew to an airfield near Naples, Italy.

The next day an airplane from our base picked us up and flew us to Sterparone Airbase and the 483rd Bomber Group, 815th Squadron. This would be our home for the duration of the war. We didn’t take the plane we had brought over because it wasn’t assigned to us.

Our quarters were small but adequate for three men. They were made of brick siding, a canvas roof and a brick floor. Heat was provided by a fighter aircraft wing tank and 100-octane fuel, which was quite dangerous. When it rained our tent area was a sea of mud. We had a young Italian housekeeper named Mino who made our beds and kept the place clean. We chipped in to pay him, and it was a sad day when we left Sterparone. I often wonder what became of Mino.

First Mission

The next day we were assigned our first mission, bombing a German Me-109 aircraft factory in Weiner Neustadt, Austria, just outside Vienna. This was a long mission that was uneventful until we got near the target. There we found fighter aircraft and lots of flak. The first time I smelled flak smoke, it came in through the bomb bay doors. We knew we had been hit by flak but had no serious problems. When we returned to our base we counted approximately 375 holes of various sizes in our aircraft. I didn’t know how successful our mission was but a former POW friend of mine later said, “Al, you did real good. You hit a catsup factory, and we had a lot of tomato soup.”

We had a great ground crew, and the aircraft was ready to go the next day. Our crew chief was very cranky about his airplane. He didn’t give a damn if you were a lieutenant and he was a sergeant, he was going to give you hell. When you taxied into your parking spot, you did not dare lock up one of the wheels to turn the airplane. That inside wheel better be turning because he didn’t want you to tear up or blow out a tire parking that darn thing. I learned in a hurry and really appreciated him.

Around our second flight I called him aside and said, “You know, one thing I would like to have on the pilot’s seat was some metal plates to fit in the seat so we don’t get shot through the butt.” He did that, and later quite a few other guys had him do the same thing. My first flight had a mixture of new and experienced crewmembers and an experienced pilot. He kept telling me, “Al, after your first couple of missions you’ll be more comfortable because now you don’t realize what’s happening.” That was not true in my case because with the first flak puff, I knew what the Germans were trying to do.

Drawing of B17 by Italian artist in 1945

Drawing of B17 by Italian artist in 1945

The Lucky Linda

After that we had the same crew most of the time. Our plane was called the Lucky Linda. Our only married crewmember had a daughter named Linda, and her name was painted on the nose of the airplane.

For 10 days we flew missions to places like Linz, Graz and Innsbruck, Austria and the Brenner Pass in northern Italy. In an effort to avoid flak, we flew at 30,000 feet. We also tossed out lots of tinfoil to confuse the German radar. The German 88mm anti-aircraft guns were the best of WWII and good to 28,000 feet. Temperatures inside the plane could be 60 degrees below zero at these altitudes.

We had one mission to bomb a bridge at Innsbruck. The navigator and bombardier of the lead aircraft were right on target but the bombardier couldn’t pick up the target quick enough.

As we came over the mountains at the choke point of the Brenner Pass, you had a short initial point (IP) where you could pick up the target and the Norden Bombsight would take over. We had to make a second pass, and it was so cold and I was so un-nerved that my hands were frozen to the controls. My flight engineer took each finger and pulled them off the throttles. We were glad to drop our bombs and get out of there.

After our 10th mission they sent the navigator and me to Rome to rest. The Air Force provided us with nice hotel facilities in the heart of Rome. The Regina and Savoy Hotels were for the ranks of captain and below, while majors and above stayed at the Majestic Hotel down the street.

The evening dinner was always an elaborate affair with music and a several course meal. While I was there I went into the lobby of the hotel, and there was an artist there. He was an Italian fighter pilot doing sketches of anything you wanted. I had him do a B-17 for me.

Rome was an adventure for me as I got to see all of this historic city: St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Paul’s and St. John’s churches, the catacombs, the Coliseum and the Vatican.

I never saw so much gold and jewelry in my life. How come they had so much and the people didn’t have anything?

Allen in Rome, 1944 or 1945

Allen in Rome, 1944 or 1945

Returning to Work

After our “rest camp,” there were more missions to some of the same targets. On a mission to a target at Udine, Italy, we lost one engine quite a ways from the target. We couldn’t stay up with the squadron so we decided to abort. We were told there was a spot on the Adriatic coast where we could avoid artillery fire and German fighters. Our navigator knew where it was and took us there.

Over the Adriatic Sea we lost a second engine. We were losing altitude and airspeed, so we decided to drop our bombs and throw out our guns and anything else to lighten our weight. We knew we were going to have to make an emergency landing. There was a fighter base down the Italian coast, and we hoped we wouldn’t have to put down in the sea. We called for fighter escort, and suddenly there were P-38s around us. When you are flying alone, you are really exposed to enemy fighters. We landed successfully, and we were picked up and taken back to our base. A crew went back, changed the engines and brought the airplane home.

Once on a mission to Memmingen, Germany, the 483rd Bomb Group was met by over 100 ME 109 and FW 190 fighter aircraft. The 483rd Bomb Group lost 14 aircraft but bombed the aerodrome and destroyed three large hangers and 17 aircraft on the ground. B-17 gunners shot down 53 enemy planes. This was an awful day for the 483rd Bomb Group but created a tradition we will never forget.

Assault on Po Valley

At one time the German Army occupied the Po Valley, and our group was assigned the task of destroying it. For five days in a row we bombed the front lines with anti-personnel bombs. These were small four-pound bombs activated by anything metallic. They were dropped in clusters of 400, which separated as they headed for the target. When they hit the ground or got within 20 to 30 feet of anything metal they exploded.

On the first and second day we received lots of flak; the third and fourth day flak was minimal.  On the fifth day we got only one puff of flak, and as luck would have it, one piece of shrapnel came through the windshield of a friend’s aircraft and killed the pilot. He was the pilot who came to pick us up when we arrived in Italy. These missions were the end of combat missions for our group.

Shortly after that I was asked to take a B-17 to a reconnaissance airfield near Munich, Germany, to deliver some papers to General Patton. The field had a short grass landing strip, and I was sure I could land but worried about taking off. If the turf was hard, I knew I could do it, but if it wasn’t, we could have a problem.

We made it in and delivered the papers. The crew wanted to visit Munich, and the commanding officer gave us permission, but we had to put on infantry type uniforms. The local people hated flyers because of our bombing raids. I was thankful we could visit the town but was glad to leave the area.

Allen Penrose in Italy, 1944-45

Allen Penrose in Italy, 1944-45

War’s End

Shortly after that the war ended, and the 483rd Bomb Group took on a different mission. The group moved to Pisa, Italy, to start an air shuttle to transport the Fifth Army from Italy to North Africa. The B-17s were stripped of their wartime equipment and were equipped with seating, which was minimal at best. We made frequent trips between Pisa and Casablanca, which took eight to nine hours each way.

In Pisa our quarters were at the hotel used by Benito Mussolini on his visits to the area. We were on the sixth floor and could look out and see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One day my buddy and I went down to a nearby U. S. ordinance depot and got some Model 98 German Mauser rifles and ammo. I had mine shipped home and had one converted to a .270 caliber hunting rifle, which I still have.

While in the Pisa area we visited places like Florence, Leghorn, and the Italian Riviera. For several months we flew numerous trips to Casablanca and Port Lyautey, a U. S. Navy air station in Morocco. Port Lyautey was near Rabat-Sale, a very modern, attractive city.

By the end of the war I had flown 33 missions. In the beginning you had to fly 25 missions in order to return home. Then they upped it to 30 missions and then to 50 missions. The war ended before my 50 missions. I was lucky to have survived the intense exposure to combat, but many of my friends did not.

In a B-17 the pilot, co-pilot, engineer and navigator are in an exposed bubble at the very front of the airplane. There was a little escape hatch on the bottom. In order to bail out you went through that hatch or went back to the bomb bay. You wouldn’t have time to go out anywhere else.

Most of our attacks were from German fighter planes. We used a lot of ammunition. Because of the intense firing many gunners would try to claim shooting down the same airplane. One of the gunners in our group shot down three of the new German ME 262 jet fighters in one day.

When the war was over we had a new commanding officer, and he was very egotistical. He had me fly him down to Foggia because he wanted to volunteer the 483rd for overseas training to go into Asia. I flew down with him as my co-pilot.

He wanted to get us into B-29s. He wanted to get a general’s star, but they turned him down. He was so depressed he said, “Al, take me home.” He sat in the back of the airplane, and I had the flight engineer sit up front with me.

Eva and Allen, March 2013

Eva and Allen, March 2013

Returning Home

Finally in October 1945, we were informed that we would be going home. Our trip home was from Pisa to Naples; then to Dakar, West Africa; Natal, Brazil; Georgetown, Guyana and West Palm Beach, Florida. On these flights all went well until we got to Natal, where our flight engineer got very sick eating too many hamburgers and drinking Cokes. We had to stay in Brazil an extra four or five days until he recovered.

In West Palm Beach I pleaded with the Air Force to let me take our plane to California, but they said we couldn’t because it was “war weary.” After a short stay I was put in charge of a troop train to Camp Beale, California. I was glad to do anything to get home.

Following a short leave I went to Santa Ana, California, and I was officially honorably discharged from the U. S. Air Corps in January 1946.

Sometime after returning to Sonora, I read that the California Fish and Game Department was looking for pilots to become game wardens. It was necessary to have an A&P (Airframe and Power plant) license. Eva and I returned to Southern California, so I could attend A&P school. Unfortunately, during my schooling the pilot/warden program was cancelled.

We remained in Southern California, and I was hired by Flying Tiger Airlines. I did some flying for them but ended up as manager of training and publications. I remained with Flying Tiger for 36 years.

While we were in Southern California our three children were born. Ellen Louise was born in December 1946, in Glendale; Janet Iola in February 1949, in Burbank; and Allen Edward in February 1953, in Van Nuys. We returned to Sonora after my retirement.

Allen Penrose in 2013

Allen Penrose in 2013

Reflections

I feel that my three years in the Air Corps were perhaps the most rewarding years of my life. I was afforded a fabulous aviation education and was able to travel to many foreign countries, which allowed me to serve my country and help end a horrible war. I am very proud of the experience and training I received.

In 1944-1945 it cost approximately $48,000 to train one pilot. I was so thankful I had that opportunity and really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the academics, basic training, primary training, advanced training and ground school. It also gave a Jacksonville river rat – that’s what we were called in our high school days – a chance to become a pilot, an officer, and to see historic parts of Europe.

We were killing a lot of innocent people and many of them didn’t like Mussolini or Hitler. They had no control over the situation. We didn’t either. We had a job to do, and if we bombed a factory and workers were killed, that was part of the job.

Unlike the ground soldiers, we couldn’t see the casualties, and that made it easier for us psychologically.

I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of the 483rd Bomb Group. The group was at the most northern base in Italy and was heavily involved in missions to Germany, Austria, Romania, France and Italy. It suffered heavy casualties and lost many aircraft and crewmen.

The 483rd Bomb Group and the other groups that made up the 15th Air Force contributed significantly to bringing an end to the war in Europe.

Medals Awarded to Mr. Penrose

European/African Campaign Ribbon
American Campaign Ribbon
World War II Victory Ribbon
Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon
Air Medal Ribbon
Good Conduct Ribbon
Air Medal

2 thoughts on “Allen Penrose: The Life of a B-17 Pilot

  1. Sir,Hope this reply finds you well.
    My Dad had a similar story !james jDaly .Ithink he might have been a bit earlier than you,but not by much.
    He was from Bayonne NJ and did most of his pilot training in the south.
    I think I’ve got a pretty good idea but my dad is long gone .
    I believe he started in Tuniasa ( I think he spoke of a dry lake air field )bombing Itlay then moving on to Itlay bombing from somewhere around Florence ( where he also had some r&r ).Not sure if he stayed at more than one base in Itlay or not but he did bomb French and German targets.
    I remember him talking of the arrival of the p51 for escort duty as a great relieve for the b17 formations .He did fly 50 missions and like yourself was a proud American.
    Just wih I had asked more questions .Best Regards James K Daly

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