Director: Michael R. Phillips.
Starring: Bug Hall (Michael, co-pilot/pilot), Donnie Jeffcoat (Wally McAllister, co-pilot then pilot), Sean McGowan (Archie Mason, navigator), Chris Owen (Burt, turret gunner), Edward Finlay (Philly, bombardier), Manu Intiraymi (Charlie, radio operator), John Laughlin (Base Commander), Howard Gibson (Caparelli, head mechanic), Joseph Williamson (Eddie, tail gunner), Tony Elias (Oliver, waist gunner), Tim Hade (Lt. Al, ball turret gunner), Jeremy Ray Valdez (Tom Martinez, waist gunner), Jamie Martz (Pops, pilot), Mark Doerr (Briefing Officer), Matt Biedel (Lt. Monroe), Anthony Ocasio (Jake, left waist gunner), Steve Holm (Joe, right waist gunner).
squadron of pilots of B17 Flying Fortress bombers
In French Algeria planes takes off from Navarin Field (close to the eastern boundary of Tunisia). The Lucky Lass, with Irish-American pilots and crew, is one of those planes.
"In May of 1943, Allied airbases were established in North Africa to begin air operations against German forces in Italy. A plan to attack the capital city of Rome was set to begin on July 19. The air campaign would prove to be one of the costliest of the war. During this dangerous time, B-17 bombers were crewed by 10 men who were required to fly 25 successful missions. On average only two would complete their tour."
July 5, 1943. Gerbini, Sicily, Italy. Based on true events.
The bombers are in the air. There is a report of heavy flak over the target. With about 3 minutes to reach the target, German fighter planes attack the American bombers. One plane goes down. The gunners of the airplane the Lucky Lass are busy trying to shoot down the fighter planes. Another bomber is shot down. One of the gunners hits a fighter plane with his fire. On a nearby bomber, one of the four engines is hit and starts on fire. The crew drops their bombs and starts heading back for home. They have to turn off one of their four engines because of a fire. They start falling behind the formation. The pilot says: "Keep your eyes peeled, guys. We're about to be sitting ducks out here."
The bomber is attacked by three fighter planes. One of the side gunners, Jake, is killed. Charlie runs to see if he can fix Jake up. And now the other gunner, Joe, gets killed by bullets to his face. Charlie is splashed with the blood across his helmet. He starts going into shock. Another crew member has to help Charlie come back to reality. The front gunner hits one of the fighter planes. The main pilot, Pops, is killed. The co-pilot calls the navigator Archie Mason up to the cockpit to help him fly the plane. He then tells Burt to check and get him a report on the damage to the plane and crew.
The co-pilot wants everyone to jump out of the plane, while he and Archie are going to try to make it to Navarin Field. One of the crew says that the plane is fit to land. So they all will head for Navarin Field.
July 11, 1943, Navarin Field, Algeria. A new guy gets assigned to the crew of the Lucky Lass. His name is Michael Schmidt and he is a German-American. He is going to be the new co-pilot. The first question he asks is if pilot Wally knows when his luggage will show up?
Two more replacements, Tom and Oliver, for the Lucky Lass, side gunners, arrive. They stop to ask crew chief Vincent Caparelli about where to go and he balls them out for thinking he might be McAllister. The other crew members come over and Caparelli says the two new guys belong to them. That's good, but the men want to know when their plane will be ready for flight. Caparelli gives them a hard time, but then says the plane is actually ready to go today.
The guys run a still in one of the tents. This makes them popular party hosts. They even get some women to come to the parties. Schmidt is the only one who doesn't drink liquor. This particular celebration is a wake for Pops, Jake and Joe, lost in the last encounter.
McAllister is worried about Schmidt. He explains to the young fellow that being a pilot is much more than just flying the plane. He has to be a father, a brother, a friend, all at once. A pilot has to trust his men, and his men have to trust him. And drinking is part of the coping mechanisms of the men, so they can get up the next day and do it all over again. "All you had to do was loosen up. Just raise your glass, drink your whisky and toast the man you're replacing. And those men would have followed you to hell and back. But now you're going to have to find a different way."
July 12, 1943. 04:45 hours, Officers Country. McAllister is awakened to go to a briefing.
July 12, 1943. 05:30 hours, Enlisted Country. A guy bangs on something metal and tells the men to get up.
The men attend the briefing. Today's target is the marshalling yard of the eastern coastal city of Catania, Sicily. They will fly over the southern reach of the island of Malta.
The crew of the Lucky Lass are in the air again. The two new guys take up their positions as side gunners. McAllister is letting Schmidt do most of the flying because he ate and drank too much last evening. McAllister starts vomiting and Schmidt has to do all of the flying. They are going through a cloud bank and when they come out of it, they are completely out of formation. Schmidt didn't or couldn't read the instruments to keep them on course. McAllister gets new directions from the navigator Archie, but five German fighter planes are now on them. The gunners start blasting away at the fighter planes and they call for assistance from any American fighter planes in the area. There are planes available in the area and they race over to the bomber. The American fighter pilots knock one of the German fighters out of the sky. Another German plane explodes in the air. The Lucky Lass is able to hit one of the German fighter planes and the rest of the German fighters break off the fight.
The Lucky Lass now has to abort its mission because they are too far off the target. Someone moans: "You got to be kidding. That's one more mission we're not getting credit for."
McAllister finds out from the doctor that he got a mild case of food poisoning. Schmidt apologizes again for the mess up. McAllister tells Mike that he can't let that happen again. And the crew is certainly not happy with Mike. Mike asks what can he do to smooth this thing over? McAllister tells him to go out there to the crew with his head bent low and apologize to the guys. Then go drinking with them.
Mike goes over to the tent where the guys are watching stag films. The guys are ragging on Schmidt for screwing up what was considered to be just an easy milk run. They say Schmidt should have been able to read the plane's instruments and keep them in the formation. Mike chickens out on that apology.
A sand storm descends on the air base and the men have to rush to cover up the engines so they don't get filled with sand. The fellows forget to fully turn off the spigot on the moonshine still and there is a constant drip-drip of moonshine onto the tent floor.
July 16 1943. 05:30 hours. Enlisted Country. The Lucky Lass takes off with the other planes, but there's a problem. Burt says to McAllister to try to keep up with the formation as he does some adjustments on the fuel mixture. He makes some adjustments but to no helpful benefit. He says if this keeps up, they're going to have an engine fire. Three of the engines go out with only one engine still working. After some more fiddling with the fuel mixture, the pilots are able to restart the three idle engines. The plane is way out of formation now and too low to the ground. This mission has to be aborted too. This time, at least, the cause is put down to mechanical failure. This is the second lost mission and it was also supposed to be just a milk run.
The crew really gives the mechanics and Caparelli a piece of their mind. They want to know just what's wrong with their plane? Why can't they fix the plane for once? As the arguing continues, the moonshine is ignited and a huge ball of flame goes up into the sky. Where the tent and moonshine still were standing, there is nothing but a hole left and some refuse. Everything seems to be going wrong for the crew of the Lucky Lass.
The bombers start returning from the mission. A lot of the planes got hit and damaged. Some just do make it back onto the runway. "There were lots of casualties." So, now, the guys start thinking that the mission wasn't a milk run after all and maybe they can consider themselves lucky to have missed out on the action. And maybe some of the guys are even thinking that perhaps Schmidt isn't a jinx.
At the briefing the flight crews are told: "Yesterday, our mission at Messina went horribly wrong. Intel screwed up -- electing to divert our escort to a higher risk mission believing there was no capacity for the Luftwaffe to operate in Sicily." So, today they are going to bomb the offending airfield in Catania. The CO has secured a squadron of war hawks from Tunisia as their escort.
Since the Lucky Lass has still not been fixed, the crew is used as replacements on various flight crews. Michael doesn't get an assignment, but the crew is more supportive of him now. They say it's good this way because Michael can keep the pressure up on Caparelli to get the Lucky Lass fixed up.
Caparelli talks to his men. He says there's a big operation coming up and the captain is putting pressure on him to fix all the planes or condemn them and pull them apart for parts.
Michael speaks with Caparelli and the head mechanic says his crew checked out all the complaints about their plane and found nothing wrong with it. It's cleared to go. Michael tells Caparelli: "I was in the pilot seat when we were unable to stay in formation. There was power loss at 15,000 feet." Caparelli has a bad attitude. Instead of asking Michael for more details or his opinion on what may have gone wrong, he tells Michael: "I'm getting tired of repeating myself on this, okay. We looked at it. We couldn't find anything wrong. Maybe it's a gremlin, or maybe it's just bad luck, but it's sure as shit there's nothing wrong mechanically with that bird."
Michael is not backing down on this one. It's too important. He wants the mechanics working on the Lucky Lass today. Caparelli says he's not sending his men out to work in 105 degree heat. Michael tells Caparelli to get his two best mechanics and the four of them will check out those engines until they find the problem. Since Michael says he'll be out in that same heat, Caparelli gives in and agrees to check the plane out. He's not happy about it, but he'll do it.
Charlie and Eddie of the Lucky Lass crew also were not assigned to flight crews. They are supposed to be getting some liquor from somewhere. Eddie says that the officers wouldn't miss the liquor if they took a few of their bottles. Charlie encourages Eddie to do it, but Eddie says Charlie should do it and old Eddie can serve as lookout. Charlie agrees.
Michael tells Caparelli to check the oil pump because they had high oil pressure right before the mission was aborted. One of the mechanics, Lou, says that the oil pump was just put in. Michael wants it pulled off and checked. So Caparelli tells Lou to do it for the lieutenant.
So they check out the oil pump. And it turns out that there was a lot of sand from the sand storm in the pump. They figure that there must have been a gap in the sand covering used during the sand storm. Michael pats Caparelli on the back and is happy that they found the problem. He doesn't say: "I told you there was something wrong with the plane."
Eddie comes running over to the lieutenant to tell him that two MPs caught Charlie stealing some liquor from the officers' club.
Charlie was found with seven bottles of liquor. He has to go before the CO. Michael shows up and puts the blame on himself. He explains about the engine problems and how they needed some alcohol to help flush out the lines between the oil pump and the engines. Michael says he asked Charlie to get him some, but he assumed he would go to the quartermaster for the alcohol, not the officers' club. His orders were too vague and he would hate to see Charlie punished for his lieutenant's shortcomings. Lt. Monroe tells the CO that he can't believe this made-up story. The CO gets mad at Monroe and balls him out. He dismisses the matter.
And now Schmidt is the hero of the day. Archie congratulates Schmidt on a job well done. McAllister now declares Schmidt an honorary-Irishman. And one of the fellows now refers to Schmidt as Lt. O'Schmidt.
July 19, 1943. Today the bombers are heading out to hit Rome. To avoid civilian casualties on the ground, this will be a precision bombing raid. President FDR talked with the Pope to assure him that the raids over Rome will be very precise.
The sky is filled with B-17 bombers. Over Rome there is lots of flak. On the Lucky Lass, crew member Burt gets wounded. He can't see. More flak hits the plane, but they are able to drop their load of bombs on their target area. Then a close-by bomber is hit and starts going down. Part of the wing of the falling bomber knocks off a piece of the tail fin (the horizontal stabilizer). So now the pilots have to do some fancy maneuvers in the air to bring the bomber under control. The airplane just does miss hitting the Roman coliseum. One of the side gunners, Oliver, is hit, but he can continue on the job. He tells his co-gunner, Tom, that he's okay and Tom relaxes. Tom goes back to his machinegun, but then he is killed by flak.
One of the engines of the Lucky Lass is destroyed by flak. And then McAllister is instantly killed by flak coming through the cockpit window and striking him in the right side of his head. Schmidt's face is splashed with a lot of blood. And Archie's been hit too. Phelps has been killed.
Schmidt now has to fly the plane as the main pilot. He asks for Archie to come up and assist him. Archie is badly wounded, but he makes it up to the cockpit. He has to move McAllister's body out of his seat, so he can sit there. The plane flies over Sicily and then over the Mediterranean Sea to get back to their home base. They are 35 miles from the airfield. They lower the wheels but the right wheel just drops off.
Schmidt decides that they are going to bail out of the plane and let the airplane crash into the sand. Six of the crew bail out of the plane. And now Scmidt discovers just how badly Archie is wounded. And Archie's parachute is now just confetti. So Schmidt tells Archie they will jump together with the one parachute that Schmidt has on. Surprise! Archie pushes Schmidt out of the plane and returns to the pilot's seat. The back half of the airplane falls off. The front part crashes into the sand.
The foot lockers of the dead are:
Sgt Martinez, Tom.
2nd Lt. Phelps, F.
2nd Lt Mason, Archie.
1st Lt. McAllister, Wally.
The new co-pilot reports to Schmidt. His name is Lt. Bob Tremaine. Schmidt doesn't say anything. So Tremaine asks him: "So, I, uh, I don't suppose you know when I can expect my luggage to be delivered." Upon hearing this, it reminds Michael of himself when he first reported for duty. He gets a smile on his face.
Good movie on the great dangers the pilots and crews of the B-17 bombers faced on their runs. Mechanical problems could be just as dangerous as running through a lot of flak from the anti-aircraft fire. And some of the mechanical problems were not easily detected at first or were impossible to detect and the pilots had to get involved to push the ground crews harder to discover a hidden problem. Another big problem was the lack of adequate numbers of fighter planes to provide cover for the bombers. The B-17s had a lot of guns on them, but those fighters just ran circles around the slow bomber planes. Another problem was low morale and friction between the crew members. Then some of the pilots couldn't fly just by watching their instrument readings. A lot of the problems listed are illustrated in the film. You get a lot more of an appreciation about just how hard it was for the bomber crews during WWII to keep from being downed. You also learn to be more respectful of the number of crew members and pilots killed or badly wounded in the air war.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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