History in Focus: Willard White — Over Europe in a B-17
May 15, 2018
During World War II, thousands of Flying Fortress B-17 bombers rained destruction on Nazi Germany. Willard C. White, born and raised in Meeker, joined the great armada of the 8th Air Force as a member of the 385th Bomb Group and flew eight missions before a mid-air crash took him from this world.
White graduated from Meeker High School in 1939, and, according to his obituary — located with the help of the staff at the Meeker Museum — "he was popular in all school activities, and with his classmates, as well as being a star athlete."
After high school, White found work in Craig. Maybe realizing war was bearing down on his future, he joined the Army Air Corps on July 10, 1941, just a few months before Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Standing only 5-feet, 7 inches and weighing 140 pounds, White was well-suited for the cramped quarters of the ball turret, located on the underside of the Sly Fox, his first B-17. Soon after arriving in England, the crew of the Sly Fox flew its first mission, on July 24, 1943, as part of the 385th's dangerous daylight bombing campaign.
However, the perils of war were constant and unexpected. On Aug. 18, White was aboard a routine flight transporting a B-17 to another nearby air base. At 9:30 p.m., with landing lights turned off, the plane stalled 10 feet above the ground and flopped onto the runway. The right landing gear was crushed, hydraulic lines and one engine were damaged and the plane skidded off the runway into a nearby field.
Fortunately, White, and all men on board, lived to tell the tale.
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In early September, White's skill with his 50 mm guns was evident. En route to bomb a rubber factory near Hannover, Germany, he gunned down two Nazi fighters.
"The co-pilot and two others were wounded …" reported the Steamboat Pilot on Sept. 23. "The crew went on thru to bomb its objective and then returned to its English base."
While folks back home were just learning of Willard's heroics, he took off for his eighth mission, targeting Cognac, France, on Sept. 16, 1943. Now aboard the Mary Ellen II, the crew successfully completed its mission and headed back to base, Great Ashfield Airdrome.
The official military investigation gives insight into White's final moments. Returning to England at 10 p.m., light rain reduced visibility to 500 yards. The area was crowded with B-17s, all converging on the area's numerous air bases. At 1,500 feet, while in formation and following the landing pattern, an errant B-17 suddenly cut through the Mary Ellen's path.
Pilot John Schley, along with the B-17 just in front of the Mary Ellen II, reacted quickly, and both planes turned up and to the left. The errant B-17 passed unharmed, but Mary Ellen II clipped the tail guns of its fellow B-17, and, in a split second, a seven foot section of the left wing was shorn off. The Mary Ellen II lurched into a hard left turn and plunged to earth. So close to home, yet so far from safety, the Mary Ellen II exploded into a fiery inferno on impact. White and the crew of 10 men were all lost.
Today, White's name is etched on the new World War II Memorial, just behind the VFW in Craig. It's a simple and humble reminder of the unpredictable and desperate nature of a battle in which men fought and died thousands of feet above the earth. When death's call arrived, history has forever remembered these men as a valiant of the 385th.