Earl Morrow doesn’t need his hearing aid to tell the sound of a B-17, nor does he need to see the aircraft to know it’s nearby.
Boeing’s Flying Fortress has a special sound of its own, explained the 87-year-old World War II combat veteran. The bone-rattling roar produced by its four propeller engines is unique enough that Morrow — a retired commercial aviation pilot — can pick it out from anything in the sky.
“If I hear one, I know it’s a 17,” said he with a smile. “I don’t even have to look.”
It was early Friday afternoon and Morrow didn’t need anyone to tell him the B-17 was late arriving at the Schenectady County Airport. The tranquility on the tarmac was enough.
He had traveled more than 50 miles from his farm in Hartford in Washington County to catch a glimpse of “Nine O Nine,” one of only 14 airworthy Flying Fortresses in existence. But a weather system rolling through the Capital Region delayed the arrival of the bomber, part of the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour, visiting the Empire State Aerosciences Museum for the weekend.
“They don’t fly ’em like they used to,” he said, gazing out a window at the museum. “Back then, we’d fly ’em no matter what.”
When Morrow speaks of the aircraft, he shares a bond with the aircraft he piloted over Europe more than 60 years ago. And it’s not too difficult to understand why, once he recounts his wartime experiences.
Morrow flew 16 successful missions over Europe before enemy fire ripped into his B-17 after a bombing run in November 1944. Crippled, it exploded in mid-air seconds after the surviving crew got out. Three of his men, two gunners and the radio operator, died.
Still, he considers his last mission a success because he observed firsthand the destruction caused by the bombs when the Germans marched him through the region as a prisoner of war.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted Morrow to volunteer for the Army after his first semester at Iowa State. But his father was a member of the draft board and insisted he finish college. Morrow took a job as a machinist’s apprentice in Schenectady instead. Once he turned 21, he enlisted and was accepted into the Army’s Aviation Cadet program, despite having never been in an aircraft.
Morrow had eight months’ training before being given command of a B-17 and nine-member crew at the age of 22. Less than a year later, he was heading to England.
Flying a B-17 was a thrill for Morrow, but not one that came without a fair amount of discomfort. Crews aboard the bombers contended with the deafening sound of the engines, missions that would last up to 10 hours over hostile territory and temperatures that would drop to 60 degrees below zero at altitudes of 36,000 feet.
“You’d still do a lot of sweating,” he recalled. “It would go down below 60, and the sweat would be pouring off your face.”
On one occasion, Morrow lost three of his bomber’s four engines to battle damage as they tried to reach friendly airspace.
Morrow zigzagged the ailing plane at an altitude so low his crew feared they wouldn’t be able to clear the white cliffs of Dover along the English Channel. When they finally touched down, mechanics counted more than 100 punctures in the bomber’s fuselage from enemy fire, some as large as a manhole cover.
“My bombardier was an atheist before that mission,” he said. “He’s been a good Christian ever since.”
The harrowing experience was a premonition of the bomber’s final mission 28,000 feet over East Germany. A navigation error by the lead bomber had caused their squadron of about 36 B-17s to become detached from the formation of more than 900 planes; the mistake left them an easy target for German Messerschmitts.
Morrow recalls four distinct attacks on his plane that day. By the fourth, the aircraft had lost its vertical stabilizer and a nearly 10-foot-long segment of its left wing; the cockpit was struck by several 20-millimeter rounds, which gravely injured Morrow’s co-pilot.
“We had no choice but to give the bailout signal,” he said.
After shoving his co-pilot from an escape hatch, Morrow rolled out himself. Moments later, he heard an explosion rip through the air.
“She blew,” he said. “If I had been 10 seconds later, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Morrow didn’t find much solace on the ground. German villagers quickly identified him as an enemy and threatened to impale him with pitchforks, before German soldiers took him captive.
Morrow would spend the next six months shifting between prison camps before landing in the rat- and lice-infested camp in Nuremberg, where he would spend the rest of the war. In April 1945, an American tank came crashing through the front gates of the camp.
Moments later, Gen. George Patton stood at attention before liberated prisoners. Morrow recalls catching a glance from the legendary general, who saluted him and then moved on.
“He said ‘OK fellas, I’ve got a war to win,’ ” Morrow said.