WWII B-17 pilot from St. Augustine signs historic wing
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Lt. Walter Harvey walked into a bootmaker’s shop to see what kind of a deposit must be made on a new pair.
It was London in 1943 and the bootmaker replied deposits were unacceptable — he must be paid in full — and told a skeptical Lt. Harvey to come with him.
“He took me to a back room and pointed to 30 or 40 pairs of boots and said, ‘I only asked for a deposit on these boots and now they are mine forever,’ ” Harvey said. “Those boys had been shot down and wouldn’t be back to make the final payment.
“After paying him the full amount, I walked out a very sober fellow.”
Harvey went on to fly 24½ missions (more on that later) over Nazi-occupied Europe as a B-17 pilot with the 384th Bomb Group and then he moved to the Jacksonville area after the war.
Thursday, he added his signature to a portion of a B-17 wing that will be housed at the aerospace museum at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, in honor of the 384th.
The portion of the wing, a fuel tank stress panel, has been taken around the country by the 384th Bomber Group Next Generation Association as they track down the few surviving veterans of the group.
“Most of our members had family members in the 384th,” association member Keith Ellefson said. “We just did this as a way to remember them and pay homage to them.”
The 384th operated out of England from 1943 to 1945 suffering horrific losses, along with most other American bomber units of the Army Air Corps.
“One month from the day our squadron had flown its first mission, there were only three of us left out of the original 93 flying personnel,” Harvey said.
A few days later, an entire 10-man crew returned after having to ditch their B-17 in the English Channel. That made it 13.
As for Harvey, he was made something of an instructor pilot. Since most planes were being lost before their fifth mission, veteran pilots were being placed with inexperienced crews.
Twenty-five missions was the magic number it took for crews to make it back to the U.S. — about half made it.
On the morning of April 24, 1944, Harvey took off for his 25th mission to bomb an area near Munich, Germany. Over France, his B-17 became swamped in flack (German anti-aircraft fire). Then the back of the cockpit caught fire.
“We had a bail system that alarmed the whole ship,” Harvey said. “So they knew it was time to get out, but I think they suspected it before that. We were really being hit.”
He landed in a French village called Faux Fresnay where what his mind initially told him were German troops waiting for him turned out to be French schoolchildren and their teachers.
What followed for him and one of his crew members was four months like something out of a Hemingway novel: Dodging German patrols, quaffing French wine and sampling cheeses and hopping from farm to farm trying to stay one step ahead of the enemy.
Harvey witnessed a suspected German collaborator being executed by the French underground.
Unfortunately, some of those who helped him paid with their lives as well.
Harvey still keeps a picture of those victims given to him by neighbors after the war. His caption under the grisly photo reads: “These people were members of the French underground. The Germans found out we had been hiding on their farm — made them dig their own graves and shot them.”
There was also one close call while in the care of the French underground Harvey remembered specifically.
“The Germans found out we were in the woods there and they came in after us one morning early,” he said. “There were four or five Englishmen there, too; one of them was killed.”
After months on the run, he and his crew member Dick Rader were just outside Paris force-marching three German soldiers they’d captured nearby when they spotted American tanks.
“I yelled to them, ‘I’m Lt. Harvey and this is Lt. Rader. We were shot down. What’s taken you guys so long to get here?’ ” he said.