World War II pilot won't forget hum of B-17

By DAVID A. MAURER | The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, Va. | Published: September 15, 2013

It has been said that a war never truly ends until the last participant is gone.

For Jack Bertram, who served as a bomber pilot during World War II, his war had seemed far in the past for many years. But in recent times, his memories of it have come more to the forefront.

"As I was raising a family, doing my job and making a living, I just set those memories of the war aside," said Bertram, who lives near Charlottesville and will celebrate his 93th birthday on Nov. 11, Armistice Day.

"When I retired and got involved with the 95th Bomb Group Association, that brought it out. The war seems closer now, because this past June I had the opportunity to go back to the base in England where we flew out of.

"The English people were just incredible. There's not words to describe how nice they were to us, and how they respect and honor us."

Memories of war were certainly in Bertram's mind when he and 15 other American veterans of World War II stood at attention on June 6 in the French embassy in Washington and received that nation's Legion of Honor medal. The decoration, established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, recognizes individuals who have served France in exceptional capacities in military or civil affairs.

The Legion of Honor is France's highest decoration and can be given to French or foreign citizens. The 16 veterans present, and three others who received the medal posthumously, were awarded the decoration for their heroic contributions to the liberation of France during World War II.

During one of their missions, Bertram and his crew had dropped by parachute two large cylinders containing small arms and ammunition to members of the French Resistance.

"I was totally shocked when I got a call and was told I would be receiving the medal," Bertram said as he looked at the medal resting on his dining room table in a satin-cushioned case embossed with his name. "It was a very solemn ceremony.

"The Consul General of France [Olivier Serot Almeras] gave a beautiful speech in respect to the contributions of this country and those who died for France."

As the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber, Bertram flew 36 combat missions out of an airfield in North Anglia, England, while assigned to the 412th Squadron, 95th Bomb Group of the U.S. Army Air Force. The stark statistics that accompany the 95th's war record provides chilling evidence of the dangers inherent with their difficult task.

During more than 300 combat missions, the 95th lost 182 B-17s. Six hundred men were killed in action, and 851 became prisoners of war. Bertram said it was just "the luck of the draw" that he and his crew survived.

"When you were over a city like Munich or Berlin, the Germans would have 500 to 600 88mm antiaircraft guns firing up at you," said Bertram, the father of three sons and two daughters. "They don't shoot at one plane; they just throw the flack up there and it truly blackens the sky.

"Unless you're in the first wave, you're flying into a black sky, because the flack is that thick. You know you're going to get hit, but if you don't get hit in a vulnerable spot, you'll probably make it back.

"You learned to live with it, because you're in formation with other airplanes, so you can't change your altitude or direction. You just have to grin and bear it and hang on."

When Bertram and his crew arrived at their airfield in England in April 1944, they were assigned sleeping bunks of a crew that recently had been lost on a mission. An even more sobering experience soon occurred as they were about to take an orientation flight to familiarize themselves with the surrounding countryside.

"I had two of the four engines running when the tower radioed us and said for us to shut off all engines and that the field was closed," Bertram said. "Within a few seconds, pieces started coming down from two planes that had collided up above.

"We saw bodies falling. That was our introduction to tragedy."

Bertram and his crew flew two missions to bomb German gun installations on the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Every mission they flew was harrowing, but he said those above Munich and Berlin were the worst.

"We didn't encounter German fighter planes every mission, but of the four we flew to Berlin, we got hit by fighters every time," Bertram said. "Most of the time, they came from twelve o'clock high —right down at you.

"They would come right through the formation and get so close you could actually see the pilots.

"Our waist gunner and ball turret gunner put in a couple [of] claims for knocking down fighter planes. They were never accepted, because there were so many guns shooting at those planes and everybody is saying, 'I got him.' So you can't really tell."

On July 25, 1944, during a bombing mission to Munich, Bertram and his crew came within "a whisper" of not making it home. They were over the target when an antiaircraft shell exploded very close to the B-17.

"The explosion shredded the plane with shrapnel and seriously wounded our waist gunner," said Bertram, who was born and raised in Altoona, Pa. "We lost a lot of power, and I didn't know why for a couple [of]minutes.

"The plane dropped out of formation and started down —not spiraling, I had it under control —but with little power. I found out we lost the inboard engine on the left side, all the turbos were knocked out of all four engines, and shrapnel had severed a control cable.

"It had also knocked out half our oxygen, so we would have had to drop fast anyhow. We eventually leveled out at about 6,000 feet, and I had to decided whether to try to make it back to England or go to Switzerland.

"Switzerland was a neutral country, but we would have been interned there. So we decided to try to make it back to England and, miraculously, we made it back safely."

The aircraft had a "couple hundred" shrapnel holes in it, and after Bertram parked it, he discovered three pieces of shrapnel at his feet. During his recent visit to England, he gave the shrapnel to the 95th Bomb Group Museum there.

Bertram's skill as a pilot and the legendary toughness of the B-17 can be given much of the credit for the crew's returning from that mission. His flight training had been excellent —and so demanding that 50 percent of the men in his class washed out before earning the coveted silver wings.

As important as skill in combat is, it can carry a person onlyso far. Heartbreaking scenes became commonplace on those English airfields as men counted airplanes returning from missions —and often came up short.

"When the planes were coming back from a mission, pretty much everybody went out to see them come down and count the planes," Bertram said. "That was especially true of the maintenance people, because these were their planes.

"They were always there, standing, waiting for their plane to come back. When planes didn't come back, it was very emotional."

A few years ago, a friend of Bertram, John Simonette, drove with him to Leesburg Airport to see a vintage B-17 there. It was an experience the 78-year-old Army veteran said he'll never forget.

"Jack was wearing a 95th Bomb Group T-shirt, so he was asked if he had flown a B-17 during the war," said Simonette, who lives in Albemarle County. "When he said he had, people crowded around him and another veteran who had flown B-17s and B-24s during the war.

"One of the things that was particularly gratifying for me was how the young people responded to them. Jack had a smile on his face all the while.

"My own personal feeling is that I don't think we can thank those guys enough. These were young guys who went over there and did the job."

Bertram had been in his early 20s when he was commander of the iconic aircraft and the leader of a nine-man crew of unquestionable courage.

Last year, Bertram's distant memories of war meshed with tactile reality when he was given the honor of sitting in the cockpit of a B-17 at an airfield in Cleveland.

"That B-17 was being flown by two brothers, and they invited me to sit in the cockpit, which is something they don't let everybody do," Bertram said. "That was a thrill.

"One of the brothers said he knew that I had flown one by the way I took over the throttle. To me, there's nothing like a B-17, and even today, if there was one flying 10 miles away, I'd know it by the sound of the engines.

"It was nice to fly the same plane, but that plane might have been shot up and needed repairs from a previous mission. So if we were assigned another plane, I would always have total confidence in it."

One can know what it's like to be a combat leader only by experiencing it. As Bertram had been, they are most often young.

"As the commander of the ship, we were responsible for nine other men and the plane," said Bertram, who retired after a long career as a division manager in the technical department of National Cash Register. "You had to accept that, and try to live up to it and show confidence at all times in front of the crew.

"We never talked about not coming back —never. Before we would take off, we'd have a short prayer, and away we went.

"I was so proud of my crew, because they all showed up on time for every mission. Nobody had a severe headache, stomachache or anything else.

"Not many crews can say that."

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