Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger
This is not going to be easy to read. It was not easy to write. This story is about Frank Kirby Cowan, and 167 other allied airmen from World War II. Their story is unique in a way that the stories of all the other thousands of fliers from both sides of the conflict are not. Our paths first crossed on August 23, 1946, but that is a story for another day.
Kirby was a young man from Harrison, Arkansas. His father was an engineer for the railroad, and Kirby planned to follow in Joe Cowan’s footsteps. Then a war happened. Like so many thousands of other Americans, Kirby joined the service following the attack at Pearl Harbor. Kirby joined the Army Air Corps, and was assigned to B-17 bombers as a radio operator. He said he had never flown in an airplane until he joined the Air Corps. He remembered his first experience flying in an airplane very well. The Air Corps did not waste time with orientation flights or sightseeing. Kirby’s first experience in an airplane had him standing up in the back seat of an AT-6 Texan, shooting a machine gun at a practice target being towed by another AT-6.
After finishing his training, he was assigned to the 339th Bomb Squadron, 96th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. Their B-17 was called Horn’s Hornets, because the pilot was named Horn. In those days, losses were high, and Horn’s Hornets ran out of luck in 1944. Their B-17 was cut in half by an anti-aircraft shell. There are no known photos of what happened to their airplane, but this image of similar damage to a B-24 illustrates it.
Kirby said, “When the engines unloaded they made a sound I had never heard an airplane engine make before. With no load on them, they started screaming. We started tumbling end over end. I was pinned to the inside of the plane by the G forces. I got a glimpse of the tail section falling away. The tail gunner didn’t have a chance. For a second, we stopped tumbling, so I took a Brody out the back where we were cut half in two. There were three of us that got out.” The remaining six crew members either were killed by the flak shell, or could not get out. The pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, and flight engineer were trapped in the nose of the plane.
Kirby went on, “Of the three of us that got out, one guy was shot in his parachute. He didn’t make it to the ground alive.”