Q: In every World War II movie I can think of, it’s always the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in the spotlight. In fact, I dare you to name me one film that features Consolidated’s B-24 Liberator, even though this plane served every U.S. service branch (as well as the foreign military) and in every theater of operations. Why?
M.P., of Belleville
A: Even after 75-plus years, the B-24 seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of warplanes: It just doesn’t get no respect in Hollywood.
Like you, many find this exceedingly odd, considering that the B-24 still tops the list of the world’s most-produced bombers of all time. Between its initial flight on Dec. 29, 1939, and September 1945, nearly 18,500 Liberators rolled off the production line at five plants. That’s almost 50 percent more than the 12,741 B-17s produced, placing it third behind the B-24 and Germany’s Junkers Ju 88.
Moreover, because of its longer range, the B-24 actually became the bomber of choice in the Pacific as the B-17 was phased out by mid-1943. And, although it could not fly as high because of its wing design, it could fly faster than the B-17, which is why, after an initial trial, the two planes never flew together in a mixed formation, according to Tom Philo on his Great B-17-B-24 Controversy blog.
So with all that going for it, why has the B-24 rarely gotten off the ground in Tinseltown? Considering such luminaries as film director Robert Altman and beloved actor Jimmy Stewart — not to mention George McGovern and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. — flew them extensively in the war, you’d think they would have gained at least some standing.
But there was one fight the B-24 could not win, Philo argues — the P.R. battle. When it came to the press, the B-17 was the first to touch the hearts and minds of Americans, and it has remained uppermost ever since.
For starters, the B-17 was the war’s first well-known bomber. Even before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, they were being flown by the Royal Air Force in England as well as being deployed to Clark Field in the Philippines. The B-17 also represented the primary means for bombing runs deep into German territory, which the military, through its P.R. staff, constantly reminded the public back home.
In the meantime, it wasn’t until mid-1943 when the B-24 arrived in England in sufficient numbers to fly missions. However, it got off to a rocky start with the press corps in England because of its early mechanical bugs.
“The press wanted to fly on an aircraft that had less operational problems, so most went on B-17s,” Philo writes. “It did not help that the first few times that a non-military war correspondent flew in a B-24 to targets which were also being visited by B-17s the B-24 was shot down and they were killed or captured. Andy Rooney related this as did Walter Cronkite, who went on the same mission during which the only one of the seven war correspondents who did not come back was in a B-24.”
Even when the B-24 did grab headlines, the victories were minor and short-lived, Philo argues. On Aug. 1, 1943, for example, 177 B-24s took off from Libya and Southern Italy to bomb Romanian oil fields in Operation Tidal Wave. But it turned into one of the costliest missions of the war with more than four dozen aircraft and 660 crewmen lost. Making matters worse, few war correspondents wanted assignments in hot, dusty Africa, where many of the B-24s were stationed, which added to the lack of coverage.
As a result, the B-17 remained the public darling, a position cemented by the 1944 movie “Memphis Belle,” which celebrated one of the first heavy bombers to complete 25 missions safely before returning to the United States to help sell war bonds. Of course, we can’t forget the 1949 Oscar-winning “12 O’Clock High” (and the subsequent TV series), which also used B-17s exclusively.
And, while beauty is in the eye of the beholder, many argue that the B-17 is a sleeker-looking plane than the B-24. Philo compares it to Spitfires getting better press in Britain even though the Hurricanes shot down a higher percentage of German planes in the Battle of Britain. The Spits simply looked better in pictures.
But you’re not quite right in thinking that no movie about a B-24 has ever been made. On Jan. 9, 1970, CBS aired “Sole Survivor,” a made-for-TV flick starring Richard Basehart and William Shatner that was loosely based on the ill-fated mission of the Lady Be Good. After a bombing raid on Naples in 1943, this B-24 overshot its airbase and flew on for hundreds of miles until it ran of gas and crashed. Eight of the nine crewmen parachuted to safety, but died in the desert after walking nearly 100 miles in search of help. The plane was found in 1958, and the bodies two years later.
Looks like even when it lands a starring role, the B-24 just can’t catch a break.
Who was responsible for naming the B-17 the “Flying Fortress”?
Answer to Sunday’s trivia: Country legend Johnny Cash may not have shot a man in Reno but he was guilty of plagiarizing one of his signature songs: “Folsom Prison Blues.” When he wrote the song in 1953, Cash, just 21, had no idea what a monster hit it would become, so he borrowed liberally from Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues,” a song about a lonely woman eager to leave her small Midwestern town. Here’s a sample: “But I’m stuck in Crescent City just watching life mosey by. When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.” When Cash’s song was re-released in the ’60s, Jenkins finally protested, and Cash paid him $75,000, saying, “At the time, I really had no idea I would be a professional recording artist. I wasn’t trying to rip anybody off. So when I later went to Sun to record the song, I told Sam Phillips that I rewrote an old song to make my song, and that was that. Sometime later I met up with Gordon Jenkins, and we talked about what had happened, and everything was right.” As it turns out, Jenkins himself had borrowed the melody from Little Brother Montgomery’s 1930s instrumental with the same title.