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In the summer of 1978 two former members of a B-17 crew met to discuss their escape from death in a raid on Kassel in 1943.

Sitting on a porch in New York, co-pilot Bohn Fawkes turned to his navigator Elmer "Benny" Bendiner & said: “Remember we were hit with 20mm shells?”

Benny said of course he did but wasn’t unusual. It happened whenever they got jumped by a German fighter.

Yes, but remember the shell that hit the gas tank? Bohn said.

Benny said he did. All the crew had talked about it like it was a miracle.
I mean to them it was - because somehow the plane had not exploded.
Just unbelievable luck, they assumed, and carried on with their duties.

That’s not quite the full story, Bohn told him now, 35 years later.

He said the morning after the raid he’d checked with the ground crew and was told there had been not one but 11 unexploded shells in the gas tank.

11 unexploded shells in the fuel when just one should have enough to blow the B-17 apart.

The shells had been sent to the armorers to be defused but had then been rushed away by an intelligence officer.

But Bohn had tracked down the intelligence officer and he had told Bohn the full story before swearing him to secrecy.

Bohn wanted to tell his old friend now.

He said that as the armourers had opened each shell they had found no explosive charge.

Each shell was empty, harmless.

Except one.

Inside that one was a carefully rolled piece of paper with a note written in Czech by the forced labourer made to make the shells for the Luftwaffe.

The note said:

“This is all we can do for you now.”

The crews' lives had been saved by someone they would never know.

And the worker would never know that he/she had saved ten lives.

I came across this story while researching the lives of B-17 crews for an upcoming project.

It appears in Elmer Bendiner’s marvellous memoir, ‘The Fall of the Fortresses’ (Souvenir Press, 1980).

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