B-17 Hero in the Philippines, Hewitt T. Wheless:

When Hewitt T. Wheless was a kid in Menard, Texas his classmates nicknamed him ‘Nun’ because “There was scarcely none of him at all”. As he grew up, his nickname changed to ‘Shorty’. Wheless was always interested in the military; he attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy in Gulfport, Mississippi and while attending the University of Texas, he received a commission as a lieutenant in the Infantry reserve. Wheless wanted to become a pilot, but his friends told him he was too short. They bet him a new pair of cowboy boots that he couldn’t make it. Wheless proved them wrong and won the boots.


Early B-17D Flying Fortress, similar to the C model, flown by Wheless

Wheless trained on multi-engine bombers and was eventually assigned to the 19th Bomb Group equipped with the B-17-C Flying Fortress. The 19th flew the first mass formation bomber movement from the west coast of California to Hawaii, eventually ending their journey at Clark Field in the Philippines. When Japan attacked the Philippines on December 8th, 1941, the 19th Bomb Group was almost entirely destroyed on the ground. Though lacking airplanes and supplies, the 19th immediately went on the offensive.

On December 14th, Wheless piloted one of five B-17’s sent out to attack the Japanese invasion force at the harbor of Legaspi, 400 miles away. On takeoff, the lead airplane blew out a tire and had to abort leaving only four B-17s to make the attack. 100 miles from base they ran into bad weather and had to fly on instruments through clouds and thunderstorms. Another B-17 in the group, developed engine trouble and aborted. Wheless’ B-17 had trouble with its number 2 engine and he dropped altitude to get it running again. By the time he had it fixed he was out of sight of his comrades. Wheless knew the other B-17s would get to the target ahead of him which meant the Japanese would be on full alert when he got there alone. Wheless could abort, but he decided to press on. Wheless flew above the cloud layer, five miles out from the target; he opened the bomb bay doors and prepared to make his attack, waiting to find a break in the clouds. At 2:25 in the afternoon, Wheless found a break and saw six Japanese transports lined up below him. He gave control of the B-17 to the bombardier and told his gunners to keep a look out for enemy fighters.


Hewitt T. Wheless and his family during WWII

The plane was committed to the bomb run; they were flying straight and level unable to take evasive action. A gunner called out eighteen enemy fighters, two squadrons, one on the left and one on the right bearing into them. Rather than head for cloud cover, Wheless decided to complete his mission and told his gunners to fire when the enemy was in range. They were hit on both sides by enemy fighters. His gunners had waited until the last moment and got two fighters, but a third pumped holes into the B-17. His number 2 engine was shot out and the plane veered to the side. Wheless could hear the belly gunner firing and saw tracer bullets from Japanese fighters passing over him. The bombardier had control of the ship as he lined up the target in the bomb-sight, all Wheless could do was sit still and hope he didn’t get shot down. The bombardier shouted “Bombs away, bomb bay doors closed, kick her in the behind!”

Wheless went into a sharp turn and desperately looked for cloud cover. He only saw scattered cumulus clouds, not enough to hide a B-17 for very long. The Japanese fighters chased the lone B-17, making pass after pass. Wheless could hear his gunner firing and could hear the sound of enemy bullets striking his plane. An explosive shell went right between him and the co-pilot. Wheless concentrated on flying the plane, trying to get home. The B-17 had dropped from 9,000 feet to 3,500. The gas tank for the number 4 engine was leaking, and number 1 engine had to be feathered as he could see gasoline spraying out. Bullets shot out the radio and his number 3 engine was smoking. He saw his gunner shooting down enemy aircraft, but Japanese kept coming. Concentrating on flying, Wheless did not know what was happening in the rest of the airplane. The radio operator had been killed, his upper gunner had his thigh split from hip to knee by an explosive shell, he lay on the floor crippled, reaching for his gun to fight back with. One waist gunner was wounded and the other manned both guns, ignoring the pain from a cracked wrist. The flight engineer fought on too, steadying his gun with one hand because his other hand was shot away.


Hewitt T. Wheless later in life as a Lieutenant General of the Air Force

The Japanese planes ran out of ammunition and returned home. The sound of battle faded and there was silence. Wheless was afraid to pick up his microphone since he thought everyone in the ship must be dead. He was relieved to see the navigator alive when he came up to offer a hand and patch up the wounded. The plane was running on two engines, it lost its oxygen system, seven out of eleven control cables, the tail wheel was gone and both of its landing wheels were shot flat. Without much control surface left, there was little Wheless could do but fly straight and level.

It was almost dark when they approached their base. The only thing visible was the dim outline of the airstrip. Wheless lowered his landing gear. He could not belly land as there was no way to strap down the wounded. As the plane flew over the barricaded field, one of the two remaining engines ran out of gas. The plane landed, hitting a palm tree on the way in and rolled 500 feet with the breaks locked. The plane stopped suddenly and went up on its nose. When it was over, they counted over 1,200 bullet holes in the plane.

For his actions that day, Lieutenant Hewitt T. Wheless was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was mentioned in a fireside broadcast by President Roosevelt and Warner Brother made a 22 minute movie about Wheless called Beyond the line of duty narrated by Ronald Reagan. Wheless returned to the United States in April 1942 and worked as an operations officer for the 34th Bomb Group and later deputy commander of the 88th Bomb Group before becoming a staff officer at 2nd Air Force Headquarters. He went overseas in 1944 and served as director of operations for the 314th Bomb Wing. He retired from the Air Force in 1968 at the rank of Lieutenant General.

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