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B-17 co-pilot recalls WWII experiences

Steve Ranson
sranson@lahontanvalleynews.com
Cecil Quinley during WWII.

It’s a Monday afternoon, and Veterans Day activities are beginning to wind down across the nation.

During the past two years, I spent Veterans Day with Nevada Army National Guardsmen in Afghanistan. As a retired guardsman, I felt it was necessary to give our readers in the Silver State a glimpse of how the day is spent on deployment.

For most soldiers, Veterans Day is, literally, just another day to them. The missions don’t stop, and the enemy doesn’t take a day off to pay respects to our servicemen and women. Family, friends and complete strangers, though, still thanked the Nevada soldiers for their service.

This year, I remained closer to home, covering two events at Numa and Lahontan elementary schools and then a Monday observance at Highland Village. Many of the men and women who received certificates for their military service are residents at Highland, many of them either Vietnam or Korea Era vets. Several, though, fought in World War II, but these individuals are now in their 80s and 90s, and their numbers dwindle each year with all that personal history of fighting in a war forever forgotten.

These are the men and women referred to as “The Greatest Generation” by journalist Tom Brokaw.

I have learned much from several of our World War II veterans

In the LVN’s Memorial Day newspaper from 2012 and this year, I featured a diary account written by the late Harold “Gus” Forbus and his son Jim that told of the elder Forbus’ fighting in the Pacific as a young Marine and the dangers he and his fellow Marines faced while island hopping toward Japan.

The hardships were many, but the Marines persevered.

Likewise, in September 2007, I had the opportunity to meet and then interview Cecil Quinley, a B-17 co-pilot who was shot down over Germany on his 14th mission. For the next 15 months, Quinley and his crew spent time at a German POW camp. My story of Quinley coincided with a B-17 that flew in for the Reno Air Races.

I saw Cecil and his wife, Margaret, at Highland’s ceremony for the veterans. The Quinleys epitomize true love, having married in 1939 before Cecil Quinley joined the military and shipped out. Cecil, now 98, may be one of the oldest living vets in Nevada, and Margaret is 96 if my math is correct.

Over the years, I have had our readers tell me they remember the story about Cecil Quinley fighting in WWII and his special love for Margaret. On this Veterans Day, here is that story of war and love.

Former ‘Flying Fortress’ co-pilot recalls war experiences

By STEVE RANSON

sranson@lahontanvalleynews.com

World War II memorabilia lays neatly in several stacks near his bed. Newspaper clippings and a magazine cover one pile, photographs adorn another.

Former B-17 co-pilot Cecil W. Quinley looks at a newspaper clipping written of a “Flying Fortress” visiting Chico, Calif., 10 years ago, when Quinley relived his experiences of World War II when he co-piloted the bomber as it circled Northern Sacramento Valley. Quinley and his wife of 68 years, Margaret, lived in Chico before moving to Fallon several years ago to be closer to family.

“I had stick time for about 15 minutes as the co-pilot,” the 92-year-old Quinley said, his eyes glistening as he talked about his first ride in a B-17 cockpit since World War II. “I looked at those gauges and couldn’t remember any of them.”

Although he is more frail than what he was 10 years ago, Quinley’s mind is still sharp as he recounts dates and events from his European flying days.

Quinley was no stranger to the B-17, one of the most widely used bombers flown over Europe in the 1940s. But when he saw the B-17 again, he was surprised with its dimensions.

“The B-17 looked awfully big outside, but when I got in, there was hardly any room,” Quinley recollected.

Dangerous missions

But 64 years has not diminished Quinley’s memories of flying 14 missions over Germany in 1943. Sometimes, a mission would last only three hours; other missions would average eight to 10 hours, maybe more. Most bombing runs took place during daylight hours, a fact that perplexed the British.

“The English thought we were nuts,” Quinley said, explaining how the Brits carried out their bombing missions at night.

Prior to entering German airspace, Quinley said P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt fighters escorted the B-17s from England. Once the “Flying Fortresses” entered German air space, Quinley said the fighters would turn back, leaving the B-17s on their own.

Quinley, who had been married for four years, wanted to fly, but regulations almost nixed his opportunity. Before World War II, married airmen were not allowed to attend flight school, but the declaration of war on Dec. 8, 1941, quickly altered the requirements.

“After Pearl Harbor, that all changed,” he said about entering flight school as a married cadet.

Quinley graduated as a single-engine pilot, but the need for bomber pilots beckoned the Sacramento native to Europe.

“I thought I was going into fighters, but they needed co-pilots for the B-17,” Quinley said. “But the B-17 flew just as good (as fighters).”

The crew of Quinley’s B-17, the “Feather Merchant,” trained at Walla Walla, Wash., before their assignment to the 532nd Squadron, 381st Bomb Group at Ridgewell, England. Jack Pry, the plane’s 23-year-old pilot, was a former airplane mechanic before he attended flight school.

“His knowledge of planes came in handy,” Quinley added.

Life aboard a B-17 was dangerous during World War II. Out of 12,000 B-17s produced for the war effort, a third were shot down, including Quinley’s aircraft.

The “Feather Merchant” flew in the famous first Schweinfurt Raid in August 1943, but the 352nd suffered the most losses of any squadron. Quinley’s B-17, though, was lucky on this raid. The aircraft returned to Ridgewell without a loss.

During the next four months, the “Feather Merchant” completed more successful raids, knocking out key industrial areas needed for the German war effort. After their 13th mission, luck ran out for the men of the “Feather Merchant.”

Shot down over Bremen

“We were shot down late in 1943 (Oct. 8),” Quinley, who was 26 at the time, said. “On our 14th mission, we were shot down near Bremen. I was hit by flak (fire from anti-aircraft guns). The anti-aircraft fire knocked the No. 2 engine out, and that was right by me.”

Quinley and Pry immediately took their B-17 out of formation, prepping the 10-man crew to abandoned the plane.

“Eight of us bailed out, but I don’t know what happened to the other two,” Quinley lamented. “The ball turret gunner must have been hit … and another was reluctant to parachute out.”

One by one, the crew bailed out of the plane into enemy territory. When Quinley began his descent, a bullet pierced his right leg.

“I didn’t know where the ground was,” Quinley explained. “I landed near some barbed wire. I missed the fence, but I came down in the middle of a ditch.”

As Quinley sat in the ditch, he saw two figures walking toward him in single file.

“This farmer came over with a Russian POW who was working with him,” Quinley said, with a slight laugh, looking back on the situation.

But the next two weeks were no laughing matter for Quinley. He spent one week in the hospital because of his injured leg before moving to solitary confinement at an interrogation camp. Then, the Germans transferred him to Stalag Luft 3 for the next 15 months. Although conditions were harsh at the prison camp, Quinley said pilots were treated well.

Located 100 miles southeast of Berlin in what is now Poland, Stalag 3 was one of six used for downed British and American airmen. Because the Luftwaffe ran it, Stalag 3 became a model camp.

Quinley’s health deteriorated at the beginning of his confinement when he almost died. Doctors accidentally overdosed the aviator with immunizations, specifically tetanus, but they discovered their mistake and nursed Quinley back to health.

A special love

Margaret, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, moved before the onset of World War II to Sacramento from Ft. Bragg, a small seaside community known more for its logging industry nestled on the Pacific Ocean’s Mendocino Coast, 200 miles north of San Francisco.

After relocating to Sacramento to attend junior college, Margaret met Cecil about a year later when they attended the state fair on a blind date. They were married in a church wedding in 1939. The time they had envisioned together was separated by war that broke out two-and-half-years later.

Their lives changed when Cecil attended flight school beginning in August 1942 for nine months. He had to complete more flight training after that on the B-17, and he left for Europe in June. Cecil wrote to Margaret every day he was in Europe until he was shot down.

News of her husband’s fate reached her in an Oct. 18 telegram. One month later, she heard Cecil was a prisoner of war, and Margaret received her first letter from Cecil in January.

“Those three weeks were rough, but I took it one day at a time,” Margaret said of the wait. “I prayed a lot and took a beautiful gift of fate. Friends and relatives were really good.”

She kept busy when Cecil was in Europe. She worked as a volunteer Red Cross nurse assigned to Sacramento-area hospitals. Long hours took her mind off personal anxieties.

“My joy in life was working in a maternity hospital and watching a birth overnight,” she said. “I also worked in a doctor’s office and sometimes spent the night as a nurse’s aide.”

Margaret, though, was one of the lucky spouses.

“I couldn’t forget about others who were in the same boat, but I also had friends who had lost their fathers and sons,” she said, further explaining how she hated war but knew it was necessary.

Communication was intermittent. Cecil could send only four postcards and a letter each month. Margaret, though, wrote to Cecil every day.

Liberation

Cecil Quinley’s days were numbered at Stalag 3. Before Gen. George Patton’s troops liberated the camp, Quinley learned of the “Great Escape,” a venture involving almost 250 POWs, mostly British airmen, who dug three tunnels to escape from Stalag 3. Only 76 POWs successfully escaped from the prison.

Because Russian troops were advancing toward Berlin, the Germans marched the POWs in 10-degree below zero weather in late January and then crammed them on to railroad box cars for a journey to another camp near Munich, a trek that took three days.

Patton’s Third U.S. Army’s 14th Armored Division rolled into Stalag 7A and liberated the POWs on April 29, 1945. Quinley said he met Patton and received two Purple Heart medals and several campaign and flying medals.

When Margaret and Cecil were finally reunited with each other in California, he was given 60 days leave. During that time they vacationed for 10 days at Carmel and later for two weeks at Del Mar, near San Diego.

After the war, Quinley remained in the inactive reserves and was discharged as a captain in 1962.

Cecil Quinley said he thinks often of his war experiences and of the men with whom he served. But Quinley recently another thrill to go along with his World War II days.

“One of my greatest thrills was seeing (Barry) Bonds break (Hank) Aaron’s home run record,” Quinley said, referring to the slugger’s feat on Aug. 7

“It wasn’t as thrilling as flying, but it came close.”