Life and death of a B-17 'Flying Fortress' once as famous as "The Memphis Belle"

Last Flight of The Southern Comfort

By Trevor A. Williams with Wallace Wood

Southern Comfort in Flight

"There you go fella, find your own piece," I told him.

The metal detector's squeal might as well have said it plainly: dig here.

So, Lt. Col. Hugh G. Ashcraft stuck his digging fork in the loamy soil. After a few turnovers of earth, the retired pilot came up with...

A rusty Coca-Cola can.

I can hear him laughing now. Three thousand miles across the Pond to dig an old Coke can up.

I think I winced.

"Across the Pond" means crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the United States to the lush green countryside of England. The first desperate time this American crossed the Pond from Charlotte, South Carolina to Chelveston air base, Britain was "going it alone" against the mighty attacks of Nazi Germany. By a whisker, England's flyers beat off German invasion plans in what is now known as "The Battle of Britain" in 1940-41. Those brave flyers were "The few". The "many" thousands of Americans, Commonwealth, and other Allies coming to our aid in the next few years on this island nation soon joined them.

A fresh lieutenant in his '20s in those times, Hugh was one of those brash young American pilots, aircrew, and ground crews that came to England with their formidable B-17 and B-24 four-engine bombers in 1942 to join Britain in the war, along with their fighters and twin-engine bombers like the B-25 "Mitchell" and B-26 "Marauder". His bomber was nick-named the Southern Comfort, a "Flying Fortress" bristling with ten .50 calibre machine guns that stuck out like thorns all over the plane. Thorns that could send big bullets most of a mile. And bomb bays that could drop tons of destruction. The logo 'SOUTHERN COMFORT' was painted yellow over the olive drab of the plane, along with the 'wolf' motto of the squadron.

The Southern Comfort became famous as she flew mission after mission from Chelveston. Each time, she brought her aircrew home. Even the last time--her 18th trip--the mortally wounded bomber got the crew back to England and all but one of them survived.

Once, this aircraft was better known than her sister ship, "Memphis Belle", another B-17 featured in a popular movie. If you watch the original piece of film about the Memphis Belle, you will see the Southern Comfort in the same film. She also appears in many other USAAF documentaries. The "Belle" survived 25 missions--a rare feat in those perilous times-- and was sent home with her crew. That plane can be seen today, still running. But it was the Southern Comfort and her crew that the official Army Air Forces' Journal featured in "Target: Germany". Life Magazine printed the booklet. It was the story of the 8th and 9th Air Force in Britain and the Americans' experimental--and almost disasterous-- daylight "precision" bombing campaign that eventually came to victory. Royal Air Force bombers hit German targets at night while the Americans bombed by day. For a time, it was an uncertain outcome.

The amazing amount of damage that a B-17 could take is shown here, explaining why it was the most well-known U.S. bomber. The "All American" was cut almost in two by a crash with a FW-190. The 190 tore the wing off another B-17 first, and it was destroyed. Held together by a few aluminum spars and control cable, the "All American" returned her crew home to Biskra Oasis, Algeria in February, 1943. This incident inspired the official insignia of the 414th. bomb squadron.

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I'm Trevor Williams, if I may introduce myself. I live in Wickford, part of Essex, England. That's a fair distance from the air base in Chelveston where Lt. Hugh Ashcraft and his American crew flew on missions to Germany and across Europe in the Second World War. But not so far from the grand old lady's resting place. I was part of the team that excavated pieces of the B17F Flying Fortress, number 4124617,WF*J, of the 305th Bomb Group 364th Bomb Squadron. We never disturb grave sites, by the way. We look only for the relics of war still buried in parts of England and many places in Europe and the Far East. I have many of those relics, and I cherish them.

Sadly, there are many such "last flight" sites here. It may take 100 years or more to clear up the unexploded bombs, mines, bullets, and other remnants of that vast war, experts tell us. War leaves its mark. Even some small ponds today were once bomb craters. Or worse, craters left by exploded aircraft.

There were also some other bombers and aircraft named Southern Comfort. They will be mentioned at the end of this article.

Hugh wanted a momento, a piece of his beloved aircraft he had named. I was there as host to see he got more than a rusty Coke can as his fragment of history. I hoped each member of the crew could have their own, but only Hugh came for his.

"Quick, Bill, another reading," I urged my friend Bill Gadd with the metal detector. We moved to a new spot.

The crash site lay in Goat Lodge Lane off of Beacon Hill near the village of Wickham Bishops, Essex. This is a rural country lane so typical of the type that American airmen would remember from their time over here in England from 1942 to the cessation of war in 1945. Just down the road could be found the Green Man Public House (a pub, in other words). Americans will remember these places. It's where you learned to drink warm beer. Lovely.

The landowner of the large house and well-kept grounds was a Mr. Morely, who had his own business dealing with artificial flowers. Mr. Morely gave his permission to look for anything left of that last flight on March 31, 1943, and his son and gardener came to help us.

Hugh's second trip across the Pond so many years later was probably a last chance. His once-famous aircraft was gone to pieces, and Hugh was no newly-minted Army Air Forces lieutenant anymore. He retired as a lieutenant colonel from the U.S. Air Force, the USAAF's successor.

Our search party moved to another place around the wooded copse. This time the squall of the metal detector was right on target. Hugh's fork clinked, and he turned up two objects as thick as a thumb, heavy with brass and almost too long to hold between thumb and forefinger. They were black-tipped .50 calibre "ball" machine gun rounds from the Southern Comfort. This time Hugh's grin and laugh were pure delight. With the dirt brushed off, the bullets were in remarkable condition, shining in the sun. I don't think we will ever forget the look on that man's face and the way he held those two .50 calibre rounds.

He had his souvenirs. Cameras clicked and spirits rose.

Black-painted tips meant solid, or 'ball' ammunition. Tracers had dark red tips and if my memory doesn't let me down, incendiary rounds had blue- painted tips, high-explosive were painted silver tips, all found around here, and all in remarkable condition. Those not carefully kept as souvenirs were properly disposed of. They could be dangerous.

We led Hugh and his wife back to the Green Man for lunch. It was time to try that warm beer again after all those years between. We sat outside in the garden patio nearly all afternoon listening to Hugh's story of the bomber and her crew. It was an extraordinarily big day for me because the couple arrived on the day previous when my son Darren was born, telephoning just at his birth.

The former pilot made it clear over lunch that Southern Comfort was NOT named after the drink, a popular whisky liqueur in the U.S. Southern Comfort was named for the Southern States of America. At some point, Hugh was behind that control yoke again, reliving the hours of tension, looking out for German fighters on the way to Nazi-occupied Europe, and the murderous flak that lay ahead which had claimed so many of his friends. My friends and I sat transfixed as this wonderful man took us back in time. I swear each and every one of us could hear the throb of those four Wright Cyclone engines, his calm voice coming over the intercom...'okay, you guys, watch out for fighters'. Then all hell breaking out as a gunner yells, 'fighters coming down 12 o'clock high!' and the fight for life is on.

Southern Comfort in the rear "coffin corner" of the formation on the way to target
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The target that last day was Rotterdam docks, in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. You may know this Dutch nation as Holland. On the 31st of March, 1943, the bomber crews at Chelveston were awakened about 0700 hours. Briefing was at 8. Ray Armstrong, the gunner whose ball turret hung below the plane's middle, also told us of the flight in correspondence. He recounts the crew had a quick breakfast during the dawn and went to hear their work outlined for the day.
Rotterdam was close to the English coast. An easy overwater flight of a few hundred miles. Looks like a milk run. The weather forecast called for gray, broken clouds low over the North Sea and high stratus clouds above.

Mission planning called for the 364th of the "Can Do" and 303rd "Hell's Angels" bomb groups to join up. British fighters would escort the B-17's to a point just off the Dutch coast. Then the bombers would turn back. That's right. Not the fighters. While the bombers looped back toward England, the fighters would fly on to the target. Why? So the Brit fighters could meet and engage any enemy fighters before they attacked the bombers. This would force the enemy to burn fuel during the fight. They would have to break off and return to base for fuel, or so the plan went. During this fighter combat, the B-17's would turn around and fly toward Rotterdam docks again to drop their bombs. They should have a relatively easy time of it.
Like most plans in war, this one lasted just long enough for contact with the enemy.

The 364th bomb group took off at 09:30 hours. Southern Comfort was stuck in the "coffin corner" of the formation, the last outside plane. A dangerously exposed position. It seemed this craft courted trouble every time she went out. One time she came back with a big chunk of the tail missing. Other times, other parts were gone. But she came back.

The trip out on the first leg was uneventful. When the bomber stream reached the Dutch coast it seemed very quiet. The bomber crews thought how strange it was. No flak from the ground. No enemy planes. Other times, the flak and fighters were all over them. They crossed toward the target unmolested. Their fighter escorts turned for the flight home. With no action, the fighters

Nose art-- yellow SOUTHERN COMFORT lettering, wolf motif forward with sharp ears and long snout, signed by pilot Lt. Hugh Ashcraft to Trevor Williams.

Inscription says "To Trevor Williams with appreciation, Hugh Ashcraft
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pulled away.

From the bottom ball turret, gunner Ray Armstrong noticed their number three engine was throwing oil spots on his view plate. He turned his turret so that James Patterson, flight engineer and waist gunner, could reach down through a hatch in the floor and wipe the oil off. As this was taking place, Armstrong looked back in shock to see three Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters flash past his tail. They came from above his right, went left, and banked around directly behind into the 6 o'clock firing position. No warning at all.

"Fighters! 6 o'clock, diving low!" he yelled over the intercom. If anyone was dozing, they woke up fast. From a milk run, the flight turned into a nightmare in seconds.

The FW-190's had hidden above the gray stratus clouds and jumped the bombers after they saw the escort fighters go on ahead, or so Ray Armstrong figured. He spun the ball turret forward to check 12 o'clock while tail gunner Frank Hilsabeck handled the fighters' rear attack at 6 o'clock . Armstrong's startled eyes saw four or five FW-190's headed toward him, low from the front. Something hit his turret. Then a liquid started to spray over it-- 100 octane aviation gasoline. A large hole appeared in the port underside wing between the number 1 and 2 engines, with a ruptured fuel tank hanging part way out of the hole and spraying gasoline.

The first of the FW-190's from 11 o'clock opened up. Cannon fire hit the Southern Comfort in the bomb bay just in front of Armstrong's ball turret . Southern Comfort's bomb load was still aboard and armed. They hadn't made the bomb drop yet. Before Ray could react, the first FW-190 flashed by. The second one was a different story. Ray opened up with his twin .50 calibres about the same moment that the 190's weapons slammed into the bomber's underbelly. Hot lead from the .50's went into the 190's engine, which immediately exploded into flame as it went past. After seeing their buddy turn into a ball of fire, the other 190's broke away. But the bomber's leaking fuel also caught fire, making the inboard port wing a sheet of flame.

All of this took place in less than three or four minutes.

"There is nothing--absolutely nothing--that looks more awful than an aircraft in flames," Armstrong said. "Especially when you're in it."

Ball turret gunner Ray Armstrong was a cartoonist for Walt Disney Studios. He drew this illustration of his fight with Focke-Wulf 190's and his bail-out
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"Can I get out of the turret now?" he called Lt. Ashcraft over the intercom.

"Are you still in that thing?" the pilot screamed back. "GET OUT RIGHT NOW!!"

Ray scrambled out--luckily the turret's power gear still worked and he wasn't trapped. He hooked up to a walk-around oxygen bottle. Ray picked up his parachute and clipped it to his harness. He moved forward to see radio operator Doug Glover banging out a Morse code S.O.S . Smoke began seeping into the radio compartment. Looking out the small port window to check the wing, Ray Armstrong saw the Duralumin skin curling up "like a piece of crispy bacon in a frying pan." He remembered thinking, "will any of us get out of this aircraft if this bloody wing explodes?" and almost at the same moment Lt. Ashcraft interrupted his thoughts and called over the intercom to

prepare for bail-out.

Fighting the drag from the burning wing's spoiled airflow, pilot Hugh broke from formation, leaving the bomb run. The Southern Comfort raced back toward England, dropping altitude. One part of the mission plan proved good. The German fighter group JG-1 made only one pass in their Focke-Wulf 190's because they were low on fuel, as expected. Thirty-three "heavies" hit the dock area. The "Hell's Angel's" 303rd bomb group missed and killed over 326 Dutch civilians.
(reference: "Castles in the Air" by Martin Bowman)

Doug Glover and Ray Armstrong made their way bent over, back to the waist guns where James Patterson and Frank Corser were putting on parachutes and checked each other's gear. Top turret gunner Steve Gogolya also came back, rather than bail out from the forward hatch. Tail gunner Frank Hilsabeck had his own exit. Tail gunners were usually first out--and often the only ones out--when a B-17 went down.

The bail-out bell sounded. Ray and Doug kicked the side door open and a rushing slipstream roared into their ears. They yelled and motioned Gogolya out. He hesitated for a moment, Ray remembered. Then out he went and disappeared into the low gray clouds surrounding them. Frank Corser was next, then Ray.

Before he went, Ray looked back for a moment to see Patterson changing his parachute. Patterson originally had a British chest pack, but for some reason decided to change it. But he couldn't get the leg straps right. Pilot and co-pilot Bill Lakey went out the forward escape hatch, along with fill-in navigator Bob Nye, subbing for regular navigator James Moberly. So did the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Bert M.Wells.

All ten men were safely out of the burning plane, first tumbling and then 'chutes popped open into the vast sky. The Southern Comfort was alone now, trailing smoke and flame in a downward spiral. From brutal noise, all became quiet with only a hiss of wind.

On the way down, Ray caught up with Frank Corser and began to pass him.

"Hey, Corser," Ray yelled. "You're so small your 'chute is taking you back up!"

Corser yelled back, "I'm not going up. You're going down...and fast." He pointed to Ray's parachute canopy. There was a large rip in the silk.

That wasn't Armstrong's only problem. He looked down to see that his doomed Southern Comfort had somehow made it to England's coast, all right. Where? An airfield appeared below the cloud cover along the coast, coming up at alarming speed. The airfield was the RAF's Bradwell Bay. It was fully equipped to repel enemy parachutists-- by having sharp invasion spikes planted in the ground to skewer airborne troops. The last thing Armstrong wanted was to be impaled like a stuck pig. Just before he hit, he pulled the canopy partly below him as a cushion. As he struck the ground, the lights went out. He regained consciousness briefly to see two Royal Air Force types yelling abuse down on him, then passed out again. Armstrong passed out a third time in the X-ray department of a hospital before waking up in bed.

The two RAF types came to visit him in hosptal and explained their verbal abuse by saying they thought he was a German Luftwaffe pilot. They went on to say that when Ray hit the ground, he bounced at least three times.

Lt. Hugh Ashcraft had better luck, coming down near the Essex village of Tollesbury in the mud flats. He also thought he might be impaled-- but by the masts of the fishing vessals lying at anchor. They missed him and the mud made for a soft landing. The local constable saw Lt. Ashcraft come down and took him to his own home, where Ashcraft had an "exceptional nice" cup of tea.

His co-pilot Lt. Bill Lakey was dragged by his parachute through an open sewer drain outfall. Not a good smell. Lt. Lakey needed--and got--a hot bath and a change of clothes into a nice tweed jacket and trousers, thanks to local residents. Bob Nye was found in the home of the local doctor, and two of the crew were plucked from the River Blackwater by a new rescue launch just undergoing test trials.

One crew member did not survive. Top turret gunner Steve Gogolya, who had hestitated at being first out of the waist gunners' door, had slipped out of his parachute harness and died in the fall. A young woman picking wildflowers discovered him at the base of a tree. His body was returned home to the U.S.

All of the crew except Gogolya made it back alive to Chelveston.
A young boy saw the crash and rode his bicycle at top speed to see the smoke and devastation of the Southern Comfort. We'll get to him in a moment.

I think the official figure is something like 79,000 aircrew members who lost their lives flying from England. The air museum at Duxford says 30,000 American lives were lost, and the U.S. Adjutant General's office says 34,362 air corps personnel were killed in action in the "Atlantic Region". ** What I can tell you is this, there is a huge following over here in England of enthusiasts who perpetuate and keep alive the memory of those young men that came to England as part of the 8th and 9th USAAF. Nearly every former USAAF airfield has a memorial on it or a museum which is usually housed in the former Watch Tower (control tower). The movie "12 O' Clock High" opens with a view of one of these old weed-grown airfields.

Their part in the defeat of Nazi Germany will never be forgotten by the people of this country - God Bless America.

As an Englishman, I have been involved in wartime aviation all my life, joining the Air Cadets from the age of 13 and then joining the Essex Aviation Group as a teenager in the mid- 1970's. The aviation group's aim was to locate and excavate the crash sites of wartime aircraft. We were not grave robbers. Every effort was made to ensure we were not disturbing a war grave.

I first visited the crash site where the Southern Comfort made her final landing during autumn of 1981.

My colleagues Bill Gadd and John Richmond and myself began our search of the little wooded area to the side of Mr. Morley's house. I looked up to see something shining in the autumn sunshine high up in a tree branch, swinging in the light breeze. The landowner's son, young David Morley, climbed the tree and threw it down. A long twisted length of aluminum piping with a stainless steel connector, held in place by a rubber grommet. It was a piece of the aircraft's oxygen system. It had been in that tree since that fateful day in 1943.

Southern Comfort's crew before her name was painted on the nose in 1942. Left to right back row: co-pilot Lt. Bill Lakey, -navigator Lt. James Moberly who was not on the last flight, - Pilot Lt. Hugh Ashcraft, - bombardier Lt. Bert M. Wells, - engineer and waist gunner Sgt. James Patterson.

Front row: Top turret gunner Sgt. Steve Gogolya (killed March. 31,'43) - radio operator Sgt. Doug Glover,- tail gunner Sgt. Frank Hilsabeck, - bottom ball turret gunner Sgt Ray Armstrong and waist gunner Sgt. Frank Corser. Missing: Bob Nye, filling in as navigator for James Moberly on the last flight.
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In time, we recovered many other smashed and broken pieces, as well as .50 calibre ammunition.

"John," I said to my companion, "wouldn't it be nice if we could reunite the crew of the Southern Comfort with her today?"

John Richmond was in full agreement. He had been there the day of the crash as a young boy, just down the road from where he lived. A roar of sound and flame stopped him.
He grabbed his bicycle and rode for all he was worth. He remembered the scene as if yesterday. Airplane parts littering the open field and woodland. A main wheel and undercarriage leg in a field across the road. Six unexploded thousand-pound bombs in the splattered dirt.

The No.8 Bomb Disposal Squad from the RAF's North Weald airbase quickly and politely asked John to vacate the area. So, like Lt. Ashcraft, John had to wait many years for any souvenir of his own.

We did not get all the crew back together as we wanted. Some of them had visited the crash site during those war years and got souvenirs of their own. Radio operator Doug Glover sent us a real treasure he had picked up: part of the painted yellow lettering on the metal nose. Just the OU from SOUthern Comfort. He wrote that it belonged 'home' with the rest of the aircraft.
Over those years, we learned what happened to the crew, and how all survived the crash--and the war--- but Steve Golgoya. God knows how many letters and messages were exchanged between us and them.

Lt. Ashcraft was "booted upstairs" to a staff position and ended the war as a lieutenant colonel. Co-pilot Bill Lakey was given command of his own new aircraft--which he named "Southern Comfort Jr." All of the original crew left stayed with the new plane. Ray Davis became the new co-pilot. No one can remember the name of the top turret gunner who replaced Steve Golgoya. But the crew completed the 25 missions necessary for rotation home to the States.
"Southern Comfort Jnr"'s end was not so glamorous. It was said she had an electrical short and burnt up on the airport ramp.

Retired Lt. Col. Hugh Ashcraft reported that Ray Armstrong died in 1984. Shortly after, Hugh was out mowing his lawn and suffered a heart attack. When the letter arrived on a Saturday morning telling of his death, I was numb and very emotional. He wasn't family, but someone who I could certainly call a wonderful friend.

There were other aircraft named "Southern Comfort" beside this one. Some with the nose art of a scantily-clad young woman, giving a different meaning to Hugh's salute to the Southern States of America.

One "Southern Comfort" was a B-24 Liberator, the B-17's bomber rival, of the 506th Squdron., #42-40778 T, that went down on August 16, 1943.

Markas Platt of Long Beach, California posted that his grand-uncle Robert "Teddy" Wedemeyer was killed April 20, 1944, in a "Southern Comfort" with the 390th bomb group, piloted by A.D.Tuck and co-piloted by John Vaughn, later killed in action.

Ritchie Barr of Mars Hill, North Carolina said his father Tom Barr of San Diego, California, piloted a "Southern Comfort" of the 427th Bomb Squadron and survived the war. His father still had a picture of the aircraft.

A B-29 bomber named Southern Comfort flew with the 30th Bomb Squadron at Kadena, Okinawa, in 1950.

This particular crew was just ten men among thousands. During the many years I have been involved in this pastime, I have met many household names that will live in history--British, American, Polish, New Zealanders, Canadians, and Germans. All have one thing in common: they are ordinary human beings who went to fly and fight for their country. In writing about the Southern Comfort and her crew, I think it only right and fitting to dedicate these words in memory of top turret gunner Steve Gogolya. And to Hugh G. Ashcraft Jnr. and Ray Armstrong for the help I received during my research of their war, as well as the other members of the crew. God bless their memory and God bless America, to whom we all owe so very much in our continued fight for peace and freedom.


Trevor Williams could best be described as an aviation archeologist. He is a WWII aircraft recovery specialist. Trevor is historian, researcher, hands-on digger, and public speaker. He helped find and recover parts of about 40 airplanes that went down in England, France, and elsewhere during that war. Many of those relics went to museums.
In 1986, using the "biggest floating pontoon in the County of Essex and the London Fire Brigade diving team," he was part of a team that raised an entire P-51 Mustang off coastal waters.

Trevor has been general secretary of the Hawker Hurricane Society, member of the Essex Aviation Group, Boreham Aircraft Recovery Group, founder of Camm Followers in memory of aircraft designer Sir Sydney Camm, researcher for the former Airscene Museum and spends much time at National Archive Centre at Kew.

** This is a correction. See Volume 7, Letters or to go directly directly click here.

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