Remembering the ‘Ultimate Sacrifice’

Verda Mae Pugh
December 26, 2012
Three silent films, with live music
January 2, 2013

Ray Marcello was the last of his crew to ditch the rear of the rapidly descending B-17 warplane en route to Munich.

The right waist gunner parachuted into open arms, the waiting clutches of enemy soldiers. Cogs in the World War II machine, the faces of his opposition changed frequently as they escorted Marcello and his comrades around Germany before locking them in a camp as prisoners of war.



It was a trying 286 days for Marcello, who was fed barely more than a daily serving of potato soup. But having lived to be 89 years old, the Houma native readily admits that subpar living conditions trump death.



He also remembers that fallen Flying Fortress, a member of the B-17 bombing fleet that under Allied direction rang out night and day during the war, a piece as important to the conflict’s picture as trench guns were decades earlier.

“It was wonderful,” Marcello says of his first experience in a B-17, his only joyride. “I had never flown other than on an airliner. It’s quite different.”



On their bombing missions, B-17s frequently flew in tight formations. Featuring abundant firepower from every direction and sturdy armor able to absorb enemy fire, the warplanes were prototypical bombers 70 years ago. A Seattle Times reporter first delivered the Flying Fortress moniker.



As the B-17 evolved, the number of guns increased. The B-17E, an early model, featured eight 50-caliber machine guns and one 30-caliber gun. The B-17G, produced in a higher quantity than all other models combined, had 13 50-caliber guns and could carry four tons of bombs on short-range assignments.

“(B-17s) would fly deep into the industrial heartland of Germany, bomb industries and deny the enemy vital war materials,” says Larry Decuers, a curator at The National World War II Museum. “You had a lot of missions where you’d lose 60 of these on a mission. Sixty. That’s 600 men. Those are some of the worst missions of the war.”



From June 2 to July 13, 1944, Marcello flew 14 missions in a B-17G. Four of these missions were flown on D-Day and the days preceding Allied forces’ landing on the coast of France. Three were targeted at Boulogne and on the famous day, the target was the Caen Coast, where Canadian and British forces landed June 6.



“We were told that somebody from the Canadians had called in to the base and thanked us for making some real big foxholes for them on the beach,” Marcello says, “so we knew where our bombs had landed.”

At least 10 people manned each B-17, and each person had specific tasks. Marcello inspected guns and primed the bombs prior to attacks. He was, like all of the crew, responsible for checking on his companions.


“Basically, that was really all I had to do. I flew on the right waist, which is a good spot. It’s right next to the exit. I felt safe there.”



Following the Allied invasion of Axis-occupied France, Marcello’s crew was part of a group that bombed oil refineries near Berlin and in Poland.

Then on a July 13, 1944, mission to bomb Bavarian Motor Works in Munich, right as the flight pattern began to shift into a pre-strike alignment, flak struck the bomb bay and ignited the plane with no name.



“It’s something that happened so sudden,” Marcello says. “You’re in the air and the next thing you know, you hear a big ‘Wham’ and it knocked the plane up and over. The first thing you do, you start saying, ‘What do I have to do?’



“What I had to do, I had to see about the radio operator. I had to go get him out. The (left waist gunner) took care of the boy in the ball turret. When they got out, we watched the tail gunner go out. His exit was right on the side of the tail. We all got out. Myself and the boy from Biloxi, our radio man, we were the last two to leave the waist.”

***



My Gal Sal, an early-model B-17 that never saw battle, for 53 years laid forlorn on a Greenland icecap.



Ten days after an emergency – and nearly flawless – belly landing on the frozen terrain, the plane was left behind while all 13 passengers were rescued. Irretrievable at first and then forgotten, Sal was rediscovered during an unrelated reconnaissance mission in 1964 and recovered in segments by helicopters in 1995.

For five years it sat dormant in Oregon until Bob Ready, a Cincinnati businessman, purchased the Flying Fortress and began restoring it to serve as a monument to the generation he says made the Ultimate Sacrifice.



Ready championed Sal’s restoration as a pet project with the mission to display the plane in the city’s Blue Ash Airport. With the restoration all but complete, however, Ready announced on his website in June 2012, that the airport was being shut down.



The businessman then agreed to donate My Gal Sal to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where it will hang from the rafters in the new US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center.

“(My Gal Sal is) symbolic of America’s ability to project power around the world during World War II and take the war to the enemy,” says Owen Glendening, associate vice president of education and access at The National World War II Museum.



The Boeing Center is slated to open to the public Jan. 13, the day after a grand-opening ceremony that will include flyovers of a B-17 and P-51. The exhibit will include both models, as well as an SBD Dauntless, TBM Avenger and B-25 fuselage.


“It’s the Boeing Center largely because we felt like Boeing and all it did for America in terms of construction of its planes and all of its related legacy companies were so vital,” says museum president and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller, who describes the B-17 as the “iconic bomber aircraft” of the conflict.

The planes, despite being unpressurized and without insulation, routinely flew higher than 20,000 feet. The frigid temperatures were combated with heated attire, and oxygen was pumped through masks to each passenger.


“It’s almost like a space mission, you know,” Decuers says. “Then you’re getting shot at, on top of it.”



Boeing built nearly 13,000 B-17s during WWII, 512 of which were E-models such as My Gal Sal.

That plane was flying in 1942 on a back-door route to Europe as part of a ferry operation when it encountered bad weather and was forced down in Greenland.



Once it was retrieved and purchased for an undisclosed amount, 23 volunteers under Ready’s leadership worked on My Gal Sal’s restoration for a combined 80,000 hours, according to the museum.

“There are volunteers just about anywhere you go who love to bring their mechanical skills to this and there’s a lot of restoration to do,” Glendening says.



The plane was not restored to fly, as that would require compliance with modern regulations. It is, however, authentic, inside and out, right down to the refinished skull-and-bomb art on the tail section.



More than 70 years after its emergency landing, My Gal Sal is suspended in the 95-feet-tall, 35,000-square-feet Boeing Center.

For years as prepared by Ready and now in the Boeing Center, the plane set to serve in its new role, a surviving artifact with historic significance illuminating a generation that faced dire situations in a quest to eradicate evil.

***

Now the resident librarian at the Houma Regional Military Museum, Marcello can easily fact-check his own testimony about his days in the Army Air Corps.

The events he can rattle off quickly, but sometimes the dates are cloudy. So he walks over to a shelf and pulls from it a three-ring binder that includes his original mission log.

Later, he’ll retrieve another historical binder, one that describes Stalag Luft IV, the prison camp in Poland in which he and thousands of Allied troops were held captive. The information includes a scathing report issued by the International Red Cross that, among other criticisms, laments an inequitable distribution of care parcels and lack of nourishment. Later still, he’ll show maps to demonstrate the length of the Black March, a hellish challenge that culminated with his liberation.

“It was a happy day,” Marcello says. “We cried, we cried, we were happy.”

The happiness blossomed from almost a full year in captivity and all that being captured entailed.

Marcello doesn’t dwell on the hardship. But he does speak of fear during two nights of British bombings while he and others were in a boxcar near Frankfurt shortly after their capture. And before that when they were interrogated, which included two weeks in solitary confinement.

“We were locked up in a little room,” he says. “The first two days weren’t bad. But after the third day it was rough.”

Once they arrived at Stalag Luft IV, a camp mostly for Allied airmen where Marcello would spend most of his time in captivity, a new normal dawned.

“It’s hard to explain,” Marcello says. “There’s nothing you can do, so we just made the best of it.”

Making the best of it included playing touch football on sunny days, though that athletic fun withered away when a harsh winter befell the camp. So Marcello stayed indoors in the non-heated huts day and night – excluding three roll-call requirements each day and brief exercise – often playing card games or reading books.

Food was light and the days were cold, but the prisoners carried on.

Upon recognition that Soviet forces were approaching through the sound of distant artillery, the jailers decided to move their prisoners. They set out on what was later called the Black March, a forced walk for more than two months in, at times, blizzard conditions. “That winter was one of the coldest winters they had in Germany in a long, long time,” Marcello says.

Several thousand prisoners were divided into groups of hundreds and forced to walk hundreds of miles. Now grossly underfed, many died on the way.

Marcello walked with about 45 other prisoners, only one of whom didn’t make it to the end. Though the 140-pound weight he enlisted with dropped to 89 by the end of the march.

“We walked for 84 days,” Marcello says. “The first day we walked about 25 kilometers. Every day after that was a little less, a little less until finally we got to a part of Germany where we were able to rest a while. … From there, we continued on.”

Eventually, the blocks of marching troops reached Allied or Soviet forces. Marcello, who was hiding with three others beneath a barrack for three days, remembers the moment he learned he was free.

“One of the British boys got up from underneath the building, it may have been about 9 o’clock in the morning, and all of a sudden he starts yelling,” Marcello says. “We were wondering what the hell was going on with him. We thought maybe somebody shot him. He saw the British soldiers coming up the road, and he got excited, forgot to tell us what was going on.”

For all of the heartache the war caused Marcello, who left Louisiana State University in 1943 before finishing his studies in medicine, the lifelong bonds he forged with his crew triumph.

“That’s one of the strangest things when 10 perfect strangers get together, how quickly you start gluing together,” says Marcello, the last surviving member of his B-17 crew. “It’s strange. It really is. It’s just, if you want to stay alive, if you want your buddies to stay alive, then be on the ball.

“If I had to do it again, I would do it again.”

Seventy years after crash landing in Greenland, the restored “My Gal Sal” goes on display at the National Warid War II Museum’s new Boeing Center, which opens to the public following a grand-opening ceremony that includes flyovers of a B-17 and P-51.

ERIC BESSON | GUMBO ENTERTAINMENT GUIDE

Ray Marcello, a Houma native and World War II prisoner of war, poses here at 20 years old. 

COURTESY PHOTO

Marcello is pictured at 89 years old.

ERIC BESSON | GUMBO ENTERTAINMENT GUIDE

Although all men on board “My Gal Sal” survived the emergency landing, none are alive today to see it restored and put on display at the National World War II Museum.

ERIC BESSON | GUMBO ENTERTAINMENT GUIDE

The cockpit of “My Gal Sal” is pictured.

ERIC BESSON | GUMBO ENTERTAINMENT GUIDE