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Column: B17s captured Worthington’s attention twice in 10 months

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Sept. 9, 2006.

WORTHINGTON — The other night I watched a World War II movie on television — “Twelve O’Clock High,” with Gregory Peck. You probably know the film. It’s a story of the B-17 bombers and their daring, perilous raids across Europe.

I was thinking as the movie unfolded, there is no other weapon from World War II that came to involve Worthington so closely. Local residents constantly were reminded of the big, four-propeller bombers.

One Worthington college youth turned aviator — Jerome Godfrey — died when his B-17 was shot down over Austria. At least two other young Worthington men, Bob Brey and Lenny Johnson, became German prisoners after their B-17s went down.

The B-17 crews were specially selected. America’s brightest and best. Many years later the historian Stephen Ambrose wrote, “B-17 losses to enemy defenses mounted, to the point that it was widely speculated that the high casualty rate … might deprive the United States of the elite of its youth …”

The high-tailed B-17s had Worthington’s attention in two additional ways.

Christmas 1943 was a Saturday. The next morning, Worthington residents on their way to church saw a B-17 gliding across the overcast sky at a low level. Of course people stopped. Stared. Wondered.

The famous bomber was stationed at Sioux City, Iowa. For hours it had circled the region, trying futilely to break through the heavy overcast to land either at Sioux City or Sioux Falls, S.D. By the hour Worthington was setting out for church, the B-17 was nearly out of gas. The pilot made a daring decision — land at Worthington’s tiny airport with the sod runway on the west side of Highway 59.

Experienced pilots guessed, afterward, “It can’t be done.” It was done. The skilled captain at the controls brought his big plane down and ended a skidding stop just at the north boundary fence. This B-17 still had no name. The pilot, speaking for his crew, told Worthington, “We’re going to call her Cow Pasture Bess.”

At 2:30 the next afternoon, the captain revved his engines at the north fence line, spun the plane around, gathered speed along the frozen sod and lifted off with apparent ease.

Let’s try this again. Ten months later, Oct. 24, 1944. B-17 low over Worthington.

The bomber was experiencing trouble never made public. At 6 a.m. the plane began a series of distress calls that continued through 20 minutes. The crew hoped to rouse someone at Worthington’s airport. They had learned of the airport last December, but they could not find it. Round and round they flew, north to south, east to west.

At 6:30 a.m., 4,000 feet above Bigelow Township, the captain told his crew to abandon ship. One by one the young airmen leaped and pulled rip cords on their parachutes.

One flier came down in Lake Ocheda, near the Vernon Madison farm. The Madisons provided him with dry clothing and laid his gear out to dry. Another airmen also came down in the lake, not far from where his buddy was hanging in a tree. The two were near the Barney Fink farm — the Finks invited their drop-in guests to breakfast. The Finks’ young boys stood with mouths open and eyes open wide.

All of the crew of 10 made safe landings. Their abandoned plane plunged into a cornfield five miles west of Worthington’s TB sanatorium and skidded for a quarter-mile, crunched and then burst into flames. Exploding, 50-caliber shells whizzed from the wreckage.

Worthington was awed, needless to say. There was a scramble to see the fallen plane, but guards from Sioux Falls arrived and pushed back onlookers.

It was a coincidence that one of the crewmen, Cpl. K.L. Morthew, was from Jackson. His mother drove over to see him.

Henry Pfeil told me lately that, somehow, the crew came together at the Harold Selberg farm, which was at the Highway 59-60 Y south of Worthington.

“Kate Selberg made a meal for the whole bunch of them,” Henry remembers.

Giant crash trucks from Sioux Falls came to take away wreckage. One truck parked at the corner of 10th Street and Fourth Avenue. Residents filled the intersection for a glimpse of the tail section of a fallen B-17.

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