Close Encounter


“I pulled up and headed directly toward the attacking fighters. I thought it might scare at least one of them. It must have worked because both planes broke off by rolling over and diving. I heard Ecky screaming in the tail, ‘Fighters attacking at six o’clock level.’ And then he yelled, ‘Get ‘em somebody, my guns are jammed! Jesus Christ, they won’t fire!’

“I heard the machine-gun fire from the fighters, and I felt the vibration as the bullets and then cannon fire struck us aft. I was scared, I don’t give a damn who knows it.

“I got on the radio: ‘Denver One! Denver One! Mayday! Mayday! This is Goldsmith under attack south of WiIhelmshaven. Need assistance!’ It was all I had time to transmit on the fighter frequency.”

The next wave of German fighters hit directly on the radio room. They also shot away the controls to the numberthree engine. But even with the controls gone, the oil pressure and engine temperature remained stable and number three continued to put out a little more than 50 percent power. Had the engine failed totally, it probably would have been the end of the line.

The only guns still working were Frenchy’s twin .50s and the single gun in what was left of the nose. As new waves of fighters came at him, Brown turned Ye Olde Pub to meet them, using the battered B-17 as a two-and-onehalf-engine attacking fighter plane. This threw the German pilots off their routine; they closed faster, had shorter aiming and firing runs. Nevertheless, the American bomber was hit hundreds of times by bullets and twenty-millimeter cannon shells, and sixty-degree-below-zero winds swept through the opening in the nose and out the many holes.

“While I was trying to determine the full extent of our damage,” says Brown, “I glanced out the window. Three feet from our wingtip there was an Me 109. For a moment I thought the heat of battle had been too much; I closed my eyes, figuring it would go away, but when I opened them again, he was still there. I nudged Pinky and pointed to the German plane. His mouth dropped open.”

There was something different about this particular Messerschmitt. It was solid black; it was a night fighter. “The German pilot nodded to us, but we didn’t return the greeting. We assumed it was only a matter of time until he came in for the kill. He looked relaxed and confident, and with only one of our eleven guns left, he had every reason to be.”

Brown and his crew figured it was all over. Then the German saluted, rolled, and was gone, putting an abrupt and curious end to one of the oddest encounters in the short history of heavy bombardment.

The ravaged bomber left the enemy coast and headed for home. The number-two engine was out, number three still operating at half-strength, and number four damaged by flak and trying to run away at every whipstitch while the copilot worked frantically to keep it functioning.

The rudder did not respond, and the elevators were very, very slow. With the gaping hole in the nose, the aircraft seemed to be swimming through heavy air, grossly overweight for the available power, barely answering its controls. Brown found that by dropping the left wing a few degrees and using trim tabs, he could maintain a relatively straight flight path. The question was, Could he remain in the air long enough to cross two hundred and fifty miles of North Sea?


Much to the crew’s relief, a pair of P-47s appeared and flew at each wingtip, attempting to keep Air-Sea Rescue informed of the plane’s flight path and position.

As the Pub gradually lost altitude, the men began throwing out excess weight: guns, ammo, ammo cans, everything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. They dropped to 500 feet and still had no sight of land.

At last, as they struggled along 250 feet above the water, Pinky exclaimed, “There it is!”—the coast of England and, even more welcome, an air base.

The crew lowered the landing gear manually; Brown took Ye Olde Pub in on the number-one engine alone. “We had no effective brake or rudder control,” he says, “but by a minor miracle, the aircraft remained relatively straight as we stopped, still on the runway.”

Every part of the ship had been badly hurt. One wing showed a wound the size of a bushel basket where an 88-millimeter antiaircraft shell had passed through without hitting anything strong enough to explode it; the vertical stabilizer was gone, the elevators were ruined, the radio compartment was destroyed, whole sections of the skin had been torn away, and the hydraulic system was junk. One onlooker described Ye Olde Pub as a flying wind tunnel that looked like a piece of Swiss cheese.

“Since that day,” says Brown, “I have tried to find out what happened, and there is nothing, I mean, nothing to even show that anything unusual at all happened.”