As World War II raged on, Joe Bowers was serving as an Army 2nd lieutenant platoon leader. His feet were on the ground, but his hopes were in the sky, with the B-17 “Flying Fortress’’ bombers winging overhead.
“I’d see these beautiful things flying around, and I think, ‘I’d like to get in there,’” he says today. ”Somehow or other, I got lucky.”
Bowers, a Homeland Center resident, served as a bombardier on U.S. Army Air Force B-17s as a 1st lieutenant for 26 months with the 305th Bomb Group, 366th Squadron. From January 7, 1945, to April 17, 1945, he flew in 35 missions over German cities including Karlsruhe, Munich, and Dresden. During that time he flew various B-17s bearing colorful nose-art and names like “What’s Crackin’ Doc,” “Miss Yvonne,” and “Fancy Pantz.”
On a rainy Saturday in September 2014, the 94-year-old Bowers relived his bombardier days when the Experimental Aircraft Association brought a restored B-17 to Capital City Airport in New Cumberland. Coincidentally, the airport is only a few blocks from the home where Bowers was born and raised.
Seeing the plane parked on the tarmac – the B-17G-VE Aluminum Overcast — brought back memories for Bowers. The hefty B-17s, flying from England deep into Germany, flew in tight formation with nimble escort fighters that protected the bombers from air and ground attacks.
“Thank heavens they did their job,” Bowers said as he sat near the Aluminum Overcast. “We didn’t lose anybody in our crew. We all came through. We got shot at a lot of times, but nothing took us down.”
The formations were so tight, Bowers recalled, that “some wiseguy said, ‘Hell, I can jump from one wing to another.’”
As bombardier, Bowers sat in the plane’s clear Plexiglas nose. When the pilot ordered “bombs away,” Bowers would get control of the plane, with the critical job of maneuvering the ship into position and using the top-secret Norden bombsight to align the target and release the bombs, clustered as tightly as possible.
“All of a sudden, somebody would say go,” he said. “We kept our fingers crossed and away it went. Sometimes we were able to see it when it hit the ground. Not too often, because we were gone.”
To this day, Bowers wears a gold bombardier’s ring he bought long ago.
“I’ve always been proud of that ring, so I keep it around,” he said. “It’s a part of me, I guess.”
At war’s end, Bowers came home. He worked in a dental laboratory and at the Mechanicsburg Navy Depot until he retired. In retirement, he volunteered as a bus driver around the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Until 2013, he and his late wife Pat, who had lived with him at Homeland, would attend every Hershey Bears hockey game.
“I was always a nutty fan for the Bears,” he said.
As he walked closer to the B-17 at the Capital City Airport, visitors lining up for a tour took photos and thanked him for his service. Asked whether his ships also had paintings on their sides, like the pinup blonde in a bathing suit on the Aluminum Overcast’s nose, Bowers turned to look at the artwork.
“Not like that,” he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Though he uses a walker, Bowers eagerly climbed the steps to the side hatch and stepped inside the plane. He didn’t hesitate to maneuver across the ledge circling the ball turret and into the radio room. From there, he could see into a narrow catwalk and the bays holding the bombs. He smiled from ear to ear and laughed out loud.
Bowers remembers being frightened “more than a couple of times.”
“When you’re riding up front and all this stuff is going on, I got scared,” he said. “But we still had a job to do, and that’s what we did.”