A moving tale about a World War II bomber pilot who chose to go down with his disabled plane rather than abandon a trapped gunner in his dying moments has prompted a good deal of philosophical debate: Did the pilot perform a supremely noble and heroic act of self-sacrifice in providing comfort to a dying comrade in the final moments of the latter’s life, or did he needlessly throw away his life (and deprive his side of an experienced pilot) for an inconsequential and transitory benefit? Either way, the vehemence of the debate demonstrates how compelling many have found this anecdote to be:
The United States presidential race appears to have one compelling speaker in Barack Obama, but the rest fall to speech writers. I know of only one candidate I covered who could move an audience to tears and
laughter …Ronald Reagan.
I never had much use for the man but I will never forget the one occasion he left my eyes wet, at a rodeo of all places.
It was on one of those hills overlooking Los Angeles and Reagan was running to be Republican presidential candidate.
“America needs heroes,” he said, “and I know about heroes because during the war it was my job to pick out the men and women who deserved medals, men like the pilot of a bomber running to England after a raid on Germany.”
“They were hit by flak and barely staggered to the English coast. ‘Bail out everyone,’ yells the captain and the crew headed for the exit door. All but one. The waist gunner yelled he was stuck in his turret and couldn’t move. The co-pilot tried to pull him loose but no luck so he headed for the hatch.
“Just as he was about to jump, he saw the pilot approach the kid and squeeze in beside him. The pilot put his arm around the boy and said: ‘Hang on, kid, we’ll ride her down together.’
“The co-pilot jumped and the plane spiraled to its doom. That pilot is what heroes are made of,” said Reagan.
There wasn’t a sound from the crowd, who had their handkerchiefs out.
It may have been an old movie script but, my God, it was moving.
As suggested in the example cited above, this tale was a favorite of Ronald Reagan, who repeated it many times during his 1980 presidential campaign. The following excerpt from an April 1980 news report about a Reagan campaign swing through Wisconsin demonstrates how frequently and effectively the actor-turned-politician made use of it:
In Racine, Reagan told a large crowd about a
B-17bomber pilot in World War IIwhose plane was hit over France. The belly gunner was wounded and trapped in his gun turret. And, when the pilot told everyone to bail out, the gunner knew he was doomed.
Reagan’s face grew thick with emotion. “The kid in the turret cried out with tears,” Reagan said. “And so the pilot sat down on the floor of the plane and said: ‘We’ll ride it down together, son.’
“And that pilot,” Reagan said, his voice actually breaking, “was given the Congressional Medal of Honor, posthumously!”
What matter to the wildly applauding crowd that Reagan’s voice had cracked perfectly each of the three times that he had told the story before. What matter?
The crowd knew what Reagan was saying to them. It may look like our plane is on fire, it may look like we are trapped, Ron may look old and tired, but he will see us through. He will sit on the floor of the plane and hold our hands. He will be with us.
You can see it in their faces and on the posters that they carry. You can see it in every crowd that he draws.
In later years, journalists noted that the story, at least in the form told by Reagan, was apocryphal and closely matched a scenario from a wartime Hollywood film (although not, as commonly claimed, a movie in which Reagan himself had appeared):
One of his favorite stories, one that he told over and over again to different audiences, concerned a pilot in World
War IIwho told his crew to bail out of their crippled B-17bomber. When the tail gunner said he could not move because he was badly wounded, the pilot replied, “Never mind son, we’ll ride it down together.” When he told the story to a meeting of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society he added that the pilot was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. In fact, no medal was ever awarded for such an incident and the story came, almost word for word, from the script of a movie starring Dana Andrews called “Wing and a Prayer.”
We can’t say whether Ronald Reagan might have encountered this story somewhere and believed it to be true, whether he saw it in a film and misremembered it as a real-life incident, or whether he simply repeated the anecdote as an inspirational tale without regard for its literal truthfulness. We can verify that the tale was incorporated into the 1944 film Wing and a Prayer, although with some substantial differences from the way it was later told:
- The setting was a torpedo-bombing run made against Japanese ships in the Pacific by carrier-based planes, not a bombing raid launched against German land targets from an airfield in England.
- The gunner was unable to bail out of the damaged plane because he had suffered an injury to his legs, not because he was trapped in a stuck turret.
- The payoff line was not “We’ll ride her down together,” but rather “We’ll take this ride together.”
In the following clip from Wing and a Prayer, the action does not play out on the screen; instead, it is relayed to the crew of an aircraft carrier, who are listening to the stricken plane’s radio communications as they are piped over the ship’s
Andy Rooney, who served as a wartime correspondent for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, suggested in his book My War that the tale might have been an embellishment of an actual incident he witnessed, one involving a ball-turret gunner in the belly of a
The worst kind of censorship has always been the kind that newspaper people impose on themselves. I was not aware of being in any way a propagandist as a reporter for The Stars and Stripes, but there were stories I didn’t write because I didn’t like to think of the bomber crews, with whom I spent so much time talking, reading them. Too sad. During the two years I covered the air war, there were half a dozen stories I couldn’t bring myself to write even though it would have been more honest if I had. I remember one in particular.
The Eighth Air Force had a disastrous day when it bombed Regensburg deep inside Germany, and I was at a base waiting to interview some of the fliers when they came back.
It was the custom for concerned ground crews and flight crews that hadn’t been assigned to go out that day to gather in front of the control tower shortly before the bombers’ ETA.
All of us on the ground that day were relieved as specks appeared in the sky over the Channel. As the specks grew to dots and the dots grew to spots, radio reports started coming through and it became certain the ordeal wasn’t over. There were dead and dying men on board half a dozen of the group’s bombers. There was a frantic call from one radio operator. The ball-turret gunner was trapped in the plastic bubble hanging beneath the
B-17.The gears that rotated the ball to put the gunner in position to shoot and then returned him to the position that enabled him to climb out and back up into the aircraft had been hit and were jammed. The ball-turret gunner was caught in a plastic cage.
Two of the engines of the B-17 were stopped, about 3,000 pounds of dead weight hanging from the wings. The plane was losing altitude fast and flying at barely
135 milesan hour, close to stall-outspeed. The pilot ordered the crew to unload everything on board.
“Everything!” he yelled in a command that reached the control tower over the radioman’s open microphone. The crew started pitching out machine guns,
.50-caliberammunition tracks, oxygen tanks, and every instrument they could tear loose in an attempt to lighten the load and keep the foundering plane in the air.
The hydraulic system was spewing fluid where the tubing that conveyed it was shot full of holes. The gas tanks were leaking. Nothing worked. The wheels, folded up into the bomber, could not be brought down without its hydraulic system and a belly landing was inevitable.
There were eight minutes of gut-wrenching talk among the tower, the pilot, and the man trapped in the ball turret. He knew what comes down first when there are no wheels. We all watched in horror as it happened. We watched as this man’s life ended, mashed between the concrete pavement of the runway and the belly of the bomber.
I returned to London that night, shaken and unable to write the most dramatic, the most gruesome, the most heart-wrenching story I had ever witnessed. Some reporter.
The incident has been fictionalized in half a dozen different ways over the years. President Reagan, in one of his speeches, told the story of a gunner trapped in the ball turret. After the rest of the crew had bailed out of the fatally damaged aircraft, the pilot was said to have left the cockpit and gone back to reach down into the ball to take the gunner’s hand in his. As the plane plummeted toward the ground, according to Reagan’s speech, the pilot said, “Don’t worry. We’ll ride this one out together.”
The [Reagan version of the] story seems to have come not from an actual incident, but from an old black-and-white movie called A Wing and a Prayer, starring Dana Andrews.
Sightings: Television viewers may remember this scenario was used as the plot for an episode of the Steven Spielberg series