The William S. Strapko Crew

The Big Yanks crew.
Left to Right, Front Row: Kenneth E. Roberts, Lincoln F. Broyhill, Cecil E. Shellabarger, Howard C. Wehrner, James H. McIntyre, Albert Bishop. Back Row: Edwin F. Levin, Clair E. Harper, William S. Strapko, Franklin E. Harrison.
Photo Credit: Albert Bishop

AIRCRAFT: Douglas (Long Beach) B-17G-50-DL Flying Fortress, #44-6405 "BIG YANK"
UNIT: 840th BS (H)/483rd BG (H)/306th Combat Wing/5th Air Division/15th AF
Theater: MTO

"BIG YANK" was named by Crew Chief Irvin "Irv" Davis. The nose-art included a portrait of the wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was painted by Italian artist Mario Rucci. "BIG YANK" completed 50 combat missions as the mount of various crews. After VE-Day, the B-17 was converted for passenger use with the so-called "Homebound Airlines", part of the "GREEN PROJECT" which utilized ex-combat aircraft returning to the USA to transport returning servicemen as well. "BIG YANK" was subsequently selected as an Air-Sea Rescue plane and was used at least once in this role to drop a boat to a downed American fighter pilot in the Adriatic Sea. As the 483rd BG was deactivated at Pisa, Italy in September 1945, "BIG YANK" was returned to the USA. The plane's last flight was to Walnut Ridge, Arkansas on December 28, 1945. A picture of "BIG YANK" is displayed at the Boeing Flight Museum at Seattle, Washington.

A/WG #1
A/WG #2
TG #1
TG #2
William S. Strapko
Clair E. Harper
Edwin F. Levin
(1) Franklin R. Harrison, Jr.
Howard C. Wehrner
Albert Bishop
Cecil E. Shellabarger
(4) Jack T. Lengsfield
(2) James H. McIntyre
Kenneth E. Roberts
Louis E. Brown
(3) Lincoln F. Broyhill
North Tonawanda, New York
Des Moines, Iowa
Kew Gardens, Long Island, New York
Methuen, Massachusetts
Clostsa, New Jersey
Leighton, Pennsylvania
Garden City, Michigan
New Orleans, Louisiana
Texarkana, Texas
Norton, Virginia
Parsons, Kansas
Arlington, Virginia
(1) Harrison, replacement from David O. Crump Crew, 840th BS.
(2) McIntyre from 487th BG/8th AF, replaced Lengsfield as a regular crew member.
(3) Broyhill from 8th AF, replaced Brown as a regular crew member.
(4) Lengsfield LWG to Lawrence R. Hayes Crew, 840th BS, for March 24, 1945 Berlin mission.

Irvin H. "Irv" Davis
Port Allegheny, Pennsylvania

The Strapko crew assembled and received 10 weeks of intensive combat training at Drew Field near Tampa, Florida. On completion of training, the crew reported to the staging area at Hunter Field, Savannah, Georgia in February 1945. There the crew were issued combat clothing and equipment, then assigned to a Lockheed-Vega B-17G-85-VE Flying Fortress, #44-8815 for their flight overseas from their POE at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine. Bad weather forced the crew to layover for several days at Syracuse, New York. Other stops were made at Gander, Newfoundland; Valley, Wales; Marrakech, French Morocco and Tunis, Tunisia before the crew landed at the 52nd Advance Depot at Giola, Italy. The crew arrived to the 483rd Bomb Gp. (H) at Sterparone, Italy on March 5, 1945 and almost immediately began flying combat missions on March 8, 1945.

After President Roosevelt passed away, on Sunday April 15, 1945, a special memorial service was held at Sterparone. "BIG YANK" Radio Operator Albert Bishop was fittingly chosen to play "Taps".

On April 27, 1945, McIntyre was relieved to the USA. After VE-Day - Brown, Broyhill, Harrison, Lengsfield, Roberts and Shellabarger went to the 301st Bomb Group on May 18, 1945. Eventually, all crew members returned safely home to the USA.

Strapko, Harper, Levin, Wehner and Bishop were sent to Pisa, Italy to become part of the so-called "Homebound Airlines". When the 483rd BG was deactivated, the remaining five-man Strapko Crew went to the 2nd BG at Naples, Italy and were assigned a "war-weary" B-17 "O, MOM" (For Ohio, Michigan, Oklahoma and Minnesota) for the return flight to the USA.

On March 24, 1945, the Strapko Crew of the 840th BS were assigned to "BIG YANK" and to the "tail-end Charlie" position with 816th BS for a mission to Berlin. "BIG YANK" was one of 28 of the 483rd Bombardment Group's B-17s assigned to the mission. The Berlin mission would prove to be the longest escorted bomber mission of World War II in Europe. Included on the mission were replacement crew-members: bombadier Harrison, armorer/waist gunner McIntyre and tail gunner Broyhill. Near the target, the Daimler-Benz tank works, the group was attacked in-force by defending Luftwaffe Me 262 jet fighters.

Radio Operator/Gunner Albert Bishop remembers: "Our 'Red Tail' 99th (Ftr. Sq. ) fighter escort took off as soon as the Me 262s' presence was announced on combat radios. 'BIG YANK' had 'Tail-end Charlie' position. They dived into us, firing, with flaps down at about 20-30 degrees and noses up attitude setting up a very good target for our gunners at our slow airspeed."
From an interview published May 3, 1945, in the Des Moines, Iowa "Plain Talk"

Tail Gunner Lincoln Broyhill recalled: "I saw four jets attacking a lone B-17 from another group. The B-17 knocked down one of the enemy fighters before it flew in a crippled manner towards the Russian lines. The remaining three fighters came at our plane. Two of them came right behind each other at my position. They were about 1000 yards away when I started cutting loose with my guns. The first (Me 262) made a pass at 200 yards and my tracers were going right into its fuselage. Suddenly it went down in flames. The second came into my sights after the first had dropped. I kept shooting away because he was getting into my hair. Suddenly, it also spiraled down. Upon hitting the ground, it burst into flames. Because I had my guns spitting lead so rapidly, they jammed."

Ball-turret Gunner Cecil Shellabarger recalled: "I began shooting at the third enemy plane when it was about 800 yards away and when he came within 100 yards of our tail, he peeled off. He seemed to stand on end when all at once, he fell off on his left wing. I shot at him again and hit him between the wing and fueslage. He went down into a straight dive and about 4,000 feet from the ground, it disintegrated."

Engineer/Top-turret Gunner Howard Wehner recalled: "They started coming right at me. I kept my guns trained on them and 'bingo', two more jets were going down in flames."

RO/G Al Bishop recalled: "...one of them came so close that we thought it would ram into us." With Wehrner continuing to fire away, Co-Pilot Clair Harper recalled seeing the enemy pilot's eyes and shouting to Pilot William Strapko, "He's going to ram us, Bill!". Fortunately, the Me 262 exploded just short of a collision.

Records achieved March 24, 1945 by the crew of "BIG YANK" and the 483rd BG include:
* Most German Jets destroyed by a single bomb group on one mission - Six.
* Most German Jets destroyed by one bomb group for the entire war - Seven.
* Most German Jets destroyed by a single crew on one mission - Three.
* Most German Jets destroyed by a single crew for the entire war - Three.
* Most German Jets destroyed by a single gunner, Broyhill, on one mission - Two.
* Most German Jets destroyed by a single gunner, Broyhill, for entire war - Two.
* Most German Jets destroyed by a single bomber for entire war - Three.

Due in no small part to the achievements of the Strapko Crew of "BIG YANK" on the Berlin mission of March 24th, the 483rd Bomb Group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation - However, the crew was somehow overlooked, on this day, for any personal awards. They did receive a considerable amount of recognition in "Stars and Stripes" and newspapers in the USA. There is a further effort to get awards for the crewmembers in recognition of their significant accomplishments and the connection to FDR.

A Special thanks to "BIG YANK" RO/G Al Bishop for the invaluable information contained in this entry.
Information is contained in the 483rd BG Association Unit History, "Heroes of the 483rd" compiled by archivist Jacob L. Grimm and edited by Verne H. Cole - LC. No. 97-60383