Veteran Salute: WWII pilot flew 35 missions over Germany

Veteran Salute

A strong sense of patriotism and a strong interest in flying led a North High graduate to enlist in the Air Force.  

He would go on to become one of the few B-17 pilots who completed his missions in World War II.

Lewis Smith enlisted when he was 18 and went straight to flight training. It was on to New Mexico where he learned to fly the B-17. 

Then, he and his crew were all off to Nebraska to pick up a new B-17 and fly over to England to join the war.

“Flying over the north Atlantic was really an experience back then, it actually took 25 hours to get over to Scotland,” remembers Capt. Lewis Smith.

Next, it was a train to his home base, Great Ashfield Airfield.  

Lew says early in the war only about one in four crews for the 385th Bomb Group was able to finish its missions.

The average lifespan of a B-17 was four months and 12 days and the average life of a crew was 12 missions.

Lewis would fly 35 missions over Germany.

“In the 35 missions, I came back four times with one engine shot out, twice with two engines shot out, crash landed once in France and four times came back with over 50 holes in the airplane,” he says.

The B-17 wasn’t pressurized and in-flight temperatures ranged from 35-55 degrees below zero.

“We had to wear long johns, flight suit, Mae West, flack jacket, throat mike, oxygen mask, electric suit, flight jacket, parachute harness, fleece boots and air flow,” Lew runs down the list. 

And there was a constant threat from enemy fire.

“These unfriendly people on the ground were shooting these 88mm or 105 mm cannons at us,” says Lew. “These shells would come up, burst, and put out hundreds of pieces of hot metal, and you’d see these holes appear in your airplane and hope they didn’t appear in you.”

There were many times Lew narrowly missed getting hurt or killed.  

He was part of the Allied Air Forces attack during the Battle of the Bulge on Christmas Eve of 1944.

“We were in the second group of B-17s that day,” he remembers.

Lew says the Germans attacked the group in front of them, then the third group behind them. Then, they came after Lew’s group.

“Two real fortunate things happened: number one, the jets were running out of fuel, and our protection arrived, B-17s, P-47s, P-51s and P-38s,” says Lew.

Lew also flew the first B-17 to complete 100 missions without an abort in the European Theater and would later learn the plane’s crew chief was from the Wichita area. 

Lew served for 26 months: 20 months of training and 6 months of combat.  

“At first, it was exciting and not too scary, but as you went on and saw all your friends disappear, it got scarier, and of course when you got way down to the end, there were so many guys who got 33, 34 missions then went down that it got pretty tense.”

After returning home, Lew finished school and became an optometrist, practicing in Wichita for 48 years. 

Doctor Lewis Smith never piloted a plane again.

“I figured I had been very lucky, and I wasn’t going to push it no more.”

You can hear another of Lew’s great WWII stories by clicking the video below. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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