survivor of B17 bomber that crashed onto Burnham beach dies
Skinner, the final survivor of the crew of an American B17 Flying
Fortress which crash-landed on Burnham-On-Sea beach on December
31st, 1943, has died peacefully back home in the United States.
never forgot the town that came to the help of the crew and offered
hospitality that fateful night, and even returned to thank Burnham's
residents in 1995.
Rowe of Westonzoyland, who has specialised in tracing and recording
the memories of American servicemen who served in the UK during
World World War Two, met Mr Skinner several times.
recalled his life in an interview with the Western Daily Press.
"It was Walt who solved the mystery of the American plane
that crash-landed on Burnham beach, and launched my later-life
career as a military historian. He was a very modest man, embarrassed
by the attention he got in Burnham in 1995."
wrote to the people of Burnham in December 1989 to thank them
for their hospitality during the four days he and his crew spent
there following their beach landing. He also wanted to apologise
to the family who had invited him to their home, an invitation
he was forced to refuse because a truck had been sent that day
from their base at Polebrook, Northamptonshire, to take them back
to base and back to flying more missions."
was the flight engineer/top turret gunner and would have to stand
throughout the mission. During take-off he stood behind and between
the two pilots so that he could check the instruments. Once in
the air, he took up his position as the top turret gunner, standing
on a small piece of raised metal with his head into the perspex
dome above the plane and armed with two .50 calibre machine guns
to protect the plane from attacks from above."
any of the crew was wounded it was his job to do what he could
for them. To get to the back of the plane, where six airmen were
positioned, he had to go through the bomb bay by means of a four
inch walkway no room for a parachute to be worn, and using
a walk around oxygen bottle. If a bomb got hung-up it was his
job to try to kick it free, standing above the open bomb bay doors.
One slip and he would be gone."
and his crewmates were serving with the 351st Battle Group which
had suffered many losses due to mid-air collisions. The December
31st mission was considered to be a milk-run as little or no opposition
was expected and so they were to fly at a lower than normal altitude
with several top brass flying the lead plane, checking on the
was anything but a milk run. It was the longest mission and most
costly in men and planes throughout the war for the 351st Battle
Group. A total of 296 planes headed for German-held targets in
France. The 351st and 401st Battle Groups flew towards their targets
of Bordeaux/Cognac whilst the others flew south. As they approached
Bordeaux they were attacked by a group of FW190s. Bordeaux was
cloud covered and so the B-17s headed north to their secondary
target of Cognac where they were attacked by guns from a train
and from a ship. Four planes went down in the target area, one
in the Atlantic and two in the English Channel."
and his crew, with one engine smoking, survived a fighter attack
over the Brest peninsular and, short of fuel and alone, desperately
looked for some place to land. They were too low for the crew
to bale out and, expecting the pilots to ditch the plane, all
except the two pilots took up their crash positions. Flying over
St Andrew's church the pilots saw the beach and made a successful
wheels-up landing. As Walt said, 'we didn't even get our feet
people ran out to the plane as it skidded to a halt, with boys
gathering as many souvenirs as they could. Bits of the plane ended
up in sheds all over Burnham but a camera only came to light in
recent years. Walt and his crew stayed together and carried out
26 more missions. For the remainder of their missions they flew
in a B-17 named Black Magic. Several weeks after the plane was
assigned to another crew it went down with the loss of the crew."
first and only time Walt came back to Burnham was in May 1995.
The head teacher of St Andrew's Junior School, Steve James, arranged
a concert based on the war as tribute to Walt. Mayor, councillor
Brenda Brown, gave him a civic reception and invited him and his
family to the 50th anniversary ceremony in the Manor Gardens.
It was a day Walt never forgot. In 2004, the 60th anniversary
of the crash, a plaque was erected at St Andrew's. The plaque
was funded equally by Burnham council and myself. MP David Heathcoat-Amory
unveiled it in the company of the chairman of Sedgemoor council,
the mayor of Burnham and representatives of the police and fire
brigade, plus many of those who saw the plane come down. Walt
was unable to come over, due to illness, and so he made a tape
recording that was played at the ceremony."
was unusual for a woman to be doing research, and many veterans
were suspicious of my asking so many questions. To reassure them
I wasn't looking for my father or an old boyfriend I explained
that I had been too young for silk stockings and too shy to ask
for chewing gum. Walt promptly sent over five packets of gum,
which I still have."
is survived by a daughter, a son and three grandchildren. He died
in the Delaware Veterans Home and was given full military honours.
one of the first boys to reach the B52 also died last month. Fred
Dyson's family ran an ice cream stall on the beach and he was
one of the first to help those in the plane out.