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GENERATIONS: Hank Slotnick: The tale of Pappy and Short Strikes

Pappy was a little dog—a terrier mix, I think—and the mascot for the crew of a B-17F bomber. The crew was attached to the 413th Squadron, 96th Bomber Group (Heavy) stationed in Snetterton Heath, England.

Hank SlotnickPappy was as American as the 10 Airmen in the crew. He joined them in Bellingham, Wash., where all but one trained, and traveled with them to Topeka, Kan., where they picked up the plane that they named "Short Strikes." They also added a co-pilot in Topeka, the original co-pilot having been asked to take additional training so he could pilot a B-17F of his own. The replacement was my uncle, and he fit in well with the others even though he lacked their shared history. The Army Air Forces knew him as 'Harold,' but his name in the family was "'Hessel"—or "Hess" for short.

The crew, with its new copilot, loaded Pappy on its new plane and flew to Virginia—this trip being, I believe, the only time Pappy flew with the crew. Once in Virginia, they all sailed to England on a troop carrier with Pappy occasionally hiding in the bombardier's footlocker. Short Strikes, meanwhile, was ferried across the Atlantic.

Pappy was important to the crew. He was a source of happiness to all 10 both by being a playful, happy dog, and by joining them when they went on furlough. Pappy apparently shared their taste for beer, and he happily drank it from a saucer when it was offered to him. Knowing this, a newsreel flickers in my mind, almost sepia toned, beginning with upbeat martial music and a title something like Pooch Celebrates Successful Raid on Germany. The authoritative voice over says, "Pappy is the mascot for this brave B-17 crew from the 96th Bomber Group stationed at an undisclosed location in England. Here he joins his crewmates for a drink celebrating their 16th successful raid on the Gerries." The scene starts as a long shot of the laughing Yanks in a darkened pub, drinks in hand, surrounding a little dog lapping up his own beer from a saucer. The camera zooms in on the dog who lifts his head, barks once in the direction of the camera, and returns to his beer. "Pappy is telling Adolf to watch out," the voice over continues. "He says his crew and the others from the 96th will be back raining destruction over Germany after they finish their beers and have a good night's sleep." The music gets louder and the newsreel turns to a story about women rolling bandages for the Red Cross.

I'm betting Pappy also had a variety of tricks that endeared him to Short Strikes' crew. But what the airmen liked best about him was how excited he was to see them when they returned to base after each of their 16 missions over Germany, France, Belgium—in fact, all of Festung Europa. He was always there, always happy to see them when their plane landed. I'm certain he ran up to them as they dropped out of the plane's hatch, barking and jumping up on each in turn until all 10 airmen returned the greeting by smiling, scratching him behind the ears, and telling him what a good pup he was.

I know about Pappy from talking with two people, the first being Earling (pronounced 'Erline') Church who'd met him when the crew was in Topeka picking up Short Strikes. Earling was there for a different reason, though; she traveled to Topeka with my Uncle Hess, the new copilot, who used this visit as the occasion for proposing marriage and giving her an engagement ring. I don't expect this was a surprise for Earling since Hess had to agree to a precondition before Earling could travel to Topeka with him; he had to promise Earling's mother that they wouldn't get married until after the war so that Mom could dance at her daughter's wedding.

The second person who told me about Pappy was Short Strike's tail gunner, Johnny Young. I spoke to him by telephone at the retirement home where he lived in California. He was happy to talk about Pappy, about Short Strikes, and about the others in the crew.

He told me the crew was on its 17th mission on Jan. 4, 1944, to Muenster, Germany, when another B-17 flying behind and above them suddenly dove through the formation and clipped Short Strikes just in front of her tail section. That plane's crew was on its first mission, and so Johnny doesn't know whether they broke formation out of inexperience or because they got in trouble taking evasive action. That's what he told me; when Earling spoke with him more recently, however, he mentioned a third bomber that, having broken formation, made physical contact with the plane that crashed into Short Strikes. The crew of that plane made it back to Snetterton Heath because their B-17 was minimally damaged. Johnny went on to say that the squadron's other crews swarmed that plane when it landed, pulling its pilot from the cockpit and beating him for the mistake that caused Short Strikes' tail to be clipped and so resulting in the deaths of all but three of its well-liked crew. The reason that pilot wasn't killed, Johnny surmised, was that an MP intervened.

What's the real cause of the mid-air collision? The copy of the Missing Aircraft Report I received from the Air Force Archives said only that things were nominal when Short Strikes was last in radio contact with the squadron, and that Short Strikes was brought down by a mid-air collision coming quite literally out of the blue. It is entirely possible that Johnny Young was the only one to realize the accident was imminent because his tail gunner's position allowed him to see the other plane coming. Having seen it, he said, he had only enough time to jump out of his seat before the planes collided.

Johnny and two other Short Strikes' crew members bailed out. They landed in a field near Lingen, Germany, where the little girl who saw their chutes directed German soldiers to the three airmen.

The disabled B-17 exploded horrifically when it hit the ground because its full loads of bombs had been armed and so went off. Johnny's captors wouldn't let him go to the crash site to look for survivors though it is unlikely that anyone lived through it. They were all reported missing in action by the Army.

The only things my family knew were that Hess was missing in action and that three parachutes were seen, two reportedly coming from the front of the plane. My Grandmother heard this latter bit of news in a letter from Mrs. McLean, the wife of Short Strikes' pilot. And so the family—and Earling—entertained hope that Hess was alive and in a POW camp. The news that he was killed in action came almost a year later.

What happened to the others? Each of Short Strike's three survivors made it a point to visit my Grandma after the war and share with her what they knew about Hess. Grandma, in turn, told them that she had three sons and two sons-in-law under arms during the war, and that she wouldn't complain because she lost only one of them. And she never did; she was a Gold Star mother who grieved privately.

Of course, Grandma was not the only one heartbroken by Hess' death. Though Earling told me that she lost her first love when Short Strikes crashed, she fell in love again, this time to a decorated Army Ranger, Warren Bailey. They were married in 1946, and they raised two boys during the 50 years of their marriage, the marriage ending only with Warren's death.

And what happened to Pappy after he lost his crew? Surely, he was at the tarmac waiting, as always, for Short Strikes' return, and he must have been confused when the returning planes did not include one carrying the men who relied on him as much as he relied on them. How did he resolve his confusion and his grief at his missing crew? The most likely explanation of Pappy's fate came from Johnny Young who observed that the 413th Squadron had 396 men and one dog.

Pappy, he was certain, joined another crew.