One Night, One Plane, and Four Men Who Flew It
Through my work with the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and photograph over 150 veterans from every branch of the military. I’ve photographed men and women who have fought in every corner of the globe from Midway to Iraq and everywhere in between. I love hearing their stories and learning about every aspect of the war they fought. To me, every veteran’s story, whether it’s a combat experience or about the work they did as a cook, is part of our history and needs to be shared with everyone. However, there is one group of veterans that is very special to me: Airmen.
Ever since I was in grade school I have been fascinated with anything that can fly. I used to stare out my window and watch planes as they approached Pittsburgh International Airport, I’ve listened to live ATC streams for hours, accumulated more hours than I can count in Microsoft Flight Simulator, and on more than one occasion, called my friend when a cool plane flew overhead. Simply put, I’m an aviation nerd.
To me, nothing is cooler than a military plane. Today’s $100+ million fighters are nice, but they will never beat the sight of a World War II-era piston-driven aircraft like the P-51 or B-17. Actually, I want to retract my previous statement…To me, nothing is cooler than a military plane, EXCEPT the men who flew aboard them. When I meet a veteran who flew during their service, I want to drop whatever I’m doing and just listen to their stories. I could sit there all day just listening.
The story behind this post began a few weeks ago with a simple “tweet”…
While I was wasting time on Twitter, a tweet from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette caught my eye.
Obviously, you can imagine my interest in learning more. It turned out that The Liberty Foundation, which is a non-profit in Oklahoma, would be bringing one of their Boeing B-17s, the Memphis Belle, to the Allegheny County Airport for public tours that weekend, just four days away.
Not even 15 minutes after I read the Post-Gazette’s tweet, I had hit “Send” on an email to the foundation with a special request. I knew there were several veterans in the area who flew on B-17s during the war and my goal was to bring them together at the airport for a special sunset portrait shoot with the plane. A few hours later I had a reply from the Liberty Foundation, they would help however they could.
That was it, the shoot was on.
I got to work over the next four days figuring out all of the logistics for the Saturday evening shoot.
Saturday came quickly with beautiful weather and I was excited for the upcoming shoot but as evening approached so did the rain. A lot of it too, along with 50+ mph winds that blew the plane off of its blocks on the tarmac.
The plane had been open to the public all afternoon and was taking people on flights around the airport so I was able to photograph the plane in flight earlier in the day.
Before the rain came, I did also manage to make one portrait inside the aircraft.
Above is George Cahill, who flew a total of 28 missions over Europe. He served as a bombardier for 27 of them and a tail gunner for just one.
Before we shot the above image, Mr. Cahill asked me where I wanted to photograph him. My first answer was, of course, in the nose where he served. After a little convincing, he climbed back into the position he had flown in almost 70 years ago. It was a fantastic sight.
I had never been inside of a B-17 and didn’t quite know what to expect, to make matters worse, I really didn’t get a chance to scout it in person beforehand either. I did spend a significant amount of time on Google looking at pictures of B-17s though so I had a good idea what to expect. Because of the large, impending storm that was literally just minutes away, my options were to either waste time scouting or work on the fly with George in front of my lens. In any other situation I would have wanted to scout and setup my lights before the subject was on set but here, I couldn’t risk missing this opportunity.
I have to add that George still knows his way around the plane as good as he did back in the war. In the left side of the image is the navigator’s position, which includes the chair you see. Before shooting, the chair was pulled out and blocking the entire nose. Without pausing to think, George knew exactly where the small lock was that would move it out of the way. Without him, it would have taken me a few minutes to figure out.
The rain came quite literally seconds after we finished shooting and we hurried to get all of my lights inside Any chance of shooting again was gone but fortunately, the plane would remain in Pittsburgh for the next week and we would have a second chance to photograph with it.
A few days later we were back at the airport and ready for a second shot at making these images. The crew of the B17 had flown home so this time around, we wouldn’t have access to the interior but we could photograph anywhere on the tarmac.
Originally, I wanted two separate images of each veteran, one inside and one with the entire plane visible behind them. Since we weren’t able to get inside, I shifted my attention to making two images of each veteran outside.
We started shooting a little later than planned and the sun was getting closer to the horizon with each minute. I quickly finished these images and moved my lights farther down the tarmac to setup for the sunset images and I did so just in time.
I quickly framed up the image, fired off a few lighting tests, and I was ready to photograph the veterans as the sun moved into the perfect position.
First up was Stephen Korba who entered the U.S. Army Air Corps in October 1942 where he served as a flight engineer and top gunner aboard a B-17 at the rank of Tech Sergeant in the 8th Air Force. During a bombing mission over Schweinfurt, Germany on October 14, 1943, his plane was riddled with bullet holes but was able to return to base safely. Unfortunately, 60 other U.S. planes were lost in the mission. During a bombing mission on a German U-Boat base near Kiel, Germany, Stephen’s B-17 was shot down and forced to crash land in the North Sea. Since the B-17 is capable of flying at altitudes of 30,000+ feet where the air temperature is a staggering -32 degrees Fahrenheit, he got frostbite in both of his legs. He was later captured by German soldiers and spent the first 18 days of imprisonment on just bread and water before spending another 20 days inside a boxcar. He was held prisoner at Stalag XVII B, located near Krems, Austria where he lost 106 pounds. After returning to the United States, he was sent to Texas to train on a B-29 with the intention of bombing Japan but the war ended before he was redeployed.
The sun had been ducking in and out of the clouds while I was photographing Mr. Korba so the warm light of the setting sun isn’t as emphasized as it is in the other images but nothing beats the expression on his face, a huge smile.
Next up was Robert Spinnenweber who was a bombardier during the war. By the end of his service, Bob had reached the rank of 1st Lieutenant and rose to the status of Lead Crew while completing a total of 30 missions.
Being a member of the Lead Crew meant that Bob’s B-17 was the tip of the spear. All other bombers in the formation followed his plane and didn’t drop their bombs until his plane did so. Since it was Bob’s job to drop the bombs on his plane, when he flipped the switch to drop, he unleashed the power of several dozen bombers; a responsibility that, to this day, he does not take lightly.
With two crewmen down, it was time to move onto the two B-17 pilots. Sterling Ziegler was a pilot in the 8th Air Force, flying missions into Europe while Tom Wiley flew with the 15th Air Force into Italy and Africa.
When the two met for the first time in front of the Memphis Belle earlier that evening, it was like they stepped back in time to right after the end of the war. Something I never gave much thought to was that when thinking of bombers, we tend to think of just those planes that flew from England into Germany. We forget that there were other crews flying into other parts of Europe, just like Tom Wiley and the 15th Air Force.
After shaking hands under the enormous engine of the B-17, Tom’s next words to Sterling were, “You’re the 8th Air Force guy who took all of the glory!” which was followed by a quick jab to the shoulder. Of course both men have a tremendous respect for each other, and just the sight of the two men next to the plane was spectacular.
After photographing Bob, Sterling was the next to be photographed in front of the plane.
Finally, the last man to be photographed was Tom Wiley.
Tom Wiley flew over 50 missions as a B-17 pilot in the 15th Air Force in Italy during World War II, an absolutely staggering achievement since the average number of missions was just 11 before a crew wasn’t expected return to base. He never wanted to be a pilot. He wanted to be a Marine, like his WWI veteran father. But, as an ROTC cadet at Ohio State, he was ordered to remain in the Army after Pearl Harbor and thought the Air Corps would be the most interesting branch.
On his first mission, flying co-pilot over a lightly defended target, Tom saw an anti-aircraft shell explode outside the cockpit window. “Ohhh,” he thought, “that’s what this is all about.” He realized at that moment there was no way he would ever survive the war. It was only later that a remarkable spiritual experience convinced him that he would survive. Some miraculous close calls only affirmed that belief.
One day while walking across his air base at Foggia, Tom picked up a bolt he spotted on the ground and slipped it into his pocket. That bolt remained with him through subsequent missions, a good luck charm. After his final mission, Tom went to the edge of the field and threw the bolt as far as he could. “That bolt had power over me. And I wanted to break free of that power to go on with my life.”
The last shot of the evening was a group shot of all four men standing together in front of the plane.
Of course, I couldn’t let the men go without a quick picture with me.
A few handshakes later and everyone was on the way home after a very successful shoot, leaving just me and two assistants with the plane.
I spent the next hour or so after the light had faded, photographing the plane and talking with some of the pilots and employees at the airport who stopped to admire it.
Overall the entire shoot was a tremendous experience. Being that close to a real B-17 was absolutely incredible. The shear size of the plane was amazing and it’s hard to imagine it until you’re standing next to one. Seeing hundreds of them flying in formation overhead as they did during the war must have been an incredible sight.
More importantly though, was meeting some of the men who flew the B-17 during the war; I learned more than I thought I ever would in just a few short hours with these guys and I made a few friends in the process.
I’m tremendously thankful for the help I received from The Liberty Foundation, Allegheny County Airport, Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, and the Veterans Breakfast Club to make this shoot happen. Without the resources they provided, this shoot would not have happened.
Of course, it goes without saying, that without Bob, Stephen, Sterling, and Tom, these types of shoots wouldn’t be possible. I’m forever thankful to them for not only coming out and putting up with me…twice, but more importantly, what they did for us during the war. They put their lives on the line and made tremendous sacrifices for all of us.
Finally, without the help of the crew below, I would never have been able to pull off this shoot.
Be sure to check out all of the images from my evening with the B-17 in the gallery on AndyMarchese.com and be sure to Follow me on Twitter or Like my Facebook page to be one of the first to hear about upcoming shoots like this.
More to come…
Tags: 15th Air Force, 8th Air Force, Andy Marchese Photography, Boeing B-17, bomber, history, Liberty Foundation, Memphis Belle, military, natural light, Nikon, Nikon D3, plane, portrait, sunset, The Social Voice Project, The Veteran's Breakfast Club, US Army Air Corps, Veteran's Voices of Pittsburgh, veterans, VVOP, White Lightning, World War II, WWII
About Andy Marchese PhotographyAndy Marchese is a photographer in Eastern PA specializing in automotive and sports imagery for advertising, commercial, and editorial applications. Visit us at: www.andymarchese.com
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