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A quick-witted WWII veteran talks about his experiences

LOCKPORT – Everett A. Fitchlee cradles a small metal shard he calls a “flak” in the palm of his hand, a painful reminder of a tour of Germany and France from 1943 to 1945. He served as an engineer and top turret man with the 390th Bombardment Group, an Eighth Air Force unit based in England during World War II.

Just 21 at the time, Fitchlee was shot in the back on his fourth mission, while riding in the top turret position on a B-17 flying over Mannheim, Germany. His wound merited a Purple Heart.

Fitchlee recuperated and went on to fly 26 more missions before he served out his time, but it’s only been in recent months that he’s felt up to discussing the war at length before local historical societies.

He’s now 90 years old.

“I just thank the good Lord I’m here,” he said recently in his Lockport home. “I’m not trying to be some showboat or something. I was just lucky. I’m a Purple Heart vet, that’s all.”

With Memorial Day around the corner, Fitchlee – quick-witted and spry, and dressed in a beige shirt and matching cap from the B-17 390th Bomb Group Veterans Association – chatted about his experiences.

How did you come to join the U.S. Army Air Forces?

I was born in Royalton and graduated from Lockport High School. I chose the Air Forces because I used to make model planes and stuff, and joined in early March 1943. When I was in training, they told us the percentage of returning soldiers from war was 25 percent. I became an engineer and operated the top turret. We had a brand-new B-17; they were called “The Flying Fortresses.” I was assigned to the 390th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force, and we started to fly.

I got hit on my fourth mission, and I thank the good Lord I’m alive today. It was October 1944 – I had just turned 21 in September. It was from a (German) 88-millimeter gun, and the surgeon took the flak out of the right side of my back and brought it to me after he operated on me. He said, ‘You’re a lucky boy.’ It went through my parachute harness and took out a big brass button. If it hadn’t been for those things, it might have gone right through me.

Was the rest of your crew injured that day?

I was the only one hit that day and got back to the base hospital OK. I was in the hospital for several weeks. My crew came to see me once while I was in the hospital, and that was the last time I saw them (all). When I finally got back to my base, I found out that the whole crew (of nine) was shot down on Nov. 30, 1944. Only three got out: a navigator named Leminsky, the bombardier, Custis Green, and Bill Pace, who was the ball turret man. They all became prisoners of war until the war was over. Custis is in Hawaii now, and I’ve seen him two or three times since the war. Bill lives in Florida now, and I’ve seen him several times.

So you still have reunions?

In 1979, the 390th Bomb Group started having reunions, and they held them on the East Coast, the West Coast and in the North and South. We went to a lot of them. In 1987, we dedicated a museum (the 390th Memorial Museum) out in Tucson, Ariz., and that’s where we’ll have the reunions now. We’re going to have this museum so that when we’re gone, this will carry on. We had our last reunion of just the 390th veterans in St. Louis in 2012, and my oldest son, Leonard, went with me, and he got a kick out of it. We had 30 vets but close to 300 with all of the widows and children.

What was it like aboard the B-17?

My longest mission was 12 hours, and we had to fly over the North Sea, so we had to wear our Mae Wests (life jackets). We went to Hamburg, Germany, and bombed submarine pens. There were barges on the water with 88-millimeters on them shooting at us. I could look all over from the top where I was, but I couldn’t see directly underneath. I’d just see the shells bursting and big black clouds. You’d just pray it wouldn’t burst underneath you.

What became of the 390th Bomb Group?

It was formed in January 1943, and our base was Framlingham, England. It disbanded in August 1945. The war had ended in May. Our group had flown 301 missions; lost 176 planes; shot down 377 enemy planes; had 714 men killed in action; had 736 taken prisoners of war; had earned 1,130 Purple Hearts; and included a total of 7,600 members.

Where were you when the war ended?

I flew over on a brand-new B-17 and came back on the Queen Elizabeth – a ship – and we were in high seas. Before we had dropped anchor in New York Harbor, the war had ended. I was discharged on Sept. 27, 1945, from Greensboro, N.C. It happened to be my dear wife’s birthday, although we weren’t married then.

Ruth and I were in the same class at Lockport High School. We liked to dance, and that’s what got us started when I got back. If I do say so myself, we were pretty good dancers. We had a dance club in Lockport, and I was president for two years. We married in 1946 and had three children, two boys, Leonard and Gary, and a girl, Nancy. We lost our son Gary at 58 in 2008, and I lost my dear wife, Ruth, in 2009. We have five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. I retired in 1982 after 36 years at Harrison-Radiator.

You’ve recently given a couple of talks about your time in the war and the 390th Bomb Group to local historical societies. What do you enjoy about giving these talks?

There’s not much enjoyment when you’re talking about your buddies falling out of the sky or being taken prisoner and all hell is breaking loose.

I toyed with the idea for quite some time before I decided to put together a little program and talk about it. As I got older, I thought, “I’m not going to be around forever.” The 390th Bomb Group put out a film on a mission in 1991 – it’s an hour long – and it’s called “Pistol-Packing Mama.” That was the name of the plane the bomb group’s photographer was on. I got a copy and put it on DVD.

I went to the Niagara County Historical Society and asked if they’d like a copy, and they asked me to put on a little program and show the mission. I talked a little about myself, showed the mission and answered questions. It was a packed house. Then they asked me to put on a little program in Royalton.

I tell everybody, “War is hell. There’s no two ways about it.” I just thank the good Lord I’m here.

Know a Niagara County resident who’d make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email