Union Pacific's B-17 Heavy Bomber

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An Aircraft Named "Spirit of the Union Pacific"

By Don Strack

On August 3, 1943, a photo was taken of a Boeing B-17 heavy bomber, showing it lettered as "Spirit of the Union Pacific". The aircraft received the special lettering to acknowledge the contributions of the 65,000 employees of Union Pacific Railroad who had raised an extra $379,000 in war bond purchases. The photo was included as part of a brief news item in the September 11, 1943 issue of Railway Age. The same photo was also used for a postcard that was handed out by Union Pacific to its employees, with the following text:

"Spirit of Union Pacific" Goes To War


Proudly a committee of Union Pacific employes went to Seattle recently to see "our" Flying Fortress off-to-the-wars. Attending the dedication ( pictured above, left to right) were: H. O. West, Executive Vice Pres., Boeing Aircraft Co.; Walter Wilson, chairman Union Pacific War Bond Committee; F. W. Madden, representing Brotherhood Railway Clerks; John D. Beard, Brotherhood Maintenance of Way; L. A. Collins, Supt. Oregon Division; D. W. Hood, Brotherhood Railway Trainmen; and A. A. Murphy, Assistant to President of Union Pacific.

To the Employes of the Union Pacific goes the distinction, according to the Treasury Department, of being the first railroad group in the Nation to be honored with a "named" heavy bomber for voluntarily increasing their payroll deductions for War Bonds by more than $379,000 during May and June.

"You have certainly done a grand job on the Union Pacific Bomber Bond Campaign," wrote James L. Houghteling, Director, National Organizations Division, Treasury Dept., War Savings Staff.

John Bromley, Director of Historic Programs at the Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa, wrote the following:

As a side note about the bomber apparently this is not the plane originally intended to be the UP plane. The Army didn't want to wait on the plane for a ceremony so this a second plane that was lettered. In the haste to get it painted they omitted the word "employees." According to Army and Treasury Department instructions on naming bombers, they were supposed to be named for employees of organizations. They didn't want to delay delivery of this plane so it went out as shown. Reportedly it took off immediately after the photo session. This was recorded as the first named heavy bomber recognizing a railroad group.

The status of the B-17 was updated in the February 1945 issue of the monthly Union Pacific Bulletin, at times known as the "Pink Bulletin" because of the pink paper it was printed on. The update reads as follows:

Omaha, Nebr. -- With the war over, Union Pacific employees now can know the story of the B-17 bomber named in their honor--"The Spirit of Union Pacific."

Back in 1943, the 65,000 employees of the railroad during May and June voluntarily increased their war bond purchases by an extra $379,000, in appreciation were given the privilege of christening a Flying Fortress.

According to information recently released by the War Department "The Spirit of Union Pacific" was on her fifth mission when shot down October 10, 1943, in a raid on enemy installations at Munster, Germany.

Most of the crew were taken prisoner, including the pilot, Capt. Robert B. Short of Los Angeles, a West Point graduate and former native of Norfolk, Nebraska. Others who parachuted to safety were Lt. Bud H. Hinckley of Rigby, Idaho, the co-pilot; Lt. Stoliar, the bombardier; and Sgts. William M. Esseltine, Syracuse, N. Y.; Donald Armstrong, Binghamton, N. Y.; Frank Becay, Cleveland, O.; and Eugene A. Runser, Erie, Pa.

The navigator, Lt. Hal K. Hughes of Dallas, Texas, and Sgts. Donald Lowrie, Hazelton, Pa., and Richard Grace, Glassport, Pa., were reported killed.

Aircraft Confusion

The Union Pacific plane arrived in theatre on September 9, 1943, and was flown by Robert Short and his crew on October 10, 1943 because their plane (42-30332, "Short Stuff") was out of service. The Munster mission was Captain Short's 17th mission. They were shot down over Munster, Germany. The surviving crew members were captured by the Germans and remained prisoners of war for the duration. This 17th mission for Captain Short was also the Union Pacific B-17's fifth mission since arriving in-theatre one month before.

The airplane shot down over Munster was indeed the Union Pacific plane, and was lettered as such. This fact was uncovered through a correspondence with Captain Short's son during August 2010, immediately after the publication of a shortened version of this article appeared in The Streamliner (Volume 24, Number 3, Summer 2010), published by Union Pacific Historical Society.

Captain Short's son shared several photos of his Dad during his service years, as well as a scan of the envelope in which Union Pacific sent him a copy of the original photo, along with copies of a couple newspaper articles from the LA Times and from a newspaper in Norfolk, Nebraska, Captain Short's home town. After being a prisoner of war for 18 months, he was liberated from the prisoner of war camp by the Russian army. He returned home and resided in Los Angeles. Upon his return, he was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

Captain Robert Short's original airplane was serial number 42-30332, which arrived in theatre on July 14, 1943. He flew it as "Short Stuff".

For the Munster mission on October 10, 1943, aircraft 42-30332, "Short Stuff," was out of service, so Captain Short and his crew flew aircraft 42-30826, "Spirit of the Union Pacific" instead. Later, and because he had been shot down, his original airplane 42-30332 "Short Stuff" was assigned to a new crew and renamed to "Spirit of '76". It flew until being hit by enemy flak over Orienburg (near Berlin) on April 18, 1944. The aircraft was losing fuel so they turned toward the north coast of Germany. They successfully landed at Bulltofta, Sweden and the crew all returned to duty in October and November 1944. There is no additional information as to the disposition of aircraft 42-30332.

The Photo's Story

I had first seen the photo of the aircraft 25 years ago during a session of page-by-page research of Railway Age. (There was also a copy of the photo in The Streamliner, Volume 14, Number 3, a special issue that covered some aspects of Union Pacific's support during World War II.) The details of the photo were unknown, but my interest was renewed after John Bromley posted a message to the Trainorders.com on-line discussion group. John's message included a photo of UP's E6B War Bonds unit, painted red, white and blue, along with a copy of the B-17 photo.

When I asked him for additional information, John sent a scanned image of the Bulletin article. The Trainorders.com discussion included some notes of the raid on Munster, Germany, along with a note that the aircraft's Union Pacific name is not included as part of an on-line database of B-17 aircraft names.

In early April 2010 I summarized what I knew about UP's B-17 and submitted it to an on-line discussion group that focuses on the heavy bombers of the Army Air Forces during World War II, which includes the Boeing B-17.

Within an hour I received a reply that included scanned images of two of the 31 pages of a Missing Air Crew Report (known among aircraft researchers as a MACR) for this particular crew, whose names match those included in the 1945 Bulletin article. A bit of research revealed that the National Archives has scanned all of the World War II era MACRs. They are available on Footnote.com, a subscription web site that includes newspapers and a wide variety of other historical documents. I already subscribe to Footnote.com so I was immediately able to find the entire report.

Each Missing Air Crew Report was created within five days of the aircraft being reported as missing. The file remained open throughout the period of conflict, and as additional information became available, it was added to the report. The MACR for the Union Pacific B-17 was identified by searching for the aircraft commander, in this case Captain Robert B. Short. The report included all of the same dates and names as the 1945 Bulletin article, including the serial number of the B-17 itself, 42-30826.

With the serial number in hand, a search of the various on-line databases of B-17 aircraft revealed that 42-30826 was named "Short Stuff", which makes sense because of the aircraft commander's name. There is no reference to its other Union Pacific name.

The Aircraft

"Spirit of the Union Pacific" was a Boeing B-17F, aircraft 42-30826, tail number 230826. It flew as part of the 571st Bomber Squadron (Heavy), one of four squadrons that made up the 390th Bomber Group (Heavy), which itself was part of the 8th Air Force. The 571st flew out of Framingham, England, along with the other four squadrons of the 390th, flying a total of 300 missions, with 144 aircraft being lost. The tail code for the 390th Bomber Group was "Square J" (3rd Air Division was "Square"), and the aircraft code for 42-30826 was FC-R (Squadron Code: FC, Aircraft Letter: R).

Timeline for aircraft 42-30826:

The Mission

By the time the Missing Air Crew Report for aircraft 42-30826 was closed on June 14, 1946, it held such details as the injuries of each crew member, a report from German sources of the crew members captured, and the aircraft's crash location, as well as a report of the German Bf-109 fighter pilot who claimed to have shot the aircraft down. Included in MACR-863 was specific details such as the serial numbers of the four engines and serial numbers of the eight .50 caliber heavy machine guns, along with statements by Captain Short and each of the crew members about themselves and the condition of other crew members they may have seen.

The exact timeline of the last minutes of the crew and aircraft is hard to determine, due to variations in the crew reports, all of which were completed only after they were released from the German prisoner-of-war camps. The crew and aircraft were flying at approximate 25,000 feet, just before "turning on target" over Munster, Germany. At approximately 1 p.m., the number 3 engine caught fire due to either a flak burst (as reported by the crew), or by fire from a German Bf-109 Messerschmidt fighter (as reported by the fighter's pilot). The crew attempted to control the fire, but within very few minutes the damage got worse and the captain ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft.

After Captain Short gave the order to abandon the aircraft, the tail gunner bailed out of the tail hatch. Both waist gunners, the radio operator and the photographer bailed out of the waist door. The Captain, co-pilot, navigator, and top gunner/engineer bailed out of the nose hatch. The ball turret gunner was not seen after the order was given. Three crew members reported that the aircraft exploded, and that some crew members may not have bailed out. All crew members were captured by German forces upon reaching the ground.

A description of the October 10, 1943 raid on Munster was found on-line in a war diary posted on the web site for the 381st Bomb Group: "Today's mission is planned against the important center for rail and waterway communications, Munster, Germany. Col W. Dunlop led the Group, flying with Capt. R. Fricks and crew. Our Squadron put up 5 A/C of the Group's total of 8. Those aircraft that crossed the target reported bombing results as good. Weather was clear over the target areas and bombardiers had no difficulty in picking up the aiming point."

It appears that October 10, 1943 was one of the worst days for the loss of B-17 airplanes and crews, all during what has become known as "Black Week", which included the October 14, 1943 raid on the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt. It was after the grievous losses during that week in October 1943 that the USAAF briefly suspended its daytime bombing missions over Germany.

During "Black Week" at least 141 B-17s were lost over the European continent by the 8th Air Force between October 8 thru 14, 1943. With ten men as crew in each aircraft, this means that over 1,400 men were either killed, lost or injured and captured by the Germans. Twenty-seven aircraft were lost on October 8; twenty-four on October 9; thirty on October 10; and sixty on October 14.

Bombing of Germany resumed in late 1943 or early 1944 with the addition of the long range P-51D escort fighter. "Big Week" of February 1944 was designed to defeat the Germans in the air and/or in their aircraft factories to help assure allied control of the air for the invasion in the spring. (See also: Wikipedia artricle about Big Week)

The Crew

The crew of "Spirit of the Union Pacific" consisted of 10 men, the normal compliment for a B-17, plus an 11th man that was accompanying the flight as a photographer. The crew members were: Pilot and aircraft commander Captain Robert Short; First Lieutenant Bud Hinckley, co-pilot; First Lieutenant Hal Hughes, navigator; Second Lieutenant Norton Stoliar, bombardier; Technical Sergeant Frank Becay, top turret gunner and aircraft engineer; Staff Sergeant Richard Grace, ball turret gunner; Staff Sergeant William Esseltine, tail gunner; Staff Sergeant Donald Armstrong, right waist gunner; Staff Sergeant Eugene Runser, left waist gunner; Staff Sergeant Donald Lowrie, radio operator; and Staff Sergeant Joseph Easley, photographer.

There were three fatalities with the loss of aircraft 42-30826 on October 10th. First Lieutenant Hal Hughes was the crew's navigator. He successfully bailed out but was severely injured by a flak burst during his descent, and later died in a German hospital from his injuries. Lt. Hughes was seen in the hospital in Greven, Germany by crew members Esseltine and Runser. At that time he told them that he did not know how he lost his leg. Lt. Stoliar reported that Hughes lost his leg due to a flak burst, and that he died in the hospital at Greven (Krankenhaus-Greven-by-Munster). Captain Short later reported that he had been told that Lt. Hughes had died in Reserve-Lazarett, the German orthopedic hospital at Obermassfeld, Thuringia, Germany, and was buried at that same location. Sgt. Armstrong later reported that just before reaching the ground, Lt. Hughes struck a roof, then struck an iron spike fence. He is interred at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.

The second fatality was Staff Sergeant Richard Grace, the ball turret gunner riding in the ball turret mounted in the belly of the aircraft. Prior to the order to abandon the aircraft, Sgt. Grace reported to Captain Short that the left wing had buckled. He was not heard from after the order to abandon the aircraft, and Captain Short reported later that only a fatal injury would have prevented Sgt. Grace from inverting the ball turret and using the escape hatch to parachute to safety. He likely went down with the aircraft, being the deceased crew member found at the crash site and buried by the Germans. Richard Grace enlisted at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on August 1, 1942.

The third fatality was Staff Sergeant Donald Lowrie, the radio operator. Lowrie parachuted out after Captain Short gave his order to abandon the aircraft. Three crew members saw Sgt. Lowrie preparing to exit the waist door, with one reporting that Lowrie may not have bailed out by the time the aircraft exploded. Captain Short reported later that Lowrie's chute failed to open, or he was killed by civilians. He is interred at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium. Donald Lowrie enlisted at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on July 23, 1942.

The surviving crew members included Captain Robert Short, age 26 years, the aircraft commander and pilot. Captain Short ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft after determining that the fire in engine number 3 was out of control. After the navigator, waist gunners and tail gunner bailed out, Captain Short, co-pilot Hinckley, and Sgt. Becay, the aircraft engineer, remained in the aircraft as they attempted to regain control by putting out the engine fire by shutting off its fuel supply. After Sgt. Grace reported from the ball turret that the left wing had buckled, Captain Short ordered that the aircraft be abandoned. Captain Short was captured after he reached the ground and was placed in Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner camp for officers of the Allied air forces. Stalag Luft III is well known as the site of the escape portrayed in the movie "The Great Escape." Robert Short returned to the United States on May 29, 1945. He continued his Air Force career including serving as a Colonel in the U. S. Air Force in Vietnam. Robert Short passed away on August 19, 1998 and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

First Lieutenant Bud Hinckley, co-pilot, escaped though the nose hatch within seconds of Hughes, Stoliar, Becay, and Captain Short.

Second Lieutenant Norton Stoliar was the crew bombardier. He was not a permanent member of the crew and was unknown to the other crew members because he was a replacement bombardier. The crew report does not say if Stoliar was captured, but he did later provide his account of the loss of the aircraft and the circumstances of the missing crew members.

Staff Sergeant William Esseltine, age 22 years, was the tail gunner. After the order to abandon the aircraft was issued, Sgt. Esseltine was the last crew member to see Lt. Hughes after they had landed in a town near Munster. He later saw him in the Greven hospital.

Staff Sergeant Donald Armstrong was the right waist gunner.

Technical Sergeant Frank Becay, age 34 years, was the top turret gunner, and was also referred to as also being the aircraft engineer.

Staff Sergeant Eugene Runser, age 22 years, was the left waist gunner and was the first to bail out. He and Captain Short were captured at the same time by German forces.

Staff Sergeant Joseph Easley was the 11th man on a 10-man crew, serving as a photographer. Sgt. Easley later told other crew members that he did not recall any of the details of how he got out of the aircraft, but Sgt. Becay reported that Sgt. Easley was hit in the head by flak before reaching the ground. Sgt. Easley apparently did not fill out a report. Neither is he listed as having been captured by the Germans. He is, however, shown as having returned to duty.

By telegram, the Germans reported that six crew members of aircraft 42-30826 had been captured and were being held as prisoners of war. They were Captain Short, Lieutenant Hinckley, and sergeants Runser, Esseltine, Armstrong and Becay.

An after-action report by Oberfeldwebel (Obfw) Leo-Lothar Barann stated that he shot 42-30826 down using the Bf-109G-6 he was flying over Ostbevern, Germany. An Oberfeldwebel (Obfw) is a rank for non-commissioned officers and is equivalent to a Master Sergeant (E-7) in today's Air Force.

The 42-30826 aircraft itself crashed on a farm near Ostbrevern, about five miles northeast of Munster, where the Germans recovered the body of Sgt. Grace. Two crew members reported that the aircraft exploded after they had all bailed out.

Timeline for Aircraft 42-30826

July 30, 1943
Accepted by United States Army Air Force

August 3, 1943
Photographed by Union Pacific photographer at Boeing plant in Seattle, Washington; lettered as "Spirit of the Union Pacific".

August 4, 1943
Arrived at the Lockheed Modification Center, Dallas, Texas; modified for service including addition of armaments.

August 5, 1943
Arrived at Gore Army Air Field, Great Falls, Montana

August 8, 1943
Arrived at Love Army Air Field, Dallas, Texas

August 17, 1943
Arrived at Dalhart Army Air Field, Dalhart, Texas for air crew training

September 3, 1943
Arrived at Grand Island Army Air Field, Grand Island, Nebraska

September 9, 1943
Arrived at 8th Air Force in England

Flew five missions

October 10, 1943
Shot down by German fighters; crashed at Ostbevern

Captain Short's Obituary

Captain Short's obituary was published in the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia on August 22, 1998, following his death on August 19, 1998.

Col. Robert Bryan Short, 81, Veteran Of WWII, Vietnam

HAMPTON - Retired Air Force Col. Robert Bryan Short, a prisoner of war in Germany who flew B-17 bombers and other planes in World War II and the Vietnam War, died Tuesday. He was 81.

After 30 years of military service he taught mathematics at Hampton Roads Academy from 1971 to 1984.

On Oct. 10, 1943, then-Capt. Short's plane was shot down near Munster, Germany. Thirty B-17s, two P-47s and 26 German fighters were shot down in 25 minutes during the raid. Three of his crew members were killed, but the rest parachuted safely. As he descended, one German ME-109 fighter made a head-on pass at him. Captured immediately, Capt. Short was temporarily held in the flaming city.

A few days later, he was sent by boxcar to Stalag Luft III at Sagan on the Polish border. The POW camp was famous for the "Great Escape" dramatized in the movie of the same name.

In late December 1944, the POWs were marched through the snow about 35 miles, loaded on boxcars, and shipped to Stalag 7-A near Munich. On April 29, 1945, he was liberated by Gen. George Patton's troops.

In the July 9, 1945, Los Angeles Times it was reported that Capt. Short had lost 35 pounds in the first few weeks he was held as a prisoner of war. "I'm really lucky to be alive," he said.

He returned to the United States on a Liberty ship and resumed his flying career.

After many assignments, including two as an instructor at West Point, Air Command and Staff College, the Air War College, and after flying many different airplanes, he finished by flying in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War with the 8th TAC Fighter Wing from 1968 to 1969. The "Wolf Pack" wing's F-4s were the first to use so-called "smart bombs" in combat.

The Norfolk, Nebraska, native had been a resident of Hampton since 1969 and retired in 1970 at Langley Air Force Base.

Col. Short graduated from high school in 1934 and attended the University of Southern California for one year, transferred to the University of Nebraska for a semester and then enlisted in the Army in 1937, where he won appointment to the U.S. Military Academy.

He graduated on May 29, 1942, and married his high school sweetheart, Doris Marshall, the same day.

He is survived by his wife, Doris M. Short; his sons, J. Randall Short of Hampton, Bryan R. Short of Callahan, Florida, and Mark B. Short of Lexington; and his grandsons, Jared Short and Zach Short.

Col. Short will be buried with full military honors at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 10, in Arlington National Cemetery.

Updated Article

This article is an expanded and updated version of a similar article first published in The Streamliner (Volume 24, Number 3, Summer 2010), published by Union Pacific Historical Society. (View the article; PDF; 2 pages; 1.8MB)

Additional on-line reading

Joe Baugher's List of Aircraft Serial Numbers (broken link: https://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_serials/1942_2.html)

B-17 Flying Fortress Tail Markings (390th = Square J)

B-17 Links at Aero Books

Munster Mission (October 10, 1943) (390th Bomb Group, 570th Bomb Squadron (broken link: https://www.alharris.com/stories/munster.htm)

Wikipedia entry for Stalag Luft III

390th Bomb Group Memorial Air Museum

Wikipedia entry for Framlingham Airfield