Editor’s note: This story is part of a 12-month series, Kitsap Goes to War, which explores how World War II affected Kitsap County and its residents. For earlier stories in the series, go to KitsapDailyNews.com and type “Kitsap Goes to War” in Search.
In the yellowed pages of Kitsap County newspapers from World War II can be found long-forgotten stories of unusual courage; stories that deserve to once more see the light of day.
This is one of them.
The World War II story of the crew of the B-17 named “Memphis Belle” has been immortalized in print and two movies. At a time when few U.S. bombers survived the 25 required missions — and thus qualified for home leave — the crew of the Memphis Belle survived their 25th and brought their damaged craft home.
This is the story about another B-17 bomber that was equally famous at the time. Her name was “Phyllis.” More important, it tells the rest of the story about what happened to one member of that famous crew afterwards.
He was a Kingston boy and his name was Walter Parcells.
By the time Tech. Sgt. Walter Parcells got into the war, bomber crews were being required to fly 50 missions. He had enlisted in December, 1941 after Pearl Harbor. By 1942 he was the radio operator on a B-17 bomber, production block number B-17F-5-BO, assigned to the 352 Bomber Squadron/301 Bomber Group at the base in Chelveston, England, according to www.americanairmuseum.com.
“She was just called ‘Phyllis’”
The bomber’s name was “Phyllis.” There was a picture of a “swell girl” on the plane’s nose, “but no one on the crew could quite agree as to whose girl it was … The ship was just called Phyllis because she was Phyllis,” said Lt. Charles W. Paine. Paine was the substitute pilot who was flying the plane on that fateful day, according to the Jan. 1943 issue of “Air Force” magazine.
It was Oct. 3, 1942. The target was the Potez plant at Meulte, in Occupied France. And the Phyllis was “tail-end Charlie” — the most dangerous spot in the formation.
“Pick on the last ship and shoot it down”
The bombing part was easy, Paine said. “But, that’s when they started to pour it on … The German’s strategy was obviously to pick on the last ship and shoot it down,” Paine said. According to one account, 40 German fighters swarmed the ship.
Two engines were knocked out.
The rudder cables were shot away.
The waist gunner was wounded in action.
The tail gunner was wounded in action.
The top turret gunner was shot and “doing his best to bleed to death,” so they couldn’t bail out.
Parcells’ oxygen tube was shot away. But still he came forward to care for the top turret gunner and was credited with saving his life. Later, Parcells returned to the radio room and radioed for help before he passed out from lack of oxygen.
A swarm of Spitfires came to the rescue and somehow the half-destroyed aircraft was able to belly land at RAF Gatwick airfield.
The nose had to be cut off to release the injured top turret gunner. Afterwards, they counted 16 cannon holes and more than 300 bullet holes, plus flak damage.
Besides Air Force magazine, “Phyllis” was written up in Liberty Magazine and the Military Comic Book, noted the Herald story. The press coverage also included Time Magazine and the New York Times, according to the 301 Bomber Group website, www.301bg.com.
“The flight of the ‘Phyllis’ was [even] dramatized over the radio from England and Parcells was interviewed at that broadcast,” the Herald reported.
But, unlike books and movies, life goes on after the big event. And Parcells still had his 50 missions to complete.
The last flight
He was sent to North Africa, where he was onboard the “Pegasus,” one of the first B-17s to bomb Italy and Sardinia.
Then, on his fiftieth mission, he was assigned to the crew of the “Dirty Gerty.” And it looked like his luck had finally run out.
Two of “Dirty Gerty’s” engines were shot off. Another one was on fire. And the last one was barely turning.
Once again, Parcell’s plane had to make an emergency landing, this time at an emergency field in Sicily that had only been captured by the Allies a few days earlier.
“I was never so happy in my life when we finally hit the ground safe,” Parcells said. “I patted the ground and everyone, I was so happy.”
A happy ending
Parcells arrived back in the USA on July 28, 1943, on 30 day’s leave. He made it home to his folk’s house in Kingston just in time to celebrate his birthday on Aug. 3.
He was 21 years old.