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Tuff Ship
721st Squadron

Tuff Ship

Tuff Ship

Tuff Ship

Tuff Ship

Tuff Ship

Picture Courtesy of the 450th Association Archives

Tuff Ship

Photograph provided by Bob Collinson



"That engine will have to be changed and this plane has to be ready in the morning." That was the problem that faced M/Sgt Edwin E. Nelson, Portsmouth, Ohio, crew chief of a 721st Bomb Squadron B-24, at 2200 hours on a dark night at a base in Italy. It's a man-sized job under the best of conditions; and when it's done under pressure on a blacked-out airfield with only flashlights to work with, it's a job that calls for men. All night long M/Sgt Nelson and his crew of Sgt Norman Anderson, Sgt John I. Elliott Jr., Cpl Bernard C. Sheets, and Pfc Chester A. Lesniak worked, making every move count. The old engine was removed and the new one hoisted up in its place. For nine long hours these men sweated and grunted at their job. As the cold, gray Italian dawn broke, the crew chief climbed up onto the Liberator's flight deck as his men made the last few adjustments. The new engine was then started and given the usual preflight check. There was even time to "slow time" the engine before the pilot, 1st Lt Edmund H. Wolcott, Scarsdale, New York, arrived with his flight crew for takeoff.

The rest of the "Tuff Ship" crew Vic Meeker and Bob Leebody (navigator and bombardier); Herb Huff, co-pilot; Bill Flanagan, engineer/top gunner; James R. McGown, engineer/nose gunner; Benjamin F. Runyon, engineer/waist gunner; Robert C. Fisher, ball turret gunner; J. R. Frank, tail gunner; and John V. Goldthwaite, radio operator arrived for another mission knowing that she would be ready because for 28 consecutive missions they had heard M/Sgt Nelson's "She's ready to go, sir." This Liberator called "Tuff Ship" holds a record in the 450th Group. It has flown 28 consecutive missions and never turned back because of mechanical difficulties.

The dedication of the ground crews, represented here by M/Sgt Nelson and his men, is the key reason that the 15th Air Force bombers are carrying destruction into Germany day after day with the regularity of a railroad schedule. "It's because of men like M/Sgt Nelson and his crew that the USAAF is maintaining superiority over the Luftwaffe in the skies and knocking out his planes on the ground in ever-increasing numbers."


- Original Sorite clipping from Vic Meeker, reprinted in Vol. V No. 2 Sortie 1988.




In November 1943, "Tuff Ship" was delivered fresh from the Ford factory to its crew at Alamogordo, New Mexico. From the U.S. they flew her to join the 450th Bomb Group in Italy on a route through South America and Africa. From the first, the crew and the aircraft had an affinity for each other.

Her Crew

Men in their late teens and early twenties manned her Ed Wolcott, a competent 22 year old captain who loved to fly; Vic Meeker and Bob Leebody, a navigator/bombardier pair who aimed to excel; Herb Huff, who sat in the right seat steadfast and calm-the story goes that Ed never relinquished his take-off and landing responsibilities, but in the one great emergency with Ed out of action, Herb performed as if he had always been number one and he was! Herb survived the war, as did the entire crew, and passed away in 1970. Engineer Bill Flanagan says he had little to do other to throw a few switches and exude confidence the aircraft would always return. He had skillful back up by Jim McGown who also manned a gun turret. John Goldthwaite stood by his radio through all kinds of commotion. He never sent a message from the ship and the one time an emergency message was needed, he had to refrain because the ship was drenched in gasoline.

Six gunnery positions were manned most of the time. The designated ball gunner, Bob Fisher, found the ball turret exceedingly confining for his six foot frame. He could be more relaxed at the waist guns and teamed at times with Ben Runyan. There were fighters from time to time and J.R. Frank manned the atil guns and knocked down three of them. The others served to keep fighters at bay with their fire power.

"Tuff Ship" lumbered through 67 missions, patched and repatched. Ed Nelson and his helpers constantly crawled over the sleeping aircraft testing, patching, and repairing. The quality and dedication of their wok was recognized early by a commendation for the outstanding record of "Tuff Ship" in having flown 28 consecutive missions with no early returns.

She Dies

Never did the aircraft fail to take her crew to the target and return. Although frequently damaged, neither flak nor fighter fire was able to bring her down. Her demise came in an undignified manner and at that time, she had far more missions to her credit than any sister craft. As she rested between flights, she was rammed by another aircraft whose brakes failed on the taxi strip. Her tail was chewed off and "Tuff Ship: was dismantled for parts. Anyhow, she was old and worn and her mission fulfilled her crew was safely gone from the base and on their way home.

She had served to bring ten men together to work as a tem and to develop a closeness that did not require words. After 40 years with no contact, they met at Riverside, California in 1983 at the first reunion of the 15th Air Force. They found that they cared very much for each other despite the absence of contact through all the years. They arrived at Riverside from different backgrounds, hometowns, occupations, and life styles, yet the closeness forged in combat still bound them together.


- Bill Flanagan and Vic Meeker, Sortie Magazine, Vol. VII No. 4, 1992


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