The Last B24

On November 7, 9 p.m., the Grand Valley State University public television station (WGVU) will play The Last B24, a one hour PBS NOVA special about the discovery of a plane shot down in the Adriatic Sea. The movie will be about the science behind the discovery of the plane and the remains of one of the three men who died in it. But there is a local, personal story associated with the incident. Many people in Rockford may know Steve Steelandt, a businessman here. His late father was one of the crew in that plane the fateful day: December 17, 1944.

Steve Steelandt displaying some of his father’s photos

Edward F. Steelandt, Eddie, was Steve’s father. He was protected from being drafted because he was a machinist at the Rock Island Arsenal, on a federally owned island between Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. The arsenal made machine guns and  other armament for the war. As the war went on, all three of Eddie’s brothers in law were in the war as were most of his friends. He felt guilty to be safe at home, so he enlisted in April 1943. “He volunteered the year my sister was born,” said Steve. “You can imagine how well that went over with Mom.”

Eddie became a radioman/mechanic/gunner. It was his duty to shoot a 50 caliber machine gun welded to the side window of the B-24 Liberator when under attack by German fighter planes. Steve said his father did not like to talk  about his experience and once said that he felt terrible knowing that not every bomb they dropped hit their military targets.

As a youngster, Steve and his brother Dan liked to look at their dad’s war medals they found in a trunk at the foot of their parents’ bed. They considered him a war hero, but Eddie did not consider himself one. It took 17 years of questioning after college for Steve to get much of his father’s story out of him. Most of what Steve discovered came from other sources: stories by other survivors, plus a community of people who had developed interest in that air battle or that particular B-24 from Tulsa.

Eddie was stationed in southern Italy and was on an every-other-day schedule for missions bombing enemy factories. After 25 missions, airmen were eligible for a stateside visit home. In order to accumulate those missions, Eddie would volunteer to fly with other crews on his day off. On December 17, 1944, two months after his 29th birthday, Eddie volunteered for the crew flying the Tulsamerican. They needed a radio operator that day, as several of their crew had been killed.

The Tulsamerican is the focus of the movie made by Lone Wolf Productions out of Maine. The Tulsamerican is known as “The Last B-24” because it was the last one assembled in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many planes were begun here in Michigan, in Detroit, by Ford’s Willow Run plant. The plane kits were then shipped to be finished

In the case of the Tulsamerica, funding ran out before the assembly was completed. The workers and people of the Tulsa, Oklahoma sold War Bonds in order to raise money to finish the airplane. Once completed,  workers proudly painted their names on the nose of the plane.

It was this aircraft that Eddie climbed aboard that day, on a mission to bomb a Odertal Oil refinery in Poland. The crew was told there were no enemy airplanes nearby, but their intelligence was wrong. Above the cloud cover a complete squadron of enemy warcraft were in wait.

To save fuel on the long flight, the CO had told crews to keep the Ball Turrets retracted until they neared their target. They were confident the turrets were unnecessary since there were no enemy fighters expected.

The Tulsamerican wasn’t alone that day. There were 527 B-17’s and B-24’s, plus 300 U.S. fighter planes on this mission. The Tulsamerican lead a box of six B-24’s and saw a near collision while in heavy clouds; therefore, pilot Ford had their box of bombers move a bit high and right. When they broke cloud cover, they were a mile away from their fellow planes. The enemy fighters saw that these planes were vulnerable because the ball turrets were retracted. Four of these six B-24’s were shot down instantly. Twenty-two of the huge fleet of B-24’s were shot down in the first ten minutes of the twenty-seven minute air battle. The Tulsamerican was badly damaged and the tail gunner was shot in the cheek (posterior). Eddie gave him first aid. The Tulsamerican had lost one engine, the hydraulics were damaged and one fuel tank had been hit, causing them to stream fuel. They left the mission.

They had to get back over the Swiss Alps and feared a crash landing. The crew opened up the bomb bay doors and jettisoned everything they could to lighten the plane to be more maneuverable and make their fuel last longer. Their goal was to make it to Yugoslavia but they couldn’t. Nearing the island of Vis in the Adriatic Sea, they decided it was their last chance. They circled a runway but the Engineer couldn’t get the nose gear to go down. They tried to circle again and try to get the front wheels down, but the gas was gone. The aircraft crashed into ten foot whitecaps going approximately 150 miles per hour. The plane hit, flipped and broke into half. The pilot, co-pilot and navigator all died on impact.

Eddie had ”a death-grip” on the fifty-caliber gun welded to the side window. After impact, he got up and saw that the gun was gone. He was grateful it had fallen out of the plane and not on him. He climbed out onto the wing thinking he was the first one out of the plane but saw other men already swimming away from the plane. He knew he must have been knocked out. Then remembered the injured tail gunner. He went back into the sinking plane and made his way back to where the tail gunner was pinned in. He freed the gunner and pulled him out and onto the wing. He pulled the cord on their “Mae West’s” (WWII slang for life jackets) and jumped into the Adriatic Sea, suffering ten foot waves that day.

Steve said he learned from his brother that their dad had told him he became exhausted trying to stay alive in the huge waves and began to let himself sink under. Then the image of his wife and baby girl’s faces came to him and he willed himself to try to stay alive. After forty-five minutes a fishing boat found the men and rescued them.

Steve said his father never fully recovered from the impact and struggled with back pain all his life. As boys, he and his brother never tired of looking at the medals and speculating what their dad had done to earn them.

Recently Steve was invited to tell this story for a video archive for the Library of Congress in a program designed to capture the stories of World War II veterans.

The search for the sunken Tulsamerican had been underway for a long time. A cousin of the navigator, killed on impact, had organized Croatian diving teams to search for the aircraft for years.  May of 2010, they found it, split in half and flipped upside down. In the spring of 2017, Lone Wolf Productions was invited to document the US Navy dive on the Tulsamerican. That is what the movie will be about.

There will be human interest in this science film. Seventy years after the fact, DNA from one those who died in the plane was recovered, a remarkable success.

Another story Steve learned, not from his father but from the pilot of his dad’s usual crew, was about playing the accordion in Italy. Steve spoke with him around 2004. He said that he had always wanted to own an accordion, so he bought one in Italy. But he didn’t know how to play it. However, he knew that his radio operator, Staff Sergeant Edward Steelandt, played professionally before the war. So he asked Eddie to play it. as the sound carried across camp, slowly all the men began to gather around. Eddie played, with no sheet music, by memory for a couple of hours, delighting the homesick men.

If you watch the movie, you’ll learn about the history of the Tulsamerican. Steve said if the program recounts history differently than the way he’s heard it, by all means believe the movie over his account. However, it is unlikely the movie will even touch upon the story of one of the men who managed to escape that plane crash alive. It will certainly address the three brave men who died in the crash.

“He always did the right thing,” Steve recalls of his father, who died in February, 1984. All of this information didn’t come from Steve’s dad in one piece or in some cases, from him at all. He was a reluctant war hero, despite the medals he earned for his injury and for saving the life of a fellow airman. As a treat in 1981 the three kids decided to pay for a  trip to Las Vegas for their parents. They didn’t realize Eddie hadn’t flown since the crash into the Adriatic Sea. “Mom said he almost broke her hand hanging on during the flight to Las Vegas,” Steve recalled. Apparently Eddie was more relaxed and actually loved the flight back and being in the air more than half a century after his last, fateful flight.

Steve said his dad, strangely, always loved John Wayne war movies and westerns. In hindsight, Steve believes it was because those movies were not very real. Once he took his dad to another kind of movie, The Longest Day. He was shocked when he looked over and saw his dad cry, something he had only seen once before. “He told me the movie was a little too real for him.”

Tune in to your local Public Broadcast Station November 7 to see the story of the Tulsamerica and maybe the show will be even more impactful knowing a little about one of the men who lived through the last flight of The Last B-24.