The Phantom Fortress
World War II was — among many other things — the source of some of the world's greatest stories. But among these tales of adventure, heroism, sacrifice, and terror are a few other types of stories that slipped through the cracks — including ghost stories. One of these concerned a famous bomber, a B-17 Flying Fortress, said to have returned from a mission over Germany, navigated back to Britain with its squadron, and then executed a perfect landing. There's nothing unusual about that; but when ground crews observed nobody getting out of the plane, they went to check on it themselves and found it empty. The B-17 had apparently flown its mission without an aircrew. Books of ghostly tales now tell the story of the Phantom Fortress, and today we're going to turn our skeptical eye upon it, and we will find out how much of the Phantom Fortress's tale is fact and how much of it is fiction.
Normally in a Skeptoid episode, here's where I'd tell the story as we hear it today. That's a bit difficult, because there are multiple versions of the story floating around. In some, the phantom plane lands in Belgium; in others it lands in Britain. In some the crew all parachute safely; in others they land behind German lines. We even have versions where meals are found half-eaten aboard the landed aircraft, recalling echoes of the Mary Celeste.
I found one apparent nexus that ties the various versions of the story together, and it's found in Martin Caidin's 1991 book Ghosts of the Air: True Stories of Aerial Hauntings — not an encouraging title when you're trying to dig for historical fact. Most of his chapter on this story is quoted from a letter he received in the 1980s from a man named John T. Gell, who had been a boy during World War II. On perhaps the most memorable day of the war for him, he and his family had been outside their home in Riseley, a small hamlet in North Bedfordshire, England, watching the familiar sight of American B-17 bombers returning from the day's mission over Germany. One bomber, however, its engines stuttering uncertainly, dropped low and headed right for them; moments later it crashed into the trees in their back yard! Gell's father sprang into action, searching the wreckage for injured crew members. To the family's astonishment, there had been nobody aboard at all. Gell wrote:
Although Gell's story ends with a crash rather than a perfect landing, it does include the most incredible part of the story: the bomber flying itself along with its squadron all the way back from Belgium, a feat that would be impossible by any practical interpretation. Are we forced to conclude that some supernatural force must have been at play; or is there room to search deeper?
We have a singular advantage when researching World War II stories, and that's the war's extensive documentation — no part of it being better documented than the histories of the bomber squadrons. Every group has an association, a website, historians of its own; we know the day-to-day histories of every aircraft, every crew member, and every mission flown; and the bombers in this Phantom Fortress story are no different. Gell did record the markings on the bomber that crashed into his trees, and that made it easy to look up its actual history. It was B-17F serial number 42-5482, named the Cat o' 9 tails, attached to the 359th Bombardment Squadron of the 303rd Bombardment Group (known as the Hell's Angels), and was recorded as suffering flak damage over Germany on October 14, 1943 and finally crashing all the way back home in Riseley. Squadron records even include the detail that it crashed into trees and broke apart and was declared salvage, meaning destroyed beyond economic repair.
So far as its crew having bailed out over Belgium, that's another story. In fact, searching for such an event, I found that it's literally another story. The most popular tale of a B-17 crew bailing out over Belgium turns out to have happened to a different plane — a story that took place over a year later, but that had an ending much more in line with our ghost story. On November 21, 1944 (often wrongly given as November 23), a British anti-aircraft crew behind Allied lines in Belgium spotted a bomber — its engines sputtering — coming in to land in a nearby field. It landed almost perfectly, but dragged a wingtip and spun around, a type of less-than-ideal landing called a ground loop, suffering minor damage in the process. British Major John Crisp, fearful that it might be some kind of German booby trap, carefully climbed aboard even as its engines were still running. He found it absolutely deserted, and shut the engines off himself. This one was a B-17G, serial number 43-38545, attached to the 401st Bombardment Squadron of the 91st Bombardment Group, a famous group dubbed the Ragged Irregulars.
So it appears that we end up with two similar but distinct stories: different years, different planes, different countries; but that appear to have woven themselves together into one, once we leave the authoritative historical texts and move into the realm of mass-market publications. That nexus published in Caidin's ghost story book appears to be the key.
When John Gell wrote his letter to Caidin with his account of the uncrewed plane flying from Belgium to England, some forty years had passed. The story of the plane that ground looped in Belgium had been printed in the Stars & Stripes newspaper and from there had been syndicated throughout the Allied countries. It had become a reasonably well-known legend, variously dubbed the "Ghost Ship" or the "Phantom Fort" by the press. Forty years later, it is entirely reasonable for Gell to assume the famous plane that crashed with no one on board was the very one that had actually happened right before his eyes when he'd been a boy — and, just to be clear, the crash at the Gell home is an absolute historical fact, as it's where the Americans had come to retrieve the wreckage, 170 High Street in Riseley. Gell made nothing up, but he does appear to have understandably and accidentally conflated these two events; and thus intertwined, the beginning of one aircraft's story grafted onto the end of the other one's was a ghost story so good that Caidin could not help but include it in his 1991 book.
The plane that crashed into the Gells' yard had just participated in a bombing raid which became known as Black Thursday, both for the number of crews lost to enemy action, and for those lost due to bad weather over the bases in Britain. The B-17F Cat o' 9 tails, captained by 21-year-old 2Lt. Ambrose G. Grant, was substantially but not fatally damaged by German flak, and Grant was able to fly it all the way back across the Channel to their base at Molesworth along with the rest of the squadron. However, his instruments had all been destroyed and he was unable to find Molesworth's lights in the dense fog, and they were critically low on fuel. Grant ascended to 7,500 feet and all ten crew members bailed out, and when the plane crashed into the Gells' trees at 6:40pm, all ten landed safely about four miles away. It was, in fact, an all-too-common event in those days; no ghosts needed to explain it. Ironically, a mere three weeks later, Grant and his crew were shot down over Germany and spent the rest of the war in a Luftwaffe POW camp.
A year later and 250 miles away, 28-year-old 1Lt. Harold R. DeBolt was in command of a B-17G that was almost brand new, having flown only two previous missions, and had not yet been given a name. This was its first flight with this squadron, having just been transferred from the 324th. But being new did not protect it from the German anti-aircraft artillery. DeBolt had been unable to complete his bomb run over Merseburg, Germany due to damaged bomb bay doors and a massive explosion of flak right beneath them. With two engines out and a severe vibration threatening to destroy the airframe, DeBolt soon realized it would be impossible to make it back to Britain and instead headed for the Allied lines in Belgium. They managed to still have a safe altitude of 2,000 feet by the time they crossed into friendly territory, and all nine crewmen parachuted to safety and were soon rescued by British troops. DeBolt had left the fatally wounded B-17 on autopilot, as was the standard procedure when leaving the controls in order to bail out. The autopilot kept it on the straight and level as it continued to descend, and it then made its rough landing in the field where Major Crisp found it. The uncrewed landing was pretty neat, but it was hardly bizarre or inexplicable.
Take a piece from Grant's story and another from DeBolt's, connect them together, and fabricate a new story that tells of a miraculous and unexplainable sensation, and you've got today's Phantom Fortress story.
The tale of the Phantom Fortress, presented in the mass media and on the Internet as a mystery that cannot be explained, is a typical one. It required comparatively little research to discover that Gell's account as published in Caidin's book of ghost stories included some obvious errors. That very same research yielded the building blocks from which the Caidin version was assembled, and those blocks were each stamped with the serial numbers revealing which of the two B-17 stories they came from. If you take any similar "amazing" story from pop culture, chances are that you'll find some such mistake or error in its building blocks as well. Actual events can never be unexplainable, by definition; if they actually happened, there's an explanation, even if it's not immediately apparent.
Although an incredible story like a phantom B-17 that completes a mission and lands all by itself with nobody at the controls is cool, it should hardly be satisfying to stop there and not want to learn more. Apply the tools of critical thinking, and you'll have the common pleasure of enjoying the mystery story, plus the all-too-rare bonus of actually solving it.
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