James Sanders-Pilot (Part 1)
Updated: Feb 19
Explore the rest of this website about my dad's B-17 crew: www.rumboogiecrew.com
Click below to listen to the audio blog.
Before I start with the pilot's story, I would like to give you an explanation of a typical ten man crew on a B-17 flying fortress during WWII. Each man had specific jobs to do. The commanding officer was the pilot, and the executive officer was the co-pilot; these two officers received equal training, and their difference in status was largely only due to the luck of the draw. The bombardier was also an officer, manning the chin turret during flight but taking control of the entire bomber during the actual bomb run, even flying the aircraft at that time via the connection between his Norden bomb sight and the auto-pilot system. The navigator, another officer, kept the aircraft path during the flight and manned the cheek guns when attacked. The flight engineer, a non-commissioned officer, was trained in the basic mechanics of the entire aircraft and manned the top turret when attacked. The radio operator, a non-commissioned officer, handled communications and served as the first aid giver when necessary. Finally, the four remaining crew members, all non-commissioned officers, manned the ball turret, left waist gun, right waist gun, and the tail gun.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, Rumboogie Beginnings, my goal, from the very beginning of this project, was to find a living relative for each man on the Rumboogie crew as well as tell the crew's individual and collective stories. First up is the Rumboogie pilot, James H. Sanders. He is survived by his wife, currently 94 years young, and his daughter, Sandy. His son, James C. Sanders, died in 2007.
In order to find the pilot's relatives, I started with a People Search on James H. Sanders. The search turned up several names. I sent out one of my standard form letters to some of the people on the list. It so happened that one form letter went to the widow of Mr. Sanders' son. She forwarded the letter to Mr. Sanders' daughter, Sandy, and then Sandy contacted me. At this point in my searches, Sandy was the third living relative I had found, and she has been extremely gracious and supportive in helping me tell her family's story. Interestingly enough, both Sandy and her brother had careers in the airline industry: her brother was a corporate pilot, and she was a flight attendant for forty years. She told me "some of the most rewarding flying I was privileged to do was troop transport." I find it extremely interesting that, considering what happened, both of them had airline careers.
On the eve of World War II, James Hedrick Sanders was a teenager working in a filling station. Texas born and bred, and following in the footsteps of his father, who had served in World War I, he enlisted in World War II and learned to fly.
His service, however, got off to a shaky start. During training in Walla Walla, Washington, Lt. Sanders was piloting the B17 #E41-9088 Rum Boogie (one of five different planes the crew would eventually fly). Sensing things were not right, he aborted his take-off. The plane careened into a ditch. No one was hurt, but since the plane was totaled, an investigation was in order. Everyone was ordered into Colonel Old's office. The purpose of the investigation was to determine if there had been negligence on the part of the pilot. Evidently the meeting became quite heated for the term "court-martial" was used a few times. But Lt. Sanders remained calm and unruffled, and Colonel Old's final response was, "any man that could come directly here from that wreck, be raked over the coals like we've been doing and still remain calm, polite, and in control of himself should be OK in combat. Case closed."
It was an inauspicious start, but Lt. Sanders ended the war as one of the few pilots to complete the required 25 missions, which, as the war raged on, was raised to 30 and then 35 missions in some cases. Lt. Sanders came home from England and went to work as a youthful airline pilot. By the age of 26, he was routinely co-piloting airliners for TWA to exotic places like Cairo, Madrid, Geneva, and Paris. He had obviously successfully finished the most dangerous time of his life, and his young family was now complete with a son and a daughter, so what could possibly go wrong?