Updated: Feb 19
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When I was a kid, I remember reading the comic strip "Beetle Bailey" in the newspaper. Created by Mort Walker in the 1950's, Beetle was a perpetual goof-off trying to navigate life in the army. In one of the early story lines, Beetle takes an aptitude test. After the test, he asks what his specialty would be. "Not engineering, not cooking, not driving," the Army tester tells him wryly. Over the years, this type of humor may have contributed to the idea that the military is made up of people who aren't smart enough to be successful in other professions. But modern warfare, including World War II, requires that every soldier master a wide array of technical and tactical skills. According to a census done in 2000, forty percent of WW II veterans had some college. And as of 2012, ninety-three percent of enlisted soldiers had at least a high school diploma, compared to 59 percent of non-military Americans who had one. So how does all of this relate to Ellis P. Savoie, Rum Boogie Crew Engineer? "Not Beetle Bailey."
Ellis was born in 1920 in the small rural town of Louisa, Louisiana. His father, Ellis Sr., was the Chief Engineer at a sugar factory. Ellis Sr. had studied through the mail and earned degrees in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering. In the 1920's, this was the only practical way to get a degree in a small country town. Ellis Sr. was extremely smart and so was Ellis Jr. As the crew Engineer, Ellis Jr. was the chief source of information concerning the airplane. He had to know more about all of the equipment on board than anybody else, including the pilot.
In order to be a B-17 combat engineer, a man had to know the airplane, the engines, and the armament equipment thoroughly. He must work closely with the co-pilot, checking engine operation and fuel consumption. He must know how to cock, lock, and load the bomb racks. He must be completely familiar with the armament equipment, knowing how to strip, clean, and re-assemble the guns. He needed a general knowledge of radio equipment and would assist in tuning the transmitters and receivers. The engineer would be the first man turned to during emergencies.
Ellis could do all of this and more. I think he was the type of person who could figure out just about anything. He was the perfect guy for the Engineer spot and certainly contributed to the completion of their 25 missions unscathed.
After the war, Ellis returned to New Orleans and lived there all of his life. Ellis worked as a machinist, like his father, for Continental Can Company. As a tool and die maker, he was awarded $6,500 for a suggestion he made which later resulted in improved quality and increased manufacturing efficiency. Later, he received a second award for $10,000. In and out of war, Ellis was very inventive.
One can get a real sense of Ellis' personality when examining his reaction to the bombing of Regensburg on August 17, 1943. This mission was also known as the North African Shuttle (the Rum Boogie was one of only 146 planes to make that run). There were a lot of problems for many of the B-17's on that mission including bad weather for take-off, a shortage of fuel, and a lack of fighter escort. But when the group reached the aircraft plant target, listen to the wonder then excitement at what Ellis saw from his vantage point: "Finally at 12:10 we sight the target. That's funny; very little flak. Maybe they don't expect us this far in. Bomb-bay doors coming open. There they go! -- Oh, baby, we parted their hair that time! There she goes, the whole damn works! A beautiful hit. A smackeroo! . . . On our way out now. At the Alps we make a 360 so the back formations can catch up" (quote courtesy of Snetterton Falcons).