Facing the Bronx Bombers, the 1943 Cardinals got buzzed by the real deal.
Seventy years ago, during Game 1 of the 1943 World Series between the Cardinals and Yankees at Yankee Stadium, a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber startled players and spectators by passing so low across the ballpark it nearly scraped the top of the flagpoles.
On Oct. 5, 1943, the Yankees were on their way to a 4-2 victory over the Cardinals when, in the eighth inning, four B-17s suddenly rumbled above the stadium packed with 68,676 fans.
Imagine the sight: The B-17 was a massive Flying Fortress that “bristled with armament,” according to the Boeing Web site. It was 74 feet long with a span of 103 feet. Powered by four engines, the B-17 carried about a dozen machine guns and was capable of holding up to 9,000 pounds of bombs.
Watson and his crew, along with three other crews, had left a training session in Florida and were flying their bombers to Maine for a stopover before heading to England.
When they reached the New York area and realized the World Series game was still going on that Tuesday afternoon, the crews, led by Watson, decided to buzz Yankee Stadium as a stunt, according to a Web site dedicated to the 303rd bomb group.
All four planes flew in formation over the ballpark, entering above home plate and roaring toward the outfield. Many initially thought it was an authorized show of military might and American pride by the Army Air Force.
But after the four planes rose and flew off, the B-17 piloted by Watson returned for an encore. It made a second pass, and then came back for a third that was alarmingly low, according to the book “Cardinals Journal” (2006, Emmis). The B-17 “was no more than 200 feet off the ground and hedge-hopped over the roof, narrowly missing the flagpoles.”
An Associated Press report by Judson Bailey also noted that the plane “barely skimmed the flagpoles.”
“The roar of the plane drowned out the nationwide radio broadcast and stopped play as the players stood and watched the aircraft,” wrote John Snyder in “Cardinals Journal.”
New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who was at the game, told the Associated Press that the Flying Fortress “flew right down over the stands” three times.
“If anything had happened, a thousand people would have been killed,” an angry La Guardia said.
The mayor demanded that the Army Air Force investigate. “That pilot should be properly disciplined, endangering the lives of the citizenry of New York in that manner,” La Guardia said to The Sporting News.
Upon arriving in Maine, the four pilots were reprimanded and fined $75 apiece for the stunt. But, because the military needed pilots for combat, none were grounded, according to the 303rd bomb group Web site.
A couple of days later, Watson and his crew flew to England to begin bombing missions against the Nazis in Europe.
Described by United Press as a “freckled-face kid pilot,” Watson, of Indianapolis, was just 21 years old.
On Jan. 11, 1944, Watson and his crew, in a Flying Fortress dubbed “Meat Hound,” were part of a massive American-led air bombardment of central Germany. Watson and his crew were assigned to bomb a target in Oschersleben.
Just before he reached his target, the No. 3 engine failed on the B-17, Watson told the Associated Press. “But I stayed in formation,” he said.
Flying on three engines, Watson and his crew dropped the bombs, turned and started to head back to their base in England.
The Nazis, though, unleashed relentless waves of fighter planes to attack the bombers. Watson and his crew were over Holland when they encountered several fighter planes.
Shortly after the tail gunner on “Meat Hound” had shot down a Nazi fighter, the B-17 was hit and the No. 2 engine went out, Watson told the Associated Press.
Wrote United Press: “A shell ripped a hole in the left elevator and another smashed between the right wing and the fuselage. A third hit just behind the No. 2 engine and that motor started smoking.”
In a gripping account to United Press, Watson described what happened next:
“I feathered it then and the fire soon appeared to go out. But a little later the left waist gunner reported smoke and flames pouring out of that engine again.
“We were over the sea, so I headed south to allow us to bail out over land.”
Uncertain whether the plane could remain airborne, Watson instructed his crew of nine to parachute out near Isselmeer, Holland.
(Four of the crew members landed in water and drowned. Of the five who survived, four were captured and became POWs. One, Clayton David, eluded capture and made his way back to England in May 1944, according to the 303rd bomb group Web site.)
‘Scared to death’
Alone now in the B-17, Watson intended to bail out, too.
“I set the plane’s automatic control, put on my ‘chute and started to crawl out the hatch,” Watson told United Press. “I looked down and all I could see was water. I was scared to death. I didn’t want to go into the Channel. I decided I would rather blow up with the Fortress than drown in the Channel.
“I took a heading in the direction of England and said to myself, ‘Here goes.’ About that time, two enemy fighters buzzed in _ one from each side and both firing away.”
Watson pushed the bomber into thickening clouds and the Nazi fighter planes turned rather than follow him. “Meat Hound” kept flying, though flames were shooting from at least one of the two working engines on the battered bomber.
“It was pretty lonesome up there,” Watson said to United Press. “I radioed to the landing fields, ‘If you see a B-17 with two engines out, you’ll know that’s me.’
“Then I spotted a fighter field near the coast and they radioed, ‘Come on in, big friend.’ They kept calling me ‘big friend’ all the time and it sure sounded funny.”
Watson successfully landed the B-17 at the 353rd Fighter Group P-47 airfield at Metfield, England. It took a fire crew more than two hours to put out the raging flames on “Meat Hound.”
“I wonder whether Mayor La Guardia will forgive me,” Watson said in a radio interview, according to The Sporting News.
Learning of the remark, La Guardia responded to Watson in a cable: “Delighted to get your message. All is forgiven. Congratulations. I hope you never run out of altitude. Happy landings. Will be seeing you soon.”
Watson completed his 35-mission combat tour in June 1944 and was promoted to captain in December 1944.