14 June 2010

The Story of "5 Grand", the 5,000th B-17 Flying Fortress Built

To boost morale on the home front during the Second World War, aircraft manufacturers celebrated production aircraft milestones. Lockheed, for example, painted the 5,000th P-38 Lightning red and named it "YIPEE". But Boeing wanted to do something different as it approached the 5,000 B-17 Flying Fortress to be built since the attack on Pearl Harbor when the US entered the war against the Axis. Aircraft number 40-37716, a B-17G, was that aircraft and early on it was marked with a notice on the fuselage that it was the 5,000th Flying Fortress to be built since the US entry into the war. Every worker who played a part in the construction of this particular aircraft was invited to sign the aircraft as it advanced down the production line in Seattle.

It celebrated the efforts of the thousands of workers who emigrated to Seattle to escape the effects of the Great Depression and work on Boeing's massive production facilities. The enthusiasm that workers applied their signatures even surprised the Boeing management as even parts from the subcontractors bound for 40-37716 were even signed, even though they'd be hidden away deep inside the aircraft. Appropriately, the B-17G was named "5 Grand" and before leaving the Renton plant was already being celebrated in newsreels and war bond drives. Instead of towing the B-17G out as had always been the protocol of the day upon completion, the workers themselves pushed 5 Grand out the factory doors to great fanfare.

In May 1944 5 Grand was officially delivered to the US Army Air Forces at Boeing Field and a bottle of champagne was ceremonially broken over the aircraft's nose. The USAAF even made sure that the crew assigned to 5 Grand were made up of locals from the Puget Sound area with Edward C. Unger of Seattle selected as the aircraft commander/pilot. 5 Grand was then flown to Kearney AAF depot in Nebraska for further modifications to make her combat ready. When she left the United States for the Eighth Air Force's bomber bases in Britain, over 35,000 signatures adorned the baremetal finish of 5 Grand. Some thought that the plane should be stripped as the Luftwaffe might make special effort to shoot down 5 Grand, but it was decided the signatures would stay in place. On the trans-Atlantic flight, the crew found the B-17G was about 7 mph slower than a stock B-17G due to the weight of the ink and paint used on the signatures and the surface roughness from some of the more colorful applications! The fuel consumption was higher and stronger-than-forecast winds aloft resulted in one of 5 Grand's engines cutting out on landing in the UK due to fuel starvation.

Assigned to the 333rd Bomber Squadron of the 96th Bomber Group at Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, one of its first local flights before combat missions were flown ended in near disaster when the electrical system failed and 5 Grand made a crash landing after ejecting its ball turret. She was repaired and reassigned to the 388th Bomber Group and would fly 78 missions over the Reich adorned with her signatures with her gunners claiming two Luftwaffe fighters destroyed.

On 14 June 1945 5 Grand returned home to the United States, first landing at Bradley Field in Connecticut before continuing on to Boeing Field in Seattle for refurbishment to go on a war bond tour. While in Seattle, many employees found their signatures still in place. Local officials wanted to preserve 5 Grand as a memorial to the city's home front war effort, but while the Seattle politicians debated the cost, 5 Grand was flown to Lubbock AAF in Texas for further repairs and refurbishment before being flown into storage at Kingman AAF in Arizona to be held in storage while Seattle officials decided how to proceed on the planned memorial incorporating 5 Grand. The US Army Air Forces were willing to donate 5 Grand to Seattle for the memorial planned by the Seattle Historical Society, but on 3 January 1946, Seattle city officials declined the donation of 5 Grand on the grounds that building a memorial with the aircraft represented too costly an endeavor.

Despite the efforts of Boeing employees who had signed 5 Grand, no one in the local government wished to take responsibility and the aircraft, still resplendent with its signatures, was sold off by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to the scrapper where 5 Grand was unceremoniously broken up and molten down, forever lost to history.

Source: Aeroplane Monthly, June 2010, Volume 38, Number 6. "A Fort Named 5 Grand" by Howard Carter, p40-45.


  1. My grandfather was one of the pilots of the 5 Grand during WWII. It is awesome that there is so much to read and learn about it.

    1. Roy Brockman was the pilot of the original combat crew.

    2. My grandfather was also a captain and pilot of the 5 Grand during WWII. Very proud of him!

  2. My best friend's Father was a Navigator on 5 Grand, we have personal photos he took.

  3. St.Sgt Ret. Johnny Wearing is the tailgunner from the Original combat crew from the 5 Grand.Johnny (my Father) is still living in Detroit,Michigan,although 90 years old still sings with a great barbershop quartet,still works 2 days a week in a grocery store,and is still ready and willing to don the Uniform.

  4. St. Sgt. Jack (“Red”) Beard was the armored and right waist gunner on the last combat crew to serve 5 Grand. He passed away in the early sixties so I did not get to learn a great deal about his service. He did leave behind cryptic synopses of each mission recorded on one of the paper tags wired into the bomb fuses as safeties. Some of the more noteworthy recorded the first appearance of Me 262 jets and their first use of teh new incendiary bombs containing napalm. Dad’s comment, “It works!”

  5. My father, St. Sgt. Jack “Red” Beard, was the armorer and right waist gunner on the last combat crew to serve with 5 grand. Dad died young (43) and I did not get to learn much first-hand from him about his experiences. He did leave an unusual record of notes on his missions. As the armorer he pulled the final safeties from the munitions in flight. These devices were simply wires pulled through the spinners on the nose and they came with a paper tag attached. On one of these tags, Dad wrote the details of flak, fighters, target conditions, and anything that was worthy of note. Two in particular told of meeting Me 262 jet aircraft in combat for the first time and the use of an experimental incendiary munition utilizing napalm. Dad’s comments with respect to each, “It’s FAST!” And “It works!”

  6. My grandmother was one of the builders and signers on that plane