Boy's Homework: B-17 Bombers, Week 1: The Memphis Belle

My youngest son, Laurene is a big history fan, so last year during school, he decided to borrow a US History textbook from school and start working through it. Right at the end of this school year, he finished it! So, we decided to take a break this summer and do something easier - so he decided he wanted to study World War II. This summer I will be posting some of the things we do together to learn about the War. If people don't find this COMPLETELY boring, I might even put up some notes about what its like trying to plan a WWII curriculum for a 3rd grader (hint: its an interestingly difficult process).

Well, the first topic he wanted to learn about was bomber planes - which was perfect, because I remembered a movie about bombers from when I was a kid: Memphis Belle. If you've never seen Memphis Belle, its a pic VERY loosely based on the real Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber that was one of the first to complete a full tour of duty in the Daylight Bombing runs over Europe. It returned to the US and flew around the country, so the crew could stump for War Bonds, and generally buck up people's courage. The movie itself, though, while not a great introduction to this specific historical event, does help to lay out some of the bare bonnes of how a B-17 worked: what the jobs were in the crew, what the rhythm of a bombing run looked like, what the various difficulties involved were, etc.

So, for our first week, Laurence and watched the movie, first, and I talked it over with him to make sure he understood it. Then I gave him two activities to complete.

The first was to design his own B-17. I gave him a lesson on Nose Art (again, difficult with a third grader, as one attempts to avoid Nose Art featuring naked women), and we went over what the different positions on the bomber were, again. Then he designed his own nose art, and assigned people he knew to the different crew positions on his plane - interestingly he decided to use other kids from his class at school, and additionally interesting (although indicative of Laurence in some ways), he did not assign the pilot's seat to himself. He was also frustrated that he felt like he had to assign all the positions to boys, since, in World War II, only men were allowed to serve in the combat arm of the military (this is not a constraint I put on him, he just thought it would be unrealistic to do anything else). It was interesting to see how frustrating it was to him to not be able to put ALL his friends with him. If you're the interested, he named his plane "The Texas Tartar", and the nose art featured a horseman with a sword (yes, my son is a geek).

For his other assignment, I told him to write an essay about the dangers of flying a B-17 bomber. Here's what he learned this week, then, in his own words:

In Memphis Belle, there's a story where the pilot and co-pilot were sitting in the cockpit. Suddenly, flak (bits of metal exploding like grenades) hit some tomato soup on the counter. It splatted on the captain and co-captain and they kept yelling at each other because they thought that each other were bleeding. This is funny, but it also expresses how dangerous it was to be on a B17 Bomber in World War II. On a B17 bomber in World War II, there were a lot of dangers.

In the way, your bomber could get shot down by fighter planes, because they will shoot bullets at you until one of the planes dies or explodes. It could also get shot down with flak. Flak is an explosive covered in metal. When it's shot out of an anti-aircraft gun, it explodes in the air. When it explodes, it would have pieces of metal fly everywhere.

In a B17 bomober, it can get down to 30 degrees below zero. Thats because the planes fly above the clouds. If you weren't careful, your fingers could freeze onto the gun (if you had one). Your saliva could come out of your mouth and freeze in your headset. Then you wouldn't be able to hear what the other people were saying.

In a B17 bomber, there's a lot of different ways to blow up while trying to land safely. You could try to belly land and have your plane go too fast and have the friction explode your plane. Belly landing is when you land your plane without taking your wheels out. You would belly land because your wheels wouldn't come out. You could also put your wheels out and have only one wheel come out and make your plane go out of control and explode.

In a B17 bomber there's a lot of ways to run out of gas. Your plane will fall if it runs out of gas. It could have some of its engines blown off by bad fires or flak. It could have to go around the bomb run twice because they didn't see the target they were supposed to drop their bombs on.

Imagine how scared you would be if you were on a B17 bomber. I would be terrified! There were a lot of dangers one a B17 bomber in World War II.
This week, he is watching 'Twelve O'Clock High' and thinking about what officers had to do to be good leaders of their men, AND designing his own board game. Next week, notably will be on Stalingrad, so if anyone knows any good, appropriate sources on that, I'm THRILLED to hear suggestions. Or on the amphibious battles of the Pacific, which he wants to do next, after that.

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