Staff Sergeant Philip Nance
Tower Hill Air Force Veteran Made Last Flight Of Flying Fortress
David and Betty (Lebon) Nance are pictured with Mr. Nance holding a copy of „Blechhammer;“ written by Boguslaw Zieba of Poland, and a native of the area the book is about.
It concerns the last fateful flight of the B-17 Flying Fortress No. 44-6412 that crashed on Sept. 13, 1944, in Koniowka, Poland.
Blechhammer North was the location of a synthetic oil refinery, the object being to cut off Hitler’s World War II oil reserves.
This oil refinery still produced 5,000 tons a month. According to the account, it had been hit before „but further destruction would materially help in shortening the war.“ Lack of abandonment of motor transport on the fronts demonstrated the fact that the German oil situation was critical.
And for this critical war effort, Flying Fortress „44-6412“ took to the air on Sept. 13, 1944, from Streparone, Italy, little knowing it would be their last flight as a team in their aircraft, still whole.
Amongst them was Dave Nace’s brother, Staff Sergeant Philip M. Nance, radio-operator, one of 9 children of the William Melvin and Mary Belle (Nowlin) Nance family of Tower Hill, who had enlisted earlier that year on Apr. 7, at Peoria. Piloting the aircraft was Everette J. Robson, born Oct. 28, 1918, in Fort Smith, Ark.
Besides Robson, the crew of „44-6412“ included co-pilot Harold R. Stock, 2nd Lieutenant; Richard L. Hansler, 2nd Lt., navigator; Gus Kroschewsky, 2nd Lt., bombardier; Staff Sergeant Albert W. Van Oostrom, flight engineer; Harold E. Beam, left waist gunner; Staff Sergeant Philip M. Nance, radio operator; Sergeant Aloys C. Suhling, right waist gunner; Staff Sergeant Gordon W. Sternbeck, ball turret gunner; and Staff Sergeant William N. Barry, tail gunner.
In describing the pre-take off scene that morning of Sept. 13, co-pilot 2nd Lt. Stock, „chewing on a stub of cigar,“ is said to have put the engines of the plane through pre-flight testing „despite the fact that the ground crews had already done it. He always did it carefully himself since he had previously had to return an overloaded aircraft to base after an engine fire caused by seeping fuel the previous night.“
When he got on board, he checked the interphone to be assured all crew members were in position. Then using same he joked „about superstitious fears concerning the unlucky date – the 13th – and „eventually wished everyone a good flight. This time nobody laughed.“
Soon the plane and crew moved into the rendezvousing flight plan. „Having practiced it many times, all the boys knew the whole process was very slow, but when done, the formation was really majestic: the bombers and their escorts could be seen everywhere in the sky.“
At 10,000 feet, Robson ordered everyone to go on oxygen. The aircraft climbed 200 feet per minute. They reached an altitude of 19,000 ft.
The account continued that „Nance, Suhling, Beam, Sternbeck and Barry were in their flight positions watching the spectacle in the sky around them.“
It continued: „Suhling got into the radioman’s compartment to talk to Nance for a while, since he was very interested in any news and Nance was always in the know.“
The initial formation was apparently huge. The book continues – „Reaching the Polish/Czechoslovak border, they begun to regroup. More than 160 B-17s turned for Blechhammer North Oil Refinery, while next the B-24s for the Oil Refinery at Odertals, Auschwitz Oil and Rubber Works in the Krakow-Auschwitz area.
The battle was about to begin. Right after the border the Flying Fortresses made thei final turn toward the target. The altimeter in 44-6412 showed 28,000 feet.
Gunners had put on their flak suits upon reaching the Yugoslavian coast for they knew German radar tracked them and the enemy defence controllers were trying to „guess“ the mission’s target.
Bombardier Kroschewsky could soon „recognize the smoke screen over the target.“
„He now observed the earth and the leading plane of the first element above. He opened the bomb bay doors after he had seen the lead airplane’s red-yellow flare and began to wait for a leader’s green-yellow flare to release the bombs.“
The explosion that downed their aircraft and changed their lives happened as a „bombs away“ order was given.
„At 1115, the ship in the lead gave the signal to drop the bombs. Kroschewsky ‘bombs away’ and released the load. Next was to wait for Nance’s ‘Bombs clear’ but nobody could hear his announcement!“
„The ship was hit.“
The account continued: „While ordering ‘Bombs away’ Kroschewsky and Sternbeck noticed another B-17 approximately 150 feet below them and slightly to the left. Part of the wing was directly under their drop line and there was nothing that could be done to change the situation. The bombs were just released. One of them shouted – ‘Oh, I think it’s going to…’ – and then the explosion happened!“
Some panic followed this, but „very quickly“ when the airmen realized that the ship was able to move and balance in the air, the order of the day was back to duties and the assessment of wounds and damages began.
Pilot Robson skilfully took control – two inboard engines were working on high power, since the two outboard ones were dead.
Robson saw his formation turning to the rally point, but couldn’t do anything to keep up with them. He knew that engines number one and four were out and he had to dive down to oxygen level.
What followed was evasive action and an encounter with three Messerschmitt fighter planes.
The three made several passes – first from three o’clock, and then alternatively from four and eight o’clock. „They dove in trying to get the Fortress in a tight corner, but in return the gunners on board all got shots at them.“
The Flying Fortress had dropped to 12,000 feet. Navigator Richard Hansler advised the pilot to lower the wheels as a cease-fire signal, part of the international sign of distress announced with the wheels down and the bomb bay doors open.
„Suddenly a single fighter came in at 11 o’clock for a frontal attack. Kroschewsky and Beam started firing and the bombardier got the ME-109 and the navigator saw it heading down in flames. The Germans hit the B-17’s waist tail and nose several times until they sighted the landing wheels.“
The plane was losing altitude so rapidly that with the Carpathian Mountains in view, ship commander Robson gave the bailout order. The book says an argument ensued between pilot and co-pilot, Stock, Robson, with Robson winning.
Thus, the escape exodus from the doomed craft began and the plane hit the ground at 49 23’83“N, 19 47’56“E.
Prior, though, one last visit by the Luftwaffe – after the explosion over Blechhammer, and about 45 minutes later.
„The pilot examined the circumstances of the final minutes of the flight of the aircraft, flew between Van Oostrom and Phil Nance, waved at Van Oostrom and left forever in the American’s mind the view of the German’s face, plain as day.“
„He sped toward the Fortress and took some pot shots at the fuselage. He then wheeled over the field, and watched the moment of the crash, after the Fortress, uncontrolled, turned another circle. When the show was over, he left northward.“
As a result of his Air Force experience, Staff Sergeant Phil Nance spent from Sept. 13, 1944 and the downing of his plane as a German prisoner of war, until April of 1945.
He retired from the service on Feb. 28, 1970, as a staff sergeant. Four of his 5 brothers served in the military during World War II.
He is the son of William M. Nance and Mary Belle Nowlin Nance, both deceased. Ssgt. Nance came from a family of 5 brothers and 4 sisters, 3 other children dying in infancy.
Of Staff Sergeant Nance, the radio operator of the ill-fated „Flying Fortress“ No. 44-6412, the account states:
„Nance was a citizen from Tower Hill, Illinois. The boys called him just Phil. He was an average and rather little guy who was very social, nice and a very good friend. He liked to read books and wrote poems. All the boys enjoyed his company, listening to his radio news and information. He came from a big family. His friendship with Albert (Van Oostrom of Nederland, Texas) outlasted the war.“
„Radio-operator’s job on board: the radio operator is responsible for all the radio equipment of the airplane. His duties include position report, assisting the navigator, keeping liaison and command sets properly tuned and in good operating order, and last but not least, maintaining the log. Apart from his radio operating, he acts as a gunner, and usually also a flight photographer.“
In the book: „Epilogue“ Staff Sergeant Nance is described thusly:
„Philip M. Nance was discharged in April of 1946. He was a graduate of Tower Hill High School with the Class of 1941. He enrolled at Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois but droped out just six weeks short of receiving his bachelor’s degree. He re-enlisted in 1952 and served in Korea and Vietnam. He edited the newspaper Stars and Stripes and made a career as a historian there. He retired in 1973. He died on Apr. 3, 1991.“
A side note: Of his airship’s crew, 5 joined the Polish underground and 5 were captured.
(Editor’s Note: What you have read thus far merely touches the surface of the Blechhammer story done by Mr. Zieba. Should you desire to complete the whole trial and travail of Staff Sergeant Phil Nance, the book has been donated by the Pana Nance family to Carnegie-Schuyler Library. It should also be pointed out that during his service time he wrote the history of the 17th Air Force and received a commendation for his work.
It may be viewed there. We thank the David and Betty Nance family for making this true to life tale of American heroism in the skies and on the ground available.
The latest news concerning Blechhammer, Dave and Betty Nance report, is the death in recent weeks of Albert W. Van Oostrom of Texas. Nance came from a family of parents, and 12 children, 3 deceased in infancy. Nance was 68 when he died in Highland. He is buried in the Dave and Betty (Lebon) plot in Pana Mound (west) CeMETERY: buried in the Dave and Betty (Lebon) plot in Pana Mound (west) Cemetery.
Pana News-Palladium, by Tom Phillips, Thursday, June 10, 2010