WATERVILLE — Alfred “Al” Kramer was 23 years old when the B-17 bomber he was piloting on a bombing mission to Stuttgart was shot down by German fighter planes on Sept. 6, 1943.

About to turn 98 years old next month, he recalls enough details of the harrowing experience and his downed aircraft to suggest that debris recently found in a field near the crash site in Troyes, France, is not likely from his “Lone Wolf.”

The bomber caught fire at 12,000 feet, he said Sunday, forcing the 10-man crew to bail out. Kramer parachuted to safety, landing near Troyes, about 150 miles southeast of Paris.

Much of the aircraft burned and/or disintegrated on the way down, he believes. “There shouldn’t have been anything left,” he said in recent interview.

But a silhouette of a downed aircraft is visible among fir trees in a 1953 aerial photograph emailed by Rémi Barth, a French landscaper who lives near the crash site and who has been sweeping it with a metal detector and recovering items for about six years.

“The stabilizer in the back is too long,” Kramer said, after inspecting the image on a computer. “That doesn’t even look like a B-17. Of course, take into effect I’m 97. I could make a PBY (a flying boat) look like a 17.”

Barth photographed his findings and sent those photos so they could be shown to Kramer recently on a computer.

“It’s really a passion, the Second World War, a great passion,” Barth said, via Facebook and an online translation service from French to English. “I collect everything about the Second World War (uniforms, equipment).”

Barth said he searches a number of sites where planes crashed in World War II.

“My neighbor is 94 years old,” Barth wrote. “He saw the skydiving crew members and the dead crew member on the ground after skydiving, so I decided to do some research and find out more.”

Barth read about Kramer in a Kennebec Journal news story from 2013 and reached out to the newspaper hoping to get in contact Kramer.

The trouble was that Kramer had moved from his South China home into the Woodlands Senior Living in Waterville in 2016 and no longer uses a telephone because his hearing is not good.

“I will write to him soon and I will send him his last mission report,” Barth wrote. “I would also like to look for other members of his crew if they are still alive.”

On April 15, in his comfortable, turret-ceilinged living room, Kramer responded to questions sent by Barth, including what happened to the parachute and harness Kramer used:

“I left it in the woods. It was like in farmland,” Kramer said. “The reason I left it was because by that time someone picked me up and they took care of everything.”

Kramer did not know the model of the parachute. “It just opened. That was enough for me.”

PILOT TRAINING

A lawyer for more than a half century, he retains a sharp wit and phrases his answers carefully.

Kramer enlisted in 1941 shortly after graduating from City College of New York.

“I didn’t want to go in the Army, and at that time it was the Air Corps, not the Air Force. There were about 125 of us assigned to fly with the West Pointers,” Kramer recalled. “And we had to sign a contract to stay for four years.”

The pilot training took the group all over, to locations in Texas and Oklahoma, among others.

Then he went to England and was part of the 388th Bomb Group on that fateful mission which turned out to be the group’s most disastrous. Kramer, who was leader of a squadron of 12 planes, said none of the aircraft in his squadron returned.

“It was one of the worst (missions) that we had,” he said, shaking his head from side to side.

Then he viewed another image from Barth, which originated with the Association du Memorial Americain de Saint-Nazaire and listed the crew of the Lone Wolf. It actually showed a different configuration of the aircraft. Kramer said he flew an earlier model, one without the twin 50-caliber machine guns mounted under the aircraft nose.

He looked over the list of names and nodded. “Swap, Martin, Bowman was the navigator, Burnett was the radio, Thomas was a waist gunner. Chapman was a waist gunner. Vic was down in the ball turrett.” He did not recall the tail gunner, listed as Staff Sgt. Walter R. Soukup, and apologized, blaming it on his age.

“Swapo came back.” A.H. Swap was the co-pilot. Kramer talked about what happened just prior to bailing out.

“The only time I knew when we were shot was when the instrumental panel exploded. Swapo got burnt and the controls in the plane were gone.”

With help from the French Resistance, Kramer made it back to England a month later and then was sent to Florida to train B-17 pilots. “The records are all screwed up,” he said. “I was only on six missions; they gave me credit for 10. In fact it was six and a half missions because I didn’t complete the last one.”

HONORABLE SERVICE

Kramer viewed more photos sent by Barth, saying some of the items were shells, others were projectiles and still others were from artillery shells. “As a personal opinion, that was not my plane. When you’re on fire from up there, you’re not going to have that much residue,” Kramer said. “That stuff just doesn’t jive together.”

Barth, who was somewhat discouraged to hear that, plans a memorial at the site.

“I am making a wooden monument to mark the scene of the crash. Tell him that I thank him very much for what (he and) other pilots, crewmen and American soldiers have done in France.”

Kramer was let go at the end of his four-year hitch. “They gave me what they called an honorable certificate of service,” Kramer said. But that did not end his military career.

“In ’51, I was working for Aetna Casualty Insurance Co., and I was at the desk and my boss came over and he says, ‘Al, you’re in the Air Force again.’ Because I never got a discharge, they picked me up for the Korean War.”

Kramer spent two years flying KC-97s. “They called them ‘milk runs.’ We used to fly VIPs from the United States to France, England, Azores,” he said.

Then he received another honorable certificate of service.

All of his records were later lost in a fire in Philadelphia, and when he wanted to convalesce at the Maine Veterans Home some years ago after open heart surgery, he almost didn’t get in.

“They couldn’t prove I was in the service,” he said. Luckily, another record was found.

“Because we were that special group, every year we flew we got a bonus. They had a record in New York — Brooklyn — that they paid me a bonus and that’s the only reason I got in there. Otherwise they said I wasn’t in the service, yet they took me twice,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “When I got 65, I wrote to my Congressman. I said I wanted retirement. I said they never discharged me.”

BOMBING MEMORIES

Kramer recalled one other bombing run in particular.

“We used to fly from Knettishall, England,” he said. “At the time it was so early we never used to get an escort. You’d fly over France and the antiaircraft guns and the German fighters would come and hit us as we crossed the coast. Then we’d go in and bomb and come back, which gives them time to shoot us down again.”

This time, the bombers tried to return to base via Africa.

“I mean you’re carrying bombs, you only have so much gasoline, and the fellows were dropping down into the water because they couldn’t make the coast,” Kramer recounted. “We happened to make the coast. We landed there in a field, and a bunch of Arabs came and they wanted one of us to go with them. My crew was very democratic. We voted who was going to go, and guess who got voted to go? They gave me a jackass to ride.”

He returned with the Arabs who brought gasoline in 5-gallon cans.

He didn’t recall how much fuel or how many cans. “We got enough to get back to England,” he said.

The 388th Bomb Group Association, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the unit that flew 333 missions between 1943 and 1945, has a trip to Knettishall planned this spring.

After going to the University of Michigan Law School and practicing law in New York and Massachusetts, Kramer retired to Maine where he had been coming to hunt for a number of years and made numerous friends.

Looking at Barth’s photos brought memories that Kramer shared with close friends, Craig Poulin of Palermo, and Poulin’s mother Barbara Poulin, and Barbara’s sister Gloria Pinette, of South China.

Kramer received a Congressional Letter of Commendation in 2013 for his efforts to save his crew and for his leadership.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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