By Scott Nelson
Rudy Froeschle from Hazen, ND, was a B-17 driver with the United States Eighth Air Force in England during World War II. After flying several missions bombing the Nazis, he and his crew were unfortunately shot down and became a guest of the same ones he was bombing. Froeschle ended up in Stalag Luft III and played a small part in the famous escape that was made into a movie after the war, The Great Escape. Froeschle was not portrayed in the movie but the trombone he had in the prisoner of war camp was. Rudy had requested it through the International YMCA for a band they were putting together. The trombone disappeared and was used as an important component of a still to make liquor. Later on, it became a part of the movie.
After liberation and the end of the war, Rudy was receiving his military separation papers at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX. The servicemen were in a large hall. In one corner of the hall was a surplus administration desk. Rudy approached the desk and asked what he could get. He was able to get papers to purchase a Fairchild PT-26 for $600, used as a Canadian instrument trainer, a Stinson Reliant for $1200, used to transport generals and other individuals of significance, and a B-17 for $350, which could only be used for monumental or educational purposes.
When Rudy got back to his home town of Hazen, he met with the school board and told them about the great deal they could get buying the B-17 for educational purposes. Rudy offered to fly it in for them. The school board decided to buy the bomber. It took longer than expected for the paperwork to come together and Rudy was already in Chicago starting medical school, so Lyle Benz of Hazen, who was also a veteran WWII pilot, offered to get the plane.
Lyle and his brother, John, went to Altus, OK, to gas up and add oil to the B-17 engines that had been “pickled” at the end of the war, when they were placed in storage. Lyle removed the cowling from each of the four engines, and with John’s help pulled the plugs and cleaned them. There was no radio equipment on the plane, so they knew they would have to fly VFR. When they departed Atlus, the weather bureau forecasted clear weather. After flying for a while, they ran into clouds and climbed above them. The weather ahead seemed to be getting worse, with the clouds rising to 20,000 feet. The Benz brothers decided to turn around. The nearest airfield they sighted was at Perry, OK. The brothers landed the B-17 and caught rides back to North Dakota to raise money for more gas and oil, before going back for the Fortress. The number three engine had lost a lot of oil, so they had to fill it back up. After refueling, the brothers took off for Dickinson before delivering it to Hazen.
When they arrived at Dickinson, the number three engine was smoking badly and the local police came to the airport to make sure they were OK. They knew they would lose oil on the way, so they added more oil before heading to Hazen a few days later.
It was a calm day when the Benz brothers roared over Hazen and landed in a pasture just south of town. The ground was softer than expected and the plane’s wheels sank in the sod and nosed over, bending the prop tips on the number two engine. The whole town had turned out to see the landing and a bunch of the high school boys were able to pull the bomber’s tail back down.
The plane sat in that spot for several years as kind of a memorial to WWII. It is not known if it ever was used for educational purposes, but people would crawl through the plane and scavenge parts. In 1951, several men came and started working on the plane. They took the number two prop to Herman Mayer, the town blacksmith, and he did an excellent job pounding the blades back in shape.
One winter morning, when the ground was frozen and a 40 mile an hour wind was blowing from the northwest, these same men turned the plane into the wind, and with no one to witness it, flew away from Hazen.
About five years after the B-17 left Hazen, Rudy Froeschle was practicing medicine in Tioga, ND. One day, he treated a pilot who had been in a plane accident while crop dusting. It turned out to be the man who flew the B-17 from Hazen. Rudy found out the plane had been delivered to a buyer in Florida, who equipped it for aerial photography.
After several years, it was sold to a Canadian company who used it for aerial photography all over the world. It changed hands several times while in this capacity. In its next life, from 1971 to 1982, the B-17 was outfitted with slurry tanks and served as a fire bomber in South Dakota and New Mexico. The bomber was retired and displayed at the Pima Air Museum in Arizona from 1982 to 1984. In 1984, it was purchased by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and stored in an open hangar at the Dulles International Airport.
In 2011, the plane was donated to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, GA. Extensive restoration was started and the plane was brought back to its original glory as the famous B-17, “City of Savannah.” It is now the centerpiece of the museum and considered the finest B-17 Fortress static display in the world.
Sources: Article from the Hazen Star, 13 Nov. 2008 by Chris Gessele. Warbirdregistry.org B-17 44-83814 Book, B17 Flying Fortress Restoration by Jerome McLaughlin.