Constructed in 1944 at Boeing Plant 5 in Seattle, WA, the B-17G, dubbed “5 Grand,” garnered its name as it marked the 5,000th B-17 to be produced in Seattle since the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Uniquely, it was the sole B-17 to be individually signed by all the Plant 5 workers before its departure from the Seattle factory.
Notably, Boeing assembler/installer Frank Novito made the largest signature, which vanished in subsequent photos of the plane, by employing a large broom to create substantial block letters in black paint on an upper wing’s surface.
Novito’s ostentatious signature seemingly served as a bold message to German pilots, intended to remind them of the exemplary craftsmanship that went into the plane even as they sought to bring “5 Grand” down.
During the Second World War, aircraft manufacturers initiated celebrations of production milestones to uplift morale on the home front.
For instance, Lockheed chose to paint their 5,000th P-38 Lightning red, christening it “Yipee.”
Conversely, Boeing, upon nearing the production of the 5,000th B-17 Flying Fortress since the U.S. entered the war post-Pearl Harbor, opted for a distinctive celebration.
The aircraft, designated 40-37716 and a B-17G model, bore a special notification on its fuselage, indicating it as the 5,000th Flying Fortress since the U.S. war entry.
As it moved along the production lines in Seattle, every worker involved in its assembly was invited to sign their respective section, commemorating their contribution to this particular aircraft’s creation.
Hard Work of Thousands
The signatures on the B-17G, known as “5 Grand,” commemorated the hard work of thousands of workers who had migrated to Seattle, seeking refuge from the Great Depression by securing employment in Boeing’s extensive production facilities.
The workers’ enthusiasm in leaving their signatures took Boeing management by surprise, with even parts from subcontractors intended for 40-37716 arriving adorned with autographs, despite them being concealed deep within the aircraft.
Before “5 Grand” departed from the Renton plant, its story was already being celebrated in newsreels and war bond drives.
In a departure from the usual protocol of towing completed aircraft out of Plant 5’s front doors, the workers themselves, amid band music, cheers, and substantial fanfare, pushed “5 Grand” through the factory doors.
In May 1944, “5 Grand” was formally handed over to the U.S. Army Air Forces at Boeing Field, marked by the ceremonial smashing of a champagne bottle on the aircraft’s nose.
The USAAF ensured that the crew assigned to “5 Grand” consisted of local aviators from the Puget Sound area, with Edward C. Unger of Seattle chosen as the pilot.
Subsequently, “5 Grand” was transported to Kearney AAF Depot in Nebraska to undergo additional modifications to prepare it for combat.
As it departed the United States for the Eighth Air Force’s bomber bases in Britain, “5 Grand” was embellished with over 35,000 signatures on its bare metal surface.
Although there were suggestions to remove the signatures, anticipating that the Luftwaffe might prioritize targeting it, the decision was ultimately made to retain them. And indeed, the Luftwaffe did make concerted efforts to bring it down!
Massive Drag on B-17 5 Grand
During its transatlantic flight to England, the aircrew discovered that the B-17G, “5 Grand,” was approximately 7 mph slower in cruise than a standard B-17G.
This reduction in speed was attributed to the additional weight of the paint used for the signatures and the increased drag resulting from the surface roughness due to the myriad of vibrant signature applications.
Both factors escalated fuel consumption, which was higher than usual, with the plane’s slower speeds also not aligning with the typical forecasts for a trip across the Atlantic.
This resulted in one of “5 Grand’s” engines cutting out upon landing in the U.K. due to low fuel levels.
Upon its arrival in the U.K., “5 Grand” was allocated to the 333rd Bomber Squadron of the 96th Bomb Group at Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, U.K.
One of its initial local test flights, before embarking on any combat missions, nearly ended in catastrophe when “5 Grand’s” electrical system malfunctioned.
This failure prevented its main landing gear from extending, forcing “5 Grand” to execute a gear-up landing after jettisoning its ball turret.
Ultimately, when primed for combat, “5 Grand” was assigned to the 338th Bomb Squadron and the 96th Bomb Group, stationed at BX-H, Snetterton, U.K.
B-17 5 Grand Into Combat
Once thrust into combat, the aircraft swiftly earned a reputation among American B-17 pilots as a magnet for German fighter planes.
Soaring high above the clouds on its numerous missions over Europe, this famous B-17 presented an unusual spectacle in the air, aglow in the sunlight, with a somewhat bright orange hue on its bare aluminum skin, dotted with yellow, white, red, and black speckles, which were the workers’ painted signatures.
Unsurprisingly, German pilots did take particular notice of this uniquely strange, vividly glowing B-17. Possibly presuming it to be some kind of lead ship, they bestowed upon it unusually fierce attention, endeavoring persistently and forcefully to shoot it down.
On several occasions, they inflicted serious damage with their cannons, to such an extent that it had to be withdrawn from service and returned to repair stations for significant repairs.
The aircraft was withdrawn from combat and transported to Cheyenne, Wyoming on May 15, 1944, and then to Kearney on June 30, 1944, and Dow Field on July 13, 1944. It was assigned to the 338th Bomb Squadron and the 96th Bomb Group at (BX-H) Snetterton, U.K. on July 14, 1944.
The B-17 successfully flew 78 missions. Subsequently, in May 1945, it was transferred to the 388th Bomb Group and returned to the USA Bradley Repair Depot on June 14, 1945.
Boeing Field in Seattle
“5 Grand” returned to the United States, making its first landing at Bradley Field in Connecticut before proceeding to Boeing Field in Seattle to be refurbished for a war bond tour.
In Seattle, numerous employees were delighted to discover most of their signatures still adorned the aircraft.
Local officials sought to preserve “5 Grand” as a tribute to the city’s wartime efforts on the home front. However, while Seattle’s politicians deliberated over the financial aspects.
She was transported to storage at Kingman AAF Base in Arizona, pending Seattle officials’ decisions regarding the proposed memorial featuring “5 Grand”.
The U.S. Army Air Force were prepared to donate “5 Grand” to Seattle for the memorial envisaged by the Seattle Historical Society, but on January 3, 1946, Seattle city officials declined the donation of “5 Grand”, citing that constructing a memorial with the aircraft was too expensive an endeavor.
Despite the dedication of Boeing employees who had signed “5 Grand”, and others keen to safeguard this historical artifact, no local government representatives were willing to assume responsibility for the aircraft.
Thus, the plane—still splendid with its thousands of signatures—was sold by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and sent to Kingman, AZ, to airplane scrappers.
There, “5 Grand” was disassembled and scrapped without ceremony, its unique story permanently erased from physical existence.