Hell’s Angels B-17 Top Turret Gunner Donald Conley

The last couple months of 2015 got to be so busy that I unfortunately did not have much time for personal work.  With the start of the new year, I’m trying to make it a point to shoot more of what I really enjoy.  That of course includes continuing to photograph our veterans and listening to their stories.  In December, I put out a post on Facebook asking if anyone had family members or knew of anyone who served in WWII.  One of the names passed on to me was Donald Conley.

I spoke with Donald on the phone and right away, he seemed very eager to share his stories with me.  We set a time for me to come visit him in his home where he and his lovely wife, Judy, live.  The day came, and I made the two hour drive to New Cumberland, PA where they live.  When I arrived, Donald and Judy immediately asked, “Are you hungry?”  I was told by my friend that if they offered me food, I’d be crazy not to accept since it’s always so tasty.

Over some corn and chicken soup, Donald and I sat down at the kitchen table as he shared several of his stories from WWII.  Donald was an engineer and top turret gunner in a B-17 bomber that flew in the 303rd Bomber Group, also known as Hell’s Angels.  He had so many stories, all of which he recorded in a flight journal throughout the war.  There were specifically two stories that really stuck with me.

Donald was telling me about the first mission he flew on.  “We were flying into the sun on a clear day, and I was feeling a little tired.  I looked out ahead of us and saw this black cloud.  I asked, ‘What IS that?’  It was a silly question, because I then immediately realized, ‘Flak!’.”  I myself can never imagine the terror of flying directly into something like that, let alone the balls it would take.  He mentioned how the flak would throw the aircraft 10-15 feet in either direction while flying through it.  When talking about returning from the mission, he just said, “I was happy to be back on the ground.”

His other more memorable moment is something like you would see in the movies.  In September 1944, Donald and his crew were flying a bombing mission over Germany from where they were based in Molesworth, England.  Their B-17, named Miss Liberty, came under attack by German fighter planes and they lost two of their four engines.  Miss Liberty then was targeted by flak and lost a third engine.  As they flew back across Germany trying to make it to friendly territory, the crew contemplated jumping with their parachutes.  Instead, they decided to find an area to attempt a landing before they lost their final engine.  The pilot eventually put Miss Liberty down in a field in France.  By luck, they were found by Canadian soldiers and taken to a hospital.  Unfortunately though, the crew’s bombardier who was on his 30th and final mission died three days following the crash landing as a result of his injuries. 

To sit there and listen to these stories was another eye-opener to what men like Donald have done for this country.  You see things like this in the movies and some are based on true stories, but to hear it first hand from someone who has lived moments like these is a real privilege.  After the story-telling and amazing soup, we got to work with taking the portraits.  Donald was really excited about the photos and couldn’t wait to get into his old uniform.

For the more environmental portrait, he asked if he could wear his favorite “cowboy shirt”.  Without even seeing it, I immediately replied, “Yes.  Definitely yes!”  The shirt is a perfect representation of who Donald is.  His happy and vibrant character matched perfectly with the shirt.  We then moved onto the portraits of him in his uniform.  With a little help from me with tying his tie and buttoning his shirt cuffs, he got suited up.  I wanted to photograph him in his hallway because each of the walls were covered in family portraits of his children and grandchildren.  It was fitting having his family surrounding him like that in his uniform.  I then wanted to do something I haven’t done with the other veterans.  I took a black seamless backdrop to do some studio portraits of him.  After the first shot, I instantly wished I had done the same with the others.  He just looks so proud in the studio portraits.

Visiting Donald and Judy was simply wonderful, and they repeatedly told me that I’m free to stop in and chat if I’m ever in their area again.  A big thanks to them for feeding me and taking the day to sit down and share their memories with me.  Hopefully, we can do it again.


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© Willis Bretz 2018
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