Last Surviving US Serviceman Aboard B-17 Bomber that Crash-landed on Beach at Burnham-on-Sea Dies in Delaware, USA

US Serviceman Aboard B-17 Bomber
US Tech. Sgt. Walter C. Skinner was top turret-gunner aboard the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that crash-landed on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea on December 31, 1943

Former Tech Sgt. Walter C. Skinner had a unique bond with the Somerset, England town of Burnham-on-Sea. The former World War II top turret-gunner was a member of the crew of the American B-17 bomber that crash-landed on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea on December 31, 1943. He and his crew were returning from a bombing raid on Nazi-occupied France that left the aircraft badly-damaged by enemy fire.

Tech. Sgt. Skinner and his crewmates were with the 351st Battle Group of the US Army Air Corp. The 351st had suffered a number of losses due to midair collisions, however, the December 31st raid was supposed to be a “milk run” – an easy mission that was expected to encounter little to no resistance as they approached their targets at Bordeaux and Cologne flying at a lower-than-usual altitude. Indeed, several top brass flew the lead plane in that day’s mission to check the quality of the battle group’s flying formation.

The Nazis in Bordeaux and Cologne had other plans for the 351st Battle Group that day, however.

On their approach to Bordeaux, the 351st was attacked by a group of FW-190s, a highly-effective fighter plane utilized by the Luftwaffe for a number of purposes. Having encountered the German fighters along with cloud-cover over Bordeaux, the 351st bombers turned north to Cognac, their secondary target. Yet, the Allied bombers were met by unexpected Nazi fire there, too, this time from a train and a ship. The German anti-aircraft fire brought down four of the B-17s attacking Cologne that day, sending one plane into the Atlantic Ocean and two into the English Channel, the reports.

Tech Sgt. Skinner and his crewmates had better luck, though their fate was anything but certain as they returned to England with one engine belching smoke, low on fuel, and without any of the bombers that had accompanied them earlier that day when they left for France. They were at too low an altitude for the crew to bail out, so Tech. Sgt. Skinner and his fellow crewmen assumed crash positions and prepared for the worst.

As it happened, luck was on their side. The two pilots spotted the beach at Burnham-on-Sea and executed a perfect wheels-up landing from which they and the crew emerged without injury. As the B-17 skidded to a stop on the sand, local residents, including boys eager to gather souvenirs from the crash site, came running out to greet the airmen whose good fortune would follow them in the 26 subsequent missions they few in another B-17, the Black Magic. Sadly, not weeks after the Black Magic was assigned to another crew, that bomber went down taking all souls on board.

Tech Sgt. Walter C. Skinner went on to receive an honorable discharge from the US Army Air Corp. in 1945, and he would never forget the day he crash-landed on the beach at Burnham-on-Sea. Nor would the residents of the Somerset town forget him and the other American servicemen who had made such a dramatic appearance there on December 31, 1943. Mr Skinner would return to Burnham-on-Sea to be honored at a 50th Anniversary civil reception held there in May 1995; and, while unable to attend in person due to illness, the former B-17 crewman would greet attendees of a 60th anniversary ceremony of the crash in Burnham-on-Sea via videotape.

Walter Skinner passed away at the Delaware Veterans Home at age 92. He was laid to rest with full military honors at his funeral and is survived by a daughter, son, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE