The B-17 Miracle and PVT Sam Sarpolus
A mid-air collision on February 1, 1943 between a B-17 and a German fighter over the Tunis dock area became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of World War II. An enemy fighter attacking a 97th Bomb Group formation went out of control, probably with a wounded or dead pilot. An Me109 crashed into the lead aircraft of the flight, ripped a wing off the Fortress, and caused it to crash. The enemy fighter then continued its crashing descent into the rear of the fuselage of a Fortress named All American, piloted by Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg, of the 414th Bomb Squadron. When it struck, the fighter broke apart, but left some pieces in the B-17. The left horizontal stabilizer of the Fortress and left elevator were completely torn away. The vertical fin and the rudder had been damaged, the fuselage had been cut almost completely through – connected only at two small parts of the frame – most of the control cables were severed, and the radios, electrical and oxygen systems were damaged. The two right hand engines were out and one on the left had a serious oil pump leak. There was also a hole in the top that was over 16 feet long and 4 feet wide at it’s widest and the split in the fuselage went all the way to the top gunner’s turret. Although the tail actually bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the plane turned, one single elevator cable still worked, and the aircraft still flew-miraculously! The turn back toward England had to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting off. They actually covered almost 70 miles to make the turn home.
The tail gunner was trapped because there was no floor connecting the tail to the rest of the plane. The waist and tail gunners used straps and their parachute harnesses in an attempt to keep the tail from ripping off and the two sides of the fuselage from splitting apart more. British fighters intercepted the All American over the Channel and took one of the pictures that later became famous – you can easily find it on the internet. The figher pilots also radioed to the base describing the empennage (tail section) was “waving like fish tail” and that the plane would not make it and to send out boats to rescue the crew when they bailed out.
Two and a half hours after being hit, the aircraft made an emergency landing and when the ambulance pulled alongside, it was waved off for not a single member of the crew had been injured. No one could believe that the aircraft could still fly in such a condition. The Fortress sat placidly until the crew all safely existed through the door in the fuselage, at which time the entire rear section of the aircraft collapsed onto the ground and the landing gear folded. The rugged old bird had done its job.
This event topped off an impressive streak of good luck that the crew of the All American experienced. In all of the 414th Bomb Squadron for the entire war, they were the only crew that survived without a single major injury for their entire 25 mission assignment. This incident was on their 25th mission and as a result, the entire crew were given orders to other non-combat assignments following their return from this flight.
B-17 “All American” (414th Squadron, 97BG)
That is the story that has been told and repeated for the past 70 years but there is something that has only recently come to light. Lt. Bragg was busy flying the plane but he was in constant contact with the two waist gunners SGT. Henry Jebbson and PVT Michael “Mike” Zuk, as they kept Bragg informed of the condition of the tail and made their attempts to strap it to the rest of the plane. Henry and Mike also tried several times to reach the tail gunner – PVT Sam Sarpolus – but there just was too much body damage to the aircraft. All of the crew have since died except Mike and Sam and this new aspect of the story comes from Mike. Sam was the youngest member of the crew at only 19 years old – with red hair and freckles. Mike was the next youngest
I met Mike at a Silver Eagles meeting in Pensacola in 2004. He was 81 and very frail and talked slow because of a stroke but there was nothing wrong with his mind. Few of the other party goers were willing to take the time to talk to Mike but I did. I took him into another room where we talked for more than 4 hours. He told me about the flight and his life after that. He became an enlisted pilot (a Silver Eagle) during the war and ferried aircraft over to England from the US. When I asked him if any of his crew was still alive, he said, “Only Sam, and of course he will be for a long time”. I wondered what he meant and asked. He smiled and said there was much more to the story than anyone has ever said. It wasn’t Henry and himself that held the plane to together. It wasn’t Lt. Bragg’s careful flying…..it was Sam.
Mike went on, “the whole time we were flying that day after the collision, Sam sat backwards in the tail gunners seat with his hands out like he was stopping traffic and his eyes closed. He never moved from that position….except once. One of the fighters flew too close to us and his prop wash shook the All American hard. We heard metal cracking and one of the two beams of the frame that was holding it together snapped. At that moment, Sam opened his eyes and looked straight at the broken beam and pointed to it with one hand while still holding the other out “stopping traffic”. Henry and I turned to look at what Sam was pointing to just in time to see a blinding light come from the break. When our eyes cleared, we could see that the beam had been fused back together again. We both snapped back to looking at Sam and he had gone back to holding his hands up with his eyes closed but he had a smile on his face.
He sat like that until after we landed. They had to cut open the front of this gunner’s position and pull him out thru the window. All the time with him holding his hands out. Everyone thought he was scared or frozen stiff. When he was put down on the ground, he still had his eyes closed. I finally told him that everyone was out of the plane and he opened one eye and looked at me and said, “Really?”. I assured him everyone was safe and then he put his arms down. When he did, the old B-17 broke right in half – the tail fell off, the #3 engine burst into flames and the landing gear collapsed. Sam looked at Mike and me and smiled and said, “Don’t tell anybody – I’ll explain later”.
It was three weeks later before we met with Sam in a quiet pub and had a long talk with him. Sam said he didn’t know how he does it but he can move stuff and make things happen just by thinking about it. He said he’s been busy during most of the flights keeping bullets from hitting any of the crew members. We were the only crew that ever flew 25 missions without having a single crewman shot up. We just stared at him and then both Henry and I said “bullshit” at the same time. Sam said, “No, really, let me show you”. He pulled out his K-bar sheath knife and handed it to Henry and told him to stab his hand. Henry said, “No” so Sam said, “OK, then just stab this table napkin”. Henry raised up the knife and plunged it down onto the table. The table made a loud thud but the knife stopped about one inch above the napkin. Henry pushed with both hands and then leaned his entire body onto the knife but it would not go that last inch into the table. Sam said that it was harder to do bullets but he had a lot of practice.
We spent hours talking and testing Sam over the next few days before he went back to the US and we were reassigned to a USO tour to talk up our flight in the All American. It seems that Sam has a rather well developed ability of telekinesis that allows him to control objects with his mind. Not just move them but manipulate them even at an atomic scale. That was how he welded the aluminum beams in the B-17 and created a sort of force field around each crewman when we were attacked. We wanted to tell other people and told Sam that he would be famous if he would let us but he made us promise to keep it a secret. Mike said I was the first person that he has ever told. After telling me, Mike sat there very quietly as if he was regretted telling me. I waited awhile and we sipped our drinks. Mike finally spoke, “I wonder if Sam remembers me?”. I asked if he had seen Sam since the war. Mike said, “The next time we talked was about 1973 or so. We met at a Silver Eagle Reunion in San Diego. I didn’t know Sam had gotten his enlisted pilot’s license also. That was the only reunion that Sam ever attended. When I saw him, I recognized him immediately and then realized that the reason I recognized him so quickly was because he looked pretty much like he did 30 year earlier. He had grown a mustache and dyed his hair but he did not look like he had aged much at all. He and I went off into a corner of the bar and talked for hours. It seems he liked helping people and he got a job as a paramedic on a rescue truck. He was very well qualified and confided in me that he often used his powers to help him in an emergency. Because he seemed to not age very fast he could only stay for a few years at each job but his skills were in high demand and he could get a job anywhere he went. He also had had jobs as a policeman and a highway patrol officer”. Mike would stop and stare at the floor every so often as he would get lost in memories and thoughts.
One of these moments that Mike stopped to stare turned into several minutes. I said his name several times but he did not respond. Finally, I touched his arm and asked if he was OK. Mike got a grimace on his face and then grabbed his chest and rolled out of his chair onto the floor. I recognized the signs of a heart attack and I called for help. In an instant, a large crowd of people had gathered around him and calls for a doctor and 911 were shouted. Someone put a large coat over Mike to keep him warm and another put a rolled up coat under his head for a pillow.
As I was sitting in my chair, holding his hand, someone with a hat on, bent down from the crowd and leaned over Mike. He put one hand on Mike’s forehead and the other under the coat on his chest. I thought it might be a doctor trying to check his vital signs but the person just frozen in that position. I watched intently and then noticed a slight glow of light coming from under the coat. No one else seemed to notice but I’m sure I did not imagine it. After about 15 seconds, Mike opened his eyes and looked up. He smiled and said, “Hi Sam”. The man in the hat then got up and melted back into the crowd. I asked Mike if he was OK and he said he felt fine that the he wanted to get up off the floor.
As I helped him up, I saw the man with the hat go out the door of the room we were in. I sat Mike down and rushed out the door but there was no one anywhere in sight. I rushed back to Mike who was shooing everyone away and sipping his drink. I sat down with him and said, “Was that Sam?”. Mike said, “Oh yea, he seems to come whenever I need him – that’s the third time he has done that”. “Done what?” I asked. Mike winked at me and said, “You know, you saw it”. Then he said, ”I’m getting tired and I need to go. It has been good talking with you”. I asked if we could talk again but Mike told me he was traveling back home early the next morning. I asked if he knew where I could find Sam. Mike turned to me and smiled and said, “I have no idea where he lives but every time I have needed him, he shows up”.
I spent two years searching for Sam with no luck. I carried a picture of him from his days of flying the B-17 but had it cropped and colored so that it did not look like an old picture. I showed it to anyone I thought might have seen him. He did not have a social security number and there were no public records of his name anywhere in the US. During my travels, I passed through Las Vegas and just out of habit, I showed Sam’s picture around. The second night I was there, the desk clerk at my hotel said he recognized Sam. He came about twice a year for only two or three days and played the roulette and Keno for a few hours in each of several hotels and then he would leave town. He seemed to have remarkably good luck and the desk clerk said that he was always generous with the tips and always seemed to be smiling. I smiled and agreed.
I figured I had been looking for Sam the wrong way. Instead of trying to find someone that had seen him by showing his picture, I took another tack. I started by looking in newspapers and online for unusual happenings that seemed to be unexplained or that were very much out of the ordinary. I started with the first few days after he was last seen in Las Vegas and looked in a 500 mile circle around Vegas. I was surprised at how many such events were reported on the internet and in YouTube videos but by reading each one, I narrowed it down.
One was for a small town in central Utah called Eureka – just south of Salt Lake City. They had reported that someone had tipped a waitress at the local truck stop with $500. It turned out that she needed about that much to be able to pay for a home medical device that her son needed for his severe asthma. I drove to this small town and found the waitress. Her name was Sally. She was reluctant to talk about it because of all the news attention she had gotten but when I showed her Sam’s picture, she clearly recognized his face but she hesitated for a minute and then said that was not him. I assured her that I was not a reporter and that I did not want to harm him. I showed her my previous stories about the B17 and his days in the Silver Eagles. She sat down with me in a quiet corner of the diner and we talked. She said he was quick to pick up on her sadness about her son and he listened intently as she described the problem. She had saved for an aspirator for her son Jimmy but times were tough and not many people were leaving tips and business at the truck stop was slow outside of tourist season. When Sam left, he smiled and held my hand and said “thank you and say hello to Jimmy for me”. Sally stopped for a moment and then said, “to this day, I don’t know what he was thanking me for – I only gave him coffee and he didn’t even finish that.”
I used the date Sam was here in Eureka and began the search again. I found another story in Ketchem, Idaho where someone paid to have a house rebuilt for a single mother with four kids. The husband had been killed in Iraq in 2009 and she had struggled to make ends meet but when a fire burned down their house, she was faced with having to send her kids to foster homes. Someone paid a local contractor to build an entire house on their old lot and then put $10,000 into a bank account in her name. She never saw the donor but at Perry’s restaurant on First Ave., a waitress that received a $100 tip confirmed that it saw Sam.
I repeated this searching pattern and tracked down more than a dozen places where Sam had stopped by some remote town or obscure business and helped out someone. Most often he paid for something or gave money to someone. About half the time, no one knew it was him but what he did seemed to follow a pattern. He would show up just as some situation was about as serious as it can get and he seemed to know exactly what was needed and exactly who needed it. He never seemed to stay overnight in the towns where he helped someone and he didn’t seem to do much investigating or asking around. He often spent less than 10 minutes at the place where he did his good deed and then he was gone completely out of town. I didn’t meet one person that knew his name.
I followed his trail up through Idaho and western Montana, then east through North Dakota and then south all the way to southern Texas. He did his good deeds about every 300 to 400 miles about every other day. Sam stopped along the way at casinos that were on Indian reservations and he also bought lottery tickets the day before the drawings. He often won. He always paid the IRS taxes immediately but I found out that he was using different social security numbers so that no one really knew who he was.
In Kansas, I found a State trooper that told me about a 25 car pileup that happened in a major storm on I-235 just outside of McPherson. Lots of people were hurt but when the paramedics came, they found that no one had any broken bones or life-threatening injuries. 16 of the accident victims said that someone had come to their car shortly after the crash and “fixed” them. They described a young looking man with red hair and freckles that calmed them down and then rubbed their legs or arms where it hurt and it stopped hurting. The medics said that the blood found in some of the cars indicated that there had been some very serious injuries but when the examined the people inside, they found no cuts or bleeding from any of them. No one saw Sam come or leave and most of them just called him an angel.
I don’t know who or what Sam is and maybe he doesn’t either. He roams around doing good deeds, saving lives and bringing a little peace and happiness to everyone he meets. He obviously wanted to remain unknown and I finally decided that I needed to honor that so I went home.