BOISE CITY, Okla. -- In the darkest hours of World War II, the patriotic, God-fearing residents of this remote Oklahoma Panhandle town didn't worry much about invading Japanese or German soldiers.
As for their own Army Air Corps, well, that was another matter.
In an episode that seems better scripted for "F Troop" or "McHale's Navy," a B-17 crew somehow veered off course on the night of July 5, 1943. They dropped six 100-pound practice bombs near the county courthouse, scaring townspeople, costing the navigator his job and nearly causing the crew to be court-martialed.
Now, 50 years later, bemused Boise City residents are planning to commemorate the event that put their town on the map with an Independence Day celebration that includes the dedication of a memorial bearing a 100-pound surplus bomb from the war era.
"I don't believe there's been anything that exciting, before or since," said Norma Gene Young, Boise City's former newspaper editor. "There have been a few shootings, but nothing like this."
As anticipation builds toward the event, there is considerable disappointment that none of the surviving crew members will be joining the lighthearted festivities.
Some are unable for health reasons to make the trip to Boise City, in the far western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle. Others say they don't want any more public attention drawn to their inauspicious debut as American bombers.
"I don't understand why they feel that way," said H.G. Goeringer, the plane's radio operator, who is retired and living in Southern California. "I thought it was pretty funny at the time and still do."
As it turned out, the B-17 crew became one of America's most highly decorated outfits in World War II. Not only were its members each awarded nearly a dozen medals and citations, but they also were chosen to lead 800 planes from the 8th Air Force on the first daylight bombing raid of Berlin in March 1944.
But less than a year earlier, on an ill-fated training mission over the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, the 10-man crew out of the Dalhart Army Air Base feared that it would be drummed out of the military. And the 1,144 residents of Boise City breathed a collective sigh of relief when one bomb narrowly missed a gasoline transport truck and another fell about a foot short of the First Baptist Church.
Boise City butcher Hurlie Reed, his wife, Hazel, and their infant son were sound asleep about 12:30 a.m. when the quiet night was shattered by a long whistle and explosion.
Hurlie Reed, now retired, said he jumped up, pulled on his pants and ran outside to see what was happening. Hazel Reed, the former county clerk, quickly joined him. Together, they watched as an airplane, its lights visible against the dark sky, slowly circled their town and headed back toward the Cimarron County Courthouse.
"Every time they'd make a big wide circle, they'd drop a bomb," Hurlie Reed said. "It made plenty of noise. You definitely knew they were doing a pretty good job by where they hit."
Ms. Young said the county sheriff, who then lived in a third-floor courthouse apartment, knew immediately that Dalhart trainees had somehow gotten off course. He raced down the street to the telephone office, where he roused the operator, and they began calling the base.
Meanwhile, up in the B-17, the navigator didn't realize that the plane had flown about 40 miles north to Boise City, rather than 20 miles northeast to Conlen, Texas, to the target range.
Once he and the other officers saw the four lights around the Cimarron County Courthouse -- one on each end, creating the illusion of an 'X' -- they believed that they had reached their target.
"The investigators took pictures of the courthouse at night and put them next to the pictures of the target area," said Fort Worth resident Sam Assimotos, who succeeded the crew's navigator the next morning in a disciplinary move. "They couldn't tell which was which."
Mr. Goeringer, the radio operator, said that after the crew dropped three bombs, he was contacted by the Dalhart tower.
"They asked me to check with the navigator and bombardier to see if they knew where they were," he said. "They were positive."
Moments later, Dalhart radioed him again.
"They kept telling me that somebody's on the wrong target," said Mr. Goeringer, who was 22 at the time. "But when you're an enlisted man and you're talking to the [plane's] officers, you don't argue with them. You have to take their word."
Then, suddenly, the lights in Boise City went out. An employee of the electric company, Frank Garrett, raced to the office and shut down the power, effectively ending the target practice.
"They [the B-17 officers] kind of thought they had hit the main switch and they thought that put all the lights out," said Anthony Foti, the aircraft engineer that night who now is retired and living in Jamestown, N.Y.
The crew was ordered back to Dalhart, and an investigation began.
Residents said nervous military brass descended on Boise City the next morning to survey the damage. They were relieved to learn that the bombs -- 4 pounds of explosive and 96 pounds of sand -- caused only minor damage, mostly just leaving some significant craters behind.
Meanwhile, some wag posted a sign at the base that read: "Remember the Alamo, remember Pearl Harbor and, for God's sake, remember Boise City!"
In a move that reflected the patriotic fervor of the times, the town's mayor issued a statement the next morning, praising the bombers for their accuracy. All but one landed within 93 feet of the courthouse.
The admiration continues today.
"We'd like to have them back and pin some medals on them -- not so much for putting Boise City on the map, but for being involved in the war effort and going on to great accomplishment," said lawyer Stan Manske, who is helping to coordinate the July 4 festivities.