Intercepting the “Rex”

  • By
Gen. Frank M. Andrews, commander of General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force, wanted heavy bomber techniques developed as quickly as possible, so 12 of 13 Y1B-17s built were assigned to the 2nd Bomb Group, Langley Field, Va., beginning in March 1937. In addition to long-range bombardment, the Army was assigned coastal defense duties as outlined in the MacArthur-Pratt agreement of 1931. This allowed the U.S. Navy to assume long-range sea offensive operations.

Col. Robert Olds, commander of the 2nd Bomb Group, developed a "training mission" in which a flight of B-17s (the Y1B-17 was redesignated B-17 when assigned to the 2nd Bomb Group) would intercept a ship at sea to demonstrate the long-range bomber's capabilities. The ship selected for intercept was the Italian liner Rex. On the morning of May 12, 1938, three B-17s took off from Langley Field under the command of Maj. Caleb Hayes. Lt. Curtis LeMay was lead navigator for the flight and charged with finding the liner, which was about 800 miles east of New York City.

Although the weather was bad, the B-17s successfully intercepted the Rex after a four-hour flight. The B-17s made several passes over the ship to allow for still and motion picture photography. The U.S. Navy protested that the flight was not coastal defense, but the U.S. Army made the most of the flight and heavily publicized it in news reels and newspaper stories.

Click here to return to the Boeing Y1B-17 Overview.