Book: Hell's Angels

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“THE BACK OF THE ENGINEER’S HEAD HAD BEEN BLOWN OFF”

THE MEN FEARED JUMPING from their aircraft for many reasons. Aside from the slim possibility that they might be fired on by enemy fighters, and discounting the greater possibility of being mob-lynched by German civilians, there was the actual—and dangerous—act of parachuting itself. Firstly, the parachutes were packed by young men who generally had been on the job for less than a couple of years. That they made mistakes was a given. Too, there was the fact that parachutes were relatively new; materials and practices were still evolving. Finally, in the heat of combat aboard mortally stricken ships, the men often forgot or were unable to follow correct procedures. All of these factors contributed to the 303rd’s casualty rate to some small degree.

A case in point was the experience of the Cecil Miller crew aboard the 358th Bomb Squadron’s Paper Dollie on the July 23, 1944, mission to Creil, France. The ship was low on fuel and made it back to the English coast with only one engine operating. Once over land, unable to hold altitude on one engine, Miller ordered the crew to bail out.

He and the other eight men jumped. The parachute of William Zweck, the tail gunner, was caught up in Paper Dollie’s elevators. Zweck was subsequently dragged behind the aircraft and finally killed when it struck the ground. Miller, the pilot, pulled his parachute lanyard, but the parachute failed to deploy. He was killed when he struck the ground. The navigator, Saul Cooper, broke his ankle upon landing.

Another example was provided by Grady Hodges of the 358th Bomb Squadron. He was a waist gunner aboard Lady Alta when it was hit on the Merseberg mission on November 21, 1944. Hodges was urged by his comrades in the back of the aircraft to jump first; he didn’t want to.

But if I was to go first I wanted to hook my parachute ripcord to the static line by the door. This way the chute would open without any action on my part. I was not successful in snapping the line onto my chute. Thinking I was nervous, I asked the radio operator [James Brady] to snap the line onto my chute. He did it so vigorously that the chute pack popped open, spilling the chute to the floor at my feet. The radio operator picked up the chute carefully and placed it at my chest, folding my arms across it. I went to the door and tumbled out headfirst to try to delay the chute from opening and to get away from the tail of the plane. The chute opened almost immediately after I had cleared the tail of the plane. It was nice to look up at the opened chute above me and good to be away from the roar of the airplane engines and the gasoline fumes that had filled the plane.

*   *   *

THE B-17, THE FLYING FORTRESS, owed much of its reputation to the defensive armament it carried. Unmodified, the B-17E and B-17F each carried nine guns, while the ultimate model, the B-17G, was equipped with thirteen .50-caliber machine guns. Quite frankly, formations of the big bombers—bristling with so many guns—terrorized German fighter pilots. They coined a name for that fear: Vier Motor Schreck, or “Four-Motor Fear.”

It took men to operate these guns, and consequently nearly half the B-17’s crew was dedicated solely to doing so. The tail gunner and ball turret gunner each fired two .50-caliber machine guns. There were two waist gunners, each manning a single gun. The radio operator’s gun protruded through a hatch at the top of the fuselage, where he had a limited field of fire. The top turret and its two guns were manned by the flight engineer, whose additional duties included the mechanical well-being of the aircraft while in flight. In the aircraft’s nose section, the bombardier and navigator operated the forward guns.

Flexible aerial gunnery was a maddeningly complex skill—a gunner had to fire his weapons so that the bullets and the aircraft at which he was shooting arrived at the same point at the exact same instant. This required him to solve for the ballistics or flight path of the bullets, the speed of the bomber from which he was firing and the range, elevation, speed and flight path of the enemy aircraft. Some men mastered the science of gunnery through informed instinct, while others followed rote procedure. Still others—barely competent—simply trusted to luck. It was a very difficult craft to learn well.

For instance, men who were experienced hunters—as many of the gunners were—knew through experience to aim ahead of, or to “lead,” a moving target. However, because an aerial gunner shot from a moving bomber, he often had to aim behind his target. The Gunner’s Information File tried to put the concept into a familiar context with “The Newsboy’s Lesson”:

Every newsboy soon learns the basic trick of aiming from his moving bicycle. The first time he tosses a newspaper he discovers a simple fact: If he aims directly at a front porch, he misses, and the paper lands next door. The forward motion of his bicycle carries the newspaper forward too. . . . The same thing happens to a bullet fired from a moving plane. . . . It keeps the forward motion given it by the moving bomber.

Of course, aerial gunnery was much more complex than tossing a newspaper, and teaching it was something for which the Army Air Corps was ill-prepared when the nation began to prepare for war in earnest. As late as 1940 there were no schools dedicated solely to training aerial gunners. Such training as existed was not well standardized and was performed incidentally by a variety of organizations. The results were unremarkable.

However, as Arnold hurried to put the USAAF on a war footing, action was taken to train the gunners necessary to man the enormous numbers of sophisticated bombers that were planned. The first flexible aerial gunner school was opened at Las Vegas, Nevada, where flying weather was outstanding but where officialdom noted that “moral conditions were less than ideal.” Notwithstanding that judgment, the surrounding area was vast and sparsely populated, and there was little danger that gunnery operations would cause injury or damage.

After getting off to a slow start during 1941, when just more than a hundred instructors were graduated, the school quickly got to business. More than twenty-seven thousand students were trained during 1942 and 1943 combined. These were augmented by students produced by six additional schools, in Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Most of the 303rd’s men trained in either Kingman, Arizona, or in Las Vegas, where schools were specifically organized to train gunners for the B-17. In the aggregate, the seven schools produced nearly a quarter million aerial gunners. It should be noted that this number included radio operators and flight engineers as well as bombardiers and navigators when there was spare training capacity.

Assignments to aerial gunnery were initially made on a volunteer basis, but the need for gunners was much greater than the numbers of volunteers. Consequently, involuntary assignments began during January 1943, and standards were lowered. Originally, aerial gunners ranged from eighteen to thirty years of age, stood five-feet-ten-inches or less and did not exceed 170 pounds. Importantly, they were required to score at least 100 on the Army’s General Classification Test, or GCT. In order to increase the pool of men available for assignment as aerial gunners, the height, weight and age limits were eased and the GCT requirement was markedly reduced to 85.

The general quality of the early graduates when they arrived at the operational training units—the organizations that trained them on the actual aircraft types that they would fly into combat—was not impressive. A wartime report described their shortcomings:

Upon interviewing these men, we have found that they have not been sufficiently trained to be aerial gunners in heavy bombardment equipment. They do not know how to harmonize turrets, load ammunition and install in turrets; they do not know the use of K-3 and K-4 sights; they do not know how to install guns on the turrets or time solenoids for firing; they do not know how to detail strip the .50 caliber machine guns, and they do not know how to take care of any malfunctions which may occur in the action of the .50 caliber gun.

However, the curriculum and quality of instruction improved as experience was gained and training equipment became more available. But both were long in coming. Even as late as mid-1942, there was not a single turret-equipped aircraft in any of the flexible aerial gunnery schools. In fact, .50-caliber machine guns and ammunition—together with various training devices and gun sights—were scarce well into 1943. The shortage of aircraft to tow targets, and of aircraft from which to fire at those targets, was just as bad. The AT-6 pilot trainer was used early on. It could accommodate only a .30-caliber machine gun on a primitive mount in the rear cockpit. It was nothing like the sophisticated, twin .50-caliber turrets that the men would operate in combat shortly after finishing training.

The course was originally only five weeks and included just 150 hours of formal instruction. It was almost immediately recognized that the training was not thorough enough, and the course was extended to six weeks. The intensity of the training increased dramatically over time. By March of 1944 the course included 290 hours of instruction—almost double the original number.

Classroom subjects included the theory of aerial gunnery, instruction on turrets and sights, and aircraft recognition—among others. Aircraft recognition was an issue early in the war and remained an issue throughout. Because the P-47 appeared similar to the FW-190 at a distance, it was constantly shot at by B-17 gunners. Consequently, to aid in their recognition, the P-47s were painted with white stripes around their cowlings, wings, horizontal stabilizers and tails. The 303rd’s James Andrus noted this in his diary entry for December 23, 1943: “The P-47s are now striped with white because of Fortress gunners’ itchy trigger fingers.”

Outside the schoolhouse the men spent many hours learning how to clean and care for both .50-caliber and .30-caliber machine guns. They were required to know the guns well enough so that they could, while blindfolded, put together a completely disassembled weapon from a jumble of parts. Additionally, they spent time on the malfunction range, where weapons were set up to suffer specific failures. The men were required to recognize and remedy the malfunctions within a specific period of time.

And malfunctions were not infrequent. For example, guns frequently froze at high altitude and refused to fire. The 303rd’s crews experienced this problem on a number of sorties, to include the mission to Osnabrück on February 4, 1943. The group sortied thirteen aircraft, five of which aborted early—two for inoperative guns. Frozen guns caused both The 8-Ball Mk II and Hunga Dunga to turn back before crossing over the Continent.

However, it wasn’t apparent that the guns aboard Memphis Tot were frozen until the formation was over the Netherlands. The pilot, Lloyd Cole, elected to leave the group and return to England before penetrating any deeper. Doubtless, he hoped to reach the North Sea and safety without being molested.

But luck was not with Cole and his crew. Alone, the defenseless Memphis Tot was attacked by Me-109s and FW-190s. Cole was hit in the hip by a 20-millimeter cannon shell, and his copilot was shot dead. Cole put the ship down in the Zuider Zee, where two of his men drowned. The rest were picked up by a Dutch boat and transferred to the Germans. Cole died later of his injuries.

In truth, it was very difficult to get the guns to fire once they were frozen. The key was proper preventative maintenance as promulgated in a later edition of the 303rd’s Standard Operating Procedures for its gunners: “On damp and rainy days, the receivers, barrel jackets, and barrel jacket bearing will be wiped free from moisture. This must be done to prevent FREEZING of the gun at altitude.” The procedures also directed: “In oiling aircraft guns, be careful not to use too much oil. In low temperatures the oil will congeal and cause MALFUNCTIONS. It is best to OIL by wiping with an oiled rag.”

Safety was constantly stressed at the schools. The .50-caliber machine gun was a devastating weapon, and horseplay or inattention could be deadly. This was proven over and over again, even at Molesworth, where the 303rd was considered to be among the most professional of a very professional organization of combat groups. Raymond Espinoza recounted an incident: “I was driving a ‘cletrac’ on the perimeter road with Sgt. Erwin Heins when a jeep pulls alongside and the driver yells that they need us near the 360th parking area. A B-17 had been set afire from an incendiary that was accidentally fired from a ball turret across the field. Heins and I hooked up to the B-17 and pulled it away from the burning fuel on the revetment.”

Indeed, safety and an understanding of the weapons, turrets and sights were all very important. However, the point of it all was shooting down enemy aircraft. Consequently the real focus of the flexible aerial gunnery course was marksmanship. In some instances the gunnery students started shooting BB guns and small .22-caliber rifles, but most men began their training with shotguns. Although the value of trap and skeet shooting—firing at flying clay discs with shotguns—was questioned, it was still taught throughout the war. The men also fired on the moving base shotgun range. While atop a moving vehicle, often a jeep, they shot at clay targets launched from variously placed trap houses. They also spent time in turret trainers and camera-based simulators such as the curiously named Jam Handy, which permitted the “actual practice of gun firing in aerial combat with built-in means to indicate, accurately and easily on the films, where the point of aim was as well as where it should have been.”

Nearing the end of the course, the men tested their skills while airborne. During 1942 and 1943 they typically fired a .30-caliber machine gun from the rear cockpit of an AT-6 at a target towed by another AT-6. Later they fired from other aircraft, such as the twin-engine B-34, which was a Lockheed Ventura variant. It had waist gun positions as well as a dorsal turret.

The results of all the effort and resources that were put into aerial gunnery training were confounding. Hitting an aerial target required skilled shooting, but the level of marksmanship attained by the gunnery school graduates failed to match expectations. And the USAAF, despite repeated calls from the combatant commands for better-trained gunners, never satisfactorily determined the best way to teach them.

Even as late as April 1944, a ranking officer at a specially called flexible gunnery training conference stated: “Please don’t think that the Second Air Force [a stateside command responsible for aviation training] or anyone else today knows the solution.”

Much of the debate about how to improve results revolved about which of the two primary methods of flexible aerial gunnery ought to be taught—the “relative speed” method or the “position firing” method. The relative speed method was initially favored but was complex and awkward to execute in actual combat, as described by a contemporaneous critic:

The gunner was taught to use the following sequence of action in sightings: (1) recognize the enemy ship, (2) estimate the range with 600 yards as the critical distance for opening fire, (3) estimate the difference in speed between his ship and the enemy ship by holding the sight stationary for one second, (4) compute the lead according to a definite table which he had memorized, and (5) open fire. Under combat conditions there was usually no target in sight by the time the student had gone through this involved system of computing the lead.

The position firing method received more emphasis later in the war. It was a technique used against fighters flying a classic pursuit-curve attack. A fighter making a continuous attack against a bomber necessarily had to fly a predictable curving flight path. Position firing took advantage of that predictability, and the USAAF’s instruction prompted aspiring gunners to recall the principle of “The Newsboy’s Lesson”:

You have seen in the preceding pages that if you shoot in any direction other than dead ahead or dead astern, your bullets do not go where you aim. The bullets not only move away from your gun, but they are also carried forward—and they are carried forward regardless of whether you fire to the side, above, or below. Like the boy on the bicycle, you must allow for this forward motion. Make this allowance by using the first rule of Position Firing: Always aim between the attacking fighter and the tail of your own bomber.

Position firing was taught through the war, although the more advanced compensating gun sights that were fielded during the latter years offered better accuracy. Using these sights, the gunner had only to adjust the size of the reticle to match the wingspan of the fighter at which he was shooting. Then, once the fighter was in range, he simply put the aiming dot over it while he squeezed the trigger. An example of one of these gun sights was the K-13, which replaced the primitive steel ring-and-post sights on many waist guns.

One constant, regardless of how they were aimed and fired, was the fact that the weapons had to be cared for. Paul Sersland, a waist gunner with the 360th Bomb Squadron, recalled how the guns were handled before and after each mission: “Usually we—the gunners—stopped at the armory to pick up our guns before we went to the aircraft. Specific guns weren’t assigned to specific aircraft; instead we just drew from a pool of guns. They were all interchangeable. Once we got to the aircraft, we installed the guns and readied the ammunition, which had already been delivered. After the mission we simply left the guns on the aircraft, and the armorers came by later to pick them up as well as the remaining ammunition. The armorers also cleaned the guns—we didn’t have to.”

This policy later changed, and the gunners were required to clean their weapons on the same day they flew their missions. The change even applied to the navigators and bombardiers, who were officers and not normally expected to perform such work. Cleaning and oiling the bulky guns was a grubby and miserable task, especially when the weather was cold and wet. Still, the men made the best of it and often socialized or swapped stories about the mission just completed. Theodore McDevitt, a bombardier with the 360th Bomb Squadron, recalled a humorous encounter:

After a rough mission to Berlin, a lieutenant and I were in the armament tent cleaning our guns when he told me of an incident that had taken place while he was stationed at the Kingman, Arizona, gunnery school. As he was new to the squadron, he didn’t know that I was raised in Kingman. He told me he had been in Kingman only three times—his arrival, his departure and a mandatory formation for a ceremony in front of the county courthouse. He recalled that a local widow was being honored on Memorial Day, 1943, because all her five sons had enlisted and were overseas in combat. The new lieutenant told me what he thought of any woman stupid enough to have five sons in the first place, much less to have them overseas in combat. I informed him that the foolish woman was my mother, Della McDevitt.

Ultimately, it is impossible to accurately measure how effective the gunners were. In all of history there are no similar examples against which to compare them. To be sure, other nations had bombers with gunners, but their operations were trifling in comparison. Certainly bombers—sometimes many bombers—were shot out of their formations by enemy fighters. In those instances the gunners were obviously ineffective or, at a minimum, not effective enough. On the other hand it is undeniable that the gunners also shot down significant numbers of German fighters.

However, at the macro level, what is known is that the bombers could not—without escorts—conduct a sustainable daytime bombing campaign in the face of determined fighter opposition. The B-17 as a self-escorting bomber was a failure because the gunners could not keep back the German fighters. The second mission against Schweinfurt demonstrated this with absolute finality. No matter how the mission might have been trumpeted as a success by the USAAF’s leaders, there was no way that such losses could have been sustained.

That this was so was not a black mark against the gunners. Regardless of whether the problem was with the equipment or the training or the concept itself, the gunners—as was demonstrated thousands of times during the war—performed bravely and capably. Tail gunner Joseph Sawicki of the 360th Bomb Squadron provided just such an example during the mission to Bremen on November 29, 1943. On that day his ship, Dark Horse, piloted by Carl Fyler, was hit by a flak burst that stopped both engines on the right wing, tore away the right horizontal stabilizer and shredded the rest of the tail section. It also ripped away Sawicki’s left arm. Moreover, his chest and abdomen were lacerated by shrapnel, and blood gushed from his wounds.

He crawled out of his position to get help, only to find the two waist gunners, George Fisher and Martin Stachowiak, on the floor of the aircraft; they were badly wounded and bleeding. Aside from their other injuries, they both had broken arms. With no consideration for his own well-being, Sawicki crawled forward and put parachutes on both men. With the last of his strength—the last of his life—he dragged his two comrades to the rear hatch, kicked it open and pushed them overboard. Both survived as POWs.

Joseph Sawicki perished with Dark Horse.

The gunnery schools graduated nearly a quarter million students destined to serve in hundreds of different organizations, and classmates often crossed paths afterward. Those reunions were not always happy, as evidenced by the experience of William O’Brien, a flight engineer with the 359th Bomb Squadron:

On one mission, we were forced to land at an emergency strip for fuel. A B-17 from another group had just landed and I was told the engineer had been wounded and the crew needed help. I rushed over and climbed to the plane’s top turret. There was no rush—the back of the engineer’s head had been blown off. I disengaged the power train and rotated the turret by hand. When I then saw his face, I was looking into the lifeless eyes of a friend I had made at gunnery school.

*   *   *

IT HAD BEEN nearly a year since George Buske, the tail gunner aboard the Jersey Bounce Jr., had been so horribly wounded. He should have died. He didn’t. Instead, following his release from the hospital and a three-week respite at home, his request to be returned to duty—rather than being medically discharged—was granted.

Buske’s remarkable resilience and dedication to duty are even more incredible when it is considered that he knew firsthand the dangers of air combat before he ever climbed aboard the Jersey Bounce Jr. on December 20, 1943. Three months earlier, on August 19, 1943, he had been badly wounded by German fighters during the mission to Gilze-Rijen, Holland. A 20-millimeter cannon shell knocked out his left gun, set his tracer ammunition afire and sent shrapnel deep into his hip. Nevertheless, he stayed at his position, warded off more attacks and was credited with downing one of the aggressive fighters. It was an action for which he was awarded the Silver Star and which caused him to be hospitalized for two months.

Buske’s crewmate, Forrest Vosler, was awarded the Medal of Honor on September 6, 1944, by President Roosevelt in a ceremony at the White House. He was only the second enlisted airman to be so honored. Although news of the event was welcomed by the 303rd back at Molesworth, there were few men remaining there who actually knew Vosler.

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