A Day in Their Lives – B-17 Crews over Germany
Flight Journal Magazine, April 2012
© 2012 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
Ex communi periculo fraternitas
‘From common peril, brotherhood’
Aboard each of the thousands of B-17 Flying Fortresses that left the soil of England bound for targets in Europe were ten young men.
Outwardly they were no different from any late-teen or early-twenties boy you’d meet anywhere in America. Same faces, same names, same youthful vigor and sense of invincibility.
But on their shoulders rested the hopes of a nation, a world at war.
This article relates missions over Germany through the personal accounts of men no longer young. They have little in common but their memories and that they once flew high in the deadly skies over Hitler’s Germany to deliver destruction to the Nazi war machine.
Bombardiers and navigators, pilots and co-pilots, radio operators, flight engineers, ball, waist and tail gunners. Some were officers, most were sergeants. They came from factories and farms, small towns and big cities, and ended up in a narrow aluminum tube with four roaring Cyclone engines, a dozen machine guns and four tons of high explosives. The air temperature was far below freezing even when it was woven with red-hot shrapnel and exploding cannon shells.
Very few of them knew one another during the war, but they are forever bonded in blood and duty.
Kids then, old men now, they tell their stories of life and death inside B-17s over Germany.
Long before dawn reached the cold sky of East Anglia, a lone man entered the barracks where the aircrews rested in uneasy slumber. Then he began waking them up.
Radio operator Don Hammond, who flew 28 missions with the infamous 100th Bomb Group, recalls “The Charge of Quarters came in and said ‘Hey, you’re flying. Breakfast at five, briefing at six, takeoff at seven.’ Then they picked us up in a truck and took us to the Mess Hall. We had fresh eggs, served to anyone who was flying.”
Things weren’t the same all over in the Eighth Air Force. Navigator Dick Tyhurst, a veteran of 35 missions with the 95th Group said “At Horham we always had powdered eggs, toast and coffee. Each squadron had 120 guys. Three squadrons, that’s 360. No way are you going to have fresh eggs.”
The sleepy crews made their way over to the main Quonset hut for the mission briefing, conducted by the Group Commander and Intelligence Officer. Behind them was a large curtain covering a map of Europe.
“We went to the main hall with all the crews,” continued Hammond. “Armed sentries stayed at the door so we couldn’t get out. I thought that was kind of funny.”
Pilot John Gibbons, who survived 49 missions with the 100th related his memories of briefing. “They pulled the curtain and told us where we were going. On the Berlin missions that red tape went all the way across Germany and over all these fighter bases. Everybody in the room would just groan and sigh or mutter ‘Oh, goddamn.’”
After the main briefing, the navigators and bombardiers were given instructions about route and target information.
493rd Group bombardier Lynn Tipton said, “We were told what bomb load we’d have, the aiming point, and target information.”
“I got a sealed bag with my frequencies and information for the day,” remembered Hammond. “It had an escape kit in there with a map and stuff. I had about fifty dollars in gold too, to bribe civilians. I hoped I’d never need it. After briefing we drew our equipment, Mae West, pistol and flak vest.”
The sky slowly turned from deep violet to dusty pink in the east as the crews stubbed out final cigarettes and drove out to the waiting bombers, already loaded with bombs, fuel and ammunition.
96th Group pilot Ed Davidson commented, “Each squadron was in its own line in the hardstands.”
“Our ground crew chief went over all the damage and repairs from the previous mission with Lt. Stan Cebuhar and me,” said co-pilot Delton ‘Rip’ Reopelle of the 379th.
Stanley Lawruk, a flight engineer with the 92nd said “I walked with the ground crew chief and inspected it to make sure everything was fine for flight.”
“I went into the tail and checked my ammunition,” Rich Tangradi, a 100th BG tail gunner explained. “Two boxes, each with six hundred rounds of one tracer, two armor piercing and two incendiaries. I put the guns in their positions and lifted the receiver, put in the belt, then slammed it down and locked it. No one touched those guns but me.”
Once the doors and hatches were closed and latched the crews called the pilot and checked in. Then they settled in for takeoff.
Takeoff was done by section and squadron, explained Davidson. “We took off at thirty-second intervals and climbed.”
Navigator Tyhurst explained, “We had three groups in the 13th Combat Wing. The 100th at Thorpe-Abbots, we were in the middle at Horham, and the 390th was at Framlingham to the southeast.
“We used vertically-aimed radio beacons called ‘Bunchers.’ The airfields were roughly five miles apart. When we took off we had to circle over our beacon because five miles away were other groups within our wing. Sometimes we’d come up out of the clouds and five miles away we’d see another B-17 come out.”
Joe Armanini, a 100th bombardier said, “I went back to the bomb bay and pulled the safety pins on the nose and tail of each bomb to arm them. The crew tested their guns when we reached the sea.”
The air temperature at 25,000 feet often dropped to 40 or 50 degrees below zero. Tyhurst related how the crews endured the cold. “Regular clothes, then the blue electrically-heated ‘long johns.’ They had a six-foot cord to plug into your station. The cuffs had cords to plug into boots and gloves. The leather pants were like overalls with a fleece-lined leather jacket.”
Ball gunner Bob Mathiasen, a veteran of 35 missions with the 100th said “I had my suit temperature turned up all the way to keep from freezing to death. I never touched anything with my bare fingers. My skin would freeze onto the metal.”
“In the older B-17Fs, the waist windows were open,” commented Tangradi. “It got colder than hell in there.”
As the bombers crossed the North Sea, they entered the domain of German flak batteries. They were often positioned on bomber routes. Fliegerabwehrkanone, for aircraft defense cannon, was one of the most feared and despised defenses the bomber crews faced. The Krupp-built 88mm gun could effectively reach up to 25,000 feet, waiting for the bombers to fly into the deadly umbrella of hot shrapnel.
379th pilot Stephen King recalled “We were briefed that there were over 900 flak guns at Hamburg. I believe it.”
Bruce Richardson, a 35-mission tail gunner with the 100th, commented “Merseburg had about 1,100 guns, nearly all 88s.”
“The Germans put 88s on railroad cars so they could move them to where they were most needed,” said fellow 100th pilot Bill O’Leary. “Crews talked about flak so thick you could walk on it. The sky over Cologne was almost black. I don’t know how any planes made it through. We came back with an awful lot of holes.”
Rip Reopelle said laconically, “If anybody who went through flak said they weren’t scared, they’re a liar.”
Tyhurst recalled, “When I saw the flak over Munich, I thought ‘Wow, unless we’re lucky as hell we’re gonna get killed.’ Life got pretty serious all of a sudden. The 88 had a range of over 20,000 feet. Fortunately we flew above that. The gunners were so good that if you flew below 20,000 feet you were duck soup.”
Joe Armanini related an encounter with flak. “Over Berlin the flak was fierce. If you saw the red ball in the center of the flak that was really close. One exploded, couldn’t have been more than ten feet away, and it just shook the whole plane like hell. I said ‘God that was really close!’”
What flak could do to a plane was made clear to Don Hammond. “On one mission I was bent over getting a chaff roll to eject through the window chute. When I came back up and saw the fuselage there was a huge hole right where my head had been.”
“I lost my radio operator over Germany,” John Gibbons said. “An 88 exploded in his compartment and blew him out, leaving only a six-by-eight foot hole.”
Flak destroyed more bombers than German fighters did. Gunner Buschmeier said, “The Germans fired volleys hoping we’d fly into it. It preyed on our mind more than fighters because there wasn’t anything we could do about it.”
The Me-109 and Fw-190 were the deadly sharks in the aerial seas of Europe.
Bomber crews almost preferred dealing with fighters because they could at least shoot back.
“German fighters would almost never attack in their own flak,” said King, “but over Berlin they came right into the flak and hit the bombers. Most of the time we had either flak or fighters but this time it was both at once. A fighter was approaching from twelve o’clock level and I didn’t hear anything from my top turret gunner, Ray Weehler. I got on the interphone and yelled ‘Ray, why aren’t you shooting?’ He said ‘I’m waiting until I can get a good bead on him.’ I yelled ‘Goddamnit, scare him away, scare him away!’ Ray was credited with five enemy aircraft. He joked that if he’d been a fighter pilot he’d be an ace.”
Hammond recalled, “On the first Berlin raid there were twenty planes in our squadron. We were hit head-on by a lot of fighters in their own flak. They got fifteen of us on that mission. Four others were hit and later got back but my plane was the only one to land on our base that night.”
“Over Berlin the fighters came into their own flak,” said Ball Gunner Bob Mathiasen. “I looked forward and saw at least two hundred fighters coming at us. We lost lots of planes on that mission. I got a confirmed Fw-190. He was coming up and I zeroed in and got him in the cockpit.”
91st ball gunner Dan McGuire told the author “I got two Me-109s at once. I put about two hundred rounds into one and finally he lost control. He plowed into another fighter and they both went down. I learned this after the mission when a waist gunner said, ‘Hey you got two of them.’ I wasn’t credited with either, though.”
Gunners’ claims were often exaggerated but with good reason. Scores of gunners fired at each fighter and when one went down, several claimed it.
“Later we read in the papers that we’d shot down 400 German fighters. Crap,” scoffed Armanini. “If we’d been that good there’d be no Luftwaffe left.”
Tangradi recalled, “On February 4, 1944 over Germany I spotted an Fw-190 coming up out of the overcast inching in towards us, I thought ‘You sonofabitch when you get to about six hundred yards I’m gonna get you!’ He came in and I hit my triggers and my guns didn’t work. He got to about two hundred yards and started shooting. The Focke-Wulf has guns in both wings and the shells were going by on each side of me. I got hit in both arms. It’s a good thing it wasn’t an Me-109 because they have a big 20mm in the nose. If he’d had that he’d have blown me away.”
During the early raids into Germany the bombers often had no fighter escort. Until the long-range drop tanks were available for the P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts, American fighters had to return to base long before the bombers reached their targets. Bomber crews were both envious and grateful for the presence of the ‘Little Friends.’
Bombardier Armanini related one encounter with a Thunderbolt. “We were supposed to bomb the Ruhr, but it was overcast, so I saw this factory with a tall smokestack, and I made a run at the target and we creamed it. I saw this Focke-Wulf coming at us and then this Thunderbolt was hammering at him and shot him down.”
“Later on I was at the Officers’ Club having a drink and this guy comes in and asked ‘Hey who was the guy who bombed that factory?’ I said ‘That was me.’ The guy turns out to be Francis ‘Gabby’ Gabreski, a top ace. He said ‘Joe, I gotta tell you that was the best bombing I’ve ever seen.’ Real nice guy. He saved our butts and he’s congratulating me.”
Ball gunner Bob Mathiasen also praised the fighter escort. “Those guys were absolutely great. If we were jumped by fighters and the ‘little friends’ came up it only took one look and the Germans were gone.”
In the summer of 1944 the new cannon-armed Me-262 jet fighter began tearing through the bombers, attacking with near-impunity. But the Mustangs were still there.
“I happened to look out and saw three contrails,” said Bill O’Leary. “One was horizontal and the other two were almost vertical. It was two P-51s diving to get a 262. They were never going to catch him. But I was glad they were there. He never came back.”
The B-17’s job was to carry four tons of high-explosive bombs to a target in Europe. While the gunners and pilots sweated out the German defenses, the bombardiers prepared to earn their pay.
The role of the flight crew and ground crew was to get the bomber to where the bombardier leaned over his Norden bombsight.
493rd bombardier Lynn Tipton described his duties as the B-17 approached the target run. “At the IP (Initial Point) I had the Norden bombsight all warmed up. The pilot gave me control of the plane, and the Norden did the flying. If you got it all dialed in correctly you were on the straight line of your course track. Then there’s a line crossing that line.
When the target passed under the second line, that’s when you hit the bomb release.”
Tipton continued. “We flew in twelve-plane echelons. When the lead bombardier dropped, we all did.”
Armanini also gave the Norden high marks. “If all the settings were done right and the course was correct, there was almost no way you could miss. The only thing that might happen is a nearby flak burst just as I was releasing the bombs. Once they were gone, they were out of my control. I closed the doors and the pilot took over.”
With the distant shriek of the falling bombs, the crew had done its job for Uncle Sam, as they said. “Then we were flying for us,” said Tipton with a chuckle.
The route back to England was often different from the approach to the target, but was no less hazardous, especially after a successful bombing. That was when the fighters came up for blood.
100th waist gunner Frank Buschmeier remembered, “All of a sudden our tail gunner was firing. I looked and there was this Messerschmitt and he was right behind the stabilizer. I couldn’t get a shot. He hit us without anybody being able to shoot at him.”
He continued. “The radio operator was right next to me, not eighteen inches away. One shell hit me in the right leg, and one hit him in the jugular vein and he dropped dead right there. A big pool of blood spilled and froze on the deck.”
Tail gunner Tangradi told about his last mission. “The fighter that hit my arms tore us up pretty good and the engines were smoking. I crawled forward and called waist gunner Willy Kemp and asked him to help me with my chute. The blood was running down my wrists and hands. I told the other waist gunner to go forward and find out what the hell was going on. He came back and said ‘The guys up front were all gone.’ I figured the plane was so shot up that the bailout bell didn’t work. The radio gunner was hit, his face was all bloody, his fingers were frozen, like ten white candles. The ball turret gunner’s elbow was blown away.” Tangradi related the last moments in his doomed B-17. “We kicked the door out and jumped. And Willy Kemp, the kid who helped me put the chute on went down with the plane. It went into a spin and he got caught inside in the centrifugal force.”
Bombers already damaged from flak and earlier attacks were enticing targets and many fell from the skies to turn into flaming smears of debris. In some cases, as bombardier Lynn Tipton recalled, they exploded.
“The plane was shot to pieces, all four engines were out. The co-pilot said ‘Bail out.’ The pilot was dead. We just dove head-first through the nose hatch. The ball gunner was still in the plane and it suddenly exploded and he fell with all that debris, but he lived.”
Pilot Stephen King had a similar experience. “On my last mission, over Hamburg. We were at about 29,000 feet when we were hit by an 88 in the nose.”
Suddenly we took another big hit on the right wing. The engineer said, ‘Hey the right wing’s on fire!’ I looked out past my co-pilot and the whole right wing was burning like mad. There was no way to stop it. I rang the bail-out bell and the navigator, bombardier, co-pilot and flight engineer went out the nose hatch. I checked to see if the rest of the guys in the back were out. I put my chute on and looked back through the bomb bay. The radio operator was staring out the open bomb doors with a panicked look on his face. The gunners in the back were still in the plane. Just then the plane blew up around us. As far as I know the only survivors of the explosion were me and the ball turret gunner. The others were killed.”
Falling from over 20,000 feet, airmen were told not to pull the ripcord until they were at around 3,000 feet. German fighters sometimes shot at men hanging helplessly under the parachutes.
For the bombers able to elude the maddened German fighters and coastal flak the blue waters of the North Sea and English Channel were a beacon of hope.
“One thing we never did was to secure the guns until we were over the base,” said Ed Davidson. “Some planes were hit by German fighters even when they were over the Channel.”
“If a plane had wounded aboard they fired a red flare and got priority for landing.”
When the battle-scarred Fortresses reached their revetments and the propellers stopped, it was eerily silent. For the first time in nearly a dozen hours the noise of the engines and hammering guns was stilled.
The tired, heartsick crews picked up their gear and gratefully stepped onto Allied soil. The grassy loam of the surrounding fields turned golden in the setting sun. Many men watched as more planes landed, mentally counting, hoping all would return. But for many crews, the image of burning planes and drifting parachutes told the grisly tale. Cigarettes were lit by shaking fingers.
“We went to debriefing,” Tipton explained. “Every man was taken aside to speak to an intelligence officer and tell what we saw. Every one was given a shot of whiskey to loosen his tongue.”
Rip Reopelle went one better. “We got brandy for our debriefing.”
When the sun had set, and the crews bedded down for the night, often with empty cots beside them, they knew it wasn’t over. The next day or the day after that, they would once again be awoken, to do it all again.
Behind the Brownings – Bomber Gunners in Combat
Flight Journal Magazine, October 2014
© 2014 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
The Tools of the Trade
High in the clear azure skies over Europe, parallel lines of white contrails were raked in lacy streams behind hundreds of advancing bombers as they flew towards their assigned targets. Aboard each plane were ten young men. Eight of them were charged with protecting their plane, their squadron, their group, and most of all, each other from the savage attacks of German fighters. They were the air gunners of the United States Army Air Forces. The bombers were stacked in tight formations of fifty-four planes in three groups. The formation was developed to maximize the effectiveness of bombing and gunnery. Every group covered 1,000 feet in width and 600 feet from the lead to the rear. At least 234 guns covered the sky around the group. They used the reliable and tough Browning ANM2 .50 caliber heavy machine guns. Gunners worshiped their ‘wonderful fifties,’ and even gave them pet names like ‘Kraut Widowmaker’ and ‘Mrs. Deuce.’ “It was a great gun,” recalled Staff Sergeant Frank Bushmeier of the100th Bomb Group. “We had two sights, a ring and crosshairs, and the other was the red reticle sight with an orange circle and red dot. We knew how to used them against fighters.”
The Luftwaffe had developed a healthy respect for the B-17’s bristling armament. After making mock attacks on captured Fortresses and studying the results they learned an attack from just aft of straight above would be virtually invulnerable to the bomber’s guns. This is where the tight box formation paid off. Even as that same fighter was coming down on its target the guns of eight other bombers were able to track it.
Often several gunners claimed the same kill.
“Every guy said ‘I got a probable,” said waist gunner Bruce Richardson, “but it’s hard to say for sure. Maybe someone else gets him. But when they blow up in your face then you’re sure.”
“After one mission over Germany,” said 100th BG bombardier Joe Armanini, “we read in the papers that we’d shot down 400 German fighters. Crap,” he scoffed. “If we’d been that good there’d be no Luftwaffe left.”
The other way to attack a B-17 was head-on from ‘Twelve O’clock High.’ But this too had its dangers. A Gruppe of 48 fighters flew out of gun range parallel to the main bomber stream until they were well ahead. Then they circled in and, in line abreast, flew straight at the lead bombers. But with a combined closing speed of nearly 550 knots, this left few seconds in which to aim, fire their guns and do a ‘Split S’ maneuver to break away. The fighter might fire 250 rounds, only 15 to 20 of which were cannon shells.
Robert Mathiasen of the 100th said, “Over Berlin we’d look forward and see two hundred fighters coming at us. We lost a lot of planes on that mission.
Peripheral vision, reflexes, vigilance and their ability to think fast was critical to their survival.
Taking it on the Chin
The most obvious feature of the B-17G was the ‘chin’ turret. With twin remotely-operated Brownings, the A-16 electrically powered turret provided protection against head-on attacks. They carried 375 rounds per gun, enough for 30-40 seconds of firing. Originally, the chin turret had been part of the failed Lockheed-Vega YB-40 ‘escort bomber’ version of the Fortress. Only 20 were built. But the chin turret survived and appeared on the very last B-17Fs and all subsequent B-17Gs. (see ‘When is a ‘G’ not a ‘G?’ from ‘The Unlucky Seventh Mission’ Flight Journal April 2011). How effective the chin turret was is still a matter of debate. While it did provide extra firepower for one of the Fortress’s two most vulnerable quarters, it may only have intimidated an attacker during the few crucial seconds of his approach. Hitting a small fighter in such a short time was almost impossible. Armanini said, “I preferred the older F model with the two side and nose guns. That chin turret was kind of hard to aim. I really liked being able to see down the barrel to fire the guns.”
The bombardier was a ‘part-time’ gunner, since his primary job was to see the plane through the bomb run to the bomb release.
The later model B-24 Liberators and Navy PB4Y-2 had an Emerson electric bow turret. It rotated 75 degrees on either side of the ship’s centerline and the guns elevated to 60 degrees up and 55 down. This gave a very wide cone of protection to the Liberator. In fact, one of the highest-scoring air gunners was SFC Richard Thomas, who shot down five Japanese fighters with the PB4Y-2 bow turret.
The B-17 had two flexible guns set on either side of the nose set into ‘cheek’ windows.
The navigator often had other duties that kept him from fighting the Luftwaffe. In addition to plotting and navigating to and from the target, he sometimes acted as mission photographer, first-aid medic and kept a log. “I never once fired my guns on any of my 23 missions,” said 92nd Group navigator Don Stull.
The View From the Top
For overhead attacks the Sperry No. 645473-E power-operated, direct-sighted turret was installed on the B-17E. The turret’s fire covered an annulus, a doughnut-shaped area 1,200 yards in diameter, but its guns could only elevate to 85 degrees so there was an unprotected cone directly above the plane. The flight engineer doubled as the top turret gunner. He sat on a bicycle-style seat between the guns. The turret itself was suspended on a ring set into the roof of the bomber just behind the pilots. Hand controls rotated and elevated the guns. Five hundred rounds of ammo per gun was fed from two boxes. Sperry recommended the shells be on Type M2 Extra Flexible links in order to minimize jams, but this was not always done.
Flight engineer Stanley Lawruk of the 92nd BG said, “In the top turret I had a view of the whole sky. I did most of the calling out of the fighters and where they were coming from.” Since the flight engineer was also responsible for keeping the bomber’s systems working after battle damage, he often had to leave his guns unattended. Splicing control cables, transferring fuel and repairing electrical circuits demanded that he turn over the turret to another gunner, often the radio operator.
Pilot Stephen King of the 379th Group recalled, “On one mission a fighter was coming from the front. It started shooting at us and I didn’t hear anything from the top turret. I got on the interphone and yelled ‘Ray why aren’t you shooting?’ He said ‘I’m waiting until I can get a good bead on him!’ I yelled ‘Goddamnit! Scare him away!’”
According to the list of highest-scoring air gunner ‘aces’ of World War II, five of the top eleven were in the top turret, or nearly 50%. Just past the bomb bay, the least effective gunner position was the B-17 radio operator. A large window in the compartment ceiling was fitted with a Browning in a vertical swivel mount. The gunner had to squat to sight up the barrel. Don Hammond of the 100th BG said, “We were trained in what they called ‘Burst Control.’ I’d hit the trigger and it would fire about 12 rounds. But I couldn’t hit anything with it. I could shoot the tail pretty good but I thought we needed it. The Germans went by so fast on the head-on attacks that I never saw them. I never got off a shot. It was a waste to carry that gun and ammo, but I guess I felt better having something to shoot back with.”
On the Ball
The most intriguing gunner position was the ball turret. Built by Sperry, the same company that perfected the gyrocompass and other critical flight instruments, the Model 645705-D ball turret was a marvel of engineering. Typically the ball gunner was the shorted man on the crew, but there were gunners that stood nearly six feet tall. When I first saw the ball turret,” said 91st BG gunner Dan McGuire, “I said ‘You gotta be crazy to get into that thing.’” The ball gunner sat in a nearly fetal position, looking through a round panel of armored glass between his feet. The twin fifties were on either side of his legs. Pulling on two cables charged the guns. The ammo boxes were on the turret’s yoke, so they could be replaced by the Flight Engineer. Twin belts fed the guns and spent shells were ejected into the slipstream.
The gunner used his right foot to key the plane’s interphone, as both his hands were on the elevation and azimuth controls, twin joystick levers just over his head. The left foot controlled the K-4 Computing Gunsight reflector sight range reticle. While the turret used hydraulic power, it could be hand-cranked in an emergency. “That ball was my office,” said Ed Silverstone of the 100th. “But I was kind of isolated there. The ball turret could drop ninety degrees and turn full circle. The guns were zeroed at about six hundred yards, and every fifth round was a tracer. That gunsight was easy to use and it really worked great. If you could get a German plane in between the lines on the gunsight you were almost guaranteed a kill.”
Wilbur Richardson of the 94th said, “Spent rounds fell out of the chutes, but the belt links just piled up. I sometimes had to fire with one hand while shoving the links out the chute with the other.”
“We had excellent computing sights in the ball,” commented Bob Mathiasen. “It figured out deflection and all that stuff. If you knew how big a target was, like a Ju-88, which had a longer wingspan than a Messerschmitt, their wings touched the outer ring of the sight and you fired at that moment. For a smaller plane you got them in the inner ring at about six hundred yards. Over Berlin there were plenty of them to shoot at. I got an Fw-190 confirmed kill. He was coming at us and I zeroed in on him and got him in the cockpit.”
McGuire remembered, “I brought down two Me-109s at once from the ball. I had put about 200 rounds into one and finally he went over and lost control. He plowed into another fighter and they both went down. I didn’t know this until after the mission when a waist gunner said, ‘Hey you got both of them.’ But I wasn’t officially credited with two kills.”
Silverstone commented, “My parachute was on a shelf just above the turret and if we had to bail out I’d crank the turret down, open the hatch, climb out and clip on the chute and jump with the rest of the crew. I was always afraid that if we were hit and there was no bail out gong I’d never know it. So on one mission, I think it was the first Berlin mission I told the radio operator and the waist gunners to take something metallic and rap on my hatch so I’d know to get out. I said, ‘If I see you guys bailing out and falling away and you didn’t tell me about it, I might make your trip a lot shorter than you intended.’
The radio compartment was just forward of the ball turret. So on this mission, we’re fighting off German planes and I hear something rapping on the turret! I cranked the turret down and hit the deck. I jumped up and looked and saw everybody in their positions, fighting the Germans. What I’d heard was empty cartridges from the radio gunner falling and banging on my turret. So I got back to work.”
Fire and Ice in the Waist
The waist gunners had the most freedom of movement but they also had to move quickly during an air battle. As they manhandled their heavy Brownings back and forth, up and down to keep enemy fighters in their sight reticles, they had to stoop and squat. This required a lot of strength in their legs and back. In the early B-17s and most of the B-24s the waist windows were open. An icy blast of subzero wind howled through the plane. There were wind deflectors set just forward of the windows.
Handling a flexible mount machine gun to sight, track, fire at and hit a fighter zipping past at more than 300 knots required as much muscle as mental agility and quick reflexes.
“The gun wasn’t difficult to manipulate,” said a 44th BG B-24 gunner, “but the kick made accurate aim difficult.”
An 8th Air Force gunner said, “I saw an Me-109 coming in. My gun was jammed. I had to do something fast. I knew that it would be fatal to pick up the cover of my gun and attempt to fix it. Jerry can easily see with open waist windows and he knows when something is wrong. Then I did the only thing there was to do. I waved my gun up and down and back and forth as if I was tracking him and I guess he thought I was firing at him. He turned off his main course enough to miss us.”
The waist gunners, directly opposite one another in the early B-17 had to contend with constantly bumping into one another as they swung their guns. While this was more of an annoyance than a true problem, there can be little doubt that some kills were missed when a badly-timed bump threw off a gunner’s aim. Later models had staggered waist windows with the starboard one set forward of the port window. This gave the gunners more room. Waist gunners wore flak helmets and vests, and curved armor plates were fitted below the windows. Yet USAAF statistics show that waist gunners suffered the most wounds of any B-17 or B-24 crew position.
The development of the tail position is one of those often apocryphal stories in military history. Some sources say the first tail guns were added in the early Pacific war by sawing off the tail cone of a B-17D and fitting in a single .30 caliber machine gun. But the truth is Boeing was already working on a practical tail turret design by the time the U.S. entered the war, and used it on the B-17E and F models. The original design had twin fifties that were hand-operated by the gunner, who sat on his knees and sighted through a remote ‘peashooter’ set just outside his armored glass port. This was a very tight space to be in, and visibility was limited. The guns were set so far away from the gunner that it required real strength to move them while firing. Rich Tangradi of the 99th BG said “When I got out to our airplane I went into my tail position. I checked my ammunition. Two boxes one on each side, each holding six hundred rounds. They were loaded with one tracer, two armor piercing and two incendiaries. I put the guns in their slots and lifted the receiver, put in the belt, then slammed and locked it. They could be reloaded in flight.”
By the end of 1943 the B-17G was fitted with a new tail turret, known as the ‘Cheyenne,’ named for the United Airlines Cheyenne Modification Center in Wyoming. As in the chin turret, it first saw use on the YB-40. While the old design allowed an azimuth of 30 degrees to either side, 40 degrees elevation and 15 depression, this only gave the gunner roughly one-sixth of a full circle’s arc. The Cheyenne design increased this to 160 degrees in traverse, almost straight out to either side. In elevation, the guns could reach 70 degrees up and 40 down. This of course gave the gunner a much broader cone of fire, and must have been a rude surprise to the first Luftwaffe fighters to make a rear attack on them. The old peashooter was replaced by an N8 reflector sight, while a bicycle seat was fitted for the gunner.
The B-24 had a true powered tail turret built by Consolidated which, like the Emerson on the nose, gave nearly 150 degrees of traverse. They had two speeds, fast for moving the turret to an approaching target and slow for careful aiming. USAAF tail gunners had some of the highest number of credited kills, most often due to the slower rate of closure when attacking from the rear, allowing time for the gunner to line up his shot.
“I got a kill over Regensburg on September 17,” said Tangradi. “If you were ‘Tail-end Charlie’ you attracted a lot of attention, no matter what group you were in.”
A 94th Bomb Group tail gunner recalled a mission over Bremen. “I never saw so many different types of enemy fighters trying to get our group. There were Me-410s, 210s, 110s, 109s, Fw-190s and Ju-88s. About 150 in all, and all of them trying to outdo each other. It must have been Iron Cross Day. All our guns were going at the same time. It felt like the ship would come apart. I fired at anything within range. I know I hit a few as I saw several break off and dive. But we made it back okay.” As the last bombers passed out of Axis territory, the gunners finally began to catch their breath. Their wonderful fifties had done their job, and even though many of them were sure they had brought down one or more German fighters, what really mattered was they and their buddies were still alive. And that is the only true victory in war.
Griff and the Angel
Flight Journal Magazine, August 2010
© 2010 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
Guam. Saipan. The Marianas Campaign, the Philippine Sea. Names which have long stirred memories, emotions and visions of endless ranks of advancing gray warships, blue-painted aircraft screaming from the sky raining death, and the terrifying new enemy called Kamikaze.
One account of the legendary battles during the summer and fall of 1944 are related by a Navy Dive Bomber pilot, CAPT. Wallace S. ‘Griff’ Griffin. The story of his early experiences in flying, training and combat with Bombing 19 on board the USS Lexington (CV-16) are the stuff of aviation lore.
“Well, let’s get the basics out of the way,” said Griff as he prefers to be called, from his Chula Vista California home. “I was born in Oakland in 1921 of Irish-American parents. Growing up, I was interested in ships and the Navy. Every year my Mom took me to Fleet Week. By the time I was twelve I knew the name of every single ship in the fleet. It was in my blood. I couldn’t wait to join the Navy. In fact, my mom used to discipline me by threatening not to sign my enlistment papers,” Griff said, laughing.
After graduating high school he joined the Navy in 1940. “I just wanted to be a sailor, that’s all. I didn’t have any aspirations to be an officer or anything.”
Recalling his thoughts regarding the war in Europe, Griff said, “I knew we were going to get into the war. Despite Roosevelt’s promises that ‘I won’t send your boys to fight in Europe’ I knew it was moving too fast. FDR wouldn’t let England be occupied.”
“It was Lindbergh who made me interested in flying as a boy. In the Navy I thought I might be able to work on airplanes. I was trained and assigned as an Aviation Machinist’s Mate to a Dive Bomber squadron which flew the old Curtiss-Wright SBC Helldiver biplanes. That’s how I got my first airplane ride and did my first dive. It was wonderful,” Griff said happily. “I loved it.”
Griff was a Second Class Petty Officer when he received new orders. “In the spring of 1941 I was transferred to NAS Dallas. It was just a big open field. We had to rent rooms in town and hitchhike to the base. They had just one officer, two chiefs and forty-seven enlisted men. It took a long time for the place to grow up. That’s where I was when Pearl Harbor was attacked.” NAS Dallas trained cadets in primary flight while Griff and his comrades maintained the planes.
In 1942 Griff, still wanting to fly, decided to try to be a pilot. “The Army Air Corps, in order to fill their manpower shortage offered flight training and a commission if you transferred from your service. Some of us signed up for it. I loved the Navy but I wanted to be a pilot. I was accepted and told to await orders. But the Navy, wanting to stop this exodus, instituted the NAVCAD, Naval Aviation Cadet Program. “NAVCAD accepted me for Pre-flight training at the University of Georgia.”
The new cadet was sent on to St. Louis for primary flight training. “We flew the N2S, a biplane trainer we called the ‘Yellow Peril. I soloed on Veteran’s Day 1942,” he said. “It was one of the biggest thrills of my life. It felt so great being in total control of the plane. 24 of us took off from that grass field like a bunch of mosquitoes from a pond,” Griff said recalling the moment.
Pensacola was the next stop for Griff, where he flew the SNJ Texan.
“About a month before I was to receive my wings I was called up to the Yeoman’s office and told I would be made an instructor. That wasn’t my idea of being an aviator. I wanted to go to war and fight Japs,” he said adamantly. “So I asked him how I could appeal it. He told me the man who made the decisions was a civilian who also moonlighted selling uniforms in town. ‘Order your uniforms from him. Tell him you don’t want to be an instructor. Also if you can get some whiskey from an officer, that might grease the wheels a bit.’”
Griff was willing to try.
His extra effort worked. At Jacksonville, Griff trained in dive bombers, flying in the Navy’s last SB2U Vindicator squadron. “Those were the worst damn bombers we had. No dive brakes, you had to drop the landing gear to control the dive.” The aircraft had been brought back from Wake and Midway Islands, survivors of the squadrons which had been decimated in the early months of 1942. “My plane had cloth patches over the bullet holes,” he said with a wry smile.
USS Wolverine was a converted paddlewheel training carrier operating out of Chicago. There Griff gained carrier landing and takeoff skills, still flying the Vindicator.
On a memorable day, 25 May 1943, the young aviator was awarded his gold wings. “We had to buy our own wings,” Griff said with still-evident disbelief. “I got my certificate from Admiral Murray, head of the air training command.”
Then the new Ensign was transferred to California to join a new air group.
“I joined Bombing Squadron 19 at Los Alamitos near Long Beach. We flew the SBD Dauntless. Our squadron emblem was a griffon carrying a bomb,” he laughed. Ironically, the new Ensign didn’t know a Griffon was on his family coat-of-arms.
“Our C.O. was Lt. Commander Richard McGowan, a great guy. My gunner was an Aviation Radioman 3c named Eno Leaf, a real good solid kid. We stayed together for my entire combat tour. He never talked much.”
In San Diego the dive bombers learned to coordinate with the Hellcats and Avengers. “We even had lectures from Navy legends Jimmy Thatch and James Flatley. They came and told us about fighting the Japanese.”
The originator of the ‘Thatch Weave’ was an inspiration to the new air group.
Later, Commander ‘Jumping Joe’ Clifton, another Pacific war veteran told the new pilots some of the tricks of the trade. “Clifton told us the carriers put up a lot of AA fire and the planes joined after a mission inside the flak to get clear of the pursuing Jap planes.”
After flying north to NAS Alameda, the squadron shipped out to Hawaii aboard USS Lexington. The carrier was returning to combat after being repaired at Bremerton from a torpedo hit. “That’s when I met Admiral Marc Mitscher,” Griff said of the legendary admiral, a pioneer of naval aviation. “We were going out under the Golden Gate and I was wandering all over the island superstructure. I’d never been on a big carrier. I went up to what I thought was the bridge and there was this little guy sitting in a chair wearing a long-billed ball cap. No stars, no nothing. The cool breeze and smell of the sea was great. He saw me and said ‘Good morning young man.’ I said ‘Hi! Good morning!’ Boy what a great view from up here.’ He smiled at me and said ‘Yeah, it is pretty good.’ I thought he was a reporter.”
Griff chuckled at the memory. “That evening in the ready room our intelligence officer made an announcement. ‘If any of you guys have any trouble on this ship you just go to Griff here, because I understand he’s on a one-on-one basis with Admiral Mitscher.’ Apparently I’d wandered onto the Admiral’s bridge!”
After leaving Air Group 19 in Hawaii, Lexington went off with her usual Air Group 16 for the first Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Marianas Turkey Shoot.
“At NAS Kanului on Maui we learned the Navy no longer wanted to use the SBD. We were given two weeks to qualify on the new Curtiss SB2C Helldivers. McGowan told is ‘If any one of you screws this up for us, I’ll personally hang him.’ We all made it,” Griff said with pride. “That plane was all electric. It was a push-button plane and we had a lot of electrical problems with them. When I dropped a bomb, I always pushed the button and pulled the toggle. That way I knew the damn bomb was gone. Some guys returned to the ship with a live bomb in the plane,” he said, chuckling. “But I had my own close call too. The lever to actuate the folding wings was a rod with a ‘T’ handle on it sticking out of the panel just forward of the stick,” he explained. “It had to be turned to lock it in place. One night during training I came in for a landing. My plane captain signaled me to fold my wings. I reached for the lever and realized it wasn’t locked.” Griff grimaced at the memory. “If I’d hit that thing in a turn or something, the wings would have folded in flight. That would have been it. Scared the hell out of me.”
In July 1944 the new air group was transported on board the USS Intrepid to join the Lex at Eniwetok.
The Marianas Campaign was in full swing by the summer of 1944 and the Lex, as MItscher’s flagship of the Fifth Fleet’s Task Group 58.1 was in the thick of it. The U.S. force was pacifying the Japanese-held Bonin Islands, Guam, Tinian and Saipan in preparation for Marine and Army landings. They’d be made into forward B-29 bases for the bombing of Japan. Over 580 ships including eleven fast carriers of the Essex and Independence class carried nearly 900 aircraft to bomb and strafe the enemy positions.
Griff related his first combat experiences from a carrier.
“We were covering the landings on Guam, bombing the airfields, ammunition dumps, oil storage and anti-aircraft positions. We did the advance softening up. We weren’t worried about Jap fighters because our Hellcats had wiped them out in the last few days.”
“There wasn’t any hero stuff. We were shown recon photos and each plane was given a specific target. We dropped thousand-pound general-purpose bombs, and went back to the ship. But
I remember the stink of burning oil and flying through columns of black smoke. We really hammered that island. I never worried about my bomb; I just got my ass out of there. Eno was always at his twin .30 machine guns. But he never said anything to me, so I only heard how we did when the Intelligence Officer debriefed us.”
After the Marianas Campaign was finished, USS Lexington and the other warships of the renamed U.S. Third Fleet moved into the Philippine Sea. More bombings on Luzon and Manila prepared the islands for assault by the Army and Marines. “The second time I met Admiral Mitscher was during bombings on Luzon,” he said. “That was in late October. We were hitting Japanese positions near Manila. After bombing on the second day we left the target and settled in at about 500 feet over solid jungle. Our Hellcats had shot down some Zeros so I thought we were safe. Then all of a sudden I saw tracers coming straight up. The Japs had moved a bunch of guns right under where we rendezvoused. I flew right into it and they had me bracketed perfectly. I could see the upper wings being shredded by bullets coming through and the hydraulic fluid was vaporizing in pink puffs. It sounded like the plane was being hit by hundreds of hammers. I just kept praying ‘Oh god don’t let them hit the engine, don’t hit the engine.’ I knew if they did, I’d have no place to land. I’d never make the water. The wings were torn up with shreds of aluminum sticking out and my canopy Plexiglas was shattered. I could hear the airstream whistling through the holes. Leaf in the back never said a word. I didn’t know if he was dead. But it was just his headset cord had come out. I called in to the ship. ‘Mohawk this is 22. Mohawk, this is 22.’ I reported I had no hydraulic pressure for flaps so they had me circle until the rest of the planes had landed. Then I came straight in. The Landing Signal Officer cut me way out because I was coming in pretty fast. That was one hairy landing.”
“My plane captain came up to me and said ‘Oh my god, Mr. Griffin, take off your harness.’”
Griff, still shaking from the near disaster, took off the harness straps.
“Our intelligence officer saw it and said ‘I have to show this to the Admiral. Come with me.’ He led me up to Flag Country and said to Mitscher, ‘Sir, look at the close call Ensign Griffin had today.’”
Mitscher examined the harness. “What is it?”
The harness strap padding had a deep horizontal groove from one side to the other.
“That’s where a bullet went across his back,” the officer told the admiral.
“When Mitscher saw that he said ‘Well son I guess you had a pretty close call today.’”
Griff said of Mitscher, “That man really cared about his boys.”
The Helldiver wasn’t so lucky. “It had eighty-three holes. The big hydraulic cylinder that folded the starboard wing was completely blown out of the plane. The only thing holding that wing on was two pins locked into the slots. My wheels had no rubber on them. They salvaged the engine, prop, guns and radio and shoved the wreck overboard. My flight leader later told me ‘Griff, when I saw you flying right into that mess, they had you perfectly bracketed. I was sure you were a goner.’
“Anyway,” Griff recalled, ‘I thought a guardian angel was sitting on my shoulder. I figured nothing could hurt me.”
In fact, Ensign Griffin flew another strike later that same afternoon.
Griff’s feelings were reinforced by subsequent events.
During bombing attacks on Formosa in October, Griff’s plane was attacked by a Japanese fighter. “We were flying over a long white beach on the western coast. I was about a hundred yards from George Peck, and we were headed for the rendezvous point a few miles ahead. The Avengers were already there. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw movement on the beach below. I thought ‘Sonofabitch! That’s a fighter!’ And there it was, a Jap fighter coming up at us. It looked like a P-51 Mustang and I realized it was a Tony.”
The Kawasaki KI-61 Hein, known as the Tony was a deadly fighter based on the German ME-109 design with an inline engine.
“He climbed steeply and tried to get a deflection on George from underneath. George couldn’t see him since the Jap was right under his wing. But I did, and I turned towards him and fired my two 20mm wing guns which I always kept charged. BamBamBamBamBam! The tracers speared right at him. The Jap twisted and came at me instead. All I did was attract him! I yelled to Leaf to get him. ‘We got a Tony comin’ up from 3 O’clock!’ Leaf said ‘Okay, I got him!’ I didn’t hear his guns. Orange tracers were zipping past me and I hunkered down under the armor plate behind my seat. I called on the radio for fighters. ‘I got a Tony on my tail, we need fighters!’
Still Leaf didn’t fire. I yelled into the intercom, ‘Leaf! Shoot! Shoot! Shoot!’ Nothing! I thought he’d been hit. Then all of a sudden Brrrrrrrrrraaaamm! He’s firing like crazy and the Jap peels off.”
Griff shook his head. “I asked Leaf why he’d taken so long to shoot. You know what he said? ‘I wanted him to get real close so I could really clobber him.’ I couldn’t believe it. Leaf had two .30 caliber machine guns and the Jap had 20mm cannon! And he wanted the Jap to get close!”
The Battle for Leyte Gulf was the largest naval engagement ever recorded, involving over 600 warships. On 25 October at Cape Enga?o, Lexington, along with other Third Fleet carriers joined in the sinking of HIJMS Zuikaku, the last of the six carriers from the Pearl Harbor attack. “I dropped a thousand-pounder on Zuikaku. I don’t know if I hit her but Admiral Mitscher recommended that every man who dropped a bomb or torpedo on a Jap warship that day be written up for a Navy Cross. The pilots of our Task Force sank four Jap carriers in that campaign,” Griff affirmed.
Lexington’s air group had done well, but her own luck was soon to be tested.
“Tokyo Rose reported us sunk three or four times,” Griff said, laughing at the memory. “That’s how we got the name ‘the Blue Ghost.’ Lex was solid blue-gray,” Griff said. “Sometimes when we came back from a strike the weather wasn’t so good and there were four or five carriers out there, but we could always tell which was ours because it didn’t have the camouflage paint scheme.”
The air threat eventually to be known as the Kamikaze, for ‘Divine Wind’ made itself known during the fighting around the Philippines.
“We didn’t know anything about Kamikazes,” Griff said. “We couldn’t believe anyone could deliberately dive their plane into a ship. But on 5 November 1944 we were hit.”
Griff explained the air group assigned to a carrier was not part of the regular crew. “When we weren’t on a mission we were spectators. We could run around anywhere. That day the P.A. Announced an attack was underway. ‘Battle stations! Bogies coming in!’ We’d just returned from a raid on Manila and were relaxing in the ready room. Ours was on the port side just under the Flight Deck. Each ready room had a little pantry and our steward, a nice black guy named Buck, whom I always gave my ration of mission rye whiskey to, asked me if I’d like a ham sandwich. Then we heard the big 5” guns going off. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! It shook the whole ship. That meant the plane was still pretty far out. A bunch of my squadron mates said ‘Come on! Let’s go see the show!’ They went up to Secondary Control on the after end of the island to watch. Here’s Buck taking his time, toasting the bread, adding tomatoes he’d gotten just for me. Then I heard the 40mm quads going and I said, ‘God, come on, Buck! Hurry up!’”
“When Buck finally handed me the sandwich I ran out of the ready room. At a port-starboard corridor I had to decide if I would go across to starboard and run up five or six levels to the island, or turn to port and go out to the catwalk along the Flight Deck just opposite the 5” turrets. By then the 20mm guns were hammering away and I chose the shorter route.”
The 5 November attack on Lex was made by two A6M Zeros carrying 250kg bombs coming in from the stern. They aimed to do the maximum damage on the carrier.
“Some sailors and I watched them shoot down the first Jap plane. He was coming in from the stern and splashed into our wake. We all cheered. Then the second one came through the same broken clouds and everything was shooting at him. I mean everything! Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, there must have been ten million shells flying at that Jap. ‘God, they gotta get him.’ I mean you just couldn’t believe what they fired at that plane. I could feel them tearing up the sky.”
“The Jap was carrying a bomb, and I saw orange flashes from his wing roots. I yelled at the sailors ‘He’s strafing! Get below!’ One kid froze in the hatchway and I pushed him but he didn’t move. Then I bashed the heel of my hand on the back of his neck. He fell in and the rest of us piled in after him.”
Griff’s voice became emotional as he related what came next. “A couple of seconds later, the ship rocked in a tremendous roaring explosion. Then the collision alarm went off and didn’t stop. It sounded like a wounded cow. I climbed out and looked over at the Island and it was orange flames and thick black smoke and bodies lying all over the Flight Deck. One guy was holding his neck and blood was spurting all over. It was just awful. The heat was incredible and it reeked of everything burning.”
“Eight of our pilots were up on Secondary Control right behind the stack. The Jap’s engine and bomb had hit right where they’d been. Five were totally disintegrated, three were wounded. All the 40mm quad guns on the outboard side were melted and the Marines and gunners were just gone. It was a horrible, horrible mess. There wasn’t enough left of our guys to bury. And I was saved by a guy who took a long time to make me a ham sandwich.”
The badly damaged Lexington was sent to the huge anchorage at Ulithi Atoll for repairs.
“We tied up by a repair ship, USS Ajax, and she worked day and night on us.”
The carrier was back in action less than a week later. Griff and his surviving squadron mates participated in more raids until Air Group 19 was relieved by Air Group 20 in December “Our combat tour was over. We made it back to San Diego by Christmas.”
But Griff knew the war in the Pacific was far from over. The bloodbath of the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and the increasing Kamikaze attacks only proved the resolve of the Japanese to fight to the death. The invasion of Japan was imminent. “I’d decided to transfer to fighter-bombers and began training on the Vought F4U Corsair at NAS Santa Rosa,” he said. “That was one hot fighter. My squadron trained at Twentynine Palms Marine Air Base to use the ‘Tiny Tim’ air-to-ground solid-fuel rockets on Japanese bunkers. We were going to be cave busters. The rocket was a huge thing, about ten feet in length.
“It had a long lanyard on it so it wouldn’t fire until it had cleared the plane. The Corsair carried it on centerline between the gull wings. I aimed the plane at the target and let the rocket go. My plane shot up about fifty feet and this huge thing just roared away in front of me. It was louder than the plane’s engine. God I didn’t know what had happened. The standing joke among the other squadrons was that we were the first American Kamikazes. None of us thought it was funny.”
Griff recounted his feelings about the end of the war. “When the Atom Bomb was dropped and the war ended, I knew that angel was still looking out for me,” he said. “I owe Harry Truman my life.”
Wallace ‘Griff’ Griffin served 25 years of active duty in the Navy and reached the rank of Captain. Today Griff, a sharp and active 89, spends his Wednesdays on board the USS Midway, San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum, sitting in front of a restored SBD Dauntless and F4U Corsair, telling his war stories. “I get such a kick out of telling kids about the things we did in the war,” the venerable pilot said.
Captain Wallace ‘Griff’ Griffin, USN passed away in August 2012, two years after this article was printed.
He will be missed and remembered.
Mitchells Over the Med –Skip Bombing Big Gun B-25s in Action
Flight Journal Magazine, April 2013
© 2013 By Mark Carlson
All Rights Reserved.
The B-25 Mtichell Legend
When we think of the B-25 Mitchell, the April 1942 Doolittle Raid on Tokyo comes to mind. While the raid was one of the defining moments of the war and even today evokes awe and wonder, it was minor compared to what the venerable B-25 accomplished in other theaters of the war.
The North American B-25 Mitchell was one of the best and most versatile aircraft of the Second World War. Built in more than a dozen factory and field variants, the 20,000lb. twin-engine bomber earned a reputation for speed, ruggedness and reliability.
The Mitchell had something that the bigger, more glamorous B-17 Flying Fortress lacked. Airmen felt a greater intimacy with the compact plane. The powerful roar of the twin Wright R-2600 radials roaring to life and driving the bomber down the runway was less heard than felt, more experienced than seen.
Thousands of American men flew nearly 9,900 B-25s during and after the war. Many agree with one thing: the B-25 Mitchell was a fun plane to fly. “It handled more like a sports car than a truck,” commented one 5th Air Force veteran.
General John K.Cannon’s 12th Tactical Air Force Mitchells played a crucial role in every major campaign in the Mediterranean from March 1942 to August 1944. The bombers flew from Tobruk, Benghazi, and Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon.
The versatile B-25s were the scourge of German forces in Tunisia, Crete, Greece, Yugoslavia, Sicily, Italy and southern France.
Captain Truman Coble, a retired Sears & Roebucks salesman living in Escondido California flew 56 missions with the 379th Bomb Squadron, 310th Bomb Group in the Mediterranean Theater. While flying from Tobruk, Libya, and Ghisonaccia, Corsica, Coble and his crew sank three German ships, destroyed dozens of bridges and railroads, and contributed to the eventual Allied victory in Italy and southern France.
“It was always my ambition to fly in the Air Corps,” said the 91-year old former Pennsylvania farm boy, who goes by the name ‘Bud.’ “There was this airfield near our farm near New Cumberland and every day around 3:30 a big plane, I think it was a DC-3, would fly in right over us, maybe 500 feet up. I said ‘Man, that’s for me.’
I wrangled my way into the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program and learned to fly the Piper J-3 Cub. I had about 40 hours in the Cub.”
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Coble joined the Air Corps and was sent to Santa Ana, California, for basic training. In Oxnard he went through Basic Flight Training flying Vultee BT-13 Valiants. Advanced training took place in Roswell, New Mexico, where Coble was in Class 43-D and learned to fly the B-25 and earned his wings in early 1943.
In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Coble was made an instructor, a job he, like most instructors, tolerated with reluctance.
In the Southwest Pacific Colonel Paul Ivrin ‘Pappy’ Gunn, head of the 5th Air Force Service Command had proven the radical technique of skip bombing to sink ships. As seen at Midway in June, 1942, dropping bombs on moving ships from high-altitude nearly always resulted in wasted bombs and unnecessary risk.
Gunn theorized that a medium bomber carrying conventional high-explosive bombe could approach a ship at 230 knots at low altitude, that is less than 100 feet, and drop the bombs 500 yards from the target. The bombs ‘skipped’ along the water like a thrown stone and hit the ship’s side. It wasn’t always necessary to achieve a direct hit. Even a near-miss from a 500lb. bomb would cause a ‘water hammer’ effect, crushing hull plates.
“I was something of a ‘hotshot,’” Coble smiled. “The Air Force thought I’d be good at teaching the new pilots to skip-bomb at low altitude. We instructors flew around fifty feet off the water. But those students were nuts! They had to be better and flew thirty, twenty-five, even fifteen feet. It was scary as hell and some planes were lost when they were struck by their own bombs. I went to my C.O. and said ‘Send me into combat. I want to live!’”
At Greenville, South Carolina in October 1943 Coble was assigned a brand-new B-25G, T/N 830. “It was painted desert pink and had a big 75mm cannon in the nose.”
“My co-pilot was Lt. James Jones. He was a good pilot but a bit of a goof-off. He liked to hit the bars as soon as the engines stopped,” Coble chuckled. “But he did his job.
My bombardier was Lt. Chuck Girvin. I had a navigator, a flight engineer, and two other gunners as well.”
The proud owners of #830 flew it to Savannah, Georgia, where the combat equipment was fitted. “They put the flexible guns and fixed guns in, armor plate, all that stuff.”
The new plane was christened ‘Pisonya,’ a name chosen by the crew.
Coble and Jones flew the new bomber north to Presque Isle, Maine, then on to Goose Bay, Labrador, across the Atlantic to Greenland, finally reaching Prestwick, Scotland. After resting they flew south around the French and Spanish coasts and east into the Mediterranean Sea. They and the other new crews joined the 379th Bomb Squadron of the 310th Bomb Group (Medium) of the soon-to-be disbanded 9th Air Force, based in Libya.
From the Carolinas to Casablanca
The 310th had been formed in March, 1942 and consisted of four squadrons. The 379th, 380th, 381st, and 428th, each consisting of six B-25s. The 310th Group had already supported the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily by the time Coble’s crew arrived in late October 1943. “We first landed in Casablanca,” Coble said. “We had some time to get used to the place. We went to the movies. Just a small theater and guess what was playing there? Casablanca!” he laughed.
“The 379th was based in Tobruk in Libya. It was hot and miserable,” Coble commented. “The temperature went up to 120 degrees in the day. We slept in these tents that never got cool until well after nightfall. Then it went down to near freezing. Bugs and sand in your food, water, hair and clothes. Staging out of Tobruk, the B-25s patrolled the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. They concentrated on German ships and patrol craft trying to support Axis forces on Crete.
“We worked with the RAF who flew Beaufighters out of Tunisia to hit ships,” Coble explained. “Some missions took off from Philippeville, Algeria as well.”
“Our armorers had fitted extra guns on the nose.”
Eight Browning .50 caliber machine guns gave the B-25 immense firepower. The Mitchell’s excellent forward visibility made it easy to aim, according to Coble. “It looked like an upside-down Niagara Falls when we triggered all the guns while strafing boats on the water. That plane vibrated like you wouldn’t believe.”
As mentioned, ‘Pisonya’ carried the granddaddy of all aircraft guns, the powerful 75mm M4 cannon, a derivative of the trusty French 75 of World War One. The American version was also used on the M4 Sherman tank.
Few aspects of the B-25 variants garner more interest than the big gun.
A lighter version of the standard M4 with a thinner barrel and modified recoil system was developed for testing in the B-25. It was fitted into the port forward fuselage on the left side of the tunnel into the nose. The muzzle projected from a mild steel fairing.
A February 1944 Popular Science Magazine article entitled ‘Flying Big Gun’ stated that North American test pilot
Roger Rudd tested the first cannon-armed B-25 off the California coast in November 1942.
After several firings, Rudd said it produced a ‘good healthy jolt.’ Further tests led North American to conclude that ‘[the B-25] can take that and plenty more.’
The article goes on to say the first use of the gun in combat ‘destroyed a Nip transport as it was unloading, ending the earthly worries of fifteen Japs.’
Five well-placed shots from another B-25 slammed into a Japanese destroyer, causing great damage. A second run on the ship set off internal explosions.
There was no doubt that with high-explosive shells and a muzzle velocity of nearly 2,000 feet per second the 75 was capable of doing great damage to enemy vessels or ground installations.
Firing the gun did have an effect on the airframe, however. Research at the San Diego Air & Space Museum revealed accounts that the airspeed dropped by as much as 20 knots from the recoil. Some airmen swore the plane actually stopped for an instant, but this was a physical impossibility.
The cannon was bore-sighted and fired by the pilot with the N-6A gunsight (in the case of the ‘G’ and ‘H’ models) mounted on the top of the instrument panel. It was also common practice to use the .50 caliber tracers to ‘aim’ the plane at the target. When the bullets were striking the target, the big gun was triggered.
B-25 pilots had to maintain a very straight and steady course in order to achieve a hit at 2,000 yards.
The rate of fire depended on how rapidly the loader could open the breech, load the ten-pound shell and close it.
Some pilots liked the heavy hitting 75, while others preferred having several machine guns instead. “I think we carried about eleven or twelve shells, Coble remembered. “Garvin, my bombardier loaded them.
When it went off, the whole plane just bucked and we heard a big ‘WHUMP!”
German forces in the Aegean Sea were scattered over scores of small and large islands. Damaging them in daily raids was a job for the 379th’s big guns.
“The Krauts had a lot of fighter strips on those islands,” Coble continued. “On most missions we flew low enough to avoid their radar. We’d be over their island bases to drop 23lb. parachute fragmentation bombs. They did a lot of damage, wrecking planes, but left the airfields intact. Then we’d fire a couple of shells at whatever looked good.”
Coble had one memorable experience with the cannon.
“On 18 February we found a German patrol boat about five miles off the Turkish coast. It was about fifty feet long. I squeezed one off and the shell went in the stern of the boat. It blew apart like kindling. One crewman jumped clear. All these years later I can still see him.”
The man who’d instructed pilots in the art of skip bombing had his chance to use it on German ships.
“When we saw a Kraut ship I flew about fifty feet altitude at 220 knots. That was plenty low,” Coble smiled. “At that speed the target came up very fast. I adjusted my course as they tried to evade. When we were about five hundred yards out I toggled off the bombs and pulled up. Those 500-pounders skipped a couple of times and slammed into the ship. The trick was to not be right over it when they exploded. Usually my tail gunner told us if we got a hit. We sank three German ships off Crete,” Coble said with pride. By the beginning of 1944, German ships tried to reach port at night, unload and depart before dawn to avoid the deadly B-25s. Less than 50% returned to their home ports.
“On 22 February, 1944 we sank a small cargo ship and then these Kraut fighters got on our tail and ran our ass the whole way around the eastern end of the island.”
‘Pisonya’s’ gunners were credited with shooting down an Me-109 and a Ju-88 over the Aegean.
When the Ninth Air Force was disbanded the 310th transferred to Corsica, where they were given new B-25Js. The ‘J’ model had the greenhouse nose. Bombardier Girvin finally had the chance to use a bombsight, rather than load cannon shells.
The 12th TAF, under General John Cannon had close to 2,500 fighters, attack bombers and medium bombers based on eight airfields. The rocky but idyllic island was so perfectly suited for basing American tactical aircraft for operations in Italy, southern France and Austria it gained the affectionate nickname of ‘USS Corsica.’
“I liked Cannon,’ affirmed Coble. “He was quiet, very friendly. Not your usual general. I flew him to the officer’s resort at Il Rousse, on the northwest corner of Corsica.”
On the eastern coast were the three airbases of the new 57th Bomb Wing, massing nearly 300 medium and attack bombers.
“Our base was in Ghisonaccia,
Corsica. That was a nice place, compared to Libya. I loved that island. The people were so friendly. When we were grounded for bad weather some of us went into town to a small restaurant. The food and wine was terrific.”
However, the 379th Squadron’s airmen at Ghisonaccia had the distinction of being treated to a breakfast to remember. “Our mess cooks had these young Corsican boys helping out,” said Coble. “Well one morning this one kid made a mistake and put air slake lime in the batter instead of pancake flour. We all got so sick, vomiting, diarrhea, just terrible. Lasted for about three days.”
That little incident was related in Joseph Heller’s bestselling novel ‘Catch-22’ which was about a B-25 group on the fictional island of Pianosa. Heller was a veteran of 60 missions as a bombardier with the 488th Bomb Squadron, 340th Bomb Group.
Bad food notwithstanding, the 310th Bomb Group flew high- and low-altitude bombing missions against land targets in Italy. “Ghisonaccia
was so close to Italy that if we flew straight east, we’d be there in fifteen minutes. Why the Germans never just came out and bombed us, I’ll never know.”
Operation ‘Shingle’ the code name for the Anzio landings in January 1944 had bogged down on the beachhead for three months while relentless German counterattacks hammered the American and British positions.
In the spring of 1944 Coble’s crew, along with the rest of the 57th Wing joined in Operation ‘Strangle’ which had begun on 25 March 1943. ‘Strangle’ was a systematic effort to destroy all German communication links and supply lines during the Italian campaign.
Fighter-bombers and medium bombers attacked German tactical assets such as shipping, railroads, marshalling yards, truck yards, fuel storage tanks, supply dumps, tunnels and bridges. Bombardiers and gunners were told to hit switches, repair yards, locomotives and other targets that could not be easily repaired or replaced.
“We hit railroad bridges and tunnels from Rome north. That also included a raid on Monte Cassino on 15 March,” Coble said, referring to the sixth century monastery overlooking Rome which was suspected of being used as a German observation post for the Gustav Line. The destruction of the ancient abbey was considered one of the worst cultural losses of the war.
“We had plenty of Mustangs for fighter cover so the Luftwaffe wasn’t much of a problem.”
The Bridge Busters
Coble’s own crew and some of the 379th gained a reputation for bombing bridges.
“You can approach a bridge by flying along the road or down the valley. But we just flew right down at them from a high angle. We were called ‘The Bridge Busters,’” he smile.
‘Strangle’ was succeeded by ‘Diadem,’ an attack directly aimed at breaking a hole in the German lines to allow the 70,000 Allied troops to break free of the beaches and march inland.
‘Diadem,’ begun on 15 May, wreaked such havoc with the Germans they were only able to transport about 500 tons for the fourteen divisions engaged. Without railroads, the German Army was forced to use trucks at night. But this too proved costly, as Douglas A-20 Havoc attack bombers carrying parachute flares illuminated the supply lines and destroyed them in place.
On 25 May 1944 the German 10th and 14th Armies began the withdrawal from the Anzio region, pursued by 12th TAF’s fighter-bombers. 100,000 American troops, preceded by heavy artillery fire, broke free of the beachhead and marched toward Rome.
In the air that day was Coble and his crew. “We flew in from the coast. The sky over the beach and roads were just full of smoke and tracers, explosions and fire. The troops were a mass of men moving inland. It was a sight to behold.”
One mission stands out for Coble. “On 10 June, I lead six ships on a mission to hit a railroad bridge at Calaforia, Italy. The 88mm flak was terrible. It shot down the third element leader, Ernie Kulik. His plane took a direct hit. We saw four chutes come out, but three were on fire. My co-pilot was hit in the head. The main gas line in the right carburetor was badly hit but that engine kept running. We landed with 145 holes in the plane.”
That mission earned Lt. Truman Coble the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation reads: ‘For extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight as a pilot of a B-25. On 10 June 1944, Lt. Coble led a six-plane flight in an attack upon a railroad bridge at Calaforia, Italy. Despite intense anti-aircraft fire which heavily damaged his airplane upon the approach to the target, Lt. Coble, displaying great courage and superior flying ability, maintained his crippled plane on course, thereby enabling his bombers to release their bombs with devastating effect upon this vital link in enemy communication lines. On more than fifty-five combat mission his outstanding proficiency and steadfast devotion to duty have reflected great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of the United States.’
Bud Coble finished his tour with the 310th and was sent home in late June after flying 56 combat missions.
The 310th Bomb Group, as part of the 57th Wing participated in more campaigns, including the build-up to Operation ‘Dragoon,’ the invasion of southern France in August 1944.
The group earned two Distinguished Unit Citations for action in the MTO. They reached the number of 500 missions sooner than any other group in the European Theater. In 989 missions they were credited with shooting down 121 enemy aircraft, including a captured Curtiss P-40. Skip bombing and cannon attacks on German shipping resulted in the sinking of 206 vessels. Among these were a German cruiser and two destroyers. Over 23,900 tons of bombs were dropped while the B-25Gs fired 1,998 75mm cannon shells.
Bud Coble took a job at Sears, where he worked for 43 years. “I had met Winifred, my future wife, in Cairo while I was recuperating from an illness,” he explained. “She was an Army nurse, a 2nd Lieutenant. We were married two years later. I technically outrank her, but she’s my wife so her orders stand.”
Coble is typical of the decidedly atypical airmen who flew B-25s in the Mediterranean Theater. At dangerously low altitude and face-to-face with German flak, they slowly and effectively ground down the Axis’ ability to fight. North Africa, Sicily, Palermo, Rome, Naples, Anzio, the Po Valley, and into southern France the Mitchells were there.
Captain Truman ‘Bud’ Coble, USAAF passed away in May 2013, just after this article was published. He was happy to see his story told.