The History Place - Personal Histories

Diary of a Tail Gunner
by John Gabay

Introduction -- "The barracks are kind of empty tonight. The kid that sleeps next to me won't be back...Today was a sad one. Our radioman, Charley Gunn, went on his first raid with another crew and all hands failed to return. There was a cable waiting for him-his wife gave birth to a baby boy. He'll never know."

This was the daily experience of a twenty-three-year-old staff sergeant from Brooklyn named John Gabay. A tail gunner on a B-17, he saw worse in the air: bunkmates bailing out in a ball of fire, planes carrying friends going down in a fatal spiral. Gabay belonged to the 94th Bomb Group, 331st Bombardment Squadron, of the Eighth Air Force. He was stationed at the Rougham base, just outside the English town of Bury Saint Edmunds in East Anglia. In the fall and winter of 1943-44, Gabay, a former high-school swimming champion, kept what he called his "little black book." After each mission over German-occupied Europe-he figured that they averaged eight hours and forty minutes-he would return to his barracks and, sitting on his bunk, write down entries while the harrowing events of his day were still fresh.

Some years ago, Gabay's son, Thomas, showed up at the MHQ offices with a large loose-leaf notebook crammed with memorabilia, records of the 94th Bomb Group, and, most important, the typescript of John Gabay's diary. What follows is a mission-by-mission account, twenty-six in all, of a period in the air war against Germany when results did not yet balance against the terrible costs.

John Gabay returned home a hero, with a Distinguished Flying Cross and three Oak-Leaf Clusters. In April 1945, he learned that his twenty-one-year-old brother, Eugene, also a tail gunner in the Eighth Air Force, had died over Germany: In the last month of the war, on his twenty-seventh and last mission, flak killed him. Gabay worked twenty years for the New York City Sanitation Department. He married and had twelve children. He died on June 8, 1986, just short of his sixty-fifth birthday.

November 5, 1943 (B-17 382-"Horrible Hanks") TARGET: Synthetic-oil refineries in Ruhr Valley TEMPERATURE: -43º F.T. (FLIGHT TIME): 5:15 E.T. (TIME OVER ENEMY TERRITORY): 1:35 ALTITUDE: 28,000 feet BOMB LOAD: 10 500-lb. HE (HIGH-EXPLOSIVE BOMBS).

Today was my first mission. Our group (the 94th Bomb Group, with twenty-four planes) made the run on the target first. We went over Holland and immediately saw three Me-109s. Later on we saw ten FW-190s, two Ju-88s, one Me-110, and several more 109s. I fired at a 109 coming in at 6 o'clock. I must have come close as he peeled off and dove away quickly. Flak was very intense and pretty accurate (fourteen solid minutes). Our ship was hit several times (two holes in left wing flaps, several in fuselage, severed oil line in number three engine and bent the prop). Oil covered ball turret and wheels. I could hear the pieces of flak hit-concussion driving the ship several feet upward. We were very lucky to get out of the Ruhr Valley. One of the waist gunners got the bends. He screamed a lot with the pain. Now the 109s moved in for another battle. My guns worked perfectly. I was holding them off pretty good. As we crossed over Belgium, our P-47s met us and scattered all the enemy fighters. We lost one bomber in that last fight. Bombs went through the wing of another ship but they made it back OK.

This was my first raid and it was with an old crew. They had twenty-four missions and were uneasy to have a rookie flying tail gun. But when we landed, they all came back and shook hands with me and said I did OK.

November 11, 1943 (B-17 846-unofficially called by the ground crew "Lucky 13") TARGET: Marshaling yards in heart of city TEMP.: -28º F.T.: 6:00 E.T.: 1:55 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.: 2 tons incendiaries

It seemed at first to be a pretty easy mission. As we entered the Dutch coast we were met with light flak. Then our P-47s showed up and we had no trouble at all till we reached the target. Flak wasn't too heavy, but our bomb-bay doors wouldn't open. We finally got them open and got rid of the bombs in Germany. Our escorts stayed with us as long as they could-engaging in several dogfights. They had to leave us over Holland and then the fun began. About 50 FW-190s and Me-109s attacked us from every direction. We couldn't close our bomb-bay doors so they picked on us thinking we were crippled. One FW dove straight down from 1 o'clock high and let go with his cannons. He put a hole in our left wing big enough to crawl through. He also blew off a piece of the vertical stabilizer over my head. The Fort [Flying Fortress] on our wing burst into flames and only five got out-one chute was on fire. They were from our barracks. A 109 came directly at me and I know I hit him as he rolled over in a dive and disappeared. Another one came in low at 8 o'clock and Chauncey [the nickname of Ben Carriere], our ball gunner, hit him and he burst into flames and went down. Several FW-190s kept coming in at the tail and I hit one; he rolled over and I lost him. The Fort on our other wing burst into flames and went into a spin. Didn't see any chutes. Flak burst under our ship and concussion knocked us up about fifty feet. As we reached the Channel an FW-190 followed up low at 5 o'clock and Chauncey knocked him into the water. We made it back OK-but our new ship was a wreck.

This was our crew's first raid together. Got back OK.

November 16, 1943 (B-17 012-no name) TARGET: Power station (world's largest heavy-water plant) TEMP.: -45º F.T.: 10:05 ALT.: 12,000 BOMB LD.: 5 1,000-lb. HE

A very long dull uninteresting mission over the North Sea. It was intensely cold. My heated gloves and boots went out shortly after takeoff and I had to keep banging my hands and feet for about nine hours to keep from getting frostbite. As it was, the tips of the fingers on my right hand were frostbitten. Saw some fishing boats as we approached the Norwegian coast. A very picturesque scene. Then we flew over the icy mountaintops-up through the fjords-very pretty. We had to make two runs on the target as we got there a little early. After we dropped the load, we turned right and passed along a valley. On the top of the mountain I saw several men shooting at us with rifles and machine guns. As we left the coast we were met with light inaccurate flak. One FW-190 made a feeble pass at us, then called it a day. We made it back OK-not much gas left.

November 26, 1943 (B-17 798) TARGET: Ball-bearing factory on the Seine River TEMP.: -36º F.T.: 6:30 E.T.: 1:35 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.: 3 tons demolition bombs

Five minutes after crossing the Channel, we saw our escort-eight P-47s and eight Spits [Spitfires]. Number four engine was going bad and had to be feathered but we continued on anyway. We were twenty minutes from our target when we ran into heavy cloud formations, which meant we couldn't see our target. As we got closer to Paris, the flak batteries sent up very heavy flak. They couldn't see us but they had our altitude right on the nose. We made a run on the target but couldn't see it due to the heavy cloud cover. That meant we couldn't drop our bombs on Allied territory unless we could see and pinpoint the target, and the target must be military. We got a big flak hole in the tail coming out of the target area. One ship cut through our formation and almost hit us. I called the pilot and he dropped our ship and then pulled up quickly. It was quite a jolt-our radioman almost went through the top hatch. The waist gunner floated through the air and both landed on the ball turret, disconnecting their oxygen hoses. The ammunition in all the gun positions was upset; mine came out of the boxes and hit me in the head. I had about 100 rounds in each gun that were usable.

We could no longer keep up with the formation so we had to leave and go down. Our low group got hit hard by several FW-190s and Me-109s. Our escort was too high to see it. It was the British Spits. There were several dogfights later on-one B-17 got hit and was burning badly. He left the formation, then blew up-bombs and all. The crew were good friends of mine. By this time we were all alone over enemy territory, and our number one engine started to go bad. We were struggling to reach the Channel with the probability of ditching as close to the English coast as possible. Meanwhile seven FW-190s came out of nowhere and began to stalk us. They stayed just out of range, then broke off as we reached the Channel. They must have been out of ammunition. We dropped our bombs in the Channel. A little later we saw the White Cliffs of Dover, then our number one engine died. But we made it on two engines. My face and chin were frostbitten. We got back OK.

November 29, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Heart of city-docks TEMP.: -64º F.T.: 7:45 E.T.: 2:20 ALT.: 28,500 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons mixed

After [I finished] cleaning and checking guns someone stole the bolt from one of my guns and I had to get a new one at the last minute. Hard to believe.

When our formation was completed, we went up through the North Sea, then came down right over Bremen. Flak was very heavy. Ship on our left had its wing blown off. Didn't have time to see if anyone got out as fighters hit us hard. Our P-47 escort jumped on them and the battle began. I called out an Me-210 at 5 o'clock low to Chauncey and he almost got him. I fired at an FW-190 and saw him blow up just as a P-47 pulled over the tail. I figured he might have got him first. There were dogfights all over the sky. Vapor trails were heavy and broke up our formation. We ended up in two different groups, which weakened our firepower. Our escort of P-38s and Spits never showed up-again. Our Cq [communication] equipment and radio compass were shot out. I never saw so many different types of enemy fighters trying to get our group. There were Me-410s, 210s, 110s, 109s, FW-190s, Ju-88s and 87s. About 150 in all, and all of them trying to outdo each other. It must have been an Iron Cross day. Ju-87s tried dropping parachute bombs. 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. We made it back OK, but I had frostbite on my face, chin, and knees. They wanted to put me in the hospital but I went into a fit and got off with only one day grounding. Went to confession before takeoff. It made the raid easy.

December 5, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Focke-Wulf Airdrome and Repair Plant TEMP.: -27º F.T.: 9:45 E.T.: 4.30 ALT.: 21,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

For a change I was pretty warm on this mission. I always wanted to see the south of France but the cloud cover was so great that I couldn't see much-in fact, it was so bad we couldn't drop our bombs. We had P-47 and P-38 escort cover over the Brest peninsula. We circled our target outside of Bordeaux and a bunch of 190s came at us through the clouds. They hit the last Fort in our group. It caught on fire, pulled out of formation, rolled over on its back, went into a dive, and exploded. Nobody got out. We had several attacks at our tail. I was beginning to think the Jerries knew me. We used plenty of evasive action and it worked pretty good. One Focke-Wulf came in so close, I could see his face. I poured it to him and he rolled over burning, ending up outside of Bill's window. He poured it to him and when he started to slip lower, Chauncey in the ball blasted him, and as he went down everybody was hitting him till he blew up. He must have misjudged his attack and found himself too close and panicked. Our two groups were too close and fighters flew in between them, which made it difficult to fire at them. We had a small fire in the bomb bay but Bill put it out in a hurry. We were within seventy-five miles of Spain and over seven hours on oxygen. Got back OK.

December 13, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -28º F.T.: 8:10 E.T.: 0:56 ALT.: 24,200 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

We flew up through the North Sea and just as we entered the enemy coast, about forty Ju-88s appeared out of nowhere. They flew alongside our formation on both sides, but just out of range. After several minutes of this, they began to peel off and four of them attacked our ship from the tail. They came in close, one at a time. The flame from the cannons, tracers from their machine guns, and rockets from under their wings made the situation a bit hairy. All I could do, besides being scared, was to spray each one as they came in and call for evasive action. I hit the second one and he rolled over and burned. I saw my tracers slam into the cockpit of the third. I may have hit the pilot, as the ship started to go out of control. I poured more into it, knocking off the canopy under the nose. It looked like a leg hung out of the ship for an instant, then fell out. Then the ship went into a spin. More Ju-88s flew alongside of us, out of range. Some of them waved to us. It was shaky waiting for them to attack. Then they came at us. Our pilot used plenty of evasive action and all guns were firing. The ball turret in the ship next to us was blown out. Several ships were hit hard. We had several flak holes, machine-gun holes, and a couple of 20mm-cannon holes in the right wing. A squadron of P-38s showed up for a change and the bandits scattered. One bomb got hung up in the bomb bay but C. L. [Claude Chambers, the bombardier] managed to dump it after a few minutes. Leo was annoyed that I didn't put in any claims. I don't like the hassle.

Today-December 13th; Our Crew-#13; Bombs Away at 1300-Another Lucky Day

December 16, 1943 (B-17 037) TARGET: Docks-heart of city TEMP.: -38º F.T.: 8.30 E.T.: 1:30 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.: 3 tons mixed

We were supposed to have plenty of escort-P-38s, P-51s, and P-47s-but we were late and missed them. When we saw the P-38s they were passing us on their way home-not a nice feeling. Flak over the target was extra heavy. The sky was black with flak-burst smoke and I could smell it through my oxygen mask. The noise was cruel and the concussions were murderous. Every ship in the group must have had flak holes-we had plenty. When we came out of the target area, the fighters were waiting for us. I never saw so many. They were hiding over the stale flak smoke. Our crew led the Eighth Air Force on this raid. We had two direct attacks at the tail but they didn't press them. The low group in our wing got hit very hard. One of the Forts blew up. The Jerry that got him gave some exhibition of flying. He was something special. We had a British radar officer on board. His job was to confuse the German radar [by throwing bundles of aluminum foil out the waist-gun windows]. It didn't work. The weather over the Channel was bad and especially over our field. We made the landing on the first try but nearly collided with another Fort. There were two crack-ups later on. Our ship was a mess-full of holes. I thought the crew chief was going to cry. We were told at interrogation that Bremen put up more flak today than any city up to now. Big Deal! Got back OK!

December 20, 1943 (B-17 212) TARGET: Heart of city-docks TEMP.: -42º F.T.: 6:30 E.T.: 1:55 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.: 3 tons HE

It's Flak City again! Today we took a cameraman with us. He got some good shots-he also got frostbite. P-47s escorted us for a while, then we picked up P-51s. Saw several dogfights around us. Our escort did a good job. Saw them knock down a few Focke-Wulfs. Flak over target was extra heavy, as usual. It knocked out our number one engine so we had to leave formation and hit the deck and try to make it back alone. We had a few attacks, but two P-51s saw us all alone fighting off two FW-190s and down they came and scattered the bandits. By this time we were passing over Wilhelmshaven and heading out over the North Sea, but not before running into some very accurate flak. We made it back OK. Had several holes in fuselage, nose Plexiglas, vertical stabilizer; number three engine quit just as we touched down.

December 24, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Rocket-gun sites and factories TEMP.: -28º F.T.: 5:45 E.T.: 0:23 ALT.: 18,800 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

This was a most secret briefing. We were told it was a most important raid. Everything that could fly was in the air. We were to try and hit scattered rocket installations, which meant we had to do individual squadron bombing. Flak was light and there were no fighters. This was hard to believe. As we had our bomb run, flak started to get a little heavy but not too accurate. Still no fighters! This was truly a milk run.

(SAINT-OMER is just south of the Belgian border, close to the English Channel. The installations, which looked like ski jumps, were for the not-yet-operational V-1 "buzz bombs.")

NEXT SECTION - Missions 11-20

Excerpted from "No End Save Victory : Perspectives on World War II" by Robert Cowley (Editor). © March 29, 2001, Putnam Pub. Group used by permission.

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