The History Place - Personal Histories

Diary of a Tail Gunner
by John Gabay

Part Two of Three

December 30, 1943 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Nazis' largest chemical works F.T.: 9:00 E.T.: 4:00 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.: 2 tons incendiaries

This raid was deep into Germany. Our escort was pretty good-P-47s, P-51s, and Spits. Flak was very heavy over the target. Just as we crossed the French coast, about fifteen Me-109s hit us. They only made one pass, then attacked a B-24 group below us. They shot them up pretty bad-a few of them went down. Our ball-turret gunner passed out for a few minutes. We thought we lost him. But he came to and let us know he was OK. I think the stiff was sleeping. During the raid, we ran into six different heavy flak areas. A gunner in the next barracks, his twenty-fourth mission, got hit in the neck with a piece of flak and was killed instantly. We had scattered fighter attacks in and out. Not too heavy but constant. When our escort was around they chased them. Got back OK!

January 5, 1944 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Airdrome and repair plant TEMP.: -35º F.T.: 7:45 E.T.: 4:30 ALT.: 20,300 BOMB LD.: 3 tons HE

We crossed the Channel to France, then headed south along the French coast to our target. It was a clear day and we could see the ground, which didn't happen often. We flew over the city of La Rochelle and ran into moderate but inaccurate flak. I could see the flashes from their gun batteries. They also tried to cover the town with smoke pots, thinking we were going to bomb it. We met a few P-47s but they left us in a few minutes. A lone 109 attacked a Fort lagging behind. They had their own private war till we started the bomb run. Then the flak came, heavy and accurate. I could hear the bursts and hear the chunks of steel ripping into the ship-a sickening sound. Fighters came through their own flak and attacked us. We were flying Purple Heart Corner again and the FW-190s attacked our ship in threes and fours. [Purple Heart Corner was the low outside position on the formation, and one that enemy fighters found easy to isolate.] I know I damaged some. It was a running fight for almost an hour. We lost an engine and couldn't keep up with the group. About the same time another Fort lost an engine and we both hung together till we reached the Brest peninsula, then he couldn't stay with us and lagged back. When he was about 800 yards back, two black-and-silver FW-190s attacked him and blew him in half. I didn't have time to look for the chutes as both fighters came at us at 6 o'clock level. I poured it to them-a wing came off one and the other burst into flames. The pilot insisted I claim them. We got a few light flak bursts before we left Brest. We were all alone-then I saw a Fort below us ditch. We got back OK. Ship had several flak and machine-gun holes. Had three big holes in the tail and broken side window.

(This was the mission for which Gabay was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.)

January 29, 1944 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Industrial center TEMP.: -45º F.T.: 7:50 E.T.: 2:45 ALT.: 24,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

According to briefing, today's raid was supposed to be the heaviest of the war. We crossed the Channel and over the enemy coast at Belgium. Flew over Brussels, then cloud cover became 10/10 [no visibility whatsoever]. On this raid we were to have Spits first, then P-47s, P-38s, and P-51s. As usual, the Spits didn't show. The rest of the escort was fairly good-P-47s the best, as always. They also always seem to be the most aggressive. About twelve 109s tried to hit us but the P-47s broke it up. When they had to leave, the group in back of us got hit by a massive attack of about sixty 109s. Nine Forts went down together. Frankfurt was supposed to be heavily defended by flak batteries. We brought along bundles of metallic paper and threw it out during the bomb run. It must have worked as the flak was heavy but very low. We had little trouble getting home. A few feeble attacks. Number 13 is over. Got back OK.

January 30, 1944 (B-17 498-"Passionate Witch II") TARGET: Me-110 factory TEMP.: -26º F.T.: 7:30 E.T.: 3:45 ALT.: 21,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

The last time the Eighth Air Force went to Brunswick they lost sixty Forts. Today, only twenty. We were fairly close to Berlin. Had to skirt several flak areas but ran into three heavy ones, plus the flak over the target. Escort was fairly good-P-47s always there, but again the Spits didn't show. We had heavy contrails at this altitude and a lot of haze, which made it hard to see enemy fighters. Had several near accidents-weather was brutal. We threw out metallic paper on bomb run but this time it didn't work. Flak was pretty accurate. Several dogfights erupted-nice to see but a little hairy at times watching to see if the enemy could break through and get at us. They did a few times but it wasn't bad. Got back OK.

February 3, 1944 (B-17 846-"Lucky 13") TARGET: Sub pens TEMP.: -47º F.T.: 7:00 E.T.: 1:30 ALT.: 24,500 BOMB LD.: 2 tons incendiaries

It seems we made this raid the hard way, under very bad weather conditions. We had complete 10/10 cloud cover up to 20,000 feet. We had fairly good escort for a while. We ran into heavy but not so accurate flak as we crossed the enemy coast. On the bomb run the bomb-bay doors stuck so Mike [Jankowski, the engineer and top-turret gunner] had to crank them down-in time to drop on target. Flak was heavy, but over on our left. We were to come out by way of the North Sea. A sleet storm reached our altitude and we couldn't see to stay in formation so we got orders that everyone was on his own. Ice was forming on our wings as we let down through the storm. The last thing I saw before the weather enveloped us was a Fort running into the tail of another and chewing it up so bad the gunner fell out over the North Sea. I couldn't see anything else as the weather closed in around us. We dove at great speed trying to get to warmer air. The ice soon broke away from the wings and we didn't hit anything-so far so good! We broke out through the clouds about 200 feet over the North Sea along the Frisian Islands. Now plenty of 20mm was bursting around the tail and left waist-couldn't see where it was coming from. Then weather opened up and saw soldiers running for their gun positions. We opened up on them-saw about twenty go down like rag dolls-got out of there fast. Was a bumpy ride home. Found myself in midair several times.

February 8, 1944 (B-17 498-"Passionate Witch II") TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -47º F.T.: 8:40 E.T.: 4:00 ALT.: 27,500 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

We were leading the low squadron of a new group deep into enemy territory. Twenty minutes after we crossed the enemy coast, we ran into some very accurate flak. Saw some fighters but P-47s kept them busy. Flew at pretty high attitude. As soon as we started our bomb run I saw a group of Me-109s at six o'clock low and leaned up to keep an eye on them and in so doing, pulled out my oxygen hose without knowing it. I passed out and hit my head on the armor plate. But before I passed out, I vaguely remember trying to plug the end of the hose back where it belonged, but I just couldn't reach it. I thought it was hanging out the rear of the ship for several miles and I kept trying to pull it back in. The flight surgeon said a man could only live for about ten minutes without oxygen at this altitude, but according to the crew, they were trying to contact me for over twenty minutes. Bill Geier [the waist gunner] crawled back to the tail and found me slumped over, no oxygen and my face purple. He immediately gave me emergency oxygen and artificial respiration as best he could. I started breathing again. When I came to, I tried to fight with him but I had no strength. I straightened out in a few minutes but was groggy all the way home. I'm sure it was a miracle that I made it. Crew said I was shooting at fighters but I don't remember any of it.

February 10, 1944 (B-17 498-"Passionate Witch II") TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -48º F.T.: 8:50 E.T.: 3:50 ALT.: 23,700 BOMB LD.: 3 tons

I don't know how to start this one. I'm very tired. They told us at briefing the plan was to send 200 Forts deep into Germany as a decoy to lure up enemy fighters so our escort could try to knock out the Luftwaffe. It didn't turn out that way. As soon as we crossed the enemy coast, we ran into swarms of enemy fighters. (At interrogation everyone agreed over 300 fighters at one time pounded our group.) I knew we were really in trouble when about 150 of our escort showed up and immediately dropped their belly tanks so they could mix it with the enemy. That meant they couldn't stay with us very long-and the raid was just beginning. The Luftwaffe must have put up every fighter they had....Fighters hit us from every angle. I saw Forts and fighters blowing up, Forts and fighters going down smoking and burning, wings coming off, tails coming off, the sky full of parachutes....One guy floated into a low Fort-he was churned up by the propellers and took the Fort with him. It just rolled over into a dive. The sky was so full of tracers, 20mm cannon shells exploding, and even rockets. Steel was ripping into our ship with sickening sounds. There were times when I was afraid to shoot for fear of hitting one of our own planes or some poor guy in a parachute.

We were leading the high squadron of nine planes-only two of us got back. They attacked the tail four abreast and four deep-sixteen at a time. Their wing guns lit up like Luna Park [in Coney Island]. These guys were not fooling. There were countless dogfights. The P-47s at times were badly outnumbered but they did a great job and stayed with us until the very last minute. A couple of them asked for a heading home and said they were sorry they had to leave, but they were very low on fuel. When they left, the fighters became even more aggressive-if that was possible. All guns were firing at the same time. The whole ship was vibrating. I was shooting at everything that came in range. I think I hit a few but was too busy to see what happened as another attack was already starting, then another, etc. I know Chauncey got an FW-190. Ju-88s flew over us dropping aerial bombs, but it wasn't effective. At one time there must have been 200 fighters above us in dogfights. I saw 2 P-47s go down but I saw the 47s shoot down several Jerries.

The battle let up for about five minutes and about that time Chambers, our bombardier, called out large formations of fighters at twelve o'clock high. We all thought they were our escort coming in force from England to help. But it turned out to be FW-190s and Me-109s-about 150 of them. Now the fun really began. We had no more escort. Forts and fighters were going down all around us. Our ship got slammed with 20mm cannon and machine-gun slugs-a miracle none of us were hit. At the end of the battle, 20 P-47s showed up and put up a magnificent battle. Flak over the target was heavy, but not bad on the way home. We made it back OK. But there are a lot of empty beds tonight. This old Fort really took a beating-I don't know how it stayed in the air. The damage-half the nose blown out; six feet of the vertical stabilizer blown off; tail cables severed; all my windows blown out; one 20mm went through left side of tail above my hands and blew up just outside my window. All in all, ground crew counted 136 holes. But we made it back OK.

February 13, 1944 (B-17 498-"Passionate Witch II") TARGET: Rocket sites TEMP.: -15º F.T.: 4:00 E.T.: 0:35 ALT.: 12,500 BOMB LD.: 3 tons HE

We did squadron bombing today. Our crew led the low squadron. Each squadron had different targets. We flew over six or seven flak areas. Flak wasn't heavy but what they threw was right in there-medium to light but very accurate. It killed a navigator in our squadron. I didn't see any fighters-friendly or otherwise-on the way in, but I could hear every burst of flak. Maybe I'm thinking too much about flak. At least with fighters you can fight back. France looked so peaceful and quiet until "Bombs away." Forts were coming and going, dropping bombs on their own individual targets. I wondered what the heck was so important down there. The ground was covered with bomb bursts and once in a while big explosions-a hit, I guess! One B-24 got hit bad by flak and flew in our formation all the way home. Coming back saw some fighters near the Channel, but they ignored us. Thanks a lot.

February 24, 1944 (B-17 498-"Passionate Witch II") TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -8º F.T.: 10:25 E.T.: 3:30 ALT.: 12,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

Today I put in my longest combat mission-in time. It wasn't too bad. I guess after Brunswick, nothing is too bad, or maybe I'm flak happy and beginning to enjoy this sport. I hope not. We had to hit our secondary target because of heavy cloud cover. The Luftwaffe sent up several different types of fighters-Me-109s, 110s, 210s, Ju-88s, and FW-190s. There weren't too many of them. We had several attacks but the fighters left us and attacked other groups. I hope it was because we were pretty good. Some of the other groups got hit bad. A lot went down. Later on, one Fort in our group went down-saw only three chutes. But the fighters kept after it till it blew in half. Ju-88s were shooting rockets at a high group. They would stay out of range and then their wings would light up with a large orange flame and out came two rockets like a large ball of flame. Then the Forts would turn left or right to evade them. Saw several German patrol boats along the Danish coast. I think we were flying too low again.

February 25, 1944 (B-17 704) TARGET: Aircraft assembly plant and ball-bearing factory TEMP.: -26º F.T.: 10:30 E.T.: 5:45 ALT.: 14,000-17,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

Another long haul into the fatherland. As we crossed the French coast, the radio-man got a report that the Fifteenth Air Force came up from Italy and just hit the same target we were going after. We went in anyway. We ran into several flak areas in France. I was flying with a different crew and felt uneasy all the way. As soon as our escort left us, the wing in the back of us got hit hard by 109s and 190s. Two Forts went down-nine chutes came out of one and three from the other. The second Fort went out of control and the fighters wouldn't give the crew a chance to bail out. It caught fire and went into a steep dive. Wings and tail fell off and I saw the fuselage hit the ground. These raids lately are too low-the flak gets more and more accurate. We flew over Luxembourg and then into Germany. The Reich was covered with snow, a pretty sight-peaceful and quiet looking. I could see the Alps on our right and in the distance we could see the target still burning from the earlier raid by the Fifteenth.

As soon as we started our bomb run, the flak really came up. Our bomb-bay doors wouldn't open so the engineer came out of his top turret to hand-crank the doors open. As he did, flak ripped off the dome of his turret. The flak bursts were very loud and pieces of steel were ripping into our ship. I just happened to look up and saw an eager 109 come at us through the flak. I poured a long burst at him and saw him smoke and roll over in a dive. I may have got him. One Fort was blown up by flak over the target-no one got out. We started our long haul back-no escort all the way; could see Frankfurt and Stuttgart still burning from previous raid. Saw a lot of smoking Forts trying to make it home. Over France, we were hit hard by two different flak areas. Flak ripped through our nose, wing, windshield, and tail-getting a wee bit nervous. We had sporadic fighter attacks all the way home, but they didn't press too hard. I guess they were getting tired and frustrated. As we neared the Channel one odd-looking Fort tried to turn back and the CO [commanding officer] called some Spits that had just happened to be flying nearby to pick him up and bring him back to England. He had to be a Jerry. [It was probably a B-17 captured intact by the Germans, but there is no indication that the Spitfires forced it down.] I didn't care too much for the crew I was with today. They got too darned excited under fire and I can't stand that-had to keep telling them to simmer down. But we made it OK.

LAST SECTION - Missions 21-26

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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