The History Place - Personal Histories

Diary of a Tail Gunner
by John Gabay

Part Three of Three

March 6, 1944 (B-17 252-"Sweaty Betty") TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -26º F.T.: 8:40 E.T.: 4:35 ALT.: 21,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

I've finally got my wish--a raid on Big B. Somehow I'm not as anxious, but I'd like to get it under my belt. Our crew led the 94th, then just as we crossed into Germany, we had to lead the 3rd Division over the target. It was just like any other rough raid over the Reich, except we got a double Scotch at interrogation and had our pictures taken when we landed. Our command pilot [who sat in the copilot's seat] was Colonel Thorup [one of the air base commanders].

We crossed the Channel and entered Holland and ran into light but very, very accurate flak and met our escort, P-47s at this point. When we left we had some eager attacks by about thirty 109s and 190s. We managed to keep them honest till our escort of P-51s showed up. Then the dogfights began. The sky above us was full of vapor trails in one massive dogfight. Several fighters were knocked down-mostly Jerries. Meanwhile, the group just in back of us lost eight Forts in one pass by about sixty 109s and FW 190s. Several parachutes filled the sky-couldn't keep track as fighters came at us. Then the 51s came and everybody was shooting at somebody. What a mess! As we started our bomb run, very heavy flak filled the sky. I could hear every burst around us, and the steel hitting our ship and the ship jolting up and down and sideways with the concussions. I saw the city-big and beautiful and then it was burning. What a shame! We dropped our bombs and got the heck away as soon as we could, as the flak was murder. Our left wing was hit bad. Saw several (about five) Forts go down over the target. I think the flak is beginning to get on my nerves. When we left the flak area, we were met by another escort-P-51s. Very comforting. As we left Germany into Holland, we again ran into light flak, but extremely accurate. A few more fighter attacks, a few more dogfights, then the Channel and sighs of relief-we made it OK. Tonight BBC said the Eighth lost sixty-eight bombers. Oh yes, I flew right waist gunner today. Protocol called for an officer in the tail on lead ships. The crew was leery about this and so was I, but he did OK-whoever he was.

March 15, 1944 (B-17 704) TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -28º F.T.: 7:45 E.T.: 2:50 ALT.: 21,000 BOMB LD.: 2 tons mixed

I flew with [Lieutenant] Senior today. As usual, they put him in Purple Heart Corner again. None of the brass like him but he was an excellent pilot and the crew loved him-that's good enough for me. It was his last mission-it was also Stan Kyowski's last. He's the waist gunner. I thought it would be another rough one but this time Brunswick wasn't too bad. I know now why the crew loved the pilot. When the group ran into flak he would pull away from the formation till it was past the flak area. He would only do this when there were no fighters around and he was flying low and outside. This broke all the rules-but he didn't care. We crossed the Dutch coast and some light but accurate flak came up. Our escort, a large group of P-38s, was all around us. At one time, about fifty fighters tried to break through but the 38s were all over them so they couldn't concentrate too much on us, although they managed to get in a few whacks. The Fort in front of us got it and went into a spin-only one chute came out. Saw a couple of hundred fighters mixing it above us. Jerries and P-38s were going down. Then a group of P-47s go into it and really broke it open. I still think they're the best. I know they must have the most courage. Coming back was uneventful-pockets of light flak way off and a few feeble fighter attacks. Our escort made this one pretty easy. Got back OK.

March 18, 1944 (B-17 252-"Sweaty Betty") TARGET: Railroad marshaling yard TEMP.: -32º F.T.: 10:05 E.T.: 5:45 ALT.: 20,000 BOMB LD.: 2 tons incendiaries

Another long haul but the escort was pretty good-P-47s, 51s, and 38s. Over France ran into several light and inaccurate flak pockets. As we entered Germany, I could see the Alps in the distance. Der Fatherland was covered with snow-lovely sight. Just as I was beginning to appreciate the scenery, some heavy flak woke me up to reality. We ran the gauntlet of flak and fighters from Augsburg to Munich. Flew the waist again today. Too dull-not like the tail. Got a few shots in, nothing much. Over the target, starting with the bomb run, the flak got very, very accurate and heavy. Pieces of steel ricocheting inside the ship, the loud noise of the flak bursts, the jostling of the plane, the wishing I was somewhere else. A few seconds after the bombs dropped, a burst of flak exploded outside my gun position, knocking me flat on my back, cutting the gun barrel in half, and destroying the armor plate. No one was hit-I don't know why! A foot higher and I would have lost my head. By the way-could see the bombs hit the railroad yard-Locomotives and freight cars were coming up in the air, end over end. Got back OK.

(On May 24, 1944, the "Sweaty Betty" was hit by flak and badly damaged over Berlin. The pilot nursed the plane back to the English Channel, where he ditched it. All the crewmen were picked up.)

March 23, 1944 (B-17 925) TARGET: Heart of city TEMP.: -38º [F.T. omitted] E.T.: 3:05 ALT.: 21,000 BOMB LD.: 2 tons incendiaries

My pilot finished up on the last raid, so today I flew with a new pilot, Lieutenant Butler, a West Point man and a real stiff. We started over Holland and missed our escort-we were too early. Ran into a few light but accurate flak areas. The crew were new and inexperienced and they really showed it. They kept tying up the intercom with a lot of nonsense till I lost patience and told them to stay off the wire unless they had something important to say. It worked for a while. We were deep in Germany and ahead of schedule and no escort in sight. Just as we started our bomb run, contrails appeared overhead-about fifty of them. They flew in fours, just like our escort. I tried to convince the crew that those fighters were FW-190s but they insisted they were P-47s. This was hard for me to take. Just then a bunch of fighters, Me-109s, came up from below and attacked the group in back of us. I saw three Forts go down burning on the first pass. Then the fighters from above dove on us and the fun began. I warned the crew they were enemy fighters but I was the only one shooting. They hit us hard and two Forts went down quickly and several others were hit, including ours. It was a rude awakening to the crew. All the time the dumb pilot was VHF [very high frequency] instead of intercom and couldn't hear the attacks called out. The Fort on our right wing was hit and burst into flames. It rolled over and almost collided with us. It blew up a few seconds later. No one got out. I didn't get in any good shots as most attacks were either head-on or from above. Flak was heavy over the target, but not accurate. We hit a flak area a short while later that was very accurate. Our escort came just as the Jerries hit us again. One Fort in our group was blown in half.

We passed through a strip of the Ruhr Valley and the flak was murderous. We took several hits. A ship on our left started to burn badly after taking a solid flak hit. I saw six get out. Then the flaming ship went out of control. It slid right through the group. All of the Forts pulled up but ours as the dopey pilot was still on VHF, and couldn't hear me call. The burning ship just missed the tail by about three feet. I could hear the roar of his engines. It leveled off-four more got out, then it rolled over and broke up. We made it back OK. No thanks to the pilot, and I sure told him so.

March 26, 1944 (B-17 498-"Passionate Witch II") TARGET: Rocket sites TEMP.: -26º; F.T.: 5:00 E.T.: 0:20 ALT.: 20,500 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

Almost crashed on takeoff. Getting close to the end now and things are getting a little hairy. Briefing was for Leipzig but somehow it was scrubbed-thank God! We crossed the French coast and made a right turn. Flak very heavy, but off to our left. French must be sending it up. Started our bomb run as soon as bombardier spotted target. All bombs weren't dropped on time. Saw them hit ground and miss target. A few fighter attacks didn't amount to much. The Channel always looks good coming home-so do those White Cliffs of Dover. This was supposed to be my last mission but have to make one more as they raised them to thirty. Since I had twenty-three when they upped them, I only have one more to go. Made this one back OK.

(On APRIL 29, 1944, "Passionate Witch II" went down over Berlin, hit by flak. There were no survivors.)

March 27, 1944 (B-17 540-"Miss Donna Mae II") TARGET: Airdrome TEMP.: -5º F.T.: 9:15 E.T.: 4:50 ALT.: 12,000 BOMB LD.: 2.5 tons HE

I flew with Gavit today. He's a good pilot. It looked as though the mission would be scrubbed as a heavy fog rolled in. Takeoff was delayed two hours. What a way to sweat out my last raid. We finally took off and could barely see the wingtips, the fog was so thick. We climbed through the fog for half an hour, along with hundreds of other ships. We were all sweating. Finally broke through at 10,000 feet. We formed up and crossed the Channel; France was as clear as a bell. I saw fires and smoke on the ground where other bombers hit. But we had another two and a half hours to target. Crossed Brest and flew over the Bay of Biscay. German warships threw some flak up-very inaccurate. There were scattered dogfights all the way down-P-38s, P-51s, P-47s against Ju-88s, FW-190s, Me-109s, and 110s. We had a few attacks but they weren't pressed. By the way, our target is near the Spanish border. We dropped our bombs right on target this time. At this low altitude we shouldn't miss. Hangars went up and so did the oil dump. Plenty of heavy smoke. Not much flak. We crossed Brest and some 109s dove out of the sun and hit us hard. Saw one Fort go down. Got in some shooting-not very good. P-47s arrived and scattered the Jerries. Can't believe this is the last mission. Made it back OK. Had a celebration in the barracks. I was the first to finish from the barracks-fifty-two didn't make it.

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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