Ardmore Army Air Base, Ardmore, Oklahoma. Ardmore was a B-17 Bomber training base. Here is where I picked up the crew that I was to fly with across the ocean and sometimes in combat.
At this time, an attempt will be made to describe a B-17, the duties, location and rank of each crew- member, number of guns and essential equipment.
To the author, the B-17 is one of the most beautiful airplanes ever built. Each model of the B-17 was different in some ways, but the principal difference was the B-17G had a two-gun turret under the nose of the aircraft.
B-17 was a four-engine, single- wing plane. Its engines were piston driven and used PROPELLERS! There were two wheels in the main landing gear that retracted. One small wheel below the tail did not retract.
Starting from the front of the plane, the first part was called the “nose”. In the “nose”, were the positions for the bombardier and navigator. In combat, it was not necessary for a bombardier to be in every plane. Most of the time this position was occupied by a sergeant, who was known as a “toggaleer”. This name was due to his having a toggle switch to drop the bombs. If the plane did have a bombardier, the “nose” would contain a bomb sight. The bombardier and navigator were officers. Under the “nose” was the twin gun turret. The guns were fifty caliber machine guns. Controls for these guns were inside the plane and operated by the bombardier or toggle operator. For the use of the navigator, there were the usual navigational instruments, astrodome, altimeter, air speed indicator, temperature, etc. If the navigator had a machine gun, it was stuck out the side of the “nose”. The navigator was not able to do much shooting because of his duties of navigating and the location of his guns. It was the added duty of the navigator to fly the plane, if the pilots were disabled.
Back of the “nose”(about one-fourth the length of the plane) was the flight deck. This was the position of the pilots and engineer. Just as today, pilots would command and fly the plane. The engineer would aid the pilots. The pilots were officers; engineers were sergeants. In addition to aiding the pilots, engineers operated and fired the top turret. The top turret had two, fifty caliber, machine guns.
Beyond the flight deck (another one-fourth of the length of the plane) was the “bomb bay”, where the bombs were carried in the plane. Our normal load was fifteen five hundred –pound bombs.
Just back of the “bomb bay” was the radio operator’s room. Here was located the radio equipment for voice and Morse code broadcasting and receiving. The radio operator was a sergeant. He had one fifty caliber, machine gun, stuck out of the roof of his room. This gun had a limited range of fire. A hole was cut in the side of this room. When the plane was under anti-aircraft fire, the radio operator would empty great quantities of “chaff” or “window”(small metallic strips-similar to fake icicles used to decorate Christmas trees) through this hole. These strips would jam the ground radar and prevent accurate anti-aircraft fire.
In back of the radio room (another one-fourth of plane length) was the “waist”. Here were the “waist gunners”. One fifty caliber, machine gun, was placed in a window in each side of the plane. There were two gunners and they were sergeants. Their duties were to SHOOT!
Under the “waist”, hanging below the plane was the “ball turret”. Inside the ball turret was the gunner. His duty, like those of the “waist gunners” was to SHOOT! Most ball gunners were sergeants. The turret had two fifty caliber, machine guns.
Last, but not least, in the tail of the plane was the “tail gunner”. I considered this position to be the most dangerous of all! Tail gunners were sergeants. The tail had two fifty caliber, machine guns. Their duties were the same as the other gunners-SHOOT!
There were ten crew- members and twelve, fifty caliber, machine guns. I was assigned to an Officer’s Quarters and upon entering the building I noticed that there was water all over the floor and walls. Someone told me that two crazy pilots had a water- fight that morning and afternoon. These crazy people turned out to be my pilot and co-pilot. Our reception was mutually warm, and in fact, these two people came to be very close to me. The pilots” names were Henry Greenville and Alexander Guidotti. The next day we were introduced to the rest of our crew: the radio operator, engineer, gunners, and a bombardier. The bombardier trained with us in Ardmore, but did not go overseas with us.
Our training in Ardmore was to become acquainted with the B-17 Bomber and with bombing and navigation techniques of the aircraft and the equipment we were going to be using in combat.
Part of the training of navigators was to learn how to operate the bombsight. It was the navigator’s duty to take over and do the bomb aiming in the event the bombardier was injured or killed. One of the large hangars on the base had been setup to actually practice bombing without ever getting into an airplane. On the concrete floor of this hangar, there were little boxes on wheels that could be moved around. On top of these boxes was a target. The student bomber sat on a large mobile platform, about twenty feet high, that had a bombsight on it with chairs, benches and other equipment. The platform was connected to, and operated by, the bombsight itself.
At the beginning of the bombing course, this wheeled target would be placed in a stationary position. The student would back off about a hundred feet or so, look through the bombsight and pick up the target. Guided by the bombsight, the platform would move over the target. The bombsight would compute the exact instant of “bombs away”. On “bombs away”, a plunger would shoot down from the bottom of the platform, onto the target, making a mark, to show the probable hit. It was like being in an amusement park with high-tech games. In the advanced bombing, the target would be moving. The student would move his platform in a curved line to intercept the target. It was done very accurately. After ground training and bombing technique, we took to the air to do, actual bombing. First, the bombardier had to do some night bombing. This was done by taking off at night, climbing to twenty-five thousand feet, then flying into northern Oklahoma to a lighted bomb target. This bomb target consisted of white lights in a cross with a red light in the center of the cross.
Naturally, the aiming point of the bombsight would be the red light at the center of the intersection of these white strings of lights.
Taking off from the air base at night, and climbing to twenty-five thousand feet, I set a course for the designated bomb target in the north. Shortly before my estimated time of arrival, the bombardier said, “I’ve got it. There it is.” We then turned to the bombing pattern and started our bomb run on this target. A few seconds before the bombs were to be dropped he called me and said, “look there.” I looked down and there was a moving light coming from the top of the string of lights going down toward the red light. He immediately turned the bombsight off! We had almost bombed a little city in Northern Oklahoma. We were not dropping high explosive bombs. Our bombs were filled with sand, but they did weigh some forty pounds. An explosive charge was in the tail for spotting purposes. Needless to say, we were both rather shaken, because it looked as if we might have bombed Uncle Joe’s filling station or Mom’s chicken restaurant. There’s no doubt but that there would have been hell to pay, if we’d dropped a bomb through any one of them. As strange as it may sound, that little city looked exactly like our bomb target and was not very far from the location of our proper target. We didn’t bomb it and all was right with the world at that time.
The second time we had a bombing incident, I was arrested; as was my bombardier instructor. Here’s what happened:
It was now my turn to do the bomb aiming. We took off on a clear, sunshiny afternoon with maybe ten or fifteen practice bombs in the plane. I was in the bombardier’s position because I was “bombing”. We flew to the target at an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet, identified it properly this time, then swung around and came into the pattern for the bombing procedure. My bombardier instructor set the racks for single bomb release, altitude, elevation, speed, whatever that was necessary to be set and we opened the bomb bay doors. As we were going down the bomb run, I had the target in the bombsight. On “bombs away”, I felt the plane jump which would be unusual for dropping just one bomb. From our radio, we heard this yelling from the ground observers. We were ordered to immediately return to base. We had dropped all our bombs at one time!
We immediately went back to base and landed. When we landed there were the military police. They arrested my instructor and me! We were taken to jail for interrogation. It was considered an outrageous crime to drop all bombs at one time. They were strung out over the countryside and not confined to the target itself. Everything turned out well because they sent someone to examine the switches on the bomb release mechanism. It was found that the racks had been set, properly, for a one-bomb drop, but it had malfunctioned and dropped them all. Needless to say, we were released from arrest and that was the last we ever heard of that.
On another occasion we were flying at night with no particular flight plan or schedule. Mostly, it was just getting in flight time. On such occasions, I would navigate to Dallas, look at the “Red Horse” and go back. On this night, it was an uneventful, time- consuming flight. We had been up, maybe four or five hours and I knew we were very close to the air base with no need of any navigation. I decided that I was going back in the waist where the gunners had some coffee and rolls. While I was back in the waist drinking coffee and eating a roll, I was aware that the plane was coming in for a landing. We touched the runway and came to a sudden halt. We were on the active runway, but we weren’t moving. I looked out the window and here came all the ambulances and the fire trucks and other emergency vehicles just screaming out toward the center of the field. Oh, boy somebody’s in trouble! Well, it turned out that somebody was US. We landed with only one engine running. The plane had lost three engines on the final approach. We were lucky to have made the field. Even a four- engine bomber doesn’t fly too well on one engine. This was spooky! The emergency vehicles thought that we were going to be in a lot worse trouble than we were. As it was, no one was injured, the plane wasn’t injured, and finally they had to get a tractor to pull us into our parking area.
NOTE: The “Red Horse” was the “Flying Red Horse” atop the Magnolia Building in Dallas, Texas. It was a large replica of the horse in Greek mythology known as “Pegasus”. At one time it was on top of the tallest building in Dallas. It was the emblem of an oil company and a long time Dallas landmark. At night it was lighted and revolved on its base. In the 1940’s, it was visible for miles and was one of the first things you would notice on the skyline.
The planes that we were flying had many, many hours on them. They weren’t in very good shape and the maintenance wasn’t very good. Frequently, when we would go to fly, there would be something wrong with the plane and the pilot would refuse to take off. We would have to go get another plane or wait for another day. This maintenance problem was not true in England. During the combat operations, the maintenance on our aircraft was absolutely marvelous. In England, I never flew in a plane that could not make a mission because of a malfunction.
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