My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Friday, February 27, 2015

398th Bomb Group Commemorative Window


St. George's Church, Anstey


In 2000, a stained glass window was installed at St. George's Church in the village on Anstey, Hertfordshire, and dedicated to the memory of the 292 men from the 398th Bomb Group who lost their lives during WWII.




The left panel represents B-17s  and butterflies ascending. 



The center panel depicts more butterflies ascending along with the 398th's logo "Hell From Heaven" at the bottom. The names of those killed are etched on the butterflies' wings.




The right panel shows B-17s crashing to earth.




 My father's name, Donald R. Christensen,  can be seen on the upper left wing of the butterfly below. It is found near the top of the right panel.




The village of Anstey is located about two miles south of the main runway at Station 131, home of the 398th.  In an earlier post I mentioned that on April 15, 1944, a B-17 piloted by William Meyran crashed on take off into the old castle mound moat and the whole village was evacuated until the full load of fuel was burned off.  Luckily the full bomb load was submerged in the moat and did not explode.

I learned recently that a wedding was scheduled in the church for the next day but had to be postponed due to damage to the west side of the church from the fire.

On a beautiful English morning in 2010, before I'd heard the wedding story,  my son Jeff, brother Steve, and I walked about a mile to visit the church to see the window. As we approached we saw an elderly man kneeling next to a grave placing flowers on it, so we hung back to not disturb him. When he was finished we passed him as he was coming out and said "good morning." He took about two steps, then turned around and said, "Yanks are ya?" Then he proceeded to tell us a tale of the airplane crash and how he was supposed to be married in the next day.  He had just been visiting his deceased wife's grave, something he said he did regularly.  


We said our goodbyes and went into the church.  If I had known the postponed wedding story the I certainly would have talked to him more and asked his name.  But life is filled with ironies.


My brother Steve on the right, and me at the Anstey church.


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bomber Mission Mornings






This is rather a long post but it's something I've been working on and wanted to get it written down and see how it looks in print.


Because I know so little about my father's personal experience in the WWII -- no diary or photos have survived -- I have had to rely on my research and the writings and experiences of others to help tell this tale of what a typical bomber mission morning was like.

Anticipation of any bombing mission was nerve-wracking.  One airman remembers, “On a night before a mission you reviewed the facts. You tried to get some sleep. The army is very good at keeping you awake forever before you have a long mission. Sleep wouldn’t come to you. You get to thinking by this time tomorrow you may have burned to death.” [Studs Terkel, The Good War, p.200] 

Besides nervousness and anxiety, the incessant all-night noise on an East Anglian airfield made it difficult to sleep. Navigator Jon Schueler noted, “All night long the bombs were being loaded and the ground crew was working on the planes. We could hear the engines being revved up.” [Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth, p.93]

By 1945 most bombing missions went deep into Germany; flights of eight to ten hours, so crews were usually awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 am and given one hour to shower, shave, and eat before the briefing for that day’s mission. Flyers cursed and stumbled their way to the common latrine hut for morning ablutions. Shaving was particularly important so the oxygen mask could seal on their faces. Then they returned to their huts to dress and walk across the field with flashlights to either the officer’s or enlisted men’s mess hall.

Out on the hardstands the ground crews had been working most of the night making sure that the planes were ready; testing engines, brakes, tires, flaps, and oxygen, hydraulic and electrical systems. Ordinance men were been busy hauling bombs to the planes, inserting fuses and attaching cotter pins to prevent detonation until the plane was in the air and the bombardier was ready to arm the bombs. Armorers were loading boxes of .50 caliber shells and placing them at each gunner’s position. The ground crew had to manually rotate propeller blades to be sure oil was circulated to each engine before starting.



Ground Crew Chiefs


After breakfast Don's crew and the other airmen headed for morning briefing where they gathered nervously as the Commander or the Group Briefing Officer uncovered a large map of Europe marked with lines showing the target and the route in and back out. Milk runs were greeted with whistles and shouts, tough missions with groans. They were told their target, time of takeoff, their place in formation, time and place of rendezvous with other groups, and the Initial Point (IP) for the start of the bomb run. 



Bombing Mission Map


They also learned of the expected fighter resistance, and anticipated location and number of flak guns, particularly from the IP to the target since that was when they were most vulnerable. The weather officer described the clouds and wind they were likely to encounter. The operations officer explained the nature and importance of the target, then everyone “hacked,” or synchronized their watches and separated into additional briefings for pilots and copilots, navigators, bombardiers, and radio operators. 



Morning Briefing


Pilots like Don received their individual plane assignment by number and location within the squadron, the group, and the wing. Navigators received their maps, charts, possibly some additional information on radio codes, etc. Many of these instructions were printed on rice paper so that crewmen could swallow them if they had to bail out and were in danger of capture. Gunners headed for the planes about an hour before takeoff to mount and secure their guns and to wipe down the heavy oil in which they were stored.

When Don and the other flying officers and the radio operator arrived from their briefings,  Copilot William Love handed out emergency and escape kits to the crew and Don did a final visual inspection of the plane with the ground crew chief. The escape kit included silk maps of Europe, local European money, and a personal picture of each airman in civilian clothing in case they had to bail out and try to elude the enemy

At the plane, both flying and ground crews were busy with last minute tasks. Bomb loading might still be going on, guns being loaded with ammunition belts, and engines checked one more time. Microphones, instruments, and oxygen equipment were verified. Navigator and radio operator confirmed radio code and details of the route to Group assembly with the pilot. Flak helmets and jackets were distributed to everyone and all parachutes accounted for. 
Every man on a B-17 was cramped and loaded down with flight gear.

Then came what Philip Ardery calls, “the usual sickening hour before takeoff. The hour of getting into heavy, smelly clothes; fitting oxygen masks; checking the ships; checking the bomb loading, fusing, gas loading, oxygen, guns, ammunition; and the million other things.” [Ardery, Bomber Pilot, p. 169]

As other ground preparations continued, Navigator Jon Schueler remembers, “As long as the momentum of activity was going, everything would be OK. We would start the engines revving and I would lay out my charts and have everything ready, oxygen mask, parachute…We could feel the plane being readied, we could feel the vibrations of the readiness of men moving back and forth at their dials, controls and guns. Everything was OK. We were a team and we knew each other and loved each other. The men were truly noble. The planes themselves were noble.” [Astor, p. 93-94] Once in position they could not move around much, yet had to remain on full alert for up to ten hours and at temperatures that could be 40 or 50 below zero.

When all tasks were completed and each person was at his flying station--except for the gunners who usually waited in the radio room during take-off-- Don called out his window “All clear on the left” and started the engines beginning with number one on the outside left. When all engines were warmed up a ground crewman signaled him forward.

Then it was time to taxi into takeoff position in what some have dubbed the “elephant parade.” Pilot Earl Pate describes those moments. “It was always eerie quiet just before engine start with everyone in position and waiting. Then one or two engines started; then the whole roar of all 144 engines of thirty-six aircraft soon to depart. You watched the tower for the flare (green) signal to taxi. Red flare shut down and wait—white—mission scrubbed.”



Elephant Parade



Jon Schueler adds, “The B-17s would slowly move, brakes screeching…One after another, lumbering out on to the track, then all of them, single file on each side of the field, two files moving, lumbering slowly toward the takeoff point at the end of the runway. All of them, engines growling and propellers twirling. The nose of the B-17 in the air, the body sloping down to the rear tail wheel, already in an attitude of urgency, of wanting to rise into the gray morning sky.” [Astor, p. 398]

On a radio signal and green signal flare from the tower Don and the other pilots taxied into their position and lifted off, one right behind the other at thirty second or one minute intervals. As they gained speed down the runway, Flight Engineer Robert Dudley stood behind and between Don and Copilot William Love calling off ground speed until they reached ninety miles an hour or more so that Don would know when to make his final lift-off. At that point they frequently hit a blast of prop wash turbulence from the previous plane and had to deal with a little wing wiggling and dipping.

Once airborne they headed for their “bunching up” points and rendezvous assignments with other groups. “Bunching up” involved gaining altitude while circling a radio beacon known as a buncher, until the whole bomb group was formed up and prepared to join into larger formations with other groups. Each Group had to reach their rendezvous point within plus or minus one minute to take their designated position in the long stream of bomber groups.

398th gunner Geronimo Terres Jr. remembers, “Every step was timed. Start engines at 6:05AM; taxi at 6:15AM; start takeoffs at 6:30AM. Get all the planes in the air; get the twelve planes of the squadron in formation; form the group (one squadron in the lead, one low and the other high); finally, insert the group in its proper place in the order of attack. How they did it I do not know. Imagine, anywhere from 500 to 1000 bombers flying around the skies of southern England, going through and around clouds looking for each other, and in the end finding the right squadron, the right group and finally the right place in line.” [398th.org]




After  joining the other groups near the English coast, the formations headed east across the English Channel or North Sea. Once past the coast, the Don, like all pilots, checked in with everyone over the intercom, the tail and ball turret gunners got into their positions, all guns were test fired, oxygen systems tested, and the bombardier armed the bombs.

Early in the war, when Germany had airfields in France, American bombers were usually contested soon after crossing the continental coast. But by 1945, Mustangs, Thunderbolts, and Spitfires had gained superiority over the Luftwaffe in the skies, and enemy defenses had been pushed back into Germany, so bomber crews endured long hours of boredom in cramped positions in the freezing cold before reaching the target, and at the same time staying alert and scanning the skies for enemy fighters and hoping they didn't encounter flak.

Flak was every airman’s nightmare; something you couldn't fight back against. German 88mm cannons sent up large charges that exploded into pieces of ugly, jagged shrapnel in front of or among bomber formations, and in most cases flak was heaviest over the target area where the planes were in tight formations and could not take evasive measures. Once reaching the IP, about twenty miles from the target, the formation had to fly straight and level with bomb bay doors open, taking no evasive action. This was cold sweat time, with high pucker factor. 



Flak  Bursts


Navigator Arthur Prager describes those moments. “From the I.P. to target, about thirty miles at 126-130 miles per hour, was the worst part of the mission, because there was no possibility of a change of route or evasive action. For important targets, the Germans had figured out long before the bomb run where we were going and brought in extra flak on trucks and railway flatcars. They laid a huge carpet of exploding shells at our altitude, over the target, hoping for random kills rather than aiming at the planes…The worst was when we didn’t complete the drop because of some bombsight or bomb-release malfunction. We then had to make a 360-degree turn and do the whole bomb run a second time…That gave the German gunners ample time to correct the sighting or altitude errors made during the first run." 
[Astor, p. 384] It also gave German fighter pilots additional time to scramble and intercept the slow moving bombers. 

Many fighter pilots tipped their hats to the bravery of the bomber crews. Punchy Powell was one of them. “I have great admiration for the bombers and their crews. It’s hard to imagine the balls those guys had sitting in those B-17s and B-24s, tooling along at 150 mph on a straight-in bomb run—no variations allowed—as the flak pounded the hell out of them, and if they survived that, taking the beating they did from German fighters on the way in and out, particularly those that were battle damaged.” 

Tommy Hayes mused, “I wonder how I would have stood up in 1944. From the I.P. to the bomb release, straight and level without wavering and flak going off all around, seeing your buddies hit.” Joe Bennett adds, “Fighter pilots got a lot of attention. But my hat is off to the bomber crews. It takes grit and guts to crawl in a bomber day after day after you saw the hits they took.” [Astor 494-501]

B-17s were famous for absorbing tremendous punishment and still flying. Thousands of them returned to bases in England or on the continent with two or three engines out, hydraulic, mechanical, or oxygen systems shot, with wounded and dead crewmen aboard. On Don's third mission he had landed his flak damaged plane safely in Belgium with only one functioning engine.

But for all of their resilience and the bravery of their crews, B-17s and B-24s went down in large numbers, each taking nine or ten airmen with them. Besides encounters with the enemy, there were any numbers of other ways to die in a bomber. There were crashes on takeoff and landing, midair collisions, friendly fire accidents, bombs dropped from a squadron above on one below, and mechanical or electrical failure. During the war the Eighth Air Force lost 6,357 B-17s and B-24s, and 3,337 fighters. But the more important losses were the 26,000 men killed and 21,000 captured who became prisoners of war.

By far, the most dangerous job among American servicemen in World War II was that of airman in the Eighth Air Force. From a total of 350,000 who served, 26,000, or 7.42% were killed. More Eighth airmen lost their lives than the entire Marine Corps, who had an additional 250,000 men, and whose loss amounted to 3.29 percent. By further comparison, U.S. Army losses were 2.25%, and the U.S. Navy lost 0.41%.

Monday, February 23, 2015

398th Bomb Group Research


Anstey Castle Mound And Moat,  St. George's Church, 


Yesterday I mentioned the tragedy of the crash of Command PFF plane 42-97746 in the village of Anstey, just a few miles south of the main runway. Fortunately the large bomber missed all houses and crashed into the moat surrounding the old Anstey castle mound behind St. George’s church. All ten crewmen were killed including pilot William Meyran and Command pilot Charles Khourie.

This tragic event would later become the impetus for serious research into the 398th Bomb Group. In the fall of 1972, three local Englishmen, Vic Jenkins, Malcolm “Ozzie” Osborne, and John Knight explored the crash site. Ozzie explains it best: “One October day in 1972 we climbed Anstey Castle mound, together with a colleague of mine from work. All we knew was Vic’s information that a B17G Flying Fortress had crashed into the mound shortly after taking off from Nuthampstead, with the loss of all onboard. Up on the mound this grey October day, my colleague, John Knight, suddenly called out “look what I have found”. It was the case of a wrist watch, no glass, hands or strap. John wet his finger and rubbed the back of the case and we saw the name ‘William L Meyran’ engraved on the back. That made the hairs go up on the back of my neck, suddenly this all became extremely emotional, it truly brought home the fact that 10 young American Airmen had perished on this spot. Who were they? What were their names? Where were they headed for that day? Why did they crash? There were so many questions, but nowhere or nobody to turn to for answers.”

“I decided then and there that I would not rest until I found out all I could about Nuthampstead, the Bomb Group known as the 398th, its four Squadrons and those young men who gave their lives on that Medieval Castle Mound. So I came up with the name ‘Nuthampstead Airfield Research Society’ (NARS) – how original. A society with only two members, well why not? So in 1972 we began our research quest.”



My Son Jeff And Me, Joyce and Malcolm Osborn, And My Brother Steve At Cambridge American Cemetery

From this humble beginning has grown a great deal of serious research, and has led to the formation of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association, the quarterly publication Flak News, the erection of an impressive memorial at the Woodman Inn adjacent to the old Nuthampstead base, the creation of a beautiful stained-glass memorial window at St. George’s church in Anstey, and more.


Perhaps because the 398th was a late arrival to the air war and only saw one year of combat, they have received little attention from 8th Air Force historians. But their contribution to Allied victory was noble and significant. Malcolm Osborne’s forty years of research is invaluable in telling their story, as are the efforts of Allen Ostrom, Cliff and Stan Bishop, and others.


 

Several books on the history of the group are invaluable aids. The first is Allen Ostrom’s 398th Remembrances, now available in re-publication. Another is Cliff Bishop’s fine Fortresses Over Nuthampstead, filled with valuable information including mission and aircraft histories, lists of KIAs, MIAs POWs, and much more. 



And Malcom Osborn has just finished a new book, A Photographic Journey With The 398th Bombardment Group. The 398th's quarterly publication, Flak News, edited for decades by Allen Ostrom, is a font of information and stories. And the website, 398th.org, is also filled with valuable information and personal histories, as well as Flak News articles.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Notable Incidents In 398th Bomb Group History







A few notable incidents of Group history deserve mention. One non-combat highlight for everyone at Station 131, as well as local residents and invited guests (mostly young women of course), was the visit by the Glenn Miller Band on October 2, 1944. Miller was a very successful band leader and the best-selling recording artist of 1939-43, but in 1942 he put his career on hold to enlist in the Army and was assigned to lead the Army Air Force Band in morale-boosting performances for the troops. His band flew from base to base in England and played mainly in large steel hangars for homesick and music-hungry airmen. Those who remember still talk of the day his band came to Nuthampstead. One airman remembers, “That sound was something in that hangar. I thought the roof might come off. I mean, people went nuts.” Alton Glenn Miller disappeared December 15, 1944, on a flight to Paris and is memorialized today on the Wall of the Missing at nearby Cambridge American Military Cemetery. 

Glenn Miller Band With The Modernaires




Less than two weeks after the Miller Band’s visit, the 398th suffered its first fatal take off crash early Sunday morning, October 15, 1944. Three aircraft had already taken off for a second consecutive mission to heavily-defended Cologne, when something went wrong on the fourth ship. Shortly after lifting off, Command PFF plane 42-97746, crashed in the village of Anstey, just a few miles south of the main runway. Fortunately the large bomber missed all houses and crashed into the moat surrounding the old Anstey castle mound behind St. George’s church. All ten crewmen were killed including pilot William Meyran and Command pilot Charles Khourie. Fully loaded with high-octane fuel and with a full bomb load, the wreckage burned furiously and villagers were evacuated. Luckily the twelve unexploded bombs were submerged in the moat and did not explode. They were later removed by the bomb dispersal team from the base once the moat was drained, and villagers were allowed to return home after two days. 



Anstey Church and Moat



Another event from that same October 15th mission to Cologne, along with one famous photo, has become an iconic symbol of the durability of the B-17 and the courage and resilience of men who flew her. Flying through intense flak over Cologne, a 601st squadron plane, 43-38172 “Lovely Julie”, piloted by Lawrence DeLancy and Phil Stahlman, took a direct burst from an 88 mm shell in the nose section, blowing it apart, instantly killing togglier George Abbott and momentarily knocking navigator Raymond LeDoux unconscious. Although stunned and bleeding, LeDoux made his way to the cockpit to assist the two pilots who were struggling to control the seemingly un-flyable plane. The blast had blown away most of the nose, covering the windshield with debris and making it difficult to see. 

The instrument panel was torn loose and all flight instruments were inoperative. Radio and intercom were gone, oxygen lines ruptured, and a sub-zero wind was howling through the cockpit at 27,000 feet. DeLancy and Stahlman, knowing they needed oxygen and could not keep up with the rest of the formation, turned left and descended rapidly, hoping they were heading west toward England, or perhaps occupied Belgium. Without maps or other navigational aids they dropped to 2,000 feet where they picked up a pair of P-51’s who escorted them across Belgium, but with an inoperative radio they were unable to communicate with the Mustangs. 

“We might have tried for one of the airfields in France,” DeLancy said, “but having no maps this also was questionable. Besides the controls and engines seemed to be OK, so I made the decision to try for home.” Once over England, navigator LeDoux began to pick up landmarks and give course corrections that brought them right to Nuthampstead. “It was a great bit of navigation. Ray just stood there on the flight deck and gave us the headings from memory. The landing was strictly by guess and feel. Without instruments, I suspect I came in a little hot. Also, I had to lean to the left to see straight ahead. The landing was satisfactory and I had sufficient braking to slow the plane down some.”

Men waiting on the ground at Nuthampstead could hear the wounded plane long before they could see it. Instead of the characteristic deep roar of four Wright-Cyclone engines they heard a howl “like a banshee screaming.” When it came into view they understood. “Look at that nose!” someone shouted. No need for red flares or an up-wind landing this time. They watched as the once-beautiful B-17 glided in for a hot landing, taking up the entire runway with failing brakes until it came to a stop in the mud at the end of the concrete. As ambulances, medical staff and fire trucks arrived, many of the crew stumbled from the waist door, strangely silent; men in shock. Flight surgeon Dr. Robert Sweet had to pry pilot DeLancy’s hands from the wheel and help him from the plane. As Colonel Hunter approached, Dr. Sweet told him, “Colonel, that young man doesn’t want to talk to you now. When he is ready you can talk to him, but for now leave him alone.”

DeLancy/Stahlman Plane



The crew was given “flak leave” to shake off the stress, but were expected back in two weeks, just in time for one of the dreaded missions to Meresberg. For their parts in that October 15th drama, DeLancy was awarded the Silver Star for his “miraculous feat of flying skill,” Stahlman was awarded an Oak Leaf Cluster for his Distinguished Flying Cross, and LeDoux received the Distinguished Flying Cross for “extraordinary navigation skill.” 

It was DeLancy’s eighth mission and, ironically, it was Stahlman’s 35th and final mission. His crew had already completed their tour but he had been grounded with sinus problems and needed this one last sortie to finish up. One hell of a final mission! Years later Stahlman still had nothing but praise for Larry DeLancy: “Well, it was pretty traumatic, and of course he was the pilot in command and he had the whole responsibility and I have to say he did a great job.” The other crew members included Ben Ruckel, engineer-turret gunner; Wendell Reed, radio operator; Al Abro, ball turret gunner; Russell Lachman, waist gunner; and Herbert Guild, tailgunner. There were giants in those days.

On January 23, 1945,  just one week before Lt. Don Christensen arrived in Nuthampstead, the 398th’s commander Colonel Frank Hunter was killed while leading a mission to Neuss, on the outskirts of Dusseldorf. The plane took a direct flak burst in a wing and went into a steep dive and flat spin which created a centrifugal force from which there was almost no chance of escape or survival. Perhaps mercifully, such tremendous G-forces would cause most airmen to blackout. There were only a few who survived such spinning, diving crashes, and their experiences testify to the difficulties of escaping these wounded aircraft.  

Writing about that crash, pilot and sole survivor Lt. Federico Gonzalez recalled, “We received a direct flak hit on our left wing tip and it broke away flush with the outboard engine. We struggled trying to control the spin to give the men time to bail out. Nobody made it, probably because of the tremendous centrifugal force. The plane did not explode but went into a flat inverted spin. I couldn’t do anything to get it out of the spin. . . As I unbuckled and reached for my chute I was immediately thrown against the windscreen, unable to move. . . .I remember only about five turns and then nothing until I came to on the ground. Col. Hunter was dead.” [letter to Col. Berryhill] Reports from the ground also indicate that the Gonzalez/Hunter aircraft  came down in a flatspin with wings revolving around the fuselage, like a falling leaf, landed flat and broke apart.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Video Tribute






As I mentioned in yesterday's post, my father flew his third mission on February 19, 1945, when his plane was hit by flak and he made an emergency landing in Belgium.  After he and his crew were flown back to England they were given flak leave and did not fly again until March 1st and 2nd.  I'll be busy on those dates this year telling the story of those missions and the aftermath.  With ten day's to go before his final mission, this might be a good time to show my pictorial tribute to him, with a little help from Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.  Many thanks to my step-son Joah McGee for his tech support.




Tribute to my Father from Don Christensen on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Don Christensen's Third Mission







 The Christensen crew flew their third mission on February 19. 1945. This time they were assigned a 603rd plane, 43-38086, N7-C, dubbed “Bad Penny” (as in “A bad penny always comes back”). Several other bomb groups had planes with that same name, some with nose art, some without, but it is unclear whether the name was ever painted on the 398th plane.


Bad Penny

It had been assigned as a replacement aircraft on August 11, 1944, and had already flown many missions included thirty-two with the John Ryan crew. Ryan’s copilot and my friend Roy Test, who recently passed away, told me they flew those missions during the summer and fall of 1944 without an injury or scratch to anyone on their crew. Few were that lucky.


Roy Test and me

John Ryan Crew

The primary target on February 19 was the oil refineries at Dortmund, Germany, but once again a 10/10 cloud cover moved the attack to the secondary target, the railroad marshalling yards at Munster. According to official reports, this was a fairly routine mission with excellent friendly support and no mention of enemy fighters but they did encounter heavy flak. One B-17 in the group ahead was hit by flak and blew up. The Christensen plane was also hit hard. It was one of those anomalies of war, that one or two planes out a squadron or bomb group would be hit seemingly at random. A veteran B-24 pilot I know tells the story of seeing both of his wingmen hit at the same time while he sailed through unscathed.





That day “Bad Penny” took a flak burst just under the nose that damaged both inboard engines and Don was forced to feather those two propellers and shut down the engines. Feathering a prop was done to shut down a damaged or defective engine to keep it from burning up and to prevent “windmilling” and excessive drag from a dead engine. It required teamwork between pilot and copilot and involved turning the propeller blades approximately 90 degrees into the wind in order to offer little wind resistance. At the same time it required enough oil pressure to operate the feathering mechanism, and then for the pilots shut down power and fuel to the affected engines.



Philip Ardery describes the feathering procedure from a pilot’s perspective. “You have to feather props while there is still oil pressure left or else they won’t feather. It is sometimes bad policy to feather or stop when under fighter attack because it lets the fighters know you are a cripple and they concentrate on you. Of course they might have seen your oil leak, but oil on an engine nacelle is less prominent than a feathered prop. If an engine is dead, however, and an engine is allowed to windmill, it exerts much more drag on the plane than if it is feathered. Also a dead engine with a windmilling prop and no oil is apt to heat up and cause a fire. All these considerations work automatically in a combat pilot’s mind to help him reach a conclusion…I was watching the oil pressure gauge on the engine that had been hit. Pretty soon the oil pressure gauge started a fast descent toward zero. I called to Bob that I was feathering the prop. I pushed the feathering button and at the same moment cut off the gas to the engine and switched the mags off. Nervously, I watched the prop. After a moment I saw the big fan start to slow up until at length it came to standstill, with its blades turned edges into the slipstream. Thank God, there was still enough oil left for the feathering mechanism to work.” [Philip Ardery, Bomber Pilot, pp. 149-150]

With only two engines, the Christensen plane quickly lost speed and altitude and Don was forced to drop out of formation and try to make it back alone. The Group or the bomber stream did not wait for wounded or disabled planes. Luckily they were over western Germany, not far from Allied controlled territory in Belgium. Both Navigator Lawson Ridgeway and Tailgunner Selmer Haakenson both told me how cool my father was in this emergency and how his calmness was infectious on the rest of the crew.

Ridgeway remembers Don’s first order to begin lightening the ship and the crew began to jettison everything of weight; guns and ammo, flak vests, and anything else they could, even the floor planking in the fuselage. Meanwhile, radio operator Elmer Gurba kept trying to reach a friendly signal to guide them to a landing field. As the third engine began run poorly Don gave the preliminary bail-out signal just as they were finally intercepted by a P-51 “little friend” which guided them down to a nearby Belgian field, possibly at B-58, Brussels/Melsbroek. 


P-51 Mustang

As they were on their landing approach the third engine quit, but Don still managed to land safely with only one engine. Once again a severely damaged B-17 brought its crew back.

Lawson Ridgeway recalls the crew climbing out and walking around the plane amazed that no one was injured since the entire nose of the aircraft was riddled with flak holes, too many to count. Don gathered his crew to check and be certain no one was injured. Afterwards he sought out the P-51 pilot to thank him.

The crew was in Belgium for a few days before being flown back to England where they had a few days of “flak leave” in London before returning to Nuthampstead. “Bad Penny” was damaged severely enough to be declared AOC (Abandoned on the Continent). It would eventually be repaired and returned to the 398th on April 2, then used for POW pickup after the war before being consigned to Kingman for scrap.


B-17 Graveyard at Kingman, Arizona

Knowing that his wife Jocile had spent most of her teenage years in Belgium, and often spoke of her love of the country and the people there, Don tried to write to her and other folks at home of where he’d been without alerting the censors.

Censorship of letters home was very strict during the war, particularly pertaining to locations, missions, destinations, etc, but Don was still able to give a few clues about where he’d been. In a letter to his mother he wrote, “I believe I can give you a hint without giving away any secrets. I spent several days on the continent and was able to visit several places that are dear to Jo’s heart. The people treated us like kings and couldn’t do enough for us. We also had a chance to give old London town the once over.”

Jocile later recalled, “In one letter he said they made an unscheduled stop and that he knew why I loved those people. I knew he had been in Belgium. When his navigator came to see me after the war he told me they had made a forced landing in Belgium.”

The Christensen crew were flown back to England and gave "old London town the once over" and were given several day's flak leave. It is unclear just when they returned to Station 131, but they did not fly their next mission until March 1st.


.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Being There






It was a sober arrival at Nuthampstead for Don and the other replacement crews on Februry 1, 1945. Everything was different. First there was the English climate to contend with during the worst winter and worst weather in memory.  Then they learned that the 398th's original Commander Frank P. Hunter Jr., had been killed while leading a bombing mission just one week earlier, and that he was replaced by new “hard ass” commander, Lt. Colonel Lewis P. Ensign.  More on Lewis Ensign here.





The sight of several badly damaged aircraft also got their attention. Coffee wrote, “We try not to engage in too much speculation about what’s to come, or to discuss reports of recent crashes. Severely damaged aircraft sitting around are stark reminders of the dangers of war.” But like most newly trained crews, their morale was high and they were eager to get started and prove their mettle. 






During the war, servicemen were encouraged to write uplifting, optimistic letters home and to leave out difficulties and the horrors of war. Don was no exception, and the few letters of his that have survived are mostly light and breezy. His only complaint was with the English weather. Shortly after arriving, he sent his first V mail to his wife Jocile: “If anyone you know thinks the war over here is nearly finished you can tell them they’re crazy. I fully expect to complete my full tour of 35 missions. However, we’ll have several days of Ground School and Orientation before we start flying. Coffee’s crew is still with us but he is assigned to another group. We still see a lot of each other tho. As nearly as possible our crews will be kept intact which is good news as I think a lot of my boys. We are near the channel coast and within leave distance of ‘Big Ben,’ but that’s all I can tell you on that. The weather is miserable which is usual for this time of year. They had a terrific blizzard a few days before we arrived but the snow is all gone now. It rains nearly every day which makes everything green but soggy. I wouldn’t mind the cold and rain so much if it weren’t for the constant mud. My crew is lucky in being assigned to live in a Nissen hut, as there are quite a number of officers living in tents. Our quarters are quite comfortable and the food is quite good. There are twelve of us to a hut and the older fellows in ours are very helpful and friendly.”






Ken Blakebrough, a copilot with the 457th Bomb Group, gives a more realistic view of life in a Nissen hut. “To me, a Nissen hut during the winter of 1944-45 was a man-made cave. The interior was always gloomy, damp and cold. The windows were covered by thick blackout curtains, the overhead light bulbs, two to a hut, gave scant lighting. The scarcity of coal for the potbelly stove was another reason for avoiding your hut. As a result, the time spent in the hut was mostly for sleeping. Off duty time was largely spent at the officers club where there was a huge fireplace which gave off some warmth, if you stood close enough.” [Flak News, vol. 6, no. 4 p.8, Oct 2001]




Nissen huts for officers held eight or twelve men, each with an individual cot. Enlisted men slept in bunk beds in larger huts holding up to thirty-six men. There were also many four-man tents used as temporary quarters until room became available in a Nissen hut, but some officers like Marvin Coffee preferred the tent quarters: “Except for the bathroom and shower location some 1,000 feet away I preferred being in the canvas tent as there is more privacy with just the four of us, unlike the huts.” 


Wally Blackwell, former president of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association, describes tent living: “A standard US Army tent is square, with 3 or 5 foot sidewalls, with a roof from the four sides up to a point at the top. I remember they had wooden floors and a standard stove with a stove pipe. They were put to good use as new crews arrived and crews left. I was in one for maybe 2 or 3 weeks in July and it was 'living in a hot tent.' In winter they were cold. The option was to be moved to a 12 man Quonset hut when space became available. The tent housed a single crew of four, and there were cases where some crews elected to stay in a tent, fix it up their way, rather that get involved with others in a hut with different life styles.” [398th.org]



Initially Don and his friend Marvin Coffee were both assigned to the 603rd Squadron, but on February 6, Coffee was reassigned to the 602nd. He writes, “We are still able to keep in close contact with the Christensen crew during our tour up to the point that Don and his crew were lost on a mission… I found out later that Paul Colville had requested to headquarters that our crews be assigned to the same squadron since he and I had also trained together and wanted to stay in the same unit…This reassignment may have saved my crew’s lives as we later found out that the 603rd had a high rate of loss…was a “marked squadron” and that German fighters would seek out that squadron. I don’t know how much truth there is in this, but they did have a very high loss record.” This was certainly a bogus rumor. Neither German nor American records substantiate the notion that certain units were singled out for fighter attacks, but it was a common rumor throughout the 8th Air Force about certain groups or squadrons with high loss rates.

The new crews spent the first few days in ground school and briefings on base orientation, air operation procedures such as pre-dawn formation assemblies, responsibilities for completing or aborting missions, returning with injured crew members, etc. After an indoctrination flight or two they practiced take-offs and landings, night and formation flying, over and over again. Most navigators had not received stateside training in British “Gee” radar until arriving in England, so they needed to learn that technology too. The crews also practiced bombing at a range near an area known as “the Wash,” which is a large bay and estuary on the northeast coast of East Anglia, near the North Sea. When deemed ready or needed, new pilots flew their first mission with an experienced copilot in the right seat, while their own copilot flew with another seasoned pilot. Two weeks after arriving at Nuthampstead, Don Christensen flew his first mission on February 15.  To read about that mission click here.



So Don finally found himself in the war zone. A year and a half earlier he had been a civilian, a regular guy, and now he was about to become a combatant in the largest military campaign in history and to fly a fully-loaded B-17 deep into enemy territory. One of outstanding characteristics of nearly all citizen-soldiers who served in WWII was that they were reluctant warriors. Most did not want to be in a war but they went anyway, and most rose to do their duty and bring honor to themselves, their family, and their unit. 


Despite the patriotic rhetoric and propaganda back home, most of these reluctant warriors did not talk much of flag or country or patriotism, though occasionally they spoke of fighting for decency and against evil. When they spoke of their duty they most often mentioned their pride in belonging to their unit, squad, platoon, or crew, and not wanting to let their comrades down.

Even more remarkable, Don and the other American bomber pilots and their crews were very young men and boys with no previous flying experience before the war. They were volunteers, not career soldiers or airmen. Most were unmarried; many were just out of high school. Don was something of an exception, but certainly not the only one, with a wife and young son and another child on the way.

These young airmen came from farms and towns and cities all across America, learned their combat roles in a matter of months or perhaps a year, and then were given control of huge aircraft in the most dangerous and perilous circumstances. The average age of pilots was twenty-two or twenty-three. Don was an “Old Man” at twenty-seven; his friend Marvin Coffee had just turned twenty-one. And my friend Herb Taylor, a B-24 pilot with the 389th Bomb Group at Hethel, was only 19.

They had had minimal training in the states for many tactical aspects of flying bombers.  Most new pilots went into combat with less than 500 hours training and flight time. B-17 transition training was limited to about 96 hours. Combat training was only 110 hours and limited to 110 pound practice bombs, whereas actual combat bombs were often 500 or 1000 lbs. They also had very little training in high altitude formations in the states since it put so much stress on aircraft, and training flights seldom exceeded 20,000 feet. Many missions over Germany, however, were at 25,000’ or 30,000’ where plane and human response was sluggish, making formation flying more dangerous.

 Flight Engineer Herb Shanker talks about the differences between training and the real thing. “We had not experienced any real high-altitude flying till we got to England. We had flown old wrecks in training, never higher than 16,000 feet or longer than six hours. We never carried fuel in our Tokyo tanks or more than 1,000 pounds of bombs. Now, on our first mission to Munich, it would be nine-plus hours at 25,000 feet, a temperature of thirty to forty degrees below zero, with a full fuel load of 2,700 gallons and 5,000 pounds of bombs from a 6,000-foot runway.” [Gerald Astor, The Mighty Eighth, pp. 330-331]

They also carried twelve or thirteen .50 caliber machine guns and ammunition and needed a fully charged oxygen system for missions lasting as long as ten hours at altitudes up to 30,000 feet, with temperatures of 40 to 50 below zero. Fully loaded, a B-17 could weigh over 70,000 lbs, far above anything they had trained for in the states, and with a center of gravity well aft of where it should be, making these planes even harder to fly. The first time they faced these conditions was in actual combat as part of a formation of hundreds or thousands of planes and with enemy flak and fighters trying their best to shoot them down.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Christensen Crew




David Walker Painting

A bomber crew was as close as or closer than any other unit in the service. They trained and fought together and worked as a team. Rank was not very important aboard the plane, but the pilot was the acknowledged leader, the captain. How he acted and reacted under pressure set the tone for the whole crew. But every man had a job to perform and they all relied on each other for the success of their mission and for their lives. A good pilot recognized the role of each crew member and trusted them to do their part. He did not tell the navigator how to navigate, or the gunners how to shoot, or the radio man how to operate his equipment. And he relied on his copilot and flight engineer to help him fly this aircraft.

The Boeing B-17G was a large and impressive plane. She was 74’ 4” long, had a wingspan of nearly 104 feet, and stood
 19 feet tall with an empty weight of 36135 lbs and with a maximum load rate could carry 65500 lbs. Her power came from four Wright Cyclone supercharged engines of 1200 horsepower each which could produce a top speed of 302 mph, and a cruising speed of 160. With thirteen .50 caliber machine guns and a full bomb load of 6000 lbs. she was indeed a formidable weapon.

Wright Cyclone Engine

But as large as the B-17 was on the outside, she was quite narrow on the inside with most available space occupied by 

flight equipment and armaments. Once the crew was aboard and in position with full flight gear including coats, gloves, boots, electrically heated flight suits, parachutes, and life and flak jackets, everyone was cramped, and could scarcely move. This was mainly a bomb delivery system in which human comfort was of little consideration.


Four officers occupied the cockpit and nose of the plane. Pilot and copilot sat side by side in the cockpit which was just large enough for their seats and a dizzying array of dials, switches, gauges and flight controls. The navigator and bombardier were situated below and forward in the clear plexiglass nose with just enough room for them and their equipment and four machine guns. These four officers were responsible for getting bombs to the target. Five or six sergeants occupied the fuselage, performing various duties, including manning .50 caliber machine guns against enemy attack. They were the flight engineer/ top turret gunner, waist gunner, radio operator/gunner, ball turret gunner, and tail gunner.

B-17 Cockpit

At age 27, Lt. Don Christensen was among the older B-17 pilots, and was five or six years older than most of his crew members. Both his age and experience commanded respect from his crew and they felt fortunate to be on his plane. As one who had already been to Europe, had encountered Nazis in Denmark, was married and a father and had been a big city policeman, he had more experience than his young crewmen could imagine. He was the Old Man, Boss, the Skipper of his crew, and their moral and emotional compass. His job was to start-up, take off, fly and land this large, complex airplane with a cockpit full of 146 switches, gauges, indicators and warning lights. There was a checklist card wherein the copilot called off checkpoints while the pilot had to reply that the item was in order. This included fifty-seven checks before takeoff, during flight, and after landing. There were thirty-eight checks for end of mission. In tight formations and hazardous conditions he had to know what to do and how to react when things went wrong. His calm, steady demeanor reverberated throughout the plane. Piloting a B-17 with a nine man crew seemed to be a glamorous thing from afar, but the conditions and rigors and dangers they would face over the skies of Europe were far from glamorous.

In flight a pilot had all he could handle keeping four engines synchronized with proper oil pressure, temperature, and RPMs, especially when trying to keep the big bomber in tight formations. And it got much more intense when flying through flak or under assault by enemy fighters. Still, Don, like most pilots, praised the B-17 as very predictable with no undesirable flight characteristics. And he was fond of his crew and relied on them.

His copilot was Lt. William H. Love from Sacramento, California. As “the guy in the right seat” he was Don’s essential partner. Some controls were on the right side and could only be operated by him; the oxygen regulator, hand pump if hydraulics failed, engine control start, and levers for temperature adjustment of supercharged air. Part of his job was to monitor and adjust power systems and, once in the air, to retract the landing gear while touching the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning. In addition, the rigors of flying close formations for nine or ten hours put great physical and mental strain on a single pilot and at times it took both pilots to keep the plane under control. Often, when flying close formation on the left wing of another plane, the copilot did much of the flying. Whoever had the controls, the other one monitored instruments, gauges, intercom, and oxygen system. In a landing pattern the copilot lowered and checked landing gear and lowered the flaps half way when under 145 mph, then fueled down on final approach. He would cut off the inboard engines for taxiing and check all switches and locks before leaving the plane.

Some of the Christensen Crew.
Top Left: Radio Operator Elmer Gurba.
Top Right Front: Selmer Haakenson and Albert Carlisle.
Back Row Robert Dudley, Kenneth Plantz, Elmer Gurba.
Bottom: Co-Pilot William Love and Bombardier John Gustafson 

Don’s navigator was nineteen-year-old Lt. Lawson Ridgeway from Dallas, Texas. He had a highly exacting job that required a quick mind and the ability to make complex math calculations. Navigators were often chosen from those who scored highest on preflight tests. Navigation was basically determining the position of the airplane in relation to the earth and plotting a course from there. In training, Lawson, like all navigators, spent many hours learning codes, maps and charts, mathematics, aircraft recognition and more. He also received gunnery training, and when under attack they manned the cheek guns on either side of the plane’s nose.. In the twenty weeks of navigator school he spent over 100 airborne hours learning dead reckoning (determining heading and speed from last know position), wind drift, airspeed calculations and nighttime navigation. He spent another 780 hours in ground school learning radio and other instruments, celestial navigation, meteorology, codes, and pilotage navigation (comparing ground features to maps). In the plane he had a gyro compass that operated off of earth’s magnetic field, a radio compass that received signals from beacons which gave a relative bearing, and a Gee box receiving signals from two fixed beams to give present position.

Nose Compartment For Navigator And Bombardier

Don’s bombardier was 2nd Lt. John “Swede” Gustafson from Aledo, Illinois, a small town near the Mississippi River, south of Rock Island and northwest of Galesburg, the home town of American poet Carl Sandburg. John was twenty-four years old and the only other crew member besides Don who was married. His wife’s name was Lela.





As bombardier he had the best view on the plane from a fixed seat just behind the bombsight in the front of the clear plexiglass nose. It was also a vulnerable position especially when flying through flak or facing head-on fighter attacks. Bombardier school was a twenty-week course with an additional six weeks of gunnery training. Much of his training was learning to use the Norden bomb sight which was an intricate system of gyroscopes and computers which factored altitude, air speed, ground speed, and trail and drift to locate a fixed spot on the run where bombs were to be released. The optical part was a small telescope with two crosses, one for drift left or right and another for rate of closure. When the crosses met it was “Bombs away!” He had a lever to open the bomb bay doors and a control panel with switches for a predetermined order and interval of bomb release. He could either drop one or two from the load, or a “stick” (a train), or a salvo where they were all released at once. The 8th AF eventually came to rely on the bombardier in the lead plane to find the targets while the others dropped, or “toggled” off of his signal. 

Bomb Bay Catwalk

Once in the air, and usually over the sea, the bombardier armed the bombs by standing on a narrow 8” catwalk through the center of the bomb bay and pulling cotter pins from propellers on the front of the bombs and inserting a wire attached to the plane. When bombs dropped they slid off the wire allowing the propellers to turn, thus arming the bombs to explode on contact or on a timed fuse. Occasionally the bombardier had to try to remove a hung-up bomb while standing on the narrow catwalk above the open bomb bay doors 25,000 feet above the earth and with a “walk-around” oxygen bottle for air. On B-17G’s, like the Christensen plane, he also manned the twin .50 caliber machine guns in the chin turret using controls resembling bicycle handlebars.

Young Sgt. Robert. W. Dudley from Toledo, Ohio was the Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner. His position was directly behind the pilots in the cockpit. He had to have a good working knowledge of all mechanisms, equipment, and functions of the plane. He was also trained in armaments, bomb racks, oxygen equipment, and radio transmitters and receivers. But often his main responsibility was to man the twin .50 caliber machine guns in the top turret. After basic, his training included six weeks of gunnery school and then a 20 week course in the operation and maintenance of aircraft armaments. Then there was a six week course in turret operation and maintenance, ballistics, gun repair, and air, land, and sea recognition. In flight he would try to deal with mechanical and electrical problems on the spot, but often it was left to ground crews back at base to complete the process.

Sperry Top Turret

His Sperry top turret was a self-contained unit of hydraulics and electric motors that turned in azimuth and elevation by hand controls. It had two hand grips; the left operated the trigger, while the right operated the range finder and gun sight. He would pull the handles to elevate the guns and push the handles to drop them, then pressure left or right to rotate the unit. The guns had stops to prevent a turret gunner from shooting the plane’s tail. From his bubble on top of the plane he had a good view of any approaching enemy aircraft and could warn the ball-turret gunner when a plane was coming in. At take-off, or when not occupying the top turret, he stood behind the pilots monitoring gauges and calling off air speed. One of the most difficult jobs for a flight engineer was to manually crank the electrically-operated mechanisms such as bomb bay doors, flaps, or landing gear when electric motors failed or jammed. Before long Dudley would be forced to use those hand cranks in combat conditions.

The radio operator was Sgt. Elmer G. Gurba from Cleveland, Ohio. In the air he was relatively isolated from the rest of the crew in the radio room which was in the center of the plane between two bulkheads with the bomb bay to the front and the waist to the rear, and with only small windows to see fore and aft. During flight he wore a headset listening for messages and other communications that might change flight path, scrub a mission, and to relay radio fixes to aid the navigator.




Radio Equipment

For equipment he had a Command Radio for short range communication with nearby aircraft or ground stations, a Liason Radio for long range voice and Morse code communication, and a VHF Command Radio for verbal communication with other bombers and fighters. In flight he often changed radio frequencies to confuse the enemy. He also used a Radio Compass for locating “Buncher” signals used in take-off assembly and in overcast conditions. At times when the navigator was lost or injured it was the radio operator who found the way back to base. He was trained as a gunner, but near the end of the war the radio room gun was phased out. He was also the main first-aid man on the crew. One of his other duties was to check the bomb bay after bombs were released to make sure none were hung up, and to notify the bombardier. At times he also dumped thin aluminum strips called “Window” or “Chaff” from the plane to confuse German radar.

Waist gunner Sgt. Kenneth J. Plantz was from Minneapolis, Minnesota. His was a dangerous job with less protection and more casualties than any other position on a B-17. He had armor plating below the waist window but no higher, so his only protection from his standing position was his helmet and flak suit. His equipment was a swivel-mounted .50 caliber machine gun with belt feeds of 600 rounds each. Earlier in the war each B-17 had two waist gunners, but by late 1944, as German fighters became less of a threat, it was left to a single gunner to man both left and right weapons. He also helped the ball turret gunner enter and exit his position under the fuselage.

Waist Gun

Most ball turret gunners were smaller men because of the cramped conditions there. But Sgt. Albert S. Carlisle was 5’ 10” and 145 lbs; young, thin, and agile. He was from White River Junction, Vermont, where the White River meets the Connecticut River, across from Lebanon, New Hampshire. Don Christensen’s original ball gunner, at least in Sioux City, was Hank Rome from Texas. It is not clear when Carlisle replaced him, but Albert was with the crew on all combat missions.

Ball Turret

Many considered the ball turret as the worst position; isolated, claustrophobic, and without room for a parachute. But statistically it was one of the safest positions and many gunners preferred it. Sgt. Cecil Scott from the Memphis Belle considered it “the best position on the airplane. You see a lot of action in that position, you know what’s going on and you are always busy. If the plane catches fire you know it first because you can see all four engines, and you can get out as quickly as anybody else. It isn’t too uncomfortable.” [Martin Bowman, B-17 Combat Missions, p. 114]



The ball turret was armed after takeoff with 250 rounds for each of the two guns. To enter the turret the gunner hand-cranked it until the guns pointed straight down and the door was up inside the plane. Then the he got in and hooked up his throat mike, earphones, and oxygen mask. He sat hunched against the armored door with his feet spread wide on each side of a 13” window. His face was about 30” from an optical gun sight suspended between his legs. The two-part handles above his head operated a self-contained electro-hydraulic system to rotate the turret. Firing buttons for the guns were in the end of each handle. There was a chute for shoving out spent cartridges and the guns were automatically stayed from firing through the engines and props. His hunched position -- basically lying on his back -- 
was not too uncomfortable, but once in position he couldn’t stretch.




Sgt. Selmer “Sam” Haakenson from Fargo, North Dakota was the “Norwegian tail gunner.” As tail gunner, he had the most important defensive position on the plane since that is where most fighter attacks came from. He also had a wide view through plexiglass windows and could keep the pilot informed on the formation behind or of any approaching danger from that direction. During take-off he and the waist gunner and ball turret gunner rode in the radio room which was the safest place and the plane’s center of gravity. To get to the tail guns he had to take his parachute and climb around the tail wheel and through a tunnel-like entrance to his “office” which was a low padded seat that he perched on with his legs doubled back under him and his knees on padded supports. There he manned two .50 caliber machine guns with 250 rounds each. His escape hatch was a small door under the stabilizer. The tail was the coldest part of the plane and it could buck and bounce, but many learned to clamp their legs and ride with it. Even though it could be uncomfortable on long flights, many tail gunners said they liked their position and would not trade it.

Sgt. Selmer Haakenson