Joe | Waist Gunner on a B-17



What were you doing before you were in the military?

I was out of high school about 6 months and from the time I was out of high school till I was drafted I worked in a manufacturing plant. I graduated at 17 ½ and you had to have your parents permission to go in under 18 but my mother wouldn’t sign for me. I had to wait till I was 18 to be drafted. At the time that I went in, you couldn’t choose your branch of service if you were drafted, only if you enlisted before 18.

I was drafted and sent to New Jersey for induction. The first thing they did was shave most of your hair off and give you a winter coat that was about down to your ankles, and shoes you could turn around in and they’d still be facing the other way. They gave us a bunch of aptitude tests and I was a very good typist. So one morning while we were waiting for further assignment, someone called my name out in the barracks and he says, “Follow me.” So down the street we go, and we come to this big impressive building, up the steps, down the hall into an office complex with soldiers sitting at the desk. “Have a seat.” I sat down and pretty soon a high ranking officer sat down and he’s looking at these papers and he says, “Well … your aptitude test shows you're a good typist.” And I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “We’re going to keep you right here in Fort Dix … we need you.”  “Sir, “I said, “what am I going to tell my grandchildren? I fought the war in Fort Dix?” Wrong thing to say. He looked at me and I can still feel the eyes boring right through. He said, “Soldier, you're in this army to do what you’re told.” “Yes, sir,” I said, “but I’d prefer to fly.” He said, “You do as you’re told.” I said, “Yes sir,” and away I went.

Well, then about a few nights later they told us we shipping out the next day. So they marched us down to the train station. The base had its own train station. There were 13 coaches on this train and then were were three pullmans. They got the pullman car and they called my name. I said, “Boy, I’m must be going right to the front. I guess I’m gonna be canon fodder.” So I get on the pullman and it was dark. The train traveled all night and in the morning we were in Pittsburgh. We had breakfast served to us, the whole works. I says, “Boy. I oughta be dead in two weeks.” So on we went. We were almost to Texas before I knew where we were going … the Air Force. I think that officer did it. He saw my enthusiasm. And I ended up in the Air Force.

What year was this?

1944. Early ‘44.




Can you tell me about basic training?

The basic training we went through was just like the infantry. We had to climb the ropes and the whole thing and I was thinking, “What am I doing this? I’m gonna be in an airplane.” So I concocted a scheme one day. A couple of guys fell in the mud when they were swinging over it. They sent them back to the barracks and gave them the rest of day off ‘cause they had to walk way back to the base. I said, “Let’s drop ourselves in on purpose.” So we did! And we got all our clothes muddy, but we got the rest of the day off. Yeah, we had regular infantry basic training. I had to go through the gas chambers and the whole works.

In WWII no one used poison gas but it had to be prepared just in case ‘cause it would come as a surprise. So they put us in these chambers and closed them up tight, they were air tight, and pumped air in with samples, very miniscule samples, of the gas that they may have used if they decided to use it. You carried your gas mask, but of course you didn’t need it in the flight. But if you went to London or anywhere you always carried it with you all the time.

Then from there we went to Las Vegas, Nevada. Los Vegas was gunnery school. That was the school to teach you how to shoot machine guns and the turrets and things on a plane. You had to know every position on a plane and be able use it. Then from there we went to the Florida where we were assigned to a crew, a ten man crew. We did a lot of high altitude flying. Then from there we went overseas. We went by train from Florida to Savannah, Georgia where we picked up a brand new, shiny B-17. All shined up. From Savannah we flew the plane to Maine and we refueled and then went to Newfoundland. We got snowed in. When I looked at the plane out there and could only see the trail sticking out of the snow I said, “Hurray, we’re here for the duration!”


Where were you stationed in Europe?

I was stationed in England in a little town called Eye. We got a pass about every 9 or 10 days. We'd got 48 hours to go down to London.

Did you see any combat?

Yeah, bombing missions. I flew 15 missions.

The 8th Air Force did all daylight bombing. The British did all night time bombing. We flew at very high altitudes. 20-25 thousand feet. That airplane was not pressurized so whatever the temperature and everything was at that altitude at the time, and it was winter over Europe, it was nothing to be 35, 40, 50 below zero. And you had to breath oxygen or you wouldn’t survive. The oxygen tanks were mounted on the side of the plane so they were the same temperature. And this is what you were taking in. We had to wear a mask about 10,000 feet.

Joe standing beside his window.

We came past a target and we dropped our bombs. Two of the bombs didn’t leave the plane. The pilot called back and told me to go up and see what was happening in the bombay because we didn’t have a bombardier we had a togglier. He was in there and apparently the bombs were held in the plane by a shackle … it’s got hooks on it. That releases and the bomb goes out and that’s controlled up in the nose of the plane, there’s an electrical system. You can set that and let the bombs go so many seconds apart. Well the two bombs didn’t go out. He thought the shackle was stuck. In the front of the bombay there was hand crank in case there was damage to your landing gear, you could crank it down by hand. And he had that thing and he was hacking away at the shackle, trying to break it loose. I don’t know what he thought he was doing, but I went in there with him and we tried to lift the bomb out. I think it was 250 pounder and couldn’t move it. The bombay was open and there wasn’t enough room for us to wear our parachutes. But I had a good hugging on that support beam. I was holding on to it. My recollection is that we shimmed that thing so much that it made electrical contact and he went back up and flipped the switch and the bombs went.
You weren't allowed to land with your bombs. The normal practice would be just to fly over some city, or something that looked like an army base and drop your bombs. But they had to stop doing that because they had so many allied prisoners so we dropped them in a channel.


At high altitude the rarefied air, it doesn't take long to die, you know, without artificially getting air. So, we had a oxygen masks. We had electrical suits we wore underneath our flight suits. They weren’t all that great but they were better than nothing. Pretty low temperature.

The pilot would call back every 3-4 minutes. He’d say “Oxygen check.” We started right from the tailgunner right on up through.
“Tailgunner ok?”
“Ball turret gunner ok?”
“Waist gunner ok?”
“Radio man ok?”

What was your everyday life like?

A normal day when you weren’t flying you just kinda hung out. But a mission, a lot happened before you went on a mission. Usually in the evening you’d be sitting around playing cards, writing letters home, listening to a squacky old radio.

You wait around till 8-9 o'clock and you walk down to the orderly room to see if the call board was up for a mission the next day. You never knew where you were going, you just knew there was a mission. Then you’d go back and try to sleep, which was difficult. You had to get up about, oh, several hours before the mission. Some missions were later in the morning and some were really early in the morning. The first thing you did was have breakfast. There was a reason for that. At high altitude, your body expands so if you have gas in your stomach, even a little bit, it expands and you get a tummy ache. So, we ate breakfast early, several hours before the mission. From there we went to briefing and that was like an auditorium, not very big but it was enough to hold a hundred men or so. There was a stage and a big curtain went across with a map of Germany. Officer’d get up there and he’d pull the curtain and then, “Oooh, Berlin!”



From there the pilot, co-pilot and the other officers stayed to get their briefing on a mission ‘cause they’re the ones that fly the planes. The navigator had to get all the maps and things to where he was going and all that. The gunners would go to the armory shack and get their guns. Now we just stood around and waited. And waited and waited and waited. Trucks were scurrying around, pumping the last bits of gas in your tanks. Then all of a sudden the whole base comes deathly quiet. The trucks stop, everything stops and the pilot says, “Ok, let’s go fellas.” So, we get in the plane. We wait. Then a green flare goes off. Four engines on a plane and there’s 36 planes all warming up at once … try and put yourself in that sound. Boy, you couldn't hear yourself think. That’s why I get a kick out of these movies, you know, they show these guys talking up there. There’s 4 engines on that plane and you don’t have any hearing protection. You can’t ‘cause you have to have your intercom to be able to talk to each other. And there’s a lot of noise. You see everybody lined up at the tower to watch us take off and one by one we take off. At the end of the long runway was a stone wall and a farm there. When you take off you're supposed to be in the radio room with your feet braced against the wall in cause it crashed on takeoff. But most of us kinda sneaked back and peeked out over.

You got that bomb load, and you got a ten man crew, and you got all the ammunition, so it’s gotta go a little ways to get altitude. That’s the first part of the flight. Then when you get up off the ground you have to get all your planes together into a formation. When you got a bomb load like that it takes a quite a bit of time. So, when you get to Germany you want to be in complete battle formation. The formations are made to allow the most fire power against the enemy planes if you get attacked.  From the top it looks like triangles. But from the side, the plane on the right is up, the plane on the left is down, and there’s a lead plane in the middle. And four of those make a squadron, and three squadrons make a group.

To make sure you knew your gun, you had to disassemble and reassemble that gun in less than twenty minutes, blindfolded. There’s seventy some parts in that gun.

Where there many casualties in your unit?

There were, but we very seldom saw them because if someone was wounded or killed, the plane would fire a red flare and they’d be given priority in landing. One of the crews had just come from the states and never flown a mission. They sent them on that mission and they were shot down and all killed. Our crew was supposed to be on that mission. But they had us stand down so those guys could get a mission in before the war ended. They were all lost very close to the end of the war.

We got ready to go on a mission one day and the weather had closed in. So ‘scrub’ the mission, that’s a word for cancel. The next day they sent us up and they changed the target and the weather hadn’t improved any. So, we made the bomb run and we were up quite high, probably twenty some thousand feet.  We started back toward our base and the weather kept rising. Now a ceiling the clear space between the ground and the bottom of your aircraft. From there on this was solid overcast all the way up there. You get thirty-six planes flying and you can’t see each other. On that mission we were flying, what we called, extra. If they had extra planes available, they would send another plane up.  But he flies almost outside the formation. They called it extra, we called it tail end Charlie.  That was our position. We were way over here to the right.  One of the other planes aborted the mission. He had to go back, engine problem or something.  ‘Course that wasn’t safe either because he had to go back across Germany to get back to base. Once in a while you’d get somebody with abort and they would make damn sure that when that plane came back there was something wrong with it. 

We took his place but we had to get all the way across the formation. So, we worked our way through the planes and got over to the left of the formation. Overcast got higher and higher and the planes got more buried in the fog. You could see the planes coming down and, “Hey! He’s getting close!” We’d keep telling the pilot when we see one but sometimes they’d disappear and come back. Two planes collided in front of us. ‘Course it happened so fast at 225 miles per hour you don’t even see. I didn’t see it ‘cause I was looking out the side window. Well, our pilot pulled the plane up and he could have hit another plane himself. He pulled out of formation. Our navigator set a course south, hoping to get down into France so that we could land there. I don’t why ‘cause there was nothing wrong with our plane. So, we came out over Frankfurt, Germany and the sun was shining. They didn’t shoot at us. That meant that they probably were going to send some fighters up to get us. But they didn’t, and I don’t know why because we were dead ducks all by ourselves over Frankfurt. So, we got over into France and found a field but we didn’t have to land. They sent us back to England. They already had us reported as one of the planes that collided.


Toward the end of the war, the dutch people were starving.  We made a truce with the Germans. “Let us fly in and drop food to the Dutchmen behind the German lines.” They would let us do it but they couldn’t guarantee us that all the troops had got the message, because communications were very bad with the Germans. Toward the end they were retreating and everything. So, we were the pathfinders. You had to fly with your bombay doors open and wheels down. They just told us to fly between 50 and 100 feet, and don’t try to hold a formation. They filled our bombay with food, and we dropped it behind the lines.

The Dutch people were given information that they were to not take this food but turn it in … take it to a warehouse. General Eisenhower had contacted all the military bases and says, “Clean out your supplies. Get all the supplies you can spare and then drop them.”

Our plane had bags with gallon cans of meat in it, ham or something. Some of the planes had bags of flour or bags of rice. The story goes that one guy, he didn’t follow instructions and he stole a box of food. It was cans of black pepper.

Did you pull pranks on each other?

No, we didn’t. We were serious. Well, you know, if a guy was sleeping you might put a little shaving cream on his nose or something …

Do you remember V-J Day or V-E Day?

Oh boy, do I remember! All hell broke loose on that base. We went in the planes and got all the flare guns. We were shooting them off all over.

How old were you when the war ended?

I was 19.

Here’s another little tidbit. When we went through training in Florida, when we were all finished with our advanced training, and ready to go overseas, they told everybody that we were going to leave at a certain date at a certain time and there was going to be a special train on the base. If you had a girlfriend or wife visiting, they could come on and say goodbye to you on the train. We all get on the train and the locomotive hooks up to the train and pulls and out and goes to downtown Tampa and parks. They were going to attach us to a passenger train. So, we sat there for a couple hours. I’m looking out the window and there’s a liquor store across the road. I went over and I bought 2 quarts of whiskey. I wrapped it up in all my clothes and everything and put it in my flight bag. I had that whiskey all the time we were in England and I was gonna break it out when the war ended and I did! Nobody knew I had it. They were about ready to kill me. “All this time you had it?” What I really planned to do was drop one bottle over Germany with a note on it. But I didn’t know when the last mission was going to be.

***



It was such an honor to talk with Joe. I hope you all enjoyed learning a bit about the war through someone who lived it!


-Emily

19 comments

  1. Wow, how absolutely, utterly inspiring. What an amazing man. Great interview, thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Anne Marie! He is an amazing man! I'm so grateful for the opportunity to talk with him.

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  2. this is so amazing! :-) My great grandfather was in WW2 as well in Paupa New Gineua.. :)

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    1. Oh wow!! That's so neat! Thanks for reading, Evie! =)

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  3. Yes, I definitely did learn something! Thanks for sharing - what an amazing opportunity to meet and interview someone like him!

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Jessica! It was such an amazing opportunity to meet him! =)

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  4. That was fascinating, and, wow, he is a great story teller!!!!

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    1. I agree ... he is a great story teller!! =)

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  5. What a neat experience. This interview as great. And it is SO important for us (the younger generation) to care and take the time to learn from those who had to live through horrible things like WWII. Keep it up.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Susanna! =) You're so right ... it is so important for our generation to learn from those who went through such horrible times.

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  6. How do you find these people? Oooh, what I would give to talk to old heroes like Leo. Maybe I just need to stalk nursing homes or something.

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    1. Both my great grandfathers who were in the war died before my birth.

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    2. hahaha! Nursing home and WWII reenactments are great place to start. I actually met Joe Leo through a mutual friend.

      Wow! That's so amazing that both of your great grandfathers were in the war.

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    3. On my mother's side. Jack was chief of a airplane mechanic team in the Philippines, and Vernon...did something in Ohio. I really wish I could have met them. My dad's grandfathers were too young.

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    4. That's really neat!! It's too bad you never got to meet them.My grandfather lived in Canada during the war but he was farmer so he didn't have to serve. My grandfather on my dad's side was too young. I have a great-great uncle who served ... I never met him, but I have some of his war relics.

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  7. That's incredible! I never knew all of this stuff about the air force during WWII!

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    1. I didn't either! I'm so fascinated by the air force now! =) Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth!

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