Technical Crews Take Flying Role As World's Best-trained Gunners

By Lieut Allan R Scholin

Army Air Forces Technical Training Command

If he's not a gunner, he doesn't fly."

US Army bombers engaged in the business of pulverizing Jap positions in New Guinea or crushing munitions plants in Nazi Europe haven't any room for supercargoes.

Plenty of room for the pay load of bombs and ammunition. Room for gas, yes — just about enough to get to the target and back. A little room for the crew, too, but only for men who are worth their weight.

To be worth his weight in an Army bomber today a man not only has to be a specialist — a pilot, bombardier, navigator, radioman, or airplane mechanic. He also must be a gunner, a good one.

You don't need to hear again the story of how our superior fire power has enabled our bombers to go into enemy territory in daylight without fighter escort. You know that they bag a fair number of enemy fighters while they go about their mission. You know they have about as many .50-cal. machine guns sticking out of their "skins" as a porcupine has quills. And, from the record, you can tell that the men behind the sights, squeezing the triggers, know their business.

That's why the word has come back home that every man in the crew must be a trained gunner. If he's not a gunner, he doesn't fly. In the air, every officer and enlisted man has his battle station. In a B-17E or a B-24 aloft the pilot and co-pilot are plenty busy, but in an emergency either can handle a gun.

The bombardier is especially anxious to dispose of any opposition, because the plane has to get where it's headed before he can earn his keep. So he, too, has a ready trigger for his fingers when an enemy pilot slips within range of his destructive tumbling .50s.

In the fuselage the engineer moves to the upper turret. The radio operator and the assistant engineer man the waist guns, and the assistant radio operator helps these mid turret gunners to keep the air safely clear. And in the tail the vicious stinger is at hand to dispose of advances from that direction.

The tail and ball turret gunners specialize in shooting when the plane is aloft, but they are also qualified armorers, experts on repair and maintenance of the guns and cannon carried on today's fighting planes.

It wasn't long ago that enlisted technicians compared themselves to the unfortunate girl in the ads who used the wrong cosmetics — "always a bridesmaid, never a bride." Though they worked around planes from ten to eighteen hours a day, they seldom had a chance to fly.

Facing duty that was dangerous but unspectacular because there was little likelihood of personal combat, doing work that was important but far from glamorous, they had little prospect of winning honors or decorations. Their only reward lay in the hum of a perfectly tuned engine or in the vicarious satisfaction that the plane they had worked on had bombed an enemy transport.

But today the sharp division between the ground and combat crew is breaking up. Commanders of combat squadrons know that they can't get the most out of combat crews who fly every day. A full day in a bombing party is a strenuous, taxing job. It's a tremendous strain on nerves and body.

So, as far as possible, men alternate between a day in the air and a day on the ground. When they' re not in the air, pilots, navigators, and bombardiers study maps and reports. They brush up on training data, and handle routine paper work in the administration of squadron affairs.

Enlisted combat crew members who are both technicians and gunners replace yesterday's ground crew men who are flying today. They work just as hard, but they relax from the strain of combat flying. Tomorrow their hands will be steady again, their eyes rested and alert for signs of enemy fighters.

For that reason, nearly every man who graduates from a school in the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command, where he studied airplane mechanics, or radio, or armament, and who passes his physical exam, grasps his diploma in one hand and orders to report to gunnery school in the other. And it's hard to tell which he prizes more highly.

Unfortunately, not everyone qualifies for gunnery training. Near physical perfection is required of a gunner. His eyes sight enemy planes. His skill directs fire from a pitching plane at a weaving, elusive target. His split-second reactions enable him to follow a Jap or a Nazi through rolls, dives, sweeps, and other maneuvers, and still pour lead into him. And physical stamina counts when he must be on the alert every minute of a ten or fifteen hour mission.

Expert designers have given gunners the best that can be devised in armor and protection, in mobility and comfort. Gunnery schools increase this margin of safety by conducting a training program that tries to foresee all exigencies a gunner may need.

Suppose you're our trained mechanic. You go to gunnery school at Panama City, Florida, or Harlingen, Texas, or Las Vegas, Nevada. In five crammed weeks, you add to your knowledge by studying the parts of the machine guns and turrets used in modern craft. You trouble-shoot purposely maladjusted guns and make them fire properly. You get so you can work on those guns blindfolded. You gain confidence in them and yourself. You learn to recognize friendly and enemy planes in an instant.

You go on the range to fire from fixed guns at fixed targets. You fire from fixed guns at targets moving in varying directions. You man a gun on a moving truck firing at a moving target. Then you fire from a plane at a sleeve target strung from another plane.

Two things you learn again and again. First, not to fire until the enemy is well within range. "If you can't reach him," you're told, "he can't reach you." Second, you learn to get his range by firing short bursts, usually with tracer bullets, making each shot count, rather than pressing the trigger until you swing your gun onto him. Ammunition carried on a flight is limited, and when it's gone there's no more until the plane returns to its base. If it runs out, the chances lengthen against your getting back at all.

It's a thrilling job, in every sense of the word, but it isn't all fun, It's hard work, hours of work, striving for perfection, learning to time the shots, to ride with the target, to translate thought and judgment and action into a fluid unbroken movement. No time for hesitation. A slip may prove the end of your plane and its crew. So it's you or him. The guns become a part of you when you wrap your strong fingers around the grips. There's no recoil, just a staccato vibration when you squeeze the trigger and send a short burst of bullets chasing one another through the sky, finding one another in the destruction of the enemy plane.

It's thrilling, and deadly serious, as you try for just one more burst at the sleeve target before your pilot turns back for home. Then, soon enough, comes graduation, and assignment to a combat unit. Now you' re a dual specialist, as valuable in the air as on the ground. Without your sharp eyes and steady hands the best bomber pilot in the world ride; helpless.

Let's look at a few enlisted members of a B-24's combat crew. Take John L Tidwell, twenty-four-year-old tail gunner. He comes from a fighting family. His brother, Frank, is a student at the military police officer candidate school at Battle Creek, Michigan. His sister, Betty, is a first sergeant in the WAACs at Des Moines, Iowa.

At home in Melbourne, Florida, Sergeant Tidwell helped his dad run a garage and filling station. He used to go along on the gas truck when his dad went out to the local airport to refuel barnstorming planes, and John usually got a free ride. As soon as he was old enough he took up flying. His girl lived fifty miles away so John would fly up in the morning to make a date, and drive up that night in the family car to keep it.

In April, 1941, he joined the Air Corps. He learned armament by working in the armorer's shop at the Orlando, Florida, air base. When gunnery school started he applied. He graduated from the third class at Las Vegas, Nevada, with an average of ninety-two.

Then there's Sergeant Houston Berry, a twenty-one-year-old rebel from Georgetown, Mississippi, a few miles south of Jackson, the state capital. He graduated from Georgetown's high school and then went to work helping his dad on their cotton farm. He joined the Air Corps in the spring of 1941 to take an airplane mechanics' course at Chanute Field, parent station of the Technical Training Command.

Berry finished there in November, 1941, and worked as a mechanic on the line until the following July when he went to gunnery school at Panama City, Florida. Short and soft-spoken, Berry lets his trigger finger talk for him. Now, as the B-24's engineer, he's head man of the enlisted combat crew. He takes the upper turret when the occasion demands.

Berry's assistant engineer is Sergeant Leon Helton, who used to be a waiter in Waynesboro, Tennessee, before he signed up early in 1941. Helton went through Technical Training Command's mechanic school at Chanute Field, too, but until a month ago he was a ground crew man.

Somehow, he missed going to gunnery school, but he was so anxious to get into the combat crew that he went along when Berry and the others went skeet shooting to keep in practice. It wasn't long before he caught the knack, and now he consistently leads in the scoring. His pilot says he's a born gunner.

Staff Sergeant Ramon Gomez, of El Paso, Texas, was a hospital orderly when he decided to sign up in the Air Corps in September, 1941. His folks came up out of Mexico. He's glad to fly for Uncle Sam, and his buddies are happy to have him with them, for he's one of the best trained men in his squadron.

Gomez went first to the Technical Training Command's radio school at Scott Field, Illinois. From there he went to an advanced radio school, and then to gunnery school at Harlingen, Texas. Now, a specialist in two types of radio, Gomez is a crack gunner besides.

The opportunity to meet the enemy first-hand has boosted morale of students in Technical Training Command schools. Recognized as above-average by the scores they made on classification tests and given the advantage of specialized training at technical schools, men like Berry, Helton, and Gomez nevertheless felt apart from their friends who had drawn assignments in the tank corps, or field artillery, or the infantry.

As Helton puts it in his Tennessee drawl: "I knew I was getting a break when the Air Corps sent me to the Technical Training Command, but I couldn't make my friends see it that way. Sure, they laughed about it, but I knew they thought I was getting set for a job outside the hot spots.

"From what I hear it was plenty hot on Henderson Field on Guadalcanal when the Japs got a chance to come over and unload. Repair crews are ready to defend their airfield against anyone who might come along. In the Technical Training Command we learned how to take care of ourselves with a rifle and in hand-to-hand fighting."

He paused a moment, and then added, with a grin. "But it's even better being a gunner. I can wave to the ground outfits when we go ahead to clear the air and the ground for them."

Gunners, like Helton, cocky but respectful, have already become legendary figures in the Army Air Forces. They have established a tradition of toughness and versatility and courage.

General Henry H Arnold, commanding general of the Army Air Forces, who has been flying since well before the first World War, knows what he is talking about when he describes an aerial gunner.

Aerial gunnery, he says, "appeals to the type of man who likes to feel the power and effect of the whistle of the machine gun bullet and the smooth operation of the machine gun or cannon.

"Upon the shoulders of this air specialist," General Arnold continues, "rides the safety of the plane while in flight in areas infested by hostile aircraft. In combat, the skill, coolness, and courage of the aerial gunner spell the safety of the big bomber and may provide the sole means of saving this quarter million dollar vessel and its valuable human cargo from destruction and insure the completion of its mission."

But those words, straight and factual, are nothing at all to compare with the thrill and satisfaction a gunner feels when his shots find their mark, when an enemy plane races into his hail of bullets, sprouts a plume of flame, and leaves a tall, sloping column of smoke on its trail to earth.

Ask any aerial gunner. It's a job for any live American, a job worth doing, a job that must be done well. Before we can hop fifty miles up-country to make a date, we have, as General Arnold says, "a date to keep in Berlin and Tokyo." And our gunners are the men who will clear the skies to get us there.

This article was originally published in the May, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 5, pp 20-22, 54.
The PDF of this article includes a number of captioned detail photos of gunners at the various stations of a B-17E and the tail gun station of an early B-25.
The original was published on 10½ by 13½ inch paper. The images in the PDF have been reduced to fit on letter size paper.
Photos credited to George Platt Lynes, British Combine, Boeing Aircraft, Rudy Arnold, Warner Brothers.