U.S. B-17 Bomber Crewman From World War II!
United States Army Air Force is made up of volunteers mostly in their late teens and early 20s from every part of the U.S. Bomber crews would receive extensive training at American air bases before being sent overseas for combat duty. A B-17 would typically have a crew of ten, including the pilot, who was the flight commander, the co-pilot, the bombardier and the navigator, the radio-operator, a flight-engineer, two waist gunners, a tail gunner, and a ball-turret gunner. The USAAF would launch their strategic bombing campaigns from bases in England, North Africa, and Italy. The strategy of air force commanders was to carry out daylight raids at a high altitude in mass formations with overwhelming firepower. These raids would be carried out on industrial targets and communication and fuel supply lines. Losses in 1943’s bombing campaigns were very high, and it was common to see a high proportion of B-17s not making it back. As the war progressed, and German air defense capabilities depleted, the bombing campaigns became more effective. Combat missions would start early in the day, with crews being woken up in the early morning by an officer for the briefing of the day’s mission. The bombers would then take off, and fly into formation towards occupied Europe. The conditions were uncomfortable, traveling in an unpressurized aircraft in the skies at 7600m, or 25,000ft, exposed to temperatures as low as -45 degrees centigrade, or -56 degrees Fahrenheit. It was important, therefore, for crews to wear oxygen masks and heated flying suits on long flights to avoid frostbite or death. For the tail gunner and the ball turret gunner, the cramped positions made the journey even more uncomfortable. Parachutes were too bulky to be worn all the time, so crewmen wore harnesses, allowing them to quickly clip on their parachutes if they needed to bail out. Once the escort fighters were out of range, and could no longer support the bombers, the crew could come under attack from German fighter planes. The gunners would then open fire from all directions, including the navigator on cheek guns, the flight engineer on the top turret, the bombardier on the chin turret, and the other main gunners on the waist, ball turret, and tail gun. In addition to the danger of enemy fighters, heavy flak fire from ground AA guns could destroy the bomber, and send it diving into the ground. The box formations, while providing better protection from fighters, made the bombers a easier target for anti-aircraft fire. As the target approached, the bombardier would take control of the aircraft and use his Norden bombsight linked to the autopilot and release the bombs, hopefully hitting the target. Once the bomb load had been dropped, the crew would make their way back, sometimes, with major sections of their B-17 bomber destroyed, contributing to the name of ‘Flying Fortress’. A bomber crew’s tour of duty was often 25 missions, later increased to 35. The odds of survival – a one out of four chance of completing his tour of duty, made the crew men’s tour nerve-wracking.