A GUNNERS INTRODUCTION TO COMBAT

Left: A waist gunner in action

Ralph Peters recalls enlisting in the Army Air Force in October of 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor. He signed up for a three-year hitch. His enlisting gave him a pay increase from the draftees $21 to $30 as a member of the regular Army. After basic training at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri he was sent to Lowry Field to attend the armament school. His next stop was gunnery school in Las Vegas. It was a new base and school had not begun. He was kept busy on KP and guard duty. They even put a screw driver in his hand and assigned him to help a crew chief on the flight line. The plane on which he worked was an A-33, a single-engine built for Sweden but never delivered. There were some early model planes on the base. One was a B- 10, a twin-engine in which you had to retract the landing gear with cables. He had his first flight in an A-33 and believes if you could find that plane today you'd find his fingerprints on it from gripping it tightly.

School finally started and fifty fellows were assigned as instructors. The assignment meant more instruction at specialist schools and they were sent to Ft. Meyers, Florida and Harlingen, Texas. He spent a year teaching at Vegas and was then transferred to a new base and school opened in Kingman, Arizona. There were two systems for handling the new recruits. In the beginning, an instructor stayed with his students all through the course, teaching them each phase. Second Air Force then decided it would be better for the instructors to specialize in one phase. Classrooms at Kingman were hot. On the firing range the thermometer read 120 degrees. When the blinds were drawn in the aircraft recognition class and silhouettes of planes were flashed on the screen, many of the fellows would doze. One of the instructors, while on leave, picked up some art slides of pretty girls. The instructor would casually slip one in with identification slides. That brought the class to life and it would be "Hey Sarge, let's see that again."

One of the most interesting phases of the course was the air-to-air firing, from an AT-6. The student stood in the back cockpit, pulled a 30-caliber from the stowed position and moved it on a curved track to the side for firing. Stowed in the side of the plane were two containers of fifty rounds each with the tips of the projectiles painted so you could determine the number of hits. These were of various colors as several gunners took turns firing at the target. One story told at the time was about a student who was cautioned before takeoff that the spent brass casings would dent the tail surface if not caught in a cloth bag under the gun. During his firing the bag moved and brass was hitting the tail. The pilot yelled: "Save your brass!" You guessed it. He bailed out. It was a good story even if it never happened.

Ralph applied for overseas duty and was told he was "key personnel' and essential. However, finally in late '44 he was shipped to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. It was part of the Port of Embarkation in New York. He knew then he was headed for Europe, and was glad. He wanted no part of the Pacific theater. One night his contingent was loaded aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Seven days later he found himself in Scotland. They landed late at night, and even at that hour he heard: "any gum, chum?"

Classified as an instructor in aerial gunnery, he was shipped to the 446th. He wondered how he could be expected to instruct fellows who had already been in combat, especially those who already had 'kills' to their credit. And too, he was familiar with a B-17, but had never been in a B-24. He was scheduled to fly as a replacement. His first mission was to Bayreuth. It was all new to him. He had never seen so many planes in the air at one time. After forming in heavy soup, they headed for the target. Before long he was introduced to flak. The other waist gunner threw a flak jacket to him, and he nearly went to the deck from the weight of it. He quickly learned that at 25,000 feet everything felt heavier. After leaving the target area, the three planes in the element dropped down and flew under the overcast. People came out of their homes and waved. It was exciting for the newcomer. Before long they encountered antiaircraft fire and took two bursts. One went into the right wing just missing the fuel tanks. The other came up through the bomb bay doors and into the hydraulic main supply tank. The pilot talked of landing in France and refueling, but decided to head for home. They crossed the Channel, found an emergency field and landed. A 446th plane was 'slow timing' an engine and had landed there. They all hitched a ride back to Flixton. The war was ending. The Luftwaffe was decimated and he never recalled seeing a German fighter. That was his introduction to combat. He never had an opportunity to practice what he had been teaching.

Reprinted from "The 446th revisited"

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