The job of a Radio Operator/Gunner was different from that of the other crew members. He constantly attended ground school to keep skilled with the Morse code. Each operator had the responsibility of the classified codes that were used to convert a plain message into a secret message. They also converted secret messages from headquarters into plain text. The codes were classified and carefully accounted for by serial numbers daily. Practice mission codes and colors of the day were checked out anytime an aircraft was preparing to take off, if only to slowtime an engine. On such occasions, the minimum crew was two pilots, navigator an engineer and the radio operator, On the day of a mission the radio operator attended the main briefing with the pilot and navigator. Then a separate briefing was held solely for the operators. The frequencies to be used all that day and the colors of the day for signal flares were distributed as well as the general communications order of battle for the mission. The bomber code books were issued and signed for by the radio operator. They included the code for the entire 8th Air Force for that day. All transmissions on the high frequency radios were encoded and decoded from the code book. If it fell into enemy hands, the mission could be compromised. He could redirect the target, abort the mission or cause any number of serious disruptions to the flight. When a message was received, and decoded in this bomber code, it became an official order from headquarters to be executed.
When the formations were intact during the mission, the lead crew radio operator was in charge and responsible for the principal communications and monitoring the operators of other aircraft. They could also encode and decode all the messages that they monitored.
When a plane was forced to leave the main formation, the operator was on his own to receive and send radio traffic as outlined in each morning briefing. During periods of enforced radio silence, signal lamps or a flare pistol with colored flares, with the color code for the day were used for identification to other planes or elements on the ground. The loss or misuse of a bomber code book was a court-martial offense.
The pilots and navigator fully understood the rules regarding when a plane could communicate and the subject matter that could be covered. No plane was to use the principal channels except for important messages -- target information reports, recalls and battle damage.
I recall one mission in which the main channel of the high frequency radio began sending out SOS signals with the plane's call signs. This was against all the rules. It tied up all the missions critical communications to or from the 446th Group to headquarters during the entire mission. The plane was one of our Group. I knew most of the crew personally. The plane had severe damage. The weather was cold. I knew it was unlikely that anyone could survive a ditching in the English Channel. The radio operator kept sending SOS and his call sign for some twenty minutes. I could tell when he hit the water from the sound of his telegraph key shorting out in a whining sound. I wanted to throw up. I had trained with the operator at the radio school at Sioux Falls, had flown in formations many times with him. I notified the British Air-Sea Rescue Service and they had tracked his radio bearings all the way into the water. I learned later that one crew member had survived as the rescue people were close to the site of the ditching. I believe it was the pilot who survived. It was not my friend.
No one in the radio operator community, to my knowledge, ever mentioned that this blocking on the principal frequency, which prevented any other traffic, was against the rule. But it might have saved the lone survivor's life.
Most crew members had additional responsibilities on the aircraft. The radio operator, stationed on the flight deck, also had the responsibility for clearing any stuck bombs in the front bomb bay. Usually, the armor gunner had the responsibility for the aft bomb bay. It was about as dangerous a job as existed on the plane. During the extreme cold of the Winter of 1944, often the shackle that held the bomb in the rack would freeze up. It would not drop when the bombardier released the load. This could be dangerous for the arming wires on the nose and tail fuses had been re moved in large bombs such as 500, 1,000 and 2,000-pounders. A crewman could not wear a chute or regular oxygen hose during this process. In the front bomb bay, I would crawl out from the flight deck on the small catwalk with a portable oxygen bottle clipped to my harness. With the bomb bay doors wide open, it meant you were exposed to the world with nothing under you but a four inch metal beam. Holding on with one hand, I would try to chop the bomb from its shackle with a fire ax. One day, the top 500-lb. bomb fell on top of the bomb below, lodging between the skin of the plane and the bomb that had frozen in its shackle. By the time I got out into the bay, flak was exploding nearby. A large shell, which I believe was an 88 millimeter, exploded a few feet below me. I saw a large red flash that had a deep blue inner core. The force of the explosion shot our plane "Hot-Shot Charlie" straight up in the air. I held on until I could get my senses back and my ears cleared from the noise of the explosion. When I regained my balance, I hit the bomb shackle with the ax and both bombs fell out of the plane. I slowly made my way back to the flight deck and manually closed the bomb bay door with the lever on the flight deck.
When I returned to my position, the pilot was on the intercom wanting to know if the bomb had been released. I never answered him as I couldn't believe what had just happened. The engineer in the top turret saw the bomb bay doors close and signaled that all was okay.
On another mission, we had a problem with a bomb that accidentally remained hanging to the bomb rack after the releasing action had been taken. It was in the rear bomb bay. In the B-24J it was impossible to go from one bomb bay to another in full battle dress. The responsibility was divided between the radio operator in the front, and the waist gunner for the aft bomb bay. The configuration of the catwalk was a little different in the rear. The waist gunner entered the catwalk with his chute fastened to his chest-pack body harness. The slipstream caught his chute and it popped open inside the bay while the plane was on the bomb run. I saw him from the front and notified the other waist gunner to help him. He was becoming entangled in the chute and would be dropped out of the plane. He was rescued after a horrible time and survived the frightening experience.
Frequently, the bomb bay doors would freeze, the bombardier would be unable to open them on the bomb run. If we were unable to open them, we would drop the bombs right through the doors. With the doors dangling from the bottom of the plane it would be a long, cold and slow ride back to the base. The landing would be exciting as the doors would scrape the entire length of the runway kicking up sparks. When the Squadron engineering officer saw a plane land with the doors torn partially off, the sparks from his eyes were almost as bright as those caused by the doors scraping the runway. It was a tough job to replace the doors and, of course, the CO wanted the plane up in the air the next morning. It meant all night work for the ground crew.
On another occasion, we carried large bundles of 40-lb. antipersonnel bombs. We hated to carry such a load because all several hundred bombs each had its own fuse with a wire holding it in place. One day, on such a mission, the bombs in a 446th plane exploded in the formation and took down a plane on either side in a big ball of fire.
Reprinted from "The 446th Revisited"