SCHOOL FOR GUNNERS

Our “Gun-running” Correspondent Learns to Operate The Armament on a Bomber; and God Help Hitler.

By Sgt. Denton Scott

YANK Staff Correspondentair gunnery school

air gunnery school Yank magzine

Sgt. Denton Scott

SOMEWHERE IN THE MUD—The B-17 looked like an angry bear attacked by dogs. Four Me 109s streaked at her, cannon blasting. Then from the tail of the big Fort twin flames leaped and one Me broke into pieces. Right and left waist caliber 50s chattered. Another 109 became a bright flame in the sky. The other two bellied up and fled.

It was the usual thing.

Readers would pick up their daily newspaper and murmur: “Another Flying Fort story. The way they write about those planes you’d think their gunners were wonder men.”

They are.

It all happens in a muddy airfield somewhere in England. In a small group of buildings called Instructional Site Headquarters there is a natty little man called Lt. Colonel John P. Dwyer from Clarion, Pennsylvania, director of training of the most efficient air gunnery school in this country.

But before you have the pleasure of attending the school of Colonel Dwyer in the muddy airfield somewhere in England, you must go to another army base some fifteen miles away and sit yourself down in a small chamber.

It’s called the pressure chamber and is owned and operated by the Royal Air Force. Seating capacity is six men—three on each side. It is attached to the rear of a truck and is mobile. The operator is a flight surgeon and as he turns the pressure up simulating different altitudes, he keeps contact with the men taking the test by microphone. Before entering the chamber oxygen masks are adjusted. If you don’t blow up like a sausage, you can take high altitude.

Great stuff this high altitude, but that comes later—much later. You’re just starting.



Now you’re at the gunnery school. Air gunnery school, the place where you learn how to sieve Jerry.

Indian dark, Sergeant Joe V. Jeager takes over at your first class. Five rough wooden tables are spaced in a big room. On each is a caliber .50 machine gun and an enlisted instructor. We drew a Sergeant John E. Reahder.

Sergeant Jeager talked in a deep, well-modulated voice and illustrated all points on the blackboard immediately before him.

Captain John W. Johnson from Lynn, Mass., and Lieutenant John I. Good, collective chiefs of the gunnery classes roved among the green johns at the tables.

Slowly the gun was stripped by the instructor. And Jeager drew pictures on his blackboard. And we got damned confused and began to build up a deep respect for air gunners.

The class seemed to last for hours. We got grease on everything but our shoelaces.

Names and strange-sounding words bothered us. Like oil buffer and bolt assembly and first, second and third position stoppages. We looked and we listened.

Then we took the gun apart and put it together. Wrong.

Jeager stood at his blackboard and spelled out the important parts of the gun. We learned how to screw the barrel extension off the barrel. Knew the breech block and the breech block pin. We never realized how dumb we were—about guns.

Then we went and listened to a captain talk about first aid.

We left his lecture wondering on which part of the barrel extension we applied the tourniquet.

That was the first day.

At eight-thirty the following morning we were hard at it again. A very, very interesting RAF flight sergeant named Benny Hall gave us a Yorkshire accented lesson on aircraft recognition. There are so many differences in planes that it all made us wonder how come we hadn’t been fighting an air war ourselves. German ships, the Me 109E, the 109F, the 110, the FW 190, Me 210, and British Spits, Hurricanes, Typhoons, Beaufighters, American Mitchells, P 38s, Flying Fortresses—we had to learn what their differences were.

A mere nothing. At 1,000 yards, the distance the air gunner commences fire, any ship is more or less a vague shape and it takes an alert man, a man well-schooled in aircraft recognition, to recognize if it’s an allied or enemy aircraft.

Benny Hall talked in a loud voice and interspersed his lecture with dry, humorous accounts of his own combat days. His missions number well over fifty.

After Benny had finished we went over to the ready room and togged ourselves in flying clothes. We were going to take our high altitude flight. The first-aid lecture had given us the information about oxygen masks, and about chewing gum and yawning if the sudden change in pressure affected our ears.

We drew a B-17 named Johnny Reb, piloted by Captain Ward. Staff Sergeant Knapp Vallas was the radio operator and we sat across from him.

The flight lasted two hours and we went up 25,000 feet. Flight engineer Neadner Fiedler wandered around the plane with the walk around bottle checking on our masks and giving us the altitude as we ascended. He didn’t have a flying jacket on but it didn’t seem to bother him. Ice formed on his eyebrows. He is one tough G.I.

We came down and I couldn’t hear anything but whispers for six hours.



air gunners

B-17 Waist Gunners from the 457th Bomb Group manning their caliber .50 machine guns

For a little relaxation we went back to Jeager and field stripping the caliber .50. It was great fun.

This time we had to tear the gun down and reassemble it on our own, naming the important parts as we went along. Eagle-eyed enlisted men watched us, and jumped the minute we made an error.

They jumped a lot.

We knocked off after a few hours and had a little lunch.

Then we went back to Benny Hall and aircraft recognition. By this time we could tell what a B-17 looked like at 1,000 yards and we felt pretty proud of ourselves. Benny didn’t.

An hour of this and we never wanted to see another plane. But when we did get outside and heard the roar of a plane overhead, all eyes immediately searched it out and tried to identify it. We were learning.

That was the second day.

The redoubtable Sergeant Jeager gave us another blackboard lecture, this time on sighting. He told us to pay particular attention to this lecture because it was very important. Sighting. Aiming at Jerry so you could hit him. It did seem rather important.

We learned the five forces affecting a projectile, meaning of harmonization, reasons the gunner leads his target and how to draw a pretty diagram of similar triangles complete with labels.



After a few hours of this we were given a ten minute break and then Jeager broke the gentle news that we were going to have a written examination.

We did. Then we had a little lunch and went out to the pistol range. Out there we first fired a twelve gauge shotgun at skeet in order to give us a practical demonstration on leading a target. Skeet wasn’t in season for us.

With the help of Sergeant Harvey Banks we did a little better on the caliber .50—never call it a .50 caliber, it ain’t done in the better circles.

Corporal Fred Collins from Manchester, Conn., gave us more practical instruction and we were going all right until the gun jammed. We had to stay at the gun until we discovered what caused the jam. There were four guns and we fired all of them. And all of them jammed. And we had to find out what causes that.

A Hollywood major’s gun blew up. Nobody was hurt. And it was a good lesson on what can go wrong when you least expect it. But the major’s five men rallied around him and everything turned out all right.

That was the third day.

It was cold the next morning and firing the .45 automatic pistol on the range wasn’t a lot of fun. Your hand shook with the cold and you didn’t do too well hitting the target. But you learned more about sighting. After the .45 pistol you cradled a Thompson sub-machine gun in your arms and leaned forward and fired it. You were getting good. Shot-guns, caliber .50, .45 pistols and Tommy guns.

When you got back to the school all your confidence drained out. Benny Hall was giving an aircraft recognition test. It was a honey.

Then Captain Johnson gave the caliber .50 test.

That was the fourth day.

This was the last day at Colonel Dwyer’s school. We had taken a week’s course in five days and we were plenty worried about our marks on the tests taken the day before. The instruction had been good, far above average. We just wondered if we were.

We had a lecture on ditching. Leaving a crippled plane over water. We were told to get rid of all the clothing we could and still keep all we could. A young second lieutenant gave us sage advice on bracing yourself in the radio compartment, learning what to take on the life raft with you, where in the radio compartment the release handles for the raft were, the first-aid packet and rations to always heave on the raft; about switching the emergency radio switch on number three so that automatically an SOS would be sent.

Then we made an inspection of planes and the lieutenant pointed out the things he had been talking about.

The five days were nearly over.

Slowly we walked back to Instructional Site Headquarters to see one Sergeant Spitzfadden. He marked the test papers.

We saw this Sergeant Spitzfadden and found out that we passed all the tests all right.

But we still had plenty of respect for air gunners.

And for Colonel Dwyer’s school.



For More on the Bombing Campaign Against Germany Check Out:

Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany




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