by Scott Boyle
It was strikingly more cramped than all the pictures depict, the pint-sized ball-turret gunnery placement perched like a pimple under the Sentimental Journey, a World War II B-17 bomber.
I stood on the tarmac at Heber City Airport a few Saturdays ago, ready to not only inspect a B-17 up close and personal, but to take a 45 minute ride in the workhorse of World War II.
Sentimental Journey, one of only 50 B-17s left from World War II, is 75 feet long with a 104-foot wingspan, weighing in at 65,000 pounds. Its four Wright R-1820-97 engines can push the plane to a top speed of 287 mph with a range of nearly 4000 miles.
B-17s were involved in over 300,000 sorties during WWII and dropped 640,000 tons of bombs on the enemy, according to the History Channel. Each plane had a crew of nine, pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier and five gunners manning 11-13 machine guns.
A ball-turret was one of six gun placements set into a B-17 World War II bomber. Placed on the underside of the plane and made of plexiglass shaped into a sphere, it was designed to house a pair of .50 caliber machine guns and one man, a shrimp of a guy… on the smallish side of shrimpy.
My dad was one such person, at the ripe old age of 25, an old-timer compared to most airmen in the those days. He was a member of the Army Air Corp which he had rushed to join in March of 1942, only a few short months after Pearl Harbor, leaving his widowed mother and two younger sisters at home in Lonoke, Arkansas.
Hoping to be a pilot, he washed out on account of less than 20/20 eyesight and became a ball turret gunner. A member of the 486th Bomber Group of the Eighth Air Force, he arrived at Sudbury RAF in Eastern England in March of 1944, flying 29 missions over Hitler’s Europe beginning on the 7th of May and concluding on the 26th of September, including one flight over Normandy on D-Day. He flew in the crew of the pilot, Lieutenant James Van Camp, and his co-pilot, Lieutenant Kenneth L. Schlipf.
The audacity of spending up to 12-14 hours crammed into a fetal position with death staring you directly in the eye was more than one could hang on to, as I meekly contemplated just such an experience, just inches away from the ball turret myself.
I was honored to be with seven other passengers, who crawled inside Sentimental Journey for the ride of a lifetime, much like my father must have done all those times, only with immeasurably different feelings, I’m sure.
Me: chipper, elated… even gleeful. My father: apprehensive, jittery, uneasy, rattled, scared, determined, hopeful. Don’t know how he felt for sure though, since he couldn’t bring himself to talk about any of that time of his life before he passed away way back in 1990.
Most of what we now know comes from 486th websites, where we learned the names of all his crew. The only thing he ever said about those days was “I always wondered what happened to the people on the ground where the bombs landed.”
The only other thing we knew from him about those long ago months in England was the name of his plane, the Homesick Angel. The Homesick Angel was a reliable old bird for three different flight crews, lasting until April 5, 1945, just a month before the war in Europe ended.
On that day, months after my dad flew his last mission, pilot Joe Fadden and his crew were aboard Homesick Angel on a mission to Furth, Germany, when the #3 engine was hit and badly damaged. Faden was able to land the plane at a German airstrip, which, luckily, had only recently been captured by the advancing American Army. The whole crew was back unscathed in Sudbury just two days later and finished the war in a different plane.
My ride in Sentimental Journey displayed the power of the bird. I was in awe as the pilot revved up those four engines just before the plane ripped down the runway and soared into the air with ease.
The inside was no palace though. These planes were built for combat, offensive combat, and weren’t equipped to ward off enemy shells, what with their egg-shell like metal frame.
It was kinda like climbing inside an empty Seven-Up can, not much there but a long thin tube of metal, a few canvas chairs set with canvas seat belts, those bristling machine guns, the cockpit and the bomb bay.
The ball-turret gunner most likely sat in just the same seat as me, I imagine, not clambering into the ball until after the plane had taken off.
You better not be claustrophobic if you chose ball-turret gunning as a profession, as you had to squeeze yourself into a hunched up position, your knees hugging your chest, leaning back like a young boy leaning back on his chair at school, with those two .50 calibers between your legs, the hatch ominously slammed shut, and then locked, and there you sat, like you were waiting to be born… or die.
One of the pilots who flew Sentimental Journey that Saturday observed that the ball turret gunners most often had to be extracted out of the turret at the end of missions after being crammed in that itty-bitty space, actually outside the plane, exposed to the enemy, enduring the nearly 50 degree below zero temperatures at 20,000 feet for hours on end, a temperature so piercingly frigid your fingers would instantly stick to any metal you touched without gloves.
My flight, however, in Sentimental Journey was delightful and peaceful, gracefully circling the beautiful, green Heber Valley, and cruising up over Park City and back, an easy 45 minutes that seemed like ten. I marveled at the elegance of the flight, as we surveyed the Wasatch Back. One of the more relaxing little jaunts I ever took.
But as we returned to earth, the contrast between the wonderful flight I had just taken and the harrowing experiences my father must have had those 29 times flying over Europe with flack blasting all around, looking for enemy fighters, wondering if you would make it home, wanting to reposition but not being able, kept my heart in my throat. I found myself repeatedly gazing at the ball turret, weeping, contemplating what it must have been like in there.
Big questions remain about my father’s service in WWII. Those that knew my dad are highly aware of his love of people. No one was a stranger to my dad, he stopped and talked with everyone, kept in contact with all his friends and relatives, often organizing all kinds of get-to-gethers, phone calls, letters, visits. Friends and family from his growing up years in Arkansas, college pals from his days at Chilicothe Business College in Missouri after the war where he met and married my mom, and all his missionary, church, work, sports and family acquaintances in his 50 years after the war.
But not one word, not one name, not one experience ever crossed his lips about all those unfathomable months in England in 1944. Not a single name uttered, a phone call to or from crew members, a letter from a grateful pilot or co-pilot, a remembered story, a visit from a gunnery mate when in town, a desire for get-togethers?
Nothing? Not a mention of anyone or anything to my mom, his siblings, his mother, his children, other friends? No war stories? Not even a story about how he won the Distinguished Flying Cross? Absolutely nothing? Why?
As I stood, alone with my thoughts on the tarmac, perhaps I finally understood, maybe the most lucid moment in my life. It wasn’t the tranquil ride in a historic, decorated World War II B-17 bomber that brought that kind of clarity.
Gaping at that frightening ball turret I finally understood what kind of courageous, determined, faithful, perseverant, heroic, dedicated, scared, fearful, extraordinary man my dad and all those others must have been. No wonder they never talked about it again, an experience so awful, so emotional, so stressful, so unbelievable, so nerve-wracking, so traumatic.
They gave their all to serve their country. They did their job, they lived, they came home. They just craved a normal life. I wish I could talk to my dad about it now. A good long talk, where he would tell me what he was feeling and I could tell him, I understand now, Dad.