Alexander Mackenzie was the nose turret gunner on the John Klee crew. He wrote a general description about the missions he flew.
It was a beautiful sunny day at the Bethalto Airport. I was there to visit a B17 Flying Fortress from World War II. It was meticulously restored and had been flown in by the Confederate Air Force. It was as clean and shiny as the cloudless afternoon sky. In its day, it was the largest thing flying. Now it seemed like a dwarf compared to modern commercial jets.
As I walked toward the plane, my attention was attracted to the lower ball gun turret with its open door. I bent down to look inside. Everything seemed neat and in mint condition.
As I viewed the interior, two young fellows came along to do their own inspection of the turret. They speculated on the difficulty of crawling in there from the ground and the seemingly impossible task of closing the door from inside.
I listened to some more speculation before I overcame my reluctance to comment. I described how the gunner entered the turret from inside the plane after take-off. We were having a pleasant conversation when one of the fellows said, ”You seem to know a lot about this.” My instinctive reply was, ”Once upon a time, that was my office.” We tended to hang together, exchanging comments as we completed our tour.
Driving home, it seemed that the visit with the old bird was pleasant but still not completely satisfying. It was an attempt to go back to the past, but you never can.
As I drove home, my mind went back to the old squadron area. We would stumble out of the tent before sun-up. I could still hear the clanking of the mess kits. We headed for an old dark shack called the mess. I remembered, in the dark, I poured a ton of prune juice over my pancakes thinking that it was syrup. I ate them. No time to sweat the small stuff.
After briefing, a truck would take us to the aircraft. A large canvas bag, I think called an A4, contained our personal equipment. I could still hear the characteristic thud that it made when it was thrown off the truck.
Final dressing was done next to the airplane. Already wearing long underwear, heavy socks, wool pants and shirt, sweater, coveralls and G.I. shoes, the dressing continued. Off came the G.I. shoes. On went an electrically heated suit with boots. Next came a fur- lined suit and fur-lined Frankenstein boots. This collection was topped off with a pistol and holster, an inflatable life jacket and the parachute harness.
All dressed? Hurry up. Throw in that A4 bag and climb aboard. The smell inside the plane came back; a blend of gasoline, hydraulic fluid and urine.
It seemed as if we wore a lot of clothing. Yet we commonly experienced temperatures around 40 degrees below zero. Flights might last up to eight hours. The plane had no inside walls and there were many openings to the outside. Wind blasted in at more than 200 miles an hour. Wind and engine noises were so loud that communication was impossible with out the intercom.
It’s time to climb into the ball turret, an enclosed ball not much over 2 ½ feet in diameter. The guns were fixed in position so that aiming had to be done by rotating the entire turret.
The guns had to be pointed straight down so that the door would open inside the airplane. I could still visualize the crowded mess that would be seen when looking down through that open door. At the bottom was the conspicuous round window. There was a small seat most of the way down. Also packed in were two large machine guns, about 3,000 rounds of ammunition, motors to drive the turret, two motors to feed ammunition, a sizable gun site, and control equipment for oxygen, intercom and the electric suit.
After worming into the turret, your head and shoulders still protruded outside of the ball. Bend into a ball and lock that door securely. If it pops open outside the plane, doing the breaststroke at 20,000 feet with no parachute is not helpful. There was no room in the crowded turret for a parachute.
I remembered the strange feeling, being outside of the plane and looking up at the belly and under side of the wings. When the plane made a tight banking turn, it could be converted into a carnival ride by rotating the turret as fast as it would turn.
To exit the turret the entry process was reversed. In an emergency you would hope that the power did not fail, immobilizing the turret. To bail out, it was necessary to locate the parachute inside the plane and attach it to the harness.
I thought of my old friend, Snodgrass. In his haste to bail out, he picked up his parachute by the ripcord. A mile of silk popped out. He had no choice. He clipped the parachute onto his harness. Then he gathered the fabric in his arms and jumped. The canopy opened nicely. He floated in for an easy landing. Some ground troops thought he was an enemy and shot him. Well, he survived and at 18 or 19 years of age, it was all in days work.
Oops, almost missed my driveway. Looks like the mailman was here. Grass needs cutting. Maybe I’ll do that before supper.