B17 Tailgunner....
Soldier:
T/Sgt. John W. Carson
Date: December 20th, 1943
Location: Eleusis Aerdrome, Athens, Greece
Unit: 96th Bmb Sqdn, 2nd Bmb Grp, 15th Air Force

Gunnery school was over and I was now a new S/Sgt with a pair of silver wings enroute to the well known repel depot, the Salt Lake City, Utah Fairgrounds for future assignment. After a week or so several of us left on another troop train for Blythe, CA. to be a pool for assignment to bomber crews. I flew as a radio operator for one of the senior officers on a B-24 until a letter I had written to Gen. Hap Arnold came back through channels. I had requested that Gen. Arnold pull a few strings so my brother and I could be flying in the same outfit as he now was also in the Air Corps. I receive a lecture on military procedures and assignment to Flight Officer George A. Levchek's B-17 crew as assistant radio operator. The next day all first radio operators made T/Sgt. Ordinarily the assistant R/O flew the lower ball on the B-17 but it was a position I absolutely could not handle. Claustrophobia and air sickness were constant companions so I traded with the tail gunner and thus became a B 17 tail gunner.

The Tail Gunner manned a gun position, located directly under the rudder, defending the rear of the B17 from attack. On bomb runs you were often very busy, warding off fighters or praying. Another important duty for the tail gunner was observing what went on to the rear, keeping track of other planes and reporting anything significant, such as stragglers or cripples or planes going down, number of chutes opening et cetera. The tail gun position was fought kneeling, and you manned it primarily at all times in enemy territory. You were on your knees with an armor plate between you and the outside world although it only covered a portion of your chest. The armor plate was hinged so it would lift up. To work on your twin 50's you had to lift the plate and reach forward a bit to the guns. It had to be lifted to permit working on the guns, although the machine guns could be charged with the plate down. Never wanted that thing up in combat but sometimes it was necessary.
The guns were 50 Caliber Machineguns with a butterfly grip with a thumb trip if I recall. These guns were flexible and mounted on a center post. The sight was sort of a cross haired ring and post, no electronics here just good old farmer stuff. It was necessary to use care in servicing these guns as if they did not fire at the same speed it was difficult to maintain an aim. The movement of the aircraft did not cause any undue stress as bombers are a rather stable platform. We shot to hit and kill, spraying would be a waste of ammo. 800 yards was more or less considered the distance we would like to keep the fighters at. Any one inside of 800 yards is going to punish you. As to armoring the guns, the squadron had armorers but we did our own cleaning and loading ammo in the boxes, 2x2x1 - two incendiary, two armor piercing, and one tracer. Rounds were 250 in each box. I also carried spare barrels and 500 rounds of fresh ammo. We were by now members of Lt Col. Plummers Provisional Group and training in earnest to deploy to North Africa as replacement crews. We got our new B-17 and the pilot named it Julie-A, no doubt in honor of a sweet heart.

With our new B-17 we settled down at Rapid City, SD for phase training, flying low level over the Black Hills and the Bad Lands for gunnery practice, a tough chore in the summer months, it was a rough ride and air sickness was a visitor to most members of the crew. It was here we also suffered our first casualty as one of our crew drowned in a local swimming hole, a likable guy named Hill. It was a sobering affect on all of us. I also made one of the dumbest moves of my life by having Miss Spinka come out from Chicago so we could be married. We managed to carry it off and had a one room cabin with virtually no cooking facilities. Our bliss was short lived and we received orders to ship out for overseas, the new Mrs Carson was on her way back to Chicago and I was headed for North Africa. The flight to North Africa was uneventful but exciting. We buzzed Milwaukee, WI. the home of our navigator Jack Drummond and went on to Bangor, ME. then to Newfoundland. Here we waited for favorable weather and winds and departed for Preswick, Scotland. Morale was never better as we continued on to Casablanca and then to our new station. It was early August, 1943 when our crew arrived at an airfield near Tunis, North Africa as replacements for the 2nd Bomb Group. We were assigned to the 96th Squadron. As a new crew we were assigned to an experienced pilot for a period of time prior to our going on our own. I flew as tail gunner even though I was the assistant radio operator. I traded positions with the assistant engineer as the lower ball made me airsick and caused a real seige of claustrophobia. Our first mission was somewhere toward the French Coast where the Germans had Submarine Pens. As we were met by fighters which lined up on our tail, I believe to this day that I momentarily went blind from fright at the realization that this was real. The glory of those silver wings and the bravodo was quickly erased.

We lived in tents and used slit trenches and occasionally the portable showers would show up. In fact living was rather crude including the mess tent and mess kits. Occasionally we would hitch a ride into Tunis, explore the city and find some place to get a good meal. We even unearthed an ice cream store which was soon put off limits for sanitary reasons. One of the favorite recreations when off duty was to roam around to old German munitions dumps collecting live 88 mm shells, proping them against a tree or bush then detonating them with a well place rifle shot. Once we laid a trail of powder to a dump and tossed a match into it. This was nearly a disaster and we barely legged it to safety, it was the last time we engaged in such foolishness. Each tent area had a trench for safety in case of any sort of attack and often when all was secure some clown would detonate an explosion in a trench just to see bodies scramble. Many of our missions went up into Italy some almost to the Brenner Pass and others in the area of Foggia and occasion over the leaning Tower of Piza where if we had a load looking for a target of opportunity we would all needle the Pilot and the Bombardier to have a go. Fortunately they had better discipline and the good sense not to drop the load.

In the early days out of Africa we had no escorts. Later our escorts were P-38's and some P 51's. As to the units which escorted us, I have no idea. But since there were not that many fighter formations in the area, it was undoubtedly a repeat process.

On nearly all of our missions we had some form of engagement, flak or fighters, with about 90 percent of the time being fighters as well as flak. The Germans had the FW 190's and the Me 109's. Some of the 190's we flew against were reputed to be Gorings Yellow Nose outfit. One thing that was noticeable was the excellent armour plating on the 190. However, It did not make much difference whether the fighters were the ME 109 or the FW 190. Both were commendable adversaries. I have been on missions where the enemy virtually disregarded the flak and bored in prior to, during and after the run. The Germans were great pilots. I recall vividly the day our waist gunner made a kill, this 109 came through on a frontal attack and past our right wing, S/Sgt Clayton Kahler unloaded on him and the 109 was at about 10 o'clock and just aft of the tail the rudder blew apart. The pilot pulled up and rolled out of the cockpit opening his chute instantly. At this time I had a perfect bead on him and nearly pulled the triggers. I have always thanked God that I did not shoot for it would have been a cowardly act I could never have lived with.

During the invasion of Salerno Beach we flew two missions in support of the beach head and on the second mission we lost an engine on the starboard side. Since we were not to far from the target area the pilot Capt. Patrick Train elected to stay in formation and make the bomb run. All went well until we approached the North African Coast on our return home. Here we lost the second engine on the starboard side. As we approached our field we were forced to attempt a go around and at this point lost an engine on the port side, flying now was a matter of how soon do we hit the ground. Everyone moved into the radio room and assumed a crash position. Capt. Train made a wheels up landing on a hillside about fifteen miles from our base. I was dark and a fire started in one of the starboard engines, the flames smoke and dust served to make ten men move fast, quickly evacuating the plane. The engineer ran back to the plane and got an extinguisher and took care of the fire which frightening but realively minor. So ended Julie-A the ship we brought from the States, it certainly saddened all of us, scared us too.

One of our most memorable missions was the initial mission of the 15th Air Force which was to Weiner Neustadt. Our pilot that day was Philip Devine, a tough, capable, tobacco chewing man that kept a spit can in the cockpit. The mission was a high concentration joint B-24 and B-17 mission with fighter escort for a great part of the way. The mission quickly turned into a tough battle. As the escort ran low on fuel and left us, the Luftwaffe readily replaced them. Flak was very heavy also and losses were evident wherever you looked. We soon had a cannon shell hole through a prop, a supercharger disabled and numerous holes. The plane looked pretty bad. After bombs away we were into a running battle with all sorts of fighters. Directly to the rear a B-24 crew was bailing out and were floating in between us and approximately 27 of the Luftwaffe fighters. It was impossible to protect ourselves until this crew dropped to a lower level. We took a hit right behind me blowing my new gun covers all to pieces. At this point I quickly reviewed bail out procedures but we were able to escape and make a landing in Sicily with a very crippled plane. There we had to lay over for a prop and an engine change. There is no doubt this was the worst mission I ever flew as a tail gunner.

While all this is going on I am getting letters from my brother, now a tail gunner on an 8th Air Force B-17 telling me how easy it was for me flying down in the Mediteranean area. I am not sure my return letter expressed too much brotherly love at that time, however there was a vast difference in the intensity of combat, but it was not easy any place and living conditions were not good. As time progressed we moved up to near Foggia, Italy. This was in early December, 1943. It was here that I changed crews to be assigned as a first radio operator and hopefully get that Tech Sergeant stripe I so dearly coveted. Lt. Dave Rohrig's crew needed a radio operator so I left Flight Officer George Levchek's crew to fill that slot. Thus, whereas my first 23 missions were in the tail, the last 5 would be as a radio operator. As a tail gunner I had the comfort of being able to fight back. But the radio operator position was not a very defensable position from a standpoint of having a chance to do any real shooting. On the B-17F model the radio operator removed an over head hatch at the rear of the position and then brought his 50 caliber gun out on a rail to fire out of the opening. The gun was mounted on a ring and would travese vertically and horizontally but with a very limited field of fire and limited ammunition. On my final mission this gun nearly came to be my undoing.

I manned this new position with my new crew on the B17F named "What a Tomato", piloted by Lieutenant Dave Rohrig. Lt. Lloyd Haefs was the Bombadier. Tech Sergeant Dave Hiskey was the Engineer. Staff Sergeant Louis Crawford, who I think was from Jackson Mississippi, was the Lower Ball Gunner. Staff Sergeants Horner, a Native American from Oklahoma, and Walter Chesser were the Waist Gunners with Horner being on the left and Chesser on the right. In the tail was S/Sgt Corely. Some of the other names are blanks to me. This was the crew which with I flew my last missions. In my change of crews I seem to have gotten onto a crew destined to have hard luck. Or maybe the missions were just getting harder. Of the five missions I flew with them, each mission should have been a sign of impending disaster to me. Only we all too often fail to see the signs. But we nearly went down on our fourth mission on about December 14th. Six days later we finally were blown out of the sky.

We were flying lead on my fourth mission with them when fighters jumped us and wounded the tail gunner S/Sgt. Corley. As I said before, as a tail gunner you wanted to keep the enemy over 800 yards away or they were likely to really punish you. I will always believe Corley got us in trouble by waiting for them to get a bit closer in hopes of making a kill. He already had a previous kill and possibly wanted another. At any rate they hit him and then went to work in earnest, riddling the plane with cannon fire. They took the right wing tip off all the way to the airelon and also damaged the hydraulic system to say nothing about the jagged foot long holes all back through the fuselage. The plane looked like a sieve and developed a severe vibration, shudderring and vibrating like a washing machine with a bad load. We were out of formation and battling to save our butts when our fighters arrived and pulled the bacon out of the fire. One of our wingmen rejoined us and was really encouraging. He kept telling the pilot, "I don't think your going to make it Dave," words everyone wanted to hear. Then in this same period of time we were again jumped by fighters and I embarassed myself by announcing I had been hit. On one off the passes several rounds entered the radio room and into a Chute bag on the floor which had been painted with a lot of red paint, a fact I had not previously noticed. The dust and the excitement and seeing the red paint immediately convinced me that I was hit and bleeding and I excitedly announced "I have been hit!". Another look and a touch showed the blood to be very dry red paint. I quickly corrected my excited announcement.

Well, despite our wingmen's dire predictions our pilot did not listen to him and never gave the order to bail out. I was glad. Although it was touch and go, we did make it back. But the airplane, "What a Tomato", was somewhat of a sick bird and would not go with us on our next flight. Our next time out would be on a plane named "Eager Beaver". It was a B17F that had made many missions and scored some kills. Well known in the 96th, the Eager Beaver had been used before by the Squadron Commander Maj. "Buck" Caruthers. Our first and final mission we were assigned to on the Eager Beaver was a strike on the Aloysis Airdrome at Athens, Greece.

The Aloysis mission was supposed to be an easy target. It turned out to be anything but as enemy fighters took a heavy toll of our relatively small group of bombers. As we approached the target heavy and extremely accurate 88 mm flak started to rise and we took some bad licks. We were lead plane at an altitude of 21,500 feet approaching the Indicated Point, the point where the bombadier takes control of the plane. Since the bombadier needs a steady plane to aim the bomb drop, no evasive maneuvers can be made from the IP until the bombs are away. As we approached the IP, the flak grew heavier. Just as we made the IP all hell broke loose. I heard the pilot ask the bombadier how he was doing. Haefs answered "I am going to let them go any second Dave". I then reached for the front radio room door, which opened onto the bomb bay, so I could advise when the bombs were all clear of the plane. At that instant I found myself holding the handle and no door. We had taken a severe hit under the aircraft in the area of the bomb bay. I turned to the rear of the plane and grabbed for my mike cord to advise the pilot of possible damage. As I did so, I observed another 88 burst over and straight behind the vertical stabilizer, just aft of the plane. Then the rear radio room door splintered and struck me in the face.

A third flak burst had struck us at the waist door or slightly aft of it, severing the entire tail from the rest of the plane. I never saw the blast. Immediately afterwards I could see someone struggling amongst the dust and smoke in the waist as the plane rolled over on its back. We were at 21,500 feet and headed down. The engines of the plane were screaming. I found myself looking at the ground through the top of the plane, straddling the radio gun with both feet hanging out in the slipstream. There was no way I could get out. Realizing that I was trapped, I tried to cover my fear by fainting, but it didn't work. For a moment I thought "This is going to cut my legs off." Then the full realiztion hit me, "No, it is going to kill me." My only thought now was "Please God I don't want to go to Hell." Somehow I found the strength to extricate myself and went back through the waist and bailed out the end of the falling bird. I can still recall the moan of the engines, the jagged metal of the torn fuselage and the jerk I gave the ripcord on that back pack.

Now I was floating in the air. Below us bombs were going off, above us 88's were exploding. Sounds of bullets or flak whistling by convinced me I was being shot at so I spilled the chute to become a tougher target. It oscillated so violently that not only did I become sick I also worried that the chute would turn all the way over and collapse. That passed and I then began to take stock. I had no serious wounds, just some surface wounds and splinters from the door. As I neared the ground I looked down and could see that I was going to land in a field. I also spotted two infantry men with rifles and bayonets approaching. Capture was imminent. The Germans did not approach as fast as the ground. I do not recall ever having parachute training, which may explain why I was looking down as I landed. I never would have believed the landing could be that rough. It was like jumping from the second story of a building with nothing to ease the fall. The German soldiers arrived immediately and demanded that I get to my feet. After taking the time to stay on bended knee and thank God for being spared, I stood up and entered Captivity.

From that moment on December 20, 1943 I began my life as a Prisoner of War at the hands of the German Military. I was, of course, not the only man who became a Prisoner of War that day. Shortly after my capture I was reunited with a number of men from the squadron who had been shot down that day, including two of my crew mates. I soon learned what became of some of the others on my plane. The movement I saw in the waste as the plane rolled over was some of the men struggling to bail out. One, the ball gunner, Louis Crawford, explained how he luckily had the door of his turret open when the plane was hit. He was dumped into the plane as the plane rolled on her back, his chest pack fell into his lap. Like me, Crawford landed safely and was in relatively good condition. The right waist gunner S/Sgt Walt Chesser had either dumped his chute or it was damaged as he went out and was able to get it deployed. Unfortunately, he broke a leg when landing. Up front Lt. Lloyd Haefs, the bombadier, went out but struck his head on an unknown object. He was captured on landing. He sustained severe injuries and was unconcious for approximately two weeks. This was all of the crew captured by the Germans. Much later I would learn that Staff Sergeant Horner, the left waist gunner, had also gotten out of the plane and then evaded capture.

My second day of captivity saw myself, Crawford, Chesser and other survivors from another crew loaded on a Junkers JU52 Trimotor and headed from Athens to Solonika, Greece. We were held there for thirty days during which time we under went some minor interrogation. Some time in late January we were all loaded on a German troop train and embarked for Germany. This trip was eventful only that somewhere around Yugoslavia our train was briefly attacked by some partisans. We momentarily had hopes of freedom, however it was apparently more of a hit and run type attack and other than wounding some of our guards it amounted to nothing. We arrived in Frankfort am Main and were marched through the streets surrounded by German soldiers, while some very hostile citizens viewed our parade from curb side. A very frightening experience and one I never would want to have again. I can understand the hostilities and appreciated the protection our guards gave us. We marched on to our destination, the interrogation center, where we spent the best part of two weeks.
At the interrogation center we were placed in solitary confinement and taken out one by one to be interrogated. The order of battle and other information the Germans had was absolutely astounding. They had volumes of it and were seeking more. One of the items of great interest was information about a Super Bomber, which was the B-29. I am certain none of us helped them in this regard for we knew nothing. I spent about a week in solitary and then was turned loose to join the others, it seemed this was about the normal time to try and get information.

Early in February 1944 several hundred of us were loaded onto box cars for a trip by rail to our assigned Stalag, which was Stalag Luft VI in Hydekrug, East Prussia. The box cars were very crowded and it was our first taste of what would be our life for some time to come. About the third day out I became very ill and some of the POW's that had a bit of medical experience diagnosed my problem as acute appendicitis. After about a day of this some kind soul was able to convince the train Commadant that I needed medical attention and I was removed from the train and taken to a German military hospital in Thorne, Poland.

The Doctors there operated on me and placed me in a recovery ward with English POW's that had been captured at Dunkirk. The operation appeared to be a success and I was expected to recover in about six days. However, the suture used was not sterile. A few days after my surgery infection set in and the Doctor reopened my stomach without benefit of any pain killer and inserted a drain. The pain was almost more than I could bear. In about two weeks I was taken to Stalag XXA near Thorne and joined the United Kingdom troops being held there, including more British prisoners from Dunkirk. I was treated royaly by these men as I was a Staff Sergeant and a Yank. Living at XXA was not bad at all, the camp was well organized and food was not a scarcity at this time. I do not recall the exact time but it must have been May or June of 1944 when orders came through to send me to Hydekrug. This was a solo train trip with a guard that delighted in showing the LUFTGANGSTER off at every railroad stop, not a pleasent journey as I was the prime exhibit for numerous Hitler Youth groups that seemed to convene at each railroad station.

Arriving a Hydekrug, I was greeted by many old friends as well as Chesser and Crawford from my crew. I was also quickly briefed on the routine of the conduct at this particular camp. Life was not nearly as nice as it had been a XXA with the British soldiers. I also quickly had news that my twin brother was back in the 8th Airforce doing a second tour on B-17's. Everyone that saw me wanted to know, "Wing Ding, when did they get you?" I would have to quickly explain that they had me mixed up with my twin brother, Eugene Carson. It was here also that I learned we had all been reported killed as no one was seen getting out of the plane when it broke in half.

In mid July 1944 it became necessary to evacuate Stalag Luft VI due to the Russian advance. About 2500 of us were jammed into the holds of two dilapidated coastal coal tramp steamers and spent five days on the Baltic enroute to the German port of Swinemunde. Looking into the hold reminded me of fishworms in a can. Men that were ill or suffering from wounds were stacked in there with no thought of comfort or survival. Rather than go into that, I stopped on the ladder half way down into the hold and took a seat on the prop shaft there. I sat there clinging to the ladder for the entire trip. This trip was a horror of horrors. No water to speak of, no means of relieving the body. There were no sanitary facilities at all. The Germans allowed only one man at a time to go topside to relieve himself, one man of the roughly 1,250 in the hold. I think I made one trip up but it is one of the periods that is no longer vivid in my mind. One of our group went topside and jumped overboard, he was immediately machined gunned.

On debarking we loaded on box cars. Our shoes and our home made knapp sacks were taken from us and placed in the other end of the car. We were then handcuffed in pairs. Many of the group was ill or wounded. In my case my appendectomy was still draining. We spent an uncomfortable night in the box cars as the train traveled to our unknown destination. In the morning we reached a railroad station and stopped. We were permitted to retrieve our shoes and belongings but remained in cuffs as we were directed to fall out alongside the tracks. We were greeted as we came out by young German Marines. They had dogs and fixed bayonets and were being whipped into a frenzy by a German Captain. The march to the new camp began and soon turned into a run with the Captian's raging shouts urging our guards on. As we double-timed between the cordon of guards, they liberally used blows to keep us moving. To lag behind meant jabs with a bayonet or a blow from a rifle butt, to fall meant dog bites as well. It was not a pretty scene.

I was handcuffed to a New Yorker, a Jewish man named Adler, and he was of course concerned. In order to protect ourselves I told him to get rid of his pack as I did mine and we moved into the center of the column as it would give us some protection. There we tried to avoid any damaging blows, stabs or dog bites. This strategy worked and saved us from any major damage as the column ran a distance of one or two miles to Stalag Luft IV, our new camp. Once in the new camp we were released and settled into some hastily constructed tents. All sorts of rumors prevailed about our future and all we had for any defense was a table knife. I spent a lot of time honing an edge on my knife and had no idea of ever giving my life up readily. However things settled down and Stalag Luft IV was finally completed. Although the beginning at Luft IV was rough it slowly got around to being reasonable survival. Food in camp was bad for the most part, scarce and poor. We supplemented it with our Red Cross food when we got it. Personal hygiene was never good and cold weather as winter approached was always a problem. Mail caught up with men and even an occasional parcel from home, but none for me.

As the fortunes of war turned against the Germans we were forced to evacuate our camp again as we had Stalag Luft VI. Only this time for the majority there was no mode of transportation other than "Shanks Mare", on foot. On February 6, 1945 we set out on foot into one of the toughest winters Europe had experienced in a long time. I had obtained two GI blankets and sewed them into a sleeping bag with shoe strings. I also had a GCI overcoat and a pair of new shoes. I had gotten my hands on Jello packs and any other small food item available in preparation of a tough trip. I buddied up with a man now deceased, a Leo J. Landy from New Jersey. He was a tough Irishman and a good choice. We later became separated and I formed up with another man, a Jack Kettler if memory serves me correctly. The days were long and ardorous with snow storms, slush and snow on the roads. Hunger, wet feet and frost bite joined us in this mindless trek to nowhere. Constant companions were the body lice and dysentary. When fortunate we would find a barn to sleep in but there were several occasions where no shelter was avaiable. It is difficult to impart what my personal thoughts were but I kept going by thinking of getting home to my young wife, having a home and raising a family. Had I known what the furure held in that regard I am uncertain to how I would have handled it.

I never took my shoes off at night. I basically wore them for 57 days then switched to the new pair I had carried and traded the old shoes for a loaf of bread. As we marched Spring approached and life was a bit better, except for the lice and constant hunger. We kept it going one step at a time, much of it has been erased or pushed to the back of my mind, this I found the best way to ease the pain of the ordeal and take care of life as new days were ahead of me. To this day hunger or the thought of it is difficult to deal with. We were still marching when Liberation came in late April 1945 at Bitterfeld, Germany on the Moldau River by the 104th Timber Wolves, an American Infantry Division. The date was either April 27 or 28 but I do not honestly remember. As we marched through the front lines at Bitterfeld a pair of P51 fighters flew over us, canopies open and wings wagging. I am sure I was not the only man that choked back sobs of joy, our incredible journey was coming to a happy ending. German soldiers were also in the line of marchers coming in to surrender rather than to stay and face the on coming Russians. I noticed that the men in the trenches were all very young or maybe they looked that way.

As to the march we had just completed, it had lasted 86 days and covered approximately 600 miles. Although it ended in Freedom for myself and the other survivors, many others were not so lucky. Over the course of the forced march, the lives of about 1500 POW's were lost to disease or starvation or at the hands of German guards while attempting to escape. After we crossed into friendly lines, there was no close control of us. Another guy and I bummed a jeep ride to Halle with a Sergeant . We holed up a couple of days at the German Air Field. They several out of commissioned aircraft and we convinced the local Military Government to give us some rations and a BMW motorcycle for a bit of pleasure. We laid around and a C-47 came in a day later. We immediately talked to the pilot, a Colonel, and convinced him of who we were and he loaded us up for a return to Rhemes, France where we were deloused and given clean clothing as well as food. The next journey was to Camp Lucky Strike where all POW's were shuttled.

John W. Carson

Personal Photographs


The Eager Beaver the B-17 in which John went down.


The Eager Beaver here in 1943

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