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I began to test fire my guns...

 

to see if it would work. I fired a few rounds and it jammed. I looked out and saw an ME109 coming in a sideward sweeping motion about 900 yards away. I was very sick, my gun was jammed and an enemy fighter was attacking. I had to do something fast since the other guns on our ship were engaged with other enemy fighters and my gun was the only one that could be trained on the fighter. I was very scared and gagging and I knew that it would be fatal to pick up the cover of my gun and attempt to fix it. Jerry can easily see with open waist windows and he knows when something is wrong. Then I did the only thing there was to do and it later proved successful. I waved my gun up and down and back and forth as if I was tracking him. Other guns on our ship were firing at the time and I guess he thought I was firing at him because he turned off his main course enough to miss us but not before I had seen the red flare and black rings of smoke from his 20 mm’s. [cannon].

From Aerial Combat in the ETO. My Lucky Thirty by S/Sgt. Earl G. Williamson


As with any of the gunners aboard a B-17, the waist gunners’ primary duty was to look for and defend against enemy fighters. There were quite a few things that impaired his ability to do so, however. In all the models of the B-17 except the “G”, both waist gunners were directly opposite one another. This made maneuvering inside the tight confined of the aircraft difficult. Many times the gunners would bump into one another causing poor aim. This also led to another major problem at high altitude, lack of oxygen. Often the gunners would accidentally unplug one another from the plane's oxygen system. If this went un-noticed during combat, the affected gunner would first get dizzy then pass out. If oxygen was not restored quickly, he would turn black and die from anoxia, a lack of oxygen.

Left waist gun on B-17G Sentimental Journey

The worst problem about the waist position was not fear of loosing oxygen, rather it was frostbite. Until the “G” model, waist windows on the B-17 were open to a 200 mph, -50 below zero, slipstream of air. Exposure to this extremely cold air for even a few seconds could leave one with a mild frostbite. To battle this enemy, waist gunners wore layers of heavy clothing and an electrically heated suit. However this equipment had to be put on before reaching the high altitude and, while the aircraft was climbing, the waist gunners had to be careful not to sweat because the sweat would freeze once the higher altitudes were reached making their task even more miserable. This cold would also cause ice to form in the oxygen masks of the gunners. This had to be cleared frequently as it would block oxygen flow if went unchecked.

Two other problems faced waist gunners. The first of these two was attempting to actually hit a German aircraft. It did not take the Germans long to figure out that the best way to attack a Fortress was from dead ahead. If he chose even to come it from 11:00 or 1:00 O’clock, positions just to the left and right of directly in front, the fighter would come under attack by more guns than if he were to attack head on. As such, the waist gunners soon found themselves only able to get off short bursts as the enemy aircraft zoomed past the formation. Another thing that made it difficult to hit a German aircraft was the fact that the gunners had to manhandle the large .50 cal. machine guns in a 200 mph. slipstream. Waist gunners had to fight the guns themselves to try and aim at fighters coming in from the front half of the formation. This problem was later solved by adding a power assisted mount to the waist gunner positions in the B-17G. There was one other factor that lead to the difficulty of downing an enemy plane. The sights of the .50 cal. machine guns in the waist were aimed with a ball and ring sight. This meant that if the gunner was not looking through the sight at exactly the proper angle, his aim would be off. Only the top turret gunner and ball gunner had computing sights that allowed the gunner’s aim to be correct regardless of the gunners position in regards to his sight. Later, in the “G” model, the waist gunners along with the bombardier and tail gunner would also have these computing sights at their positions.

Looking through the "ball-in-ring" gun sight on a B-17G Waist gun. Here you can also see the powered pivot just below and to the left of the gun sight.

The last problem that faced not just waist gunners, but all crewmembers on the B-17, was stress. Even if not a single enemy aircraft actually fired upon the plane, the gunners were always anticipating the next attack. Sometimes it was more stressful to wait to be attacked than actually being under attack. The suspense was almost harder to endure than the heat of battle.

On top of his duties as gunner, the waist gunners also had other jobs. They would call out fighter positions so that other gunners knew where to expect the next attack and so that the navigator could log the number of enemy aircraft that attacked the formation in his log. The waist gunners would also call out any enemy fighters that were believed to be damaged or destroyed, B-17s that went down and the number of chutes seen to come from these falling bombers. This was done for the benefit of the navigator and radio operator so that they could report these losses at the debriefing. If a crewmember was injured in the aft section of the plane, it was either a waist gunner or the radio operator who applied first aid. This was due to three prime factors. One, it was difficult for anyone in the nose of the aircraft to make his way through the bomb bay to get to the rear of the aircraft. Second, the radio room gun was the least effective weapon to down enemy fighters. Lastly, if one of the waist gunners left his position, the other waist gunner had to cover both waist guns.

The waist gunners also reported damage to the pilot and would assist the flight engineer in making repairs to the aircraft while in flight. Usually if this happened, it was because if the problem was not fixed, the aircraft would prove extreamly difficult, if not impossible, to fly.

Waist gunners were enlisted men usually with a rank of Sergeant or higher.

 

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