top turret gunner

In World War II, my dad, Allen Spencer was the Flight Engineer and top turret gunner on a B-17. The B-17 was an amazing plane. Strategic bombing missions actually began at the tail end of World War I, And the big world powers knew that they needed to develop bomber fleets that could handle this new kind of bombing mission, because if they did not, they would be vulnerable to the evil nations who did develop such bombers. During the month of August 1934, in anticipation of rising tensions in the Pacific, the US Army Air Corps proposed a new multi-engine bomber that would replace the outdated Martin B-10. They put out the challenge and Boeing decided to get into the competition. The plan for this bomber was to provide reinforcement to bases in Hawaii, Alaska, and Panama.

Enter the B-17 Flying Fortress. Boeing competed against both Martin and Douglas for the contract to build 200 units of such a bomber, but failed to deliver, as the first B-17 Flying Fortress crashed. Nevertheless, the Air Corps loved the design so much that they ordered 13 units for further evaluation and analysis. After a string of tests, it was introduced in 1938. The B-17 was now the prime bomber for all kinds of bombing raids. The prototype B-17 Bomber was built at the company’s own expense and was a fusion of the features of Boeing XB-15 and Boeing 247 Transport Aircraft. Initially, it could carry a payload of 4850 pounds along with 5x .30-inch machine guns. The 4x Hornet Radial Engines could produce 750 HP at 2100 meters. It was a tremendous machine. A reporter from the Seattle Times would nickname it The Flying Fortress…a name that stuck, even if he didn’t know how very accurate he was.

As World War II heated up, the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into it, and the B-17 Flying Fortress became a staple, used in every single World War II combat zone and by the time production ended in 1945. Boeing along with Douglas and Vega had built 12,731 bombers. When the US 8th Airforce arrived in England in 1942, their sole mission was to destroy Germany’s ability to wage war. They would use any means necessary, from carpet bombing to precision bombing. On August 17th, 1942, eighteen B-17s launched a bombing raid over Nazi-held territory in Europe, hitting railway networks and strategic points. The Luftwaffe was unprepared and didn’t know how to best attack the new planes, but it didn’t take long to improve their tactics. The B-17s suffered losses too. On September 6th, 1943, 400 bombers were sent out to attack a ball-bearing plant, 45 didn’t return. October 4th, 60 out of 291 B-17s sent to the same location were lost. January 11th, 1944, 600 B-17s were sent to various industries. Bad weather kept all but 238 of them on base. Still, 60 were lost. These losses were quite costly when you consider that a single B-17 Flying Fortress would cost $238,329 in 1945. The Luftwaffe quickly perfected their attacks on the B-17 Flying Fortress. Head on proved more fruitful and therefore the Americans developed the term “Bandits at 12 O’clock High” for oncoming Luftwaffe fighters.

Various models of the B-17 Flying Fortress were produced, but the B-17G was the one that was most liked. Almost 9000 B-17Gs were produced, the most of any of the models, because of their superior specs. A B-17G weighed 65,000 pounds and could cruise at a speed of 150 miles per hour, peaking at 287 miles per hour. It could attain a service ceiling of 35,600 feet, and carry a 9600 pounds payload. The four Wright R-1820 Cyclone engines could produce 1200 horse power each! It was one rugged machine. One particular B-17 Bomber survived a bombing mission over Cologne, Germany, and flew back to safety with 180 flak holes and only 2 out of 4 engines in operation. The veteran never forgot, and 75 years later wrote a thank you letter to Boeing. He was thankful to be alive. My dad always felt that way too. Any amount of damage that happens to a plane can mean the difference between crashing and making it home. The B-17 was truly a flying fortress, and on of the best planes to be in. The chances of coming home were better than most.

A while back, my sister, Cheryl Masterson and I were talking about our Dad, Allen Spencer’s military training. Like much of Dad’s military service, big discussions about his training days were non-existent. So, I decided to trace his military career, to the best ability I could, and basically take a walk in his footsteps. We knew that he shipped out of Fort Snelling, Minnesota, and then spent time in Salt Lake City, Utah and in Kearney, Nebraska. We weren’t sure exactly where his basic training took place or his training for the B-17. That conversation got my curiosity going, and I decided that I needed to check it out. It’s not always easy to research a persons path through every aspect of their lives, but with the knowledge that he initially started out at Fort Snelling, I hoped to trace the rest of his journey through World War II. Fort Snelling, it turns out was a Reception Center. The men and women started there, received their vaccinations, medical exams, and their gear. They were classified and assigned to a unit. Then they were shipped out for their basic training.

Most of the men in dad’s original unit would go on to become part of the transport or supply teams, but because my dad had a job building airplanes for Douglas Aircraft Company prior to enlisting in the Army Air Force, he was moved to a unit that would spend the war in a B-17G flying Fortress Bomber. For my dad, it was an epic job. He often wrote home to his family about just how amazing the B-17 Bomber was, and how proud he was to be serving on one. Part of dad’s job was to be the flight engineer, another position that stemmed from his vast knowledge of airplanes. The flight engineer knew the all equipment on the B-17 better than the pilot and any other crew member from the engines to the radio equipment to the armament to the engines to the electrical system and to anything else. Many flight engineers served as maintenance crew chiefs before moving to the position of a B-17 flight engineer. The flight engineer was also the top turret gunner. Dad’s training for his work took him to Miami Beach, Florida, then to Gulfport, Mississippi, and Dyersburg, Tennessee.

In Gulfport, Mississippi, dad was trained as a flight airplane mechanic, and it was here that he volunteered to become an aerial gunner as well. He received his wings in November 1943, following gunnery training in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dyersburg Army Air Force Base was the largest combat aircrew training school built during the early war years. It was the only inland B-17 Flying Fortress training base east of the Mississippi River. The base was located on 2,541 acres, not including the practice range. Approximately 7,700 crew men received their last phase training at DAAB. From Dyersburg AAB, dad was sent to Kearney, Nebraska. There he and his crew were assigned a brand new B-17G bomber. Shortly thereafter they flew to New York to be dispatched to their base in the European Theater…Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England. Before arriving there, he wasn’t even sure where he was going, because these things were kept top secret, and were revealed on a need-to-know basis. Based out of Great Ashfield, dad flew 36 missions, one more that the required 35, having volunteered to fill in for a sick crewmember on the final flight. In one of his letters, he told his family not to worry about him, because as he said, “I’m not afraid of what the near future might bring. I’m going into combat fully confident of my plane, crew, and myself. And I know that with the help of God, I’ll come home again in just as good a condition as I am right now.” And so he did. Today would have been my dad’s 95th birthday. Happy birthday in Heaven Dad. We love and miss you very much and we are so proud of you.

Dad in uniformIn 1990, when the remake of the movie, Memphis Belle came out, I watched it with intrigue, knowing that my Dad, Allen Spencer had been a top turret gunner and flight engineer on a B-17G Bomber in the 8th Air Force stationed in Great Ashfield, Suffolk, England. The Memphis Belle, a Boeing-built B-17F-10-BO, USAAC Serial No. 41-24485, was added to the USAAF inventory on July 15, 1942, and delivered in September 1942 to the 91st Bombardment Group at Dow Field, Bangor, Maine. She deployed to Prestwick, Scotland, on September 30, 1942, moving to a temporary base at RAF Kimbolton on October 1, 1942, and then finally to her permanent base at Bassingbourn, England, on October 14, 1942. Each side of the fuselage bore the unit identification markings of the 324th Bomb Squadron (Heavy). My dad was a part of the 385th Bomb Squadron (Heavy). Dad didn’t arrive in England until early April of 1944. His letter from April 14, 1944 tells his family that he had arrived and couldn’t tell them where he was for security reasons, except to say that he was somewhere in England.

At the time I watched the remake of the original 1943 documentary film put out by the War Department, I assumed that while the movie said it was based on a true story, there was probably a lot of Hollywood hype to Memphis Bellethe movie. So, when I read my dad’s letter to his mother, my grandmother, Anna Schumacher Spencer, I was surprised that my dad mentioned it and said she should go see it. From my experience with the movie, I don’t think it would be a film I’d want to watch while my child was still on active duty and fighting from one of those planes. Both the original version and the remake were real enough to either show or tell of events involving the B-17 Bombers in combat situations, and the inevitable shooting down of the planes by the enemy.

Of course, the point was to let people know that The Memphis Belle, a B-17 Bomber had become the first plane to accomplish 25 missions without being shot down. It was designed to be a celebration of that accomplishment. And so it was, but it also proved the stark reality that many other B-17 Bombers had been shot down, and in all reality would continue to be shot down. While the accomplishment of The Memphis Belle is nothing to take lightly, I think it would still be hard to think about all those men lost or imprisoned during that war…especially if I was the mother of an airman. In some ways, it surprised me that my dad would even ask his mom to so see the movie. He was always so protective of her. I suppose that in time, you get used to the events of war, especially when you are in the thick of it day after day, and maybe he thought it would give her hope too.
B-17 Going Down 2
Nevertheless, it seemed rather strange to me that Dad had talked of this movie with his mother. I know that the Memphis Belle was a star, just because they had made it through without being shot down. They were the first, and to those at home trying to support the war effort, that was a moral booster. That made it important to do the movie and to have the Memphis Belle and her crew do tours back in the states. People needed to see the success of the air war. They needed hope that their loved ones would return. I suppose that was what my dad was thinking when he told his mother that she should go see the movie. I don’t know for sure if she did or didn’t, but in the end my dad came home, and that is all that mattered to my grandmother and to me.

The B-17’s and B-25’s are back in town again this week, and of course, they always put me in mind of my dad. I can’t see one in the newspaper, or flying over without thinking of him. Dad was a Top Turret Gunner and Flight Engineer on a B-17 G Bomber during World War II. In his letters to his mom, he was so excited to be on this brand new plane that had never been used by any other crew. He was impressed with the ability of this plane, and felt very safe and secure when flying around in it. As a young man in the war, he was excited, and yet cautious, of course, because he was flying into combat zones, after all.

I can just imagine how he felt when he was flying in the B-17G Bomber, because he grew up working on things around the farm, and loving the train rides he got to take, and then working on planes at Douglas Aircraft Company, so actually flying around in something he knew so much about, had to be exciting. And then to have it be brand new…well, not many people had that opportunity in those days. My guess is that it was a good thing that they were already in the air, because otherwise he would have been floating around in the clouds without his crew. The feeling behind his letters gave a little view of just how excited he really was.

When the B-17G Bombers and the B-25’s came into town in August of 2007, Dad and I went out to go through them. Dad wasn’t feeling very well by that time, as he passed away in December of that same year, and somehow in my excitement in taking him out to see his beloved planes, I missed that little fact…at lease until I looked at some of the pictures I took, which showed a tired version of my dad that shocked me some. Nevertheless, we went, and Dad really did have a wonderful time. We took our time, and he told me so much about the time he spent in those planes. You could see just how he felt about them, because it was written on his face, and it was very obvious in his voice. He still loved those planes. They were a part of him, and he was a part of them. You can’t separate such a life changing event from the person who lived it. It changes them, and shapes them into the person they become.

My dad was a deeply caring, loving person, who always put the feelings and needs of others ahead of his own needs. He worried about his mom worrying about him, so he tried to reassure her at every turn. He was a man who loved God and brought his children up in the Lord, and a man who deeply loved his wife, our mother. He was a man who showed his love to those he loved, and taught them to love others and especially one another. He hated anger and fights, and taught us to forgive. Dads just don’t come better. The B-17G Bombers and the B-25’s will head out of town soon, and while I haven’t gone out to see them since my dad went home, the memories will last a lifetime.

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