There are many heroes is a war, and World War II is no exception. Because my dad, Allen Spencer served on a B-17, and was a Flight engineer and Top Turret Gunner, I have always had a special spot in my heart for the Flying Fortress. After all it is the plane that safely brought my dad back from the war so he could be my dad. Most people, who know anything about the B-17, know that the most dangerous station on the B-17 is the Ball Turret. In fact, the average life span of a ball turret gunner in battle is 12 seconds…seriously!! The bad thing for the ball turret gunner is that because it is a small space, the job goes to the smallest man in the group, and if there isn’t anyone who is 5’7″ or shorter, they have to find one. That is basically how Frank Perez ended up in that spot. It was very unexpected, because he trained in Biloxi, Mississippi at the B-24 training base, so it was expected that he would be assigned to a B-24.
Frank expected to be assigned to a B-24 crew but due to the “needs of the service,” Frank was assigned to the Lieutenant John J Connolly crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-17 crew already had a flight engineer, so Frank was selected for the ball turret gunner position. Knowing what I know about the ball turret gunner and knowing that anyone who knew about the B-17 also knew about the life span of a ball turret gunner, I’m quite sure that Perez instantly felt just a little bit sick to his stomach…a feeling that would be justified later. Perez had to fly for a time with a different crew while his crew finished some training. Then, he contracted pneumonia, and he was down for a month.
Finally, on July 28, 1944, Perez started flying with his crew again. Their target was the synthetic oil and ammonia plant at Merseburg, Germany. As we know, all combat missions were dangerous, but for Perez, this particular mission to Ludwigshaven, Germany, would really test his faith. Ludwigshaven was the site of large marshalling (railway) yards and a railroad depot. When the bombing run was completed, the B-17s headed back to their base in England. One of the most dangerous parts of a bombing run is maneuvering through the anti-aircraft guns with their flak. Frank’s B-17 was hit by flak and began tumbling and rolling out of control as it quickly lost altitude from about 30 thousand feet. The plane was still over Germany, and Perez could not get out of the ball turret due to the centrifugal force created as the plane fell from the sky. All he could do is watch in horror as the ground got closer and closer. He called the pilot on the intercom. No answer. Then he called “anyone.” No answer. He had to assume that he was the only survivor left…and that would not be for long.
Perez was sure that his life was over, so he started to pray. He prayed, “Well, God, if this is the way it has to be, let it be.” It was a noble prayer, but as he said, “I was under tension and wanted to live. But when I said that, at that instant, everything was just as peaceful as it can get. [I] had my whole life flash before me…from the time I was a little kid to that moment. I mean just like a movie but going like that [he snaps his fingers]. It’s hard to explain…like if you get killed, so what…you just don’t care.” It was his way of resigning himself to his fate and, then…the B-17 pulled up.
The flak might have knocked them out, and some were likely injured, but they were alive. The plane flew in at treetop level with only two of the four engines working. The crew, in an effort to lighten the load, began throwing unnecessary equipment and supplies out of the plane. Perez was still in the ball turret, as he had been for the entire mission. Finally, he saw the White Cliffs of Dover on the English coastline and knew that they were going to make it. The B-17 was able to land at a B-24 base in England, where it was repaired.
After completing his required combat missions, Perez was discharged and sailed home to the United States. He was back in the US before December 16, 1944. Surviving the ball turret was the saving grace for Perez, who went on to live a long and fruitful life. He died January 16, 2015, two days after his 91st birthday.