Saturday, January 19, 2008

Grandson of a Ball Turret Gunner Shares Some of His Grandfather's Diary

Hello Readers of Rob's blog honoring World War Two Airmen. My name is Les Poitras and my grandfather was a ball-turret gunner with the 100th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force in WWII. Rob has graciously allowed me to share information occasionally on his blog, which I deeply appreciate.

I discovered Rob's book: "Untold Valor" on Amazon about a year ago, not long after my grandfather passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer's. I have long been proud of my grandfather's service and once I discovered that Rob's book had a chapter dedicated to ball-turret gunners, I immediately purchased his book to learn more about what my grandfather's experience must have been like. I believe that ball-turret gunners, as well as all Air Men of WWII are amongst the bravest of the brave in history, not only for having been required to fight for their country, but having to do so in the air from largely experimental aircraft at high altitudes. A large number of people, myself included, aren't even crazy about flying to begin with. As if the thought of flying itself isn't challenging enough for many of us, it can seem almost impossible to comprehend fighting a shooting war in aircraft at such high altitudes. That is what these incredibly brave men (even though they were mere boys at the time) were called on to do. They did it bravely and triumphantly and, in my opinion, played a massive role in saving the free world from fascism. They are underappreciated. Our debt to these men is unpayable, but they will all tell you: "we were just doing our job". I'm happy that many of them are still around and have been able to offer my mere "thank you" in person, as if that were ever enough.

Because of my admiration for his history, which he was aware of, my grandfather left with me a number of his treasures, including his A-2 Jacket (which you might have seen in one of Rob's earlier postings) his medals and diary. I am deeply proud of these items and I thought I would start my first blog entry by sharing a few bits from his diary.

My grandfather arrived in Prestwick, Scotland just two days after D-Day on June 8, 1944 at the ripe old age of 23. He flew 33 missions, the first one on June 29th, 1944 and the last on Nov 2nd, 1944. As apparently is the case with many ball-turret gunners, the writing in his diary was terse. He typically jotted down only the date, the target, bomb load and intensity/accuracy of flak. In several entries, however, he would add something additional. Here is the front cover of my grandfather's WWII diary:

You might notice on the bottom right of the cover the name: "G. Winkler". George Winkler was the waist gunner on the same crew as my grandfather and must have, at some point, torn out the pages of his diary and given the book to my grandfather to write in, as evidenced by the inside cover:

It turns out that George Winkler later became Major George Winkler USAF Ret. and is now buried at Arlington National Cemetery next to his wife, Martha. (If anyone has any information about or photos of George Winkler, please contact me through Rob).

The currency in the photo above was something my grandfather saved called a "short snorter", which was various currency taped together and signed by various crew. More on that in a future blog entry.

The next photo of the first page is the crew listing of the crew my grandfather belonged to. Needless to say, these guys depended on each other more than any of us who weren't there will ever know.

The photo on the left was taken of my grandfather, shortly after he received his Air Medal on July 29th, 1944. The same photo, his mission list (taken from his diary) and some photos of his other crew members can be found on the 100th bomb group website:

One of the crew, Bill Bates, is 86 years young, alive and well and I just had a lengthy phone conversation with him tonight. He is the last surviving member of the Dale L. Darby crew.

Finally, I decided to print the text here of the newspaper article written By Ernie Pyle, that my grandfather attached to his 9th mission over St. Lo. The article is very poignant in that it tells the perspective of a witness of the heavy bombers from the ground, something only a select few in history have experienced and the vast majority will never know. My grandfather wrote: "Mission IX" at the top of the article and taped it to that mission entry, so he must have either participated in that mission or one like it. Here is the photo of that mission entry with article attached:

Here is the text of the article:

Straight From the Front By Ernie Pyle

Normandy – Our front lines were marked by long stripes of colored cloth laid on the ground, and with colored smoke to guide our airmen during the mass bombing that preceded our breakout from the German ring that held us to the Normandy beachhead. The dive-bombers hit just right. We stood in the barnyard of a French farm and watched them barrel nearly straight down out of the sky. They were bombing about half a mile ahead of where we stood. They came in groups, diving from every direction perfectly timed, one right after another. Everywhere you looked separate groups of planes were on the way down or on the way back up slanting over for fire or circling, circling, circling over our heads waiting for their turn. The air was full of sharp and distinct sounds of cracking bombs and heavy rips of the planes’ machine guns and splitting screams of diving wings. And then a new sound gradually droned into our ears. The sound was deep and all encompassing with no notes in it – just a gigantic faraway surge of doom. It was the heavies. They came from directly behind us and first they were the merest dots in the sky. You could see clots of them against the far heavens, too tiny to count individually. They came on with terrible slowness. They came in flights of 12 – three flights to a group. And in the groups stretched out across the sky they came in “families” of about 70 planes each.

Constant Stream

Maybe these gigantic waves were two miles apart, maybe they were ten miles. I don’t know, but I do know they came in constant procession and I thought it would never end. What the Germans must have thought is beyond comprehension. Their march across the sky was slow and steady. I’ve never known a storm or a machine or any resolve of man that had about it the aura of such ghastly relentlessness. You have the feeling that even had God appeared beseechingly before them in the sky with palms outwards to persuade them back they would not have had within the the power to turn from their irresistible course. I stood with a little group of men ranging from the colonels to privates back of some farmhouse. Slit trenches were all around the edges of the farmyard and a dugout with a tin roof was near by, but we were so fascinated by the spectacle overhead that it never occurred to us that we might need foxholes. The first huge flight passed directly over our farmyard and the others followed. We spread our feet and leaned far back trying to look straight up until our steel helmets fell off. We’d cup our fingers around our eyes like field glasses for a clearer view and then the bombs came. They began ahead of us as a crackle of popcorn and almost instantly swelled into a monstrous fury of noise that seemed surely to destroy all the world ahead of us. From then on for an hour and a half that had in it the agonies of centuries the bombs came down. A wall of smoke and dust erected by them grew high in the sky. It filtered along the ground back through our own orchards, it sifted around us and into our noses. The bright day grew slowly dark from it. By now everything was an indescribably cauldron of sounds. Individual noises did not exist. The thundering of motors in the sky and the roar of the bombs ahead filled all the space for noise on earth. Our own heavy artillery was crashing all around us, yet we could hardly hear it.

Ack-Ack Dots Sky

The Germans began to shoot heavy, high ack-ack. Great black puffs of it by the score speckled the sky until it was hard to distinguish the smoke puffs from the planes. And then someone shouted that one of the planes was smoking. Yes we could all see it. A long faint line of black smoke stretched straight for a mile behind one of them and as we watched there was a gigantic sweep of flame over the plane from nose to tail. It disappeared in flame and it slanted slowly down and banked around the sky in great wide curves, this way and that way, as rhythmically and gracefully as in a slow-motion waltz. Then suddenly it seemed to change its mind and it swept upward steeper and steeper, and ever slower until finally it seemed poised motionless on its own black pillar of smoke. And then just as slowly it turned over and dived for the earth – a folded spearheand on the straight black shaft of its own creation – and it disappeared behind the treetops. But before it was done there were more cries of “There’s another one smoking, and there’s a third one now!” Chutes came out of some of the planes, out of some came no chutes at all. One of white silk, caught on the tail of a plane. The men with binoculars could see him fighting to get loose until flames swept over him and then a tiny black dot fell through space all alone. And all that time the great flat ceiling of the sky was roofed by all the others that didn’t go down, plowing their way forward as if there were no turmoil in the world. Nothing deviated them by the slightest. They stalked on slowly and with the dreadful pall of sound as though they were seeing only something at a great distance and nothing existed in between.

(now back to my post)

Finally, here's a picture of my grandfather's POW photos, which most American and German Air Men would probably get a chuckle out of as all American air men in these photos seemed to be wearing the same (or similar) jacket and tie (or so I've heard):

Thank you for reading. Thanks for letting me post, Rob! As you can tell, I'm very proud of my grandfather for his bravery!

--Les Poitras


r morris said...

Fantastic post, Les. I hope you will continue to post on the page. Your story is a real tribute to this great man.

r morris said...

Les, another friend of mine, by the name of George LeDelle, was an infantryman on the ground during this operation and wrote of this bombardment as one of the most terrifying of the war. If I remember correctly, the bombers began to back-creep on the target and began to bomb the US positions.
I might have to add his comments on this battle, as he gave me his memoirs a few years back.

Sadly, George passed away last year. What a great guy he was.

Richard Havers said...

Les, what a brilliant post. Thanks for sharing it with us all. Cheers from Scotland

Les said...

Thanks for your responses guys. It must have been a terrifying but awesome experience to watch the bombers from the ground. I'm sure glad my grandfather saved that article by Ernie Pyle, which I thought was a great description, from the allied forces perspective, of what it must have been like.

r morris said...

Ernie Pyle was one of the greatest war correspondents ever. He mixed with private and general alike, wasn't afraid to get down in the trenches, and eventually, this led to his own death in the war.
Rest in peace, Ernie.

Les said...

Rob, I seem to remember reading that about U.S. positions accidentally being bombed on the ground. I'd love to reade George's Comments. God Bless Him. -Les