The Aces That History Forgot

April 1, 1991

Among the first American flyers to shoot down five planes was an enlisted aerial gunner, but don’t look for his name on the list of Air Force aces.

Early in World War I, while the US remained neutral, Frederick Libby of Colorado joined Canada’s army and went to France. The Royal Flying Corps called for observer- gunners, and he volunteered. On his first combat patrol, Private Libby shot down one German warplane. Soon he shot down nine more. He became a pilot, earned a commission, and shot down fourteen more planes before the Armistice in November 1918. Among Americans, Libby’s record of twenty-four victories trailed only Eddie Rickenbacker’s, but they didn’t count. Libby didn’t fly with the US Air Service.

In general, gunners have been overlooked in assessments of aerial kills. In the last six months of World War I, more than seventy US flyers became aces. Many more were credited with scoring at least one victory. Gunners shared in some of these kills, but the public focused on pilots who did battle in single-seaters.

The public paid even less attention to observer-gunners, who were drawn from enlisted ranks when the US Air Service ran short of officer-observers. Several scored aerial victories. For example, Sgt. Albert Ocock and Sgt. Philip Smith of the 8th Observation Squadron each claimed a victory in the St-Mihiel offensive.

Late in the war, several noncommissioned officers flew with bomber squadrons. S1C Fred Graveline logged fourteen missions with the 20th Bombardment Squadron and downed at least two planes. Cpl. Raymond Alexander of the 20th and S1C J. S. Trimble of the 96th Bombardment Squadron each claimed one.

In the Argonne offensive, American flyers downed 357 German warplanes. Of this total, fifty-five were shot down by the gunners on US observation planes and thirty-nine by those on US bombers. Barely a month after Sergeant Graveline made his first flight, the war was over.

The Air Service’s assessment of lessons learned in the Great War was sobering. One problem identified was the uncertain reliability of air weapons. Guns jammed, and fragile gunsights were knocked out of alignment. Explosive shells went off in gun barrels, and the tracers that were supposed to help gunners get their aim followed erratic trajectories. To hit anything, gunners had to be close enough to their targets to avoid wide dispersal of their rounds. About ninety percent of the planes shot down were hit at ranges of ten feet to 100 yards.

As early as 1912, Capt. Charles DeForest Chandler had experimented with a new low-recoil machine gun designed by Col. Isaac N. Lewis. Firing from a Wright B machine, he had scored some hits on a ground target. When excited reporters tried to pursue the story, however, an Army General Staff officer assured them that airplanes were designed for observation. There would be no aerial gun battles, he said.

Picking Up Tricks

For novice gunners, merely spotting another plane in the air was difficult, because most tended to focus on immediate surroundings. The gunner had to look at his wingtip until his eyes adjusted, and only then could he scan the skies for other objects. It was a trick familiar to sailors but new to flyers.

The Americans picked up one trick from Maj. Raoul Lutbery, an American who had scored seventeen kills with the Lafayette Escadrille (but who also did not make the US ace list). When his formation was outnumbered, Lutbery would have his planes form a circle so the gunners could train their guns to the outside. Like circling the wagons in the Old West, this tactic directed maximum firepower against the attackers, something gunners would remember in the next war.

After the war, the Air Service had hundreds of obsolete Liberty-engined DH-4s and no funds for replacements. Officials modified the old crates as test-beds for new designs. By 1920, the Army was flying a twin-engine de Havilland with eight machine guns and a 37-mm cannon.

Even remodeled, the DH-4 was a hopeless relic, but by the early 1920s, Glenn Martin was working on a replacement, a twin-engine, five-gun bomber with a crew of four. The evolution continued through the series of Keystone bombers–open cockpit biplanes but good enough to last a decade.

In the early 1930s, Martin produced another winner, the all-metal B-10. The twin-engine monoplane carried a pilot, a radio operator, and two gunners. It had nose and tail turrets and a third gun in the floor. Faster than most fighters, it could fly at above 24,000 feet and had a range of more than 1,200 miles.

In 1934, while Lt. Col. H. H. Arnold was leading a flight of B-10s to Alaska, Boeing engineers began work on a four-engine plane to compete for a new bomber contract. Even before the Model 299 made its first flight, Boeing registered its trade name, “Flying Fortress.” Early versions had only five guns, but succeeding models sprouted turrets in the nose, tail, belly, and upper fuselage and flexible guns in each waist window.

As the bombers grew, the makeup of crews changed. Well into the 1930s, the Air Corps had expected flyers to be generalists. In the 19th Bomb Group, for example, a copilot could not become a B-10 aircraft commander until he had qualified as a celestial navigator, bombardier, and expert gunner. After World War II erupted, however, US plants built bigger planes–calling for crews of up to eleven men–and built them by the thousands. There was no time to train every man to do every job.

No Time For Training

Some student bombardiers and navigators still were sent to gunnery school, but, in the rush to get crews into combat, many graduated without gunnery training. They were expected to learn to shoot during crew training, but there was little time for it there, either. Officers of the 464th Bomb Group, for example, spent one day on the gunnery range. Each shot one clip from his .45, a few rounds from a carbine, and a short burst from a truck-mounted turret.

Enlisted crew members received far better training. The typical gunnery course ran for six weeks and covered ballistics, turret operation, gun repair, and target recognition. Students fired flexible guns from North American AT-6s. Turret training was conducted in Lockheed AT-18s until actual bombers became available to the schools.

Gunnery technology had improved since World War I. Turrets had optical sighting devices that helped in calculating aiming data. The guns themselves became easier to load and less likely to jam. Rounds were less erratic.

Shooting remained a difficult task, more art than science. The speed of aircraft had tripled between wars, but the rate of fire for machine guns remained at about 800 rounds per minute. When a 450-mile-per-hour fighter attacked a 300-mile-per-hour bomber head on, the rate of closure was close to the speed of sound. In one second, the fighter’s relative position changed by 1,100 feet while a gunner was able to get off only about a dozen rounds. A nose gunner barely had time to spot an attacking aircraft and fire before it was gone. Waist and tail gunners had more time to aim but still little time to track targets. The solution was to put more guns on each plane and to use a defensive technique similar to the old Lufbery circle. Based on his plane’s position in the formation, each gunner was assigned a specific, narrow area to cover. None had to move his guns more than a few degrees in any direction in order for the formation to confront an attacker with a daunting array of firepower.

Even against these odds, many enemy fighters took the risk, and many scored. More often, however, they looked for straggling bombers that had been crippled by flak or were suffering from mechanical problems. In this position, the lone airplane often could rely only on its own guns for protection. Many fell prey to the fighters, but a remarkable number survived their running gunfights to fly again.

Such gunfights became a staple for war movies of the day. In cinematic versions of the war, a lone plane battled swarms of fighters. The gunners, firing nonstop, swung wildly from one attacker to another. In the film “Air Force,” the hero, played by John Garfield, even wrenched a gun from his downed bomber, cradled it in his arm, and from his position on the ground shot down a Zero.

Burning Up Gun Barrels

In real life, good shooting was a test of skill and self-discipline. The gunner had to concentrate on the target at hand, resist the temptation to shoot everything in sight, and, above all, use short bursts. Nonstop, Hollywood-style firing looked dramatic, but it produced enough heat to wilt a gun barrel.

When he was not shooting or being shot at, the gunner’s prime concern was survival.

Missions lasted up to eight hours, with much of the flying taking place above 25,000 feet. Temperatures dropped as low as minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit in bombers that had no insulation and little heating outside the flight deck. Fleece-lined flight jackets were scant protection. The earliest electrically heated suits often shorted out and burned their occupants. Waist gunners worked through open windows, suffered frozen fingers, and slipped on the spent shells that piled up at their feet. Turret gunners had slightly more protection from the elements, but their cocoons allowed little room to move an aching arm or to stamp a cold foot.

In spite of all the hardships, US gunners gave a remarkable account of themselves. In Eighth Air Force, bombers claimed 6,259 enemy aircraft destroyed, 1,836 probables, and 3,210 damaged. On all counts, the record topped that of the Eighth’s fighter pilots. Other heavy, medium, and light bomber units showed similar records.

As in World War I, however, most of the glory went to the fighter pilots. The thousands of planes downed by bombers usually were counted as team, rather than individual, successes. The Air Force maintains that it is too hard to assign credit to individual gunners on missions where dozens of guns may have been blazing away at the same target. Spreading the credit among the gunners in formations of 100 to 1,000 bombers would have been a bookkeeping nightmare. Unlike fighters, bombers did not carry gun cameras to record the action.

Some units gave the gunners more recognition, and some of their stories have survived. In 1989, for example, the newsletter of the 99th Bomb Group Historical Society reprinted an old article from Impact Magazine titled “Our Only Enlisted Man to Become an Air Ace.” The subject was SSgt. Benjamin Warmer, who joined the 99th as a B-17 waist gunner and flew during the invasion of Italy. The piece credits Sergeant Warmer with shooting down two planes on a mission to Naples and seven more during a strike against German airfields on Sicily.

Three More Candidates

Sergeant Warmer’s story also is recounted in a 1986 book, Aerial Gunners: The Unknown Aces of World War II, by Charles Watry and Duane Hall. The book confirms Warmer’s nine kills but challenges the claim that he was the only enlisted gunner ace in World War II. It names several others, including three noncommissioned officers who flew with the Army Air Forces.

Aerial Gunners reports that, in the China-Burma-India theater, TSgt. Arthur P. Benko may have downed nine planes and TSgt. George W. Gouldthrite five. Watry and Hall also credit SSgt. John P. Quinlan with five victories in Europe and three in the Pacific. Sergeant Quinlan was the tail gunner of Memphis Belle, the B-17 bomber that became the subject of a wartime documentary and a recent fictionalized movie. Neither Sergeant Quinlan’s name nor those of the other three airmen appear on USAF’s official list of aces.

Sergeant Quinlan’s final missions were aboard a B-29, the World War II latecomer that was to set the stage for a new breed of bombers. The Superfortress dwarfed the earlier heavies. Its gunners controlled four turrets remotely from Plexiglas domes.

Some World War II hardware made an encore appearance in the Korean War, but the age of the traditional gunfighter was ending, and a new era of rockets and electronic aiming was beginning. When Northrop introduced the F-89 jet interceptor, it had a second seat, not for a gunner but for a radar operator. Early models had 20-mm nose guns, but these soon gave way to wing pods that held rockets. In later two-seaters, the man who aimed the weapons would become known as the GIB (guy in back) and the opportunity again was opened for a nonpilot to become an ace.

It didn’t happen until 1972. In Vietnam, F-4 GIBs were called Weapon Systems Operators. As in World War I, both WSO and pilot received a full credit for each aerial kill. On August 28, 1972, Capt. Richard S. “Steve” Ritchie, a pilot, became the first Air Force ace of the Vietnam War and his WSO, Capt. Charles DeBellevue, earned his fourth victory. Captain DeBellevue later claimed two more kills to become Vietnam’s top ace. That war’s only other USAF ace was Capt. Jeffrey S. Feinstein, also a WSO. (Navy Lt. William Driscoll, a radar intercept officer, was also credited with five kills.)

Today’s aircraft are packed with enough electronics to fill a video arcade. Weapons have minds of their own. Aerial gunners with strange titles track targets on TV screens and use computers to calculate firing data. One wonders if they trace their roots to the observer who nursed a Lewis gun on a limping DH-4 or to the gunner who froze his fingers at the waist of a B-24 Liberator.

Between tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War; Bruce D. Callander earned a B.A. in journalism at the University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, becoming editor in 1972. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “Going: A Fifth of the Force,” appeared in the February 1991 issue.