Valor: Unsung Heroes of World War II

July 1, 1993

In the years of World War II, the Army Air Forces trained 193,000 pilots, 50,000 navigators, and 45,000 bombardiers, but top spot in the aircrew training programs went to aerial gunners. Flexible gunnery schools turned out 297,000 graduates, most of them enlisted men. A high percentage were volunteers who, like bombardier trainees, knew they had but one destination on graduation–combat.

The success of bombing campaigns in every theater of operations rested heavily on the aerial gunners, whose lot was not easy. Of all crew positions, the gunners had the most physically demanding, especially in heavy bombers that flew at altitudes where temperatures ranged down to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. There was no heat and no armor protection in the gunners’ positions. Despite the perils and physical suffering of their trade, a surprising number of gunners volunteered for second and even third combat tours.

Many acts of heroism by gunners have been recounted in this column. (You can find more in Roger Freeman’s The Mighty Eighth and other books on World War II aviation.) Three of the four USAAF enlisted men awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II were gunners: SSgt. Archibald Mathies, Sgt. Maynard Smith, and TSgt. Forrest Vosler, all subjects of previous “Valor” articles.

There is no valid basis for measuring the number of enemy aircraft shot down by aerial gunners as compared to fighter pilots. Certainly there were many aces among the gunners, but none appears in the official list of credits for enemy aircraft destroyed in World War II because of the difficulty of assigning individual credit when several gunners were firing at the same bandit. Some numbered air forces did credit gunners with confirmed victories. Several of their names appear in “The Aces That History Forgot,” by Bruce D. Callander [April 1991, p. 92]. While many readers can name a dozen fighter aces, few will remember the name of a single gunner–ace or not.

There is, however, one gunner whose name was celebrated in a popular World War II song, “Johnny Zero.” Those whose memories go back that far probably thought, as I did, that he was a fighter pilot. His name is John Foley, a B-26 top-turret gunner in the Pacific, whose story is told in Aerial Gunners: The Unknown Aces of World War II, by Col. Charles Watry, USAF (Ret.), and Duane Hall.

Foley enlisted in the Army Air Forces in November 1941, determined to fly. By virtue of the snafus following Pearl Harbor, he ended up in Australia without so much as basic training. After wangling an assignment in the armament shop at Brisbane, he was assigned to clean the guns of a 22d Bomb Group B-26. His diligence caught the attention of the bomber’s pilot, who picked the untrained Foley to replace his injured top-turret gunner. Foley, who had never been in an airplane, was given a quick introduction to the intercom and turret, taken on one practice mission, and pronounced qualified.

Two days later, John Foley had his baptism of fire during an attack on Japanese shipping near Rabaul, New Britain. He shot down a Zero, confirmed by a member of another crew. Foley, it seems, was a natural. He had not been taught how to use the gunsight, so he depended on tracer ammunition for aiming and worked out his own system for estimating range. Two weeks later, he downed two more Zeros over Lae, New Guinea, and was dubbed “Johnny Zero” by a news correspondent. The name was picked up by two songwriters in the US.

Before he was sent home with malaria, John Foley flew 32 missions, survived three crashes, and scored seven confirmed kills with three probables. After a speaking tour in the US and unwanted duty as a gunnery instructor, he volunteered for combat and ended his war as a B-24 gunner in Europe.

Few combat stories about gunners had such happy endings. On Jan. 3, 1943, Eighth Air Force sent 85 B-17s against submarine pens at Lorient, France. Four B-17s were shot down by enemy fighters.

One 306th Group bomber, Sons of Fury, piloted by Lt. Charles Cranmer, was crippled by flak, losing two engines and the nose, along with both the navigator and bombardier. Unable to hold position, the bomber descended to 1,500 feet over the English Channel’s icy waters. Forty miles from shore, six FW-190s opened fire on the straggler. The tailgunner of another B-17 saw four chutes before Sons of Fury ditched, still apparently under control. As the sea rose around the top turret, its gunner, TSgt. Arizona Harris, continued to fire at the attackers until his bomber disappeared beneath the waves. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross–one of several gunners to be so honored for extraordinary valor.

Thousands of aircrew members survived the war because of the dedication of the aerial gunners. Their contribution to Allied victory was immeasurable.

Published July 1993. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.