Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Memorial Day and the Doomed Gunner

 

Among the things I received when my grandfather died in 2007 was a photocopy of an article published in Air Classics Magazine from April 1966. Grandpa had been a co-pilot on a B-24 in World War II, assigned to the 456th Bomb Group, stationed in Cerignola, Italy. When I examined the article, it turns out it was written by a pilot named Robert Carlin, who was in my Grandfather’s squadron, and it describes a particularly difficult mission, flown on March 23, 1945. Carlin’s article is beautifully written, grim, and dark. The article has stayed with me and often on Memorial Day, I think of this passage:

“Nine full minutes to ‘bombs away.’ Our box of seven planes was getting a real pasting. We heard the ting-tong of metal fragments resonating in the metallic hollow of the fuselage. Intercom reported minor damage.

Seven minutes to go.

A minor course correction put the seven ships of Charlie Box in the heaviest flak belt. We could see their formation bounce unevenly from the pounding. Then Charlie 3 got it. It was a vital hit. Chutes immediately appeared behind the wobbling craft, banking left to clear the formation. The sixth man came out in a ball, the seventh spreadeagled. Number eight was on fire. He pulled his D-ring and we watched the chute flare. But the canopy had rings of fire eating at it like cigarette paper. The chute slipped, caught, slipped again, and suddenly collapsed into trailing ribbon. The doomed gunner pulled his knees up under his chin in reflex against the plunge. No more chutes. The plane fell off into a vertical dive and slammed into the ground in horrifying violence. Pilot and copilot were still aboard.” Robert Carlin, “Twin Tailed Time Bomb,” Air Classics Magazine, April, 1966.

It’s just a few lines in the article, but the image of that poor gunner, his parachute burning, haunts me like few others I have read. It has gotten worse since I have had children of my own and gained some idea of what his poor mother and father felt, who had dedicated themselves to raising him, who rocked him and sang to him as a baby, who taught what they needed him to know, who worried over him every time he was sick, every time he was hurt, and were relieved every time he recovered, who tried so hard to make sure he had what he needed to make a good life, and who felt proud of him in so many moments along the way. And it all ended like that, set afire and falling, having barely lived. How their broken hearts must have wondered, even long after the sharp grief faded away, what the point of him was, what his purpose was, what all that had been for. I hope, in God’s Good Time, they received their answer. I hope his poor mother never read that article, never knew that, when his last chance to survive burned away, and as he fell to his death, he pulled himself into the same position he was in when she carried him in her womb, when he was safe with her.

What the lesson of all this is, I don’t know. The best I can come up with is to say we ought to try to make ourselves worthy of this family’s sacrifice, cherish our lives, be good to one another, be a good people, be a good nation, a nation slow to war. And hold out for the day when, in His infinite Mercy, God redeems this world, and makes it so this did not happen to this young man.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A somber and moving post, DAV. Thank you for posting it. 

    • #1
    • May 25, 2020, at 9:43 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. Mim526 Member

    D.A. Venters: What the lesson of all this is, I don’t know. The best I can come up with is to say we ought to try to make ourselves worthy of this family’s sacrifice, cherish our lives, be good to one another, be a good people, be a good nation, a nation slow to war. And hold out for the day when, in His infinite Mercy, God redeems this world, and makes it so this did not happen to this young man.

    Amen. So be it.

    • #2
    • May 25, 2020, at 10:54 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  3. Stad Thatcher

    D.A. Venters: It’s just a few lines in the article, but the image of that poor gunner, his parachute burning, haunts me like few others I have read.

    A poem by Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”, did it for me:

    From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
    Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
    I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

    It had been said the washing out with a hose was an allusion to abortion, but anyone can read anything into the written word these days . . .

    • #3
    • May 26, 2020, at 6:18 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. PHCheese Member

    My uncle was a B-24 pilot. On one raid over Germany his ship was almost destroyed but somehow it stayed in the air. It lost normal flight controls and he directed it by using the engines . The electric to the tail gun was cut and that meant no heat for the gunner. Everyone aboard expected him to be dead. There was no way the plane could reach it’s normal field so my uncle landed it on a field built for fighters. A drainage pipe under the field collapsed when the heavy bomber crossed over it and ripped off the landing gear and the plane came to a stop on it’s belly but did not explode. The plane never flew again. The crew did in just a few days with a new gunner. The first one survived but lost some fingers and toes to frostbite.The war was over for him. All told my uncle landed three planes that never flew again.

    • #4
    • May 26, 2020, at 8:09 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    This story is especially poignant because the war in Europe was so close to ending. 

    • #5
    • May 26, 2020, at 10:48 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. D.A. Venters Member
    D.A. Venters

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    This story is especially poignant because the war in Europe was so close to ending.

    Yes, just a few weeks left. Terrible luck for this poor guy and his crewmates. I wish I could find the article online. All I have is the old photocopy. I have scanned it as a pdf to preserve it. Anyway, despite having been written 20+ years after the fact, the war weary atmosphere is very thick throughout the piece.

    • #6
    • May 27, 2020, at 7:05 AM PDT
    • Like