Tale of the Tail-Gunner Rescue

For nine months – from the Battle of Midway in June, 1942 (6-months after Pearl Harbor), my dad flew 700 hours of combat as a tail gunner on a B-17.  As a tail gunner, he was flying backwards and was very vulnerable as a result.  If an attack came from behind, he was exposed and had to fight for his whole crew.

He shot down 25 Japanese aircraft – an impressive record.  (He got credit for 9; the gun camera jammed for 16.)

Then it was his turn to be shot down way out in middle of the Pacific.

He survived the crash into the ocean only to be adrift in a life raft for 6-days. When you are all at sea and helpless, you need allies to rescue you.

I imagine my father, sitting in a lifeboat under a blazing Pacific sun, yellow life raft – blue, blue sea.  Careening over the waves. There might have been sharks circling.  He was trusting and hoping that someone out there would be looking for him. Regularly scanning the horizon and seeing nothing.  Rationing the water.  Never panicking.  Whoever said this ocean was Pacific, didn’t know the horrors of war.

When I read Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, I learned that in WWII, the survival rate for an airman in the Pacific was 50%.  Once a plane was shot down, the survival rate the 1st day was 13%, by the 2nd day it fell to 6 %, 3rd day it halved again to 3%. 

As the days slid by to the sixth day odds were only 0.35%. There was a 99.65% probability that neither my brother nor I would exist!  Then no blog and you wouldn’t be reading this.  The odds were against him.

Two-man rescue teams: an Australian or New Zealand NCO (Sgt) together with a Pacific islander were formed and scattered across hundreds of atolls in the Pacific in WWII. The ANZACs knew military, the native islanders knew the territory.  Their principal mission was to gather naval intelligence on Japanese ship and troop movements.  Their secondary mission was to rescue airmen who were shot down.

If they saw an airman, but Japanese forces were anywhere nearby, then the airman was toast. During the war, these teams were able to rescue a few hundred very fortunate airmen.  One of those fortunate ones was my dad.  Thank goodness for the ANZAC allies.

After my father was rescued, he was held for a few days before a PB-Y Seaplane was able to pick him up and return him to his unit. After a few days of recovery from his ordeal, he was back in his tail-gunner station in another B-17.

He returned to the US in May 1943. His service record and rescue ordeal story was considered inspirational; so, he was ordered to travel the USA on a publicity tour for War Bonds with Eddie Cantor (no relation).

Then he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas to teach other tail-gunners how to protect their crewmates and shoot down enemy planes.

We need teammates in many things we do.  Without the ANZAC allies, my father would not have survived being stranded in the Pacific.  Without his crew-mates, he could not have shot down so many enemy planes.  The sense of his obligations to his team also got him back into his tail gunner chair as soon as he could get there.  We all work together to make more than each of us individually.

War Bond Tour – Dad signing autographs at Brooklyn ice cream parlor 1943
My dad bottom right (NY Herald Tribune, June 28, 1943)

3 comments on “Tale of the Tail-Gunner Rescue

  1. Very interesting! I work at the air museum in Fargo and we have a lot of WWII memorabilia. Planes, many unique planes privately owned, displays like Flying Tigers, a great library, lots of stories. We just had a speaker from out east visit that wrote a book about a female pilot from the area. Women pilots were not treated real well. Name escapes me at moment. And then I’ve heard stories of women flying airplanes to Canada before we entered the war. So, Allen, I find this information you write about of great interest!!! And I will read more of your work. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Schapiro

    Very impressive!


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