When you go to an air museum or air show and walk up to a World War II B-17 or B-24 bomber, one of the areas of the airplane which always seems to gain a lot of attention is the ball turret. This round steel-and-glass sphere would house two .50 caliber machine guns. Hung beneath the belly of these airplanes, this position was used to defend the aircraft from enemy aircraft trying to attack from the underside of the aircraft. Though first designs of these positions attempted to use remote-controlled aiming, these tests ultimately failed and there was no other choice but for a crew member to go down there and sit in this vulnerable position and manually operate the turret. Just as we did in so many different ways during this historic conflict, we had to rely on young men in their late teens and early 20s to do the unthinkable.
This leads me to a call I received. Mrs. Kingus called and asked if we had anyone who would be interested in talking with her husband, who was a crew member on a B-17. The chance to talk to the men and women of this generation has gotten to be a very rare treat. On my first call I rang Mr. Kingus at the appropriate time. I opened with “Is this Mr. Kingus?” I could feel a bit of hesitation at first, more than likely thinking I was trying to sell something. “It is,” came the reply. “I am with the EAA Aviation Museum and wondered if I could talk with you about your time in the Mighty 8th Air Force on 17s,” I said next. I could feel the line warm as if I started talking to one of my old friends. “Oh I would love to,” Mr. Kingus exclaimed. With just those few words, we were off about to embark on a mission in 1944. And James Kingus was going to lead me on what it was really like to fly a mission in the 8th Air Force.
“Well I was 18 years when I went over. I already had four brothers who were all serving. It was time for me to do my part,” he said. Jim attended gunnery school in Arizona where he was told that his small build would make him perfect for the ball turret of a B-17. Jim first met his crew in early 1944 at Drew Field in Florida, then as a crew flew to Hunter Army Air Field in Savannah, Georgia. It wasn’t long before they found themselves in a new B-17 heading toward Europe via the Great Northern Route. They would have stops in Goose Bay, Labrador; Iceland, Scotland, and eventually arrive at their new home — Grafton Underwood in England, home of the 384th Bomb Group. “Once we arrived at Grafton Underwood, we found our squadron assignment. And then settled into our barracks. My first view of the village around our base was of all of the thatch-roofed houses with smoke coming from the stove pipes. Speaking of stove pipes, our Quonset hut that we would live in never seemed to get warm enough. It was always cold in there. ”
Jim and his crew were assigned to the 546th Bomb Squadron, and the B-17s they flew on missions. “We used a lot of different airplanes. Sometimes you felt like you weren’t in the same plane twice.” The B-17s Jim flew in had names like Satan’s Playmate, Snuffy, Heavenly Body, and Boomerang. Jim’s first mission was to Merseburg, Germany, on December 12, 1944. “Those first few missions were rough. I really had to personally convince myself that I could do this. After that, you just stopped thinking about the dangers and the possibility of you not making it home. In Twelve O’Clock High they made a mention that you just pretend that you are already dead. I think that is what I did.
“Mornings would start the same way when you had a mission. You would get dressed in your gear, including the electric suit you would have to depend on to try to keep warm. Then it was off to have breakfast. You never made the mistake of eating too heavy. Just a little something and some coffee was about it.” Briefings were held so that the crews could get as much intelligence as possible on the target they were going to attack that day. Flak cannons in the area, fighter defenses, and weather was all part of the briefing. “There would be a big screen up covering the map until the briefing started. Then they would draw it back and for the first time you would see what today’s mission was going to hold for you.” On February 26, 1945, that target would be a huge one. “I remember when they drew the screen back and we saw BERLIN! There were a lot of groans and curse words in the room at that moment.”
Once airborne and formed up, Jim and his crew would start making their way to the target as they climbed higher in to the cold stratosphere. “I would slide down into my turret with a Hershey’s Bar and try to keep warm a little. The size of the turret wasn’t bad, and it would have been almost comfortable if it wasn’t 40 below outside and that people were waiting to try to kill me in a few hours.” After all of these years he described the conditions inside the bomber as “noisy as blazes.”
Jim also had to deal with the isolation of being a gunner in a remote part of the aircraft. “It was very lonesome down there. And while it wasn’t that uncomfortable, I could not take a parachute with me in there so I left that in the fuselage of the plane.”
As the bomber force neared the German coast, they would begin to look out for enemy fighters and of course anti-aircraft fire, better known as flak. “I did not see many enemy fighters, but on the one occasion when I did, it was an Me 262.” Jim was about to experience his first interaction with a German jet fighter. “Bandit two o’clock low!” someone called out on the intercom, which was usually silent. “I tried to track him, but the turret could only turn so fast. It couldn’t keep up with the jet. He came in so close that I could actually see the pilot. I held down the trigger and just sprayed bullets in his direction but I never hit him.”
Most missions were in excess of eight hours, but one was shorter. Very short. January 20, 1945, brought a close call for Jim and his crew. “We were taking off and climbing out of our base to hit the train bridges in Mannheim, Germany. The plane was making an awful noise and the pilot was struggling to get power out of the aircraft.” It turns out that a sleet storm had hit the base and no one noticed the ice on the propellers. “As we were climbing out, ice was slamming into the fuselage.” It was so loud that Jim could barely hear the call to bail out of the aircraft. He managed to pull himself out of the turret, put on a parachute, and exit the aircraft via the door in the waist section. “Everyone came through it okay, except a few guys had broken arms and legs.”
Jim explained the view from the belly of a B-17 as surreal. “You could see bombers going down, you couldn’t hear anything except the drone of the engines, yet you were watching this out of your window.” After a mission they would go through anyone’s gear who did not make it back. “We would make sure that anything that you wouldn’t want your parents to see was gone from your gear being sent home.”
On April 25, 1945, Jim flew his 35th and final mission on a B-17 named Baby Judy. The mission targeted an industrial park in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. On this mission they would return with one engine out and one damaged. They would be forced to land at an emergency field. After the mission he found out he had just taken part in the last bombing mission of the 8th Air Force. For him, the war was now over. “I was asked if I wanted to take a war-weary B-17 home or a ship. I felt that I had used up all of my luck in the air, so I took the ship. When I got home to the United States the very first thing I couldn’t wait to have as a celebration of making it through was a big helping of ice cream!”
Jim shared with me his thoughts on the war, and how his missions went by. “The only thing I continue to reflect on is how tough some of the missions I was on were. Then I think of just how hard the ones those guys who came before me must have been.”
Having the chance to hear these stories firsthand is always such an amazing treat. I always encourage anyone I talk to about aviation history: if you meet someone who is willing to tell their story, please take a few minutes and let them take you on the journey with them. You never know where you may end up.