398th Bomb Group

The Tallest Gunner in the Air Force

Ralph F. Will
Flight Engineer, 600th Squadron

I think I should fess up on how I got into the 398th. After I enlisted in the Army Air Corp, I tried to become a pilot cadet, but failed the test twice. So I became an aircraft mechanic. I was sent to airplane mechanics school at Lincoln, Nebraska. We were the first class for a new commander, a full bird colonel. He told us to select a wrecked plane from the graveyard to restore. After we were finished, he said he would fly the plane. He told us if it flew we could stay in the Air Corp. If not, we would all be in the infantry. We selected and restored a P38 and it flew beautifully. It was quite a thrill to see it fly.

I went to learn the B24 from nose to tail at Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan. I eventually became a B24 ground crew chief at Tonapah, Nevada. One day I was summoned to the tower by the line officer. A crew had taken up a B24 and couldn’t get the landing gear down. I was crew chief for that plane. The line officer wanted to know what the hell was wrong. We communicated back and forth with the crew, including how to manually crank the gear down. They still couldn’t lower the landing gear. Fire engines were called onto the field. The pilot belly-landed, tearing out the whole bottom of the plane. The crew was all O.K. The line officer and I jumped into a jeep and headed out to the plane. The officer said to get some jacks and we jacked up the plane. The line officer climbed up inside and found that the crew had not turned on the main hydraulic switch. He put the main hydraulic switch into the on position and the landing gear came down. What a relief for me. But the pilot and flight engineer were on charge of quarters for a month a doing any kind dummy job around.

I still wanted to fly, but could only ride as just a passenger on my B24 to check on some major repair. I wasn’t happy with this. One day I saw a notice on the bulletin board that the Air Corp would waive up to a 6 foot height for flight engineer. My brain started thinking again. I asked a friend, a medic in our squadron, if he could change my records to 6 foot tall from 6 ft. 3 in. so I could apply for flight engineer. He said he could do it but wanted no responsibility. I put my name on the list, which had six other names on it.

A couple of days later we were told to report for gunnery physicals. My buddy told me to get there really early, so I did. His qualifications allowed him to do a good part of the physical. He put down my weight in large numbers covering the space for my height, which was 6 foot 3 inches. When the doctor came he finished the physical and didn’t notice the height. About a week later the seven of us got orders to report to Kingman, Arizona gunnery school, which we did. When we got there our physical was for warm bodies and short arms. I walked around gunnery trying to look 5 foot 10 inches for weeks.

I did very well at gunnery school, nearly top in my class. I was then to report to Tampa, Florida for crew assignment. On the way there the train was stopped at Tallahassee because of a hurricane. I sent a telegram to explain my absence. Three days later the train was permitted to continue to Tampa.

When I got to Plant Park, I was given a physical by a major. He asked how the hell I got into gunnery being so tall. I said I volunteered. The hair stood up on the back of his head and he said he would court marshal me. I begged and pleaded and finally he said, “OK, if that’s what you want.” So I was assigned to Bob Nolan’s crew.

I was finally flying. It was great. We photo bombed Havana, Cuba, Atlanta and New Orleans. We even flew over New York for a bond drive. There were 500 planes that flew over New York to show people the power of a large bombing raid. Some planes, including ours, flew over twice to make it look even larger. We did a lot of flying. Then we got orders to go to Savanna, Georgia to pick up a brand new B17 and fly to Valley, Wales.

That was an exciting trip too. We had bad weather for the whole trip. In Labrador we were grounded 4 or 5 days. We also were grounded in Greenland. In Iceland a master sergeant had sabotaged a plane’s nose wheel with explosives and the plane blew up when its wheel went up after take off. All flights were stopped and every plane had to be inspected. We were in Iceland five days for that and weather. After we got to Wales and were all checked out we were assigned to the base in Nuthampstead where we started our missions. That’s when I realized that they were shooting at us and those were real bullets and real bombs. That’s when that “Rambo” attitude left me and I got scared and I think most of us did.

On a mission there is a place where the squadron starts its bomb run. It’s called the I.P. or “Initial Point”. I had another name for it. I called it Individual Prayers. I think we all prayed on those missions.

Our crew was very lucky or did a lot of praying. We all came home. We flew seventeen combat missions before the air war ended in Europe. Our worst mission was the 10th, [on 8 April 1945]. That’s when Col. Daily’s aircraft got its tail shot off. Somehow Daily made it back to base but the tail gunner was lost. We took over as deputy lead. Lt. Wells on our right was hit between #1 and #2 engines, blowing off the wing. He slow rolled to the left, went down in flames, and exploded about 2000 ft. below us. The waist gunner, Robert Templeton (we called him “Buck”) was sucked out of the aircraft. There was flak under our tail and “Frenchy” Carbonneau, our tail gunner, got hit in the neck and his right thumb was shot off. He was losing a lot of blood. Joe and I did a lot of sweating taking care of him. We stayed at altitude, and at 40 below zero, the bleeding was slowed down. When we got close to the coast we turned over the lead and went nose down into Nuthampstead. Harry Dover, our radio operator panicked and broke radio silence to request an ambulance on the field for Frenchy. We shot off a red flare on approach to signal we had wounded. Frenchy lost lots of blood, but he did make it home. Dover got in all kinds of trouble for breaking radio silence.

Later we learned Buck was taken POW. He parachuted right into a Luftwaffe camp. Soldiers started shouting, “Pistol! Pistol!” He dropped his handgun and someone hit him in the back of the head and when he came to he was in a POW camp with a bunch of broken ribs. The Germans used the POWs to dig out the injured after bombing raids. When we were bombing nearby the POW camp, the guys thought up a plan to escape. They put their shovels on their shoulders, formed up into a platoon, and marched out of camp. Then they split up and it was every man for himself. Buck ran and ran, finally hiding in a barn hayloft. The Germans were retreating, and he could sometimes hear groups of German soldiers outside resting in the shade of the barn. Finally Buck heard tanks coming, and he realized that the Allies were approaching, so he was able to surrender to the Americans. Fortunately they didn’t shoot him by mistake. He rode around on a tank as a gunner for a few weeks but finally the commanding officer said he would have to go back to Nuthampstead. Since he had been a POW he could never fly again. That was necessary in case of a recapture of a prisoner. He might be forced to reveal information about the resistance that may have aided in his escape.

We flew seven more missions. We all flew back to Boston and that was the last of my flying. We were all eventually discharged from the service. Willie ”Smitty” Smith, our replacement for Frenchy the tail gunner, re-upped and stayed in for 30 years. He was quite a fighter and made master sergeant several times. He taught survival and was a boom operator on a tanker. Howard Finley, our co-pilot re-upped for the Korean War and stayed in for 28 years. He retired a major.

Veteran: Ralph F. Will
Flight Engineer, 600th Squadron
Date of Personal History: October 2007
Author: Ralph F. Will
Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Paula Will Moyer, daughter

Note: The above article has been placed on the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association web site to share our history with a wider audience. You may view, download, print, copy and link to our content as you wish as long as the uses are personal or educational. 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association web page content cannot be used for commercial purposes nor placed on other web sites whether commercial, personal or educational, unless authorized in writing by the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association Official Board and/or the author.