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Front Page » December 14, 2006 » Senior Focus » in the Belly Of a B-17
Published 3,218 days ago

in the Belly Of a B-17

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Frank Vasquez sits quietly in his Helper home. Vasquez, a retired miner and railroader, fought in World War II from the belly of a B-17 as a turret gunner. The experience he had doing that changed his life.

Sitting in his home, Frank Vasquez talks quietly and calmly today about his personal battle with fear as he rode under a 50,000 pound B-17 in the belly gun turret on 31 missions over Europe.

But the battles that he witnessed, the death, destruction and near misses were anything but calm in the fall of 1943. But his crew, who had come intact from the United States were trained for the possible eventualities of their missions.

"There were alot of guys on various crews that would get sick when they told us during briefing where we would be going," he said. "Once that happened they were usually no good to anyone again."

Vasquez, who was born in Premaro, Colo., a coal mining camp near Trinidad, found that after high school where he had worked during the summers at CCC camps, had a history in the aircraft business before he ever got started as a turret gunner.

In 1942 he moved to southern California where he worked building B-24 Liberator bombers for Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego. Little did he know within a year he would be in a war plan within the next year.

Vasquez went to boot camp at Shepard Field, Texas and then spent time at an airfield near Denver, learning the trade of being a ball turret gunner.

Vasquez as a young airman during his tour of duty in England, where he flew on missions over Europe.

After he and his crew were training they then were assigned a brand new B-17 to fly to England. The planes did not have the range to achieve trans-Atlantic flight so they had to "hop" from place to place to reach the British Isles.

They first flew from the northeastern United States to Newfoundland where the were to stay overnight before they flew to Greenland and then on to Scotland. However while the plane was on the field in Newfoundland it was involved in a collision when a mechanic that was doing some work on the plane left it running and forgot to set the brakes. Their new plane was now damaged, and could not go on, but the crew was needed in England so they were moved by transport to Scotland. From there they were transported by train to Stone Market, England where the airbase they would fly from for the next few months was located.

It wasn't long before the combat missions began in their plane, named the Lenora Linda.

"The plane was named after our pilot's girl friend," said Vasquez of the custom crews had for naming their planes. At the time Vasquez stood five foot nine and weighed 126 lbs. He was also the youngest on the crew. He really didn't mind being the ball turret gunner on missions either. He got a view of everything from his perch below the plane.

"They would always send me down in the turret with a camera so I could take photos of the bombing and the results."

The first mission for the crew was over Cherbourg , France in support of D-Day troops in June of 1944. That day the plane flew two missions.

The turret gun below a B-17 bomber was a formidable weapon with two 50 caliber machines guns. The gunner would enter through a port in interior of the plane once in flight and then a hydraulic device would close the turret up. Should the plane get shot up and the hydraulics fail, the gunner would have to use a crank to manually open the hatch to get back in the plane. Vasquez said that if a plane was going down and the gunner had to do that, he would never have had time to get the hatch open, his chute on (which wouldn't fit in the compartment with the gunner) and be able to get out of the aircraft before it crashed. Vasquez often carried a camera into the turret because he was told to take photos of the damage inflicted by the bombs.

Early in the war the losses on B-17's and other American bombing aircraft were extremely high. Some statistics show that most B-17 crews lost over 50 percent of their original combat personnel before their tour of duty ended.

And particular targets, which had better defenses and more fighter aircraft protecting the site were feared by allied air crews over many others.

In some respects that didn't change when Vasquez was on duty in the air either.

"We would get the roster as to who was flying about midnight and then get ready to fly," he said. " We would then be briefed and would leave about five to six in the morning. What we hated to see on that roster the most was when we had to go to Munich. No one on any of the planes wanted to go there. Many men would turn white and get sick. The air defenses there were just so powerful, so good."

While many of the early bomber crews feared the Luftwaffe, and their powerful fighter planes that took down Fighting Fortresses left and right, but the time Vasquez's team arrived on the scene the German airforce was not as strong, American bomber grouping techniques were protecting planes from fighter planes even more and by that time the P-51 Mustang fighter planes had been developed and could escort the bombers all the way to targets deep inside Europe.

"We didn't get attacked that much by fighter planes, but what we feared was the flak," he said. "It came up in all different colors so they could tell their range and altitude. It could hit at anytime and some of the targets were very well defended."

Vasquez said that one time they were flying through the Ruhr Valley on a mission and the hills came alive with anti-aircraft fire.

Bombs in B-17's hung in racks like in this photo. At one point on a mission, Vasquez had to climb into an open bomb bay 25,000 feet above enemy territory and release stuck bombs with a screwdriver.

The Eighth Air Force took on missions all over Europe. Vasquez's crew flew the Lenora Linda to just about all points from northern Germany to the Romanian oil fields.

But flying missions on these planes, sometimes grouped with thousands of other bombers was quite an undertaking.

"Once the plane was readied we would get up in the air and have to rendezvous with other groups," he stated. "That would sometimes take hours. Then we would fly to the mission site. Then we would have to turn around and return. Most of the time we were flying 12-14 hours per day. When you got back the first thing they would do is feed you, because you hadn't eaten since early in the morning. That usually started as you came into the mess and they gave you a shot of whiskey."

When flying 31 missions in a period of six months, some blend in with each other. But Vasquez has a few memories he will never forget.

"One time I had to climb into the bomb bay because some bombs got hung up on the rack," he explained. "The doors were open and I had to release those bombs with a screwdriver."

Looking down over 25,000 feet must have been a scary prospect, except that when Vasquez was in the belly turret with it's 360 view below the plane that is what he was doing all the time.

He also remembered times when they didn't drop bombs but instead went low level and dropped supplies to French fighters.

"We were so low that I can still remember seeing one of the Frenchmen on the ground and he had red hair and a red beard," remembered Vasquez.

Two other particular mission stood out in his mind too. In one the plane dropped huge 5,000 bombs, the biggest there were at the time on German fortifications. The other he remembers was particularly important in the outcome of the war.

"We dropped incendiaries on the base where the Germans were developing a nuclear bomb," he said. "I could see the bombs hit and just watched everything burn."

Not one man on the entire crew of the Lenora Linda sustained a scratch from combat during 31 missions from June to December of 1944.

Vasquez's crew flew only one mission in another plane because the Lenora Linda was in for repairs.

"Yeah, we flew that mission in a plane called Rum Dum," he said.

Amazingly, while some crews lost men to both injury and death, not one scratch was inflicted on any member of Vasquez's crew. When they flew their last mission on Dec. 7, 1944 against German troops who had marched forward in the Battle of the Bulge, they became one of the few crews that ever did that during the war.

During his time on tour he saw a lot of planes go down with their crews.

"If a plane went into a flat spin from being shot up or damaged, the centrifugal force would pin the crew against the ceiling and they couldn't get out. I saw some planes do that; no parachutes came out of them before they hit the ground."

The B-17 G had engines that produced 1200 horsepower each and could keep the plane crusing at 182 MPH.

After the final mission Vasquez hoped to be home for Christmas, but even though he got to fly back while the other crew members came back to the United States on a ship, a snowstorm in Washington D.C. kept him from arriving in time in Colorado for the holidays.

However there was still a war on and he was still in the military so, even though he had volunteered to take on more missions in Europe and the military had denied that, they weren't ready to let him go. After some time at home he was sent to further training to be a crew member on B-29 bombers that were pounding Japan.

But before he finished up his training stint, the war ended.

By this time Vasquez's parents had moved to Carbon County during the war and when he came to see them he liked what he saw. And eventually he stayed.

B-17 facts

• 12,731 B-17 were produced during World War II.
• A completely equipped B-17 cost $238,329.
• The B-17G (the model used the most) could carry 6380 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition.
• The most B-17's to ever go on a single raid was 3,500
• During the war B-17's dropped 500,000 lbs. of bombs
• 45,500 servicemen were killed or wounded on B-17's.
• Today only 44 B-17 airframes exist.

Over the ensuing years, he worked at almost every mine in Carbon County and even for the Denver & Rio Grande railroad for 16 years. He eventually retired in 1982.

Interestingly enough one of the things he remembers best about his war experience is something beautiful, not something brutal and painful.

"We took off from England one morning and the sun was coming up. It was foggy all over the landscape and it was just beautiful. It was like a fairyland. I'll never forget that."

Then he and his crew went off on a mission where they very well could have not come back from.

But they did.

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