Fighting a war from the belly of the beast
Dan Keller was a well known attorney in Carbon County for over 40 years. During his time in private practice, as well as serving two terms as county attorney he touched many lives.
"I'm a fretting kind of person," he said as he spoke sitting in his living room surrounded by photos of his family."I always fretted about getting things right as a lawyer and I still do. I worry."
He also had something to fret about long before he studied law or thought about prosecuting cases. He had to worry about staying alive as a belly gunner in a B-17 over Nazi Germany during 1944-45.
Keller, who was born and raised in Manti, said he was always kind of small, so being assigned to the bottom turret of the plane only made sense.
"It was a very small space," he explained. "In fact it was so small that I couldn't even keep my parachute in there with me. I had to leave it in the fuselage."
No place on a bomber flying over war torn Europe in those days was really safe, but most people will say that one of the worst positions to be in was that belly gunners position. Exposed and hanging beneath the plane, it was an easy target for enemy fighters, and it also was exposed to the black puffs of smoke that appeared in the sky sent up by anti-aircraft guns.
But Keller seemed to have taken it in stride. As with all veterans of World War II he grew up during the depression, and not having things the way he would have liked them to be was just the path of life. His father was a cashier at the Manti City Bank, not a high paying job, but at least an employed position in a time when a lot of people had no work. His mother took care of him, his two brothers and a younger sister.
"My mother only worked outside the home for one period of time during her entire life and that is when a parachute company came into town and set up during the war," he says. "She made the strings for the chutes."
They could have very well been some of the very strings on the chute he had to take off before crawling into that glass bubble under a 55,000 lb. air plane.
But there was tradition for military service in his family; both his brothers preceeded him into the service . His oldest brother Bob was actually in the National Guard when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, and he was in the South Pacific at the time. His other brother, Con, went in a special Army program during the war.
|Dan Keller in 1944.|
"He actually went to college for most of the war, and then ended up overseas after it was all over," says Keller.
When Keller graduated from Manti High School in 1943, he knew it was only a matter of time before he ended up somewhere in the military, so while attending a quarter of college at Snow he took a test to try and get in the Navy. He passed a test to get in, but then he went to Salt Lake to have a physical and someone asked him if he ever got dizzy.
"I was very naive at the time," he said. "I told them 'Yes, I get dizzy when I have been sleeping hard and have to get right up.' They told me to go home."
Keller was drafted into the Army in late 1943 just before Christmas. Again in Salt Lake during the initial phases of being inducted, one of the processors asked him if he wanted to be in the infantry or the Air Force.
"I had once climbed high up on a mountain during Maple Days in Wales (located in Sanpete County) and realized I didn't like heights very much," he explains. "So I asked the guy if I took the test for the air force would I still have the option of the infantry if I wanted and he said "Sure you can."
Keller took the test passed and the next thing he knew he was transported to Buckley Field in Colorado for basic training. He was then sent to Las Vegas Army Air Field for gunnery training.
"I think they just took everyone who could pass the test to the Army Air Corp because they expected the casualties in the aircraft to be much higher than they were," he states.
Earlier in the war (1942-43) the casualties in the Eighth Air Force that flew out of England into fortress Europe ranged around 80 percent, largely because of the large number of German fighter planes that intercepted the unescorted bombers. But by the later years of the war, when Keller was drafted, the American Thunderbolt and P-51 fighters had developed the range to escort most bombing missions clear to their target, thereby reducing bomber losses dramatically.
After gunnery school Keller was sent to Rapid City, S.D. for flight training with the crew he was chosen to serve with. After a little over 3 months he found himself in Northern England, after the crew had flown a B-17 across the Atlantic via Greenland and Iceland. There the crew was assigned to the 305th bomber group.
"A group consisted of three squadrons with twelve planes each," states Keller. "We were the 365th squadron."
|Dan Keller when he visited a restored B -17 in Provo in August.|
For the first two to three missions the military split the crew up and they flew as replacements on other missions on other aircraft so they could get used to the conditions.
"Two of our original crew members, the navigator and the tail gunner never came back from those missions," said Keller with a look of despair in his eyes. "By the time we were back together on our plane we had new guys in those positions."
Keller never learned if those men were killed or captured, but he never heard anything about them again.
The airbase he was stationed at was very scattered with planes positioned in many different places, presumably to keep enemy bombers from being able to target them all at once.
"It was interesting that along the runways guys that had come before use had planted potatoes," said Keller on a lighter note. "In the barracks we had small stoves to heat them and the top of those had a lid that a helmet would just fit into. We went to the mess hall and got cooking oil, put it in the helmet with sliced up potatoes and made the best French fries I have ever eaten in my entire life."
But the facts and fears of war and flying above enemy territory without much of a break took any respite from the action away very quickly.
"By the time we were up and flying missions the escort situation was very good," says Keller. "We worried a lot more about the flak than we did the German fighter planes because the P-51's drove those away for the most part. It was only when we flew missions deeper into Europe that once in awhile we didn't have fighter protection."
Keller and the crew he was with were on flight duty almost every day for the almost five months they were in England, and that wore on them.
"First of all we were taken out to the aircraft and then we had to wait to be sure the mission was a go," explained Keller. "I didn't exactly like being inside it very much even though I wasn't in the ball turret the whole time. There was something about the odor of the grease and the metal inside that made my stomach turn."
Keller says once up in the air it would take them hours to circle gather the entire attack force together and to gain the altitude they needed.
"Once we reached altitude, we did a straight beeline for the target," he says. "As soon as we started that straight flight is when I got down into the turret."
Despite stories to the contrary, Keller did not find being in the lower turret that bad.
"It had great hydraulics and I could swing around and see everything that was going on below and on the whole horizon," said "They often gave me a camera to take photos of the bombing."
Keller says that he never got very scared until they could hear the anti-aircraft fire (flak) exploding around them.
|The big wings of the B-17 as it appeared in Heber in August.|
"Then we knew it was too close," he says.
The planes usually did their bombing runs at between 27-30,000 feet and since B-17's were unpressurized everyone had to wear an oxygen mask. The group bombing was very different from the precision munitions the air force uses today.
"The lead plane of the group always had the best and most experienced bombardier," explained Keller. "When he let go of his bombs it was a signal for everyone in the group to drop theirs too. It was a pattern type of bombing. We usually went after rail yards, factories and fuel dumps. But with the type of bombing we did we certainly did in a lot of cabbage patches as well."
In some ways the most dangerous part of the mission was flying back to England. With over 1000 planes doing a strike, Keller's plane would be flying back while others were still approaching their targets. Often returning bombers had to fly back at lower altitudes, often through clouds and fog. The course was very specific. That meant if someone was off course or something went wrong, a collision between two friendly aircraft could and often did appear.
"I saw a lot of planes hit each other," said Keller with a sad look. "Usually it just resulted in a large explosion and a burst of flame and everyone on both aircraft were dead."
When they landed the were debriefed about what they saw and then they often helped the ground crew patch up holes and remove metal from the plane that had accumulated during the mission.
"We never came back without holes in the plane," said Keller. "When the flak goes up it has to come down and we were flying at nearly 300 miles per hour through it. That put a lot of holes in an aircraft."
At the end of four months and 29 days, Keller went home after flying 35 missions. That was standard procedure for flight crews. Instead of coming back to the United States on a B-17, this time he came back in a transport. He then had a leave and came home for about a month. After that he went to Laredo, Texas where they trained him to be an instructor, to teach others to do what he had done. He then ended up almost where he began, at the Las Vegas Army Air Base.
"When I was discharged in November of 1945 I hadn't even been in two years," stated Keller. "I got out early because of the air combat points I had accumulated during the missions over Europe."
He says he loved England and the people there, and he later went on a mission for his church to Great Britain as well.
When he came back he decided he wanted to be a teacher, but his uncle Judge Fred Keller had always wanted someone in the family to go into law.
"I took a law class one summer just on kind of whim and got an A in it and thought that wasn't so bad so I decided to go to law school," says Keller of how he became a lawyer.
He eventually ended up in Price because then Carbon County Attorney Duane Frandsen needed someone to do research on a case and Keller got involved in it.
"I guess he liked what he saw and asked me if I wanted to be a partner in his firm," he states. "So we moved here and I have been here ever since."
Now Keller, retired, lives in North Price with his wife Athlen and spends two days a week traveling to Manti to work in the LDS Temple there. He enjoys life but remembers the days of the war periodically.
"I just can't recall everything like I used to, but some of it is still vivid," he says.
A couple of months ago his son Mike and he went to the Provo Airport and took a tour of a B-17 that was on display there for a couple of days. It brought back and lot of thoughts and stories that he related to his family. The plane was also available for flights, but Keller said no to the offer.
"I didn't want to go up," he said. "I'd done that enough in my lifetime."