Ball turret gunner: ‘A ringside seat’ to air combat

peo ballturret pd 4.jpgCharles McGowan kept a B-17 wind indicator in his back yard. (Photo used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

From an exclusively visual perspective, Charles “Chub” McGowan had the best seat during the air war over Germany late in World War II.

Sightseeing, however, wasn’t on the agenda.

McGowan, a Pennsylvania native and Baton Rouge resident since 1969, was a ball turret gunner from late July 1944 to late February 1945, when the crew of the B-17 bomber called “Patty Jo” completed their 35th mission, earning them that rare blessing of being sent back to the United States for the rest of the war. With thousands of airmen killed or captured, those completing a full tour of duty earned membership in the “Lucky Bastard Club.”

None of them probably felt luckier than the ball turret gunner.

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Over half-century later, POW corresponds with liberator

photoDon Menard shows a letter and gifts he received in 2004 from Vasily Bezugly, a Soviet soldier who helped liberate Menard at Stalag Luft 1 near the end of World War II in Europe. (Photo used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.)

By George Morris

After leaving a prisoner of war camp near the end of World War II, Don Menard never expected he’d get to know any of the Soviet soldiers who liberated him.

Yet, several years, that is exactly what he was able to do.

In 2001, Menard began corresponding with Vasily Bezugly, part of the Soviet force that liberated Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, on May 2, 1945, just days before Germany’s surrender ended the war.

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The Glider Boys

Glider (CG-4A) in flightAmerican Waco CG-4A glider being towed in flight (National Archives)

By George Morris

After a half century, World War II aircraft and airmen remain famous. Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 raiders bombing Tokyo. Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers dueling Japanese Zeros. British Spitfires and Hurricanes fighting off the German blitz. The Memphis Belle.

Less well known is another group of combat aviators — glider pilots. Yet, they were part of some of the war’s biggest, most dangerous missions.

“A bunch of us are lucky guys to be here,” said W.T. Owens of Baton Rouge in advance of a reunion of about 100 other World War II glider pilots.

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Assigned to bomb Hiroshima — the day after the A-bomb

FATEFUL DAY *** WWII airman recalls mission to Hiroshima, NagasakiStan Shaw holds a photo taken of him in a bomber cockpit during World War II. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

On Aug. 7, 1945, Stan Shaw was like any other airman on a combat mission — prepared, yet wondering what to expect. Certainly, Shaw didn’t expect what he saw when his bomber arrived at its primary target.

For all practical purposes, it wasn’t there, replaced by a rust-colored stain — Hiroshima, Japan, a day after the first atomic bomb attack.

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Not a ‘Lucky Bastard’ — Shot down on his 21st mission

NolanRuiz022.adv.jpg
Nolan Ruiz, a ball turret gunner on a B-17 during WWII, takes a look at some of his medals and photos from his service days in the war. (Photo by Patrick Dennis, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

But for a miscommunication, Nolan “Country” Ruiz, of Plaquemine, Louisiana, might have been among the World War II B-17 crews who completed 25 bombing missions and earned a ticket home. That happened so rarely that those who accomplished it were declared members of the “Lucky Bastards Club.”

No one could call Ruiz’s last mission lucky — nor what happened after that.

Ruiz was shot down on March 4, 1944, in the war’s first daylight bombing attack on Germany’s capital, Berlin, and spent the next 14 months as a prisoner of war. Only 11 of those months, however, were in a prison camp.

Instead, he was among several thousand POWs who were marched for 86 consecutive days during a brutal winter before finally being liberated on April 26, 1945. That forced march is not well known except by those forced to endure it.

“It was terrible,” Ruiz said.

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Tuskegee Airmen

arthur-ward-1Arthur W. Ward during flight training in World War II. (Photo provided by Deborah S. Ward)

By George Morris

As the United States neared its entry into World War II, the world wondered whether England would fall to German bombs or the Soviet Union would fall to Nazi troops.
For much of black America, though, attention focused on the small, East Alabama town of Tuskegee. There, a racial barrier was falling.
Of blacks’ numerous contributions to Allied victory, perhaps none is as compelling as the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. Resisted by the American military at home and enemies abroad, they advanced the civil rights struggle in an area where many doubted they could succeed — in the skies.
Although the airmen’s names are seldom mentioned in war history, Baton Rouge resident Arthur W. Ward knows them well. Ward, a retired Southern University professor, went through wartime pilot training there.
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Stuck in the USSR

Ralph Sims

Ralph Sims

By George Morris

In 32 missions as a B-17 tail gunner during World War II, Ralph Sims had his share of memorable moments — fighting off attacking German fighter planes, being rocked by anti-aircraft fire,occasionally wondering if the plane would make it back to England.

Sims’ most interesting mission, however, was a little-known bombing and goodwill run named Operation Frantic.

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