World War II Veteran Don Brady: 50 Missions as a Ball Turret Gunner on B-24s

By Friends & Neighbors December 15, 2011 06:53

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
By Randall Jarrell

 From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. 

By Don C. Brady
as told to Chace Anderson           

Savannah, Georgia 1942

I’ve always been kind of small. Maybe that’s why I became a ball turret gunner on a B-24 during World War II.  I was barely five and a half feet and only 116 pounds when I went in, 118 at the most. The ball turret was cramped, and you had to be small to fit. It was a job nobody wanted, and that’s why I took it.

Sitting in that tiny ball turret under the belly of the plane, you were a perfect target for the enemy Messerschmitts or shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns. And if the landing gear failed for any reason, the ball turret could be smashed when you touched down.

I was small even at birth. I was born at home, 2½ pounds and premature. They put me on the door of the oven to keep me warm, and a doctor told my mom I wouldn’t live past 14.  That was 1919, and I just turned 93. I’m still small, but I’ve lived a lot longer than anyone expected.

I was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Fillmore District. My dad, a World War I veteran, went back to Tennessee when I was six months old, so I never really knew him.  My mom worked most of the time as a waitress, and so I was pretty much raised by my grandmother, a wonderful woman who was half Cherokee. About the time I was nine, my mom remarried, and I quit school after the 9th grade to work in my stepfather’s garage.  I’ve always liked to work with my hands, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Love at first sight

The Fillmore District was full of immigrants, and everybody spoke a different language.  Our school, John Swett Jr. High, was full of different nationalities. My best friend was Japanese, and my wife Esther’s best friend was Syrian.

Esther’s family lived in the same neighborhood, but I didn’t really know her when we were kids. She had three sisters, and I had gone to school with her older sister, Betty.  Esther was about 4½ years younger than I was, but I sure noticed her when we met.

I was driving around the neighborhood one day with my cousin Carl when my car broke down.  We pulled over in front of her house, and when she came out, Carl introduced us.  Now she was 14, and I was about 18 or 19. For me it was love at first sight, but I think she kind of felt sorry for me. She always said I seemed a little lonely.

I had a couple of other girlfriends at the time. I was running around a little too much and sometimes would find trouble. In the Fillmore District there were good girls and bad girls. You’d see the good girls in the afternoon and early evening, and when the good girls went in, the bad girls came out. Esther was a good girl. But, oh, did she have great legs.

Two months after the wedding, on Don's first leave

For about a year we’d talk and spend time together, and then for the next four years, we went together steadily. Her family, like mine, was very poor and didn’t have much. I loved to take her down to the beach and buy her something to eat. Nobody had much to eat in those days.

Off to war    

I was 22 when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and I volunteered for the Army Air Corps in 1942. I had been going with Esther for four years, and I thought we ought to get married before I went in the service. If we were married and I were killed,  I figured, she’d get some money from the government. So August of 1942 was a pretty busy: I signed up for the service on Aug. 1, got married on Aug. 12, and I was inducted at the Presidio in Monterey on Aug. 15. Esther was two weeks short of her 19th birthday, and I was 23.

Basic training was very short, about 19 days at Camp Kearns, Utah. I didn’t have enough education to be a pilot, but I thought maybe I could be an airplane mechanic in the Army Air Corps. I was sent to Lowry Field in Colorado, and it was all bombs, ballistics, and turrets. I did most of my training there, but I also did some in Wendover, Utah; Grand Island, Nebraska; and Madison, Wisconsin.

I learned I was to become part of a B-24 bomber crew and was sent next to Clovis, New Mexico, where the crews were put together. There I became a member of a 10-man crew. We had a pilot, copilot, navigator, bombardier, and six gunners. We had to depend on each other, so we did a lot of training there and even more at Chatham Field in Savannah, Georgia. Each guy didn’t want to let the other nine down; I know that’s how I felt.

I had great respect for our pilot, Cecil Lawrence. At 19, he was a lot younger than I was; they were all younger, I think. But he was a great guy and a fantastic pilot. In fact, a perfect pilot. At Chatham Field, one day we took off for a training flight, and at about treetop level the internal supercharger caught fire. This young pilot turned us sharply and landed crossways on the runway. Can you imagine that?  Not the long way down the runway, but across it. We came to a stop, and everybody jumped out and ran.

The copilot was 2nd Lt. Jimmy Davis. He was about my age, but took me in like a father would. He was a wonderful person.

When we were ready for war, our crew flew a B-24 from Georgia down to South America and then across the Atlantic to Dakar on an 11-hour flight. From there we flew to North Africa, and then on to Italy. We were to become members of the 760th Bomb Squadron of the 460th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force.  We were stationed at an airfield at Spinazzola, near Cerignola on the heel of the boot in Southern Italy.

50 missions over Europe

When I arrived with my crew in Spinazzola, I don’t remember anyone ever telling me how many missions I had to fly. I think in some ways I kind of turned myself off when I got there. I know I never counted the missions. Another guy in my squadron used to paint little bombs on my leather jacket for each, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. I don’t remember too many of the specific targets.  I just know all 50 of my missions were bad. There was so much flak … ack ack ack all the time. I’d look down and see a puff pretty close, then another one even closer. I was always afraid the third one would hit us.

We flew to Austria, Germany, Bucharest, and the Ploesti oil refineries in Rumania.  Ploesti supplied 30 percent of all the Axis oil, and the 15th Air Force crippled that supply.  We once did a 10-hour mission to Toulon, France to bomb submarine pens, and I remember stopping in Corsica to refuel on the way home.

Only once did we bomb troops, and that was in Northern Italy. We would mostly try to knock out marshaling yards, gas and oil supplies, refineries, bridges and viaducts; sometimes it would be a railroad or an ammunition dump.

The routine at Spinazzola

I was in Italy from February to August of 1944. My crew, at least for the first few months, stayed in the same tent together, and it was pretty rough, with lots of mud around during the winter. I remember the mess tent. The food wasn’t good at first, but it got a little better. When we first arrived it was so bad we went hunting once with our .45s. We never got anything. We even thought about buying a lamb from a farmer to cook, but we never did that either.

His main crew: Brady is in back row, second from right, next to Harold Dahms, far right. Pilot Cecil Lawrence is in front row, far left; next to him is Jimmy Davis, killed on a mission he flew without Brady.

On the day of a mission, we would get up early and go to the mess tent.  From there we’d get a briefing in a boarded room where they showed us a map of the target and told us where we would most likely get flak.  Most of the missions were rough, really rough. If we weren’t shot at, we’d call the mission a “milk run,” but there weren’t many milk runs.

After the briefing, we’d jump into Jeeps and head out to the B-24s. It was my job to check the bombs, and I’d do that on the ground and then a second time when we were airborne. The pilot would get a signal that it was clear to take off, and once airborne we’d circle as we gained altitude. The squadron would then come together and head out for the target in formation. Sometimes we had P-51 fighter escorts, but I rarely saw them.  Occasionally I’d see a little flash when the sun might reflect off one.

About a half hour before we got to the target I would put the ball turret down and climb into the cramped quarters behind its two .50-caliber machine guns. The wind resistance when the turret was down would slow our airspeed, so I usually left it up on the way to the target. The pilot would turn the plane over to the bombardier when we began the bomb run, and when the bombs were away, I would always look down and count until they hit the ground.

Always cold

Besides the flak, I remember how cold it was on those missions. I tried a heated suit once, but it didn’t really work for me. I wore English flying boots, English gloves over silk gloves, two pairs of pants, two shirts, a leather jacket, and a leather helmet. But I was still cold.

The helmets had earphones and mikes, allowing the pilot to call back and check to see that everything was OK.  But those earphones got us in trouble one time. Our crew got in the habit of sometimes not wearing them. I remember on takeoff I was eating a piece of cheese in the waist of the plane, and all of a sudden we made a sharp turn and went right over the mess tent, barely missing it.

Don in Spinazzola, ready for mission

Without earphones, no one heard the tower say there were two planes sitting at the end of the runway, and we were headed right toward them. The pilot had to turn sharply and was barely able to pull up and miss them. We completed the mission, but when we got back we really caught it. We should have had our earphones on to listen to what was going on.

Close calls 

The B-24 was a good plane. I knew it had faults, but look how many times I came home in it. I think the B-17s got the glory because so many movie actors were in them, but the B-24 was a mean, tough old airplane. I was never in a B-24 that was shot down, but there were plenty of close calls and some pretty sobering moments during my 50 missions.

We didn’t always fly the same plane, and I remember on one mission I got into the ball turret, and there was dried blood all around the Plexiglas window. I wondered what had happened, and only later found that the ball-turret gunner who flew in that plane before me had his head blown off. He was the brother of a guy who had been shot earlier, and I later heard the government would no longer deploy two brothers to the same area.

I told you our young pilot, Cecil Lawrence, was amazing. Once there was flak all around us. The pilot suddenly veered sharply to the left, and I was thrown against the side of the turret. Out the window in the ball turret, I saw one of our planes coming straight down toward us. It had been hit, and I was sure it was going to crash into us and take us down too. But here’s what happened: Our pilot saw the plane falling, swerved so that it would just miss us going down, then leveled off and kept going. He was so good – and only 20 at the time!

Later, we were on a mission to bomb an aircraft factory near Vienna when we hit a lot of flak. I looked out my waist window and in the bomber next to us was a friend of mine, standing on the window ledge about to bail out. To my right there’s a plane going straight down to the ground, with another one right after it. I glanced down again and it looked like mushrooms everywhere, there were so many open parachutes from guys bailing out.  Well, guess what? Some time later I was on a recreational leave with my wife in Malibu, and into our restaurant walks my friend who had bailed from the window ledge. He had survived. There were lots of amazing stories of survival.

Life-and-death decisions

There was another time when we ran into a lot of flak, and I thought I was hit because all of a sudden I couldn’t breathe. As it turned out, my oxygen line had been cut, but I was able to get to a portable tank. Pieces of shrapnel had come through the plane and an 88mm shell had hit the fuel tank on the right wing. The plane became flooded with gas, and guys were putting rags around their faces so they didn’t breathe in the fumes. The right wing was loose, moving up and down, and the pilot told us we could bail out if we wanted.

I usually didn’t wear my parachute, but kept it on the rack next to me, and so did the waist gunner. We checked them, and they were both soaked with gasoline. We knew that chutes often sparked a little from friction when they opened, and if they were soaked in gas, they could explode. But there were also lots of sparking opportunities in the bomber, so we might just blow up if we stayed.

Well, we all agreed that if the pilot would try to get the plane back, we would stay with him. And of course we made it.

Dahms’ last mission  

I have to tell you about Harold Dahms’ last mission. Now, the same crew flew my first 30 or so missions. Dahms was our tail gunner then, and a guy named Red Formby was the left waist gunner. On this particular mission I didn’t have my turret down yet, so we could make good time. Well, I turned to Red and told him I was going to put it down, and I reached for the valve.

All of a sudden an Me (Messerschmitt) 210 is coming right at us. I could even see the pilot. Old Red ducks down and lets a burst go out, and that 210 doesn’t fire back … just flips over and goes right under us. I guess Red scared him. But then a 210 on our other side fires, and I see Dahms get blown out of the turret he’s in. A 20mm shell hit him in the knees; blew him right out of the turret.

I managed to get my ball turret down, but Dahms was hit pretty bad, and our plane got hit a few places too. The hydraulic system had been shot out, so we had no rudders.

Now think of this: Our 20-year-old pilot brought that plane home using only the engines to turn, revving one side and then the other to go left or right. About 90 miles short of Spinazzola we found a fire field at Bari and decided to land there. Without hydraulics, the guys had to wind down the landing gear by hand, and although the cable snapped, the gear locked into place. But we had no brakes.

One of the other gunners and I grabbed our parachutes and attached them to the gun mounts, one on each side of the plane. As we came in, I hollered “NOW,” and we threw the chutes out the side of the plane. Let me tell you, the chutes deployed and opened up perfectly, bringing the B-24 to a stop. If they had been off just a little bit, it would have thrown the plane around.

As we got Dahms out of the B-24, he kept hollering that we left his legs back in the plane, but we didn’t – they were still attached.  I went to see him in the hospital a week later, and he still had his legs then. They looked kind of like salamis, but he still had them. He owed me $300 for a poker debt, and the son of a gun paid me in the hospital. I told him to keep it, but he wouldn’t. Could you beat that?

Dahms always liked a drink, and I heard after the war he went back home to New York and opened a bar. And that parachute I threw out to stop the plane? My wife’s sister Betty took a panel out of it and used it to make Esther a blouse.

‘Loose crew’

After that mission, our pilot didn’t fly with us anymore. I don’t know if he had enough missions in, or if he couldn’t take it anymore. I never saw him after the war. I guess he could still be alive, but that was the last mission he flew, and our crew wasn’t together for the rest of the missions I was on. We were termed a “loose crew” after that, and I flew with many different guys.

The old copilot, Jimmy Davis, and I still flew some missions together, but that didn’t last either. I told you he was like a father to me. There was a mission on which I didn’t fly with him, and he was killed when 300 Messerschmitts jumped his squadron over Italy.  That really hit me…I never had a chance to say goodbye. What a wonderful guy. All the crew members were good.  I never saw one of them chicken out.

On one of my later missions, after our pilot had stopped flying with us, we dropped our bombs and made a left turn toward home. Guess what?  We had some bombs that for some reason had hung up on the racks, and when we made the turn, they loosened up a bit and tore the bomb bay doors out.  Now the doors were hanging below the plane and slowing our air speed way down. We had to drop to around 9,000 feet and the pilot, a new guy thinking we might not make it back, told us we could bail out if we wanted to.  Again, we all said we’d stay together, and our pilot brought the plane back too.

Yes, there were many close calls, but the B-24 always brought me home.  I was beginning to believe in the Lord.

Walking back    

Bomb patches represent Brady's 50 missions

I saw firsthand and also heard stories of fliers who were shot down or who had to bail out and were able to “walk back” – to somehow find a way to return to their units. Before each mission they would give us maps and information on friendly towns and where contacts might be found. We were even told places where allied submarines might pick us up.

One flier who bailed out somewhere near Bucharest landed on a rock and broke both legs. Somehow he survived, made the right contacts, and with those broken legs rode all the way to Spinazzola on the back of a motorcycle … over the mountains and everything – on the back of a motorcycle!

Another guy bailed out in Yugoslavia, and after he was captured, the two sides argued over who had custody of him. Finally he was helped by Partisans who traded him a pistol and one bullet for his wristwatch. That was enough to help him get all the way back to the base at Spinazzola.

Shortly after I learned Jimmy Davis was killed, an officer asked me if I wanted to go to the Isle of Capri for a rest or go home. I didn’t know how many missions I had flown, and I still didn’t know how many I was supposed to fly. But I had had enough, and said I wanted to go home.

I found out I had done 50 missions. That’s how many bombs had been painted on my jacket, and I received an Air Medal plus four Oak Leaf Clusters, a medal for every 10 missions flown.  I went back to Lowry Field in Colorado and was discharged from there in September of 1945.

PTSD: Darkness, then light

I love her more and more all the time.  She’s my life.  I love her more now than I did when we were married in 1942. I feel bad about treating her the way I did.

It’s been about 68 years since I flew my last mission, and almost 67 years since the war ended and I left the Army Air Corps. I could summarize my life since the war very quickly if I wanted to.  But those years have been a journey, and the best part has been toward the end.

I came back from the war, and again worked as a mechanic for my stepfather in his San Francisco garage. Our three boys and our girl were born between 1947 and 1955, beginning with Donny in 1947. Patrick was the youngest.  In between were Danny and Bonnie. After San Francisco, I became a metal worker, first in Hayward and then in Santa Cruz, where we all moved. I retired in 1981 at age 62. Those are the highlights. But there certainly have been some lowlights.

When I came back from the war, I was kind of messed up in the head, but didn’t know it.  Oh, I was OK on the job. But when I came home, one little word would set me off.  Esther could say anything, and I’d explode.

I guess I was a little gloomy before the war, but after I came home I was really unhappy, and I was mean. I was sick and didn’t even know it. One of my sons told me he used to hear me talking and then screaming in my sleep at night. And Esther thought it was terrible. There she was trying to raise four children, and their father can’t even reason very well.

Something would set me off, and I’d get quiet and wouldn’t talk to the family for a couple of weeks, maybe a month.  I guess the kids got used to it.  Esther tells me they’d say, “Ah, the old man’s off,” and go on playing.

Dysfunctional years

There were times when I’d see some pictures of the war on TV and just start crying. I think Esther felt a little sorry for me at first, but as she got older she realized I needed help. I was short-tempered, depressed and just awful to those around me. Her explanation for what happened and why was simply, “War is war.”

There were a lot of dysfunctional years, and it wasn’t very easy. There was even a two-year period when Esther and I lived apart. But I eventually got lonesome for her; she was lonesome for me too, and we got back together. We survived financially because I could work, and we would buy houses and sell them. And some money from my stepfather went to my mom, then eventually to me.  But the darkness was always there.

About 15 or 16 years ago I told my youngest son, Patrick, an engineer for Lockheed who was also doing a little real estate in the Santa Cruz area, to look for some property for Esther and me. I told him it needed to be close to a town, close to a hospital, and it had to have water. He found this property on Lime Kiln Road, and we bought it and moved to Sonora. And that’s where things took a turn for the better.

Learning to cope

One day we saw a notice; I think it was in the paper:  “ARE YOU A VETERAN AND  DO YOU NEED HELP?”

Well, we went down to the place on Cabezut Road, like the notice said. I was given a card with three short questions on it, filled it out and took it in to a lady. She read my answers and asked me if I had ever had a traumatic experience in the service. Well, right there I just started crying, crying like a baby. That lady told me I had it.  I didn’t even know what “it” was, but I learned.

It was PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s what I’ve learned in special group sessions I go to at the Veterans Administration. I’ve worked with Pat Noonan, and she’s great. I ended up going to meetings, and they’ve helped me a lot.

I now understand why I felt like I did for so long, and I’m learning what I can do when I start to get those dark feelings.

Things have worked out pretty well, and I’d say we’re happy. My son Donny lives with us, and my daughter Bonnie, who retired from nursing, moved to Sonora a few years ago and lives with her husband in the house just above us. My son Danny has his own machinist business in Santa Cruz, and Patrick continues to work for Lockheed in Sunnyvale.

Don and Esther at home

Esther: ‘My whole life’

And Esther? This August will be our 70th wedding anniversary. And I love my wife more every day. She’s my whole life. Things were so bad and now they’re good.

Why did Esther stay with me all this time?  She may tell you she liked me or she felt sorry for me or maybe that’s what you do when you’re married.  But I say it’s the Lord’s will. Why did I survive the war? It’s the Lord’s will. That’s all there is to it. That’s why I’m here today.  He always watched out for me.

And how did I get better? Our lives really began to brighten when we came up here to Sonora and learned about PTSD. We started to get help from the VA, and I came to believe in the Lord’s will.

I think I’ve come out pretty well, because once I knew what my problem was, whenever it hit me I could work on it and come out of it. There have been some really dark days, but there’s a lot of light right now. God has been good. I didn’t die at 14, and I didn’t die in the war.

You know, if I hadn’t lived so long, maybe we never would have found the light.

Reflections

Sometimes I’m asked why I went to war, and I guess the best answer is that we were attacked. That was my country. I should fight for it. But you know, I didn’t hate the Japanese or the Germans.

As I said before, my best friend in school was Japanese, and Esther is of German descent. My son Patrick married a German girl, and her father flew for the Luftwaffe in the war. She says he was flying for Germany at the same time I was in Italy. We may have even flown a mission against each other.   

But there was Pearl Harbor: We were attacked, and I was very willing to fight for my country.

Commendations

Bronze Star
Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters
Good Conduct Medal
Distinguished Unit Badge, awarded to 460th Bomb Group for a mission “through adverse weather and heavy enemy fire to bomb the airfield and aircraft repair facilities at Zwolfaxing, Austria, 26 July 1944.”

Mr. Brady, February 2012

Mr. Brady, 93, was interviewed in early 2012 by retired educator Chace Anderson, for the all-volunteer Tuolumne Veterans History Project based in Tuolumne County, California.     


By Friends & Neighbors December 15, 2011 06:53