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B-17 ball-turret gunner had a bird’s-eye view of World War II aerial warefare

Posted Nov. 08, 2012, at 3:29 p.m.
All smiles after completing his 35th and final bombing mission against Nazi Germany, Wayne Dennison poses beside his ball turret in mid-June 1944.
Wayne Dennison
All smiles after completing his 35th and final bombing mission against Nazi Germany, Wayne Dennison poses beside his ball turret in mid-June 1944.

Wayne Dennison enjoyed “the best seat in the house” as he flew high above Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.

A 1942 Washington Academy graduate, Dennison was drafted into the Army on Feb. 18, 1943. He wanted to fly; “I tried to enlist in the [aviation] cadet program, but they wouldn’t let you [do so] then,” he recalled.

“I’d lived with guns all my life, so I became an armorer gunner” in the Army Air Force, Dennison said.

Catching a Maine Central Railroad train to Bangor, he passed his physical there and then departed on an extended journey that took him to Fort Devens in Massachusetts and training bases in Miami Beach and Denver. “We learned how to load bombs on planes, [and] take a .50-caliber machine gun apart” Dennison said.

Aerial gunnery training started in Laredo, Texas, where he sat in the rear seat of a T-6 and fired a .30-caliber machine gun at a target towed by another plane. Then Dennison transferred to Pyote Army Airfield in Pyote, Texas; soldiers nicknamed the field “Rattlesnake Air Base,” but Dennison never saw a rattlesnake there.

Assigned to the 323rd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group, Dennison boarded “a brand new plane” — a four-engine B-17G “Flying Fortress” — at Grand Isle, Neb. for the long flight to Great Britain. Its bright metal fuselage unpainted, the unarmed bomber made refueling stops at Manchester, N.H.; Goose Bay, Labrador; Iceland; and Prestwick in Scotland.

Dennison was the last gunner to join the crew. Because “every position had been taken but the ball turret,” the 5-10½ Dennison wound up fighting his war while peering down upon Europe from high altitudes.

Located beneath a B-17’s fuselage, a ball turret could spin 360 degrees horizontally and turn up to 90 degrees vertically. Dennison fired two .50-caliber machines while tracking fast-moving German fighters.

After completing more gunnery training in Britain, Dennison took off on his first mission on March 22, 1944. His squadron flew from RAF Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire on a mission to Berlin, where the B-17s dropped bombs through clouds.

“I found we were right over another bomber” just before the B-17s opened their bomb-bay doors, Dennison recalled. “I saw its top turret gunner waving at us to get away.”

Another B-17 flying to the right of Dennison’s plane took a hit and slid to the left. Dennison’s pilots deftly eased off the throttles and let their aircraft briefly lose air speed; the damaged plane moved past and “vanished downward into the clouds,” Dennison said.

“We were hit by heavy flak that day,” he recalled. Besides its tail wheel being jammed in the “up” position, the B-17 “had 125 flak holes” and landed on the two main wheels before bouncing and dragging its tail.

The Allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany was intense in spring 1944. In wave after wave of B-17s, aviators like Dennison endured -40 degree Fahrenheit temperatures; he remembers the mission when his feet got cold, and a cursory check inside the ball turret led him to discover that the electrical cord that powered his heated flight suit “had come unplugged.”

On another mission to Berlin, “it was a clear day, and we had 50-100 [German] fighter planes lined up, waiting to attack us,” Dennison recalled. Firing their cannons and machine guns, the enemy planes swept through the B-17 formation from front to back; during the airborne brawl, Dennison spun his turret 180 degrees and saw a horrible sight: three B-17s exploding and burning fighters going down through the clouds.

During another mission, Dennison watched as an ME-109 (a single-engine German fighter) “came up behind a B-17 flying about a mile away and blew it up.” While “the rest of the plane was in parts and pieces,” the ball turret emerged intact from the debris field and plummeted earthward.

“It hit [me] right in the stomach, what that gunner was going through,” Dennison said.

He and his crew had 30 missions by D-Day; “we flew over the Allied fleet to bomb targets in Normandy,” he recalled. “You could see those battleships with their 16-inch guns, firing.”

Dennison flew his 35th and final mission, a raid against the Hamburg docks, on June 18, 1944. He soon returned to the States.

After the Army discharged Dennison in October 1945, he came home to East Machias and went looking for a particular Harrington girl, Winona Mitchell. They had met at a Methodist campground in Jacksonville in midsummer 1940 and had stayed in close touch during the war.

The evening he arrived home, “she was at a basketball game” at Washington County Normal School in Machias, Dennison recalled. “I went to the game and saw her across the gym. We met halfway across the basketball court.”

Engaged that December, they were married on June 29, 1945.

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