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Our War: B-24 gunner survived flak and crashes

George M. Yost talks about his experiences aboard the  B-24 during World War II using a model he made.
George M. Yost talks about his experiences aboard the B-24 during World War II using a model he made.

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In 1941, George Yost was working the fields and tending cattle on the family farm near Bennington, Kan., when the United States entered World War II.

A buddy, Willie Sisson, told Yost he was planning to sign up for the Air Corps to avoid being drafted as an infantryman. The 18-year-old farmhand thought that sounded like a pretty good idea.

"Back then, you had to be 19 to sign up on your own, so we had to convince my mother to give me permission," Yost said. "I was always mechanically oriented, so I signed up to be an airplane mechanic. But I decided to go to gunnery school after I got there. I never told my mother about that."

Gunnery crews being trained to defend B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress bombers started out shooting pellet guns and later shotguns before they worked their way up, step by step, to the .50-caliber machine guns that bristled out of the bombers.

"They put us on the back of a truck with a shotgun," Yost said. "You would stand inside a ring that went around your waist and traps would launch clay birds that you had to shoot. That's how they taught you to shoot moving targets while you're moving and getting bumped around."

After that, Yost said gunners would sit in a turret mounted on top of a tower that was armed with shotguns instead of machine guns.

"We had to learn how to operate the turret to find the target and how to lead it," Yost said. "You didn't shoot at a target when it was going that fast. You had to shoot in front of it and let the plane fly into the bullets."

When he finished training in February 1944, his crew left for Europe on a trip that took a month and included stops in the Caribbean, South America and Africa before finally landing at its base in Attelbridge, England, assigned to the 466th Bomb Group in the 8th Air Force.

Yost was the flight engineer and top turret gunner on a B-24 named "Bonnie" after the pilot's girl. But after months of training with his crew, their time together was short.

On just their third mission, the Bonnie was pretty shot up by German anti-aircraft fire and fighters. When the battered B-24 hit the runway, a landing gear strut collapsed and the plane's wing dug into the ground, ripping about half of it off the bomber.

A crew without a plane, Yost's group was broken up and its members filled in spots in other crews that were open because someone was sick, recovering from a battle injury or killed in combat. Yost moved from gun position to gun position depending on what was needed.

"Usually I was one of the waist gunners" who defended the side of the plane through an open window on each side behind the wing, Yost said. "But I also manned the tail gun and the Sperry ball turret."

The ball turret, a glass and metal orb slung beneath the plane that could turn 360 degrees and protect the underside of the plane from attacks in every direction, was the last place a gunner wanted to be.

"It was tough to even know where you were in that thing because you couldn't see the rest of the plane," Yost said. "You didn't know if you were going forward or backward. It was very easy to get disoriented."

The ball turret gunner felt like he was hanging out there as an easy target for the enemy. Plus, he was isolated from the crew in a position that was so cramped that a lot of ball gunners would take off their parachute to save space. Yost said he wasn't tempted to do so because he couldn't stop thinking about the lever in the turret you would pull if the pilot ordered the crew to bail out.

"If you pulled it, a hatch came open," Yost said. "You just would fall out."

He was in three crash landings and barely avoid having to bail out over hostile territory.

Flying on only two of the B-24's four engines thanks to flak and fighter damage, Yost said his crew couldn't keep up with its formation. Alone and crippled, the plane tried to stay in the clouds to avoid being spotted by German fighters.

Yost said the co-pilot's controls were rendered useless by all the damage the plane sustained, and crew members were warned to get ready to jump for their lives. But the pilot found his controls still worked and they limped all the way across the English Channel.

"They had emergency landing strips that were basically fields covered with wood chips on the runways so the planes that were shot up and leaking fuel wouldn't create any sparks," Yost said. They had barrels that they lit so night fighters could see to land, and we took a whole bunch of them out."

He remembers seeing the massive flotilla of Allied ships crossing the English Channel on D-Day, formations of thousands of planes in the air over Germany at one time and watching desperately for parachutes of friends and beer-drinking buddies from planes just a couple hundred yards from him that were hit and caught fire. Yost said he never saw one of the Messerschmidts he peppered with bullets go down.

"I shot at 'em, but I don't know if I ever hit one because you would only see them for a second," Yost said. "Unless they caught fire, it was tough to tell who was hit because as soon as those fighter pilots passed through the formation, they would go into a spin to make you think they were hit. Then, when they were out of range, they would level off and come back around."

According to web-birds.com, a World War II aviation history site, the 466th Bomb Group flew 231 combat missions with 5,693 sorties, dropping nearly 13,000 tons of bombs. Total losses for the 466th from the time it was activated in March 22, 1944, until Germany fell in April 1945, were 333 killed in action and 171 men captured and made prisoners of war.

Yost, who flew 32 missions, said that during the war, members of his outfit kept a list of all of its members. When one of them would be lost, their name was scratched off.

"For some reason, I never felt like I wasn't going to make it," Yost said. But that wasn't the case with everyone.

On one mission, Yost was operating the waist gun on the starboard side of the plane and a guy from Oklahoma everybody called "Little Okie" was on the port side.

"We had some flak come through the floor and go out through the top of the plane," Yost said. "I felt something brush against my leg when it went through, and I thought Okie had kicked me. I turned and he was just looking at that hole in the floor."

After that mission, Okie told his commander that he didn't care if it meant the firing squad, he wasn't going up in that plane for another mission. Yost said he was determined to be suffering from shell shock. He finished the war filling oxygen canisters with both feet firmly on the ground.

Maybe it was Yost's motto that you shouldn't worry about things that you can't control that got him through. Or maybe it was a higher power.

"We got into the plane through a hatch in the bottom," Yost said. "No matter what plane I was flying in, right before we would take off I would open that hatch and say 'God, get in here. We're going to need you.' We lost so many. But I came home without a scratch."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or 239-2626.

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