America’s Unknown Gunner Aces of World War II

By Tom Laemlein
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America’s Unknown Gunner Aces of World War II

June 21st, 2022

8 minute read

As the world once again marched towards global war in the late 1930s, U.S. Ordnance had developed the Browning .50 caliber machine gun into an effective aircraft weapon. In a rare instance that found the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy in agreement, the Browning .50 caliber AN/M2 was adopted for service in American military aircraft. The “AN” prefix stood for “Army-Navy”, and the light barrel version of the M2 (61 lbs.) ultimately became the standard weapon for almost every significant American combat aircraft of World War II.

A ball turret gunner of the 8th Air Force removes his AN/M2 .50 cal MG for cleaning during World War II
A ball turret gunner of the 8th Air Force removes his AN/M2 .50 cal MG for cleaning in England, June 1944. Image: NARA

The AN/M2 was available in two versions: Fixed guns were mounted in the wings, power turrets or in the nose (synchronized with the propeller) and were fired by an electrical solenoid. Flexible guns, mounted in the rear cockpit of dive bombers and torpedo planes, or in fuselage positions of medium and heavy bombers, were manually aimed and fired by the gunner. Later in the war, remote-control gun turrets were featured on a few aircraft, including the B-29 Superfortress, the A-26 Invader light bomber and the P-61 Black Widow night fighter.

B-17 gunner in heated suit
A classic view of a B-17 waist gunner wearing a flak apron plus electrically heated gloves and boots. Image: NARA

Training the Air Gunners

During World War I, America trained its prospective air gunners (both pilots and observers in two-seat planes) in the basics, but using some rather advanced training tools. One of these tools was a “camera-gun” that was close in size and shape to a Lewis machine gun. The photos taken when it was “fired” allowed instructors to see if the gunner trainee was at least close to his target in the mock air-to-air combat.

A U.S. Army Air Service aerial gunner trainee using a “camera gun” for training
A U.S. Army Air Service aerial gunner trainee using a “camera gun”, which was very similar in size to the Lewis machine gun used in this position. Image: NARA

Other gunnery training methods included firing MGs from a tripod at silhouette paper targets pulled on a track on the range. All in all, America’s aerial gunnery training was particularly advanced by World War I standards. After the war however, budgets were slashed, and most air gunner training was abandoned.

A U.S. air gunner carrying his Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine gun
A U.S. air gunner carrying his Browning AN/M2 .50 caliber machine gun. The gunners were responsible for the care and maintenance of their weapons. Image: Author’s collection

America’s concepts of “strategic bombing” were born during World War I, but few people had even heard of the notion even into the late 1930s. Shortly before the Pearl Harbor attacks, the new Boeing B-17D “Flying Fortress” featured seven machine guns for defense (six .50-caliber guns, and one .30-caliber gun in the nose). The next Flying Fortress, the B-17E, featured a total of 10 .50 caliber guns, including a powered top turret, a tail turret and two waist guns. The final version of the aircraft, the B-17G, carried thirteen .50 caliber guns. As the USAAF strategy of daylight strategic bombing progressed, American heavy bombers were expected to fight their way unescorted through to the target, deep inside enemy territory, and then fight their way home again. The need for effective aerial gunners grew beyond anyone’s expectations.

Specification chart for 50 cal Browning M2 "Flexible" gun
The Browning AN/M2 “Flexible” gun: outside of the bombers’ power turrets, the flexible guns were aimed and fired by hand. Image: Springfield Armory

The U.S. Army Air Forces developed its first school for air gunners in June 1941 at a small installation in Las Vegas, Nevada. During World War II, the air gunner training program expanded to massive proportions, and additional schools were established at Kingman and Yuma in Arizona, Harlingen and Laredo in Texas, and Panama City and Fort Myers in Florida. In the combat theaters of operation, most bomb groups also had their own schools for more intensive training on the specific weapons and mounts used in those squadrons.

50 cal B-17 door gunner in WW2
The classic B-17 waist gunner, with his AN/M2 .50 caliber MG on a “flexible mount” and aiming with a simple ring and post sight. Image: NARA

Stateside training for air gunners consisted of an intensive six-week course. While the training program was the most comprehensive of any combatant nation, this was an ongoing struggle between proponents of “theoretical training” (classroom sessions) in air gunnery and the great need for practical instruction in the operation and use of the Browning .50 caliber AN/M2 machine guns.

50 cal waist gunners in B-24 during WWII
The crowded workspace of a B-24 Liberator’s waist gunners could be difficult to fight from in an air battle during WWII. Image: NARA

Gunners were split between those assigned to power turret positions and those that aimed and fired their weapons by hand (the “flexible” guns). Turret gunners were faced with the mechanical nuances of multiple turret types created by several manufacturers. Different bomber types used different turrets, and it was impossible to train the gunners on every turret they could potentially use in combat. Proper maintenance of the turret guns was also the gunners’ responsibility, and the men had to know how to fix the firing solenoids as well as how to clear jams while in combat.

Turret gunnery training in Panama
Training turret gunners: teaching the basics of using the twin .50 caliber MGs in a traversing turret on a moving vehicle. Image: NARA

The complexities of the systems began to overwhelm the time and resources of the training programs. Combat squadrons complained that too many new gunners could not maintain their .50-caliber weapons — some unable to handle “head-spacing” for their Browning machine guns.

Gunfights in the Clouds

In the high-altitude air battles over Europe, the heavily-armed B-17’s and B-24’s proved their ability to defend themselves against Luftwaffe interceptors and still effectively strike targets deep within the Third Reich — but only at great cost. The US 8th Air Force suffered more than 47,000 casualties, including more than 26,000 dead. The 15th Air Force suffered more than 20,000 casualties among their bomber crews. German flak and fighters exacted a heavy toll.

50 cal gunnery training in England in 1944
Aerial gunnery training with the 8th Air Force in England during 1944. Bomber groups established training programs to get airmen prepared for combat. Image: NARA

But even in the earliest missions, when there were no fighters capable of escorting the “Big Friends” to their targets, the bomber formations were never prevented from reaching their targets. Despite the heavy casualties, German industry was hammered, and many Luftwaffe interceptors paid the ultimate price when they closed in on American bomber formations. Even though there were few occasions when the bomber gunners could get in a long, accurate burst, the hell-storm of .50-caliber fire peppered with plenty of tracer rounds proved greatly intimidating to enemy interceptors. Few pilots enjoyed the prospect of taking a .50-caliber round into their windscreen.

50 cal aircraft mount in B-24 Liberator over Germany in January 1943
Belly gun in action over Germany during January 1943. The weapon is in a swiveling ball mount. Image: NARA

Initially, Luftwaffe interceptors made their attacks from the rear. The twin .50 caliber tail gun positions of U.S. heavy and medium bombers quickly made this a highly dangerous method of interception. The massed firepower of multiple “Tail End Charlie” in the bomber boxes forced most Luftwaffe interceptors to break off their attacks before they could close to within 500 yards of the bombers.

The Germans quickly changed tactics to head-on attacks — as this meant they faced the least amount of defensive fire from the bombers’ guns. The USAAF responded with updated designs of the B-17 and B-24 that featured nose turrets with twin guns to meet the threat. Head-on attacks continued, but the more than 600 mile per hour closing speeds meant that both the interceptor and bomber gunner had little time for a well-aimed burst.

B-24 top turret gunner of the 8th USAF
A Martin-made top turret on a B-24 of the 755th Bomb Squadron (8th Air Force) in August 1944. Image: NARA

Eventually, the Germans developed specific bomber assault squadrons with heavy armament (20mm and 30mm cannons) as well as increased armor protection for the pilot and the engine. The heavy weapons packages and extra armor for German single-seat fighters were useful in some ways, but the added weight shortened range and endurance, reduced speed and generally made the aircraft easy meat for U.S. escort fighters that were later introduced.

A B-17 radio operator uses his AN/M2 .50 caliber MG
This B-17 radio operator uses his AN/M2 .50 caliber MG, which is equipped with a recoil-damping Bell machine gun adapter. Image: NARA

Ultimately, daylight bomber interception was an ugly, bloody, aerial gang fight. If the Germans wanted to hack down the Flying Fortresses, they had to get in close to do it. The closer they got, the more the .50-caliber MGs tore them apart. In a strange twist, some of the most advanced technology of the war returned the combat to its most primitive form, while the battles raged at 20,000 feet.

A USAF gunner training with a shotgun
Initial training for USAAF air gunners normally began with shotguns. In this case, a 12-gauge shotgun with its fore-end removed and fitted with spade grips. Image: Author’s collection.

WW2 Gunners: Overlooked Heroes?

The air gunners played the same deadly game as fighter pilots, and their successes were recorded in the same fashion. Even so, the 305 enlisted air gunners credited with five or more aerial victories are rarely remembered as “aces”. Aerial victories in the world wars have been notoriously difficult to confirm, and attributing kills to specific gunners, often when multiple guns from several aircraft were firing at the same target are even more suspect.

B-17 tailgun
The tail gun position of a B-17F. The twin tail guns of the US bombers dissuaded many Axis interceptors from making attacks from the rear. Image: NARA

Even so, their official record stands, and a massive number of Axis interceptors fell in flames in the face of their .50-caliber firepower. The highest scoring USAAF gunners were all sergeants: Michael Arooth, a B-17 tail gunner with the 527th Bomb Squadron (8th Air Force) was credited with 17 victories; Arthur Benko (a B-24 top turret gunner) of the 374th Bomb Squadron of the 14th Air Force (China-Burma-India) was credited with 16 kills; and Donald Crossley, a B-17 tail gunner with the 95 Bomb Group (8th Air Force) shot down 12. The air gunners had done their jobs, they protected the bombers, and the Axis nations lay in ruins beneath them.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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