Oral History Interview with Phil Nelson, 8th Army Air Force

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Record 16/959
Copyright Oshkosh Public Museum
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Classification Archives
Collection World War II Oral History Project
Dates of Accumulation 1994 - 1994
Abstract Oral history interview with Phil Nelson conducted by his wife Jean nelson and donated after his death for the World War II project. He discusses his experiences in the 8th Army Air Force during the war. He was a tail gunner on a B-17 stationed in Great Britain. A typed transcript is in the computer in the archives.

Phil Nelson Interview on World War II
Conducted by Jean Nelson

J: I thought we would talk about one mission. How all missions started, what time you got up, what the briefing was like, taking off, grouping up, all the rest of it. And you thought that perhaps you would, ah, take one mission, the mission toHamburg.

P: The Hamburg mission, probably like most missions, got us up pretty early in the morning. Somebody, I'll never know who he was, but somebody came around to every barracks that had air crews in it that were gonna fly that day. The man popped through the door, turned on all the lights in the barracks, and yelled out the numbers of the crews that were going to fly, and promptly got himself out of there because by that time people were probably throwing shoes at him. This is pretty early, dark, and immediately we go up and got dressed, probably three - four, somewhere in that range. Fourish I would say. On longer missions we might even be getting up a little earlier than that. But ah, and on shorter missions, later on, we got up a little later still, but I would say it was still around four o'clock, somewhere in there. And ah, the first thing we did was dress, get plenty of warm clothes on, and go down to the mess hall for breakfast. And it was always a good meal if you were flying; fresh eggs, toast, bacon sometimes. All the coffee you wanted.

Then ah, there was a few minutes allotted for us to visit the chaplain or visit the, you know, the man of God of your choice. We, a bunch of us that were Catholics would cut over to the Catholic chaplain's office and we would receive communion, get general absolution, receive communion and then we'd head out for the briefing buildings where we were set down in large numbers in front of a bunch of covered maps and information boards. Then at a given signal, the briefing officer would pull away the curtains and show us our target for the day. And they had twine - colored yarn actually - strung to indicate to us the route in to the target and the route back. This was about all the detail that we gunners stuck around for, was to find out what the target was, to hear a little of the detail about how high we'd be flying, ah, what kind of fighter protection we'd have and where the heaviest flak was expected. And that was about the extent of it. Then they'd excuse the gunners and they'd get on into the kind of detail, the additional [ ] for the pilots, co-pilots, bombardiers and navigators.

We gunners headed out by truck to the buildings where our guns were kept in storage and we loaded them into the truck, and went on out to the aircraft. We loaded the guns in, in our respective positions, looked the plane over, kinda checked things out and the officers would arrive in a little bit, coming from their more extended briefing. We'd all load into the aircraft, and start engines and then wait for our turn to take off.

J: As you're waiting for your turn to take off, you would be on the hardstand? Is that where you started out from?

P: Yeah, we, our plane sat on a hardstand. Once you got it started, then swung out of the hardstand, then we got in line and took our appropriate place in the long line that formed up, [ ] oh, say an average mission 30-40 planes. And we'd be in line, that's driving around from wherever our little hardstand was, driving around the perimeter track, a surrounding roadway to the end of the runway where we were going to take off. And one by one as we came up to that point, we'd wheel, turn, the pilot would hesitate for a moment and then aim that aircraft straight down that runway and then take off.

J: Describe the procedure for taking off and why it was so dangerous.

P: The procedure was just to get the plane up. The difficulty was based on the fact that we were generally pretty heavily loaded, ah, with both fuel and bombs and that made for a few extra safety precautions that we took. Anybody that was not actually having a responsibility for the take off, that excludes the pilot and the co-pilot, the engineer/gunner, who stood behind them and watched the instruments for them, keep monitoring the engines, and the radioman who was sitting at his radio desk. Everybody else on the plane that did not have a direct immediate assignment involved in the take-off generally would sit down on the floor of the aircraft with their back toward, against a bulkhead and draw their knees up, kinda hug their knees and be in sort of a fetal position. I guess it was found to be the safest in case the airplane you know came to a bumpy stop. And you sat that way until the aircraft actually lifted off, and the gear was up and the pilot would say, "O.K., we're up." And ah, then we'd all go to our positions.

J: Your were [ ] the book, One Last Look and they described the take off . I'd like to have you describe that a little bit more fully. About how they revved up the engines and how the plane shook.

P: Well, ah, of course the runways were always a little too short with the load that we were carrying. And so one of the proven techniques, we thought surely, for getting the aircraft up in the five or six thousand feet that we had would be to hold it steady as long as possible and wind up the engines as we said, rev the power up as high as possible and get the plane so ready to fly that you think it would practically jump out of its skin. And that was an interesting process. The pilot would line the plane up, aim it down the runway and actually stand on the brake pedals, hold it and open the engines up slowly. And the plane would just quiver and bounce and strain and howl and whine. It was kind of exciting because it just pulsed. It was just like a live thing. And when he finally felt he could hold it no longer, he let both brakes off of course at the same instant, or he would spin, and away we charged down the runway. And it was a slow ponderous process, you know. You'd like to think you were going to leap away, but you never did, you'd stroll down the runway and gradually picking up speed but invariably, at least every time that I flew we managed to make it. We got down to the end of that runway, everybody holding their breath, hunching and pushing as hard as they could; sometimes we'd bounce a couple times, lift off, bounce, go back down, bounce once more and finally she'd hang. You'd kind of hold your breath, and you knew if a wing dropped or if the pilot tried anything like a turn at that low altitude, you'd go right into the ground so you just prayed that nothing tipped us, that we didn't hit any prop wash from a plane ahead of us and that there were no wind shears as they call them today I guess. If any sudden problems developed, if an engine began to fail or a propeller run away or something like that. At these critical first few moments in the air that nothing would disturb her, that you'd be able to fly out straight, slightly climbing. Get a couple hundred feet, five hundred, eight hundred feet,a thousand feet under you and you begin to relax and you could begin to move the plane around a little bit.

J: What were you instructed to do if a plane ahead of you didn't make it?

P: Oh, get around it and keep right on going. That's all. On take off, yeah. If a plane ahead of us went in, and we were not yet moving, they would sometimes stop traffic until they were sure that the wreckage down there wasn't going to explode with another plane taking off over it. But ah, we didn't stop flying because somebody ran in or didn't make it off the runway. A very few times but every now and then we'd have a plane that would get going down the runway and suddenly would abort, would just not reach enough speed so that they were absolutely committed to take off. They'd slow it, chop the throttles, slow the plane down, pull it off the runway and that was it for the day. Sometimes and engine would fail or something radical, a tire would blow. There'd be no way the pilot could get the plane off the ground and instead of trying, if he had an opportunity to not try, to abort at that point, he would do so. It didn't happen very often; the planes were beautifully maintained. It just didn't happen that often.

J: What if a plane didn't make it in the sense of crashing and blowing up? What happened - was everybody always killed if the plane didn't make it?

P: On take off , yeah, it was pretty much, pretty; usually it meant everybody's death, because of the load of bombs and gasoline. The chance of explosion from friction or an electrical spark or anything on the crash touching off all that gasoline, the chance of a bomb or if you were carrying thermite bombs, one of those igniting accidentally, if they went, if one went all of 'em would go. You'd have nothing but a hole where the aircraft was. There would not be rubble or wreckage, generally. No, I would say a loaded bomb with fuel and gasoline, fuel and bomb load, crashing on take off, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, everybody died. Not so on a training mission or something.. . where we didn't have an excessively heavy load of gasoline or bombs; planes crashed on take off and people have walked away from them. Not when they're fully loaded.

J: And the next thing was to group up. And that meant getting in a tight formation and that's where air to air collision was very possible.

P: That was the dullest part of the Air Force. The long, slow almost interminable hours that you spent at slow speeds and at slow rates of climb because of the weight that you were carrying and very often under kind of hazardous conditions flying up through clouds. Trying to get to that altitude where you were gonna meet the rest of your fellas from the 94th Bomb Group and get into some kind of a formation that was acceptable so that you were safe in a combat situation. We had to find each other first; going up visually wasn't anywhere near as bad . It was still dark you understand, down on the ground, still often, still dusky when we took off, but by the time we got up above 4, 5, 6,000 ft., you were already in sunlight so we could see each other provided there wasn't a lot of cloud cover. But often there was; you were climbing through murky, cloudy muddy sky and you didn't see people, so the chance of collision was quite high. On those occasions, on those missions, occasionally I would be assigned to sit in my tail gunner's compartment where they usually didn't ride me before we got over the channel because even my weight - I wasn't terribly heavy at the time - but my weight that far from the center of gravity of the aircraft put a tremendous additional load on the engines, so I stayed forward toward thepoint of balance of the aircraft until it was absolutely essential that I be in the tail.

But when we were leading or deputy leading a mission, I had to get back into the tail compartment right away and get a, and amber signal lamp and flash out the code letter "A" for all the guys in the 94th Bomb Group to see. They knew that the "A" , the Morse Code "A" being flashed with the amber was the 94th group and they'd look for that flashing light - it was a pretty bright light and they'd home on our aircraft and that's one of the little devices we had for getting ourselves together. But it's a long, slow time-consuming problem. There were a lot of, well not a lot of but there were collisions up there and it was terribly unnerving and tough on moral seeing planes bang into each other when they hadn't even gotten started for the day. It took a couple of hours, often took an hour an hour anyway, an hour to just be getting formed up to start heading out. We left early, but we didn't really get to work until the middle of the morning, sometimes.

J: Then you'd head out over the channel and over France or wherever, and now you're on the way to Hamburg on this mission.

P: Hamburg was an interesting and beautiful day, Ah, I can't separate out the preparations and the pre-flight and the rendezvous and all that but I do remember that the Hamburg mission once we got over Europe was a beautiful day. It was called `visual bombing`, it was blue sky, clear, we could see the ground and I think we were fairly high, 25- 27,000, somewhere around there, and ah, as I think I mentioned on another one of these tapes, we were briefed to go over the target and to drop and it was a sort of an unwritten law, maybe it was written as a matter of fact, that you never, having failed to drop your bombs on the target -for whatever reason- you never came around and took a second shot at the same target. I don't know, they just figured that the odds mounted too high against your being able to pull it off successfully.

But on this day, with the winds aloft as we used to say, with the winds up at the level where we were flying, quite, ah quite strong, we were in a jet stream blowing from the west, we went over the target so fast that actually - as I got the story later- the bomb sights weren't set up correctly to accommodate for both our speed plus the wind speed, so when we got blown over the target without successfully dropping our bombs, some brilliant brass decided to do a 180 degree turn and go over that target against the wind and that would make it a lot easier for the sight to be corrected and be accurate. And if memory serves, that's exactly what we did and of course on a visual day, clear sunny Sunday afternoon, ah, we could, we just knew that as we turned and went back into that wind across the same target, that we were gonna get the hell shot out of us which indeed we did. Awful lot of flack for an awful long period of time because we just , we just hung in the air, there was so little forward motion. Our speed subtracted from the speed of the ah, of the wind at that level didn't give us much real motion over the ground and at 27,000 feet altitude, we must have looked like we were just hanging there. And the German flack gunners took marvelous advantage of the situation and pounded the hell out of us. We got and awful lot of holes, awful lot of ships were badly shot up. We got many, many little microscopic holes, almost looked like sand, ah, grain sized holes, but we had a couple thousand holes through our aircraft including one that was big enough to step out of the aircraft, through at the end of the mission. We just, it was next to the door and just a little bigger than the door so we exited that that, at that point. When we go home safely, which we ultimately did. Shook up a little bit though. I guarantee.

J: Having somehow made it over that target twice you headed for home. What about when you headed for home.

P: Well, of course I don't think there'd anything that I do today in my civilian life that conjures up anything like the great happy leap of spirit that, that you feel when you've successfully made it down a bomb run dropped your bombs, closed your bomb doors and the pilot says, "Let's take her home." And everybody is elated at having gotten that far in one piece and ah, the plane really is put to a, aw, it's a little, a little gleeful kick of spirits. It's much lighter now with the bomb load gone, and the plane actually when the bombs are dropped, you can feel the plane lift as they let go. The weight differential was so great. So now the plane is much more buoyant and we're all excited and we all want to get out of there and we've all been flying at one level for such a long time down the bomb run that the German gunners have actually got us zeroed in almost to the nose. So the first thing the pilot does at the end of the bomb run, is rock one wing, boost the speed, and change the direction and that's a delightful maneuver. It never could be too violent for anybody, even though it was probably even dangerous, the degree that we did it, the degree to which we did it on some occasions. It was still get out of here, get off this altitude, get off this heading, and get our speed changed and do it as fast as possible. That was a great kick! Get outta here!

J: Did you fly home in formation then, for safety's sake?

P: Yes we did. And the tighter the better of course. Ah, this is where it began to get a little sticky because by the time we'd dropped our bombs, a lot of damage had been done it was done by flak, a lot of the planes that had been hit were beginning to lose oil and engine manifold pressure, propellers were ah, were not turning as authoritatively as they did beforehand and a lot of planes were having trouble keeping up speed or keeping altitude. Maybe there was structural damage, maybe they had wounded aboard. The formations had trouble staying as tight and being as compact and as effective defensively the longer the mission went on. But fatigue worked too. The pilots got tired and couldn't manage physically to really hold their aircraft, particularly if they were at all damaged, if there was any difficulty with the airplane itself. They had difficulty though, just physically holding the aircraft in tight formation. That's what made long mileage missions ah, a real burden. But by the time we got back to the channel, we were, we loosened up some, but not a great deal. We flew in formation until we were well within sight of our base and then we just broke out of formation to land. We still kept it as tight as we could.

J: You often spoke about your pilot, the old man of 24 years of age. How well did he fly the plane? When you were in one of these situations?

P: He was a darned good pilot. He was careful and precise and nothing flamboyant about him at all. I, I think I've mentioned this before too. He was a "sweater." He was wringing wet with cold, clammy perspiration much of the time. I've seen him when it was 50 below with sweat running down around his goggles. And I know that on many practice missions when we were flying at low altitudes, without oxygen masks on, even at our very own familiar setting, Bury St. Edmonds, he would be wringing wet. There was a lot of tension and a lot of responsibility that I'm sure he was aware of and let's not kid ourselves, the old B-17 had no servo motors. It was - there was no power assisted brakes or steering as we have on our cars today. Everything was manual. You lifted the aircraft with cables and, and a, physical strength. You flew it by hand and foot and it would be a workout, especially if it was loaded and even more so if it had any, even slight damage to the control surfaces.

J: I've heard it said that the B-17 was a forgiving plane. Would you like to explain that?

P: Yup. The B-17 was indeed a forgiving plane. A marvelous plane. The forgiving aspect of the B-17 means simply that you could bang it up pretty good and it still, it still flew. You could mishandle it and it would still stay airborne. It was forgiving in that pilots without a lot of sensitivity or physical conditions that were a lot less than ideal didn't really phase the aircraft. It had a lot of additional inclination to fly. It was built to fly and it was built tofly high and moderately fast for its time and it was designed in such a way that it wasn't fragile at all. It could take a lot of mishandling, it could take a lot of abuse and a lot of physical damage. You could knock whole pieces off of it and it was still flyable, even by a very average pilot.

J: I've heard you say how much you loved the '17. That's why.

P: That's why. That's why also I still today, in the age of the Concorde and the F-16's which I love to look at, I still get a thrill when I see a B-17. I think it's a beautiful aircraft. There's something about, about the wing to tail surface, the size, relative size, the body length, the wing width, the placement of the engines. That, for me it's a much more beautiful aircraft than the B-24 which actually outperformed the old B-17 in some ways. It was faster and could carry more bombs but we were [ ] airplane, beautiful airplane. Beautiful plane to look at. I still love to look at it.

J: Let's finish the mission to Hamburg. You're out over the channel. You're making it safely. You have about 3000 holes in the plane, then you're heading home to [ ] air force base and to Bury St. Edmonds. How do you come in?

P: Well, right after we leave the continent, on this mission, I think, as well as a couple of others up in that part of the country, we fly out over the North Sea and there's an island just off the shore, just off the coast of Holland. Maybe I actually talked to you about this before but there's one German flack gunner out there and he was known by an assortment of cute little names but anyway, if you flew anywhere near his little island, if he could reach you, he'd put a hole through you. He, ah, they were a marvelously accurate gun crew down there, and of course we'd all look out for that little island and swing around it. Woe unto you if you didn't or couldn't, if you had to stay on a straight line to get home because of fuel problems. I saw 'em a couple times say his effectiveness. But we skirted his island on this mission as we did on most others and started letting down as we crossed the channel and it was still visual though as we got closer and closer to England, the cloud cover again moved in. As I've said on one of the other tapes, when the weather was clear on the continent, very often it was bad in England. Or vice versa. So, if this was typical, we were headed back for kind of cruddy weather and cruddy landing. It was always unnerving as hell - I find it hard to this day to believe the briefing sessions, they would tell us that we'd have to get ourselves into some kind of dinghy or some kind of crash patrol boat or something if we ditched in the North Sea because the temperature in the water was so low that ah, it was relatively two minutes, three minutes at the most that I think they said a man could survive. In that cold water. And that ah, And we sweated that out. But any time you had an engine bucking and missing you know, [ ] you were running out of fuel or your gauges were inaccurate or engine failure was beginning to be a possibility and all that while you're over water. That allowed you about two minutes of survival times. A little unnerving, but we never had any particular amount of trouble from that point on in on any mission I flew and so the trip, the ride back over the channel got a little more light hearted with every mile that we put in. Finally, by the time we go back over England, we were usually quite low. We let down all the way across the channel, keeping our eyes open, there was occasionally an attempt by a German fighter to sneak in through our radar curtain, our defense curtain, by riding in with us and being another blip. With a couple hundred B-17's, one more little blip wouldn't be noticed. Then when everybody got their guns stowed and their wheels down and their flaps set to come in to land, these guys would zip in amongst the big birds and knock down three or four and then skip home and you know. That was always a possibility so we had to keep our eyes peeled. But the ride home generally was, unless you were having problems of one kind or another and often we were but on many occasions we weren't and it was kind of a relaxed….light a cigarette and look at the countryside and guess how soon we were gonna be home.

J: If you did have wounded aboard, you got to come in first. How did they signal wounded aboard?

P: I think it was red flares. They had a little port in the ceiling of the aircraft, right between the pilot and copilot. And you'd take a Very pistol and stick it right up into that little gun port and you'd fire two red flares which were visible immediately from the control tower. Everybody else would clear out of the way and let that plane in no matter where it was. If it was two miles away and firing red flares, they'd interrupt the normal landing sequence. Everybody else would just raise up and go around again. People do it at O'Hare I guess, every day. We just made room for them and let those wounded or those with fuel problems, there were, there were several problems that would give you early access to the landing field. Fuel shortage was one but certainly the most important was wounded men. If you were out of fuel though or running dangerously low, there was, was that a green flare signal? I can't remember. Somehow you could signal that by flare and everybody would defer to you and let you come in.

J: And when you landed, did anybody ever greet you when you landed or was it just ah, everyday business to see you come home?

P: Well, we'd get [ ] get down and taxi around, on another slow ride around the perimeter track. Maybe a mile or so to get around to our hardstand. Pull her in, turn it around so it was most convenient for the mechanics to work on it and chop the engines and we'd crawl out haul our gear out of the airplane, get the guns out, and open the bomb bay, Bernie [ ] always had to scrub the bomb bay because every mission he threw up in it on our way home so he had his little bucket of water and broom, scrubbing the bomb doors. And the rest of us got everything lined up and waited for a truck to come and pick us up and take us back for interrogation.

J: When you'd come home from a mission like this. Were you elated? Did you talk to each other? Were you terribly tired, did you ignore each other? What kind of reaction did you have?

P: We did all those things. We ignored each other, talked to each other, were happy and sad. Mostly tired, I think. And ah, apprehensive. About maybe another, it was, it was, a let down of course. An emotional let down but ah, the apprehension was still there. There were always planes that weren't back yet for whatever reason and we were a little on edge about that, you know whether they were friends that we were gonna miss or not see again. I would say though that the general feeling was fatigue and relief after every mission like that. When you weren't badly banged up. If you were hurt, that was, that introduced a whole different problem. And after some of the missions, like the times that we had fighter attacks, everybody was talking, you know "Did ya see?" and, "Wasn't that a helluva note?" and, "Boy, did we ever…" , you know, that kind of thing going on but our enemy was flak and it was an enemy gunners couldn't do a damn thing about, usually. And you just sat there and sweat it out so it was a great relief to get back home, sit down and be able to talk about it. And we were questioned closely about what we saw, what we heard, if we heard anything. Ah, any ah, aircraft we saw going down.; where did we see them; what were the circumstances; could we tell whether they were shot down by flak or by fighters, etc. They wanted anything that we could give them that would be helpful in planning another mission. And we stuck around and gave 'em as much as we could because there was free whiskey…heh, heh, heh. I think it was rye whiskey that we were given; one or two shots in our mess cup, our tin cup. I never drank it…I tried it once, I think it was too strong for me. I liked the coffee and the peanut butter sandwiches that they also served. And as soon as we were finished with our interrogation, we were [ ] we were finished, we could go back to the barracks. They took us back to our area and we could look at our mail and rest and hit the sack and rest and shower, go for chow.
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Event World War II
Category 6: T&E For Communication
Object ID OH2001.3.23
Object Name Tape, Magnetic
People Nelson, Phil
Subjects World War II
European Theater of Operations
United States Army Air Force
Gun turrets
Title Oral History Interview with Phil Nelson, 8th Army Air Force
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