Veteran World War Two tail gunner recalls his days in a B-17

A World War two veteran from Sun City in Florida has recalled his flying days as a B-17 tail gunner.

Don Lawhorn, who is now 90, flew around 25 missions in Europe to attack enemy positions during the war. Don was a staff sergeant with the 346th Bombardment Squadron.

Aged only 19 in 1945 when the war was almost over, Don prayed that his plane and fellow crew wouldn’t be shot down when they were so close to the end. He says that in earlier missions that wasn’t even a consideration, and that they were there to do a job and were all focused on the operation at hand.

But as news of the Russians closing in on Berlin came through, Don says that they all just wanted to get home in one piece.

Originally from Indiana, Don joined the US air force straight after he finished high school. He was six feet tall and found it extremely difficult to fit into the tail end turret gun position on a Boeing bomber during his training.

Don spent months training and learning about bombing and gunning in a defensive position. Once fully trained, Don and his comrades were posted to Reggio, on Italy’s far south coast.

Don’s first mission was to bomb the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. The fields were a huge source of fuel for the Germans and they vehemently defended them, so many of Don’s fellow bombers were shot down and many soldiers lost their lives. However Don says that they also stopped a lot of oil getting through to the Third Reich’s planes and tanks.

On one mission a stray B-17 was straggling behind and couldn’t keep up with the squadron of bombers that it was flying with. Don recalls how the plane finally settled in at the back of his bomber, but it was obvious that the crew hardly had control of the plane especially as it was right in the airstream of the squadron in front of it.

Don suspected that it might have been flown by a Nazi crew, since bombers that had been captured by the Germans were often flown by fake crews made up of Nazi soldiers in an effort to infiltrate Allied missions and communicate positions to German anti-aircraft troops on the ground.

Since Don was in the tail gunner position, he was getting ready to aim and fire at the straggling aircraft. But Don’s commanding officer decided to not go ahead with any attack just in case it was an American crew who had become disorientated or were in trouble.

Don kept his gun aimed at the mystery plane, but it soon dived down and away from the squadron, The Tampa Tribune reports.

Still to this day Don swears that he thinks it was a German crew, but will never know for sure.

Don was honoured with four Bronze stars and a USAAF Air Medal for his service during World War Two.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE