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Rite of Passage
A Teenager's Chronicle of Combat and Captivity in Nazi Germany
By Ray T. Matheny
American Legacy MediaCopyright © 2012 Ray T. Matheny
All rights reserved.
AERIAL GUNNERY SCHOOL
In the latter part of April 1943, my orders arrived to report to Kingman, Arizona, for flexible aerial gunnery school. I could volunteer for the gunnery school because I completed the aircraft and engine school at Keesler or Gulfport fields, Mississippi, under the Army Air Forces Technical Training Command, where I had spent the last seven months. The training at Gulfport was well-organized and rigorous, and we graduated with a compact, but very useful knowledge of aircraft and engine principles. About 20 of us, out of a class of 80 or 90 men had volunteered. Our small group shipped out by rail early one morning in the latter part of April.
For those of us on this slow train, a new adventure had begun. We talked of flying in the big new bombers like the B-17, B-24, or medium bombers like the famous B-25 that Doolittle used to bomb Tokyo. Boisterous talk about our prospects in war continued focusing on machine guns. Everybody wanted to fire a machine gun, feel the gun shake and rattle, and then smash the enemy with bullets in heroic combat. Somebody asked "what would it be like to mow down other men with a machine gun?" It was a new thought to have such power and to have this power thrust into your hands by the government.
Of course, one man said, "killing soldiers in war is okay isn't it? That's why we're here at this school to learn how to shoot the enemy. You can't be put in jail for that," he exclaimed.
These thoughts were sobering, but we quickly put them out of our minds. We fancied ourselves going to war much like what we saw in the movies. Men were always dressed in neat looking flying suits with jaunty caps and helmets with goggles to peer through, Above all, we envisioned conquering our enemies with our wonderful machines and then returning home as heroes.
A five-day train ride took us to Arizona, where we arrived in Kingman shortly before midnight. The desert climate of Arizona contrasted greatly with the near tropical climate at Gulfport. The desert air was dry and hot even at night, but finally around midnight a cool breeze came through the open windows of the slow-moving train. The oil-burning steam locomotive moved the short string of aging passenger cars at a creeping pace through switching stations to a single track that served the airbase.
The final stop of this long trip finally freed us from the drudgery of the miserable train ride. In rumpled khaki uniforms we bounded from the cars carrying blue duffle bags, wondering what would happen next.
A sergeant ordered us into a truck, and everyone squeezed in, bags and all. After a few minutes in the now cool air, the truck stopped at a small building without windows. A shaft of light spilled out of the single door. A sleepy-eyed Quartermaster private issued each of us a mattress for a canvas cot, a white cotton mattress cover, two olive-drab cotton sheets, two woolen blankets, a pillow and pillow case. We were told to carry this unwieldy load down a trail. We were not given any information from the private about where we were going, just orders to pick up and carry. It was so typical of the army to issue orders without adequate instructions. It was difficult to see since it was a particularly dark night, and we just followed the voices of those ahead. The load was too much for many of us, and the mattresses and other items slid on to the dusty ground. Finally, after about half an hour of struggling along the trail, we saw the dim outline of a barracks. No lights were yet available in the still uncompleted structure. Inside the dark building we struggled to make our beds and finally go to sleep. At 0530 we were awakened and told to go to the mess hall. In the daylight, everything in the barracks looked a mess with sheets, mattresses and other belongings dirty from our struggle in the dark. This was how we arrived for our assignment at Kingman Aerial Gunnery School, in Kingman, Arizona.
Our ground school began on schedule that morning with instruction on bullet trajectory for the .30 caliber and .50 caliber aerial machine guns. The classes became more interesting each day as we learned about the aerial weapons used in our planes. We were not taught about the weaponry use by Germany, Italy or Japan in their airplanes. We received no instruction about ground defenses or tactics that the enemy employed. Our American weapons, we naïvely believed, were the finest, most enduring, and, of course, superior in every way to those of our enemies. Each of us learned to field-strip and reassemble a Browning .30 caliber and .50 caliber aerial machine guns while blindfolded.
At last we were taken to the ground gunnery range. The firing range had a target mounted on a rail car that ran on a half-circle track, and our machine guns were mounted on stanchions set at standing height. The cars carried targets of wooden and cloth airplanes painted with German and Japanese symbols that were supposed to inspire our interest in becoming good gunners. We learned how to lead moving objects with the gun sight. Each gunner had a separate target and bullet strikes were counted by men protected in a trench below the rails. They marked the holes on each pass around the track.
My first firing startled me. The muzzle blast was hot on my hands and face, the vibration shock of the rapidly firing gun went through my body, and the noise made my ears ring for hours. The light gun seemed to dance in my hands, making it difficult to keep it on target; but when I got the feel of the gun firing it became more manageable.
We were taught to fire in short burst of not more than six rounds each, to prevent overheating of the barrel in the warm air of the desert. We were shown warped barrels with holes torn through the sides, split barrels, and damaged bolts, all due to overheating, and I could only imagine the injuries the students must have incurred.
The ground-mounted .30 caliber guns were tuned down to fire about 600 rounds a minute to reduce damage. When mounted in an airplane, where the temperatures were cooler, the firing rate was higher. The .50 caliber ground-mounted gun fired at a slower rate because of the heat it generated. Every time I fired the gun I blinked my eyes in defense, thinking about the failure of bolts, brass clippings from shells, and guns blown apart on the firing line. Eye protection was simply not available on the firing range.
The training program was vigorous. We were up at 0500 hours for calisthenics, breakfast at 0600, equipment check-out for gunnery practice, and classes at 0730. We finished the day with study in the evening and lights out at 2200. As the training program advanced we were introduced to a new gunnery problem. An airplane-type moveable gun turret was mounted on a specially prepared truck bed. The truck was driven over a paved course to make the ride as smooth as possible. The course was complicated with curves, straight runs, dips and rises, making the gunner constantly change his angle of aim. To further complicate the gunnery problem, targets simulating enemy fighter airplanes moved on a separate course at 35 mph at 200 to 500 yards distance. It was maddening to track the moving target from the moving truck when both truck and target would take unexpected paths. My score was low, as only a few out of 300 rounds I fired hit the target. I was discouraged about my poor performance. Limited time was allotted to each student gunner, so there were few chances to master this difficult game. It was surprising how small a fighter airplane appeared at 500 yards, yet we were expected in the real world to be able to shoot one down at that distance with a .30 caliber gun. A friend of mine scored about a hundred hits on his first run. I was scheduled for further practice if the gunnery range became available.
All gunners were required to attain a score of 30 percent in order to qualify for flying. Those with low scores, like me, were sent to the shotgun range for extra practice on moving targets. Gunners stood in the back of a pickup truck and were driven around at differing speeds, while shooting at clay pigeons. As the truck drove by, clay discs were catapulted out of a concealed trap at unexpected angles. In a moving truck it was necessary to shoot behind the disc if it was shot out perpendicular to our track, and this made it a difficult task to judge how much to lead the target. We used 12-gauge Remington slide-action shotguns, and firing this gun for several hours a day became painful to my shoulder.
The first trip around I only hit a few clay pigeons and wondered what was wrong. I had been an avid hunter since age twelve, and I had always been good at bringing down quail, doves and ducks. At the end of the day my shoulder was sore from the recoil, but my score had improved. The next day my shoulder hurt so much that I could barely put on clothes. I stuffed wool gloves under my shirt to absorb the recoil of the 12-gauge shotgun. I flinched at nearly every shot and did poorly the first time around the course. Then my shoulder became numb, and it was not so painful. I again was able to improve my score. By May 23 our class was qualified to move on to the flying portion of the program.
The weather had been getting warmer each day. Our barracks housed about 30 men who had come from a great variety of cities, small rural towns and farms. I became acquainted with Milton Aarons and Jack Kushner, both of whom were from Los Angeles. We had many things in common, and that eased the feeling of being a stranger among so many men. We had frequented the same beaches, went to the same amusement parks, and more or less spoke the language of Southern California.
We became accustomed to the dry Arizona air where occasionally a dust devil swept through the camp, rattling the buildings and stirring up clouds of fine dust. However, the weather was good enough to fly every day. The sounds of AT-6 trainers and light, twin-engined bombers were heard nearly every daylight hour. We chatted excitedly in anticipation of making our first flight in the AT-6 and of shooting a machine gun from the rear cockpit.
On May 24, our flight training phase began in the North American AT-6, affectionately called the "Harvard," or the "Six." This single-engine, low-wing monoplane was used by the Army Air Corps for advanced pilot training and other duties such as towing targets at gunnery schools. It seated two in tandem, with dual instruments and flight controls, and a sliding canopy in the rear cockpit that allowed a flexible machine gun to be mounted. This ship is large, with a 42 foot wing span, and has a noisy 1340 cubic inch Pratt and Whitney air-cooled radial engine. For gunnery practice, the rear canopy was removed, and a .30 caliber machine gun was mounted on a post on the right side of the cockpit. Spare stainless steel cans of steel-linked ammunition were stowed inside the cockpit and held fast by a webbed strap and a long, lanyard-type safety belt to secure the gunner. Each gunner received two 100-round cans of linked ammunition with the bullet tips painted different colors. The bullet strikes left a remnant of the color on a white cloth target sleeve, identifying the gunner. The sleeve was towed by an AT-6 using a cable perhaps two hundred feet long. The AT-6 was painted a conspicuous yellow, in hopes that gunners would see it clearly and not fire on it.
At breakfast we joked about the main dish being "SOS," a long-time favorite of the cooks, along with the usual coffee, milk, and canned fruit. The jokes, of course, often related the similarities of SOS when it was slopped on to our meal tray, and what any other meal looked like when it came back up when we were airsick.
Orders came to the barracks that five of us would have our first flight at 0930 hours the next morning. Needless to say we all were very excited to move to this next phase of training. Sleep came slowly that night as we anticipated the next day's activities.
By 0700, airplanes were taking off for the first training sessions of the day, making an awful roar from their big engines and noisy propellers. The gunners were responsible for linking their own ammunition and dipping the bullet tips with paint. My bullets were dipped in yellow paint to make sure the hits could be seen on the white cloth target sleeve. Along with my little group of gunners, I checked out my parachute from the riggers who were responsible for packing them.
At long last a lineman strode up to our group of airmen standing on the flight ramp in front of the gunnery operations shack. He read off three names, "Aarons, Kushner, Matheny," ordering us to wait for a flatbed trailer that would take us to the airplanes. I was let off at the last AT-6, a silver ship, whose pilot was standing next to it surreptitiously smoking a cigarette. He confirmed my name and instructed me to climb into the rear cockpit, briefly telling me about the lanyard safety belt, and giving me unclear instructions on the flight and what was expected of me.
I had never seen an AT-6 up close before, but the cockpit layout with its dual flight and engine controls, flight and engine instruments were fairly standard in comparison to other military airplanes I had worked on in Gulfport. The rear cockpit was set up for gunnery practice, and the control stick and engine throttle had been removed.
I sat on my seat-type parachute, adjusted the seat to be at eye level with the pilot. I tightened the wide safety belt, noting that the latch to free it should be operated with the right hand. I always tried to plan ahead what action to take in case of emergency and continued to take such simple precautions on every flight in a military aircraft. The big engine came to life with a small plume of bluish-white smoke, a loud pounding noise from the cylinders, and a heavy vibration that diminished as the engine revolutions per minute (rpm) came up to taxi speed. In a thunderous roar, it took a long roll to get off the ground.
My first flight was over the high, cactus-covered desert where convective air currents produced uncomfortable turbulence. We climbed to about 6000 feet above the terrain, indicating about 160 mph. The air was rough, sometimes raising and dropping us 200 feet or more in a few seconds, producing sudden G-forces, then weightlessness that made me feel unsettled. When I stood up to see how the gun was to be used, I had to unbuckle the seat belt latch and hook up the safety lanyard. The turbulent air from off the forward canopy streamed over my leather helmet and goggles, buffeting me and affecting my sense of stability. When I moved the gun around to simulate tracking a target, the air made strange sounds as it rushed by the barrel, and I could feel the pressure of the slipstream against my hands. It was impossible to hold the gun steady against the push of the slipstream when it was aimed abeam and subjected to the abrupt up and down pounding as the airplane met the rough air. In fact, I hung on to the gun handle with one hand and the rim of the cockpit with the other, trying to keep my feet against the platform below. I remember thinking to myself, "this is much worse than the roller coaster at Venice in California."
The pilot told me over the interphone to look for the target plane that would fly out of the east at about 2000 feet below us while towing the sleeve target. I listened to the pilot through a headset built into my helmet, but could not reply, as I had no microphone. The pilot looked back and saw me nod in acknowledgement.
"There he is at three o'clock low. Hang on and we'll intercept," the pilot said. The left wing of the AT-6 went high-over vertical, then the airplane nosed down through unexpected weightlessness. My body tugged on the lanyard safety belt that held me in the cockpit.
"Target coming up fast. Get ready!" exclaimed the pilot breathlessly over the roar of the engine and the powerful force of the air stream.
"The target!" I thought. "My gun isn't charged and I'm not braced to fire." I struggled to get the bolt on the gun back to inject a cartridge into the firing chamber against the G-force that was building up as the plane was beginning to come out of the dive of the Split-S maneuver. The sleeve target came into view, and the airplane pulled up more against the force of gravity. "There it is, but I can't get the barrel up," I thought despairingly. I finally got a few rounds off in the general direction of the sleeve that was being towed, which was traveling at 90 degrees to us. The pilot pulled up sharply and gave the engine full throttle. The G-force gradually faded as we climbed. The old Pratt & Whitney R-1340 engine vibrated heavily, and it made an uncomfortable staccato as each cylinder expelled its unused energy against the right side of the fuselage.
At another sighting of the tow plane, the pilot called out, "Get ready." This time I was braced, the gun in my hands, knees pressed against the vibrating fuselage and gunner's seat in anticipation of the wing-over, Split-S dive toward the sleeve. But this time I was getting airsick, thanks to the turbulent air, gyrations of the airplane, smoke from the expended ammunition and heavy vibration produced by the big radial engine.
"Fire! Fire!" the pilot shouted in the interphone as we were passing the sleeve, still in a dive.
Fighting nausea I caught the sleeve in the post and ring gun sight and fired, but at the same time I began to vomit. The turbulent air flowing over the forward canopy caused it to swirl into my open cockpit. A flush of embarrassment swept over me at getting airsick, especially since I had been flying in small airplanes since I was a young child. There was nothing I could do now but try to get on with the job I was up there to do. Two more passes at the target produced no relief of the airsickness but I was getting more shots at the sleeve.
Excerpted from Rite of Passage by Ray T. Matheny. Copyright © 2012 Ray T. Matheny. Excerpted by permission of American Legacy Media.
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