By John Larson
This Veterans Day the Mountain Mail salutes all who spent part of their lives serving our country in wartime and in peacetime, and while some are hesitant to talk about their wartime experiences, Miguel “Mike” Martinez of Socorro still has vivid memories of his time spent in one of the most hazardous duties in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
“I was a belly turret gunner on a B-17 flying out of England,” Martinez said. “Our missions were simply to destroy the German war machine. We only bombed military targets. Marshalling yards, armament factories. The British bombed at night and we bombed during the day because we used precision bombing with the Norden bombsight. He did a very good job.”
He was a member of the 562nd Bombardment Squadron, one of four squadrons in the 388th Bombardment Group, part of the 8th Air Force, based in Knestisshall, Surrey, England from 1943 to 1945.
Martinez’s position was in the belly turret (or ball turret), which was much like a bubble on the bottom of the plane.
“It was very cramped. There wasn’t even enough room for a parachute,” he said. “The shortest guys got that job, and that was me. It was just me and two 50 caliber machine guns.”
Martinez said he would enter the ball when entering enemy territory.
“You had a big crank to swivel the ball up to where you could climb in through a small door. When you’re in the turret, your feet are level with your head,” he said. “To get back out, into the plane, there was an electric motor.”
According to some wartime accounts, ball turret gunners were a breed apart. “It felt kind of lonely, but I was confident because we were trained. The rest of the crew was just a few feet away.”
He said the gunners on the B-17s would stay in constant communication with each other - and the rest of the crew - through the intercom.
“It wasn’t like you see in the movies where they say something like ‘pilot to bombardier.’ We would use our names. That’s how much of a team we were. Once you were in the air there was no rank – officers and NCOs were equal. We, each of us, depended on each other for our lives.”
The B-17 also had a tail gunner, nose gunner, top turret gunner and two ‘waist’ gunners.
“You would hear somebody say on the intercom ‘bogie at 10 o’clock,’ and you knew where the ME-109s or ME-190s [German fighter planes] was coming from,” he said. “In the ball I had a 360 degree field of view and turned the ball around to where I needed it.”
He said he never knew how many enemy aircraft he hit. “All the gunners would be shooting at the same plane,” so the kill was credited to the entire crew.
Martinez said although the German fighter attacks were bad, they weren’t as bad as flak from anti-aircraft.
“With the [fighters] you could shoot back, but the flak, that was bad,” he said. “Sometimes you would see a large dark cloud far ahead. That was the flak and that was your target. We experienced heavy flak most of the time.
“The worst was our mission over Berlin. It was heavily defended. The flak was very heavy and there were more fighters. But we hit our target and made it back,” he said
“After some missions we would come back and count the holes in the aircraft. Sometimes a small piece of flak would tear a hole four to five feet in the fuselage,” Martinez said.
“I had a good view of everything from the Plexiglas window, including the ground, and could watch the bombs coming out of the bomb bay, just a few feet in front of me. And then watch them hit our target – pop-pop-pop. We bombed at about 25,000 feet altitude.
At that altitude crewmen wore heavy fleece-lined jackets and oxygen masks. “You have to shave well the day of a mission,” he said.
“It was 50 degrees below zero up there, and sometimes water vapor in the breathing apparatus froze. I would have to squeeze the bladder to break up the water vapor ice,” Martinez said. “Later we had electrically heated suits which was a big improvement.”
Belly turret gunners routinely spent 8-10 hours in the ball while over enemy territory.
“We had no food (K rations) on the missions, but they gave us unsweetened chocolate bars to eat on the way back,” Martinez said. “Once we dropped our bombs we headed straight for the North Sea. I would get out of the turret and we all could relax. The plane was put on automatic pilot for the trip back to England.”
Bombing the Mainz, Germany, marshalling yards was his first mission. “There were 20 to 30 railroad tracks we had to put out of commission.”
Martinez said everyone on the crew felt stress on each mission, but “the mission we were assigned to successfully complete was the priority.”
“I remember thinking, if anything happens, it will happen to the other guy,” he said. “That may sound a little insensitive, but that’s what was in everyone’s mind.”
Martinez also thought about any civilians that were being killed on the ground.
“That is something I didn’t want to think about, but I knew it was happening,” he said. “But what could you do? I was hired by my government to do a job. We all were.”
Martinez remembers one mission above all the others.
“There was one memorable mission,” he said. “The retreating Germans had to be stopped at the Rhine River, and the 388th was assigned to knock out the bridges at Cologne, Germany.
“Flying over Cologne. with the bridges knocked out by bombs, the city was completely devastated, but on one side of the river was a great cathedral. It was completely undamaged. I thought it would be hit but was not. It meant a lot to me to see it standing there, like there was hope in the midst of all that devastation.”
There were other missions when not everything went according to plan. One was on Christmas Eve, 1943.
“I went over to Europe not on a military transport ship, but aboard the Queen Mary, with about 18,000 troops. The British ran the ship, of course, and also cooked the meals,” he said. “It was fried liver and tea for every meal and I got so sick of eating that, I went to the ship’s store and bought a whole of Butterfinger candy bars.
“On Dec. 24, 1944 we had mechanical trouble coming back from a mission and had to make an emergency landing at a nearby British air base. They invited us to Christmas dinner,” Martinez said. “We thought about those meals on the Queen Mary and said ‘no thanks, we will wait,” and people from our base came over and picked us up to take us back to our base. We had turkey and dressing for Christmas dinner.”
On his eighteenth mission, an engine exploded after take-off and the B-17 caught fire, while still over England.
“I had not entered the turret yet, and we all had to bail out. There were a couple of injuries. One landed in a tree, one in a concrete ditch, but I was lucky and landed in a field,” Martinez said. “That was my last mission.”
Martinez still has a souvenir of that mission. He saved the “D” ring – the metal ring that operated the ripcord - from his parachute pack.
“I became a proud member of the Caterpillar Club,” he said. “Caterpillars make silk and parachutes are made of silk. I was even given a caterpillar lapel pin, but it was gone when someone stole my duffel bag.”
He said he was already back in the States when the 388th took part in the bombing of Dresden, Germany.
Martinez said one of his missions was a little different, because “our target was Paris. Orly Airport. We had to bomb the whole aerodrome because it had been taken over by the Luftwaffe.”
One oddity during several of his missions were the appearance, not of enemy fighters, but “foo foo fighters. Balls of light. You would see one out there flying at the same altitude and same speed.
“Then they’re gone, flying up at 90 degree angle out of sight. Planes could not go up 90 degrees at that speed. We never knew what they were,” he said.
The B-17 is credited with dropping more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II.
The casualties for airmen totaled 52,000 at war’s end, and although the tour of duty for an airman was 25 missions, life expectancy of a bomber crew member was just 15 missions.
For his service as a ball turret gunner in the Army Air Force, Martinez was awarded the European/African Theater Ribbon with three bronze stars, two Air Medals with oak leaf cluster, and a Presidential Distinguished Unit Badge
“It was an interesting job, but I didn’t consider myself a hero. The term hero implies that this guy was braver than others. All of us did a job and did a good job,” Martinez said.
On the home front in Socorro for the three years he was serving in the military was his future wife. Vivi.
“I waited for him the whole time,” she said. “We were married in 1945. I had to propose to him.”
Mike and Vivi Martinez celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary this year.
The Mountain Mail wished to extend its condolences on the recent loss of their son, Mike.