Goyette & Postier: Shooting from the Waist
An aerial gunner is a member of an Air Force crew who operates flexible-mount or turret-mounted machine guns or autocannons in an aircraft. Modern weapons are usually automatic and don’t need a dedicated gunner, but older generation bombers (World War II for example) used to carry several different types of gunners.
One type of aerial gunner found on a B-17 was the waist gunner (picture right features RBC gunners Charles Goyette and Richard Postier). A waist gunner's primary duty was to defend the aircraft from the enemy. In some instances, waist gunners were also responsible for checking the aircraft for damage and assisting the flight engineer with repairs if necessary. The two waist gunners were located directly opposite from each other which sometimes made maneuvering difficult. Frostbite was also an issue. To help combat frostbite, waist gunners frequently wore heavy layers of shearling and leather protective clothing as well as electrically heated suits.
In Bruce Callander’s book, The Aces that History Forgot, he explains that “in real life good shooting is a test of skill and self-discipline. The gunner has to concentrate on the target at hand, resist the temptation to shoot everything in sight, and, above all, use short bursts. Nonstop, Hollywood-style firing looks dramatic, but it would actually produce enough heat to wilt a gun barrel.”
The video to the left is a mix of B-17 Flying Fortress gunners as well as film from U.S. fighter gun cameras. It also includes rare footage of a B-17 ball turret gunner in action over Europe. It gives some idea of what it was like to be a gunner on a B-17 during WW2.
When gunners were not shooting or being shot at, their prime concern was survival. Missions lasted up to eight hours, with much of the flying taking place above 25,000 feet. Temperatures dropped as low as minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit in bombers that had no insulation and very little heat outside of the flight deck. Fleece-lined flight jackets offered little protection. The earliest electrically heated suits often shorted out and burned their occupants. Waist gunners, who worked through open windows, suffered frozen fingers and often slipped on the spent shells that piled up at their feet. Ball turret gunners had slightly more protection from the elements, but their cocoons allowed them little room to move arms, legs or feet.
In spite of all the hardships, US gunners did an outstanding job: Eighth Air Force bombers destroyed over 6,259 enemy aircraft and damaged 3,210, numbers significantly higher than the Eighth’s fighter pilots.