Floyd Daugherty recalls days as B-17 tail gunner
“It’s bigger than I remembered,” Floyd Daugherty said as he got his first look at the Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber from the World War ll era.
Daugherty, of Landis, stood outside the plane looking at the tail gunner’s turret, the place he occupied during his service in the war.
“It was sure tight in there,” he said. “The gun sight was between my legs, and there was really no room to move around. I sat on what resembled a bicycle seat for up to 11 hours at a time, all the while looking backwards and to the sides of the rear of the plane.”
A video Daugherty talking about his experience is avilable on the Post’s homepage.
He operated two 50-caliber guns.
“I had my name painted on one of them and a girlfriend’s name on the other,” he said.
Daugherty flew 27 of his 30 missions as a tail gunner, two as a waist gunner, and one as a belly turret gunner.
“Flying in the belly turret was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. It is so small in there, you can’t get out, and I was doubled up for hours. I came back and told my commander that I would rather fly as a tail gunner,” Daugherty said.
When Daugherty noticed windows had been installed over the waist gunners’ ports, he said, “It was so cold in the plane. We often had temperatures of 40 to 50 below zero. We had to wear heated suits. The wind would come in those waist gunner ports and whistle back through the plane. My heated suit always worked.”
The Memphis Belle arrived at the Rowan County Airport last week for interior repairs to be done by Carolina Avionics and Interiors. A steady stream of veterans has stopped in to see the plane. When Daugherty heard of the plane’s arrival, he jumped at the chance to see it. Visitors and airport staff who were on hand listened to Daugherty describe life as a B-17 crew member.
‘Get to fight the quickest!’
On Dec. 5, 1943, Daugherty enlisted in the Air Force and headed for St. Petersburg, Fla., for boot camp, which was held on the New York Yankees’ spring training field.
When asked what area of service he had the most interest in, the young Daugherty replied, “Just send me where I will get to fight the quickest!”
So off to gunnery school he went, quickly followed by armor school. Daugherty began training to fly as a machine gunner on dive bombers, but changed his mind.
“Those guys had a hard time landing on the ground, and then they started talking about us landing on aircraft carriers,” he said. “I didn’t want any part of that!”
Word came of an immediate need for B-17 gunners, and very soon Daugherty headed overseas on the Queen Elizabeth with 22,000 other personnel.
“We had to sleep in shifts because there weren’t enough beds but pretty soon we arrived in Scotland before being sent on to England,” he said.
Daugherty was 21 years old and weighed about 145 pounds. He was quickly slotted as a tail gunner on a B-17 affectionately called the “Canadian Club.” Crews were allowed to name their own plane, and Canadian Club was the result of an early training mission back in the U.S. that went off course and landed in Canada just before running out of gas.
“We all loved Canadian Club,” Daugherty said of the plane. “And I still do.”
The conditions weren’t always easy to love, though.
“B-17’s were noisy and the vibration was constant,” Daugherty said. “They smoked pretty badly too, and I often wondered if the plane was going to shake apart. The flights were so long that I sometimes just dozed if there were not any fighters around to shoot at.”
A highlight for Daugherty was that the pilot would occasionally come to the rear of the plane and offer to exchange seats.
“I got to fly the plane for about 30 minutes at a time while the pilot sat in the tail,” he said. “That was something!”
The goal for bomber crews at the time was to successfully complete 30 missions and earn a trip back home to finish out their term of service. With this goal in mind, the crew of the Canadian Club headed out on their seventh mission with 63 other planes.
Fire on the wing
They almost didn’t make it back.
“Planes were falling out of the sky all around us. Anti-aircraft fire was terrible, and one 88-millimeter shell hit our wing,” Daugherty recalled.
The wing caught on fire and the captain told the crew to bail out. Some did, but Daugherty and others didn’t make it off the airplane.
“We started to do it, but realized that the belly gunner couldn’t get out of his turret. The pilot got back in his seat and put the plane in a dive to suffocate the wing fire,” he said.
“It worked, and the four of us still on board brought the plane home on two engines.”
Three of the crew members who did jump from the plane were captured, and three more made it back to friendly lines. The captured aviators spent 16 months as prisoners of war. The Canadian Club was shot up so badly that it was pushed to the plane graveyard, never to fly again.
Daugherty then began to substitute on other crews. A typical day included a 2 a.m. wake up if the planes were flying that day. After breakfast, the crews would be briefed on targets. They’d be in the air by dawn.
Shortly after finishing one flight, Daugherty went to look for his best friend’s plane. They had planned a night on the town. Daugherty walked up to the plane and saw his friend’s body. He’d been killed by a shell while he sat at his radio post.
Daugherty completed his 30 missions substituting as a gunner on whatever crew needed one, coming back to the base five times on two engines instead of four.
Sailing to England on the Queen Elizabeth, Daugherty couldn’t feel the waves. He headed back to the U.S. on a much smaller boat.
“I was so sick. That boat would rise up and then slam back down in the waves, and it went on for hours,” he said. “But I was headed home!”
High mortality rate
The Air Force lost 10,045 planes in Europe during World War II. About 4,500 of those were B-17s, far more than the losses of B-24 bombers and P-51 Mustang fighters that together totaled about 4,200.
Tail gunners on B-17s, where Daugherty flew most of his missions, had the highest mortality rate of any crew member. He was a member of the 390th Bomb Group, flying most of those missions over Germany and France. One mission included 600 B-17s.
Daugherty earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, The Air Medal with 5 Clusters, a Presidential Citation and two Bronze Stars. He never got a scratch in the war.
Daugherty and his wife, Margaret, have visited other living crew members and attended reunions. Only one other member of his original crew remains, Jerry McLaughlin of Los Angeles. They call each other every year on Jan. 21, the anniversary of their seventh mission together and the last for the Canadian Club.
Now 90 years old, Daugherty crawled up inside the Memphis Belle and took a look around.
“It is still pretty narrow back to the tail gunner’s area. I got one German ME-109 fighter, and might have hit two more,” he said.
No matter what, Floyd Daugherty found the quickest way to the fight and feels blessed that he got to come home.