Panama City, Florida
Gunnery school involved learning all about the fifty-caliber machine gun: How to shoot it, how to take care of it, and incredibly, how too take it apart and put it together blindfolded. When I first learned that the blindfold test was a requirement for passing, I honestly thought that I would flunk and that the infantry would be my next stop. However, another cadet, named Sheehan, and I figured out a way to memorize the steps. We made up a song involving the critical steps, sung to the tune of “Mother”. It went, “E is for electrical connections, G is for…(etc.) Put them all together, they spell EGLOFSHIC, the word that means those wings of mine.” Somehow, it worked.
Upon passing gunnery school, you were awarded Gunner’s Wings, which were worn on your uniform. For those of us who would be going on to navigation school, this meant that if we flunked out there, we would be aerial gunners. It also meant that we would be enlisted men rather than officers- a significant difference.
How to Shoot
1. Aerial combat
Of course, we were supposed to learn how to shoot down enemy fighters who would be attacking our bombers. It turned out that this was a very simple procedure, called “1-2-3”. It worked as follows: The enemy fighter would fly parallel to your bomber at a distance of 200 yards. You would point your gun at him, hold it still and count “1-2-3”. You noted the distance that he had now moved ahead of where you were pointing. Then you aimed at the same distance ahead of him and supposedly shot him down.
We were taken up in make-believe bombers, so that we could practice “1-2-3”. A fighter plane would tow a large white square target, flying 200 yards parallel to our ship. We would shoot at the target. The tips of our bullets were coated with colored paint, so that, after we landed, our instructors could see how well we did. I remember that none of us did well. The target always remained almost totally white. Sometimes the tow rope was cut by our bullets and the target floated to the ground. Among the cadets, we considered this a victory. And every now and then, the tow plane was hit by one of bullets, even though it was far, far ahead of the target. All in all, it was not a very satisfactory performance, leaving us very concerned as to how we would do in actual combat.
However, we need not have worried about passing the “1-2-3” test. As it turned out, during our third week at Panama City, bomber crew veterans who had completed their combat tour came to the camp. They told us that “1-2-3” did not work; that the enemy fighter planes never flew parallel to the bombers; and that the bomber crews had learned a new technique which did work. Unfortunately for us, we were advised that since we were already advanced in our training, we could not learn this new technique, but that we had to learn “1-2-3”. However, since “1-2-3” did not work, we would not have to take a flight gunnery test. This absurd logic made it easier for us to get our gunner’s wings. It also meant that we had better succeed in navigation school, since we certainly were not trained gunners.
You sat in a turret with two machine guns, just like one in a bomber. About 100 yards in front there was a ditch, in which a jeep rode, with a large white target on top. We would be judged on how many hits we could get on the target. I got into the turret and began saying, “I-2-3”, when, to my amazement, the target stopped directly in front of me. The jeep had broken down. This was my golden opportunity. I pulled the triggers on the two machine guns. We had been told never to fire more than 15-second bursts, otherwise the machine gun barrels would begin to melt because of the heat of the bullets. This did not stop me. I kept those guns firing, watching my bullets flying into the target. As the barrels began to melt and curve downward, I just raised them, so that the bullets continued to fly. People were banging on my turret, trying to get me to stop. No way- I kept firing until the entire magazine of 50-caliber bullets was empty. As a result, I had the most hits on the target and was named “Gunner of the Week”. Those were the rules.
3. Skeet Shooting
For a poor boy from Newark, New Jersey, the idea of shooting skeet was far beyond the economic horizon. This was a rich man’s sport. Yet, here we were, going out to the skeet range, where the shot guns awaited us. We were suddenly in touch with the “Upper Class”, a very heady feeling. Of course, it turned out that this was not an easy sport. First of all, upon being fired, the shot gun had a kick like a mule. If you didn’t hold it tight to your shoulder, it could cause great pain on coming back. If you did hold it tightly, the kick could knock you over, especially if you were not standing properly. Second, the skeet, or clay pigeon, was a circular object made of clay that flew in arc- not at all easy to hit. Whenever you were ready to shoot, you shouted “Pull!” and then the clay pigeon would appear, sometimes from the right, sometimes from the left, sometimes high, sometimes low. You had just a few seconds to shoot before the clay pigeon was out of sight.
Keeping in mind that every time I called “Pull!”, the damn gun would try to break my shoulder, I approached the subject very gingerly. The likelihood of my even seeing the target before it got out of range, much less hitting it, was extremely small. Was there any way out? Yes, there was. A call had just gone out for volunteers for the skeet house. I literally jumped from the firing line.
The skeet house was a shack standing high on long wooden legs, about 50 yards from the firing line. Forgetting my fear of heights, I climbed the ladder leading to the shack and pulled myself in. Inside I found four other guys, two skeet machines and boxes of clay pigeons. The skeet machines were metal slings that shot clay pigeons through open slits in the shack wall. I watched as one guy placed a clay pigeon on the sling arm. When we heard “Pull” from below, another guy pulled a lever and the clay pigeon took off. The actual direction of flight was determined by where the clay pigeon was place on the sling arm. In order to keep things moving smoothly, the two skeet machines were used alternately, one being loaded, while the other was working. There really was no resting time. This was work.
There were several other slits in the shack wall, through which one could see where the pigeons were flying. Since I was new, I just looked through one of these as the work went on. I could see the firing line and the arc of the clay pigeons as they flew beyond the cadets below. Suddenly, instead of flying away from the firing line, one of the clay pigeons curved slightly in toward the shooters. Evidently, it had been placed too close to the fulcrum of the sling. “Oops,” I shouted, “That could have gone right into the firing line!”
The cadets stopped working. One said to another, “Where did you place that one?” The second cadet pointed to a spot on the sling arm. “Put it even closer inside,” the first one said, and turned to me, he continued, “Tell us where this one goes.” Meanwhile, from below, we could hear cries of “Pull! Pull!”
The next clay pigeon was placed very carefully and the lever was pulled. I watched as the pigeon flew in a lovely arc, going from the shack, out into the open and then turning in toward the firing line. The cadets below scattered as it came flying in, with much shouting. “That was right on,” I said. Without another word, the second sling was set the same way, the skeet was on its way. “A bit too high,” I said. An adjustment was made and the two skeet machines were suddenly much busier than they had been all day. Clay pigeons were erupting from the shack like arcing missiles. Down below, instructors and cadets were running back. “We need a longer arc, they’re pulling back,” I called. My new companions were clearly master skeet machine operators- the clay pigeons flew higher into the sky and reached further down below.
Then we heard a new sound- a rattling against the shack’s walls. Quickly it became more than just a mere rattling, it seemed to be hailing on a clear day. I looked out and saw a group of cadets firing their shot guns, not at the clay pigeons, but at our shack!. “They’re shooting at us!” I yelled. “Those bastards!” our leader yelled. “We’ll show them!”
And now clay pigeons were streaking downward in rapid order. At the same time, the entire skeet school opened fire on our shack. The building was vibrating as shot gun blasts reached us. This was war!
I pulled away from the open slit for a second and then peeked back. A small number of men were scurrying toward us, ducking through the falling wall of clay pigeons. They were headed for our ladder! “They’re gonna climb up here!” I shouted. “You kick’em down!” our leader commanded. I waited at the open door for the first invader to appear, my right leg pulled back. Somebody was in for a long, painful fall, or at least a smashed face.
Then we heard whistles blowing and the gunfire stopped. I looked down. No one was coming up the ladder. “Hold it!” I yelled, “Officers!” Sure enough, some officers had arrived and had taken command of the situation. The flow of clay pigeons stopped. “We’d better get down there,” our leader said, and we all climbed down the ladder.
No one asked any questions. No remarks were made. It was as though nothing had happened. We were assembled into our ranks and we marched back to camp. As we marched, I felt a surge of excitement. I was a battle-worn soldier, a hero.
Six weeks after we arrived at Panama City, we were each handed aerial gunner’s wings. There was no ceremony- rightfully so, since we certainly were not equipped for aerial combat. However, we had survived and we had learned to take a machine gun apart and put it together blindfolded. I did ask when it was that we would be doing something like that in combat. Stupid question. I should have known better.
We were on our way to navigation school at Selman Field, Monroe, Louisiana.
© Steven E. Schanes 2001
April 6, 2000