When one of the few still flying B-17 Flying Fortresses landed at Ogden Hinckley Airport recently, former B-17 Ball Turret Gunner Wayne Ottley took a turn in the air and brought some of his own memories of the aircraft along for the ride.
Ottley served four months in England during World War II from Dec. 1943 to April 1944. When a doctor discovered Ottley had developed a heart murmur, he was reassigned to Boise, Idaho, where he taught others the skills involved in sitting in a plexiglass and aluminum turret under the belly of the aircraft and shooting a .50 caliber gun.
A mock-up of the ball turret hung from the classroom ceiling. "I told my students it was one of the safest places to be in the plane," Ottley said.
The revitalized Aluminum Overcast B-17G-VE was purchased for $750 in 1946 as military surplus, and was used for cargo hauling, aerial mapping, crop and forest dusting. A group of interested B-17 backers purchased it and later donated it to a group interested in its restoration. This particular model, serial number 44-85740, had been manufactured later and did not see war action.
Ottley, an armorer specialist, served in the European theater when neither Germany nor Great Britain were making much headway. "Losses were tremendous," he said.
He had just taken time off from his job at Douglas Aircraft in California to get married in Salt Lake and when he returned, his draft notice was waiting for him. Since he worked at an aircraft company he was given a chance to enlist in the Air Force.
"Like everybody, I wanted to be a pilot," Ottley said. But they needed gunners.
After basic training and gunnery school, he found himself in Kimbolton, England, missing his wife terribly. She had followed him as he was put into basic training and then on to school to train for his position. As he was leaving they found out she was expecting.
Even though he came back from England, he missed his oldest son's birth. "I was in Texas, training to be a teacher (for the turret gunners)," Ottley reports. His son is now 66 years old and lives in Florida.
His crew had several close calls. In Kimbolton, there were three crews stationed to a billet and after one mission, he and his crew of six found they were the only ones left to occupy the bunk beds in their particular sleeping quarters. That meant two other crews had gone down.
"When you got back from a mission the trucks were right there to take away the wounded," he said. Ground crews worked hard to protect those flying into danger.
He remembers the low roaring sound of the B-17's four 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone Model engines, and the sound of flak as the bombers neared a target.
"We nearly always flew at 25,000 to 30,000 feet to drop our bombs," he said. "I did a lot of praying."
When the doctor found his heart murmur, Ottley was told if he followed doctor's orders he might live to be 65. "I'm 88 now," he said with a chuckle.
"I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself," he said when asked about his own motivations during his service. "But I was grateful when it was over."
He was recently given the opportunity to sit in a ball turret in another B-17.
"I'm the same weight and height so I could get in," Ottley said. "But it was still close quarters."
Inside the turret the gunner would sit on a piece of heavy steel, and be cocooned by the plexiglass and aluminum shell as he manned the gun.
"The waist gunners would stand by and help you get in and then lock it," he said. But there was a latch so the gunner could get back out. A parachute sat just outside the exit back into the aircraft.
"You wore your harness (for the chute) while you were in there all the time," he said.
A gunner had 360 degrees in azimuth, or the angle of horizontal deviation of a bearing, and 180 degrees in elevation in his gun sights. Two inches of thick bulletproof glass at the front helped protect the gunner, and intercoms connected the gunner to the rest of the crew.
At the time of Ottley's service, his B-17 was sent primarily against military targets and wasn't involved in any of the later bombing runs targeting cities. When the British took up that strategy after Hitler's forces began bombing London, Ottley's last bombing run initially included Berlin but at the last moment his plane was diverted to a nearby manufacturing target.
Ottley's crew all came home together, although he didn't fly with them on their last mission because of the heart murmur diagnosis.
He did get his chance to become a pilot in his own right and be behind the flight controls. He took flying lessons and flew his own Piper PA-28 Cherokee for approximately ten years in the '60s until 1970.
Ottley has traveled back to Europe with his wife and served missions for his church elsewhere. "With all the problems in the world today, we've still got the best spot of all," he declares in reference to the United States..