Roberts Martin: Gunner recalls close calls in the air

October 10, 2005 

More than anything, Roberts Martin feared being trapped.

It would happen like this: Martin would be crouched in the ball turret below his B-24 Liberator bomber. German anti-aircraft fire would jam the mechanism that raised the turret into the plane. And he would be stuck — with a death sentence.

Unable to escape from behind his twin .50-caliber machine guns, he would sit and wait until the sphere's metal and Plexiglas scraped the runway. "The plane could land, but you wouldn't survive," he said. Martin, now 80 and a retired educator in State College, flew five combat missions — all but one as a ball- turret gunner — over Italy with the 98th Bomb Group, "The Pyramidiers." His was a famous outfit, legendary for the costly Aug. 1, 1943, raid on the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.

Of the 177 planes that left Libya to strike the Nazis' main refinery at treetop level, 54 never returned.

In February 1945, Martin joined the group, a corporal from upstate New York taught to pick off German fighters from his Sperry ball turret. By the time he arrived in Lecce, Italy, gunners no longer had to worry much about enemy planes slicing through formations.

The Luftwaffe, the German air force, had become a shadow of its once-mighty self. "We didn't have any fighters come in and attack us," Martin said. "That was the big thing. Here we spent all this time training for fighters, and the fighters we saw were a mile or two away from us, flying at the same altitude, at the same speed."

But what they were doing was radioing down, to the anti-aircraft gunners below, our altitude, our speed and what direction we were going in. So it helped them set their anti-aircraft fire more accurately." That flak remained as deadly as ever. Near-misses would bounce planes up or rock them to the side.

Closer explosions had another calling card. "You would hear it, like taking a handful of stones and throwing them against a tin roof," Martin said. "And sometimes, you'd see a hole appear in the aluminum (fuselage skin) as that stuff would come through." He could don a steel helmet and flak jacket, but that was it. All he learned back in gunnery school, peppering banners trailing planes, even shooting skeet, was useless. He couldn't fight back. "Gunner today, goner tomorrow," went the joke, but the Army Air Force had showed him how to survive after his vision ruled out pilot training.

He sharpened his aim by "shooting" at films of fighters curving in for the kill. But unseen flak guns couldn't be lined up in the electronic sight of his turret window after his B-24 passed the "initial point" and entered its final run to target. Wing tips practically touching, the Liberators had to maintain formation while waiting for the lead plane to release its bombs. Minutes felt like an eternity.

"That was the most dangerous part as far as we were concerned, because if their anti-aircraft fire is accurate, you're going to get some hits on those planes, and you never knew which one it was going to be," Martin said. If a wing had broken off and the plane had gone into a spin, Martin might not have been able to jump in time. Inside the ball turret, there wasn't room for a parachute.

Fortunately for him, the turret usually went down only when fighters were in the vicinity, to reduce air resistance. Martin, trained as an armaments specialist, performed other duties, such as pulling out cotter keys from the noses of bombs a few miles into the mission. Without the keys, little propellers were free to spin, arming the falling bomb after so many turns.

On another raid, with fog cloaking the target in the Alps, orders came to return to base. Back to the bomb bay Martin went, balancing on the tiny catwalk and slipping back all the cotter keys. Twice over the Po Valley, the keys stayed in and the doors opened. Like its predecessors at Ploesti, Martin's B-24 roared in low, but instead of oil tanks, it attacked German infantry with bundles of hand-grenade-like fragmentation bombs. "Normally, you didn't use heavy bombers for that, and we were flying at 500 feet," he said.

Not long after, the Air Force recalled the 98th, one of the two longest-serving bomb groups in the European Theater, for retraining on B-29 Superfortresses. But peace arrived before he could be sent to the Pacific.

Martin's days as a gunner were over, followed by a long teaching career that ended at Essex Community College in Maryland. He also retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel in 1978. Once, though, he was a young corporal with the best view and worst seat in the house. "You just sort of felt closed in," he said. "If you were claustrophobic, that wasn't any place to be."

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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