URBANA — “Everybody stay off the intercom but Kempy,”1the co-pilot said to his crew. Imagine straddling a saddle seat in the tail end of a B-17 bomber. You’re only 20 years old. You’re the last bomber in the entire formation known as “Tail End Charlie.” It is negative 45 degrees at this altitude. You’re holding your twin 50 caliber machine guns in your mittened hands. They are so cold and numb you can barely feel you are holding the gun. You’re tired. You’ve been awake since 2 a.m. Ice is forming around your oxygen mask. If it was not for your heated suite your whole body would freeze. You hear your co-pilot call out on the intercom. “Watch ‘em,Kempy, he’s coming back.” You’re heart is pounding in your chest. You’re scanning the sky watching for the enemy.
Over the course of the last few months my family and I have had the privilege of volunteering at the Champaign Aviation Museum (CAM) We have been fortunate to be involved with the B-17 restoration project. We have met many interesting people including World War Two (WWII) veterans, crews from other WWII historical aircraft, local pilots, the elite Air Force Thunderbirds, as well as aircraft and history enthusiasts. But by far, the best experience we have had has been getting to know WWII veterans. They are heroes. Like the pillars of a building, these men and women have stood as the foundation and strength of our nation. They are worthy of our honor and respect. I have had the great privilege to get to know a few. I would like to introduce to you a dear friend, a WWII veteran, and a B-17 tail gunner, Staff Sergeant Arthur “Art” L. Kemp; affectionately known by his crew as “Kempy.”
Art was born on Feb. 9,1924, in Sidney, Ohio. While Art was growing up, his father operated an auto repair garage, Art was the machinist. He worked alongside his father in the business. He was drafted into the Army Air Force (AAF) on Feb. 25, 1943. Once Art arrived at the base he began training as a tail gunner for a B-17 “Heavy Bomber.” Art was sent to basic training for only three weeks. Typical training time lasted six weeks. “How long your basic training lasted depended on your instructor and how much time he wanted to put in,” said Art with a smile.
After basic training, Art went to Scottfield, Illinois, for radio training. Upon completing radio training, Art went to gunnery school in Fort Myers, Florida. The next leg of training was at Avon Park, Florida for overseas training (OTU)While there he met the other men who would become his crew. Soon after OTU was completed, Art and the crew were sent to Savanna, Georgia, to pick up a new B-17. They began their trip heading to the war front. Art was the tail gunner of the lead aircraft in the squadron while heading to Gander, Newfoundland. Art remained there for a few days with his crew. After the layover, they all boarded their same B-17. Art and his crew soon set out for Wales, which is one of the four countries that make up England. Once they landed, Art recalled, “…we got out and the people from the base took our plane away.We asked them, ‘What are you doing?’ and they replied, ‘Taken’ her to wash.’” This was no little Stinson ‘sub spotter’, it was a 4 engine B-17. Washing an aircraft for the crew was a tangible way the people could show respect and appreciation.
Art’s next stop was Advanced Gunnery Training. There were many drills that must be passed to advance further.One drill the gunners enjoyed, Art said, was, “shoot the can.”The instructors decided to mount a 50 caliber machine gun to the bed of a truck. Soon a 1930s model pick-up appeared and was loaded down with young and lively American boys, from all over the United States. “We sat on the top, we sat inside, we sat in the bed and everywhere else we could think of,” said Art as he grinned. The instructor drove the pick-up truck out to a mound of dirt used for the back stop on the shooting range. Art and the other gunners shot the guns in short bursts. Too long would cause the barrel to warp and become useless. Under stress of war, one must have a clear head and recall training. It could mean life or death for the crew if you did not preserve the integrity of your guns. Closer to the end of training, the gunners became so good at aiming and “shooting the can” that they could keep the can zigzagging up the hill until it sat proudly atop. As young men often do, they turned training exercises into games. The can was tossed to the foot of the hill. Each gunner took turns shooting short bursts at the can. Soon they learned how to propel the can heaven ward and keep it up until all the gunners had a chance to rotate through shooting the gun. It was fast paced. This game was not only fun but kept the gunners focused on the target and cognitively aware of what was going on around them.
A little while earlier you may have been wandering, “Why did a tail gunner need so much training, after all, he just needs to know how to shoot, right?” Well, the tail gunner had more jobs than just trying to shoot down enemy aircraft. Along with the obvious gunning responsibility the tail gunner had to count and look for parachute deployment of men who bailed out of their aircraft, be it friend or foe. Tail gunners also had to be alert and awake at all times to watch for enemy aircraft coming from behind. Another task that was important was operating the signal light. Few had the opportunity. Art was proud to be among those few.Each squadron has a unique letter painted on their vertical stabilizer. A signal light was used only by the first tail gunner in the squadron to communicate with other bombers following behind. The tail gunner would flash his squadron tail identification letter in a series of ditz and dashes, also known as Morris Code.If the tail gunner saw a bomber that did not belong in the squadron he would signal one solid red light. This meant you had found yourself with the wrong squadron and needed to fall in line with your correct one.
More often than not, your biggest worry would be getting hit by direct fire. However, another major weapon that was used to slow down an aircraft was called “Flak.” “Flak” was taken from the German word, fliegerabwehrkanonen. There are multiple sizes of “Flak” shells; each exploding at a different altitude. Crews learned to identify the size of the shell by the color of smoke it left behind. Eighty-eight millimeter shells produced black smoke, one hundred-five millimeter shells created red smoke, and the 155 millimeter shells tended to create a white smoke. The 88 mm shells were usually shot in a line, four at a time,with a slight vertical incline. Once spotted, the crews could help direct the pilot to maneuver the aircraft around the next three anticipated shots. The 105mm and 155 mm were generally single shot and designed to go to a higher altitude before exploding. “You didn’t need to worry much about these most of the time, unless you were above one, then it wasn’t pretty” commented Art.
On Art’s third mission, wake-up call was at 2 o’clock a.m. Breakfast was at 3 o’clock and then mission briefing. At mission briefing Art and his crew learned their target was Crepy, France. Art and his crew left the base and arrived at their target with fairly little disruption. After dropping their bombs, they were ready to head for home. Fifteen minutes later they flew into a barrage of “Flak.” The “Flak” exploded sending molten fragments through the aircraft injuring the pilot. A piece of shrapnel hit the pilot’s ankle forcefully tearing upward through muscle and tissue before exiting at the knee. The wound began gushing blood. It filled his boot and overflowed. The injury rendered the pilot unconscious. He slumped in his seat. The co-pilot took over the controls and announced with great confidence over the intercom, “Don’t worry boys, I’ll get you home!” Unfortunately, he had never landed a B-17 in combat. Five hours later they arrived at the Army Air Force base in Polebrook, England. They released flares from the aircraft. It was a common way to notify the ground support crews of wounded aboard. This would give them the first priority to land.Just before landing the pilot regained consciousness. He grabbed the controls, landed the plane, and then slumped over in his seat unconscious once again. Emergency personnel rushed and boarded the plane. The pilot was given seven blood transfusions while still sitting left seat. About 45 minutes later he was stabilized enough for the medics to remove him from the B-17. He was taken to the hospital to receive further emergency care.
Art’s 11th mission is his “most memorable.” It took place on July 28, 1944. Just like all 10 missions before this one, he rose early, ate breakfast, and went to mission briefing. While there, he learned details and location of the mission.
“Our mission was to bomb an oil refinery in Merseburg, Germany.”When flying, “our altitude was23,500 feet,” Art recalled.
Art and his crew were flying “Tail End Charlie.” It had been a fairly uneventful flight to the target. They had experienced minimal difficulties and successfully dropped their bomb load. The mission was half done. They were heading back to the base. Now was the time to be alert. The enemy knew you were there and they were coming after you. Art and his crew were fifteen minutes into their return flight when a Focke-Wulf 190 A-8 German fighter appeared at their six. The Focke-Wulf began firing immediately. The pilot shot all around Art’s legs and feet, riddling the tail section with bullets. He shot out engine numbers two and three and disabled the supercharger in number four. The Focke-Wulf also shot out the ball turret sending the gunner plummeting to earth. The Focke-Wulf came around again. Art was ready. He fired and hit the Focke-Wulf which began to dive. The pilot ejected the fighter. Art did not see the German pilot’s parachute open. Art counted him as dead. This was Art’s first kill. Art looked out his windows toward the nose of the aircraft. Even though he had shot down the German fighter, the B-17 was severely damaged. Oil was spewing out the engines. It was spraying and coating the fuselage. The bomber was slowing and losing altitude quickly. The pilot was forced to drop out of formation. He would have to fly lower. The pilot nursed the “Heavy bomber” along on one and a half engines. This made them an easy target.
About five minutes later, a Messerschmitt BF-109 appeared. The German pilot saw Art’s bomber had been shot up. The tail end was in such poor condition it resembled a cheese grater. With this amount of damage any fighter pilot could presume the tail gunner dead. The German decided to get a closer look at this lone B-17. This would be easy pickings for any enemy who wanted credit for shooting down an American “Heavy Bomber.” As the fighter pilot assessed the bomber he noticed the ball turret missing. He took on strategic placement where the top turret could not reach him. The waist gunner was injured and could not perform his duties and Art’s guns were unable to swivel far enough around. All the crew could do was hope and pray. There were no gunners that could reach the German. “Everybody stay off the intercom but Kempy,” the co-pilot told his crew. The line must stay free of chatter. “Watch ‘em Kempy, he’s coming back.” The Messerschmitt pilot had lowered his flaps. His fighter began to deliberately slow. He was moving in for the kill. Art sat on his saddle seat completely motionless. He saw the Messerschmitt out of his peripheral vision at about a 45 degree angle to his left. The fighter was maneuvering into position and now in full view. It was now or never! Art swung his guns around with all his might. He squeezed the triggers of his twin 50 caliber machine guns. He hit the German with deadly shots that sent the fighter plunging with merciless speed. The pilot looked up at Art with ghastly surprise. The pilot had gambled and lost! The tail gunner was alive. Art could only image what the pilot was thinking when he saw the face of the young man, who was barely twenty, awakened from presumed death. The fighter exploded as it plummeted though a cloud layer, never to be seen again.
Air was swirling all around inside the heavily damaged bomber. Even at lower altitude, it was cold. A P-51 was outside of Art’s window. This American fighter would escort them through the English Channel. All Art could do was sit there. He knew his guns would not work properly if needed. He had forced his 50 caliber machine guns to their limit and beyond. They were beginning to bow and had turned blue. Beads had formed on their tips, resembling slag, due to the long rapid firing. Art’s pilot flew the shot up B-17 toward their base. He dropped colored flares to warn of wounded and landed with only one and a half working engines. At the base things were hopping. Glenn Miller and his orchestra would be performing that evening. Art got out of the heavily damaged B -17. While walking to the hanger he heard someone from the orchestra remark, “They really got shot up.”
It was time for debriefing. All Art’s surviving crew members received congratulations and a shot of whiskey. It had been a long day for everyone. The base captain asked “Kempy” to see his guns. Art already knew their condition. He was ordered to remove and properly dispose of them. They had served their purpose and given all they had in the pursuit of freedom. The captain gave Art a pat on the back and wished him luck.
Sometime later, Art learned that his first kill, the Pilot of the Focke-Wulf 190, was a German Ace. His name was Ernst-Erich Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld had served about 100 missions for Germany. He was credited for a Russian LaGG fighter and 24 American “Heavy Bombers,” including B-17’s and B-24 bombers. Hirschfeld met his demise when his parachute failed to open after he ejected his fighter. If you consider the total number of airman aboard each “Heavy Bomber” the potential number of lives the German Ace had taken would be between 200 and 240. Who knows how many lives were saved because of a young tail gunner’s skill and good aim?
While watching the 1940’s theatrical presentation of the “Memphis Belle,” it was said that the best defense against enemy fighters was a tight formation. Of course, any WWII veteran gunner would have his own views on this.“That is true,” said Art, “unless you have good gunners.” Art pause briefly. With a smile on his face he continued, “…And we had good gunners!”
One thing that tight formations couldn’t protect the “flying fortress” from was mid-air collisions.As I listened intently, Art began telling another story as if he was reliving it.
“It was just another mission,” he explained. He was flying in the lead aircraft of their squadron as tail gunner performing signal light duties. As he watched out his window at the other B-17s following behind, he couldn’t believe what was unfolding before his eyes. A B-17, in tight formation, flew too close to the bomber in front of it. This caused the “Heavy Bomber” to get sucked into prop wash from the forward aircraft. The pilot panicked. He slowed aggressively and got too close to the bomber near him. Their wings collided and broke off.The stress induced by the strike was immense. The fuselage of both aircraft snapped in half. The nose sections of these massive bombers plummeted to the earth as the tails slowly floated back and forth like leaves floating to the ground on a warm autumn day. With glassy eyes and a solemn voice Art said, “The engines were still running as they fell out of the sky. There weren’t any chutes to count.” Both B-17 crews perished that day with out a single enemy shot being fired.
The emotional strain these veterans faced was real. Some things you can never “unsee.” Those living still carry the weight of these memories and events with them every day. Some may tell you of their struggles, while others hold their secrets deep within. It is only when these brave American heroes pass do they find peace from the horror of war.
It gives me great pleasure to call “Kempy” my friend. We are all part of his crew at the Champaign Aviation Museum. I never get tired of hearing his WWII stories. I learn something new every time he tells one.I am so appreciative of his service and sacrifice for my freedom.When I look into the eyes of this veteran I see a man who has given so much to his country. If I look closely, I can still catch a glimpse of the pride, courage, and bravery that filled the eyes of this young tail gunner so many years ago.
The writer is 14 years old, homeschooled, plays the flute, and enjoys volunteering at the Champaign Aviation Museum. She also enjoys reading books, participating as a junior lifeguard and is a swimming lessons assistant. She is active in her church and interprets American Sign Language to children. One day she hopes to be a teacher and specialize in deaf education. She is the daughter of Christine and and Chad Detwiler, of Urbana.