Just Shoot Me
Late in World War II, the Bell P-63 became an aerial gunner's easiest target.
- By James Dunaway
- Air & Space magazine, November 2010
National Museum Of The USAF
(Page 2 of 3)
Beginning in early 1945 at air bases in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, Pinball pilots began to take off and rendezvous with B-17s and B-24s. From the skies over the Florida Everglades, the Gulf of Mexico, and huge swaths of western desert, countless shell casings and spent bullets began to fall. In each bomber’s waist were 12 student gunners with 2,000 rounds each, taking turns as the RP-63 swooped down from above in an attack pattern.
“We’d fly curves of pursuit, like fighters did in battle,” says Henry “Hank” Rodrique, then a 19-year-old second lieutenant flying Pinballs at Harlingen, Texas. “Sometimes when I’d break off, they’d still shoot.”
Robert Corson, a crew chief at Yuma Army Airfield in Arizona, says, “The Pinballs would come in with holes in the empennage, because the gunners would freeze on the trigger and keep on firing when the Pinballs pulled up at the end of a run, and the rudder and horizontal stabilizers were vulnerable. We’d just patch the holes with small squares of cloth and glue them on, and go on our way.”
One gunner, Harry J. Byer, recalls, “The RP-63s were making high side passes, and about the last couple of hundred yards the instructors would make us stop firing. Then the guy would break down under the ship, come up on the other side, go up on the perch, and make another pass. When they’d finish a pass, they’d call the ship and say, ‘You got six hits, or ten, or three.’ ”
“We would normally fly two or three missions a day,” says Ashenfelter. “The missions would last about an hour and a half. The RPs would hold gas for about two hours’ worth, but by the time you got up there and did your thing with each airplane you had to attack, you’d be out of gas.”
The Pinball pilots were a mixed lot. Some were newly minted 19- or 20-year-old second lieutenants on their first assignments. Others were veterans of combat missions with fighter groups in England and Italy. After flying frontline fighters, adjusting to the RP-63 was not a problem for veterans, but deliberately letting themselves be shot at took some getting used to. “We’d get pilots with combat experience in Europe,” says Corson, “and they’d come to our base after a month or two of R&R. The first time around in an RP-63, the first mission, they were definitely twitchy. They’d been shot at, after all, and then going up and doing it on purpose was something they didn’t really like. But they’d all come down after that first mission with big grins on their faces.”
John Aranyos had flown 82 combat missions in the P-47 and been shot at plenty of times by Germans, but wasn’t sure about being fired on by Americans. “I’ll tell you what,” he says, “I was a little apprehensive. I got to my altitude and made my first pass at the bomber, a B-17. He was at 9,000 feet and I was several thousand feet higher. And I thought to myself that I was deliberately setting myself up as a perfect target for some eagle-eyed kid aspiring to be a top-notch gunner at my expense. I felt I was the world’s greatest idiot.
“As I made the first pass, I was expecting to feel the impact of the frangible bullets—and there was no impact! I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were dry firing at me or something. And the recorder showed I had been hit 14 times. That is when I started being able to feel confident that the airplane was going to give me a good ride.”