The Arrowhead Club

The B-17 Radio Operator/Gunner

My dad, George Edwin Farrar, was a waist/flexible gunner with the John Oliver Buslee crew of the 384th Bomb Group of the 8th Army Air Forces in World War II. On 28 September 1944, the Buslee crew and the James Joseph Brodie crew of the same group became forever connected when the B-17’s they were aboard on a combat mission over Germany suffered a mid-air collision.

I am currently updating the biographical information of the men of these two crews, and I thought it would be a good time to explain the duties involved in each position of the airmen aboard the aircraft, the B-17. I have recently updated the information of the three 384th Bomb Group Radio Operators/Gunners who flew with the John Oliver Buslee crew of the 544th Bomb Squadron and the James Joseph Brodie crew of the 545th Bomb Squadron.

Sebastiano Joseph Peluso, assigned Buslee crew radio operator

William Edson Taylor, assigned Brodie crew radio operator

Donald William Dooley, Headquarters, but radio operator of the Brodie crew on 28 September 1944

For a list of all of the airmen of the Buslee and Brodie crews, see permanent page The Buslee and Brodie Crews, which is maintained with new information/posts.

Duties and Responsibilities of the B-17 Radio Operator/Gunner

According to the 303rd Bomb Group’s website,

Training in the various phases of the heavy bomber program is designed to fit each member of the crew for the handling of his jobs. The radio operator will be required to:

  1. Render position reports every 30 minutes.
  2. Assist the navigator in taking fixes.
  3. Keep the liaison and command sets properly tuned and in good operating order.
  4. Understand from an operational point of view Instrument landing, IFF, VHF, and other navigational aids equipment in the airplane.
  5. Maintain a log.

In addition to being a radio operator, the radio man is also a gunner. During periods of combat he will be required to leave his watch at the radio and take up his guns. He is often required to learn photography. Some of the best pictures taken in the Southwest Pacific were taken by radio operators.

Aside from these duties noted by the 303rd, I have read that when B-17 crews were reduced from ten airmen to nine, losing one of the waist gunners, the radio operator was tasked with manning the left waist gun if needed while the lone waist gunner manned the right waist gun. That may have been true in some B-17 groups and may have been true for some crews in the 384th Bomb Group, but one of the group’s veterans once told me that was not the case.

The 384th veteran told me that the lone waist gunner would man both waist guns and the side he manned – left or right – depended on where his B-17 was in the formation, and which side of the aircraft was more vulnerable to enemy attack. He said that the radio operator, aside from his radio duties, was also tasked with distributing chaff, the aluminum strips dropped from aircraft in the formation to confuse enemy radar.

Radio communications during the war needed to be precise and understandable and the phonetic alphabet helped in the effort. The 384th Bomb Group’s website includes this chart and explanation.

Combined Phonetic Alphabet

This phonetic code was adopted for 8th AF use in 1942. The purpose of the code is to improve the accuracy of radio voice communications by providing an unambiguous key word for each letter that would improve recognition of the intended letter through static, intermittent transmissions, and jamming.

Letter Phonetic Letter Phonetic Letter Phonetic
A Able J Jig S Sugar
B Baker K King T Tare
C Charlie L Love U Uncle
D Dog M Mike V Victor
E Easy N Nan W William
F Fox O Oboe X X-ray
G George P Peter Y Yoke
H How Q Queen Z Zebra
I Item R Roger

Phonetic Alphabet Chart courtesy of 384thBombGroup.com

Location of the Radio Room in a B-17

The radio room of a B-17 sits between the bomb bay and the ball turret. Should the radio operator have to bail out of the aircraft, he would likely bail out through the bomb bay doors.

In the following diagram, Sebastiano Peluso is noted in the radio room of the aircraft along with the other Buslee crew members in their positions on September 28, 1944.

Buslee Crew in Position on September 28, 1944
Diagram courtesy of 91st Bomb Group and modified by Cindy Farrar Bryan in 2014

B-17 Radio Room Photos

I took the following photos of the Collings Foundation’s B-17 Nine-O-Nine a few years before its tragic crash.

Entry of the radio room from the bomb bay catwalk of the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

 

Radio operator’s desk of the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

 

Radio room of the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

 

Radio room of the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

Stories of 384th Bomb Group Radio Operators

I thought it might also be interesting to read stories, diaries, and journals written by or view video interviews of some of the 384th’s own radio operators. You’ll find a chart of several radio operators of the 384th Bomb Group below with links to their personnel records and their written and oral histories as are provided on the Stories page of 384thBombGroup.com.

Airman Personnel Record Stories, Diaries, Journals, and Interviews
Grosbier, Gordon Joseph⇗ Grosbier, Combat Mission Diary⇓ (8.508 MB)
Grosbier, Gordon Joseph⇗ Grosbier, Daily Journal⇓ (6.235 MB)
Levison, Jules Sidney, “Julie”⇗ Jules Levison Diary⇓ (3.622 MB)
Misch, Henry Conrad⇗ Henry C Misch WWII Diary⇓ (7.671 MB)
Pratt, John Butler⇗ Diary of John Butler Pratt⇓ (7.246 MB)
Spearman, Eugene (NMI)⇗ The Eighth Air Force in World War II⇓ (3.588 MB)
Williamson, Albert (NMI)⇗ The Trip of a Lifetime⇓ (3.296 MB)
Kovach, Joseph William⇗ Oral History Interview⇗
Lustig, David Carl, “Dave”, Jr⇗ 2003 Oral History Interview⇗
Lustig, David Carl, “Dave”, Jr⇗ Book:  “Initial Point: Reminiscences of a World War II B-17 Bomber Crewman” (out of print, but occasionally available on used book sites)
Wininger, Dexter Gene⇗ Oral History Interview⇗

Sources and Further Reading

303rd Bomb Group:  Duties and Responsibilities of the Radio Operator

384th Bomb Group:  Combined Phonetic Alphabet

303rd Bomb Group:  Military Occupational Specialty

TM 12-427 Military Occupational Classification of Enlisted Personnel

The Military Yearbook Project – Army Air Force WWII Codes

The Army Air Forces in World War II: VI, Men and Planes, Edited by W.F. Craven and J.L. Cate, Chapter 19: Training of Ground Technicians and Service Personnel

Training to Fly:  Military Flight Training 1907 – 1945 by Rebecca Hancock Cameron

Thank you to the 91st Bomb Group for granting me permission in 2014 to use and modify their B-17 diagram for use on The Arrowhead Club.

© Cindy Farrar Bryan and The Arrowhead Club, 2021


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