The Arrowhead Club

The B-17 Tail 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 Tail 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.

Eugene Daniel Lucynski, assigned Buslee crew tail gunner

Gerald Lee Andersen, Carnes crew tail gunner, but tail gunner of the Buslee crew on 28 September 1944

Wilfred Frank Miller, assigned Brodie crew tail gunner

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 Tail Gunner

According to the 303rd Bomb Group and the B-17 Queen of the Sky websites,

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 tail gunner:

  • Must have a fine sense of timing and be familiar with the rudiments of exterior ballistics.
  • Should be familiar with the coverage area of all gun positions, and be prepared to bring the proper gun to bear as the conditions may warrant.
  • Should be experts in aircraft identification.
  • Must be thoroughly familiar with the Browning aircraft machine gun. They should know how to maintain the guns, how to clear jams and stoppages, and how to harmonize the sights with the guns.
  • Should fire the guns at each station to familiarize himself with the other man’s position and to insure knowledge of operation in the event of an emergency.
  • Had the primary duty to shoot down enemy planes.
  • As the only constantly rear facing crewmember, he was responsible for passing along anything he saw behind the aircraft, including fighters, to the rest of the crew.
  • Would relay information to the bombardier and navigator concerning bombing results as the formations left the target.
  • Aided the navigator and radio operator by counting chutes from B-17s that were going down and the condition of stragglers that were lagging behind the formation.
  • Was normally an enlisted man, but sometimes in the lead aircraft when the squadron commander was in the cockpit, the tail position would be flown by a co-pilot who was an officer. In this case, the co-pilot occupied the tail gunner position to allow him to relay information on the condition of the formation to the pilots to help to co-ordinate the formation and keep it as tight as possible.

Location of the Tail Position in a B-17

The tail gunner position of a B-17 is at the very back of the aircraft, a confined and cramped position in which the gunner must kneel on a modified bicycle-type seat with a view to the rear of the formation. Should the tail gunner have to bail out of the aircraft, he would likely bail out through the emergency exit door in the tail of the aircraft.

In the following diagram, Gerald Lee Andersen is noted in the tail 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 Tail Position Photos

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

The 384th Bomb Group’s pilot John DeFrancesco stands beside the tail of the Collings Foundation’s aircraft. First, a view directly from behind the B-17…

John DeFrancesco, WWII B-17 pilot with the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

And in a side view…

John DeFrancesco, WWII B-17 pilot with the Collings Foundation’s B-17G Nine-o-Nine In Leesburg, Florida, November 4, 2017

Stories of 384th Bomb Group Tail Gunners

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 tail gunners. You’ll find a chart of several tail gunners 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
Beesley, Delmar James⇗ Beesley’s 9 September 1944 Debrief⇓ (4.554 MB)
Borgeson, Wesley Clifton, “Wes”⇗ Wesley Borgeson, B-17 Tail Gunner, POW⇗
Lavoie, Ralph Edmund⇗ Near-Escape From Infamous Stalag 17⇓ (0.971 MB)
Lentz, Kenneth Melvin⇗ Former POW Recalls His Day of Liberation⇓ (0.111 MB)
Matican, Sigmund Sidney⇗ Matican Diary⇓ (1.381 MB)
Montz, Nemours Albert, “Nem”⇗ Army Air Corps Vet Remembers His Luck⇓ (3.905 MB)
Schimenek, John Francis⇗ John Francis Schimenek WWII Diary⇓ (10.380 MB)
Westlake, Albert F⇗ Westlake’s Story⇓ (1.754 MB)
Blevins, Donald Hillman⇗ 2002 Veteran’s History Project Oral History Interview⇗
Bonacker, Marlyn Rae⇗ 2014 Interview Transcript⇗
Bonacker, Marlyn Rae⇗ 2016 Veteran’s History Project Oral History Interview⇗
Bonacker, Marlyn Rae⇗ 2017 – A Tail Gunner’s Story⇗
Britton, Joseph Rodman⇗ 2016 Veteran’s History Project Oral History Interview⇗
Jaworski, Frank (NMI)⇗ Oral History Interview⇗
Kushner, Jack (NMI), “Kush”⇗ 2011 Oral History Interview⇗
Martin, J D (IO)⇗ Oral History Interview⇗

Sources and Further Reading

303rd Bomb Group:  Duties and Responsibilities of the Engineer and the Gunners

303rd Bomb Group:  Military Occupational Specialty

B-17 Flying Fortress Queen of the Skies, Crew Positions, Tail Gunner 

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, 2022


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