The Arrowhead Club

The B-17 Flexible (Waist) Gunner

My dad, George Edwin Farrar, was a flexible/waist 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 four 384th Bomb Group Flexible (Waist) 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.

Lenard Leroy Bryant, assigned Buslee crew waist gunner, reassigned to top turret gunner after 5 August 1944 mission

George Edwin Farrar, assigned Buslee crew waist gunner

Leonard Wood Opie, assigned Brodie crew waist gunner

Harry Allen Liniger, assigned Brodie crew waist 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 Flexible (Waist) 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 flexible/waist 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 look for and shoot down enemy fighters.
  • Would call out fighter positions (for the benefit of the other gunners and for the navigator to record in his log).
  • Would call out enemy aircraft he deemed to be damaged or destroyed (also for the benefit of  the navigator’s log record).
  • Would call out B-17’s that he saw go down and the number of chutes deployed (for the benefit of the navigator and radio operator so that they could report these losses at the debriefing).
  • Would report damage to the aircraft to the pilot.

The waist gun position of the B-17 presented several difficulties, but mostly remedied with the introduction of the “G” model.

  • In models previous to the G model, the waist gunners were placed directly opposite each other, resulting in difficult maneuvering during engagement with fighters. Their placement also led to accidental disconnection of the other’s oxygen system, and if such disconnection went unnoticed, would result in the stages of anoxia – dizziness, loss of consciousness, and death.
  • Also in models previous to the G model, the waist windows were open to 200 mph winds at altitude, which resulted in minus 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit temperature in the slipstream of air racing past the Fortress.  Problem: frostbite.  Anoxia and frostbite were the two biggest enemies of the B-17 waist gunner past the enemy fighters and flak. The waist gunners battled the freezing temperatures by wearing layers of heavy clothing and electrically heated suits. The G model added Plexiglas windows with an opening for the guns in the waist windows.
  • The waist gunners’ 50 caliber machine guns did not use a power assisted mount until the G model and the sights were aimed with a ball and ring sight until the sights were upgraded in the G with computing sights like those in the top turret and ball.
  • Originally, B-17’s carried two waist gunners, but late in the war, most bombardment groups reduced the number of waist gunners in a B-17 from two to one. The improvement of the distance the Allied fighters could accompany the bomber stream reduced the incidence and number of enemy fighters attacking the Fortresses, thus reducing the need for two waist gunners.

Location of the Waist Position in a B-17

The waist gunner positions of a B-17 are at the mid-point of the aircraft, just past the radio room and ball turret. Should the waist gunner have to bail out of the aircraft, he would likely bail out through the waist door of the aircraft, just past the waist positions on the starboard (right-hand) side of the aircraft and forward of the tail.

In the following diagram, George Edwin Farrar is noted in the waist position 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 Waist Position Photos

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

View of waist door and right waist gunner window.

Waist door and waist window on the starboard (right) side of the B-17
Collings Foundation B-17 Nine-O-Nine at Ocala, Florida airport in November 2014

Note, step ladder is for post-war tour guests only and was not used in combat!

View of waist from rear of aircraft…

Waist area and waist windows with 50 caliber machine guns, seats not original (added for post-war tour flights)
Collings Foundation B-17 Nine-O-Nine at Ocala, Florida airport in November 2014

Note, seats also for post-war tour guests only and not used in combat!

View of waist from front of aircraft.

B-17 waist area aft of the ball turret in the foreground, ammunition boxes visible
Collings Foundation B-17 Nine-O-Nine at Leesburg, Florida airport in November 2017

View of waist, waist windows, waist door, and entry into tail area from just behind the ball turret.

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

Again, post-war tourist seats were not original equipment!

Stories of 384th Bomb Group Waist 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 waist gunners. You’ll find a chart of several waist 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
Austin, Ralph Earl⇗ A Personal Account⇓ (0.058 MB)
Burns, Robert (NMI)⇗ My Bit For Victory⇓ (2.721 MB)
Hitzeroth, Franklin Carl⇗ My Story: The First Four Days⇓ (2.045 MB)
Jackson, Leslie Hall⇗ How Leslie Jackson Became a Friend of Füssen⇓ (1.863 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)
Seniawsky, Peter (NMI)⇗ Peter Seniawsky’s Black Thursday Escape⇓ (0.979 MB)
Sylvia, Francis Robert⇗ Account of 14 October 1943 Mission and its Aftermath⇓ (9.866 MB)
Zieba, Edmund (NMI)⇗ I Remember…⇓ (0.169 MB)
Britton, Joseph Rodman⇗ 2016 Veteran’s History Project Oral History Interview⇗
Furrey, Thomas Edwin, Jr⇗ Oral History Interview⇗
Meyer, Alfred (NMI)⇗ Oral History Interview⇗

Note: I was unable to open the links to the last three entries in the list, the oral history interviews of Britton, Furrey, and Meyer. I will leave the links in place in the hope that the problem is temporary.

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, Waist 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, 2023


2 Comments

  1. I must admit, whilst I knew about the waist gunners, I didn’t realise there was a ‘flexible’ waist gunner. He seems to have a lot of responsibility!

    Liked by 1 person

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