By: Dr. Charles Ormsby – January, 2005
A boyhood attraction to trains, electronic gadgets, and Morse code earned Jeremiah (Jerry) Sullivan a ticket to see Europe by air. Actually, it was numerous tickets; they were for a B-17, and the reception wasn’t very friendly.
Jerry was born and grew up in Lawrence. He graduated from Lawrence High School in 1943, knowing that the Army had plans for him. First, the Army sent him to basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi. After Jerry acclimated himself to the oppressive heat, the Army decided (based on Jerry’s aptitude for electrical systems and Morse code) that he would enjoy wintering in Sioux Falls, South Dakota while attending Radio School. Jerry said that not very much snow fell that winter … it just blew horizontally, first in one direction and then back in the other direction.
After his blood thickened sufficiently to withstand the bitter cold, it was time to head off to Yuma, Arizona for the summer to attend Gunnery School. Jerry says he wasn’t very good at recognizing aircraft (friend, foe, or type) in the tests that were given. When faced with either being assigned to artillery as a radio operator or as an aircraft gunner, he decided he wanted to get a good score on the aircraft recognition test. Recruiting a fellow gunner, who had just passed the test with flying colors, to stand in for him on the exam, Jerry “earned” a perfect score! His perfect score opened up an option for him to stay stateside as an instructor and avoid going into combat, but Jerry opted to go to war. In mid-1944 Jerry was put on a troop ship (with the other members of his B-17 crew) and headed for Naples where he was assigned to the US airbase at Foggia, Italy.
Jerry recalls the process of checking the bulletin board each day to see if you were scheduled for a mission the following day. Those of us who have never experienced the horrors of war can probably never appreciate the experience of looking at that bulletin board and wondering, every day, if you were about to be assigned to your last mission.
I asked Jerry to describe his feelings before his first mission over enemy territory. He hesitated and then said he would tell me about that day.
When you have a mission assigned, you get a 4:30AM wakeup call. You dress for the flight … long johns, sweater, heated suit, and heavy uniform … the knitted hat, helmet, gloves, and oxygen system came later. This was high altitude flying in an unheated, unpressurized, tin can … it was COLD at over 30,000 feet! Next it was breakfast. The cooks were especially good to the aircrews. Jerry recalls the breakfast before his first mission: his stomach was so cramped and tense he couldn’t eat. This wasn’t just another day at the office.
After breakfast, while still dark out, you were driven to the flight line to pick up your equipment bag and parachute. On that first day, Jerry was fitted for his parachute harness … something he hoped he would never have to use. Finally, it was time for the aircraft pre-flight checks (engineer and gunners) and pre-mission briefings. After the radio operator was given the secret radio codes and all crewmen synchronized their watches, it was time to fly.
Who makes up a B-17 crew? Jerry gave a brief lesson: The crew was made up of 10 men (starting from the front): the bombardier and navigator in the nose, a pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, the engineer between and directly behind them, the radio operator who also was a gunner on the upward firing gun (this was Jerry), the ball-turret gunner (hanging beneath the plane), the left and right gunners, and, finally, the tail gunner.
The missions were flown by squadrons of 7 to 9 planes with fighter escorts that were not typically in formation. The fighters often had their own missions and were on-call nearby if the squadron was attacked. Late in the war the capacity of the German Luftwaffe was significantly reduced and fighters did not often attack the squadrons. The biggest threat in 1944/45 was from flack. If a B-17 was hit by flack and forced to leave the main squadron, German fighters, who wouldn’t attack a combined squadron, would rush to finish off a wounded bomber.
Jerry vividly recalls the heavy flack encountered on many missions. The sky was often black with the residue from exploding shells. “We had to just cruise through it,” he said. “You couldn’t hear it, not because it wasn’t loud, but because the aircraft was so noisy”. Flack often exploded very close to the plane and holes were patched in the airplane after nearly every mission.
Jerry received weather reports for the target area every 15 minutes en-route The mission called for them to fly to the IP (initial point) and from the IP to the target area (the “bomb run”). During the bomb run, the altitude, airspeed and heading were prescribed … no maneuvering to avoid flack or the bombardier would never be able to hit the target (as advanced as the Norden bomb sight was, it couldn’t handle anything other than straight and level flight over the target).
After the bombs were released, Jerry checked the bomb bay and announced over the interphone, “Bombs are gone” or “Bombs are still there”. Once, when the bombs were stuck and nothing else would release them, the engineer had to go into the bomb bay and dislodge them with his foot.
There is much more to tell, but you’ll have to talk to Jerry to hear the rest.
I always thought it was “25 missions and you go home” for B-17 crews… but this was not true late in the war. Jerry finished his flying career just about when Germany surrendered … after an unbelievable 50 missions! Actually, it was a few less than 50 because, after really bad missions, the crew was credited with two missions. Jerry recalls this may have been awarded to his crew three times, so his mission total is probably around 47; with 44 of those as lead bomber. Jerry flew in many B-17s on these missions. His favorite was one was named “Vaudeville” because it had a subtitle, “Coming Home”.
Jerry, who still lives in Lawrence, has recently been diagnosed with cancer and is beginning chemotherapy. We pray for his successful recovery.
Jerry, thank you for your brave service.