Shoot to Kill: Flexible Gunnery

Training at Buckingham AAF, 1942-1945

 

Erik D. Carlson
Florida Gulf Coast University

 

                On December 7, 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on American military installations throughout the Hawaiian Islands. The early morning air raid on Pearl Harbor marked the start of a major Japanese offensive in the Pacific and a war with the United States. A day later, Japanese forces attacked American bases in the Philippines. Nothing could stop the Japanese tidal wave as it overwhelmed U.S. military and naval units throughout the Pacific. By the middle of December, America was involved a two-ocean world war with Japan, Germany, and Italy.[1]

                Japan’s early military successes in the Pacific war were the result of weaving a modern vision of air power into its strategic planning. In particular, the Japanese air attacks on Pearl Harbor and Clark Field in the Philippines demonstrated the revolutionary impact of air power on mid-20th century military strategy. But in the final analysis it was the United States that perfected air power during the war, reshaping strategy and tactics and proving the airplane’s decisive role in the defeat of the Axis powers.[2]

                During World War II the American military aircraft inventory ranged from fast, maneuverable single-engine fighters to high altitude, multi-engine bombers. In 1942 the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) used a variety of fast-attack bombers, medium bombers, and heavy bombers in tactical and strategic bombing missions. In combat all of these aircraft needed protection from enemy fighter aircraft. Unfortunately for the U.S. Army Air Corps, during the first three years of the war American fighter aircraft did not have the range to escort bombers over distant enemy targets. Because of this technological and strategic reality, the American bomber fleet flew unprotected during most long range missions. Individual aircraft relied on flexible gunnery crews in electric turrets and open windows to defend against attack from enemy fighters.[3]

                Aerial gunner crews protecting bombers needed training in the “science of aerial gunnery” to survive the violence in enemy skies. For the U.S. Army Air Corps the need to protect bombers was crucial. During World War II six flexible gunnery schools provided instruction. In 1942 the U.S. Army built one of its new training schools on a vast coastal plain of palmettos, pine trees, and mangroves ten miles northeast of Fort Myers, Florida.

In January of 1942 U.S. Army Air Corps officers from Maxwell Field, Alabama arrived in Fort Myers to find a suitable place to build a flexible gunnery school. After several days of negotiations with Fort Myers and Lee County officials, U.S. government representatives signed a lease on a 7,000 acre parcel northeast of the small, sleepy southern city. After the war the government-improved land would revert back to Fort Myers and Lee County.[4]

                United States Army advance teams arrived in Fort Myers in March to organize the construction of Buckingham Field. Generous city and county officials provided office space and supplies to help army officers coordinate the construction of Buckingham Field. Two months later workers arrived at a vast stretch of land covered with a thick growth of trees and plants, and home to a variety of Florida wildlife, to begin the four-month long construction project. More than 3,000 workers erected the buildings and poured the vast network of concrete taxiways and runways that made up Buckingham Field. In 1942 dollars the construction cost was enormous -- $10,000,000.[5]

                The United States Army Air Force* assigned the 37th and 38th Flexible Gunnery Groups, consisting of the 712th, 713th, 714th, 715th, 716th, 717th and 718th Flexible Training Squadrons, to Buckingham Field. Lt. Colonel Delmar T. Spivey was the first and best known commander of Buckingham Field. Throughout his tenure, Spivey demanded that all officers and enlisted men “live and think only of gunnery.” Often Spivey was seen on the firing ranges and visiting students in classrooms to provide inspiration and leadership.[6]

                While construction workers built the new air field, Col. Spivey assembled a team of instructors drawn from the aerial gunnery school cadre at Tyndall Field located near Panama City, Florida. Tyndall Field instructors trained the first aerial gunnery students before America’s entry into the war. Spivey based the initial curricula and training exercises on the previous experience gleaned from the pre-war period. In addition, the extensive literature and field guides from the British Royal Air Force’s aerial gunnery school influenced Spivey.[7]

The Army Air Force established strict physical requirements for aerial gunnery students. Electric gun turrets were small, so each student had to be 5’8” or smaller and weigh no more than 170 pounds. An age requirement was also imposed – all students ranged from 18 to 30 years old. Because aerial gunnery was very dangerous the Army Air Force accepted only volunteers. This factor forced gunnery schools to draw from a large pool of non-specialist volunteers and in some special cases aviation specialists, such as radio operators and airplane mechanics, for example.[8]

                Reliance on non-specialists created an unqualified group of students for this deadly job. By the end of 1942 “washed out” flight cadets eliminated from flight training were allowed to volunteer for aerial gunnery school. In January 1943 the U.S. Army Air Force removed the volunteer requirement when the military forced all bomber crews to have flexible gunnery training.[9]

                On September 7, 1942 the first flexible gunnery classes, 42-41 and 42-42, started at Buckingham Field. The school had a five week program. Students spent time in the classroom, in aircraft turrets, on firing ranges, and in the air conducting aerial target practice. Over the next four years flexible gunnery training at Buckingham Field evolved to reflect experiences gleaned in combat. Many times experienced aerial gunners returned to Buckingham Field as instructors bringing back indispensible lessons from air combat.[10]

                In the first week of training students learned the basic principles of automatic weapons; for example, the operation of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns and how to dismantle and reassemble them in difficult situations. In addition, they spent time on the rifle range shooting .22 rifles and trap shooting with shot guns. During the second week, gunnery students learned sighting systems. In the third week of class students were taught aircraft recognition and how to operate, maintain, and repair Sperry and Martin turrets. In the fourth week they practiced firing from a jeep at moving targets on a circular track.[11]

                In the final week of training, students took to the skies above southwest Florida to conduct air to air target practice. Training flights were conducted with two AT-6 Texans. Both AT-6s took off from Buckingham Field, one towing a large aerial target, and the other aircraft with a flexible gunnery student in the back seat. During flights over the Gulf of Mexico students in the chase AT-6 would fire machine guns at the large, flapping target. After each flight, gunnery instructors evaluated students on their in performances by counting holes in the targets.[12]

During the first training classes at Buckingham Field students were taught the “estimate speed” sighting system to shoot down enemy aircraft. A student would attempt to estimate the speed of an incoming aircraft. Then subtracting the fighter’s speed from his own bomber’s rate of speed, the gunner fired his machine gun toward the fighter. This system was too cumbersome for the split second decisions made by gunners. [13]

                Later the “apparent motion” sighting system was used as a teaching tool. With this method students guessed the flight path of the enemy aircraft, and then fired toward the projected path. By 1943 these two sighting systems gave way to more sophisticated simulators which created realistic training sessions, improving accuracy.[14]

Throughout 1942-1943 some aerial students “washed out” of the Flexible Gunnery School. For the most part the lack of qualified students (both from a physical and intellectual standpoint) created a high attrition rate. In some instances students failed the gunnery school due to psychological issues; for example, “fear of flying,” and “fear of combat.”[15] 

                In 1943 the United States Army Air Force established a Central Instructors’ School at Buckingham Field. Lt. Colonel Daniel W. Jenkins arrived from Tyndall Field to head up the much needed post-graduate training. Jenkins was a graduate of the Royal Air Force’s aerial gunnery course, and a pilot with vast flying experience. Jenkins’ leadership transformed the Central Instructors’ School into the last phase of the flexible gunnery education. The Central Instructors’ School was a four-week course of field training and classroom instruction. All instructors for the United States Army’s six flexible gunnery schools had to graduate from the Central Instructor’s School before being assigned to another duty station.[16]

                Near the end of the war the Army Air Force taught students on Waller Gunnery Trainers. Designed by the Vitarama Corporation and named for the president of the company, Fred Waller, the Waller Trainer was the most sophisticated aerial gunnery simulator in the world. The Waller Trainer used film footage to create, track, and score realistic target sequences. By 1944 the Waller Trainer created the most accurate combat simulations possible for gunnery students. During the last year of the war, the Waller Trainer improved students’ overall accuracy and rate of fire.[17]

                From 1942 to 1945 Buckingham Field provided the United States Army Air Force with a group of well-trained flexible gunners that helped to win the air war. Aerial gunnery training evolved rapidly from early 1942 to the end of the war. Flexible gunnery training had to overcome some tremendous obstacles in the early days: lack of qualified students, a dearth of realistic training equipment, and budgetary constraints. By 1943 flexible gunnery course curricula and training exercises reflected combat experience gleaned from action high above Europe and over the Pacific Ocean. At the same time American industry provided new and more sophisticated simulators to help train flexible gunners. Buckingham Field instructors trained more than 50,000 gunners during a four year period. Hundreds of these men became “unknown aces,” but unfortunately many were injured or killed in combat.

                With the defeat of Japan in September of 1945 Buckingham Field, like most of the wartime military bases built throughout the United States, closed its gates. For a brief time after the war Edison College used many of the buildings on the sprawling air field for classrooms. In 1947 the U.S. government auctioned off all of the buildings at Buckingham Field – barracks, hangars, warehouses, etc. – to the public.[18]

                Today very little remains of the once thriving aerial gunnery school on the outskirts of Fort Myers. There is a small historical marker indicating the remote history of the area to an unaware public. Much of old Buckingham Field is now a residential development. The runways are covered and forgotten, but the taxiways are still there. They are used by a nearby residential airpark, and the old concrete network of taxiways serves as the headquarters of Lee County Mosquito Control (LCMC). On a lucky day a passerby will hear the throaty sounds of piston engines from a LCMC DC-3 (civilian configuration of the C-47) taking off; a fleeting and faint reminder of the crucial work conducted at Buckingham Field more than six decades ago.[19] 

 


 

[1] Ronald Spector’s Eagle Against the Sun is an excellent overview of the Pacific War.

[2] See Mark R. Peattie’s Sunburst: The Rise of Japanese Naval Air Power, 1909-1941.

[3] For an excellent explanation of the evolution of American strategic bombing policy refer to Michael Sherry’s The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon.

[4] Karl H. Grismer.  The Story of Fort Myers: The History of the Land of the Caloosahatchee and Southwest Florida (Fort Myers: Southwest Historical Society, 1982), 248.

[5] Prudy Taylor Board and Esther B. Colcord. A History of Aviation in Lee County ( Fort Myers, Florida: Lee County Port Authority, 1993), 10-11;  Karl H. Grismer.  The Story of Fort Myers: The History of the Land of the Caloosahatchee and Southwest Florida (Fort Myers: Southwest Historical Society, 1982), 248.

* In 1942 the Army Air Corps changed to the United States Army Air Force.

[6] “Units Assigned to Buckingham Air Field [During World War II Only],” Buckingham Field File, Archive Room, Southwest Florida Museum of History.

[7] “Buckingham Field History,” AFHRA, Maxwell Air Force Base, Porter BAAF Collection.

[8] Ibid, 25-26.

[9] Ibid, 44-45.

[10] “Buckingham Field History,” 19-21,  AFHRA, Maxwell Air Force Base, Porter BAAF Collection.

[11] “Gunners Here Find School Plenty Tough,” Fort Myers New Press, December 14, 1942.

[12] “Gunners Here Find School Plenty Tough,” Fort Myers New Press, December 14, 1942.

[13] “Buckingham Field History,” 18-19,  AFHRA, Maxwell Air Force Base, Porter BAAF  Collection.

[14] “Buckingham Field History,” 19-20, AFHRA, Maxwell Air Force Base, Porter BAAF Collection.

[15] Ibid, 43-44.

[16] Ibid, 74-75.

[17] “Principles of the Waller Gunnery Trainer,” March 9, 1943, Buckingham Field File, Archive Room, Southwest Florida Museum of History.

[18]  Karl H. Grismer.  The Story of Fort Myers: The History of the Land of the Caloosahatchee and Southwest Florida (Fort Myers: Southwest Historical Society, 1982), 248; “Big Buckingham Sale On Today,” June 27, 1947, Buckingham Field File, Archive Room, Southwest Florida Museum of History.

[19] The author has visited the home of Mr. Jimmie Porter, a Buckingham Field historian, which is located near the  Lee County Mosquito Control.  Special thanks to Mr. Porter for sharing his Buckingham Field documents.

 

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