B-17 gunner ‘lucky’ to escape harm in 32 missions - The Buffalo News

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B-17 gunner ‘lucky’ to escape harm in 32 missions

Richard F. Carrigg, 91

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: West Seneca

Branch: Army Air Forces

War zone: European Theater, World War II

Years of service: March 1, 1943 – Oct. 1, 1945

Rank: Technical sergeant

Most prominent honors: Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, European Theater Medal

Specialty: B-17 engineer and top turret gunner

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

After graduating from Canisius High School in 1941, Richard F. Carrigg went against his parents’ wishes that he enroll in college. Instead, he went to work for what was supposed to be a year before continuing his education.

He found employment at the Curtiss Wright airplane factory off Genesee Street in Cheektowaga, where the P-40 Warhawk fighter plane was produced. On Dec. 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Carrigg showed up for work and realized just how serious the situation was.

“We had a tunnel entrance to the factory and as I entered it, I looked up and there was a soldier with sand bags and a .30-caliber machine gun. I said, ‘Oh boy’ to myself,” recalled the 91-year-old World War II veteran.

Building airplanes, he said, inspired the direction he would take in the war effort.

“I knew what I wanted to do when I was drafted. I went to the old post office in downtown and signed up for the Army Air Corps.”

The soldier manning the .30-caliber machine gun had appeared imposing to young Carrigg, but a year later at 19, he was airborne in a B-17 G model serving as both the engineer and the top turret gunner with two .50-caliber machine guns at his command.

“The .50-caliber was a deadly weapon and I had two of them. I flew 32 missions and saw a lot of combat. I was given credit for shooting down a German ME-109 fighter plane,” Carrigg said.

His first mission was on May 3, 1944.

“We went on a bombing run to Berlin and let me tell you, that was a way to break you in,” he said. “Berlin was protected by some 1,500 anti-aircraft guns.”

After his seventh mission, he remembers settling into his bunk in a Quonset hut back in England, listening to a trumpet player’s melodic notes coming over the radio when several fellow gunners charged into the hut blaring their discontent.

“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and they said, ‘Go see the notice on the bulletin board. See what’s waiting for you.’ So I went out and there was a notice from Gen. (James ‘Jimmy’) Doolittle saying, ‘Attention all flying personnel of the 398th Bomb Group, you will now fly 25 additional missions to the ones you have flown.’ I had seven missions in on my original 25, and now I had to start from scratch.”

The justification behind the increase, Carrigg said, was that P-51 Mustang fighter planes had been introduced to the European Theater and had the capability of accompanying bombers going to and from their distant targets.

“Doolittle felt that since we were now getting better protection he could up the ante,” Carrigg said.

Doubling as the engineer, it was Carrigg’s job to make sure the mechanics of the plane functioned. If the bomb bay doors refused to close, which happened three times on his flights, he had to crank them shut by hand.

“The pilot would be screaming at me, ‘Get those damn doors closed.’ They would be a big drag on the plane and we would be falling out of formation.”

Other times when an engine was shot up or busted on its own, he transferred fuel intended for that engine to the plane’s three other engines, making sure the shift in weight from the fuel did not cause an imbalance.

“I’d have to set up a special fuel transfer pump to feed the other tank engines,” he said.

But it was up in his turret, a bubble of plastic on top of the plane, where Carrigg carried out some of his most crucial duties, shooting at German fighter planes looking to knock out the Flying Fortresses and their payloads of bombs as they flew in formation to and from their strategic targets.

In recalling the ME-109 he shot down, Carrigg said, “An alert came over the radio, ‘Bandits in the area.’ I swiveled the turret around and spotted the fighters maybe a mile away. They started to move ahead of us. Of course they were faster than we were. They did a pursuit curve and tried to strafe our squadron.”

Carrigg set his sights on one of the fighters that was up higher than the others, having procured a dangerous perch from which to pick off B-17s.

“I could see the flashes coming from his wings where his guns were mounted. He was coming in at about 10 o’clock and our plane was on the outside of the formation. I had a clean crack at him. He’s firing and I’m firing. But with the .50-calibers, you could only do short bursts before the plane’s instrument panel started vibrating. The pilot shouted to me, ‘Short bursts.’

“I had him right in my sights and with a short burst, the next thing you know, there’s a big cloud of black smoke and the fighter just went nose down. Our pilot screamed out, ‘You got ’em!’ It happened on our way home from a bombing run above Munich.”

Carrigg succeeded in escaping injuries during his 32 missions. His entire 10-member crew was fortunate, except for the bombardier, who suffered minor flak wounds once.

“When I think about it, bombing oil refineries in Hamburg ... going to Berlin, I don’t know how we got through it. The flak was so damn thick, how we didn’t get shot down, it’s just a miracle. We were lucky, very lucky.”

Back home, his good fortune continued. He married the girl he left behind, the former Betty McCabe, and raised a family of three daughters. He found work in the auto industry and retired in 1982 as the chief engineer at the Ford Stamping Plant’s powerhouse.

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