You are here
Note: This speech by Crawford J. Ferguson, III, was given at a public program sponsored by the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County at the Great Aunt Stella Center in Charlotte, NC, on March 23, 2000. The transcript follows:
My name is Crawford Ferguson - an unusual citizen in Charlotte these days in that I grew up here. During the Korean War, I had the privilege of serving our republic as an Infantry officer, but during World War II I had the distinguished privilege of serving our beloved republic as a B17 aerial gunner in the famous but battle scarred United State’s 8th Air Force. Frequently called the Mighty 8th, but so often the 8th Air Force was more battle scarred than mighty, as it was consistently lacerated by flak and intercepted by the admitted brave, precise and defiant Luftwaffe.
Aerial combat was relentless. During combat missions I confess I called the Luftwaffe, "you sauerkraut-eating sons of witches" – I think you get the drift. But I have always respected even admired the Luftwaffe’s valor and bravery. They never stopped coming on. There were times I prayed, "please God, try to make the Luftwaffe less brave". Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe was probably praying for the mantle of greater courage. Thank God the Luftwaffe, through NATO, is now on our side.
This is a battle diary (Ferguson shows his diary to audience). Missions in this battle diary include Berlin, Paris, Munich. Munich, the birthplace of the Nazi party, and D-Day. But some of the worst missions were to targets like Ober-Pfaffenhofen, Mersburg, Saarbrucken, Bremen, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Cologne, Magdeburg and Kassel.
When I first reported for perilous duty with the 8th Air Force, at that time, the average life of a B17 bomber crew in my 92nd heavy bombardment group was 6 missions. However the senior non-commissioned officers enthused, encouraged and inspired us by telling us, "Kid, you’re a gunner today and a goner tomorrow."
But as you can see, I fooled them, I lived. I completed my tour of duty with the 8th Air Force as a heavily decorated hero who shot down 15 planes, 12 American and 3 British (audience laughs). But cheerful jokes aside and seriously, before this distinguished audience, partially populated by gracious ladies possessing fascinating eyes and knockout smiles, I’d like to come on as braver than a combination of John Wayne and Sir Galahad, but I can’t. I can’t do it because, because alas, there was the bomb run, the non-wavering direct bomb run to target.
And on the 5 to 10 minute bomb run, the B17 and the crew inside the B17 were sitting ducks to the precise German flak gunners and the Luftwaffe’s ME109 and FW190 interceptors, Messerschmitt 109, Focke Wulf 190. The bomb run was murderous hell, not hell on earth, but hell in the sky. I’m embarassed, but frank in admitting the bomb run scared the pure, cold, living tan bananas out of me. No John Wayne bravery there, pilgrim! I’ve yet to meet a B17 aerial gunner who didn’t admit to praying his carcass off on the bomb run. And really that’s a religious affirmation, when the sky battle gets viciously perilous, you prayerfully begged beloved God to save your carcass. You don’t say carcass, but I’m sure you get the point.
If you weren’t killed, if you were not slaughtered, if you came back to base from a mission they gave you top brand Scotch at the debriefing by S-2. S-2 was Army Air Force Intelligence. The intelligence officer would ask how many B17s lost, enemy fighters shot down, and so on. But Headquarters finally had to cut the Scotch down to one shot, because when the aerial gunners guzzled 3 or 4 shots, they’d insist they’d shot down half the Luftwaffe.
A lot of military units hated their generals, despised them as show-off hot dogs. But in the 8th Air Force, we loved our commanding generals. Generals Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, Ira Eaker, Jimmy Doolittle, we loved them. Hell, we figured they were just as crazy as we were. In the 8th Air Force, sky discipline, battle formation - was draconian. And the often turbulent aerial gunners devotedly respected it.
On the ground though the 8th Air Force probably was the most democratic fighting force ever assembled. And the United States 8th Air Force decorated its aerial gunnery sergeants for valor and sky fighting just as much as its generals and pilots and navigators and bombardiers. I hold the Distinguished Flying Cross, Purple Heart, 4 Air Medals and 4 battle stars. I don’t count the fidelity, Victory and other medals, just the battle hardware. But frankly where does the path of glory lead anyway? If I were to assemble all my decorations for gallantry and sky fighting and walk into Starbucks tomorrow, all my medals wouldn’t buy me a cup of coffee. I know and I understand that.
My Bomb Group, the 92nd, was known as "Fames’ Favored Few, the Old Slam Bang 92". And I was always fascinated by the swashbuckling vocabulary of the 8th Air Force. The 8th Air Force stole the word of romance when it assembled for battle. The 8th called its battle assembly the “rendezvous”. The rendezvous. It made you think you were setting up for an enchanting date with Betty Grable, instead of swinging into battle formation to thump and bump through flak and sky fight the Luftwaffe.
The 8th Air Force stole the vocabulary of theology when it called its battle objective the “mission." But our missions were neither heavenly nor angelic. On some missions my battle station was tail gunner, but on most missions I was the waist gunner. At his battle station, the waist gunner had to wrestle a 65 pound Browning caliber 50 machine gun against a slipstream of 160 mph while taking care not to tangle in oxygen, intercom and electric connections, or slip on brass casings piling up around his feet. High altitude temperatures hovered between 40 to 60 degrees below zero, and then there was the flak, and the Luftwaffe was always waiting, waiting behind the clouds.
The dangerous eyes of the Luftwaffe were always searching. It didn’t make you squeal with prancing delight. Thank God I was 19 years old. Tonight it's hard to reconcile aerial combat at age 75.
Colonel John Doolittle’s official report on the 8th Air Force pointed out – “while the Royal Air Force bombed by night, Americans in B17s and B24s thundered through frigid daylight skies filled with enemy flak and fighters, grappling with the costly demand of high altitude precision bombing. On the most dangerous missions, more than a quarter of American bombers failed to return. Ten hours on oxygen, intense cold, deafening noise, constant vibration, and a one in three chance of completing their tour, were the average prospects of our bomber crews. Our nation paid a heavy price. Over 30,000 United States airmen were lost in the air campaign against Germany alone. The world had never seen combat like this, and I pray it never will again.” That is a statement of Colonel John B. Doolittle.
War. War. War. For those who fight, war is an individual experience and for most it is an association with despicable horror. To me, war is bowels and brains and elbows scrambled into vegetable vomit. General Sherman had it right. War is hell! For those who fought their wars, I deeply pray you never have to fight again. For those who never fought, I pray you never have to.
Summation, the United States 8th Air Force. Time after time, the 8th Air Force was close to total annihilation, mortal extinction, viciously wounded, B17s shot down in flames. Surviving Flying Fortresses battered to a pulp. Badly wounded and KIAs, killed in action, on board. One general asked the sole surviving bomber commander of a murderous bombardment mission deep into Germany, “Captain, where is my bomb group?” The Captain saluted and replied “General, I am your bomb group.” But all that night during the hours of darkness the ground crews patched and repaired what was left of the 8th Air Force. And the very next morning the earth of all of England trembled as the throbbing and thundering engines of battle battered B17s roared defiance as they taxied along the runways once more to go upstairs, to sky fight again. The United States 8th Air Force always and forever replied.
I am proud that I had the distinguished privilege to have served with such gallant and courageous American aerial warriors. I am proud to have been a sky fighter in the United States 8th Air Force. Fellow Americans, thank you for your gracious kindness.