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The Evolution of Aerial Gunners

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Aireo Gunners

A time exposure from a Saigon rooftop showing a pario of 'Spooky' gunshoips at work on Vietcong positions in Saigon, during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Official USAF Photo

Another volunteer gunner of the World War II era was Jim Crouse, who flew missions over Japan from India on the B-29 Superfortress.

The premier bomber of its time, the Boeing B-29 incorporated new technology and a sophisticated design that greatly changed aerial gunnery.

“ We thought, ‘My God. What is this?’ There were no guns,” said Crouse of the B-29. “It was secret. No one knew why there were no guns.”

But there was a gun — a 20 mm cannon in the tail located between two .50-caliber machine guns. The gunner was placed at a sighting station as many as 60 feet away from his guns. Using a remote control system and APG-15 radar, the gunner could fire at enemy targets without concern for windage and other gunning techniques.

“ We fired on a few fighters,” said Crouse, who flew 16 missions. “It was still scary.”

B-29 gunners continued to be scared as they entered the Korean War. Chinese intervention signaled a new escalation in the war as B-29 gunners encountered the first MiG-15 attacks. It was an unfair fight considering the gunners aboard the slower propeller aircraft faced enemy jet fighters that were much faster and more maneuverable. But no one told the gunners they were the underdogs.

Though 16 B-29s were lost to enemy attacks between November 1950 and November 1951, aerial gunners were credited with 27 aerial victories. Sgt. Harry Lavene, a tail gunner, was credited as the first enlisted member to down a MiG-15.

As the United States entered combat in Southeast Asia, time had overtaken the classic portrait of the aerial gunner aiming through the sights of his machine gun at enemy fighters and replaced it with an aircraft systems expert.

“ I flashed back to every World War II movie I’d ever seen,” said Master Sgt. Robert Miles of the day he entered the Air Force to become a gunner on the B-52 Stratofortress. “I quickly realized it wasn’t so glorious.”

Using the automatic system on earlier B-52 models, the gunner would radar-scan, lock-on, track and fire four .50-caliber machine guns — each spitting out about 1,200 rounds a minute for a lethal total of 4,800 rounds. Depending on the model, a gunner could sit in a compartment in the bomber’s tail or up front with the rest of the crew, although the guns remained mounted in the tail.

“ It was really 1950s technology, but it got the job done,” Miles said.

Until B-52s flew against air opposition during the Vietnam War, gunners had few chances to score kills. In fact, gunners claimed a mere five MiG kills with only two confirmed.

Staff Sgt. Samuel Turner became the first B-52 gunner to shoot down enemy aircraft when he hit a MiG-21 during Operation Linebacker II. Airman 1st Class Albert Moore downed the second MiG-21.

By August 1973, gunners had flown 126,615 combat sorties. With only two kills confirmed, their guns proved ineffective against enemy fighters as 17 B-52s were lost to enemy attack. Still, gunners proved invaluable as they helped keep a close visual watch for surface-to-air missiles.

A new sheriff

But another breed of gunner was being born aboard the AC-130 Spectre gunship as it ripped apart the Vietnam countryside. Armed with two 20 mm and two 40 mm Gatling guns and later a 105 mm howitzer, the gunship’s gunners kept the cannons roaring and ammunition coming. Like their predecessors from World Wars I and II, they were weapons experts and could fix any malfunction as the warplane continued its mission. During its last two years in Southeast Asia, the AC-130 destroyed or damaged 55 percent of enemy tanks.

The gunship is still used today along with the HH-60 Pave Hawk and MH-53 Pave Low helicopters. These aircraft are mainly airborne during search and rescue missions like the one on March 2, 2002, when Staff Sgt. Kevin Stewart placed his life on the line to save three wounded soldiers in Afghanistan.

At the time, Stewart was a gunner for the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. His HH-60 swept the landscape about 100 feet off the ground searching for three injured soldiers. The sky lit up with explosions from rocket-propelled grenades. Despite bad coordinates and the distraction of enemy ground fire, Stewart spotted the correct landing zone. Using his .50-caliber minigun, he cleared a space for the soldiers to escape.

“ I never really saw any small arms fire,” said Stewart, whose adrenaline rush was so great that all he could do was his job. “I watched the video a month after the mission. My mother would probably cry if she saw it.”

Over the years, a lot of combat footage has been recorded that would make any patriot cry, and aerial gunners have put their lives on the line in much of the action. From Sweatt’s encounters with the Luftwaffe to Stewart’s battle with the Taliban, gunners have stood up to the best the enemy could dish out, a testament to the gunner’s vow:

“ So if we’re to be the gunners, let us make this bet. We’ll be the best damn gunners that’s left this station yet!”

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