Ben Roberts - ball turret gunner

Roberts, a former Saginaw engineer and a Decatur resident since 1975, was on his fifth mission when his plane went down. 

“When we took off, it was so foggy we could hardly see the plane in front of us,” he said. “We were part of the First Air Wing and were late forming with the four other groups. Our support fighters could go only as far as Belgium before running out of gas. They turned back and we had no cover.” 

German fighters swarmed at the start of the Schweinfurt battle, sending rockets and machine gun fire through the fuselage of Roberts’ plane, knocking it out of formation. 

“When our pilot ordered bail out, the waist gunner (Bob Wells) had to crank me out of the ball turret,” he said. “I didn’t have time to fasten the parachute harness to my legs before I dove for the floor, as both wings came off the plane.” 

He exited by crawling through the waist gunner’s door. The tail of the plane hit him in the head, he said, knocking him out momentarily. He recovered and pulled his ripcord. He almost slipped out of the chute because of his unfastened harness. 

He was safely on the ground, but there was no sanctuary. Nazis forcing laborers to work in a nearby coal mine arrived....

Bail out saved frozen feet

On Veterans Day 2018 JoAnn Linrud spoke with Mr Ben Roberts and this story came up in their conversation:

“He said that when they were shot down, his boot heater was not functioning. The heated boots had a cord that plugged into an outlet on the inside of the turret. His wires shorted out, so he had no heat to his boots. At the time, the temperature in the plane was -40 degrees F. He had to open his window in order to shoot, and the cold air rushed in. (Unlike Dad, who was completely encased in plexiglass up in the top turret. Also, the front of the plane was heated for the pilot to be able to fly the plane.) Ben said he could crawl around a bit to increase the circulation to his legs, but he was suffering from frostbite at the time they were shot down. 

Before they encountered the German fighters, he reported the malfunction to the pilot, who said they had to continue on with their mission. Ben believes that, if they had completed the mission, his legs would have frozen and would have been amputated. I asked if he had difficulty walking when he first landed after parachuting out of the plane. He said that he did have trouble, but had regained most of the feeling by the time he was captured. Following the war, he received 30 percent disability in both legs because of the equipment failing. And eventually he did receive 100 percent disability (in 2005-2006), as did most of the WWII veterans, I believe.”

JoAnn: “I thought that was an interesting twist to the capture - if he'd not been shot down and captured, and if they had completed the mission, most likely he would have been an invalid. Such a sad story. And yet, he says his life was very blessed.”

Landed and taken prisoner

“That was somewhere in Belgium”, he said. “The Germans took me to a small city jail, then on a train the next day for Frankfurt. That’s where they conducted the main interrogation of all the air crews.” After a round of what he termed “tough mental torture,” Roberts returned to his small room. 

“I hate to admit it,” he said. “But I sat down, and I cried.” Two weeks later, he was in Stalag 17B in the Austrian wilderness. “The Germans didn’t have much food, and we knew we were going to get the scraps,” he said. “We did all we could to harass them and find a way out. I worked on one tunnel, but I wasn’t on the priority list to make the first attempt out. Luck was against them. The tunnel came up where Nazis guarded a fence line.” 

In March 1945, as the allies closed in, the Germans began marching the POWs west toward American lines. 

“They didn’t want the Russians capturing them,” Roberts said. “We were camped on May 2, and our guards were so old, they weren’t in control. A volunteer swam the Inn River and warned the Americans that POWs were in the woods on the other side.” 

Roberts said tanks crossed on pontoon bridges in the area overnight. “They rolled into the woods, all buttoned up, ready to fire if we were the enemy,” he said. “When they acknowledged we were POWs, the drivers popped the hatches and greeted us in the greatest celebration I’ve ever witnessed. It was exhilarating to know, ‘I’m free.’ ” 

2013: 70th anniversary of the de Black Thursday Schweinfurt Raid

From Sue Fox Moyer via FB 305th BG: Mr Roberts was present at the 70th anniversary of the de Black Thursday Schweinfurt Raid in October 2013 and is telling his story here on a You Tube-posted film. Enjoy ...

The Vanishing Generation: High price of victory

By Gary Cosby Jr. Staff Photojournalist  May 18, 2015 in

The nightmares, the sudden panics and the sweats still come. Seventy years hasn’t changed that. America and her allies won the war, but some of her warriors are still paying the price of victory. Benjamin Roberts was falling from the sky. He was unconscious and his parachute was not open. Roberts was on his way to becoming the subject of a telegram informing his parents, “the War Department regrets to inform you … .”

Roberts was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber in the 305th Bomb Group, 8th U.S. Army Air Force, stationed in Chelveston, England. The day was Oct. 14, 1943, a day soon to be known as Black Thursday. The mission was to target a series of ball-bearing factories around Schweinfurt, Germany.

“We were late in forming up that day,” Roberts, 91, said from his home in Priceville. “When we got to the embarkation point where we would join the wing to cross the English Channel, the wing was already gone.”

That was the beginning of trouble for the 16 planes in the 305th.

“We made the turn, but when you try to turn 16 planes you are going a lot slower than the group flying away from you, so we never caught up,” Roberts said. “We crossed the Channel all by ourselves. That’s why we lost so many planes. When we crossed the Belgian border, the Luftwaffe came up and really took after us because we were 16 planes all by ourselves.”

The B-17s were flying without fighter escort. The P-51 Mustang, the first fighter with the ability to reach far into German territory, did not arrive until 1944. The B-17s depended on interlocking fields of fire from multiple Flying Fortresses, as the aircraft were known, for mutual defense. The fewer the planes in a formation, the more vulnerable they were.

Of the 16 planes in the 305th, one turned back with mechanical trouble, and two reached their target, dropped their bombs and returned to base. Thirteen aircraft carrying 130 men would never return. Overall, the 8th Army Air Force launched 291 B-17 bombers on the mission. Sixty were shot down and 639 men were killed or captured. Another 121 planes suffered damage, and 17 were so heavily damaged they would never fly again. Five of the 10 men in Roberts’ crew died that day.

Taking hits

A fighter strafed Roberts’ B-17 and took out a couple of their engines. The plane entered a shallow dive and he knew they were going down.

“The problem was, I couldn’t wear a harness or a chute and fit into the ball turret,” said Roberts, who was above the average size for a ball turret gunner.

He could not exit the ball turret until a crew member cranked the ball back up inside the aircraft. One of the waist gunners did him the courtesy and helped him into his chute and harness. That man (Bob Wells) would not survive. In their haste, the men failed to properly secure the harness.

“I was really calm in that ball turret until I was wondering if anyone was going to crank me out,” Roberts said.

“The waist gunner and I were trying to put my chest pack and harness on and we were getting strafed again (by a German ME 109 fighter),” Roberts said. “It threw me toward the radio room and him toward the tail. Then the wings came off and we were just falling around and around like a feather.”

He made his way to a door and leaped from the plane, only to be hit in the head and knocked unconscious by the tail of the plane as the fuselage spun in a circle. Roberts estimates the plane was at about 9,000 feet when he jumped.

“I dropped unconscious for thousands of feet,” he said. “When I came to and pulled the ripcord, the chute opened and I went down and the chute went up and I thought my arms were going to come out.”

The harness had not been clipped fully and had almost come completely off. Roberts had just enough time to swing his feet underneath before he smacked the ground. The chute had slowed his descent enough to keep him alive. He would not find out he had broken a vertebrae in his back until a protocol exam done in 2000 at a VA hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, revealed the problem.

Taken prisoner

He was taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to Frankfurt for interrogation, then onto the notorious Stalag 17B. The first two weeks were hellish.

“That was the worst part of being a prisoner, those first two weeks when you were being interrogated. They were domineering and very, very threatening,” Roberts said.

The Germans wanted information on a new radar deception technique where a lead plane would dump aluminum chaff into the sky. His plane carried none.

“They assumed we knew, so they did a lot of threats like, ‘We think you are a spy. We are going to put you up for a firing squad,’ ” Roberts said. “When they got through interrogating you and sent you back to your room, I was only 19 at the time and I would cry sometimes. It was very scary.”

Roberts would not be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome until the protocol exam done in 2000. His first symptoms surfaced around 1952. There was no expertise in psychological injury and not much in the way of psychological treatment for World War II veterans.

“The condition known as PTSD today was called shell shock or combat fatigue in World War II,” said Dr. Richard Powers, clinical director for the PTSD Unit at the VA Medical Center in Birmingham. “The condition was not well studied in World War II like it is today. The understanding of the brain is better today, and there have been major advances in psychiatry in the last 30 years. No one knew what PTSD was when these guys came out of World War II and there were not enough mental health providers at the time to help them.”

“PTSD happens when you put normal people in abnormal situations, like combat,” Powers said. “In order to survive, they have to learn specific responses and reflexes or they might get killed, or worse still, a friend might get killed.”

For Roberts, the problem was controlled by a pill given him by his first doctor. His condition improved and he thought he had regained a normal life.

“By about 1960, I was in pretty good shape and it wasn’t affecting me very much,” Roberts said. “Then my first wife, Bonnie, passed away and it started to come back. I don’t know if it was the trauma of losing my wife or what, but it got bad and, I swear, I just couldn’t function.”

Another doctor stepped in and prescribed another medicine for anxiety, which Roberts said helped him. His trauma did not stop, but he married two more times, outliving both his second wife, Joyce, and his third wife, Alice, who passed away last November.

“I still have those problems,” Roberts said. “The pill does an awful good job, but sometimes it doesn’t work and I get so anxious I might even go to Decatur (Morgan Hospital) in an ambulance thinking I am dying, but so far I have handled it.”

Powers said he has taken care of many World War II veterans.

“The guys I have talked to say the toughest job on the airplane was being the ball turret gunner. He was just hanging out there with everyone shooting at him. Mr. Roberts is a man with great courage,” Powers said.

After the war, Roberts re-entered a co-op program with Buick in his native Flint, Michigan. He became an engineer and was eventually moved to the Saginaw division. He was transferred to Decatur in 1974 to work at the Saginaw factory. After 40 years with General Motors, he retired and began a career selling machinery around the South. He finally ended his career with a two-year stint as the owner of his own company.

Roberts is the last survivor of his B-17 crew and lives in Decatur AL. 

2022: 99th birthday

In July 2022 Mr Roberts turned 99 years old and in the wake of my FB-post Mr Dennis Lepore - the son of the tail gunner Dominic Lepore - send me some stores he heard from Mr Roberts when speaking to him on the telephone on earlier occasions:

‘Wim, I just left a message on Bens phone wishing him a great birthday. When my dad made his way toward the front of their plane, it was Ben who attached a parachute to my dads harness, due to Dominics wounds, Ben said to me that he did not know if my dad made it until he saw him 2 weeks later in Stalag 17b. What a great individual and warrior Mr. Ben Roberts is. Bless you Ben for your service and for helping my dad parachute out before that plane broke apart.’
Dennis: Ben also told me their original tail gunner on 42-3436 went AWOL sometime during their 3 month training exercises in Washington State. Dominic caught up with them in Grand Island Nebraska before being sent over. So it was baptism under fire for dad.

Back to the biographies of all of the crew members of B-17 # 42-3436.

A story I started to find out why and how Donald Paul Breeden could get missing.