Bill Winchell – Waist Gunner

Serial #20613113: Winchell, Clarence E Jnr. – Waist Gunner.

Clarence E ‘Bill’ Winchell was born on November 4th 1916 to Marion and Clarence Winchell in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When Bill was about eight years old, his father, a YMCA secretary, moved to Oak Park, Illinois.

It was then swimming, canoeing, camping and all the other things YMCA youngsters got involved in.

It was in 1940 with World War Two already raging in Europe, and the threat that America might become involved, when Congress passed a new draft law, requiring the registration of young men for military service.

Americans by the millions were listening to their radios that day, October 29, 1940, when the numbers of millions of young men were placed in a huge glass ‘fish bowl’ and then drawn out, lottery style, to see who got drafted first.

‘My number was the 52nd name drawn out of that bowl – who wouldn’t remember that one, out of all those millions of numbers?’

In any case, young Winchell had a decision to make. Those whose numbers had been drawn still had the opportunity to volunteer and choose their branch of service.

One of my buddies had gone down and enlisted in the famous Black Horse Troop of the 107th Cavalry, Illinois National Guard,. I was in love with horses anyway and I had decided I didn’t want to be walking so I went down to enlist, too. The day I went down they closed the books. They said they had all the people they needed. So I joined the field artillery. They were still using horses, but a week after I enlisted they took away the horses.

We were sent to Camp Forrest, Tennessee. Boy, what a mess. We almost had to clear some land so we’d have a place to live. I had a first sergeant I despised. He despised me, which meant that KP and I were synonymous. Cleaning the latrines. All the dirty work. When the Air Force recruiting officer came around, I grabbed the opportunity. I couldn’t stand the outfit I was in.

My captain told me I was up for promotion and if I joined the Air Force, I’d start out as a private again and spend the duration of the war sweeping out hangars. I said I’d take my chances.’

Next stop, Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri, in January, living in tents and very cold. Here he had to endure basic training all over again, shivering at night until he managed to make friends with a supply sergeant who slipped him a couple of extra blankets.

Then MacDill Field in Florida, where the Air Force trail began for all the men who would, eventually, become the crew of the Memphis Belle.

The first surprise at MacDill came when he found that enlisted men were flying as well as officers. The Army and the Air Forces were discovering that if you went to war in big four-engine bombers it took a crew of men to man them, not just a pilot. But before he would do any flying, this soldier named Winchell had another tough hurdle to pass: his eyesight.

I was born with an astigmatic left eye and had about 20-50 eyesight. There was no way in the world I could legitimately pass that eye test. When I got to Europe I was known as the one-eyed gunner’

The way he managed it was to get somebody to slip him copies of the eye charts and to memorise them.

I kept a file of them in my wallet. When I went to take my tests all I had to do was find out which chart they were using, and when they got to the bottom lines I’d just read it off from memory. I had been sitting on my bunk memorising those charts backwards and forwards. I had a good memory and that is how I maintained my 20-20 status’.

Shortly after arriving at MacDill, Winchell saw a notice on the bulletin board: ‘Wanted, volunteers for aerial gunnery school’. He committed the old military cardinal sin – he volunteered.

Result: Six weeks at Aerial Gunnery School, Las Vegas, Nevada, and the proud possessor of a set of gunner’s wings. Plus a promotion to corporal. There had been nothing like that in the artillery!

One vivid memory he carried away from Las Vegas, was a statement from a drill sergeant: ‘The average life of an aerial gunner in combat is six minutes’. Bill did a bit of worrying about that one but eventually was able to prove the sergeant was wrong.

After returning to MacDill, Winchell tried out radio school but couldn’t quite keep the ‘dahs and dits’ apart. But there was something else going on. They had enlisted bombardiers then. They put me in a gadget where I had to track a little bug on a screen. I got pretty good at it and soon I was flying regularly as bombardier and ended up with the famed Norden bomb sight as my baby.

Which led to another of those crazy incidents that could happen only in the Army.

The Norden bombsight was super secret in those days and the bombardier was armed with a .45 caliber pistol, with orders to let no one touch it or look at it. One day, after a training flight to the Houston Air Base, when I knew we would be there overnight, I took the bombsight out of the plane and was carrying it to the base vault to have it locked up when a young lieutenant approached me. He asked me what I had and I said, ‘It’s the Norden bombsight.’

He started toward me and said he wanted to see it. I told him to stay away but he kept coming. I drew my pistol and said, ‘You take another step and you’re dead.’ He turned white as a sheet. He couldn’t believe an enlisted man would do that to an officer. But he never came no closer’.

Winchell was cleared for combat duty as an Bombardier and ­Air Gunner on May 16 1942, being promoted to Sergeant on June 16th. A short time later, the 91st Bomb Group went up to Walla Walla for final training before going into combat, and shortly after that the top Air Forces brass decided that bombardiers had to be officers. Winchell was out of a job.

In the meantime they had given him one more training course, giving him a temporary transfer by rail along with Sgt ­Scott Miller on July 15 1942 from Walla Walla  so as to learn to service and maintain not only the Norden bombsight but automatic flight controls at the Honeywell Corporation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Now, with his bombardier’s job gone, it appeared he would be put to work as an automatic pilot mechanic!

It was about this time the brass were changing their minds about something else. Up to this time, the crew of the B-17 four-engine bomber had been considered nine men, with only one man assigned to man the guns on both sides of the waist gunner’s position. It was now decided they needed two waist gunners, one on each side. So, if Winchell wanted to be a waist gunner, ‘You’re hired’.

So the young soldier who had been the 52nd in the nation to be drafted, who tried to get into the horse cavalry, then the field artillery, washed out on radio training, who got cheated out of his bombardier’s job, and who had to fudge on his eye tests to get on an airplane, finally made it as a waist gunner!