Three-war veteran recalls life aboard B-17s in World War II
As told to Chace Anderson
Sonora and the Air Force…that’s where I’ve been. You see, I’m 88 now, and for just about all my life other than the 22 years I spent in the service, I’ve been in Sonora. Oh I spent a year working in Okinawa right after World War II, but about everything else has been right here or else serving somewhere in the Air Force.
I was still in high school, a senior I guess, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I was born in Sonora, and I lived with my family a couple blocks above Washington Street in what we called Michigan Heights, right below the Odd Fellows Cemetery. I walked to Sonora High each day, just like I had walked to Sonora Grammar School. We heard on the radio what the Japanese had done, but I didn’t really know what Pearl Harbor was. Of course, like everyone else, I learned in a hurry.
I was the fourth of five brothers, and was called “Tete,” a word my brother who was older by a year found easier to pronounce than Graciano. Only my parents – my parents and Jimmy Hardin – called me Graciano. Jimmy Hardin became Judge James Hardin, and he thought it was funny; he used to say “Hey Graciano” every time he saw me. But to everyone else I was Tete.
Well, my three older brothers all got drafted, so after I graduated from high school in 1942, I thought maybe that would get me out of it. With three brothers already in, maybe I wouldn’t get drafted myself. Now my mother didn’t speak much English – she and my dad came to the States from Mexico in 1917 – and she didn’t understand all that was going on. But she prayed. She was worried for her boys, and she prayed all the time. But in the end I did get drafted after all, and I went in the Army in February of 1943. At one point the four oldest brothers were all in combat at the same time, and the youngest eventually volunteered for service.
I was processed at the induction center in Monterey and sent to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. After a month they asked me what I wanted to do. When I was at Sonora High, I had taken a radio course and enjoyed it, so I told them I wanted to be a radio operator. I then became part of the Army Air Corps, which later turned into the Air Force, and I was sent to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for radio operator training and to learn Morse code. As a radio operator, I would become a crewmember on a B-17 bomber. Since all radio operators on bombers also had to man a machine gun, my next stop was Las Vegas for gunnery school.
The crews for the B-17 bombers were assembled at MacDill Field in Tampa, Florida, and that’s where we got ours together. A crew was made up of ten men: the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator, and gunners for the various turrets. Once a crew is put together, those men work as a unit and stay together until they finish their duty. They may fly different B-17s, but the crews stay together.
We trained in Tampa for three or four months, dropping dummy bombs in the ocean and doing navigation training. Another four months of training in Virginia put the final touches on our preparation, and we were ready for war.
My crew flew from Virginia to Massachusetts and then to Bangor, Maine, the takeoff point for overseas duty. We flew to Labrador to fuel up, to Iceland and then the final leg across the Atlantic to Scotland. My crew was assigned to Deenethorpe Field near the village of Benefield, north of London in the center of England. The last leg of our journey there was by train.
Early in his service
Bombing Missions Over Germany
My crew became part of the 401st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force. At that time, if a crew completed 30 bombing missions, it could go home. At the beginning of the war in Europe, the goal had only been 25, and there were so many losses that not many crews even made that. But by late 1944 and early 1945 when my crew flew, there were improvements to the bombers, there were heated suits, and more important than anything else, there were P-51 Mustang fighter escorts. The original fighter escorts were ineffective because their range was so limited and they flew at low altitudes, but external fuel tanks and engine improvements enabled them to extend their protection. That’s why the limit was raised to 30 missions.
My first mission was to Anklam, Germany on August 4, 1944, and my 30th and final mission was to Hamburg on February 16, 1945.
A Typical Mission
Each bomber group had four squadrons of 12 planes, and three squadrons flew together on a mission. My crew didn’t fly every day, but when we did, there were 36 planes flying toward the same target in Germany. Generally we got up at 4 a.m. and went to the mess hall for breakfast. I remember always grabbing a couple pieces of fruit on my way out and stuffing them in my pocket for the flight. At the airstrip we had a briefing room, and when we would walk in, they had a big map covered up so we couldn’t see right away where we were going that day. The commander would come in, and we’d all pop to attention. He’d tell us where we were going and then move that screen back so we could see the target on the map.
I remember the day the target was Berlin, everybody said, “Oh my God, Berlin.” But to tell you the truth, I’d rather go there any day because there was almost no anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
We then headed out to our planes. The ground engineers had pre-flighted them, but the pilots would walk around and check everything again just to make sure. Between six and seven o’clock they’d shoot a red flare, and the pilots would start their engines. When we were the lead plane, we would take off first. We would circle the field and our squadron would start up to altitude while the next two squadrons of 12 bombers took off. There were other airfields around, so at times planes were everywhere. One time I looked out my little window and heard a huge roar. Another plane came barreling right over the top of us!
As we climbed, we would go on oxygen at about 10,000 feet. Once we got all 36 planes in formation, we’d head east at 36,000 feet. The P-51 fighter escorts took off well after we were airborne. A fully loaded B-17 might fly at 160 to 180 mph, but the P-51s might go 300 to 400 mph, so they could catch up in a hurry. They might not always accompany us the entire way, but they would pick us up again on our way home. I think our shortest mission was 6 ½ hours round trip, and the longest was 10 ½ hours.
As our bomb group approached the target, we’d drop to 27,000 feet and the pilot would turn the plane over to the bombardier. The plane was then his to fly until the bomb bay doors opened, and he said “Bombs away.” When he said that, I would activate the onboard camera, which would then take a series of photographs as the bombs dropped and exploded. We would then return to base, and the first thing they’d do when we landed was grab that camera and take it away to see if we hit the target. In 30 missions, the 401st Bomb Group set a record for accuracy based on the photo evidence.
After about five missions, my crew became the lead crew for our group. That meant we would always take off first, and as radioman for our crew, I became the lead radio operator for the 36-plane group. Using Morse code, I would send back messages to the base, first letting them know when we left the English coast, then when we hit the continent, again when we started our bomb run, and another message when we completed the run and were heading home.
B-17s in formation; USAF photo
Guys became very attached to the B-17 bomber, or “Flying Fortress,” as it was often called. It was an amazing plane that always seemed to take care of the men it carried. We often bragged to crews on B-24s that our plane was the best, but of course they felt the same way about theirs.
I’ve seen B-17s land with half the tail shot away, and we had the entire plastic nose of our plane knocked off by flak two days in a row. Didn’t bother the guys up front. They had heated suits on and could move back into the plane. One time an anti-aircraft shell hit right below us. The guys in the plane behind us saw the burst and told us later they couldn’t believe it didn’t knock us down.
My plane was never shot down, and I never really crash-landed, but we did have a few close calls. I wouldn’t count clipping some pine trees on a takeoff during training in Florida, but in Europe, we had a couple dicey moments.
On every one of our missions except the one to Berlin, we ran into flak. Each one of us wore a flak jacket to protect us from flying shrapnel that would come through the shell of the plane. One time our waist gunner felt something hit him in the stomach, hit him right in his flak jacket. He looked down, and it was a piece of shrapnel about three or four inches long, shrapnel that had come right through the fuselage and hit him. We always had to have holes in the planes patched when we got back to England.
The fighter escorts did a good job of keeping the German Messerschmitts away from us, and an enemy fighter never attacked my plane. But from a distance I did see Messerschmitts attacking other groups.
On our fifth mission we were headed to Leipzig. My crew was not the lead yet, so we had to follow the lead of another crew. As the squadron started the bomb run, the lead bombardier failed to drop his bombs. I don’t know why. You see, all the bombardiers drop on the lead bombardier, and if he doesn’t drop, no one does. We usually have a secondary target to go to. But this time the bombardier in that lead plane ignored the secondary target and made a 360-degree turn, taking us back over the original target and into the anti-aircraft fire for a second time.
A bombing run may expose us to flak for about 15 minutes, but that day we faced flak for nearly 45 minutes straight. When we got back to the base, my plane had over 60 holes in it from pieces of shrapnel.
Tete and his crew
Three Engines Out
One of the scariest missions was to Frankfurt in December of 1944. We were the lead crew by then, and as we approached the continent, we lost one of our engines. It just quit on us, but our pilot said we could go on, so we did. Then as we headed to the IP (initial penetration) for the bomb run, we lost a second engine. We went over the target, dropped the bombs, and headed back. And then we lost a third one! Well, we knew we couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group on one engine, and we were steadily losing altitude.
Our pilot thought he could make it to Paris, but the weather there was lousy. He then found out Brussels was close by and had been taken over by the British the week before, so that’s where he headed. We all had our parachutes on and were ready to bail if we needed to. I really thought we were going to buy the farm that time, but our pilot managed to reach Belgium, and we landed in pretty good shape.
We never figured out how three engines could fail on one mission, but we did find out a B-17 could fly on just one engine, at least for a while. We had to wait in Brussels for about a week until a C-47 could come over and pick us up. We were in friendly territory so there wasn’t really a problem.
Flak bursts beneath a B-17; USAF photo
Last Mission: February 16, 1945
I think every member of a bomber crew looked forward to the last mission, the one that would rotate him home. I know I certainly did, and I remember my last mission fairly well. On any given day, there might be many targets, but the day of my last mission, there were so many targets that just about every plane in the 401stBomb Group was up in the air, close to 1,000 planes.
Now for 29 missions, I had been with the same crew, the same guys. Six of us were enlisted men and the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier were officers. But on the day of my last mission, we were told the target was Hamburg and that the base commander would fly in our plane. We also learned he was going to bring some other officers with him. As it turned out, on that flight only three of us were enlisted men: the waist gunner, the tail gunner, and me. Why they chose my plane I never knew. I was accustomed to being in the lead spot for 36 planes, but on that day, on our last mission, we lead just about the entire 8th Air Force.
Well, everything went well. We made our bomb run on Hamburg and returned to base safely. I can tell you, it felt great. It was over with. We had made it through our 30 missions and we knew we could go home.
My B-17 crew had a reunion in September of 1991. I hadn’t kept track of where the guys were, but the bombardier decided he would find us. As it turned out, he learned the pilot had died and he couldn’t find one other guy, but he tracked down the rest of us, and the remaining eight got together in Oklahoma that year. It was really something to see them again after 46 years. Off and on I’ve tried to keep in touch since then, but this past year we lost the only survivor besides me. I’m the only one left.
I also learned about then that the 401st Bomb Group has had reunions every two years. I traveled to a few of those, and they gave us a chance to see some nice places. We’ve been to Savannah, Georgia and to Dayton, Ohio. And we went to Boston one time. I always looked forward to it when we did go. But so many of the guys have died now.
The families of the 401st have kept the reunions going, and now it’s mainly the relatives who show up. I don’t really want to go anymore because I’m the only one left of our crew.
Sometimes I’m asked if I was ever scared while flying those missions over Germany, and the answer is no. Now there were times when we’d talk to ground troops, and they’d tell us we were crazy to do what we did … fly up there with anti-aircraft guns firing at us. But I felt they were crazy doing what they did. I preferred the bombing missions in the Army Air Corps.
After that fifth mission to Leipzig, the one where we had so many holes shot in our plane, I just knew I was going to come back. I never had any qualms about it at all. I never hated going up. I just made up my mind that when the next mission came, we just had to go do it.
And I guess part of it is my faith. Before I went in the service, I always went to church. I was an altar boy at St. Patrick’s in Sonora, and I was raised by a very religious mother … both my parents were religious. During the war, whenever we went on a mission the base chaplain would come up and give all the Catholic boys communion. I always knew I’d come back safe and sound because of my faith. You know, both my pilot and co-pilot were Catholic boys, too.
1991 reunion with 8 of 10 original crew members
After World War II
After that last mission to Hamburg in February 1945, we headed home. The crew split up and the Army sent me to Arizona. They asked me if I wanted to go to the South Pacific, and I said NO! Right about then, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I had enough points from missions and time in service to get out, so they sent me to Camp Beale up by Sacramento, and I was discharged as a Tech Sergeant there.
Sonora was my hometown, and I naturally came back here. Everyone accepted returning soldiers, and it wasn’t hard to find a job. I could have gone back to school, but I wasn’t the school type. Standard Oil was by the Opera Hall, you know, next to the Bank of Stockton now, and I took a job there. After awhile someone said they needed help at the post office, so I worked there for 90 cents an hour. After a couple months, a friend of mine told me the construction company he worked for was going to extend an airstrip on Okinawa, and he said, “Tete, let’s go.” So we did; over there I drove a 30-yard dumpster for about a year.
About 1947 I returned to Sonora and worked for Mallard’s Grocery, and in 1950 married my first wife, Hezzy. When the Korean War broke out, I decided to go back in the Air Force and was trained to be an air traffic controller, a job I performed at various bases in the U.S. and for a year at a base near Seoul, South Korea during the conflict there.
I left the Air Force again in 1954, but went back in 1957. Between then and 1971, when I retired with over 22 years of service, I saw many places a good distance from Sonora. My son David and my daughter Kerry were both born while I was in the Air Force, and my family even lived with me during my second tour to Madrid, Spain. We were teaching the Spanish to be air traffic controllers, and my son graduated from high school while we were there.
Like everyone else in the service during the Vietnam War, I did a tour of duty there. In 1970 I was sent to Binh Thuy Air Base to teach the Army of the Republic of Vietnam to run a control tower. I never felt in danger in either Korea or Vietnam … oh, they’d lob a few shells onto the field, but I was never scared.
After nine months in Vietnam, I was told my father was dying, so the Air Force let me come home. I tried to make it before he died, but I was late by a couple days. About then I decided to retire from the service, and did so as a Master Sergeant in 1971.
Mr. Arellano, 2011
Life After The Air Force
Back in Sonora, I went to work in the maintenance department at Sonora High. I really enjoyed my time there. The teachers were always good to us, and I made many friends. I retired in 1985.
My life since then has been full. I volunteer at St. Patrick’s quite a bit. I’ve been an usher at church, I used to work with the altar boys, and I volunteered out at Interfaith for about 20 years.
There’s been some sadness, too. In 1996, Hezzy and I were involved in a head-on crash coming up the highway in Jamestown … a drunk driver. She was killed. We had been married 46 years. Again my church helped; it was at St. Patrick’s that I met Vicki, and we’ve been married now for 13 years. Life is good. Between us we share six children, 11 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
So much changed from World War II to Vietnam. When I first went in the service I think we were a different breed. I remember later when I came home from Vietnam, we landed in New York, and the guys there told me to get out of my uniform because the people here didn’t like soldiers in uniform.
Yes, I think we were a different breed. We loved our country and we never questioned where they sent us. We just did it.
Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters
European Theater of Operations Medal with four battle stars
World War II Victory Medal
Presidential Unit Citation
Good Conduct Medal with four bronze loops and gunners’ wings
Korean Defense Service Medal with bronze star
Republic of Vietnam Service Medal
Air Force Longevity Service Award with four oak leaf clusters