Military service of my grandfather, Jack Watson.


[You can read Jack’s obituary here. -Shabbir]

Jack had a sizable military career, starting in World War 2 and running through 1965 when he finally retired as a Senior Master Sergeant of the Air Force. His whole military life he had been attached to Bomber squadrons. First the 305th Bomb Group at the end of World War 2 flying out of England, and then after the war with the 301st Bomb Group out of Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana, and finally the 494th Bomb wing out of Sheppard Air force base in Texas.

But the most dangerous and most interesting work he did was at the end and right after the Allies victory in World War 2. You see, Jack was a ball turret gunner in a B-17G bomber known as the “flying fortress”. Though there was no “safe” place to be in Europe during hostilities in the war, but statistically you didn’t want to be in a B-17 bomber flying into Germany, and if you were in that plane, you definitely didn’t want to be a ball turret gunner.  Jack was, and he lived through it to tell many tales.

Jack’s squadron, the 365th Bomber Squadron were tasked with flying from their airbase in England into Germany and bombing factories, airfields, and other elements of the German war machine. The problem with flying into Germany was that you needed a fighter escort. The German fighter planes could fly circles around you, and were so fast they could shoot down your plane before you even had a chance to get off a shot. The Allies sent fighter planes of our own to escort bombers like Jack’s, but their fuel tanks didn’t let them fly all the way into Germany where the bombing targets were, so for the last part of your mission you were flying naked, without an escort.

Jack’s job was to sit with his knees around his ears in a little glass bubble on the bottom of the plane for hours at a time in freezing cold weather and pray that the anti-aircraft guns didn’t shoot him. Since he was literally on the bottom of the plane withour armor, he was particularly vulnerable to gunfire.

This spot, called the ball turret gunner, was crucial to protecting the plane, because it was hard to see a plane coming up from below, Jack’s job was critical to the plane’s survival. Legions of B-17’s were lost in World War 2 to flak guns and German fighter planes, but not Jack’s.

And in a strange coincidence, Jack’s arrival at the end of the war helped protect my uncle Brian’s father as well. Brian’s father was with a heavy artillery division. In the final days of the war Allied forces, including Brian’s dad Richard, were marching eastward into Germany to capture Berlin. Crossing the Rhine river represented victory over the last natural defense Germany had. No invading army had crossed the Rhine since Napolean in 1805 and Hitler ordered any German soldier retreating across the Rhine to be shot on sight. For the Allies to cross the Rhine meant the end of German aggression in Europe.  If Germany couldn’t defend the Rhine, they were done.

Jack’s squadron made sorties above Brian’s dad’s head as the Allies fought to cross the Rhine. The 305th squadron worked to bomb German emplacements in the hopes of minimizing Allied casualties in the eventual crossing. Jack’s squadron helped save many lives.

In looking through Jack’s military service, though, there’s an interesting quirk. After World War 2 ended, Jack unit didn’t rotate back to the States right away. They conducted a mission for months that was classified until very recently called “Project Casey Jones”.

Most of World War 2 was fought without decent maps of Europe. Satellites weren’t around, and so maps didn’t exist for many of the places they fought in. Over and over again, Allied commanders had to guess about the terrain they were entering. As the war wound down, British and US commanders saw an opportunity to change that fact. In a now declassified operation called Project Casey Jones, the US and UK took bombers like Jack’s and retrofitted them with cameras and radar gear. Jack gave up his machine gun for a pair of stereoscopic cameras. In a painstakingly slow process, these bombers flew over every square inch of Europe sending one set of negatives to British high command, and the other was for the US military. Once the Iron Curtain came down, these photographs were invaluable to Allied governments who no longer could overfly Eastern Europe without provoking an international incident.

True to his word, Jack didn’t tell anyone in the family about Project Casey Jones until it was declassified.

As a personal note, if you imagine the stereotype of a hard-drinking, bad-boy, get-all-the-girls flyboy gallavanting his way around Europe in the ebullient culture of post-WW2, you’ve got a pretty good picture of my grandpa Jack.   When he learned I loved poker he told me how he furnished all the fixtures of his first house with poker winnings.   When I came home from dates when I was a teenager, the questions he asked me made me blush.   We agreed on absolutely nothing politically, but he was the kind of person I would swallow my political opinions for because he was a great American.

When he died he insisted the nursing home not call anyone when they knew he was on his “final mission”.   He knew it was time to go, and he didn’t want to be a botherto anyone else.

Grandpa carried a poem with him through the war. It’s a little long, but we thought it would be appropriate to include here:

Conversion by Frances Angemayer

Look, God, I have never spoken to You–
But now–I want to say “How do You do,”
You see, God, they told me You didn’t exist–
And like a fool–I believed all of this.
Last night from a shell hole I saw Your sky–
I figured right then they had told me a lie.
Had I taken time to see the things You made,
I’d known they weren’t calling a spade a spade.
I wonder, God, if You’d shake my hand,
Somehow–I feel that You will understand.
Funny–I had to come to this hellish place,
Before I had the time to see Your face.
Well, I guess there isn’t much more to say,
But, I’m sure glad, God, I met You today.
I guess the “zero hour” will soon be here,
But I’m not afraid since I know You’re near.
The signal! Well, God, I’ll have to go.
I like You lots–this I want You to know–
Look, now–this will be a horrible fight–
Who knows–I may come to Your house tonight–
Though I wasn’t friendly with You before,
I wonder, God–if You’ll wait at Your door–
Look–I’m crying! Me!–shedding tears!–
I wish I’ known You these many years–
Well, I will have to go now, God–good-by,
Strange-since I met You–I’m not afraid to die.
-Frances Angermayer