Ken Beaton: Twin 50s for tail gun Tommy
On Veterans Day, take a moment to thank a vet.
Carson City resident William “Bill” Bettridge enlisted in the United State Army Air Force in 1942 and became the tail gunner in a B-17. His twin 50-caliber machine guns claimed two German ME-109 fighters.
The B-17 crew faced harsh conditions. At 10,000-feet the crew had to wear oxygen masks. At 25,000-feet altitude the temperature inside the plane was between -40 to -60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The crew prayed their electric heaters functioned and their sheepskin jackets, pants, gloves and boots would help keep them warm. Frostbite was an enemy.
Some of the engine exhaust along with any other pollutants in the sub-zero air came into the B-17 through both waist gun openings to collect in the rear of the plane, the tail gunner’s confined space. Bill was the first person to lobby for a greener planet.
Unlike officers and enlisted men in the Army or Navy, a B-17 crew became a team. The pilot was the “captain” of the B-17, but he counted on each team member, the navigator, bombardier, engineer and gunners.
In October 1943 Bill’s crew was assigned to the newly formed 15th Air Force in Foggia, Italy on the Adriatic Ocean. They bombed France, Northern Italy, Germany, and especially Ploesti in Romania.
The Ploesti oil fields were discovered in the 1850s. By 1942 Ploesti’s refineries were producing a third of all the oil to run Hitler’s war machine. The Nazis had heavily defended the area with over 700 antiaircraft guns and numerous smaller caliber automatic weapons. There were four wings of ME-109 fighters located within 20 kilometers. Each wing had 72 fighters for a total of 288 fighters to intercept the 15th Air Force. The flak was so thick over Ploesti, the pilots said, “You could walk on it.”
When Bill was at 25,000-feet in a B-17, he was not fighting for his country. He was fighting for each crew member in that B-17. It was personal, kill or be killed.
Everyone kept an accurate count of his missions. In 1942 after 25 missions a crew member was rotated home. By the time Bill’s crew arrived in Italy, the number was bumped to 50 missions.
Bill’s first bombing mission, Saturday, April 15, 1944, was to Ploesti. His last two missions were to Ploesti. With 51 missions, Bill was rotated home to the states.
A total of 2.4 million men and women served in the USAAF during the War. 15,000 Airmen died in training accidents and 73,000 were KIA. Bill’s guardian angel did an excellent job protecting him.
Soon after Bill was discharged, he used his GI Bill of Rights benefits at Pasadena City College, was hired by Southern California Edison and married the love of his life, Marion Self, in 1947. They raised six children, and had 20 grand children and 17 great-grandchildren.
Bill retired from Southern California Edison after 35 years. In 1992 they moved into their custom-built home with a panoramic view of Eagle Valley. Marion decorated two walls in their home with pictures of their parents, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
• Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.