Finishing up our current homage to the veterans and the slain who secured our freedoms in the past, let’s look at the book “Inferno” by Joe Pappalardo. Its subtitle describes it well:  “The True Story of a B-17 Gunner’s Heroism and the Bloodiest Military Campaign in Aviation History.”  The author focuses on Maynard Smith, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions over Europe. 

Smith was a classic screw-up, from his early time as a juvenile delinquent to his post-war days, but in the flak-torn skies he found the best part of himself.  His B-17 was shot to pieces and on fire, but after the other men physically capable of bailing out had taken to their parachutes, Smith stayed on board.  He threw flaming debris out of the aircraft and ministered to the wounded aboard, including the pilot, who thanks to Smith was able to bring the aircraft safely to a landing strip.

To do so, he had to crawl out of the bottom bubble of the B-17, where he had been the “belly gunner” fighting off enemy Focke-Wulf 190s with .50 caliber machine gun fire.  A short man – nicknamed “Snuffy” by his fellow airmen because of his perceived resemblance to comic strip character Snuffy Smith – his five-foot-five stature suited him to the extremely cramped globe of the belly gunner’s station.  It was a precarious place to be on a crippled B-17: if the landing gear didn’t come down, the gunner there would be crushed to death when the plane made it to the airfield.

When his B-17 was torn apart and ignited by anti-aircraft fire, Smith had single-handedly extinguished the blaze inside and tended to the wounded aboard, from the tail-gunner to the pilot, who was finally able to bring the crippled aircraft down safely in southwest England.

But the story isn’t just about Smith. Pappalardo speaks of the appalling casualty rate among the bomber crews of WWII, and the strategies of the generals and the responses of the Axis powers.  In this, it is a compelling companion book to the excellent “The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell, albeit with more focus on the folks who had boots on the ground oxygen masks, triggers, and bomb sights in the air.

“Inferno” took me back to when I was able to examine American bombers in the WWII Museum in New Orleans.  Fearsome on the outside, they were amazingly cramped on the inside.  It made me appreciate the hardships of those brave men that much more. Pappalardo’s book is a powerful testament to American courage.


  1. I don’t recall the title of the book, but back in high school I read the book about the raid on the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory. The AAF lost 60 planes and crews (600 men) in one raid. Had stunning pictures of planes that made it back with horrific damage-including one with the remains of a German fighter lodged where the waist gunners had been.

    • The book you read was probably Black Thursday by Martin Caidin about the October 14, 1943 raid called Mission 115 by 291 American B-17 bombers and escorted by over 100 fighters on the Schweinfurt ball bearig factory in Germany.

      • Sounds right, Caidin did a lot of WWII flying books. Somewhat off topic, but there was a book on the leading American ace in the European theater, Robert Johnson called Thunderbolt. Got a tip there that I’ve been passing along for decades. “It takes 4 seconds to shoot down a plane, look around every 3 seconds.” Applies to driving and walking too.

      • WR Moore:

        I have the book Thunderbolt too which I read when I was 13. With 27 aerial victories, Robert S. Johnson was the second highest scoring American ace in the ETO of WW II. Francis Gabreski with 28 kills in WW II and 6 1/2 more later in Korea, was the top scorer and I have his autobiography Gabby too. Both these aces flew P-47 Thunderbolts, the most produced American fighter plane in WW II and had the the highest survival rating of any USAAF fighter, even surpassing the more famous P-51 Mustang which was the second most produced fighter.

        Tom Cruise’s personally owned P-51D Mustang is featured in his latest movie Top Gun Maverick, but since his character is a USN captain, it would have been more appropriate for him to have a F4U Corsair, F6F Hellcat, or even a F8F Bearcat instead. Cruise could easily afford to add these rare planes to his private collection.

    • Thanks for the referral Mas. Always looking for new “reads” (I listen to audible books). There are many great books about the greatest generation and one I enjoyed was The Last Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Final Combat Mission of World War II by Don Brown

  2. At the start of WW II many of the children of the Great Depression were unfit for military service because they were small & malnourished. Now estimates say that 70% of our youth are overweight & unfit for military service. The kids of the 1930s were used to hard work & depravation. All that military chow in basic training was a godsend. Not sure how the military would fill its ranks now in case of a general mobilization.

    • If the current crop of American teenagers were to be trained for combat, they will need to be fed Nutri-System meals in boot camp to reduce their weight.

    • Mark,

      Hopefully, we will have drones (UAVs) and robots to fight our wars soon. Our children are well-trained for cybernetic warfare. Drones and robots are controlled by joysticks and buttons similar to those found on popular video games. In other words, gamers will make great future-soldiers. Actually, gamers fly drones now, so they are present-soldiers. So, physical fitness may be less important in the future, than it has been in the past.

      Now, since no plan survives first contact with the enemy (“Murphy’s Laws of Combat,” although I can’t find which one it is), we may have to rely on traditional human soldiers in the future. Those soldiers will need to be physically fit. We may not have the money to buy expensive robot soldiers, or the enemy may destroy them all. If that happens, it will be “back to basics.” If we run out of petrol (“the precious juice” a line from The Road Warrior) we may see the return of cavalry troops.

      I hope America can stop fighting wars on the other side of the planet and, in the future, only fight defensive wars here at home. If the homeland is attacked, our civilians will suffer, but that will be good for morale. If our allies need help, send them weapons, not human infantry.

      As I wrote about robots and cybernetic warfare above, I was half-joking. But, that day, and those machines are already here, aren’t they?

      • Imagine our future fighter pilots and aces could be pimply faced, overweight teenage boys remotely flying armed drones while munching huge amounts of Cheetos and gulping down gallons of Mountain Dew.

        At least our heroic Dear Leader and former Top Gun instructor, Joseph ‘Sniffer’ Biden was able to personally shoot down a few dozen enemy aircraft before getting into politics. Now instead of scoring more aerial victories, he just scores more bribes from our enemies. His former U.S. Navy pilot son Hunter ‘Rembrandt’ Biden sometimes helps the Big Guy collect his dirty money from a variety of shady contributors.

  3. Massed, this is a book I want to read. My Dad was a nose gunner/radio operator on a B24, flying 47 missions over Africa, Italy, Central Europe, and finally Germany. He got double credit for 3 missions he flew over Ploesti. These were all remarkable men.

  4. My father-in law spent the war in the belly of a PBY, hunting submarines over the North Atlantic, then returning to his base in Iceland taking bets on how many planes had skidded off the icy runways.
    My father commanded truck convoys, running supplies to the front lines, close enough to get a bayonet stick in his shoulder.
    They often spoke of it as a trade-off. The Air Force had single days of combat, cramped, cold and flying, with high casualties, but every night they ate hot meals and slept in beds. The Infantry slept in foxholes and only got hot meals if and when they were rotated off the line, but had lower casualty rates.

    I had it relatively easy in Vietnam, jumping my platoon out of helicopters and hunting Vietcong through the jungle for three or four weeks until we spent a week guarding a firebase.

    • larryarnold,

      I wouldn’t want to wander around the jungles of Vietnam, even in peacetime. High humidity, snakes, big bugs and dense growth which reduces visibility and makes walking difficult. You had all that, plus booby traps and the Vietcong were trying to kill you. I didn’t even mention monsoon season. Thanks for your service! I wish South Vietnam could have ended up like South Korea. America tried to help them.

      I suppose that, the good thing about being in combat is, the rest of your life seems easy after that. I think of the school children who survived the mass murdering monster in Uvalde, Texas. What can life throw at them that will ever compare to that horrible hour and fifteen minutes?

  5. My father flew a B-24 Liberator bomber during WWII. Some of the stories he shared still raise the hair on the back of my neck to this day. It was no picnic.

    • If given a choice, I would rather be on a B-17 than being a B-24 crew member. The B-24 was a dangerous plane when fully armed, mainly due to it’s high wing loading. The B-17 has a wing 50% larger in area which made it easy to handle while the B-24’s controls were heavy and sluggish. The B-24 worked out very well in the anti-submarine role where it didn’t have to contend with Luftwaffe fighters.

      American bomber losses were heavy but not as bad as the British RAF’s which operated at night, which they thought was safer. The British bombers were poorly armed, mainly with a few .303 caliber light machine guns whereas American bombers had over twelve powerful .50 BMGs to protect themselves with and were greatly feared by German fighter pilots.

    • while you still remember them, write them down. Get the bsic outlines of a collection of them, then see what you can find to fill out the “missing pieces” of a fuller picture.
      I had Uncles growing up who had seen combat in the Pacific, and some in Europe, One Uncle, on Mom’s side, was in the 82nd Airborne. He jumped at North Africa, Anzio, and Normandy on D Day. Got shot up every time but managed to hang on long enough for the pros to patch him back together. I made the mistake of asking him one time, when I was in my twenties, about the war.He looked at me sternly and said Nephew, there are some things a man just doesn’t want to talk about” A very small “oh” slipped past my lips, and we turned to other topics. I learned a lot from him, we had many projects we tackled together… his assistant when I was a skinny ten year old as we, the pair of us, laid about a hundred feet of concrete block wall. I beleive he is typical of the men of that era, most of which had lived through the Great Reee, er, sorry, Depression as young men, seen service ih that Second German War, then survived the post war madness and rebuilt a nation. Hard work doing “what needed doing” without complaining or sandbagging, looking out for each other, a sharp eye toward a clear goal, figuring things out cause there were very few “experts” when needed…….
      “Snuffy” Smith was just doing what needed to get done to try and save the plane. No big deal. Might as well do SOMETHING up there, right?
      Then I look at today’s “military” and shake my head…..

      • Don’t be shaking your head at my son. He made Sergeant as fast as is chronologically possible, is currently a Combat Engineer and a Sapper (in the Infantry) and is home for just a few weeks with his wife and children before his next deployment. He could take you and me down in seconds with one arm tied behind him, and given the proper resources, could make Russia the 51st Star on our Flag.

  6. One thing most folks don’t realize is how difficult it was to get out of B-17 when it was in a death spiral. The tight quarters Mas pointed out made it difficult for a crewman to get to the bomb bay to get out of the plane on a level flight. While the plane is falling and spinning you have terrific gravitational and centripetal forces pinning you to the insides of the plane making it almost impossible to get to the bomb bay. Those poor crewman pinned to the inside could only wait for the inevitable impact which would certainly end their lives.

    BTW, the belly gunner was only in peril on a B-17 with landing gear problems if he could not get out of the ball turret because combat damage jammed the hatch. On a B-17 coming in for a landing no ball turret gunner was in the ball turret anyway because the landing gear could always collapse. Therefore, the ball turret gunner got out of the ball turret and was waiting with the rest of the crew well ahead of landing.

    The ball turret gunner position was readily considered by all crewman to be the most dangerous crew assignment on a B-17. Casualty rates flying in a B-17 in the Eighth Air Force were extremely high before they got P-51 Mustang escorts all the way to the bomb target. A popular saying at the time was that to “fly in the Eighth Air Force then was like holding a ticket to a funeral —your own.”

    • One of the good points of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator was it’s retractable ball turret which could be raised into the fuselage when landing. On the B-17, if the belly turret was jammed in it’s normal position, the gunner could climb out, but in any other position, the hatch would be blocked, trapping the gunner inside. I don’t know if the B-17s carried any crowbars or sledge hammers to break a guy out of a jammed ball turret, but I would use any means of getting him out, even using gunfire to blast the damaged or obstructing area to free the turret.

  7. A late, courageous neighbor had also been a belly gunner in the B-17 in WWII. He became a career veterinarian. He never wore a handgun at work. One day he got between his old pet Charolais bull and a wooden gate. The bull playfully charged him and smashed him against the gate, completely smashing all his ribs. I have known several other men who should have been carrying a powerful handgun when working who could have been spared serious injuries. I wish that worrying about “what people think” about going armed would take a lot less precedence in public life. Happy to see the SCOTUS ruling on carry in NY. We probably need to sue the new “red flag” rule away. Who is watching the watchers? LGB?

    • “Happy to see the SCOTUS ruling on carry in NY.”

      I have been reading this decision. As written by Justice Thomas, this decision is far broader than just the unconstitutional nature of “May Issue” laws. Ever since the Heller decision, lower courts have been working to sneak in firearms-prohibition by the back door.

      I am reminded of the monster in Steven King’s novel “IT”. This monster was a hideous predator that would feed on human children. However, to deceive its victims, it would wear the friendly face of a clown.

      In a similar way, lower courts had developed, as Justice Thomas called it, a “Two-Step” review process. This process had a friendly face and pretended to follow the Heller and McDonald Decisions. However, in actual fact, it gave broad preference to anti-gun legislatures and was used to approve even the most draconian firearm-prohibition laws. Its outward friendly face concealed a hideous, anti-gun monster inside!

      Well, Justice Thomas BLASTED this “two-step” process. He made it clear that this approach was invalid when used to decide 2A cases. Thus, the clever “Back-Door” firearms-prohibition review process, derived by anti-gun judges in lower courts, got BLASTED along with the “May Issue” approach.

      Justice Thomas’ decision in Breun is a “Game-Changer” in the way that courts must decide 2A cases. It just became much, much, much harder for the firearm-prohibitionists to “bulldoze” anti-gun measures into law.

      Some on the Left realize just what a blow was dealt to their cause by Justice Thomas. Their screams of pain are shrill. Take this one, for example:

      • TN_MAN,

        I’m sure there are sheeple in NY and NJ who wonder what it will be like when some of their neighbors are carrying guns legally. Being sheeple, they are too stupid to realize that that is already the situation when they are in PA. They are around people who are carrying in PA and they don’t even know it. These sheeple should not be allowed to vote.

      • Read linked article. I can’t decide if i just simply don’t understand the author’s reasoning overall, or if all the grammatical and punctuation errors just threw me off…

      • Louie T,

        Grammatical and punctuation errors? That article was written by Noah Feldman. He is a law professor at Harvard. There shouldn’t be any errors in his writing. My guess is he is afflicted by “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but then, I am not a physician.

        Since Karl Marx published his writings, so many people have fallen under his spell. His writings produce dreamers who ignore science, because they are in love with the idea of utopia, or the idea of being a ruler.

      • Roger Willco:

        “These people should not be allowed to vote.”

        All folks, especially liberals should be allowed to vote, even dead ones, those with fake/cartoon names, and illegal invaders of our country.

      • Tom606,

        You are right, everyone, of all ages, dead or alive, should be allowed to vote, but only Democrats are smart enough to count the votes. Can’t allow Republicans to count votes.

        We got rid of monarchies because monarchs were corrupt. But, democracy (and Republics) don’t work if the voters are stupid, as we see in NY and other places.

  8. Steven Spielberg loves WWII vets. In the first-released Star Wars movie, there are scenes where gunners in a space ship are firing at the Dark Side’s fighters. These characters were inspired by, and are an homage to, the gunners on those bombing missions over Nazi Germany.

    • It’s interesting that in the first Star Wars movie, Han Solo’s hairy buddy the Wookie carries a WWII era German MG42 machinegun and the Empire’s stormtroopers packed British Sterling SMGs. Han Solo’s blaster is a German C96 ‘Broomhandle’ pistol with a small scope mounted on top of it. All these firearms were used in the Second World War.

      • Tom606,

        Also, look at the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet. The German helmet. His uniform is black, just like the uniforms of Hitler’s SS.

      • Roger, these items you pointed out were not coincidence. It you haven’t watched it yet, check out the comedy movie Space Balls. The last scene was great.

      • Tom606,

        I also heard that the sand people were modeled on the Palestinians. Yeah, Space Balls was great.

  9. Mas and all commenters:
    I can’t thank you enough for the book recommendations and insights. I have two more titles to add; The Forgotten 500 by Gregory Freeman and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer. The first one is about how 500 downed airmen, many from the raids on Ploesti, were rescued from Yugoslavia behind enemy lines. My wife’s uncle was one of those saved, a waist gunner on a B-24.
    The second is about one key part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf off Samar in Oct. 1944. A small group of destroyers and destroyer escorts attacked a Japanese force of 4 battleships, 8 cruisers and 11 destroyers. There has never been a more heroic and lopsided battle. If the name Ernest E. Evans is not familiar to you it should be.

    • Have it and can’t expound on it enough. Fantastic read. “I intend to go in harms way…”

  10. “Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner” is a very good piece to read and mull over. Those guys were incredibly brave.

  11. I’ll throw in another book recommendation: Heart of a Soldier by James B. Stewart.

    It’s a biography of Rick Rescorla, British American Vietnam War veteran who, anticipating an attack on the World Trace Center already by 1988 and having implemented and stubbornly drilled extensive evacuation procedures working as a corporate security officer following the 1993 bombings, saved numerous lives during the attacks on September 11th 2001 when he led evacuations of Morgan Stanley’s 22 floors of office space in the South Tower against Port Authority public safety announcements to remain in place prior to the impact of Flight 175. He perished when the South Tower collapsed.

    Pertinent to recent news once again, Rescorla was critical of the police response to the 1999 Columbine school shooting, having been quoted as saying: “Can you believe it? The police were sitting outside while kids were getting killed. They should have put themselves between the perpetrators and the victims. That was abject cowardice.”

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