By CAROLYN LUCAS-ZENK
The Gathering of Eagles, an aviation heritage program, has honored aviation pioneers, legends and leaders for more than three decades. It’s a capstone event for Air Command and Staff College graduates.
Based at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, the college prepares officers for positions of higher responsibility within the military and other government arenas. Fifteen aviators are annually invited to share their experiences and lessons learned with the outgoing class, of which there are more than 400 graduates this year.
Looking at the June 4 to 8 program, featuring commanders, generals and other outstanding individuals, 87-year-old Kailua-Kona resident Wesley Wells is in awe. Wells is flabbergasted and honored to be included. “And then, there’s me, the B-17 ball turret gunner,” he said with a smile.
Sitting in their Plumeria Road home, Wells and his wife, Phyllis, suspected their granddaughter’s husband, who’s at Maxwell Air Force Base, recommended him because he’s a World War II veteran. “There aren’t so many of us left,” he said.
Wells survived a plane crash in enemy territory and six different German prisoner of war camps. Despite these aspects of his life, Wells insisted, “I just did what I had to do, which was often what’s sensible.” Still, Wells doesn’t mind talking about his experiences, including the survival part, because he thinks it’s important for people to understand what soldiers, particularly airman, went through during that era.
“It always seemed to me the combat airman had sort of a fraternal relationship, and as friends or enemies, there was a shared understanding and respect from both sides,” he said.
Wells started writing down his stories after attending his first reunion with the 379th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force. He enjoys piecing together his side with other accounts and historical records.
WORLD AT WAR
Wells was 8 years old when Adolf Hitler came to power. At age 16, he was at an archery contest, listening to the radio, when the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as an interruption to an otherwise tranquil Sunday in December 1941. Wells knew he would enlist. He did so at age 17 in the Army Air Corp in April 1943 and reported for active duty on Dec. 29, 1942. He began cadet basic training Jan. 1, 1944, in Colorado and longed to be a fighter pilot. The Army had other plans. He was sent to the Las Vegas Aerial Gunnery School.
“We didn’t enlist in the Air Corps to be bomber pilots, navigators, bombardiers or gunners. We grew up in the 1930s when aviation was young, exciting and romantic, and our heroes were World War I aces flying Spads and Fokkers,” Wells said. “We weren’t real happy about going to gunnery school, but at least we would be flying.”
During training, Wells ruptured an ear drum and spent six weeks in the hospital. Upon return, he trained as a sperry upper local turret, graduated as a private first class and was assigned to the Rapid City, S.D., air base for overseas training. There, Wells, a waist gunner, got his crew, which he traded so that twin brothers could be together. His reassignment was to the F-26 crew.
In September 1944, his crew as given a new B-17 and headed a month later to Scotland. On the way, Wells got a new position, thanks to the ball turret gunner, Fred White. He didn’t want to do that job and approached Wells about trading.
“The worst drawback to the ball turret was that if we were hit, lost electrical power, and the airplane went out of control, there was no way I could have gotten out of the turret quickly, and if I had, I could not wear a parachute,” Wells said. “It was not a pressurized airplane so you had to wear an oxygen mask, unhook the mask in the turret and be able to find a walk around bottle when you got to stay conscious until you could get hooked up to the a regulator. You really had somewhat less than one minute to stay conscious.”
Despite all of this, Wells agreed to the change, making White happy. In Scotland, the crew was assigned to the 379th Bombardment Group, 526th Bomb Squadron at an Air Force station in England.
“We were proud as peacocks of being combat crews in the most powerful air armada in the world. When we were flying a mission and looked out behind at all the contrails spread out behind the bomber stream, it made the hair stand out on our head,” Wells said. “We really felt the we were doing a job that had to be done if we and our families were to live a free life and not be under control of Hitler.”
The F-26 crew successfully flew 24 missions, with targets like oil plants, bridges or communication centers. Wells was also promoted to staff sergeant after the completion of the first four missions. But it was their last mission, considered “a milk run,” he can’t forget. The crew was tasked with bombing a viaduct at Arnesberg, Germany, done from 25,000 feet with 1,000-pound bombs.
Shortly before, the plane lost an engine and the pilot consulted the crew as to abort or go on. Wells said everyone wanted to continue. Then more engine failure and problems occurred, causing the plane to leave the formation and make a forced landing in a plowed field. During this time, Wells was busy helping throw out anything, including bombs, guns and the ball turret, to help the plane reach friendly territory.
Getting rid of the ball turret was a difficult task, one that ended with Well’s toes hanging out in the open sky.
“We hit, and the ball turret opening scooped up yards of dirt, and I can remember flying around the radio room like a marble being shaken in a tin can,” Wells said, describing the crash.
The F-26 crew was greeted by Luftwaffe, the German air force, who fired rifles and burp guns over their head. They surrendered.
“In my training, we were told that if we were captured by the military, they would, more or less, follow the rules set down by the Geneva Convention,” Wells said. “That is what I found to be accurate, and actually the Luftwaffe seems to make an effort to try to be present when airmen were captured, but if they were captured by civilians, then anything might happen.”
The crew was taken to a village courtyard, told to strip and searched. Afterward they went to a school serving as a command post and then to a prison in Dusseldorf.
They were transported via train to Frankfurt to an interrogation center to endure hot and cold running solitary cells, as well as in-depth questioning. Wells recalled thinking a lot about Phyllis, whom he was engaged to, and wondering if he would see her again. While his future seemed uncertain, Wells said he was never petrified, just continued to do what was required and remained hopeful that they would be liberated.
Following interrogation, Wells spent two weeks in a temporary holding camp and then was sent by train to the POW camp in Nuremberg, where he stayed from Feb. 26, 1945, to April 4, 1945. Later, Wells and the F-26 crew marched sometimes for 24 hours, with only smoking breaks, as well as in the middle of the night and in several inches of snow to another POW camp at Moosburg, north of Munich.
They also survived a bombing, which tore Wells’ pack off his back, had him dodging bullets and taking shelter with a German guard. His partner was not so lucky and was founded lying in the road, wounded. In Moosburg, they slept in big circus-like tents behind barbed wire.
“There were Russian prisoners in the compound next to us. They were really in bad shape, starving, sick and mixed sexes,” Wells said. “Germany had signed the Geneva Convention, but Russia didn’t, so Germany didn’t feel they had to accord the provision to Russians. The Russian prisoners didn’t have anything to look forward to as they expected a death sentence for surrendering to the Germans.”
On April 29, 1945, Wells and other prisoners were liberated. Hitler had ordered allied prisoners to be killed a couple days before, but the warden prevented those orders from being carried out. Still, the Germans stopped feeding them because they weren’t prisoners.
A week later, they were taken to a German air force base to be flown out. Wells ended up in France, where he notified his parents in Arizona and Phyllis in California that he was no longer missing in action. He had been recovered.
Within a few days, Wells was put on an Army transport ship back to the United States and then a train to Texas, where he was given 60 days of recuperation. His next mission: Marrying Phyllis and continuing life after war.
Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at clucas-zenk@westhawaii today.com.