Alex Ranftle – A B-17 Bombardier’s Story during WWII

Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle’s journey to the hostile skies over Europe wasn’t a quick trip. Surprisingly, it took Alex two and a half years from the time he enlisted before he flew his first combat mission on D-Day-June 6, 1944 in the nose of a B-17G Flying Fortress.

Three days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, an 18-year-old Alex Ranftle and two friends, tried to enlist in the Army Air Corps, but were told to return after Christmas. Ranftle, who had a deep desire to fly, did return and enlisted in the Army Air Corps on December 31, 1941.

After enlisting, he was first assigned Keesler Army Airfield Field, Biloxi, Mississippi. However, due to an outbreak of the measles, Alex and his fellow soldiers were quarantined and had to remain on base. Once the measles scare had subsided, Alex found himself at Scott Field, Illinois (later renamed Scott Air Force Base) assigned to the base as “Permanent Party.” As Alex explained, being assigned as Permanent Party meant that you were assigned to the base, not a squadron or school. As Permanent Party, Ranftle, now a Sergeant, was assigned as the drill instructor for the newly enlisted privates who were Radio School students. Alex’s most memorable time while assigned to Scott Field, other that teaching new Radio School students how to march, was never missing a Saint Louis Browns or Cardinals baseball game.

In February 1943, the Army Air Corps was in desperate need of aircrews. In their need to fill flight crew positions, the Army Air Corps waived the college requirement and allowed its personnel to take the aviation aircrew examination and if you passed you were reclassified as an Aviation Cadet. Alex took the test and passed. Having the option of any flying assignment, Sergeant Alex Ranftle chose bombardier, because he liked math!

In March 1943, Sergeant Ranftle was assigned to West Coast Pre-Flight Training at Santa Ana Army Air Base, Orange County, California. This six-week course included basic training, ground school, and physical fitness training. I asked Alex if there were any memorable events he remembered from his pre-flight training. As Ranftle recalled, “The parades. Every Sunday afternoon the base commander had an all hands parade made up of the 1,000 or more of the base personnel. Having to be back on base for the afternoon parade really cut short your weekend liberty!”

Sergeant Ranftle was next assigned to Gunnery School in the Nevada Desert, near Las Vegas in late April 1943. Ranftle had never flown in an airplane and it was during Gunnery School that he would receive the first of many airplane rides in the back seat of a trainer. During this six week gunnery course, Alex and his fellow classmates slept in tents in the desert and flew in the North American AT-6 Texan trainer shooting .30 caliber machine guns from the rear cockpit. Alex remembers that gunnery students were assigned colored rounds and would shoot at targets towed by another aircraft. After the training mission, students were scored based upon how many of their assigned colors were on the target.

“SHACK” – AT-11’s from the Victorville Army Bombardier School drop bombs on simulated targets during training (photographer unknown – 43-17 Class Photo Album).

Beechcraft AT-11’s Kansans flying in formation over the California desert (photographer unknown – 43-17 Class Album).

In June 1943, Sergeant Ranftle headed to Victorville Army Flying School, Victorville, California (later renamed George Air Force Base) for a six-month bombardier school. First, Alex started his bombardier training on a twenty-foot tower that had a bombsight at the top and a simulated model target below. Once student bombardiers successfully qualified themselves on the “tower” they then began flying. Ranftle flew his training missions in a Beechcraft AT-11 Kansan using the legendary (and then “Top Secret”) Norden bombsight. Ranftle would later learn of the skies of Europe that the Norden bombsight would deliver 85% accuracy (as long as the aircraft was stable and the targets visible from the air).

During these training flights, each AT-11 usually had three students onboard. One student would occupy the “student bombardier” position with a second student serving as the photographer – photographing the bombing results.  Students would rotate through each position as the flight progressed. Student bombardiers using the Norden bombsight would bomb wooden shacks that were a pyramid shape and approximately ten feet tall and twenty feet wide. Alex shared that this is where the military term “shack” (or direct hit) came from. The ground school portion of bombardier school was the hardest, mainly due to the math, said Ranftle. Victorville Army Flying School – Bombardier School Class 43-17 graduated in late 1943 with now Second Lieutenant Ranftle (known to his classmates as the “Greenhouse Gladiator”) graduating second in a class of 182 students. In recognition to his class standing, he was awarded “Distinguished Student” sterling silver wings. Alex proudly wears these very same wings today, while working as a docent at the Palm Springs Air Museum. 

After graduating from bombardier school in December 1943, Second Lieutenant Ranftle had ten days leave before reporting to his next assignment. With all his training complete, all Alex needed was a crew and a bomber and he was ready for a combat assignment. On December 27, 1943, Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle reported to U.S. Army Air Corps Replenishment Depot in Salt Lake City, Utah for aircraft and aircrew assignments. In what Alex described as a huge Quonset hut, 1,000 aircrew members (both officers and enlisted) gathered and awaited their aircraft type (either the B-17 or B-24) and aircrew assignments.

Second Lieutenant Ranftle was hoping for the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. During his training, he had the opportunity to speak with several combat veterans who were now instructors. These instructors said the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was more durable than the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and attracted less enemy fighters. As luck would have it, Alex was assigned to the Flying Fortress.  Now, all he needed was a crew.

Once Alex received his crew assignment, he walked around the facility for several hours before he was able to locate his crew, with the exception of a navigator. Due to a shortage of navigators, Alex and his crew wouldn’t get their navigator, John Jones, until they were in the middle of operational training in Rapid City, South Dakota (January/February l944).

This would be the crew that a 20-year-old Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle would entrust his life to and ultimately fly 34 combat missions over Europe with. Alex’s crew included Tail Gunner – Harold Wiley, Ball Turret – Lloyd Nash, Waist Gunner – Fred Kalune, Radio Operator/Waist Gunner – Bill Hightower, Flight Engineer/Top Turret – Dale Pawlowski, Co-Pilot – James McElwain, and Pilot – Edward Matoshko. First Lieutenant Edward Matoshko was the ranking officer of Alex’s crew and at 23 years old was the “old man” of their crew.

The men of Matoshko’s Crew

After Salt Lake City, Alex and his fellow crewmembers went to Rapid City, South Dakota for operational training. It was there that Ranftle saw his first B-17 (which he described as “big”) and began training in a B-17F. During operational training, Matoshko’s Crew conducted familiarization training, night flights, and simulated bombing raids on cities like Boise, Idaho. During operational training, Alex served as both the navigator and bombardier until Jones arrived. It was during the operational training phase that Wiley, Nash, Kalune, Hightower, Pawlowski, Jones, McElwain, and Matoshko bonded as a crew. A bond that would end up lasting far longer than the 34 missions they flew over Europe.

On a side note, I asked Alex how the aircraft got to be named. Alex recalls, “We had discussions about one name or another, but finally arrived at calling ourselves Matoshko’s Crew. There was never a B-17 with the name Matoshko’s Crew on it. We simply kept whatever name the previous aircraft’s crew had given it. Our first B-17 in Europe was named Lucky Lady. That aircraft lasted about five missions before we crash-landed back in England due to flak damage.” Joked Ranftle, “She wasn’t so lucky!” Needless to say there wasn’t a Lucky Lady II.

Operational training lasted until April 1944 and then it was time go to war. For the men of Matoshko’s Crew it wasn’t quick or easy. After operational training, the crew flew their B-17F to Kearney, Nebraska. There, they were scheduled to pick up a factory fresh B-17 and then fly that aircraft to England.  After waiting and waiting and still no aircraft, the crew received orders to board a troop train to the east coast and then a troop transport ship to Liverpool, England.

Departing from New York Harbor on April 24, 1944, Ranftle and 1,600 other troops set sail for England on board the HMS Arawa. The HMS Arawa was the largest ship in a convoy that consisted of 33 merchant ships and seven escorts. Alex described the 18-day ship ride to Liverpool as “awful.” Ranftle remembers, “The HMS Arawa was a small ship and we encountered the rough North Atlantic during our crossing. We had some coastal artillery soldiers on board who were seasick the entire time, some servicemen broke bones when they fell out of their hammocks, and we had to bathe in salt water. If that wasn’t bad enough, the food was equally bad with liver and stewed tomatoes being frequently served.” Three days before arriving in Liverpool, a German U-boat (U-473) torpedoed one of the escort ships (USS Donnell). The USS Donnell was not sunk, however 29 crewmembers were killed in the attack. The USS Donnell was towed to Scotland where it remained unrepaired for the duration of the war. On May 6, 1944, the HMS Arawa arrived in Liverpool, England. Coincidentally this was the same day U-473 was sunk by British depth charges.

Upon arrival in England, Matoshko’s Crew was assigned to the 526th Bomb Squadron that was part of the 8th Air Force’s 379th Bomb Group. Ranftle and Jones were quickly assigned to attend a familiarization course on the “Gee Box (Generalized Estimating Equation) systems and PFF (Pathfinder Force) tactics.” Alex described these devices as primitive radar bombing systems and tactics. The Norden bombsight was preferred over the PFF/Gee Box tactics and technology. However, the Norden bombsight was only used whenever the target was visible from the air.

While Ranftle and Jones were learning the radar systems, the remaining crewmembers were flying formation flights, general familiarization flights, and getting prepared to fly their first combat mission.

Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle flew his first combat mission on June 6, 1944, more than two and a half years after enlisting. For their first mission, Ranftle and the rest of Matoshko’s Crew flew in support of allied forces during the D-Day Invasion. The 379th Bomb Group’s mission (33 aircraft) was to bomb a road choke point and bridge at Conde Sur Noireau, France. On their first mission, the men of Matoshko’s Crew saw minimal flak, no enemy fighters, and they had good bombing results. Overall, the 379th lost no aircraft on that mission.

Although their first combat mission wasn’t easy (no mission into enemy territory is), it was by no means the hardest. For the men of Matoshko’s Crew, future missions would take them into the heart of France and Germany to bomb the most heavily defended targets in the world.

From 1942 to 1945, almost 80,000 American airmen were killed in action over the skies of Europe. A little over 12,000 B-17s were built during World War II and approximately 50% of those were shot down or otherwise destroyed. The B-17 dropped more bombs than any other aircraft. Statistically, aircrews that flew over Europe weren’t expected to survive. Despite this chilling fact, men like Alex Ranftle (and thousands more) volunteered to serve in the Army Air Corps and flew these missions day in and day out.

Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle not only survived his first combat mission over France, but many more over Germany and France. Based at Kimbolton, England, as the bombardier of Matoshko’s Crew, Ranftle flew his 34 missions starting June 6, 1944 and finishing August 26, 1944.

Army Air Force Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle in the nose of a B-17G – 60+ years later.

I asked Alex to walk us through a “day in the life” of a B-17 bombardier. I was fortunate enough to conduct this part of the interview in the nose of a B-17G Miss Angelacourtesy of the Palm Springs Air Museum. Ranftle hadn’t sat in a B-17 since he left England more than six decades ago. While sitting in the small bombardier’s chair (although Alex preferred kneeling verses sitting in the chair during his 34 missions), leaning over the Norden bombsight, and looking out the large Plexiglas nose, Ranftle recalled the following:

“We would be awakened at about 4:00 am, get dressed, and then go to breakfast.” As Alex got more experienced, he could tell the difficulty of a target by the breakfast he would be given. The normal breakfast consisted of powdered eggs, SOS (shit on a shingle/chipped beef over toast), etc. Alex and his fellow crewmembers quickly learned that when they got steak and fresh eggs, the target they would fly against would be difficult.

Known in Bombardier School as the “Green House Gladiator,” Ranftle peers through the Norden Bombsight of a B-17G.

Next, would be the “Group” briefing which would consist of 800 + aircrew (all crewmembers of each aircraft). This is where aircrews found out what their targets would be. The heavily defended targets with reputations for heavy losses drew audible “oh’s and no’s” in the room. Target selections came from the Eighth Air Force Command Staff and aircrews had no input on what targets were picked. Once this briefing was over, the pilots, navigators, and bombardiers each had their own separate briefing. It was during the bombardier’s briefing that they would see photos of their targets, receive weather reports over the target area, and other pertinent bombing information. The remaining crewmembers made their way out to their bombers and prepared their respective work area. Somewhere about an hour and a half after waking up, crews were being driven out to their aircraft. Once on board, Alex would check his Norden bombsight, the gyros, and other miscellaneous equipment in his part of the aircraft to ensure they were operating properly.

If the mission called for very tight formations over the target area, only the lead aircraft (usually in groups of 20-25 aircraft) would have Norden bombsights onboard. Several other aircraft would have the Norden bombsight onboard in the event the lead aircraft was unable to complete the mission. These aircraft were called “the deputy.” The non-Norden bombsight equipped aircraft would bomb on the lead (or deputy) aircraft’s bomb release.

The reason for this tactic was two fold. First, the initial portion of the flight, from takeoff to the Initial Point or IP (the starting point of the final straight-line leg of the actual bombing run to the target) is flown by the pilots with the navigator providing course corrections. Once the IP was precisely overflown, the bombardier would engage the Norden bombsight’s clutch mechanism, thus coupling the Norden to the B-17’s autopilot. This allowed the Norden to control the B-17’s heading to the target.  The Norden’s gyroscopic stabilization system aided by the bombardier’s input, continuously adjusted for wind drift, and ensured a successful bomb run.  

Instead of having 20-25 aircraft being flown from the IP to the target using the Norden bombsight, the formation only had one aircraft being flown to the target by the bombardier. This no doubt reduced the amount of mid-air collisions within the group. Second, if an aircraft crashed in enemy territory, it reduced the number of classified bombsights that could be captured by German troops.   

With all that said, Ranftle told me, “I never dropped bombs using the Norden. In 34 combat missions, we always dropped on the lead aircraft’s bomb release. I can only remember having a Norden onboard our Flying Fortress three times when we were one of the designated ‘deputy’ aircraft.”

From the bombardier’s chair of Miss Angela, Alex positioned himself over the Norden bombsight and explained in great detail how he operated it and how he would steer the plane on its bomb run to the target area.

Once airborne, it would take 90 minutes or so to get the approximately 80 aircraft launched, in formation, and headed towards the target destination. Until they were in formation, the bombers would circle over the English coast. It was during this time that the gunners throughout the aircraft would test fire their guns.

Ranftle routinely laid his flak vest on the floor. He was more concerned with flak coming up through the floor verses coming in through the side of the fuselage. He also didn’t wear the electrically heated suits, more commonly worn by the waist gunners. Alex said that with all the Plexiglas in the nose and the sun shining through, it was relatively warm, when compared to the other parts of the aircraft where it was below freezing.

The bomb bay of a B-17 where Ranftle would pull the safety pins off bombs while enroute to targets in France or Germany.

Before crossing the coast of Europe, bombardiers were responsible for removing the safety pins from the bombs. Alex would make his way back to the bomb bay and remove the safety pins. When they flew with 500-pound bombs there were usually only 12 safety pins to pull, however, when they flew with 100-pound bombs, there could be almost 40 safety pins. In the case of the latter, Ranftle would get help pulling pins from the Flight Engineer (Dale Pawlowski).

“Our mission times varied from five to ten hours but other than the 20 minutes I was on the bombsight, I spent my time, whether inbound or outbound, looking for enemy fighters.” During Second Lieutenant Ranftle’s 34 missions he saw only a few enemy fighters. When asked what we feared more – flak or enemy fighters? Ranftle said fighters, because you could usually fly around flak (to one degree or another). Fighters, on the other hand, could be anywhere. Ranftle further explained that when the flak stopped, the fighters would come in and attack the group.

“On our third mission to Vannes, France on June 10, 1944, I saw a ME 109. I was excited yet scared, because you didn’t know if the fighter was targeting you or another bomber.” It was on Ranftle’s second or third mission when he saw his first B-17 get shot down. He remembers hearing the ball and tail gunners of Matoshko’s Crew calling out the number of parachutes seen coming from the stricken flying fortress.

When you get to the IP and see a “big black cloud” (flak) you know that you have to go through it in order to drop your bombs and go home. Ranftle and the men of Matoshko’s Crew would ultimately beat the odds and survived 34 trips into the deadly clouds of 88mm flak,” recalls Ranftle.

Once a mission was completed, the entire crew would sit around a table and usually there was a bottle of scotch on table. Here the crew would debrief the mission from start to finish. After dinner, they would go to bed only to do it all over again in a few short hours.

On average, Alex flew a combat mission every two days, although there were periods where he flew multiple days in a row.  To help with crew fatigue, every two weeks he received a 48-hour pass that he and his entire crew would use to go to London for some well-deserved rest and relaxation (or R&R). It was during these R&R’s that Ranftle and his entire crew (officers and enlisted) were able to openly “have beers together.”

Alex and the other men of Matoshko’s Crew quickly developed a bond that couldn’t be broken, even from the pressure of the 379th Bomb Group Commanding Officer – Colonel Maurice Preston. During his tour of duty, Colonel Preston called Ranftle and Jones to his office and offered them the lead bombardier and lead navigator position for the Group. When both men declined Colonel Preston’s offer, the colonel told them both “you came to England as Second Lieutenants and you will leave England as Second Lieutenants.” Guess what, Colonel Preston was right, but more importantly, Matoshko’s Crew remained intact!

I asked Alex Ranftle what makes an individual volunteer to fly into the heart of Germany day in and day out knowing that statistically, he would not survive. Alex simply said, “That was our job. That was what we signed up for.” For almost three months during the summer of 1944, Alex Ranftle and other men of Matoshko’s Crew went “to work” almost every day knowing that they were not expected to survive. Despite the pressures of combat, none of Matoshko’s Crew went on sick call or otherwise made themselves unavailable to fly their assigned mission.

On July 16th (Alex’s 20th mission), the men of Matoshko’s Crew almost became a casualty statistic. It was the 379th Bomb Group’s fourth mission to Munich to bomb a Folke-Wolfe aircraft factory in six days. Each mission had been nine plus hours long and aircraft and aircrews had been lost on each sortie.

Over Munich, the group had flown into the clouds, lost their formation, and when they came out of the clouds they were jumped by an ME-109. The Messerschmitt fighter made three passes from the rear, firing 20mm rounds at Alex’s B-17. During the attack, pilot Ed Matoshko took evasive actions trying to avoid the ME-109. Ranftle remembers that after the attack, the ME-109 flew up along the right wing of the aircraft, so close that he could see the pilot’s face, held there for a moment and then flew off. The crew thought the Messerschmitt fighter had either ran out of ammunition or fuel (or both). Regardless, the attack left Matoshko’s Crew with two engines out and difficult to control, oxygen and communications system out, and a wounded ball turret gunner – Lloyd Nash.

Starting the bombing run at 28,000 feet, Matoshko’s Crew was slowly losing altitude due to having half its engines knocked out by the ME-109’s 20mm rounds. Somewhere over France, a flight of P-51s found them and escorted the stricken flying fortress back to England. Once over the English Channel and down to an altitude of 6,000 feet and wanting to lighten the weight of the aircraft, the crew starting dumping guns, ammunition, flak vests, and anything else that was loose into the English Channel. They just made England and were able to make an emergency landing at Halesworth. The extent of Nash’s injuries was an entry and exit wound in his calf and an entry and exit wound in his thigh. Ranftle thought that Nash must have been shot with an armor-piercing round that made relatively “clean” entry and exit wounds. Had it been a traditional 20mm round, Nash most probably would have bled to death on the way back to England.

Nash was the only member of Matoshko’s Crew that was wounded during their 34 missions. For Nash, this was his final mission. He spent several weeks in the hospital before being sent home. According to Alex, “Nash would tell us at future reunions that he thought he deserved four Purple Hearts because he had four holes in him caused by an enemy bullet.”

The 379th sent another B-17 to Halesworth to pick up Ranftle and the remaining members of Matoshko’s Crew and fly them back to Kimbolton. After an overnight stay in the hospital for observation and a four-day break in flying missions, Matoshko’s Crew was back in the air on July 21st.

On August 26, 1944, Matoshko’s Crew flew its last combat mission in Europe. That final mission was to bomb the synthetic oil depot at Gelsenkirchen, Germany.  Shortly after finishing his final mission, Ranftle was on board a converted ocean liner (Holland-America Line’s SS Nieuw Amsterdam) on his way back home. During World War II, the SS Nieuw Amsterdam was a 1,220 passenger cruise liner that was re-configured to accommodate 8,000 troops.

Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle’s mission card that outlines his 34 missions over Europe.

For his excellent performance during his 34 missions, Second Lieutenant Alex Ranftle was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and The Air Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters In lieu of the Fourth Air Medal. During his enlisted service time, he was awarded the Good Conduct Ribbon.  His unit was also awarded the Presidential Unit Citation (two awards) and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with two Battle Stars.

Once home, the Army Air Force asked him if he wanted to remain in the service and become a bombardier on the newest bomber in the American arsenal – the B-29 Superfortress and go to war in the Pacific. Second Lieutenant Ranftle “respectfully” declined the offer. Instead he was transferred back to Victorville AAF in California and served as a bombardier instructor until his release from active duty on June 17, 1945. While on leave between assignments, Alex married his high school sweetheart. After the service, they raised a family and Alex had a very successful career in sales. Retired now, Alex Ranftle now serves as a docent at the Palm Springs Air Museum where he educates thousands of people every year on the air war in Europe.

The 379th Bomb Group had the best record of any bomb group in the Eighth Air Force and was the recipient of the Grand Slam Award in April 1944. A Grand Slam Award meant that the 379th was first in best bombing results, greatest tonnage of bombs dropped on target, largest number of aircraft attacking a target, lowest losses of aircraft, and lowest abortive rate of aircraft dispatched. This award was unprecedented in that the 379th was the only Bomb Group recognized with this award during World War II. The successor to the 8th Air Force 379th Bomb Group is the USAF’s 379th Air Expeditionary Wing – also known as the Grand Slam Wing.

The last surviving member of Matoshko’s Crew, Alex Ranftle poses in front of their plaque at the Eighth Air Force Museum on September 15, 2008.

Alex Ranftle is the last surviving member of Matoshko’s Crew. It was an honor and a privilege to interview a member of “the greatest generation.” I am truly grateful for the time Alex made for me during six plus hours of interviews and his patience during the story writing process.

In order to make this interview possible, a thank you goes out to the Palm Springs Air Museum (http://www.palmspringsairmuseum.org/) for giving me access to Miss Angela and other parts of the museum during the interview process. Next, a thank you to the 379th Bomb Group Association (http://379thbga.org/) for quickly providing some of the research material used in this article.  Lastly, very special thanks to Alex’s son, Mike. Mike is a retired Navy A-4 Skyhawk pilot who flew during Vietnam. Mike was instrumental in making the interviews happen , gathering research material from family archives and 379th Bomb Group Association, and editing. Without Mike’s support and commitment to have his dad’s story told, this article would not have happened!

Comments

  1. Mike Ranftle says:

    Phil,
    Until you started the ball rolling on this well-researched article, there was so much I didn’t know about my dad’s WWII service starting with the amount of time it took to get the crew from enlistment day to actually getting to the front line on D-Day. That, coupled with the walk-through “a day in the life” of a B-17 bomber crew flying over occupied Europe, to the use of the Norden Bombsight, shed new light on dad’s service. The crew photo shows the faces of nine amazing young men fresh out of high school or college, smiling like they didn’t have a care in the world and totally unfazed by the dangers facing them in the coming days. What camaraderie they built in those 34 missions.
    Thanks so much for your fine research and insightful writing about the experiences of this member of the “Greatest Generation”.
    Mike

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