A B-17 inflight Armorer-Gunner inspects, repairs and maintains machine guns, cannons, bomb release mechanisms, bomb racks, aerial gun sites, auxiliary equipment, chemical-carrying release mechanisms and flare racks. He fuses and places the bombs in racks, field-strips machine guns to repair as necessary, oils and cleans and mans a gun position during combat.
The B-17 was named "Barr Fly" after the pilot, Lt. Tom Barr. On Feb. 25, 1944, in-flight Armorer-Gunner Robert John Zekowski took off with the crew of "Barr Fly" from the Lucera airfield near Foggia in northern Italy.
After airborne "grouping," 289 B-17s headed for targets in Aschersleben, Bernburg, Halberstadt and the vital Bf-109 fighter production plant in Regensburg, Germany.
The mission lost 38 bombers, four were beaten up beyond repair, and another 141 were damaged. Zekowski’s bravery under fire would earn him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Zekowski, born on Oct. 9, 1921, requested with a smile, "Bear with me, because at my age I’ve forgotten a lot, but not my Brooklyn accent."
He was booted out of high school. When describing a conference between the school principal and his mother, he recalled, "I remember the word ‘incorrigible’ was used more than once. Sad thing about it, they were right."
Incorrigible in school perhaps, but young Zekowski knew how to make a buck.
"I worked odd jobs, but my favorite was washing and cleaning the seaplanes at the airport in Brooklyn. My work impressed the pilots so much they’d give me free ‘hops’ on their seaplanes. They’d let me hold the stick once airborne. Airplanes became my life."
The most likely airport/seaport was Floyd Bennett Field, complete with a wide variety of old seaplanes including the Savoia Marcheirri S-56 and Loening Flying Boat.
As a teenager Zekowski found a good-paying vocation as an auctioneer.
He said, "I auctioned fine art and high-end Oriental rugs. My personal collection of fine art numbers about 150."
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor enraged Zekowski.
"I enlisted the next day, on Dec. 8, 1941. Of course, I chose the Army Air Corps and shot my hand in the air when they asked for pilot trainees."
He had no problem with the written, oral, or physical exams. No problem with takeoffs or landings behind the controls of the legendary "Yellow Peril" Boeing Steerman bi-plane. Spins and stalls, no problem.
Zekowski said, "(One) day my instructor said, ‘OK, return to base,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ and he kept saying, ‘Return to base’, and I kept saying, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘We’re going to end up in Paris.’
"Then we realized a slight problem with my directional aptitude. I heard the word ‘incorrigible’ again."
Zekowski trained as, and became, a highly-skilled in-flight B-17 bomber Armorer/Gunner.
"I loved the B-17," he said. "And I loved flying on it. Once airborne, however, it got pretty cold at high altitude. If you spit inside the bomber, your spit would bounce off the floor, frozen solid."
The 15th Air Force, 301st Bomb Group, 419th Squadron was home. The ‘Missing Air Crew Reports" indicate between September 1942 and April 1945, the unit lost 126 heavy bombers.
Zekowski recalled the deadly raid on Regensburg. "Flak all over the sky," he said. "Our tail gunner had his head blown off."
During the interview, the raid on Regensburg was foremost in his mind, but online research revealed an outstanding war record. Among many awards, he received the Europe/Africa/Middle East Medal, indicating a multi-missioned role in World War II.
"I weighed 155 pounds and was nasty as can be," he said with a big grin. Perhaps, but ‘incorrigible’ no longer fit the man – he also received the Good Conduct Medal.
The Distinguished Flying Cross was earned over Regensburg. The "new" bombs, small and novel to the crew, apparently malfunctioned as the bomb bay opened over the target. The nose propellers started spinning, normally indicating an "arming." Safe or not, nobody knew.
Zekowski hustled inside the open bomb bay at risk of life and limb and somehow prevented the bombs from arming too early.
"Don’t really recall what the heck I did, but they called me a hero," he said.
Missions included targets in Greece, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and the Balkans.
Wounded by flak on one mission, Zekowski spent time in the hospital before returning to duty. Here the fog of war intervenes with an incorrect paper trail.
Zekowski never received the Purple Heart and has been struggling for years to have the injustice corrected. To complicate matters, official discharge paperwork indicates he flew on B-24 Liberator bombers, not the B-17 Flying Fortress, and with an entirely different crew.
Even more exasperating, the truth concerning his service to his country is listed in the formal unit history of the 301st Bomb Group, specifically showing his accomplishments as a B-17 Armorer/Gunner with the aforementioned missions and citations.
His crew photo in front of their B-17 apparently has no influence on the hardheaded federal bureaucrats.
Ironically, concerning the sad faces in the photo, Zekowski explained, "None of us airmen liked those group pictures. Superstition, I suppose, but too many group shots were taken of crews that never returned."
Zekowski lives on lake-front property on Jackson Lake.
"It’s peaceful," he said. "It’s a nice view of a nice lake." He and his wife sold 500 of the 800 lots on Turtle Cove.
A new tattoo of the Distinguished Flying Cross colors his right triceps.
"Young folks ask questions about it," he said. "It gives me the opportunity to explain the true cost of freedom."
Amazingly, I was shown his recently renewed pilot’s license, circa 2011.
"Yep," he said with a smile.
"The same folks who claim I fought the war on the wrong bomber with the wrong crew claim I’m still able to pilot a private plane.
"Gives folks the impression that bureaucrats can be a bit incorrigible, don’t you think?"
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.