Give 'er the Gun

  • Published
  • By Ashley Wright
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
70th Anniversary: Tyndall trainee reflects on WWII POW experience

Numbers allow mankind to quantify existence, keep score and track time. Nowhere is a greater example of the mobilization of our entire human race tallied than the Second World War. Mothers and fathers entrusted the lives of 2.4 million of their children to the young Army Air Corps, which at the height of the war possessed 80,000 aircraft.

Starting from the day the gates opened on Dec. 7, 1941, Tyndall Air Force Base trained more than 61,000 Airmen known as aerial gunners for World War II. Famed actor Clark Gable passed through the training as did French and Chinese gunnery students who brought a flare of the exotic to the quiet beaches of the Florida Panhandle. But most of these first Tyndall Airmen did not look for fame, but for adventure and to do their part, such was case with Vermont native Leo Beaupre.

The numbers mattering to Staff Sergeant Beaupre's World War II time start with Sept. 15, 1942, the day he enlisted.

"I've always liked airplanes," he said as his reason for wanting to cross into the blue. "Once or twice, I took a short ride in one."

The Air Force needed men in the air for the massive bombing campaigns taking place. Beaupre would be no different as he learned his job.

"I was a flight engineer, but you could call it a mechanic/gunner," he said.

Just like today, the service put training first, which brought the sergeant to Tyndall for six weeks of gunnery training. But don't expect to hear stories of the leisure life those that call the world's most beautiful beaches home are accustomed to.

"It was a nice base, but we only got one pass," he recalled. "It was not nice for us in a sense that it was strictly business."

Business was booming-literally. The gunnery school stayed active during the war. In 1943 alone, the students expended 56 million rounds of .30-caliber ammunition and 12 million rounds of .50-caliber ammunition. In fact more than 70 years later, Airmen walking the beaches of Tyndall can find World War II training ammunition while hearing the Air Force's first fifth generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, roaring the sounds of freedom overhead.

After completing a month and a half of training, the service moved Beaupre to Fresno, Calif., and he joined the 41st Bomb Group.

"When they went overseas, they shipped me to the 456th Bomb Group, which was a B-24 outfit, and that is who I went overseas with," he said in a phone interview more than seven decades later. "I was in the 754th Bomb Squadron, crew 16."

The 456th BG called Stornara, Italy, home from 1943 until 1944. According to the group's association webpage, between April 1944 and April 1945, the bombers dropped more than 6,328 tons of explosives on enemy communication lines, 2,542 tons on oil refineries, 1,893 tons on air domes, 1,603 tons on factories, 896 tons on troop concentrations and 675 tons on miscellaneous towns, harbors, etc.

This massive airpower campaign demonstrated the magnitude of what became the most massed-produced bomber of the war. The B-24 Liberator became the workhorse for the bombing efforts with more than 18,000 built.

"I remember the first experience I had in the air [on a B-24]," said Beaupre. "I happened to look out one day and the wing tip flipped up and down a little bit. I began to wonder if it was strong enough to hold us, but it was. It was a noisy airplane, but they all were. It was probably the roomiest bomber we had in World War II."

The rugged machine carried more than 8,000 lbs of explosives and 10 machine guns with .50 caliber capacity and could fly the crew of 10 at a max speed of 303 mph.

Behind one of those machine guns sat Beaupre.

"I just fought off any plane that was coming at us; that is all a nose gunner could do," he said elaborating on his trust, but verify gunner doctrine. "We were only supposed to shoot 10 rounds of ammunition at a time. I went a little more than that sometimes. I know I stopped two or three of them."

The missions carried the bombers into enemy territory to stop their manufacturing ability and the all vital fuel that pushed Hitler's war machine across Europe.

"[The] first mission we bombed was the Germany Headquarters in Northern Italy. After that, we bombed the oil fields in Ploiesti," he said. "The last mission we bombed was an airplane factory in Austria."

Beaupre waited for the magical 30, the number of missions required before he could return home, he said. He would only accomplish 12.

On April 12, 1944, Beaupre and the crew of the B-24 "Red Dragon" took off for Austria. In this mission, he served as the right waist gunner and flight engineer.

"We were the second or third plane back in the tail-end formation," he said of the unlucky position. "These Me-109s [German fighters] came in and knocked out the other two and took us out. They tried for a fourth and didn't make it. Three of us went down that day, and we were the last ones to go down."

The two other aircraft lost that day were Miss Fit and Baby Dumpling, according to 456th BG webpage.

Beaupre never knew who shot them down as the deadly blow came at the tail of the aircraft. He quickly found himself with a new problem - parachuting for the first time. The chute was a chest pack, which hooked to the harness on the Airmen's chest.

"I never parachuted before I did that day," he said. "I pulled the ripcord. I looked for the chute, and it hadn't come out. I realized my arm was across the chute so it could not come out. I took my arm out of the way, and it came out okay. Best experience I ever had. It was like I was stopped in the air."

The experience was short lived as a German fighter pilot had other plans and came dangerously close to the sergeant in an attempt to disrupt and damage his parachute.

"A Me-109 made a couple of passes at me. I thought he was going to shoot me, but he didn't. He kicked the [aircraft] tail around. It rocked me, that is all it did," Beaupre said.

After landing in the Austrian Alps, Beaupre set his course for Italy trying to avoid capture.

"I spent four days in the Austrian Alps trying to get back to the base, but I never made it," he explained.
The April snow would melt during the day and re-freeze at night when Beaupre walked through the woods.

"I would get tired of walking so if I saw a bare spot, I would lay down on it and go to sleep, wake up and start walking again. That is the way it went for four days," he said.

On the second night, he stumbled upon a small scattering of farmhouses.

"They actually gave me a piece of bread and warm milk," Beaupre said. "I tried to pay him, and he would not take it. That was the only food I had for four days."

Unfortunately, Beaupre's luck took a turn for the worse when on the fourth day he abandoned his pattern of only moving at night. On that late afternoon, two men emerged from the woods and surrounded him with one carrying a pistol. The next day he was on a train bound for Frankfurt, Germany as a prisoner of war.

A week later, he ended up in Krems, Austria at Stalag 17b, which was only built to hold 210 men. By the end of the war, more than 4,000 Airmen ended up in the camp.
"Surprisingly, they treated us okay," he said. "They did not feed us very good. We didn't have much heat in the winter, and we only had a small amount of food every day."

The Germans limited the number of letters the POWs could to write. The prisoners seldom received their weekly Red Cross parcel, which contained a can of SPAM, a can of salmon, a dozen crackers, five packs of cigarettes, instant coffee and powdered milk, according to Beaupre.

"A lot of times they said our planes had bombed the trains, and that is why we didn't have any food," he added. "I don't believe it."

Almost a year after his capture, the Germans, fearing oncoming Russians, marched all prisoners toward the American lines, the sergeant said. The food situation went from bad to worse.

"We were walking for about a month," he said. "We were sleeping in fields, and occasionally, in a barn. We stole most of our food. They were not feeding us. They feed us one time during that march."

Every once in awhile the march would stop in a small village, and the prisoners could trade two or three of their cigarettes for a piece of bread.

During the march, Beaupre saw one of the worst atrocities of the war. While the Germans marched the POWs away from the oncoming Russians, a group of Jewish prisoners marched in the other direction.

"They were going one way; we were going the other," he recalled. "[The Germans] pulled us off the road as they went by. Half a mile later, we went by a field where there were probably half a dozen of the prisoners dead. You could see where they jumped around with blood spots here and there before they died. I believe they were bayoneted because they could not walk anymore."

The march concluded in Hitler's birthplace, Braunau, Austria. However, the new camp did not last long.

"We were there about a week when our troops liberated us," Beaupre beamed.

"I watched them round up the Germans as prisoners and take them down the road. It was the strangest thing to think I can now walk where I want, and no one can point a gun at me," he said. "It was Christmas all over again. I could not believe it."

The POWs moved back to France and then boarded a ship bound for New York Harbor. After furlough and recovery, Beaupre transferred to Atlantic City for reassignment where he met his wife in August of 1945. They married less than a year later, and he would go on to a successful career.
When asked if he had any advice for the Airmen of today who might be in a tough situation like he found himself in 70 years ago, Beaupre humbly declined to offer any advice without knowing all the facts first. But he did offer a few words.

"I would say play it by ear, try to go along with the flow and try to do it right," he concluded.