During World War 2, Master Sgt Michael Arooth of the US Army 8th Air Force shot down 17 enemy aircraft to reach triple “Ace” status. But he wasn’t a fighter pilot. In fact, he wasn’t a pilot at all . . .
The US Army Air Force bombers that pounded Europe from 1943 to 1945 were heavily armed. The B-17 Flying Fortress had a total of 13 .50-caliber machine guns operated by the bombardier/nose gunner, the upper turret gunner, the ball turret gunner, two waist gunners, and a tail gunner; the B-24 Liberator had 10 .50-cals, manned by a nose turret gunner, top turret gunner, ball turret gunner, two waist gunners, and a tail gunner. During the war, bomber gunners accounted for 6,259 enemy planes destroyed, another 1,836 “probables”, and at least 3,210 damaged.
But unlike the fighter pilots, individual bomber gunners did not receive official credit for any of their shootdowns. Part of this was for policy reasons–the Army wanted each gunner to think of himself as part of a larger crew and act as a team, rather than as an individual. A much bigger reason, however, was practical–in a typical B-17 “defensive box” formation, each enemy fighter plane may have had as many as a dozen gunners firing at it simultaneously, and even if it was confirmed that the plane was in fact destroyed (often difficult), it was simply impossible to determine whose shots had actually brought it down.
Nevertheless, some bomber gunners did keep an unofficial count of enemy planes they had shot down, and some individual gunners were even given official recognition (though none was officially credited as an “air ace”).
B-17 waist gunners
US bomber gunners who unofficially shot down 5 or more enemy aircraft (making them unofficial “aces”) included Wes Loegering, a top turret gunner on a B-26 Marauder with 5 shootdowns; John Murphy, a top turret gunner in a B-25 Mitchell who shot down 6 Zero fighters over the Pacific; John Foley, whose score as a B-26 top turret gunner was 7; Thomas Dye, a ball turret gunner on a B-17 with 8 shootdowns; Donald Crossley, a B-17 tail gunner with 12 victories; and Arthur Benko, a B-24 top turret gunner in the Burma theater who shot down 16 Japanese fighters. Two US Navy gunners, Richard Thomas and Paul Ganshirt–both in PBY Catalina patrol planes–had scores of five Japanese fighters.
Although these numbers may be inaccurately high due to the inherent difficulty of determining who was shooting at what, it seems clear that a significant number of gunners did in fact shoot down at least five enemy aircraft and gained unofficial “ace” status.
Another name on the list is John Quinlan, the tail gunner on the celebrated B-17 “Memphis Belle”, who had an unofficial tally of 8 enemy fighters destroyed–five of those over Europe in the “Belle” and three more as a tail gunner in a B-29 over Japan.
One of the few gunner aces who received official recognition was Benjamin Warner, a B-17 waist gunner. During a bombing mission on July 5, 1943, Warner shot down 7 German fighters, for which he was given the Distinguished Service Cross. He finished the war with 9 enemy planes destroyed.
B-24 tail gunner
But according to most historians, the bomber gunner with the highest score was Michael Arooth, a tail gunner on the B-17 “Tondelayo” who shot down a total of 17 enemy fighters in the course of 14 missions. Arooth was one of the few bomber gunners who received official recognition, being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Arooth’s citation reads, “The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Staff Sergeant Michael Arooth, United States Army Air Forces, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving as Tail gunner in a B-17 Heavy Bomber of the 527th Bombardment Squadron, 379th Bombardment Group (H), EIGHTH Air Force, while participating in a bombing mission on 30 July 1943, against enemy ground targets in Germany. On that date, Staff Sergeant Arooth shot down three enemy airplanes and even though the airplane’s oxygen line was broken, one gun was jammed, and he was severely wounded, he remained at his post, repaired his gun, resumed fire, and destroyed the fourth plane. The personal courage and zealous devotion to duty displayed by Staff Sergeant Arooth on this occasion have upheld the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the 8th Air Force, and the United States Army Air Forces.”
In 1958, Arooth was selected as an honorary pallbearer during the ceremony establishing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
He died in February 1990 at the age of 70. A tribute to him was read into the Congressional Record by Massachusetts Senator Richard Neal.