Master Sgt Michael Arooth: The Forgotten Ace

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”).

Air_Force_personnel_&_equipment._The_Pacific,_England,_Wash._DC._1942-44_(mostly_1943)_-_NARA_-_292574

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

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.

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14 thoughts on “Master Sgt Michael Arooth: The Forgotten Ace”

  1. Great story.

    For all the horrors of the ground war, the mission of lumbering along in a straight line at a rarefied five miles aloft, waiting for a 30mm cannon shell with your name on it to come along, must still have been a special kind of hell.

    1. I recently read the memoirs of a British tail gunner, titled “Tail-end Charlie.” Can’t remember the bloke’s name now. But it was very interesting indeed. He served on a Lancaster bomber, and he reports that those planes could actually turn in a smaller circle than the German fighters, so they often managed to outmaneuver the attackers. But still a terrifying and traumatizing experience.

      E.g. he reports that after missions, and after the initial elation wore off, most crew members would eventually go find a quiet corner to sit and cry for a while.

      Some researcher during the war (I think it might have been Freeman Dyson, but I can’t quite remember) did a study in which he found that all those gunners actually had little influence on the safety of the plane, and that the planes would in fact probably be better off without the extra weight (plus, when planes did get shot down, it would mean fewer lives lost). Their effect was psychological more than practical. Flying a bomber was a terrible sort of lottery, a bit like baby turtles scrambling for the ocean in the midst of swarms of gulls.

      1. I’ve read that Luftwaffe pilots eventually decided that their safest, most effective attack angle was level head-on. How horrible it must have been for the cockpit crew to be on the final run, unable to evade, just sitting and watching a 109 or 190 line up and bore in.

        As a kid I watch the b&w (for the first couple seasons, anyway) TV series based on the film “12 O’Clock High”, about the 8th AF. When they killed off the star/commanding officer to start the second season, it was a genuine shock to my young sensibilities (although I was undoubtedly still too young to appreciate fully that the show, like the movie, had been a much more grim, less jingoistic take on WWII than typical in Hollywood’s rah-rah years).

        And speaking of too many guns, have your read about the failed experiment with the YB-40 gunship escort?

        What’s your take on the results of daylight bombing? It’s been awhile since I’ve looked for newer research, but istr that the thinking had swung around to its not having ultimately been worth the resources spent — human or capital.

        1. I am no expert on this, but as far as I know there is nowadays broad consensus that the bombing actually had little influence on the outcome of the war. It simply did not very effectively limit German industrial output. Might have been better to spend all the money to develop better defenses, so that German bombers could be effectively prevented from reaching British targets.

          In the book I mention above, the author reports another incident. They had to go bomb a railway junction. Only problem was, exactly at the center of the maze of rail tracks was a priceless medieval cathedral. So of course they were ordered not to target the cathedral. However, the bomber pilots and bombardiers had a different idea: seeing as the cathedral was exactly at the center of the target, if you deliberately target it, you can hardly miss the real target. So that is what they did, every one of them.

          Result? At the end of the operation, a lot of railway track had been destroyed. The cathedral had not been hit by a single bomb. So much for precision bombing. 🙂

  2. I think the entire bombing campaign’s effects was exaggerated. (Day or night–the “precision” daylight bombing was a polite fiction.) Yes, it set back production a bit, but it was never the decisive war-winner its apologists claimed it would be. It was not possible to win a war with aerial bombing until the advent if nuclear weapons–when missiles quickly took over from bombers.

    1. I think the bombing campaign was more psychological than real–until the D-Day landings, it was, after all, literally the only way the allies had to fight the war in Europe.

      1. And then, during and after D-Day, the allies often lacked for air support (which might have saved thousands of allied lives). The air force was too busy bombing civilians.

        Hey, looks like you’ll have to write us up some more articles on WWII. 🙂

  3. The best argument I could come up with might be that defending against “precision” daylight bombing may have tied up a lot of Reich resources that could otherwise have been applied elsewhere to prolonging the war. But then, those Allied AF personnel, massive industrial effort, and R&D could potentially have been retasked to something more productive, too.

    And building those elaborate underground factories killed a hell of a lot of innocent slave laborers, too, so…no idea how one would quantify all that.

    1. As I noted in another comment, it occurs to me that they might instead have simply prevented German planes from reaching their own cities. Secondly, the arena where they really were desperately losing the war, was in the Atlantic. I would think it may have been more meaningful to develop proper anti-U-boat tactics and technology than to bomb Dresden back into the stone age.

      But these things can be really difficult to analyze. Something that occurred to me the other day was this: suppose the allies never bombed German civilians, so that German cities and living standards were still pretty much intact by the time Germany surrendered. Would this have made the Germans more or less disposed to reform their former Nazi ways? Did the suffering of the German populace perhaps help to turn them against Hitler, or did it have the opposite effect? Would the postwar de-Nazification have been as effective if the Germans never suffered much in the war?

      I have no idea.

  4. Those are good points. The whole “welcomed as liberators” thing has typically turned out to be a lot tougher than it sounds, with or without an un-flattened population.

    A little pre-coffee off-topic, but — do you know of any alt-history takes on how the 20th-Century might have played out if the US hadn’t gotten into World War One? Seeing how the Second was in so many ways a continuation of the First, I think that if we’re going to wish for time machines, there are even more productive goals (if less viscerally satisfying) than just killing Hitler (or stopping his parents from having sex; that’s something simple the Terminators never try: figure out when John Connor was conceived, and just prank-call the house for a few days straight).

    A working League of Nations sure would have come in handy in 1914.

  5. John Connor’s father was the guy they sent to protect him against the Terminator. So if Skynet never sent the Terminator in the first place, there would have been no John Connor either. Hmm, that complicates the whole scenario a bit. 🙂

    I love alternative history speculation, but of course, it is just that: speculation. History, especially longer term history, is inherently unpredictable. Kill Hitler as a baby, and by now the world may have been in worse shape, or much better, or pretty much the same.

    The really scary thing is the butterfly effect: history is often driven by seemingly small things, in all manner of surprising and completely unpredictable ways.

    On your way to kill baby Hitler in his cot, you accidentally bump into someone on the street. He thinks you are rude. Furthermore, he thinks you are, say, an Albanian, and it finally sends him around the bend: he has mistrusted them for ages, and now this! He assassinates the Albanian president three weeks later, setting in motion a series of events that lead to the downfall of Tibet, which leads to the surprising ascendancy of Malaysia as the first of the tiger economies, all of this in a series of unpredictable and surprising events..

    Or whatever. There seems to be a strong tendency to view history as a kind of novel, with good guys and bad guys, a beginning and an end, and some sort of point to it all. But history doesn’t work that way any more than evolution does. Or so I think. I’ll have more certainty once I have killed Hitler and seen how the alternative history unfolds… 🙂

    Come to think of it, there is probably a very good alternative history novel in this idea, i.e. change something small and then come up with an alternative history that is both credible and completely, utterly different from the one we know. Steve King did it to some extent in that recent book of his in which someone manages to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

  6. Sorting through old email notices, I ran across this thread again, and had a quick question for you, Brian: across your lifetime, how has SA’s role in WWII been discussed there at home?

    And I was just now reading the wiki entry for “Sailor” Malan, having realized how little I knew about him beyond a few choice quotes. Had no idea he was an anti-apartheid activist.

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