November 1943 — Foggia, Italy
Following graduation with the Chalmers Indiana High School Class of 1943, Winson was initially enrolled in the Air Force Cadet program at Miami Beach, Florida with the goal of becoming a pilot. However, the realities of War resulted in most of the cadets being transferred to gunnery school. Win's gunnery training took place at Tyndall Field, Panama City, Florida, and it included considerable time on the 'skeet' shooting range. One such exercise involved shooting skeet while standing on the bed of an open moving truck which was driven around a large oval track -- the clay pigeons were launched from various hidden positions bordering the track. Another exercise involved the trainees taking apart and re-assembling a machine gun while blindfolded. Apparently, he received relatively high marks incident to this training inasmuch as he was offered the position of staying at Tyndall as a gunnery instructor. However, he declined since his intent in volunteering for military service was to take part in combat operations.
Following gunnery school, he was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina Airbase and assigned to a flight crew under the command of our pilot, Captain Gerald Hopkins. This proved to be most fortunate in that Captain Hopkins was a highly skilled pilot, and the other crew members were all top flight personnel as well.
While at Charleston, they lost three crews when their planes apparently crashed in the Atlantic Ocean during a training mission. While extensive aerial searches were undertaken for the missing aircraft, no recoveries were made and all of the crew members involved were presumed killed.
Following training his crew flew a B-24 bomber from the United States to Italy. One major leg of the trip was to fly from Greenland to the Azores Islands -- all of the crewmembers were greatly relieved when the good work of the navigator kept them on track. On another segment of the trip, they encountered a severe storm upon arriving at Marrakech, North Africa. With the plane practically out-of-fuel, they had no option but to land during the storm. Only the superb skill of the pilot permitted this to be accomplished with the damage being limited to a broken nose wheel. Ultimately they flew on to an operation base of the Fifteen Air Force located new Foggia in the Southern part of Italy. At that time the Germans still controlled the Northern part of Italy.
The six gunners of his crew lived in a tent which added to the family - type closeness of their relationship. The typical mission entailed arising before daybreak and usually flying all day, returning to base just before dusk. Receiving mail and packages from relatives and friends was the highlight of their day. While at Charleston, South Carolina, he had met and become infatuated with a very pretty Southern belle. Throughout his overseas stay, they carried on an intense correspondence relationship which served to partly offset the strain and anxiety generated by the combat missions. However, following the end of the war, their relationship failed to progress as they both entered and became involved with the activities of colleges quite far removed from one another.
His very first mission in August 1944 was to bomb a German airfield near Vienna, Austria. The loss of 9 of 27 of their B-24 bombers to German fighter planes on this first mission was quite a shock to the system. The exceedingly stressful nature of these missions led to the early removal of their tail gunner from flight crew duty.
On another mission a large fragment from a "flak" shell tore through the side of the plane and hit the ring-gear on his gun turret (this incidentally was the only solid piece of metal making up the turret other than the two fifty caliber machine guns). The loud noise that this created cause him to believe that his plane had taken a direct hit -- he was well in the process of preparing to bail out until at the last minute he looked forward and realized that the pilot and co-pilot were still at the controls. This happening gave added meaning to the saying that "life is often a matter of inches".
The B-24 bombers flew in formation and as they approached a target, the Bombardier in the lead plane took complete control of the direction of flight. Many times this would find them flying directly into what appeared to be a wall of exploding flak shells -- it was nothing less than pure luck as to which planes made it through. Even for the fortunate flight crews, there often would be many holes in the planes caused by flak shell fragments penetrating the rather thin body of the aircraft. On top of this, there also was the threat of attacks on the formation (enroute to and from the target) by enemy fighter planes.
Fortunately, as the war processed, the German Air Force posed a decreasing threat, since the US bombing campaign had taken a heavy toll on the enemy's oil fields, armament plants and airbases. Also, greater support was increasingly being provided by US fighter planes that escorted the bombers on most of their missions.
On one mission, his plane had considerable damage due to "flak" and on the return trip as they approached the Northern coast of Yugoslavia the pilot realized that they could not make it back to their base in Southern Italy. Fortunately, they were able to make an emergency landing on a small airfield on the Island of Vis (which was controlled by Allied Forces). During the course of the war, Vis proved to be a safe haven for more than two hundred of the Fifteen Air Force bombers that effected emergency landings due to mechanical failure, flak damage, fuel loss, etc. -- the alternatives for the air crews involved probably would have been either to "bail out" over enemy territory or attempt to "ditch" the planes in the Adriatic Ocean.
It is important to understand that war-time operations imposed many hazards for the flight crews beyond those associated with enemy action, including the following:
1. The relatively short steel-mesh runways left little margin for error, particularly when the planes were fully loaded with fuel and bombs at take-off. Any significant pilot error or mechanical failure could result in the loss of the aircraft.
2. The Bomb Groups aircraft flew in tight formation (this gave added protection against enemy fighter attacks). The more skilled pilots could literally fly a B-24 with the wing tip nearly touching the rear window of the adjacent plane. However, from time-to-time either pilot error or mechanical failure did lead to mid-air collisions.
3. If it became necessary for a bomber to drop out of formation, this too could lead to disaster, especially if it occurred on the bomb run deep in enemy territory. Should the subject plane somehow fly under either that Bomb Group formation or perhaps under the next wave of following bombers, it could become a direct casualty of falling bombs. In any event, a solo B-24 was much more vulnerable to being attacked by enemy fighter planes.
4. The emergency nature of our assignments did at times lead to the use of some bombers that were identified as "widow makers". These planes were known either to have recurring mechanical problems, or perhaps had been subject of extensive repairs pertaining to prior flight damage cause by "flak". A crew that was assigned to one of these aircraft often had to contend with added risk factors.
After flying a number of difficult missions, the members of his flight crew were given a short "Rest and Relaxation" visit to the Isle of Capri. While they were away from the airbase, on the Friday the thirteenth of October, 1944, his Bomb Group embarked upon a mission and suffered its greatest single-mission loss ever (losing about one-third of the planes participating). Even worse, their own 727th Squadron lost one-half of the bombers involved in that particular mission. Once again "Lady Luck" seemed to be resting with and overseeing his crew.
A few years ago at an annual reunion gathering of some of his bomb group survivors, it was indicated that the loss ratio that had been experienced by his flight crews was about three hundred percent. This meant that on average a crew only lasted about twelve missions. He was very thankful that he did not have that information back in 1944! During World War II, more than eighteen thousand B-24 bombers were manufactured, and by war's end, the bulk of that number had been lost to energy action.
To the questions, "What was it like"? Win indicated that it is hard to describe the extreme tenseness that one felt throughout the six to ten hour period that the missions entailed. Perhaps one analogy would be that of being on a giant fast-moving roller coaster and observing that while enroute some of the individual cars with passengers were flying off the track and exploding or disappearing.
During an interlude in flying due to bad weather, he visited another Chalmers airman Wilber (Wick) Lesley, who was located at an airfield 40 miles or so from his assigned base. Wick also was a gunner on a bomber. When he entered his tent unannounced, Wick's first expression was "What the heck are you doing over here?" When Win mentioned that he still had 30 missions or so yet to fly, Wick was less than enthusiastic.
Somehow with two crew members removed from flight duty (one due to injury from "flak" and the other because of inability to deal with the stress involved), the emergency landing off Yugoslavia and hundreds of "flak" holes in their planes, his crew flew their 35th and final mission.
Just prior to leaving the base in Italy, Win was contacted by Ora "Pete" Arnold, Jr., also a Hoosier and a top-turret gunner. He requested that upon Win's arrival back in Indiana that he telephone his mother just to assure her that things were okay with her son. Weeks later when he made the requested telephone call, he was greatly saddened to learn that Pete's plane had been shot down in the interim period. At one of our recent Bomb Group Reunions, he learned that "Pete", while injured, and the navigator were the only crew members able to bail out -- they survived as prisoners of war. The other eight members of Pete's flight crew went down with the plane.
From Win's personal observation of planes in distress, along with limited review of statistics covering some of the bombers lost over Germany, it appears that roughly one-half of the flight crew members involved were able to bail out. However, there were numerous injuries suffered by airmen parachuting into enemy territory (landing in trees, rivers and mountains). Also, there were incidents in which German civilians (outraged over US bombing campaign) pounced upon and killed some of the downed airmen.
Following the return to the States, Win was assigned to Chanute Field in Illinois. A bit later Dean Headdy of Chalmers also was based at Chanute. On one of two occasions, Win substituted at roll call for Dean who was away from the base without leave. Dean and Win were fully confident that they could cover and answer any and all questions on a substitute bases for one another.
In early September 1945, Win was discharged and returned to Indiana and immediately enrolled at Indiana University where he graduated in 1949 with high distinction in the upper one percent of his class. He initially worked with two national CPA firms, eventually becoming a General Partner with Alexander Grant & Company (now Grant Thornton).
His business career spanned more than fifty years and included serving as a consultant to the Federal Government during the Eisenhower Presidency; serving as the Managing Partner of the Washington D.C. and the Seattle, Washington offices of Alexander Grant & Company; serving in various management positions with the Issacson Corporation and the affiliates; and serving for more than thirty years as the owner and President of Jones & Murphy Incorporated, a West Coast real estate investment company. Along the way, he met three U.S. Presidents and their wives, danced in the White House and experienced many interesting and challenging business activities. Notwithstanding, Winson always considered his flying and surviving thirty-five missions as a top-turret gunner on a B-24 bomber in World War II as his most significant endeavor.
In early 2007, Winson published a book titled Some Personal Histories of Surviving Members of the 451st Bomb Group, Fifteenth Air Forth World War II. This publication captures the personal wartime experiences of twenty six survivors of the 451st Bomb Group. In October 2008, Winson also organized and served as the Manager of the final National Reunion of his Bomb Group. This was held at the Hyatt Hotel in Deerfield, Illinois, with attendance of more than 150 including forty four 451st Bomb Group surviving members.
With the 451st Bomb Group the crew’s pilot designated Winson as "Big" Jones. However, in the Mid-West, his lifelong nickname is "Wink" and on the West Coast he generally is known as "Win".
Since retiring in 2004, Win and his wife, Diane, have divided their time between residences in the State of Washington and Arizona. His favorite hobby over the years has been golf which he continues to play regularly at the age of 83.