Vern Nordstrand (1918-2009) worked at Boeing for 40 years, retiring in 1979. In this story he recalls how during World War II he helped to build a tail gun turret for the B-17, and how he gradually realized what a vital piece of equipment this was for American flyers.
The Tail Gun Turret
When I was 22 I had worked about five years at Boeing and had finished my sheet metal apprenticeship the year before, in 1941. My supervisor, Fred Amber, felt I was skilled mechanically and selected me to build the first prototype of the B-17 tail gun.
How the engineers dreamed up that they could do this I don’t know, but they came up with the idea of adding a tail turret to protect the rear of the B-17, which was vulnerable in that aircraft. The B-17 had top, side and bottom turrets, but the gunners could not see or shoot directly behind them if an enemy aircraft approached from that direction. I didn’t think of it as a big deal as I was building it -- at the time, I didn’t think of it as such a fantastic item, which really it was.
The plans were to build a window cupola of bulletproof material for the tail gunner to look out of. Gun mounts were to be installed, along with a seat for the gunner. All of this was to be built within the very narrow width of the tail. When the tail gunner was in position he would be able to watch from the tail for approaching enemy aircraft, and protect the rear of the B-17.
I worked with an engineer I only remember as “Mr. Olson,” for I was just a kid, and he was an experienced engineer. Mr. Olson and I worked in a secure area of Plant 1, which had the windows covered and plywood walls added, with a military guard posted to check the pass of everyone who entered. Harry Fisk was the Superintendent of Plant 1 at the time, and he supervised many experimental wartime projects in addition to ours. I remember several projects going on inside the secure area, such as a test mock-up of a B29 wing section being built with rubberized insides so when bullets hit it, it wouldn’t explode. Newly designed side turrets for the B-17 were also being assembled and tested there.
Mr. Olson was a real nice guy, very low key. He had the drawings and would show me the shape and details of the plan, and I’d make the parts and then assemble them. If we tried to do something and it wouldn’t work out, he’d just make his changes on the drawings and we’d go on from there. To begin our project, a tail section of the B-17 was delivered to us from the factory. Mr. Olson and I started by modifying the top of the aluminum circumferential framework. 18 to 20 inch aluminum uprights (posts) were extended upward to support the new window cupola. The window opening side and back was built with two thin sheets of Plexiglas separated by a space to simulate 2-inch thick bulletproof material with aluminum supports. The window cupola was long and narrow and from inside the tail gunner could have a wide view to the rear of the aircraft.
We installed the gunner seat, which was similar to a bicycle seat. It seemed that the gunner would have more agility to move around with that type of seat. The space was so small that he did not actually sit in it like a chair, but kind of perched on the seat with his knees on the floor.
The Boeing Company ordered the gun mounts from a farm implement company that manufactured plows and farm equipment. I was pretty happy when they arrived and fit perfectly into the installation holes of our prototype, with no modifications necessary. We had done our jobs well.
We did not have the facilities at that time to test out our new tail gun turret with actual firearms, so when we had completed the window cupola, seat, aluminum sheathing, and installed the gun mounts, the tail section was loaded onto a trailer and hauled, I was told, to Ft. Lewis to be tested with real guns.
As time went on, I realized with more understanding the importance of the B-17 tail gun turret, and how many lives it may had saved. I wasn’t sure how much our prototype had been modified before it went into production, but I met tail gunners and heard stories, and heard how the enemy got quite a surprise when they came up from behind, and suddenly these new tail gunners were shooting back at them!