B-17F WAIST GUNNER
423rd Bomber Squadron / 306th Bombardment Group
S/Sgt Peter J Dascoulias was the son of Greek immigrants and was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, on January 10, 1921. His father's name was John Dascoulias and he came from Mavria, a small village in the Prefecture of Arcadia, in southern Greece, which administratively belongs to the municipality of Gortynia, in Karytaina. Born on May 27, 1882, in a large, however poor, family, he was forced from a young age to work hard to survive. In 1914, four of his brothers immigrated to relatives in the United States, and two years later, he made the big decision to emigrate. On August 21, 1915, the 33-year-old John Dascoulias married in Karytaina, his beloved Christina Anastasiou (or Liatsimis). The following year they set sail for the United States aboard the passenger ship "PATRIS", arriving in New York on August 18, 1916. The couple first settled in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, where John found a job as a worker in a steel factory. In a matter of 6 years, they were blessed with five children, specifically Zaphiria (1917), George (1918), Gust (1919), Peter (1921), and Christina (1922). Unfortunately in 1926, John lost his job and along with his wife and children, was forced to move to Middleboro, Massachusetts. In 1933 they changed their place of residence once again, as they settled permanently in Warren, Ohio, where John found a permanent job again in a steel factory. In June 1939, Peter Dascoulias graduated from Warren G Harding High School, and a few months later he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. The "CCC" was a government program implemented in the United States from 1933 to 1942, aimed at financially relieving unemployed, unmarried men aged 17-28. Later, Peter was hired at a large U.S. Army ammunition factory, the Ravenna Army Ammunition Plant (RVAAP), where he used to pack 75mm shells in ammunition boxes. In September 1942, he was drafted into the US Army, and reported at Camp Perry, Ohio, and completed his basic training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. While in the camp, he volunteered to take an exam for the Army Air Corps because he said, he did not like to serve in the Infantry.
After successfully passing all the prescribed tests, he was eventually transferred to the Army Air Force and sent for training at Harlinger Air Force Base, Gunnery School, in Texas. After graduating from Harlinger, with the rank of Sergeant, he was then sent to Hill Field Air Force Base, in Salt Lake City, to continue his training as a gunner. Completing this course, Peter was transferred to Blythe Air Force Base in California. There he joined Lieutenant Jim P. Leach's crew and met his new colleagues, with whom they would soon be flying together on combat missions. The training of the crew members with their new aircraft, a brand-new B-17F, was completed in late April 1943. Leach informed his men that they would soon be leaving for their overseas duty. Soon they would fly in a formation with five more bombers for England. Finally, on May 4, 1943, Peter and the rest of the crew arrived at Thurleigh Air Force Base in Bedfordshire, East of England, where the 306th Bomb Group was based. They were attached to the 423rd Bomb Squadron and after a short period of adjustment, they began to participate in combat missions. Initially, the pilot and co-pilot, Lieutenants Jim P. Leach and Norman A. Armbrust were placed as co-pilots with other experienced pilots, with whom they flew together on at least three missions to gain experience.
However, around May 20, Leach was transferred to the 303rd Bomb Group and departed from Thurleigh Air Base. Also, the navigator, Lieutenant Daniel J. Barberis (of Italian origin), stood out for his skills and soon began to fly with other crews. According to the records of the 306th Bomb Group, Peter flew his first missions, on 15, 17, and 19 May 1943, with the crew of Lt Thomas E. Logan. During these missions, the targets were a submarine base and an industrial area in France, as well as the Kiel shipyards in Germany. In these missions, the crew flew the B-17F, 42-5180, named as "DFC", having the medal as nose art. In these early missions, heavy anti-aircraft fire and attacks by German fighters tested the courage and resilience of the newly arrived crews. In Peter's crew, the ball turret "collapsed" and soon asked to change position. The pilot then suggested to Peter that he take over his position, but the young gunner strongly refused, because being at the Ball Turret was the most unpopular place among the crews. In an interview many years later, he said:
"In the 423rd Bomb Squadron, we were separated for some missions, so that we could gain experience. They did not want our crew, which was completely inexperienced, to go straight into battle on its own. So, they just broke us. Our pilot was going to fly as a co-pilot on a mission, and some of us would go with him. Not all, only two or three. The rest of us would fly on another plane. So, after two or three missions, our ball turret gunner was so terrified that he decided that he could not stand it any longer and did not want to continue any longer. He simply said, "I cannot do it" and quit. After that, they wanted to put me in there, because I was skinny and petite, but I told them, "There is no way you can put me in this turret. "I am not going to go to this position." So, the pilot said to me, "Okay, we won't put you in the turret. We will find someone else", and they took someone. I did not want to get into this damn thing!"
Colorized photo of Sergeant Peter Dascoulias shortly after his graduation from the Harlinger Gunnery School, Texas, in 1942. (Christina Dascoulias)
Posing happily probably shortly after the end of his captivity and his return home. (Christina Dascoulias)
Technical Sergeant Robert Myllykoski, a gunner of the 306th Bomb Group hangs from the ball turret of a B-17 Flying Fortress (RD-J, serial number 42-29900) nicknamed "Unbearable II", to talk to fellow airman Staff Sergeant John H. Jessup. (Roger Freeman Collection FREE1165)
Members of the 423rd Bomb Squadron pose in front of B-17F, 42-5180, "DFC". With this aircraft, Dascoulias flew his first combat missions on 15, 17, and 19 May 1943, with the crew of Lt Thomas E Logan. (306th Bomb Group Archives)
B-17F, 42-5180, "DFC", [RD-B] assigned in the 423BS/306BG in Thurleigh Air Base 24/11/42. The aircraft was reported Missing in Action during a mission to Bremen on 25/6/43 with Lt Tom Logan’s crew. It was shot down by Unteroffizier Hans-Georg Guthenke of the 3./JG 11 (flying a Fw 190 A-4 from Husum airfield, Germany) at Bourtange, Netherlands. The crew bailed out (1 KIA, 9 POW). (Copyright Gaetan Marie)
While in combat missions, the ball turret gunner stayed for several hours, crammed into the claustrophobic environment of the all-metal spherical turret, handling the two 0.50-inch machine guns. In the case of a shot down, exiting from the ball turret was time-consuming and the chances of survival were slim, while a possible electrical system failure could trap the gunner. Adding also the fact that while on the turret the gunner wasn’t able to wear his parachute because of the lack of space, it was a nightmare. Sergeant Dascoulias continued to fly as a waist gunner and defended his plane from that station. In mid-June 1943 he was promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Although his specialty was Armorer-Gunner, he never engaged in the maintenance of aircraft machine guns, as this was solely the job of ground technicians. At high altitudes, the temperature often dropped below zero and that is why the bomber crews wore electrical suits. Their boots and gloves were also wired to be electrically heated. During a mission, Peter suffered a slight burn, which created a large blister on his foot because something had gone wrong with the power supply adjustment. According to the 306th Bomb Group's list of missions, Dascoulias was often assigned Lieutenant Leroy C. Sugg's crew and flew with him on at least 5 of his 16 combat missions. In one of them, the crew avoided a mid-air collision at the last moment. Their B-17F nearly collided with the lead aircraft information, which was badly hit by German fighters, and was out of control for a few seconds. Specifically, on June 26, 1943, the target of the 306th Bomb Group was a Luftwaffe airfield in Triqueville, France, 150 km northwest of Paris. As the formation of 19 bombers from 423rd Bomb Squadron flew over the target, it was attacked, by FW-190's, most likely belonging to JG2 (Jagdgeschwader 2) based in Triqueville. One of the German pilots, coming from the side of the sun, in a head-on attack, started to shoot against the lead aircraft.
His target was the B-17F 42-3172, "Chennault's Pappy III" which was hit by enemy fire, in the cockpit and the fuselage. A 20mm shell exploded just above the head of Captain Raymond J. Check and the fragments almost decapitated him! At the same time, the oxygen system and the flare box were hit and ignited, causing a severe fire. As a result, Colonel James W. Wilson, who was sitting next to his dead co-pilot, suffered severe burns as the oxygen mask began to melt and stick to his face. He also suffered burns to his hands because he had taken off his gloves to adjust some engine switches. As Lt Check was killed instantly, his lifeless body fell forward, pushing the controls with its weight. At the same time, Colonel Wilson instinctively left the controls from his hands, trying to extinguish the flames that enveloped his uniform, causing the plane to dive. Realizing the danger, he grabbed the controls with his elbows, because the flesh of his bare hands had burned, and pieces of skin were hanging from them. With unbearable pain and great difficulty, he pulled it back, gaining height again, continuing to fly with his elbows. At the same time that all these dramatic events were taking place, Peter Dascoulias was riding as a left waist gunner on the aircraft flying to position No. 2, right and behind the stricken bomber. The pilot, Lieutenant Leroy C. Sugg, seeing a few yards away from him, the B-17F "Chennault's Pappy III", initially losing height and then suddenly rising in front of him, was forced to make a sharp ascent to avoid the collision. As a result, the G forces developed onboard, because of the violent maneuvering, knocked down Dascoulias and the rest of the crew standing inside the aircraft. Pinned down due to gravity and unable to move, the Greek American gunner was trying to understand what was happening. As the aircraft began to return to a straight and smooth flight, Peter saw the tail gunner, S/Sgt Brice E. Robinson, leave his post in a panic and come towards him. His colleague, horrified, headed for the escape hatch, to jump with the parachute, although no such order had been given by Lieutenant Sugg. At that moment, at least 25 Me-109's and FW-190's attacked the formation of B-17's and each gunner had to stay in position, to defend the bomber. Screaming loudly, due to the noise of the engines, Dascoulias shouted at him: "Sit back! Go back to your place! " And he did it. This prevented a futile abandonment, while Peter and the rest of the crew could not believe that they had escaped the mid-air collision with the other bomber on the formation. The gunners continued to repel the German fighters until they reached almost over the English Channel.
Peter Dascoulias is photographed shortly after his promotion to the rank of Staff Sergeant. This photo was probably taken in June 1943, during his service in England, with the 423rd Squadron of the 306th Bombardment Group. (Christina Dascoulias)
Although badly damaged B-17F 42-3172, CHENNAULT'S PAPPY III crash-landed Exeter and after repair, it was transferred to 323rd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group as this particular photo of April 9, 1944 shows. The 42-3172 almost collided with the bomber in which "Pete" flew during a mission against the Luftwaffe airfield in Triqueville, France on June 26, 1943. (Roger Freeman Collection FRE 3663)
During July Dascoulias continued to take part in air raids over France, Germany, and the Netherlands. On July 14, 1943, the target was Villacublay Airport in France. The B-17Fs of the 423rd Bomb Squadron caused extensive damage to the repair hangars of the FW-190's and He-111's but were severely attacked by German fighters. During the fierce air battle, S/Sgt Dascoulias shot down a Messerschmitt 109, which was credited as confirmed, but in his narrations, the veteran aviator does not mention more details about this incident. Instead, the details of the downing of his own aircraft and the odyssey of captivity that followed were etched deep in his memory for the rest of his life. In the fatal mission of July 26, 1943, the target was a factory complex in Hannover, Germany. Dascoulias was flying that day with Lt. Norman Armbrust, his regular co-pilot, who had now been promoted to pilot. Armbrust had received his pilot's license before the outbreak of WWII and he was very experienced. He loved flight and airplanes. In this mission, the crew used the B-17F, 42-29900, "Unbearable II". Unfortunately, over the target, the flak was heavy and accurate and the aircraft, shortly after dropping their bombs, received hits in the No.2 engine, which stopped running. Also, the No.1 and No.3 engines were damaged by fragments and started to malfunction, losing speed. The speed of the aircraft began to decrease and as a result, it could not follow the formation. Dascoulias narrates:
“They hit us! I saw the No. 2 engine losing oil incessantly and slowly dissolving. Small pieces of it began to come off and swirl in the air. Our speed had dropped so much. We were at a standstill, like. I could see the other planes gone. We were just sitting there. I said, "This is it." Suddenly I saw the tail gunner S/Sgt Robinson coming out of his turret. The same scene was repeated as then about a month ago. I was looking anxiously towards the front of the aircraft, and I was wondering why we had not received yet the order to bail out. In the intercom I did not hear anything, nor did the characteristic bell that was the signal for abandonment ring. As soon as I looked back, the exit hatch was open and the gunner was gone. This time he had already jumped out. I saw the radio operator coming from the front in a hurry and gesturing he shouted: "Go, go!". His position was close to the cockpit and I assumed the pilot had given him the order. I went to the exit hatch but before I jumped, I told him that the ball gunner had not yet come out of its turret. He grabbed a wrench and started tapping this metal thing to warn him to get out. I later learned that he got him out but he got shot in the leg and eventually died in a German hospital. Probably from gangrene. Eventually, I landed in a cornfield, and almost immediately I was arrested by a German national guard. He wore an old-World War I helmet with a spiky tip on the top. I raised my hands but when he came near me, he hit me hard, with an old rifle he had. I was so mad, if I had a gun, I would have shot him. Then they took me to a building where I met the radio operator and the flying engineer, of my crew."
As the "Unbearable II" was almost out of control, the pilot, Lieutenant (I) Norman Armbrust, was trying to hold it in the air until his men could abandon it. The last to remain inside the bomber was the wounded ball turret gunner, Sgt Nelson Huston, and the radio operator T/Sgt Robert Myllykoski, who finally managed to free him. While all this was going on, a German Ju-88 attacked the stricken bomber hitting the No.4 engine which caught fire. Everyone felt that they would soon be dead, as the risk of an explosion was very high. Myllykoski helped Huston to bail out, while Lt Norman Armbrust was the last who abandoned the plane, literally at the last minute. All 10 men of the crew were taken prisoner by the Germans, shortly after their landing. Three of them were injured and were treated in German hospitals. These were the bombardier Lt. Charles I Wallin, the navigator Lt. Robert Ellwood and Sgt. Nelson Huston. Ellwood remained in the same hospital for three months with the severely injured Huston. Sgt. Huston, before his death, had repeatedly expressed his gratitude for his unknown mate who helped him escape from the stricken aircraft. Unfortunately, because he was almost unconscious, he could not understand who helped him. In addition, Huston confessed to him that he was diabetic and this hindered the healing of his wounds.
Dascoulias was also slightly injured but his condition was not a cause for concern and he was not treated. Shortly after his capture, the Germans mounted Peter and two of his crew against a wall, and American aviators believed they would be executed. However, the Germans simply did a search and removed their individual survival kits, taking whatever money was in their pockets. Then they left them fasting for two days with only water and some tea and then they started interrogating them. After the interrogation, they stripped them and took their uniforms, showing a particular preference for their leather jackets and boots. The prisoners were given old tattered clothes which they were forced to wear. The next day they were put in separate train boxcars and Pete was transported to Stalag 7-A near the town of Moosburg in southern Bavaria. The living conditions in terms of hygiene and nutrition were miserable, throughout their two-month stay there. As the veteran aviator recalled, the first two weeks passed without even basic care, such as shaving.
In early October 1943, Peter was transferred to Stalag 17-B in Krems, Austria, where he was held for 18 of the 21 months of his captivity. Living conditions there were slightly better than in the previous camp. As Peter recalled, the first thing they did was to take their clothes and put them in ovens to delouse them. Also, the barbers cut all their hair off and make all the prisoners bald so they don't get lice and fleas. In the second half of 1944, afflicted men were allowed to receive once a week a packet of food and cigarettes, which were distributed to them through the International Committee of the Red Cross. The prisoners noticed that the German guards were picking up the American cigarettes to smoke them. So, they developed with them a system of spare economy. With a few cigarettes and soap, they could find various goods, such as eggs and cheese, as many of the guards visited neighboring farms. The camp was huge and the prisoners, a total of 4.000-5.000 men, lived in sectors, divided by nationality, Americans, British, French, Russians, etc. In one case, Peter and some of his colleagues hid two Russian soldiers in their own barracks, because their German guards behaved inhumanely, often releasing dogs against them. During a night escape attempt, the Germans located two fugitives near the barbed wire and killed them in the cold, while not knowing how many more prisoners were involved in the operation, they opened fire on the barracks. The morning they were taken out to be counted, Peter spotted a dead man with 10-12 bullets in his body. In the early days of April 1945, everyone could now hear the sound of the Soviet artillery shells, as the Russians approached. The Germans evacuated the camp, separating the American prisoners, who forced them to form a large column, heading west, towards the American lines. The course in the cold in rugged terrain and with minimal food, lasted several weeks. During that time, their guards announced the death of President Roosevelt on April 12, 1945.
Finally, in early May, after an exhausting march through the mountains, Peter and his colleagues met with the vanguard of General George Patton's Third Army. The prisoners had been abandoned at night by their German guards, during sleep! So, the nightmare of the young aviator's captivity came to an end. He was initially hospitalized to fully recover, because he was malnourished and then, after receiving a 30-day discharge leave, he was able to return safely to his family in the United States in June 1945. For his service in World War II, S/Sgt Peter Dascoulias was awarded the Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Purple Heart, and the Prisoner of War Medal. After the war, he worked for the Water Department in Warren, Ohio, from where he retired. In 1952 he married his beloved Bessie V Dascoulias with whom he had three children, John, Frank, and Christina. In 1968 and 1970 he traveled to Greece and visited the village of Mavria and in a highly emotional environment, he met his uncle Christos, his father's brother. He was a member of the 306th Bomb Group Association, the Mahoning Chapter of Prisoners of War, and the Disabled American Veterans. Peter J Dascoulias died on May 16, 2005, at the age of 84. May his memory be eternal!
Photo from a newspaper clipping shortly after graduating as a machine gunner. (Christina Dascoulias)
S/Sgt Maynard Harrison Smith like Pete Dascoulias was a waist gunner with the 423d Bomb Squadron. He earned the Medal of Honor on the May 1, 1943, mission to bomb submarine pens in Saint-Nazaire, France. (National Archives 79349AC)
This photo showing medals of the veteran aviator were sent to us by his daughter Christina Dascoulias. From left to right are the Purple Heart the Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters ad the Prisoner of War Medal. (Christina Dascoulias)
The final resting place of the Greek American WW2 veteran, Peter J. Dacoulias. (Christina Dascoulias)
Special thanks to Christina Dascoulias and John Dascoulias for their great contribution and help during my search!
1. Personal correspondence of George Chalkiadopoulos with Christina and John Dascoulias.
2. Interview of Peter Dascoulias to Joseph Nuzzi in the framework of research "YOUNGSTOWN STATE UNIVERSITY ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM".