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C. E. Wilson – Tail Gunner’s Tale

Charles E. Wilson – The Tail Gunner’s Tail
The Quachita County Historical Quarterly Fall 1995

Retired mailman Charles Wilson had delivered lots of postal surprises in his time. earlier this year, he found himself the recipient if strange and wonderful news – and a photograph of the aftermath of a World War II plane crash – a crash he knew nothing about because he’d parachuted from the plane and was captured by Nazi Germans almost as soon as his feet touched ground.

A letter from Czechoslovakia told him much of what happened after he bailed out. How his name and those of his crew mates had been enshrined in a school building as recently as a year ago. How a group of young Czechs were eager to hear him tell what happened on that day half a century ago when his plane was shot down over their country

But what really mesmerized Mr. Wilson was a copy of an old news photo showing the crashed tail section of his plane poking up out of the roof of the school building. That tail section was where he’d ridden on a long bombing mission from England to Czechoslovakia. He was the plane’s tail gunner, and he had barely escaped the crash with his life.

The Tail Gunner’s Tale

Young Charles Wilson hadn’t even graduated from old Fairview High School when he joined up with the U.S. Army at the height of this country’s involvement in World War II. A 19 year old kid , he was flown across the Atlantic Ocean to an air base in England. He had two jobs; (1) to sit in a machine-gun pod in the tail end of a B-17 and shoot at Nazi fighter planes and (2) to see what happened on the ground below as his plane’s bombs dropped on targets in France and Germany, filling out forms to be turned in on is return to base.

He flew his first mission on D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe, his bomber hunting for seaports and German tanks in Normandy. Three month and 21 missions later, the B-17 had graduated to targets in the Germany Ruhr, as Allied forces swept across France. Sergeant Wilson was closing in on the magic number – 25 missions over enemy territory meant a transfer back to the States. But General Jimmy Doolittle ( his Doolittle raiders had bombed Tokyo, Japan in what was the U.S’s first victorious – even if it was more symbolic than strategic – mission in the Pacific Theater), decreed that 25 missions were not enough, lifting the limit to 35.

“Didn’t matter,” retired letter carrier Charles Wilson recalls, sitting on a sofa in his Fairview Road home. “In the whole three months I was stationed at the 100th Bombardment Group base at Thorpe Abbotts there was only one flight crew that survived enough missions to go home.” The rest were shot down out of the skies over Europe — either killed or captured.

Sergeant Wilson’s fate was no different. On September 11th, 1944, while in flight over Czechoslovakia, bound for a target in southern Germany, a Nazi fighter formation came head-on at Wilson’s bomber. One of the fighter planes fired a round that hit one of he bomber’s engines, exploding it and setting a wind on fire. Five crewmembers died. Four men who managed to get out if the plane and parachute survived. Sergeant was among them. He was taken prisoner almost as soon as he landed, jailed, interrogated and taken to a POW camp in Germany. Liberated seven months later, he was airlifted back to England, touching ground just as news arrived the Germans had been defeated and the war in Europe was over.

All that was left of the service duty for Sergeant Wilson was a boat-ride across the Atlantic and a stint at a Texas air base. He came back to Camden, married Jerry Yeager and went to work at the U.S. Post Office, retiring in 1980 after 33 years.

His bomber group maintains a museum at its former base in England. Survivors reunite regularly – here in the States and for those who can make it across the Atlantic in England. In all that time Charles Wilson knew very little about the end of the mission that ended his active role in the war. Just what he personally recalled of the ordeal. What information he and the other three survivors traded at Group reunions.

Until last June. An envelope postmarked in Czechoslovakia arrived in the mail at the Wilson household on Fairview Road. Inside was a letter from a couple of young men who said they had formed a group researching the history of the WW II air-war over their country, locating crash sites, digging for artifacts, rounding up men involved, retracing the missions. They had a lot of questions.