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Most Treasured Possession

My Family’s Most Treasured Possession

by Rick S. Hall (Son of Joseph Hall)

Trying to figure out my family’s most treasured possession seemed difficult at first. So I phoned my mother and it turns out we came up with the same idea. The Hall family’s most treasured possession sits in a small triangle shaped wooden box with a clear glass front on it. In that box is a carefully folded American flag.

That flag represents my father Joe Hall and the difficulties he faced and triumphs he earned serving his country during times of war. Joseph Hall fought in WW-II. There is not a Hall family member that looks at that flag without feeling a considerable amount of loss, sadness and pride. That American flag pulls at our hearts because it pulls up our memories of our “American Hero.” That flag reminds us of our memories and in a sense it is our memories of dad that are our most treasured possessions.

Joe Hall was a Tech Sergeant/Engineer/Top Turret Gunner on a B-17, “The Flying Fortress.” He was in the 8th Army Air Corp, 100th Bomber Group, “The Bloody 100th” based out of Thorpe Abbotts airfield in England. The B-17 Joe’s air crew ended up with was called “The Latest Rumor.” Joe went along for the ride and survived 35 bombing missions over Europe. Missions running from 1943 to 1945 including the rail yards of Paris, France and munitions factories in Berlin, Germany. Joe shot down 3 1/2 German fighter planes. If two gunners from different bombers shot down the same fighter aircraft then they split the difference with a 1/2 “kill.” Joe might have been joking about that, he did have a good sense of humor.

When I asked my dad what the German anti-aircraft artillery was like over Berlin in 1945, he replied. “We called it the black wall, it was like flying into a wall of exploding shells” Joe flew on those many bombing missions and fate or bad luck took the lives of 4 of his fellow crewmembers, three were killed by heavy flack bursts hitting the plane.

When we were growing up as kids in Austin dad did not like talking about his experiences in WW-II.Other kids parents would brag about their war stories but not my dad, he would not talk about it. As Joe got older and pretty much at the end of his life we managed to pull a few of the stories out of him. We soon figured out why he did not like to remember those times.

We all have learned by now that warriors who do come back from modern warfare do so with a lot of emotional baggage and Joe had his fair share. Those memories shaped his character and the way he lived his life after the war. So I am going to share a few of those memories with you. The best way to honor my dad would be to put those memories down in ink or e-ink so that the those awful times that Joe and his crewmembers on “The Latest Rumor” survived, will not be forgotten. You see it is not just my dad’s experiences that his family considers treasured possessions, it’s the memory of the man who survived those events that we need to honor.

Normally a B-17 flight crew would fly one bombing mission every week or two weeks depending on weather and planning. The first week at their air base at Thorpe Abbotts Joe and his fellow crewmembers flew three missions in 5 days. That was as Joe put it, “a pretty rough first week on the job.”

Their first mission went off without any problems. But for some reason there was a need to send out his flight crew two days later on another urgent bombing run as the base was short on flight crews. Which usually meant the base commanders were short a flight crew because another bomber went down.

The second bombing mission went well until the crew got back to base and were just leaving the parked bomber. The ball turret on a B-17 is located on the bottom of the aircraft and the ball turret gunner got out of the plane to check his twin 50 cal. magazines to see how much ammo he had left. As he checked his ammo on the outside of the plane a “gun handler” went into the bomber to pull out the twin 50s from the ball turret for servicing. When the gun handler pulled up on the handles of the 50s to remove them they started firing and hung on full automatic. The gun handler panicked and pulled backed into the bomber. The recoil from both 50s going off started shoving the ball turret around in a circle.

Remember the plane is parked on the ground and there are other bombers parked around it and all kinds of aircrews on the tarmac. People started diving for cover all over the area as those big 50 cal machine guns sprayed into everything. The bullets were hitting other planes and vehicles parked all around. Joe happened to end up taking cover behind the front landing gear.

The ball turret gunner panicked and ran away from the plane. The ball turret rotated around and was tracking towards him. Everybody started yelling to him to hit the ground but he didn’t. The machine guns caught the ball turret gunner as he ran and cut him into two pieces.

Other historians have reported this incident in WW-II air warfare history books. One version said that the lower torso of the ball turret gunner from the belt down ran on by itself for many yards before it fell over. In one historical account the incident is accredited to the crew of the spare aircraft that Joe’s crew was using. This event actually happened to the crew of “The Latest Rumor” and it was just their second mission using a spare bomber with a different name.

Joe saw the whole thing happen right in front of his eyes.

There was a rule for bomber crews. If any member of the crew was killed during a mission the surviving crew members had to fly the very next scheduled mission. The rule was strictly enforced to keep the men from losing their nerve. This aircrew’s second mission was not officially over because they had not been debriefed yet. So Joe and his crew flew again the on the next mission scheduled. That was the third mission for the crew in a 5-day period. That truly was “a rough first week on the job.”

Joe’s job on bombing runs was to fix or repair whatever systems got shot up on the plane during a mission. And of course he defended the bomber from enemy fighter aircraft with the twin 50s mounted in his top turret. Flack shells from artillery guns going off next to the bombers would blow chunks of smoking hot steel right through the aircraft killing crew and starting fires. Or those impacts would wound crewmembers. Joe would put out fires and try to fix anything he could to keep the bomber in the air. Joe’s job also included trying to keep wounded aircrew alive until the bomber got back to base. On one mission a crewmember, a waist gunner, was badly wounded by flack and died at his guns. Joe kept two other gunners on different missions alive until the bomber got back to base, he thought they later died in the hospital.

On one mission Joe said he was hunched forward in his top turret firing at attacking fighter aircraft. Just as the attacking planes broke off he leaned back and a flack burst slammed into his turret. Joe was knocked silly as a piece of the shell tore through his turret right where his head had been a second before. The shrapnel blew through the lower part of his rubber oxygen mask and that’s what knocked him down. He was not getting enough oxygen due to the hole the shrapnel had made in his oxygen mask. He did not know about the hole in the mask at the time it happened. He got sick with huge headache on the way back to base, and the headache lasted into the night.

The next day he dug that piece of shrapnel out of his turret. It went through one side of the top turret and ended up in the other sidewall. He took it home with him after the war and thought he had lost it over the years. But his wife June had saved it in her jewelry box for over 50 years. I have it now on my dresser, it’s an ugly torn and jagged steel piece of German 88 anti-aircraft shell. Its about three inches long and two ounces in weight with sharp irregular edges and would have taken my dad’s head clean off if he had not leaned back at just the right moment.

On one mission a flack burst slammed the bomber up about a foot sideways and the plane shook “like hell.” When that happened the crew knew the shell’s shrapnel had hit the plane and the pilot would call all the crew to make sure they were OK. Eli Garcia the tail gunner did not answer the pilot’s call and Joe knew that was usually bad. Joe crawled back through the tail of the bomber afraid of what he might find. All the crew liked Eli and not just because he was a good gunner. The back of the plane and tail was full of what looked like white smoke. Joe thought the worst as smoke meant there would be fire burning somewhere as well.

The shrapnel from the ack-ack shell had tore through both sides of the bomber’s fuselage at Eli’s tail gun position. The smoke got thicker as Joe crawled towards Eli who was lying slumped facedown behind his machine guns.

Pieces of shrapnel passing through the bomber had cut crossways through Eli’s parachute harness and the thick cotton padding sewn into the back of it. The impact of the hit across his back left Eli stunned. Eli was really lucky, the shrapnel never touched his body, just slammed him down and knocked the wind out of him. The “white smoke” in the back of the plane was all the cotton padding from his parachute pack just instantly turned to dust as the shrapnel shot through it edgewise.

Joe managed to survive WW-II and made it back to America. He brought up his family in Austin, Texas. He worked for an architectural/engineering firm here in Austin before he retired. He helped build/design tall buildings in Austin and around the world. He could repair just about anything mechanical or electrical and helped his neighbors with their home improvement projects as well as his own. He taught his sons how to build things as well. And Joe taught his daughter to be both fair and wise.He always told us to root for the underdog. He was brave right up to the end and passed away in 2001 just a few days short of his 80th birthday. I miss him a lot, the whole family does, and he will always be our hero.

And that’s why our most treasured family possession is that carefully folded American flag that sits on display in my mother’s house. Not everybody would understand why we feel that way. But I bet there are a lot of other Americans who will understand. Families who have a similar, carefully folded, American flag.