World War II airmen fire machine guns to celebrate annual reunion

World War II vets celebrated a reunion by shooting a .50-caliber machine gun at a Marriottsville gun range.

World War II veteran Stuart B. Eynon still remembers how the twin .50-caliber machine guns shook the whole bomber when they were fired from turrets as they flew over the Pacific Ocean.

On Saturday, the 94-year-old donned a pair of earmuffs, hunkered down behind the same model M2 Browning gun and pulled the trigger, firing an earsplitting stream of bullets into a berm in Marriottsville.

"It's like riding a bike; you don't forget," Eynon said — though, he added, "I forgot how noisy they were."

The Associated Gun Clubs of Baltimore invited Eynon and three other veterans and their families to fire World War II-era guns at the firing range for the 43rd Bomb Group Association's annual reunion.

Bryant Cramer, president of the nearly 3,000-member gun association, said he loved the idea of having the veterans out for a day at the firing range.

"We don't adequately appreciate all the things these people did," he said. "It provided a connection between the Greatest Generation and our members. These guys are getting up there in age; we won't be able to do this so many more times."

Gun club members displayed old weapons they'd brought for the occasion — some of them collected, others family heirlooms — and explained their historical significance to nods from the veterans.

After a .30-caliber semiautomatic M1 carbine was shown to the crowd, 94-year-old veteran George Anderson interjected an anecdote about the gun.

He'd grown tired of the food that the troops were being served in New Guinea, where he was stationed at the time, and decided to go hunting for a wild boar.

"I saw one, pulled the trigger — and it was dead," Anderson said.

"The pig or the carbine?" asked his son, George Anderson Jr., to howls of laughter.

"The carbine," Anderson said.

The 43rd Bomb Group — known as "Ken's Men," after Gen. George C. Kenney — flew B-17 and B-24 bombers. The B-24s had a wider wingspan, longer range and more armor than their B-17 predecessors, which generally flew higher and carried less of a bomb load. Anderson had no complaints about the B-24, despite its bulk and the lack of power-steering control in the early D models.

"It was a fabulous airplane," he said.

Anderson, who flew 52 combat missions in the war, pointed to a model of the plane on a table inside the lodge at the firing range.

"If I had 10 or 15 minutes to learn the power settings, etc., I think I could fly that sucker right now," he said.

Again, his son interjected a wisecrack: "But could you land it?"

While the B-24 could fly for 14 hours without refueling and could take more enemy fire, Eynon said, "it wasn't as good of an airplane" as the B-17.

"The B-17 is like driving a Porsche," Eynon said. "The B-24 is like driving a pickup truck."

James Eide, 93, of Longville, Minn., was a nose-turret gunner — "first over the target," he said, "and first to get away."

"I had a good view from up there," Eide said.

The view might have been nice, but the turret wasn't exactly an enviable position.

It locked behind the gunner, who couldn't get out without help from one of the other bomber crewmen. And the inside was too narrow to fit a parachute. If the plane crashed, the likelihood of survival was low.

"I didn't like the idea," Eide said. "But somebody had to do it. I was the smallest in the crew."

Eynon's squadron bombed Nagasaki just days before the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. A second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.

"We saw a huge cloud up in the sky and nobody knew what it was," he said, recalling the sight on an otherwise clear day. "We thought we'd seen a volcano erupt."

Col. Jim Dieffenderfer, 96, of Orlando, Fla., piloted a B-17 in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in 1943.

After shooting several of the guns at the firing range, he noted with a laugh that he'd never actually fired at an enemy during the war. As a pilot, his job was to keep the plane steady for the bombardiers.

But he'll never forget the serial number on his 1937-issued Springfield rifle: 11,111.

"I still remember it," Dieffenderfer said. "Five ones. You learned that serial number. That's your gun."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

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