Judging from William Pryor “Bill” Davis’ kindly disposition at age 96, he probably did not object when his B-17 crew position during World War II was changed from ball turret gunner to tail gunner at age 19.
He likely anticipated the change — fitting a husky 6-footer into the tiny ball turret on a B-17’s belly would have been a mission within itself!
Drafted into the U.S. Army Air Forces, Davis trained at St. Petersburg, Fla.; Gulfport, Miss.; Kingman, Ariz.; Salt Lake City; and Pyote, Texas.
His overseas travel is easy to remember — crossing the Atlantic to Britain on the Queen Mary, returning on the Queen Elizabeth. He remembers both as being over sold.
“Going over, my bunk was in the swimming pool, which had been commandeered for sleeping quarters, Davis said. “We slept in shifts, and basically stood in chow lines the remainder of the time.”
Davis’ crew was pressed into flying rotation almost immediately.
“The number of missions required to come home had just been raised from 25 to 30,” he said. “It was a mixed bag — you wanted to complete the job and come home, but we were losing aircraft and men on every mission.”
Not too long after Davis completed 32 missions and rotated back to the States, the minimum was raised to 35 missions.
His first mission was against Berlin, where he would return four more times.
“The Berlin skies were often black with flak,” he said, referring to the anti-aircraft fire. “On one Berlin mission, we saw two of our B-17s collide in midair.”
Anti-aircraft flak from enemy ground fire was expected on every mission. Davis and his crew counted 45 flak holes in their B-17 after one mission — he still possesses a piece of that flak, which ended up in the tail section.
“On D-Day, my mission count jumped by two. We were supposed to hit coastal guns on the morning run, but it was so overcast, we couldn’t take a chance on bombing our own forces. In the afternoon, we bombed enemy railroads inland.”
There was some variety among Davis’ missions.
“We dropped supplies to French Resistance operatives in the Alps ... west of Geneva, Switzerland. We went so low we could see them eagerly opening the cartons. Then we had to climb rapidly to clear the mountain peaks — that was pretty exciting!”
More excitement was in store for Davis.
“One of our engines took a direct hit by flak during a mission against a Focke-Wulf assembly plant near Munich. Several systems and a second engine failed. We couldn’t keep up and had to drop out of the formation. Even after throwing guns and ammo out, we barely made it across the English Channel to an emergency landing strip where we crash-landed.”
Obviously, that was exciting and memorable for Davis — he has a photo of his crew beside the downed B-17 — along with the piece of flak — to keep the memories alive.
The crash landing may have been especially memorable for Davis’ crew inasmuch as they were flying the commanding officer’s personal B-17, nicknamed Mollita. Just days before, the officer, Col. Thetus C. Odom, had christened Mollita in honor of his daughter, Mollie. Odom would go on to become a major general, but there is no evidence he held a grudge against the crew that crashed his new B-17.
Since Davis had flown the required number of missions in six months, he had more time to serve stateside. Those assignments included Amarillo, Texas; Greenville, Miss.; and Goldsboro, N.C.
“I served on a B-17 pickle crew,” he teased. “Each member of our pickle crew removed a particular item from aircraft returning from overseas after the war — radios, navigation gear, engines, etc. Since I was a B-17 crew chief by then, I was told to remove life rafts from B-17s. It was the easiest job on the planet — B-17s didn’t carry life rafts.”
Davis’ personal awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross, several Air Medals and three Bronze Battle Stars.
He grew up in Warrenton, N.C., the son of a mail carrier and World War I veteran. Post-war, Davis obtained a degree in textiles from N.C. State and retired from Burlington Industries in 1987. He married Lenoir, N.C., native Ruth Nelson, in 1957. She taught school in Greensboro for 40 years, before dying in 2019 after 62 years of marriage. They had two children and four grandchildren.
They were longtime and active members of Greensboro’s First Presbyterian Church.