Ben Roberts interview

The Vanishing Generation


    As America recognizes the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end, The Decatur Daily is honoring the surviving veterans in Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties with a multimedia series titled “The Vanishing Generation.” Each week, veterans will tell their stories.

     Go to to view Priceville's Benjamin Roberts describe the harrowing experience of being shot down while on a mission over Germany in a B17 bomber.

    The nightmares, the sudden panics and the sweats still come. Seventy years hasn’t changed that. America and her allies won the war, but some of her warriors are still paying the price of victory.

    Benjamin Roberts was falling from the sky. He was unconscious and his parachute was not open. Roberts was on his way to becoming the subject of a telegram informing his parents, “the War Department regrets to inform you … .”

    Roberts was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 bomber in the 305th Bomb Group, 8th U.S. Army Air Force, stationed in Chelveston, England. The day was Oct. 14, 1943, a day soon to be known as Black Thursday. The mission was to target a series of ball-bearing factories around Schweinfurt, Germany.

    “We were late in forming up that day,” Roberts, 91, said from his home in Priceville. “When we got to the embarkation point where we would join the wing to cross the English Channel, the wing was already gone.”

     That was the beginning of trouble for the 16 planes in the 305th.

    “We made the turn, but when you try to turn 16 planes you are going a lot slower than the group flying away from you, so we never caught up,” Roberts said. “We crossed the Channel all by ourselves. That’s why we lost so many planes. When we crossed the Belgian border, the Luftwaffe came up and really took after us because we were 16 planes all by ourselves.”

    The B-17s were flying without fighter escort. The P-51 Mustang, the first fighter with the ability to reach far into German territory, did not arrive until 1944. The B-17s depended on interlocking fields of fire from multiple Flying Fortresses, as the aircraft were known, for mutual defense. The fewer the planes in a formation, the more vulnerable they were.

    Of the 16 planes in the 305th, one turned back with mechanical trouble, and two reached their target, dropped their bombs and returned to base. Thirteen aircraft carrying 130 men would never return. Overall, the 8th Army Air Force launched 291 B-17 bombers on the mission. Sixty were shot down and 639 men were killed or captured. Another 121 planes suffered damage, and 17 were so heavily damaged they would never fly again. Five of the 10 men in Roberts’ crew died that day.


Taking hits

    A fighter strafed Roberts’ B-17 and took out a couple of their engines. The plane entered a shallow dive and he knew they were going down.

    “The problem was, I couldn’t wear a harness or a chute and fit into the ball turret,” said Roberts, who was above the average size for a ball turret gunner.

    He could not exit the ball turret until a crew member cranked the ball back up inside the aircraft. One of the waist gunners did him the courtesy and helped him into his chute and harness. That man would not survive. In their haste, the men failed to properly secure the harness.

    “I was really calm in that ball turret until I was wondering if anyone was going to crank me out,” Roberts said.

     “The waist gunner and I were trying to put my chest pack and harness on and we were getting strafed again (by a German ME 109 fighter),” Roberts said. “It threw me toward the radio room and him toward the tail. Then the wings came off and we were just falling around and around like a feather.”

    He made his way to a door and leaped from the plane, only to be hit in the head and knocked unconscious by the tail of the plane as the fuselage spun in a circle. Roberts estimates the plane was at about 9,000 feet when he jumped.

    “I dropped unconscious for thousands of feet,” he said. “When I came to and pulled the ripcord, the chute opened and I went down and the chute went up and I thought my arms were going to come out.”

    The harness had not been clipped fully and had almost come completely off. Roberts had just enough time to swing his feet underneath before he smacked the ground. The chute had slowed his descent enough to keep him alive. He would not find out he had broken a vertebrae in his back until a protocol exam done in 2000 at a VA hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida, revealed the problem.


Taken prisoner

    He was taken prisoner by the Germans and sent to Frankfurt for interrogation, then onto the notorious Stalag 17B. The first two weeks were hellish.

    “That was the worst part of being a prisoner, those first two weeks when you were being interrogated. They were domineering and very, very threatening,” Roberts said.

    The Germans wanted information on a new radar deception technique where a lead plane would dump aluminum chaff into the sky. His plane carried none.

    “They assumed we knew, so they did a lot of threats like, ‘We think you are a spy. We are going to put you up for a firing squad,’ ” Roberts said. “When they got through interrogating you and sent you back to your room, I was only 19 at the time and I would cry sometimes. It was very scary.”

   Roberts would not be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome until the protocol exam done in 2000. His first symptoms surfaced around 1952. There was no expertise in psychological injury and not much in the way of psychological treatment for World War II veterans.

    “The condition known as PTSD today was called shell shock or combat fatigue in World War II,” said Dr. Richard Powers, clinical director for the PTSD Unit at the VA Medical Center in Birmingham. “The condition was not well studied in World War II like it is today. The understanding of the brain is better today, and there have been major advances in psychiatry in the last 30 years. No one knew what PTSD was when these guys came out of World War II and there were not enough mental health providers at the time to help them.”

    “PTSD happens when you put normal people in abnormal situations, like combat,” Powers said. “In order to survive, they have to learn specific responses and reflexes or they might get killed, or worse still, a friend might get killed.”

    For Roberts, the problem was controlled by a pill given him by his first doctor. His condition improved and he thought he had regained a normal life.

    “By about 1960, I was in pretty good shape and it wasn’t affecting me very much,” Roberts said. “Then my first wife, Bonnie, passed away and it started to come back. I don’t know if it was the trauma of losing my wife or what, but it got bad and, I swear, I just couldn’t function.”

    Another doctor stepped in and prescribed another medicine for anxiety, which Roberts said helped him. His trauma did not stop, but he married two more times, outliving both his second wife, Joyce, and his third wife, Alice, who passed away last November.

    “I still have those problems,” Roberts said. “The pill does an awful good job, but sometimes it doesn’t work and I get so anxious I might even go to Decatur (Morgan Hospital) in an ambulance thinking I am dying, but so far I have handled it.”

    Powers said he has taken care of many World War II veterans.

    “The guys I have talked to say the toughest job on the airplane was being the ball turret gunner. He was just hanging out there with everyone shooting at him. Mr. Roberts is a man with great courage,” Powers said.

    After the war, Roberts re-entered a co-op program with Buick in his native Flint, Michigan. He became an engineer and was eventually moved to the Saginaw division. He was transferred to Decatur in 1974 to work at the Saginaw factory. After 40 years with General Motors, he retired and began a career selling machinery around the South. He finally ended his career with a two-year stint as the owner of his own company.

Roberts is the last survivor of his B-17 crew.

Gary Cosby can be reached at 256-340-2374 or

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