97th Bomb Group, 414th Bomb Squad, North Africa and Italy, 12th and 15th Air Force

Col. Hank Tillman,  Sgt. Frank Dancey, and author David Shelby  at 97th BG Reunion ca. 2006

Sgt. Frank Dancey flew 50 combat missions as a ball turret gunner and all but one with Col. Hank Tillman, Jr. as pilot.


Frank Dancey - Boise, Idaho Early 1943



Interviews – August 3, 2006,  March 3, 2007,  Sept. 29, 2007 and other dates by David Shelby


I described Doug Cook’s website again and then asked and received permission from Frank to post his memories and photos on Doug Cook’s website.


After inquiring if I could ask questions about the experiences that Frank had during the war he said “Yeah sure go ahead.  I don’t have anything to hide”.



Training and shipping overseas prior to going to Africa


At Fort Dix, Frank was inducted into the Army.  He played in the band for a few days Ask Frank what instrument he played.  Frank took a troop train from Fort Dix to Atlantic City NJ.  Went to Salt Lake and mountains in Utah, and Yakima Washington for gunnery school.  A miniature train would draw the targets for the gunners.


I asked Frank about how superstitious they were.


For good luck Frank carried a tiny skeleton head, a little metal frog and a coin with a hole drilled in it.  Some of these things were given to him by friends or family before he went overseas.


On June 11, 1943 Hank Tillman and Frank Dancey and crew flew from West Palm Beach Florida (Morrison Field) to Puerto Rico (Borinquen Field).


June 13th from Puerto Rico to British Guiana (Atkinson Field)


June 14th from British Guiana to Brazil


June 15th from Brazil to Natal Brazil (Belem Field)


June 17th Natal Brazil to Dakar (North Africa)


June 18th Dakar to Marrakech (North Africa)



Each individual bomb painted on the ship indicated a bombing mission accomplished.  “There were maybe one or two guys that would paint the bombs on each plane.  The ground crew would come over and see if the planes got back all right and then they would start putting the bombs on it for every mission.  The pilot would fill out a slip for the mission saying what was wrong or if we had flak holes in the wing and report if anything had been damaged on the plane.  The guys would see it anyway.  They worked hard.  Often they would work all night to get the planes ready for the next day.  The ground crews were the unsung heroes. ”


Col. Tillman described six Airmen that were poisoned by formaldehyde when going out to eat in North Africa.  They warned us not to drink anything when we went out as I was told that a couple of guys went blind because they drank something that had been spiked with formaldehyde.


When you flew over the med would you have rafts on board or lifejackets in case your plane went down?


Yes, rafts and life vests.  “We had May West’s, they were life preservers.  Each man had one of them.  How you used it was that each side had this string that you had to pull.   We had life rafts that were in the plane over each wing.  If you had to make a water landing, in the top of the radio room there were two releases like a pull start on a lawnmower and when you stopped in the water you would pull these handles and right away over each wing a compartment would open and the life rafts would start to inflate automatically.  I radioed back the position of a downed B17 in the Med so that they could be picked up.  One time flak came up through the bombay and hit one of those handles and it pushed it back and one of our life rafts inflated and it came back and hit the horizontal stabilizer.  I saw the stabilizer where it was dented.  The radioman saw this yellow thing go by.”


 “One time my heated suit went out, it malfunctioned.  Just out of the clear blue sky.  I don’t know whether it was old or what.   I was just freezing to death.  I was in the turret when it went out.  It was so cold. (short pause as Frank thought about that cold – it was as if the chill passed from him to me).  I kept knocking my knees and ankles together to stay warm and keep the circulation going.


Did you bother to report what was happening back there, that you are freezing you butt off, to Col. Hank?


“No, you just have to keep going.  I turned the bad heated suit in to supply and they gave me another one”.


Can you think of anything else humorous that happened during a mission?


“I don’t know whether I’ve ever told you this or not, but if you had to urinate, you got in the bombay and there was a funnel and your urine would dissipate out into the air.  I had to go so bad”, Frank chuckles, “so I had to get out of the turret.   I went to the bombay and I was urinating in the funnel and whoever had gone before me, their urine froze and the funnel filled up.  Our bombay didn’t close all of the way because one of the struts was hit by flak and there was a hell of a draft coming up there, and when the funnel filled up and overflowed, my own urine was blowing back in my face!  That was a funny thing that happened.  When I went back to my turret, our radio operator was George, he was a principal of a school in civilian life, and he had a dry sense of humor, but when he saw me walking back soaking wet and everything he says “Are you sweatin’ or something?”  Frank – “I just said, shuddup!”


Frank told Hank prior to the final 97th Bomb Group reunion that he would be there even if he had to crawl to get there!


In Constantine Algeria he enjoyed visiting the officers club.


Was there any way to know how many rounds you had fired on a mission?


We had a belt that came down to our guns, and that’s where our rounds came from.  Someone told me that I had 1,400 rounds.  That’s what I was told.  So I had 700 rounds for each gun.   My shell casings were ejected right out of the plane.


What happened to all of the spent shell casings?

The other gunners were tripping over their spent shell casings, so their cases were usually thrown out of the ship at 10,000 feet on the way back to our base.



How did each gunner monitor their ammo supply?  Each gunner just had to make a guess at how many rounds he had fired.  Every fifth round was a tracer so that you could see where your rounds were going.



At what point in the mission would you get in and out of the turret?  Frank would be helped out of the ball turret when the pilots determined that the ship was out of danger.


What type of planes did you have as escorts?  Col. Tillman and Frank said that they often had P-38’s.  They had the Tuskegee Airmen as escorts on the mission in which they bombed a ball bearing factory at Turin, Italy.


Frank often did not know if his 50 caliber rounds ever hit the attacking fighters except for the time when  his rounds hit one plane and a piece of the cockpit flew off.  He watched as the pilot immediately made a forced landing in a field.



How many bombers went out on a mission?


If we were up front and if we were leading, and Hank said take your positions since we were in enemy territory, sometimes I could count the planes that went with us on a mission.  One time I counted 125.  We didn’t have big missions like they had in England.


“Talking about crazy stuff, a crew that had a tent near mine had a dog named Flak.  We didn’t fly one day and around noon Flak became excited and ran down to the spot where his crew normally parked their B17 and acted upset and strange.  When we heard that Flak’s crew was knocked down, we asked the other crews what time they hit the target.   The time that we were told was just about the same time that Flak became upset.  It was crazy that the dog knew what was happening.”



Col. Tillman was the wingman for Doolittle when they bombed Rome.   The false rumor that was circulating prior to the raid was that Catholics did not have to go on this mission since there was a risk of hitting the Vatican.



Major General Jimmy Doolittle (right)    Commanding General of the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa. He was promoted to Major General (Two Star) in November 1942, and in March 1943 became Commanding General of the Northwest African Strategic Air Forces, a unified command of U.S. Army Air Force and Royal Air Force units.  Gen. Doolittle took command of the Fifteenth Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations in November 1943 from January 1944 to September 1945.       Photo credit Frank Dancey.



Target:  Rome Marshalling Yard         Photo Credit Col. Wm. L. Ross

Imagine the thoughts going through the bomber crews minds as they have to precision bomb such a historical place!   Note the Roman Coliseum at upper right.



The only enlisted man that would go to a mission briefing was the radio operator.  The rest of us didn’t know where we were going until we got to the plane.  When I took to the photo of Doolittle I think that we were celebrating our hundredth mission.  Spatz was there as well.


Frank remembers flying over Anzio while returning from a mission to France and seeing all of the US Ships at anchor just off of the coast.


Kilroy was here” was written all over everything.


Often the bombs would stray because of miscalculation or winds and they would miss the target or hit civilian areas so many civilians were killed by the Air Corps bombs.




Frank remembers their group buying a huge bottle of wine from a very old hunched over Italian man that drove a cart pulled by a donkey.  He would drink the wine himself and they were told that it was all right to buy from him.  They used public baths in Italy which were a luxury and he fell asleep one time in the bath.


After you got back to your base and got something to eat at chow time.  Often there wasn’t much to do.  After returning from a mission your eyes were tired from searching for fighters.  You would use normal eyesight when searching for bombers, no binoculars.   You were glad at night to rest your eyes.  There were 6 enlisted men in each tent with a single light bulb.  One time I got a spot of oil on my glass (plexiglass of turret?) and it looked like a fighter in the distance and I would start tracking it every time I moved the turret, it looked like the fighter moved and I felt like a damned fool when I found out what it was.  Crazy stuff that you laugh at later on.


Robbie got ice cream once when Col. Tillman loaned him his jacket as this was normally reserved for the officers only.


They left from Naples and went to the Isle of Capri for one week of R&R at a rest camp.  They visited the beautiful Blue Grotto which was a cave inside a mountain.  The water was a clean and clear and a beautiful blue color.



Frank said that Humphrey Bogart and Bogey’s wife were in Italy and he remembers a talk given to the airmen from a stage.  Frank had him sign a Lira (Italian paper money) that Frank gave to his own daughter.



“After my service was over in the war I was stationed in El Paso, Texas and one night we saw the whole sky light up.  We did think anything of it and later on another guy told us that they were testing the atomic bomb.  I don’t know if that was true or not.  It seems like it wasn’t lightning since the whole sky lit up.  It must have been a bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico.”  July 16, 1945



I asked Frank if he thought about the fact that other young kids were trying to kill them and that they had to kill other young men on the opposing side.  He said, “We all thought about that a lot, but I decided that I didn't care who I had to kill, as long as I could return to my hometown in Asbury Park, NJ


Frank showed me a large stack of photos that he had shot while in training in the states and serving in North Africa and Italy.   He said that he turned in his rolls of film along with his 45 as requested by the Army.  They developed all 14 rolls for him and gave him prints and the negatives back.  He showed me photos of Hitler, their pet monkey while they were in Africa.


“During one mission their B17 was shot up very badly.  Enemy rounds hit the turret and later in the mission when they attempted to get Frank out of the turret the release was jammed.  Then they tried to lower the landing gear and that was stuck as well.  After several attempts, the crew was able to release Frank from the turret with a crow bar and to manually wind down the landing gear.  When a B17 has no landing gear and a stuck turret, the trapped Ball Turret gunner would be killed when the plane landed.  Frank was raised as a faithful Catholic and made a promise to God that day that he would go to Mass every week for the rest of his life if he got out of this situation.   He held up his end of the bargain and only missed several masses during the next 60 years due to illness etc.


“Sometimes the bombs would be off target, so we were very worried about hitting civilians by accident. Occasionally a bomb would hang up in the bomb bay and then release about 10 seconds too late.  On one mission the target was covered over with clouds and on the way back we found what we called, a target of opportunity.  The bombardier saw some railroad tracks up ahead.  There were six tracks together.  I could follow the bombs as they went down until they got towards the ground and I would see the explosions.  They bombed the tracks alright but I swear a couple of bombs hit some houses right by there.  I never felt so rotten -  my God those poor people.”


Returning to the States


“From Italy we flew to Casablanca and from there boarded the US Buckner or Bruckner to Newport News.  It took about 14 days to make the trip.  We were coming back and we had to bring back a lot of German prisoners with us.  When you had to go the bathroom which they call the head in the Navy, you had to pass right by the prisoners who were caged in on the lower decks. We didn’t have any reason to talk much to them.  They didn’t want to be there any more than we did, I guess.  I asked one of them “How come Hitler did what he did?”  This prisoner said on the Jewish holiday they had no Germany because all of the stores were closed.  Then later on I was reading one book, it said that Germany was in a depression and the Jewish people came in and bought everything in the stores.  They had money to buy things up and the Germans, who were hungry, did not.  One German on the boat said that you are never going to see the United States again.  We’ve got a lot of submarines out here that will sink this ship.  I was very gullible so I believed him.  We were out a couple of days and we were in the middle of a bad storm.  I had never been on a ship before.  The bow of the boat must have gone up out of the water and came back and hit so hard that the whole ship was shaking.  I thought that we had been torpedoed so I grabbed my life jacket and headed up the stairs to the deck.  Somebody else saw me go by so they got a life jacket.  I looked back and there must have been 30 guys behind me coming up the stairs!  I felt like a fool after we learned that those were normal noises for the ship to make when the seas were rough.”


When we got to Newport News we immediately got on a train that took us to Camp Milton NY.  From there we were sent home for a couple of weeks.  When we got on the train in Newport News, there was a little card and it was put out by a tobacco company and on the card it said, what you saw there and did there will stay there.


What were some of the things you did when you got home?


I wasn’t married before the war.  Before I went in the service, I worked at Camp Evans as a guard and when you get out of the service they had to guarantee you a year’s work at your old job.  Stella was a secretary there at a place we used to call the warehouse.  I was assigned there as a guard and that’s where I met Stella.  My parents were living in Newark but I was born and raised in Asbury Park so all my friends were there.  Some of buddies said “Why don’t you come back where you belong?”  My father had died when I was about four so I was living with my mother when I got back, so I roomed and boarded with them.  My Mom told them that Frank was going to live with her for a while.  Her house was about two blocks from the base.  The mess hall service was good. They used to have a sign that said take all you want but eat all you take, since they didn’t want you to waste any food.


Even after we returned stateside after our tour, guys in the infantry were still worried about having to go fight more against Japan.


We could have been called back even after flying 50 missions in the ETO if the Air Corp needed us but they were flying mostly B29’s in the Pacific.  We would have had to be retrained all over again since the gun positions were all different.  Time went very slow when you were in combat.



Joking around


Frank Dancey told this Tractor Trailer joke at dinner on Friday night at the hotel during in October 2006 at their bomber reunion. 


At a diner on an interstate highway a motorcycle gang was bothering an older guy by adding lots of salt, pepper and sugar to his food.  They were pushing him around and humiliated him in front of the other customers.  When the old guy left, the bikers were still laughing at all they had done to the man and saying how “He sure wasn’t much of a man for allowing us to push him around like that.”    Another customer commented “Well, he’s not much a good driver either.  He just backed over 3 motorcycles in the parking lot with his truck!”


Frank described a story relating to his friend who they called “Gene the Marine” who has served in WW II in the Pacific.  Many years after the war when Gene and Frank and some other guys were working on a carpentry job at a shopping mall in NJ, a Japanese man came up to them and asked directions to somewhere.  Gene’s response was “You didn’t have any trouble finding Pearl Harbor!”


Frank Dancey told the story about what his daughter said during a Friday night dinner at home,  How come we have to eat fish sticks every Friday night for dinner?” said Cathy. Frank replied, “We do this to remember Jesus because he died on a Friday for our sins”.  “That’s true,” said Cathy “but he didn’t have to die EVERY Friday!”  Frank said that he told this to some nuns that he knew and they loved this story.



After the War


Frank returned by boat to Newport News VA.


Frank did not like to fly after the war since there were so many bad situations while doing combat duty.


He brought back his A2 jacket after the war. 


Frank was given a softball jacket with his name on by a local girl’s softball team since he had helped support the team.


Frank said that he told his friend’s at the fire house that this was his final trip for the Fireman’s weekend and parade in Wildwood NJ.  His knees bother him frequently and he does not want to hold back the other guys when they want to go out and do things.


Frank knew a guy in his town for more than 30 years and then one day he found out this friend was a gunner on a B24.