Straddlin’ the Fence: Honor Flights honor veterans

Jean Schwieder

Recently I had a chance to visit with a neighbor and friend, Bill Dutson, age 92, concerning his time spent in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

Bill was born and raised in Ririe and remembers that he and another Ririe boy left the same day for the service, and the other boy was killed shortly after basic training. Hoping to be a pilot, Bill applied for pilot training. However, because there were so many other applicants, he was not chosen. He said he was upset about that until the first mission in which his plane got hit. Then he was thankful he wasn’t the pilot. Instead of a pilot, he became a ball turret gunner on B17s.

The most undesirable crew position on an aircraft was probably that of the ball turret gunner. The ball turret is located on the belly of the plane, close to the ground. Most of the time the ball turret gunner was one of the smallest men on the crew because of the cramped quarters of the turret. Bill was and is definitely small and short. He would have to sit in a fetal-like position and there wasn’t room for a parachute inside the turret, so he would wear a safety strap for protection against falling out if something happened in flight. The turret was one of the most dangerous positions on the aircraft because it offered very little if any protection against flak, was an easy target for enemy aircraft, and was the most difficult position to escape from in case an emergency required bailing out. There was also a concern if the landing gear couldn’t be lowered forcing a belly landing, which could be fatal to the trapped gunner.

After every mission, he would be interrogated. One of his responsibilities as a ball turret gunner was to visually assess the effectiveness of a bomb run, “So I had to stay awake,” he said. He also assisted the crew by monitoring the underside of the aircraft for damage or problems.

His basic training took place in the U.S. and then he was flown to Italy, where he spent one year of his 2 ½ years in the Army Air Forces. On the tour of duty, he was to fly 35 missions, after which he would be sent back to the U.S. for more training. Bill went on 14 missions and then the war ended. Many of the planes he was in were hit by enemy gunfire, but they always made it back to base. That wasn’t true of many of the planes. He said two of the greatest words in the English language are “Bombs away!”

Even though he didn’t have the opportunity to go into pilot training during his time in the Army Air Forces, Bill was able to get his pilots license after the war but hasn’t piloted a plane for many years.

On May 29, 2004, 59 years after the end of WWII, the WWII Memorial was dedicated by President George W. Bush. Sadly, few of those elderly veterans have had the funds, knowledge or strength to travel to Washington, D.C., to view this. Honor Flights, is a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for all their sacrifices. This group flies these national heroes to Washington free of charge, to visit and reflect at their memorials. They have had multiple ventures each year since their beginning.

While in Washington, the veterans tour the World War II Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, Arlington Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and other places of interest to veterans.

Bill participated in one of these Honor Flights in the spring of 2016, flying out of Salt Lake with about 50 other veterans. Most of his group were WWII vets, with a few from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Bill said he probably would never have gotten the chance to go to Washington to see these memorials that honor our veterans without the Honor Flight.

The following information was obtained from the Honor Flight web page:

“Honor Flight Network recognizes American veterans for your sacrifices and achievements by flying you to Washington to see YOUR memorial at no cost. Top priority is given to World War II … [but] has expanded to included Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. …

“For what you and your comrades have given us, please consider this a small token of appreciation from all of us at Honor Flight Network. www.honorflight.org/abour-honor-flight—network.


Jean Schwieder is a writer who has spent her life involved in eastern Idaho agriculture. Her books, including past columns, are available by calling 208-522-8098 or by email at straddlinthefence@gmail.com.


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