Oral History: Major Paul Greer (Retired)

June 30, 2015  •  2 Comments

boeing b-17g flying fortressboeing b-17g flying fortressTraining flight over Tampa, Florida.

Major Paul Greer (Retired) turned 17 the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, guys his age all figured that they were going to get called into service one day soon, so he took some electronics courses hoping to do something with electronics if he were ever to be called into service.


When he was younger, Paul was always interested in airplanes, building model airplanes and flying them in national contests.  Due to sheer luck, when he was a senior in High School, he got his first ride in an airplane.  On a trip to St. Louis, his dad, he, and a few friends made a stop at Lambert Field where a friend of theirs took them up in a Beech Staggerwing, and boy did he love it.  When they got ready to land, the sound of the landing gear cycling down made him jump, as he wasn’t used to the sounds of an aircraft.  This was the only flying he did prior to his time in the service.


Over the next year, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Paul got all of his papers together for the Army Air Corps Cadet Program, only to find out the Army Air Corps put the program on hold.  He then found out the Navy still had a similar program, so he got a few extra papers together and was getting ready to submit everything to the Navy when the Army Air Corps reopened their Cadet Program.  On his 18th Birthday, in 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, he signed up for the Army Air Corps’ Reserve Program.  In this program they called you when they needed you, and Paul waited until April 1943 when he received the call to join the Cadet Program.


Basic Training was at Sheppard Field, Texas and this was also where he started his ground school.  He was then sent to Minnesota for college courses, meteorology, and they got 10 hours in a Piper Cub, but they couldn't solo.  A lot of guys decided they didn't like to fly.  This was because they didn't like the Piper Cub, but Paul, he liked it.  He was then sent to Santa Ana, California for a lot of tests for senses, flexibility, and eye sight.  After the testing you were classified as a Pilot, Bombardier, Navigator, or wash-out.  Paul made Pilot, he then started his training at Ryan Field near Tucson, Arizona where he soloed.  He then went to Marana, Arizona for Basic Pilot Training, and then to Douglas, Arizona for Twin-Engine Advanced Training in the Cessna AT-17 Bobcat.  When he graduated from Twin-Engine Advanced Training, he was hoping to move on to fighter aircraft.  He had originally asked for a fighter assignment, and was hoping to be sent to Williams Field, Arizona to train on the P-38, as that was what he was really after.  He had fallen in love with the P-38 while training in Santa Ana, California, there was a nearby Army Air Corps Base that was training pilots on the P-38s.  He would watch the aircraft performing different maneuvers, and that's when he decided that he wanted to fly one of those.


But when he was sent to Advanced in Douglas, instead of Williams Field, he knew his chances of being a fighter pilot were slim.  He still kept telling the Army Air Corps that he wanted to fly fighters, but at the end of his training most of the guys were being sent to B-17 training with a few going to Williams Field for fighters.  At that time there weren't any fighter openings for Paul.  They told him that if he could stay in Douglas for a while there's a possibility of a Night Fighter opening flying the Northrop P-61 Black Widow.  Meanwhile he was flying maintenance checks in the AT-17 to wring them out to make sure everything was still stuck together.  What was interesting was, while he was still in Douglas, they grounded all of the AT-17s due to the main wing spar glue crystallizing.  Some of the instructors volunteered to fly them back to Wichita, Kansas to the factory for repairs.  After about three weeks he was told that there wasn't a Night Fighter opening available, and if he wanted to fly it would have to be the B-17 or B-24.  He was then sent down to Plant Park, Tampa, Florida for B-17 training.  Paul often wondered how could he fly something as big as a B-17.  He eventually got used to it and enjoyed it.  Paul said, "The B-17 is a nice, steady airplane that could almost fly itself."  Plant Park was right across the bay from another B-17 base, and the crews competed for various things including an opportunity to fly to Cuba for an overnight.  Here in Plant Park he learned to fly the B-17 as a Co-pilot.


boeing b-17g flying fortressboeing b-17g flying fortressTraining flight over Tampa, Florida.

Training flight over Tampa, Florida. 1944


After completing his training his crew went up to New York.  From there, some of the crews got to fly their new aircraft over to England, but some of the crews went by ship.  There was no choice in this, and his crew was sent by ship.  Two of the Officers from each crew had to go up and help load the ship.  There were 10,000 Troops and 500 Army Nurses that had to board the ship and they all had to board very fast.  Paul was one of the loaders, and it was his job to assign bunks as everyone boarded the ship.  The ship was the SS Île de France which was a French luxury liner that had been converted for the war.  The ship was fairly fast, so they didn't have as much escort as some of the slower ships did.  Even with the speed of the ship, they did have a couple of scares where everyone was instructed to put on their life vests and muster to their lifeboats.  Nothing ever materialized in either of these scares, and he always wondered if they were just drills.  The day they landed in Scotland was Paul’s 20th Birthday, and shortly after arriving they boarded a train down to England.  On one of the stops along the way to England, there was another troop train going the other way.  They started talking to the troops on that train, but they could hardly understand them.  Turns out they were Scottish, and their accents were so thick it made communication difficult.


Paul was based out of the former Royal Air Force Station (RAF) Thurleigh, located 5 miles north of Bedford, Bedfordshire, England.  RAF Thurleigh was transferred to the United States Army Air Forces Eighth Air Force in December 1942 and designated Station 111.  Station 111 was the base of the 306th Bombardment Group (Heavy) which was assigned to the 40th Combat Wing. The group tail code was a "Triangle H."  Once in England, when you first get to your assignment, the Pilot flies as a Co-pilot with an experienced crew.  So, he got five missions in, and then Paul started flying as Co-pilot on January 1, 1944.  After flying 30 missions, their Pilot was done and Paul flew the next five as Pilot. Paul recalls lot of exciting times with fighters and flak, low on gas, and three forced landings; one in France and two in Belgium.


boeing b-17g flying fortressboeing b-17g flying fortress306th Bomb Group on bombing mission.

306th Bomb Group on bombing mission.


Their B-17 was assigned the slot position, right under and behind the lead B-17, the turbulence from the other aircraft in the formation caused them to burn more fuel.  Because of this there were three times that they didn't have enough fuel to make it back over the English Channel, and during certain times of year you don't last very long in the Channel, even in a Mae West, but they always wore a Mae West because they were always flying over water.  One of times they couldn't make it back resulted in a diversion in France, once on the ground they traded the local French military, who came out on bicycles when they landed, some .50 caliber ammunition for some small pistol ammunition.  They were able to get enough fuel to take off again and make it back home to England.  They did the same thing another time in Belgium without incident.  The closest to not making it was on February 14, 1945.  The target was Dresden, Germany and it had been firebombed by the Royal Air Force the night before.  On the way there the group encountered fighters, but they didn't get to Paul’s aircraft.  The Flight Engineer informed them that they didn't have enough fuel to make it across the Channel, or even much further than their current position.  Paul radioed the Direction Finding (DF) Station for vectors to possible alternates.  They were vectored to a base that they said would be available, a base in Belgium that they had recaptured from the Germans.  They followed their vectors, and while still at altitude, on top of the clouds, a Messerschmitt Me 109 came out of nowhere and headed for them.  They dropped down into the clouds and got rid of him.  They stayed in the clouds and followed the vectors while descending.  Then, they almost got shot down, a Focke-Wulf Fw 190 put a 20mm cannon shell almost into the slots for the twin .50 caliber machine guns in the tail of their B-17G.  All the while the fuel gauge was getting lower and lower.  There is a 0 mark on the gauge and then a pin below that, the needle was below the 0 and almost on the pin.  They alerted the crew, you can have your choice, if the engines start cutting out you can either stick with the emergency landing or bail out.  They were then told that they should be able to see the field.  The clouds were still too thick, and they couldn't see the field.  They really thought they were going to have to bail out or crash land their B-17.  The crew started to get their gear together to bail out, and then the pilots saw an opening in the fog and they could just barely see the runway.  The Pilot told the crew to button-up for landing.  As the Pilot made his approach they realized that he had lined up with the taxiway and ramp that had planes parked all up and down it, so they had to give it power.  They all thought that they didn’t have enough fuel to go-around, but they had to, they didn't have a choice.  During the go-around they saw the runway and were able to make it around and land on the runway.  Paul said, "Due to the weather, we had to stay there three days."  The airfield was Sint-Truiden Air Base, or designated by the Allies as Advanced Landing Ground A-92 or "Saint Trond Airfield."  The base had bombers and fighters there, others that had been directed there for emergency landings.  Paul said, "At night we went into the town and could see the flashes on the hillside where they were fighting, and another night we hitchhiked into Brussels."


boeing b-17g flying fortressboeing b-17g flying fortressTail turret with cannon damage.
February 14, 1945

Tail gunner showing cannon damage to his tail turret. Belgium, February 14, 1945


Paul had to be checked out on the ILS with a Senior Pilot before he could become First Pilot, but he only had to use ILS once or twice on missions.  Paul graduated Pilot training on June 27, 1944.  After becoming 1st Pilot, Paul flew a mission where an engine went out, so he had to fly part of it and land on three engines.  They successfully made it, but he said it was a little scary.  They started with a Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress, but they ended up getting a fairly new Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress.  Their B-17 never had nose art, but it ended up getting the name "Continental Kid" due to their three fuel diversions.


Paul flew his last mission on April 6, 1945, and they returned home around Mother's Day that same year.  Paul was reassigned to AAF Central Flying Training Command at Enid Army Airfield, Enid, Oklahoma where he was to learn to fly the North American B-25H Mitchell bomber and then go to Japan.  After only three or four flights with an instructor, the war ended.  In addition to the training aircraft, B-17, and B-25, Paul also has time in the B-29, B-24, and C-47.


His total military career was 30 years, including his time in the Reserves.  He spent time at Luke Air Force Base, Holloman Air Development Center, and Edwards Air Force Base.  While at Holloman Air Development Center he was able to work on their rocket propelled test sled system, and helped develop speed measuring equipment for future tests on that system.  While at Edwards Air Force Base, he was able to watch one of Scott Crossfield's X-15 flights.



I have known Paul my entire life, but it wasn't until I started getting involved with the Commemorative Air Force that I learned of this exciting and historical chapter of his life.  When I started working with the CAF's Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress "Sentimental Journey," Paul and I would discuss the B-17 at length.  We talked about what a great aircraft they are to fly, and Paul would share with me some of his memories from his days in England and I would share with him my memories of going on tour with "Sentimental Journey."  I interviewed Paul at his home on Saturday, May 17, 2014, and this oral history comes from that interview.  The photos contained within this article are from Paul's personal collection and are used and displayed with his permission.


Ottosen Photography
That's awesome, Jacob, and thanks for taking the time to comment. Paul is a wonderful man, I have known him my entire life and I never get tired of listening to his stories. I'm so grateful that he took the time to sit down with me, share this story, and allow me to tell the world.
Jacob Erlick(non-registered)
Thank you for this wonderful oral history from my Grandpa. Paul Greer is my Mom's dad and I never ever get sick of hearing his flying stories. His passion for aviation defenilty rubbed off on me and I currently work for a major airline and spend a lot of time photographing aircraft and visiting aviation museums.
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