From oil driller to B—17 tail gunner, 100th Bomb Group, WWII veteran shares story

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Being constantly on the move was nothing new to Joe Urice, retired B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft tail gunner. Even at a young age, he was no stranger to relocation – which set him up well for life in the military – as his father, and eventually he, worked in the oil industry.

“In those days, they had big steel and wood drilling rig structures that I grew up around, and I knew all the parts and nomenclatures. I started school at 5 years old which was young, but my uncle was one of the teachers there and he got me in,” said Urice, 97, 100th Bomb Group veteran and World War II survivor. Then in 1929, my dad got transferred to Oklahoma City because a new oil field had just been discovered there and it was prolific – it’s still a major oil field in the country. By the time I was in sixth grade we moved to Dumas, Texas, but then the dust bowl came in about 1935, so my mother sent me and my sister to live with my grandmother back in Oklahoma.”

His father eventually bought a house in south-western Oklahoma City so Joe and his sister went back and forth between the two family homes. They then moved back to Texas, first Dumas, then Wichita Falls and another oil field.

“I graduated in the eighth grade in Wichita Falls, then in the summer of 1938 my dad was transferred to Elk City, Oklahoma, because his company had put him in charge of a deep well and they were trying to break the world record for drilling depth, which at the time was 15,004 feet.”

Urice started his sophomore year and said being in Elk City was a turning point in his life.

“I made friends there who stayed with me the rest of my life, and after the war I married the girl next door,” he said.

During the summer of 1940, back in Texas, he got into sports and began to play football, basketball and other athletics. He graduated high school in 1941.

Aged 17, Urice started at the University of Texas, and joined the Longhorn Band, playing the clarinet. The band played all the football games, which he said was spectacular. After his freshman year was over, he got another drilling job this time in Starr County, Texas, working on a drilling rig to earn money, before going back to university in the fall of 1943.

“At that time, people were signing up for the military, but they didn’t have any Army recruiters – it was mostly Navy,” Urice said. “My roommate signed up, but I didn’t think about doing it then. Instead, I went to summer school but then decided to drop out and enlist in the Air Force.

“In a strange twist of fate, when I got back home I was going to volunteer for the Air Force, the draft board told me to wait. But I didn’t end up being drafted until 1943,” he recalled. “I went to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and about three weeks later they sent me to the Amarillo Army Airfield for basic training to become a cadet in the Air Force. They sent a few of us to training centers, and I ended up at Luke Field, Arizona, where we were in a holding pattern.”

One morning, after being at Luke Field for about a month, the trainees were called in and told there had been a change of policy and anyone who was drafted into the Air Force, as Urice had been, was no longer a cadet. Those who volunteered were allowed to continue as cadets.

“That caused a major change to my future,” the World War II veteran said. “I became a buck private and we were given a choice of different schools – gunnery, radio, mechanic or armament school – so I decided to be a gunner.”

By spring 1944, Urice was in Las Vegas attending gunnery school. However, he was one of a group of young men who all caught scarlet fever and ended up spending three weeks in hospital. Afterwards, he was put in another class and eventually graduated.

“We were then transferred to Tampa, Florida, and put in a huge hangar filled with hundreds of us guys staged there on cots, waiting to be processed and assigned to a crew. We must have stayed there for three weeks, and finally I was assigned to a crew headed up by a pilot named Jesse Wofford.”

It was destined to be the same B-17 Flying Fortress crew Urice served with at Thorpe Abbotts, where they arrived Dec. 29, 1944.

“We left the States and eventually flew to RAF Valley in Wales,” he recalled. “Our plane, a new B-17G, was taken away and distributed to somewhere else it was needed! That night, it was way past chow time and some ladies brought us some hot tea, and I got hooked on British tea. After that we caught the train on our way to Thorpe Abbotts.

“It was so cold that day – I think it was one of the record cold winters that England ever had back then,” he exclaimed. “We rode in the back of an open truck which took us to our base, and I remember freezing.”

Once they arrived, the men were immediately assigned to a hut to sleep in. Urice described how their bunk mattresses were made up of “biscuits” – three square cushions each, about 36 inches square – which they would stuff into a sack, and they were given a zip-up sleeping bag; that was pretty much all their accommodation consisted of.

“There were two crews of enlisted men, one at each end of that particular barracks, which was a double, with a wall in between,” Urice said, picturing the memory. “There were 12 men assigned to one end, and 12 assigned to the other. We were assigned there with the Williams crew, though we didn’t get a chance to know their names.

“We came in Dec. 29, and Dec. 31, 1944, the 100th Bomb Group flew to Hamburg, Germany and we were overwhelmed by gunfire and flack. I believe we lost 12 planes and Williams’ crew was one of those that went down. So, we got a real quick introduction to what we were facing, because after two days on base, the crew that we were bunking with were down and gone… later that night, the first sergeant came in and started taking out the personal items of those individuals without saying a word.”

“That’s how we worked out they were gone – we were never told anything, and all we did ever hear was just rumor. But the next crew who joined us in our hut was the ‘Brown crew.’ They were a fine bunch of people and I got to know a few of them pretty well,” he said. “They finished their missions in March 1945, moved out and were replaced by the Ellis crew. Evidently our barracks was a favorable one, as it was close to the orderly room and just about everything else.”

While the constant losses took their toll, the retired tail gunner said they didn’t think about the fact that when they took off, they might never come back.

“We didn’t keep each other motivated during those missions because you were either mentally equipped to do it, or you weren’t,” Urice remarked. “There were a few people who flew and then said they were never flying again; whether they got sick when they flew, or just couldn’t stand the pressure, a lot of those were weeded out early in the process anyway. We knew we had to go, and we did.”

He continued that one of his most memorable missions was to Berlin on Feb. 3, 1945.

“We got two motors shot out over Berlin and came back by ourselves; it was nip and tuck whether we made it back or not,” he said. “We were so fortunate that day – the fickle finger of fate meant the Luftwaffe wasn’t up that day and when we came back, we didn’t get a shot fired at us once we left the Berlin area. There were four planes from the squadron that got shot down in front of us, and some of the others got banged up a bit.

“We were taught soon after our arrival to stay alert, have loaded guns and be ready – expect danger,” said Urice.

Seventy-six years on, he’s survived to share his memories from his time in World War II, both with other veterans, families, and some of today’s Airmen from the 100th Air Refueling Wing, at the 100th BG reunion in Dallas, Texas, Oct. 27 to 31, 2021. The 100th ARW continues to uphold the legacy of the 100th Bomb Group and the Bloody Hundredth.