CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Army Air Corps, 91st Bomb Group
Date: July 17, 2012
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Kayla Kraft
Editor: Professor Melissa Ziobro, Monmouth University
Veterans History Project
Steve Perri was born in Asbury Park, New Jersey. His family later moved to Ohio, where he attended high school. His father owned a bowling alley, and Steve would often work there as a “pin boy.” In his last year of high school, some of Perri’s friends decided to join the Army Air Corps to attend aircraft mechanic school, and Perri joined them, enlisting prior to the Pearl Harbor attack at age eighteen. He was the first member of his family to serve in the military.
Perri attended basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and aircraft mechanic school in Texas, where he also attended gunnery school. Initial instruction at gunnery school involved shooting flying clay pigeons with a shotgun on a skeet range, in order to develop the skills necessary to lead a moving target that would be necessary when firing at enemy fighter planes from a bomber. Because of his small stature, Perri was told that he would become a ball turret gunner, an unenviable position.
On May 16, 1942, Perri joined the 91st Bomb Group’s 323rd Squadron in Tampa, Florida. The following month he was moved to Walla Walla, Washington, and then to Salt Lake City for further training on a B-17 bomber. The plane he was assigned to was nicknamed the “Delta Rebel” by its pilot, George Birdsong, who was from Delta, Missouri, and apparently he had ancestors in Confederate service during the Civil War. The Delta Rebel was damaged during one of the training flights, when a brake failure resulted in a runway accident with another plane. The aircraft was replaced with a new one, which Birdsong dubbed “Delta Rebel 2.”
Perri recalled that his bomb group was divided into four squadrons, and that they were organized to rotate assignments over a twenty-four hour period. The teams assigned to each plane were divided into air and ground echelons. Perri was in an air echelon sent to Boise, Idaho for further training with models of B-17s, including the use of “de-icer boots,” which were hoses in the wings that could be inflated to break ice.
After arriving in England in late 1942, Perri’s unit, which became part of the 8th Air Force, was permanently stationed at Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire . Most of his squadron’s initial missions, which began on November 7, were directed at German submarine pens in France. During one of his first missions, one plane in his three plane formation went out of control and crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board. On another occasion, Perri’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and a crew member was struck by shrapnel. Perri used his first aid training and saved the man’s life.
On March 4, 1943 Perri’s crew had to switch to another plane, because their B-17 lost an engine during takeoff. As they flew over Germany, they lost contact with the other bombers in their group, and they found themselves surrounded by numerous enemy fighter planes. Perri was thankful for his skeet shooting training as he engaged the Germans. His B-17 was shot through its windshield, wounding the pilot and co-pilot. An engine was damaged as well, and the plane was unable to release its bombs. After limping back to England, the wounded Birdsong managed to land his aircraft safely; although, the brakes failed and it only stopped when he ran it into a haystack.
By the end of his tour of duty, Perri had completed twenty-five missions as a ball turret gunner, twenty-three of them in the Delta Rebel 2. He was credited with destroying four enemy fighters, although he claimed he actually got seven. During his longest missions, Perri spent six to seven hours in the ball turret. Once the turret was operational, the gunner was in it for the entire mission, and Perri often had to wear electrically heated undergarments due to the fact that winter jackets were too bulky to wear in the small space. Still, the turret was his favorite spot, and he considered himself safer than the pilot.
Perri loved his fellow crewmen. They depended on each other, worked as a team and became great friends. He remembered how lucky he was to have George Birdsong as his pilot, because Birdsong was “the best.” Perri remembered going to Birdsong’s funeral, after the war was long over. He mentioned the respectful flyover that his pilot received. Perri said that his crew will always be a part of his family.
Although Perri and his crew experienced a lot of horror, he had some pleasant memories as well. He reminisced about the times he would visit his girlfriend in London, and bring her jam from his commissary for her mother to make jam tarts. Perri also remembered how he would give a local farmer shotgun shells to hunt rabbits with in exchange for milk and eggs. He met the famous movie actor Clark Gable, when Gable was a captain in the Army Air Force and was in England making films for public relations purposes. Perri recalled that some of Gable’s footage was used in the movie Memphis Belle.
Steve Perri was awarded ribbons and medals representing his service in the European theater during World War II. He was a Distinguished Flying Cross Society Member, and he collected artifacts and books on World War II, developing a valuable personal collection.
Steve James Perri died on August 13, 2017 at the age of 95.