Editor's note: This story, written by David Lias, editor of the Vermillion Plain Talk, was first published Nov. 7, 2003. We offer condolences to Ralph's family following his death on Monday, Sept. 6.
They were called "Flying Fortresses."
In their day, the B-17 heavy bombers designed and constructed by Boeing were among the largest airplanes built.
They bristled with machine guns to fend off German enemy planes long enough to reach their targets and make it back home.
They played a key role in helping to stop the Nazi sweep through Europe in the 1940s.
They, in effect, restored freedom to that continent.
Ralph Knutson, 79, of Vermillion played a unique role in that process.
Repeatedly – 31 times to be exact – Knutson would squeeze into the ball turret located on the belly of his crew's B-17, named the Red Dragon, and do his best to fend off smaller and faster German fighters intent on shooting down his slow, lumbering aircraft.
It was arguably one of the worst jobs one could have on a B-17. The round bubble that Knutson sat in originally was designed with armor plating by Boeing.
The Army Air Force ultimately removed most of the plating, however, to make the planes as light as possible in efforts to make them deadlier.
That alone nearly cost Knutson his life.
"The 8th Air Force had taken most of the armor plating off the airplanes, so they could get the planes lighter to carry heavier bombs," he said. "The only armor plating I had around me was the seat that I sat on, and that got hit."
At other times, Knutson's control wiring was hit by enemy fire.
"Our plane, according to our ground crew, got roughly 350 holes shot in it all together," he said. "We caught on fire at least once."
Knutson's war adventures have been captured by Paul B. Otto in his book Berlin to Spirit Mound along the Lewis and Clark Trail.
The book is a compilation of Knutson's life based on his personal journal as well as interviews Otto conducted with him in 1999.
Knutson grew up near Albert Lea, MN, and graduated from high school in 1944. He followed his brother to California, and they both briefly worked in aircraft plants.
"When World War II was getting started, he got a draft notice so he came back to Minnesota, and I came back with him and enlisted," Knutson said.
He was originally trained as a B-17 waist gunner. In that role, Knutson would have been located in the center of the plane and fired at the enemy through doors in the aircraft's sides.
While traveling to England by ship, however, the Red Dragon's ball turret gunner became ill and had to be hospitalized.
"We were always trained as a 10-man crew," Knutson said. "When we got over there (England), they changed from a 10-man crew to a nine-man crew."
That meant that either Knutson or another waist gunner would be kicked off the crew, and a stranger would join the Red Dragon to fly in the ball turret.
To stop the crew from being dismantled, Knutson, a short, small-framed man, volunteered to be the plane's ball turret gunner.
"I had never been in the belly turret," Knutson said. "They had a mock-up in the hangar. I got the hang of it after about a half hour or so, and the next time I was in the turret, I was in combat."
The ball turret was an aluminum and Plexiglass semi-sphere with flat surfaces on each side. It was 38 inches wide with a radius of curvature about 21 inches in diameter.
Otto's book describes the process Knutson followed each time the Red Dragon took flight.
"The turret was rotated so that Ralph could slide through an open hatch onto a small steel seat between two 50 caliber machine guns with his feet propped up in front at eye level," Otto writes. "In this uncompromising position for 10 hours at a mission, he faced machine gun and cannon gunfire from enemy aircraft and cannon fire from the ground spewing steel shards called 'flak,' all of which could easily penetrate the turret."
The Red Dragon's crew wore suits that were electrically heated to stay warm at high altitudes. Besides carrying bombs, they never left on a mission without a supply of oxygen. The cabins of B-17s couldn't be pressurized. Crew members breathed oxygen through masks to survive while flying through very thin air.
Knutson naturally was nervous during his first flight. Not long after he climbed into his turret, however, he became too preoccupied with other things to feel fear.
"I was so busy with what I was trying to do that I didn't really think about how nerve-wracking it was," he said.
That's not to say Knutson never experienced moments so horrendous that a notion of "fight or flight" didn't kick in.
In Otto's book, he describes the terror of his first time in battle.
While wearing his parachute, the plane flew into an area where it seemed to be an easy target for the enemy.
"They really shot the heck out of us," Knutson said. "You could hear the shells hit. I mean they were just hitting like hail on a tin roof, you know. And I said 'I'm not going to stay here anymore.'"
Knutson said he got to the point where he was ready to jump from the plane. But then he decided to take one more look at the engines.
In his words, all four of them were "still perking." And he rode out the storm of lead.
He flew his first mission in May of 1944. "They say we got our 31 missions in faster than anyone else had," Knutson said.
He doesn't admit ever getting used to the experience of literally fighting face to face with enemy planes.
Knutson reasons, however, that many of the German pilots may have been just as anxious as he was.
"They had to come through a mess to get to us," he said. "We had a lot of bombers, and a lot of guns shooting back at them, but they got a lot of us."
Knutson is happy he flew on a plane that could take an incredible amount of punishment from enemy planes and still remain airborne.
And he doesn't resent the fact that he wound up in the ball turret, one of the worst places to be on a B-17 during battle.
"I felt like I was in my own cubby-hole all by myself," Knutson said. "It wasn't any safer than anyplace else (on the plane) but it just felt like it was."
More of Knutson's World War II adventures are included in Otto's book, which is available at the gift shop of the W.H. Over Museum.
We invite any Clay County Veteran who wants to tell his story to call Donna Schafer at 605-624-4819.