The radio operator was isolated from the rest of the crew in the midsection of the bomber. He had a restricted view and usually had to sit at his receiver and sweat out the battle that raged outside. Yet he was a key member of the team, handling the communications equipment which frequently proved a life saver for the crew. One of the first jobs the radio operator did when entering his position was to tune in his equipment and make sure the frequencies were correct. The signal was strong at base, but the further away the mission ranged, the weaker the signal grew. All coded transmissions were sent or received by Morse code so even though the signal might be weak and contain static, the message could be understood. Each mission had a primary and secondary target; if the lead pilot decided the primary was a bad risk due to weather or adverse conditions he could elect to attack the secondary target. It was the duty of the radio operator to inform headquarters in a coded message which target was bombed and the bombing results. This information often affected the planning of the next day’s mission.
While the aircraft was en route the radio operator listened for any messages that might be sent from headquarters, such as a decision to abort the mission. Another function of the radio operator was to receive a radio fix for the navigator. The radio operator would hold his Morse key down and transmit a solid signal for approximately one minute. This signal was received at widely spaced installations with highly sensitive radio compasses. This signal was then read and a line projected on a map from various installations that would intersect to indicate the aircraft’s position. The same procedure could be used should a B-17 be forced to ditch at sea. If the plane was within friendly territory and went down, a distress signal was transmitted by holding the Morse key down and sending out this constant signal. The aircraft’s position was then given to air-sea rescue and the signal assisted in saving many crews.
The radio compartment was located between two bulkheads on the B-17: one directly behind the bomb bay and the other just forward of the ball turret. The radio operator sat facing forward on the left hand side of the aircraft with a work table in front of him. The liaison radio receiver and transmitting key were located on the radio operator’s table, while the liaison radio transmitter was mounted to the bulkhead directly behind him. These sets were used for long range communication in Morse code and were known as wireless telegraphy or W/T. On the right-hand side of the rear bulkhead were five transmitter tuning units.
Located on the forward right side of the aircraft were two transmitters and three receivers for the command radio. Known as R/T (radio telephone), its purpose was as a short-range vocal communication with nearby air or ground stations. The pilots used the command radio by use of their controls mounted in the cockpit overhead. The radio operator was also trained as a gunner and manned a flexible .50 caliber machine gun out the top of his compartment. On early B-17’s the hatch was removed so the gun could be maneuvered. This let in the cold slipstream and made the radio operator’s duties very uncomfortable. Later B-17’s had an enclosed covering with the gun attached to a special swivel socket so the top hatch did not have to be removed. Under the floor of the radio room compartment was a large camera used to take photos of the bomb run. The radio operator activated the camera during the bomb run to take photos of the target area.
The radio operator was also trained as the first aid man of the crew. Other emergency equipment and tools were located in the radio room, considered to be the safest place in the aircraft during ditching or crash landing. In the event of such an emergency all crew members, except the pilots, would come to the radio room and sit with their backs toward the forward bulkhead.