Danny Francisco sat in a B-17 bomber flying over Ploiesti, Romania, in 1944 as flak from anti-aircraft guns rattled the plane.
“You know how thunder and lighting sounds?” he said, sitting in his South Lake Tahoe home Friday. “This was 10 times worse. I mean it’s just loud, black puffs of smoke that come up. Real loud noises that just shake the hell out of the plane and knock you all over the sky.”
Francisco served in WWII as a B-17 tail gunner who flew 50 missions in Eastern Europe over a span of about six months.
His toughest target was the refineries of Ploiesti, which comprised about one-third of Hitler’s oil needs. Consequently, the location was well defended.
“They probably had more fighters and more anti-aircraft fire than most targets, if not all, and it was the longest target to go over,” he said. “You could go over other targets in maybe 10 or 15 minutes, but when you went over Ploiesti, it seemed like you never got out of there.”
While flak shook the bomber, Francisco manned a twin .50 caliber gun to keep enemy fighter planes away from his aircraft.
“My job was to look around for enemy fighters, and we found them,” he said. “I’d keep my eye on them and when they came in, they’d shoot at you and you’d shoot at them.”
He went to Ploiesti a total of seven times during the war.
But before he was shooting at fighter planes, Francisco was a high school student in Oakland, Calif. He graduated on Feb. 2, 1943, and was in the military seven days later. Like most of his friends, he was drafted into service.
“None of us wanted to leave home, but we had no choice,” he said, adding that there was “no griping, no nothing” from the soldiers ready to serve their country. “So we just went.”
Francisco was sent to Biloxi, Miss., for basic training before being assigned to a “good ol’ B-17.”
Then, in March 1944, he headed overseas by way of Africa, where he transferred to a different bomber group that “got shot up pretty bad” and needed replacements.
He flew in one of five planes heading from North Africa to Italy, but hit a bad storm along the way. With little visibility, his plane separated from the pack and was forced to fly around the Mediterranean Sea.
Eventually, the plane found Sicily.
“That was quite a screwed up deal,” he said.
Francisco spent the next several months going on mission after mission in Eastern Europe. After 50 missions, he was assigned to come home.
He went on to work for General Motors and met his future wife, Helen, who he has been married to now for more than 60 years.
Around Memorial Day, Francisco thinks about the people, like him, who served in the military over the years.
He said he’d like to see today’s military men and women receive more credit for their service to their country.
“When Memorial Day rolls around, you always think about guys in World War I and all the servicemen of any war who are gone,” said Francisco, who will celebrate his 90th birthday June 5. “I have a lot of respect for the military. I think they’re getting a bad rap from a lot of people, and they deserve more credit than they’re getting, today or anytime.”