At the onset of World War II, Winthrop High School graduate of 1942, John (Jack) H. Orrall, left his studies at the University of New Hampshire to enlist in the United States Air Force, where he served in the 533rd Squadron in the 381st Bomb Group in Europe. His experiences as a 19-year-old tail gunner were presented during a November 8 presentation by his eldest granddaughter, Jennifer Marquis, at the Winthrop Public Library.
“Jack’s story is a remarkable one,” said Marquis, who co-authored, “The Life and Times of John (Jack) H. Orrall,” with her great uncle, Robert McKersie, PHD, Jack’s brother-in-law.
The biography is a collection of stories corroborated from Jack’s journal and letters sent to loved ones.
“This was a labor of love,” said Marquis. “This is a memoir we are telling through Jack’s diary, as well as mail correspondence that Jack exchanged with friends and family, and interviews from later in his life. The letters were a lifeline, and helped him endure the physical and mental stresses of the war. It was encouraging for the men to feel connected to home.”
Jack was a member of the crew that flew four-engine Bowing B-17 heavy bombers out of England, aiding in 35 of 50 known combat missions.
“On average, the bomber crews in World War II did not survive more than 25 missions,” Marquis explained. “The average tenure was 11 missions. The chance of survival for airmen manning B-17s was less than 50%.”
Jack, 6’2”, would crouch into the tail gunner compartment at the rear of the plane, which had little insulation. He endured sub-zero conditions during missions that would last up to 14 hours in Germany, where temperatures could be -60°.
“The Life and Times of John (Jack) H. Orrall” describes B-17s in depth, as well as the account of Jack’s crew being shot down and rescued by Belgian resistance fighters.
“He had an attitude for gratitude,” said Marquis, who remembers her grandfather sharing stories about soldiers bundling dogs in their parkas to keep warm.
An audio clip of Jack expressing that he would never gripe about the hot and humid summers of New England was played.
“I’ll never complain about the heat,” said Jack in an interview recorded over 20 years ago. “The cold went through you.”
Jack was the recipient of the Purple Heart for an injury in service, as well as the Europe, African, and Middle Eastern Service Medal with three bronze stars, and an air medal with five oak clusters.
“My grandfather was witty and a jokester,” smiled Marquis about Jack’s antics.
During down time, when missions were deterred due to bad weather, Jack would play ping pong and configure puzzles in the barracks. Often, soldiers would travel to London; and – according to Jack – swap the clean sheets with their dirty ones because the hotels were known to upcharge American soldiers.
After the war, Jack continued his father’s business: the Winthrop Printing Company, on Old Colony Avenue, in South Boston; and lived well into his 80s.
Marquis remembered visiting the Wings of Freedom World War II aircraft exhibit in Beverly with her grandfather and family. She had the opportunity to climb into a B-17, and crawl into the tail gunner space where her grandfather was positioned during missions.
“Jack was in his glory sharing stories about his bombing crew,” said Marquis. “The Life and Times of John (Jack) H. Orrall” can be purchased on Amazon.com, or borrowed from the Winthrop Public Library.