Rio History: War Planes Once Strafed Beaches of Padre Island

Special to the PRESS

“Do you know any reason a person would find 50 (caliber) bullets on the island?” the email read. I studied the embedded photos before reading on. “The wife actually found them while beach combing for shells. When she showed me, I went back with the detector but still did not find as many as she did beach combing. It’s not uncommon for me to find dozens of .45 ACP and 9mm spent bullets all over the place because they are very common. On occasion, I have even found shotgun shell remnants.

What I would like to know is where the bullets were shot from. On the ground they are considered effective at about a mile but no idea from the air. It just would be interesting to find some of the casings.

Best regards,
Quint Traverse

Hi Quint,

A while back I wrote an article about a man who found a .50 caliber shell while fishing in the Laguna Madre. In the article I talked about the flight school located near Corpus Christi and how part of the training included strafing and bomb runs over Padre Island. It is well worth the read.

Today, I am going to tell you about the aerial gunnery school which was located at the Harlingen Army Airfield. The school had one goal, which was to train and produce qualified aerial gunners in just six weeks.

The trainees started out shooting at little moving pieces of metal shaped like a duck with a .22 rifle. From this “carnival shooting gallery” they progressed to shooting clay pigeons with a swivel mounted shotgun that was anchored in the bed of a pickup truck. Did I forget to mention the truck was moving around a track while the clay pigeons were being thrown out in all directions?

Next the men would be marched out to a group of special turrets that sat atop a runway. At first the guns in these turrets were of a small caliber that only shot pellets. But in the third week the men learned how to fire .50 caliber machine guns at the range. The target, a large sheet, was moved on a track. Each man’s ammunition was coated with a different colored dye which left a mark as it passed through the target. This made it easy to determine who had hit the target and how many times. The last three weeks of training was spent over Padre Island. There, the gunners learned how to shoot from the turret and the waist gun.

One critical skill each man had to perfect was being able to advise the pilot of the location of other planes.

The positions of the hour hand on a clock were used. For instance, Twelve o’clock high meant a plane was above while six o’clock meant that it was below.

Countless hours were spent learning airplane identification which was critical during sorties. It wouldn’t do to shoot down friendlies while in combat. Various aircraft were shown on a screen. At first each image would remain for several seconds but as time passed the time each image remained on the screen was decreased until it was only a flash. The men were expected to readily identify German and Japanese planes, as well as American and Allied planes.

Strafing targets in the water served as an appetizer with the main course being a “shot” at targets pulled by another plane. B-26s flown by women pilots known as WASPs — which was an acronym for Women Air Force Service Pilots — towed a large white sheet which extended behind the plane by a long rope. And once again, specially dyed bullets were used to determine the accuracy of each gunner.

Upon graduation each man was presented his wings and was ready to do battle in whichever theatre of war he was sent to.

I hope that answers your question about who was responsible for shooting the bullets you found.

In the future I will write about the WASP program.

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