In recognition of the upcoming Veterans Day holiday, state Rep. Sheilla Lampkin writes about P.Q. Gardner, an aerial gunner who had 35 missions over Nazi Germany during World War II.
Beginning in 1943 the European Air Offensive was unleashed on the German war machine by B-26 Marauders. The 386th Bomb Group had the most enviable record of all B-26 groups in terms of number of successful missions, tonnage of bombs dispatched and enemy aircraft destroyed. This distinction placed the 386th at the top of the heap among bomber groups. Their missions were of the utmost importance in the campaign in Europe. Monticello has a native son who was a member of this esteemed group.
Paul Quinton Gardner served in the U. S. Army Air Force acting as a gunner mostly in the B-26 Marauder medium-size bomber planes. He was a member of the 9th Air Force, 386th Bombardment Group, 553rd Squadron in Europe.
Gardner flew 25 missions over Germany in the B-26s. He was known as a waist-gunner because he had to hang out a window and shoot.
After those 25 missions his group was split up and he was assigned to an A-26. Gardner liked these bombers better because they had a compartment for the gunner with Plexiglas windows so he could see out, but stay out of the wind and cold. It was extremely cold and windy at those altitudes.
The B-26s and A-26s were considered medium bombers that flew at about 10,000 to 12,000 feet so they made fairly good targets for enemy ground-to-air projectiles. The B-26 required at least six men to operate it; the A-26 required 2-3 airmen and was a lot more comfortable and safe. Their primary targets were railroad yards, bridges, overpasses, highways and other infrastructure. Gardner recalls that they did a good job on those targets too.
Gardner’s military service began in April 1943, when he was drafted into the Army. He recalls getting his notice to leave from the old bus station on East Gaines in Monticello and travel to Little Rock for his physical with a large group of young men.
The healthy, young 19-year-old newlywed passed his physical with flying colors and was sent to Camp Robinson near Little Rock for a few days. There the young men were separated into the various branches of the army and sent different places for their basic training.
Gardner was selected for the Air Force and sent to Shepherd Field near Wichita, Texas, for 12 weeks of basic training. Gardner speculates it area where they trained was called the “Cow Pasture” because it was covered in about a foot of dust.When the boys got out there in the middle of the day and the dust and heat started rising, it was stifling. Temperatures often reached 120 degrees. Many young men passed out in the heat and some would feign exhaustion to get a ride in the “meat wagon” or ambulance.
After his basic training, Gardner was sent to radio school in Illinois for six weeks. There he learned how to send Morse code by keyboard or by lights. He also learned about KP (Kitchen Police) duties and had many other experiences while in Illinois.
From Illinois, Gardner was sent to Yuma, Ariz. to Gunners School for another 6 weeks – and more heat. The trainers would attach cloth targets to a plane and pull them while the trainees shot at the targets. There he learned that the enemy always targets the tail of a plane making the tail gunner the most dangerous job in the plane.
When Gardner completed his radio and gunner training he had his number assigned according to his training. He was a MOS757, meaning he was a radio operator, mechanic and gunner.
Next he was sent to Shreveport, La., where he received his crew assignment and a 3-day pass. Thumbing his way home, he left Shreveport on a Friday afternoon and made to Monticello that night. Everyone wanted to help the young soldiers get home.
Returning to base, Gardner was given a train ride to Hunter Field, Ga., where he got to actually train in a plane. Then he was off to Bangor, Maine, to be shipped out for England. After a layover in Iceland, he reached Great Dunmow, his base in England, where their plane was taken from them and put in a pool. Gardner’s crew wasn’t happy about this.
They were assigned another plane and introduced to those portable mat runways that could be used quickly to set up a landing strip. The troops had a few days to see the sights of Great Britain before their next assignment. Gardner recalls being caught in an air raid while in England and the “pitch black” darkness of the night. While in England the men lived in tents with eight men to a tent. For years after the war these guys called each other at Christmas to keep up with each other.
Later their group went to France. It was the winter after D-Day and the base camp was set up in an orchard near Paris. Gardner learned enough French to be able to get something to eat. It was there that this southern boy learned to drink hot tea because the airmen had no coffee.
One particularly beautiful sight Gardner remembers seeing there was the glider airplanes that had been cut loose and were gliding over neighboring Holland as part of the liberation movement.
When he arrived in France that winter it was so cold that they were unable to get a plane in the air for 30 days. Before their next move to Belgium, Gardner got a leave and went to the French Riviera to enjoy the warm weather.
He had to hitchhike from airfield to airfield to catch up to his unit in Belgium. There they lived in an old three or four-story square building with a huge basement divided into two mess halls. Four squadrons were quartered there. Gardner remembers that on Thanksgiving Day in, 1944, the dividers went down because many soldiers were on leave. There he ran into Willard Lang from Drew County. The two Drew Countians had been in neighboring quarters since their arrival in Belgium and didn’t know it.
The next spring the war ended in Europe and the army began shipping the young airmen home. Gardner was sent to Antwerp, Belgium, and put on a “Victory” ship for America. The journey took 12 days.
The ship docked in New Jersey in August. After a 30-day leave, Gardner was sent to Fort Chaffee to go to Japan. By this time, the war with Japan was over and those soldiers with enough “points” were allowed to leave the army and return home. Eighty-five was the magic number and Gardner had 92 points, more than enough to allow him an early release. He was released and sent home with $300 in his pocket.
After WWII, Gardner remained in the Army Reserves and then the National Guard for a few years. Because of his service record he was able to attend Arkansas A&M College on the GI Bill and in three and a half years got a degree in education. He went on to eventually become superintendent of Drew Central Schools for several years.
The father of three children, Gardner later owned several businesses and has become one of Monticello’s most respected citizens. Gardner remains an active supporter of the American Legion and other veterans groups. He can be called on to support many other civic endeavors too.
He was named the 2011 Drew County Man of the Year by the Monticello/Drew County Chamber of Commerce after serving more than half a century in the real estate business. He is a 1953 Arkansas A&M graduate and earned a master’s degree from the University of Mississippi before entering business.
Gardner has been active in numerous civic and professional organizations, including the Arkansas State Real Estate Commission, the Southeast Arkansas Concert Association, the Drew County Election Commission, the Drew Memorial Hospital board, the Monticello City Council, and the Drew County Quorum Court. Gardner operated cable television franchises in Monticello and Warren and built and sold cable systems in Sheridan, White Hall, Redfield, Altheimer and south Pine Bluff. He also owned and operated four radio stations and owns his own real estate agency, Gardner Realty.
He has fond and sad memories of his experiences while in the service of his country, but those experiences provided some lessons leading to his success in his later civilian life. Those experiences have also added to his appreciation of this country and its freedoms.
One of Drew County’s most patriotic citizens, Gardner often says, “We live in the greatest country in the world. God Bless America!”