A WWII Story

 

Inspired by the 75th anniversary of D-Day celebrated last week, I found the story of my step-father’s experience being shot down over Italy in 1943. I want to share this as first-person history of the war. He wrote this around 50 years after it happened.

December 2 dawned clear and crisp, excellent visibility and a good day for flying. We struggled out of our warm sleeping bags and hurriedly dressed into our regular uniforms, Army ODs under flying coveralls, leather flying jackets, and GI boots. It was chilly enough that our breakfast turned cold before we had halfway finished, but the sun was already promising a warmer day.

At briefing we learned that only two squadrons, half the group, would be flying today. I was to fly copilot position for Lt. Williams. Williams had already completed his tour of 50 missions but had volunteered for an additional five, a choice that would facilitate his promotion to captain when he returned to the States. I had met his crew, which we were flying with today, only at the morning briefing. My own Crew was not reunited yet because of the need to replace my bombardier, Lt. Muirhead who had, with another crew, crashed in Turkey after having been hit on his first raid over Greece.

Our target was a long, low bridge over the River Sangre, just north of the spur in the boot of Italy, and only a short run from our base at Foggia. Since the target was considered lightly defended, we would go in without the usual fighter escort, drop our bombs, head out over the Adriatic and return to base at low level over the water, a tactic used to protect our vulnerable undersides from fighter attack. The British 8th Army was attacking along the Sangre River at this time and our effort was to interrupt German reinforcements and supplies from reaching the battle area by taking out the bridge. Briefing over, we loaded into the waiting jeeps and scurried out aircraft which the ground crews had ready and waiting, and the air was soon filled with the noise of 48 sputtering Wright Cyclone engines starting up the cold air. The bombers lumbered out to the steel mat runways, and take-off was underway Assembly took longer than usual since we didnt have the wide dirt field that we had at our last base so had to take off singly rather than three at a time. Nevertheless, after circling the field and climbing 15 or 20 minutes, the two squadrons were at altitude in defensive formations of two boxes of 12 planes each and heading for the target. Williams and I were in the unenviable position of end Charlie, the lowest position in the second box, the furthest back in the formation. It was a vulnerable, spot during fighter attack and difficult to fly during radical maneuvering, like at the end of a crack the whip. However, we were buoyed by the prospects of a short and easy flight, another mission to accumulate towards the magic 50 missions and home.

So far the flight was uneventful, no enemy fighter sightings and no sign of flak. The bomber formation droned northwards, confidently ignoring any need to fly evasive action. Lt. Williams and myself, although we kept on our steel (bucket) hats, had our parachute shoulder straps draped over the back of our seats, as was usual until we were approaching the target or were under attack. Williams, the aircraft commander, had turned the controls over to me, expecting, most likely, to take them back when the formation started maneuvering for the bombing run. It a beautiful day. The air was smooth in the cloudless sky and flying straight on course was easy, even at the end of the box.

Suddenly, Williams grabbed the controls when, without any warning, the ship was rocked by 88mm flak which was now bursting all around us. Relieved of the wheel, I slipped on my shoulder straps and watched to see how the rest of the formation was making out. We were apparently directly over the battle line and taking fire from ground field pieces (88mm) which had been adjusted for anti—aircraft fire. The accuracy was devastating. A second close hit and we could hear the flak fragments slicing through the ship. Finally, a tremendous blast as we took a direct hit (crews from other ships in the flight reported on return to base that we took a direct hit just aft of the bomb bay). The formation rapidly pulled ahead, while the ship went into a steep dive in spite of Williams efforts to pull out. It was obvious to both of us that we were no longer flying but were going down out of control. Picking up tremendous speed, the ship dove for the ground, which now filled the windshield in front of us. The bomber then, in some obscure (to me) maneuver, was over on her back, Williams and I hanging by our seat belts. Only seconds had passed since we took the direct hit. Up to now, with the ship falling out of control, there was no opportunity for anyone in the front of the aircraft to think of getting out. However, with the bomber upside down, the overhead water-ditching hatch offered possible escape. This hatch was intended for water—ditching only because using it for bail out in normal flight risked striking the gun turret, aerials, or twin tails of the B-25. It was what we had. Our only conversation came at this point -when Williams said “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Pulling the emergency handle, we had only to release our seat belts and fall, Williams going first, with me right behind him. Slowing down enough, I reached for my ripcord which had apparently blown out of its pocket and was dangling in front of me, but in easy reach. Pulling the cord, I could see the chute tracking out between my legs, then a gentle tug and I was floating below that glorious canopy. Somehow I was spared. Two of us were out. I could see no other chutes in the air but my area of vision was very limited. In sorting out events, I tried to recall if Williams had remembered to attach his shoulder straps, which would have been difficult while we were hanging on our seat belts. And since it seemed the hit was in the back part of the ship, I thought it unlikely that the crew there could have survived the blast, though access to their escape hatches would have been practically impossible under the circumstances, even if this were not true.

When the chute had quieted down, I could see below me a huge fire, and several military vehicles closing in on a small winding road. I had never parachuted before but, following training instructions, I pulled hard on one of the risers to guide the chute away from the fire and the road. Too hard. The chute swung me up one side, then the other, in a pendulum like movement, dumping out air with a large flap on each swing. By this time the ground came up fast, and the chute dumped me in the scrub about a hundred yards from the fire, which turned out to be the burning remains of my aircraft. The fuel had exploded but the six 500-pound bombs aboard, which were still on safety, obviously had not.

Coming in sideways, and tumbling head over heels, I scrambled to only to see five German soldiers with automatic weapons breaking through the scrub, even before I had time to unbuckle the parachute. As they carefully hurried up to me, one of them, apparently the leader, said “For you der vor ist over,” and started to pat me down for weapons.

He went on to spend over two years in Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, an officer’s POW camp run by the Luftwaffe. Donald Pleasence was one of his camp mates. He was liberated by the Soviets.

God bless him and all those who fought to defeat fascism.

Published in History
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There are 16 comments.

  1. Arahant Member

    Clavius: the steel mat runways

    Those really were a nifty bit of technology:

    • #1
    • June 8, 2019, at 5:40 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Arahant Member

    Clavius: God bless him and all those who fought to defeat fascism.

    And a big Amen to that.

    • #2
    • June 8, 2019, at 5:42 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  3. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius Post author

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Clavius: the steel mat runways

    Those really were a nifty bit of technology:

    Imagine the rumble of the propeller engines as they throttle up and then rumble again across the steel. And this was war. You did not know if you were going to come back.

    • #3
    • June 8, 2019, at 5:44 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  4. PHCheese Member

    My uncle piloted 43 missions in a B-24 Liberator before his brother was killed in flight training and he was sent home for the funeral. Instead of sending him back they made him an instructor at Wright Patterson. I wonder what the difference between a B-24 and a B25 is besides 1.

    • #4
    • June 8, 2019, at 6:29 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius Post author

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    My uncle piloted 43 missions in a B-24 Liberator before his brother was killed in flight training and he was sent home for the funeral. Instead of sending him back they made him an instructor at Wright Patterson. I wonder what the difference between a B-24 and a B25 is besides 1.

     A quick search indicates that the B-24 was longer range and the B-25 had more bombing capacity.

    • #5
    • June 8, 2019, at 6:35 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  6. Poindexter Member

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    My uncle piloted 43 missions in a B-24 Liberator before his brother was killed in flight training and he was sent home for the funeral. Instead of sending him back they made him an instructor at Wright Patterson. I wonder what the difference between a B-24 and a B25 is besides 1.

    The B-24 Liberator was a 4-engine heavy bomber. The B-25 Mitchell was a two-engine medium bomber.

    The B-24 carried a heavier bomb load than the more-famous B-17 and had a reputation for getting it’s crews home alive even after taking heavy damage.

    The B-25 was the bomber used by Jimmy Doolittle in the raid on Tokyo, launched from the aircraft carrier Hornet.

    • #6
    • June 8, 2019, at 6:43 PM PDT
    • 7 likes
  7. tigerlily Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Clavius: the steel mat runways

    Those really were a nifty bit of technology:

    This steel matting went by the name Marston Matting based on the fact that it was first used at an Army Air Forces base near the town of Marston, NC in 1941.

    • #7
    • June 8, 2019, at 7:18 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  8. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius Post author

    Thank you all for the additional information on the bombers. 

    • #8
    • June 8, 2019, at 7:25 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  9. Steve C. Member

    Poindexter (View Comment):
    The B-24 carried a heavier bomb load than the more-famous B-17 and had a reputation for getting it’s crews home alive even after taking heavy damage.

    True, the 24 did have a greater bomb capacity. I’ve read the 17 could and did take more damage. The 24’s construction had some vulnerabilities the 17 did not have. Though I believe they manufactured more B24s.

    • #9
    • June 9, 2019, at 7:56 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Basil Fawlty Member

    Clavius: Donald Pleasence was one of his camp mates.

    Good training for his role in The Great Escape.

    • #10
    • June 9, 2019, at 8:09 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  11. Doctor Robert Member

    I remember steel matting being used to replace route 12, which had been washed out by a hurricane, on Hatteras Island , circa 1967. Miles and miles of steel matting humming under the wheels of my father’s Chevy station wagon.

    • #11
    • June 9, 2019, at 9:45 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  12. Skyler Coolidge

    Good story.

    Here’s one I was told back in 1987, about 32 years after the events. One time as a second lieutenant I was in the Officer’s Club at El Toro at some odd hour when it wasn’t crowded, it must have been lunch time. Two men sitting at the bar next to me were there and we started talking (we didn’t have iphones, so people were still social back then).

    They both served in WWII, and one of them told me this story.

    He was in the navy on an LST during the war. He said they regularly had a contingent of Marines on board as they were a landing ship. Sometime in 1944 they got a new skipper who tried his best to accommodate the Marines. When they did their drills for General Quarters, for example, he would announce that it was just a drill and the Marines could continue as normal as long as they didn’t get in the way. The Marines appreciated such courtesies, and several of them struck up a friendship with my new acquaintance.

    Also on board the ship as ship’s company was a navy lieutenant that was a bit of a martinet that the navy guys didn’t like. There’s almost always one such person in any command. This guy went out of his way to make life miserable for the sailors aboard.

    Then the time came when they were to disgorge their load of Marines and equipment for an amphibious assault. I think it was either Iwo Jima or Okinawa, but it’s been a long time, so it could be another. It was late in the war and these Marines were all pretty well experienced.

    The day before the landing, a few of the Marines came to this sailor and thanked him for being such a good guy and treating them so well. They told him they want to return the favor. They were about to land and a lot of them wouldn’t be surviving the landing, so it was nothing to them to take care of the lieutenant. No one would know what happened to him, and they would be happy to do it.

    The sailor and his buddies assured the Marines that they really liked that lieutenant and please don’t kill him.

    That story hit me hard. War really can change people.

    • #12
    • June 9, 2019, at 9:48 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  13. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Clavius, your father was one heck of a writer and story teller. Without the abilities these fighting men had and their willingness to sacrifice all for our nation, who knows? (Wir könnten alle Deutsch sprechen.)

    Thank you for sharing his story.

    • #13
    • June 10, 2019, at 11:13 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  14. BigMike Coolidge

    My Grandfather was also one of his camp mates, appearing at the gates in July of 1944. My Grandfather (a B-17 pilot) HATED the B-24, claiming the fuel system leaked like a sieve. He also like beautiful things, so I’m sure some of the dislike came from “design by committee” styling of the B-24, which looked like a flying boxcar compared to the elegant lines of the B-17. You are correct they were liberated by the Russians, but they were saved by the United States. The Russians wanted the prisoners to turn around and march to Russia, but the Air Force sent in transports and even bombers to evacuate the liberated prisoners West.

    • #14
    • June 11, 2019, at 10:16 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  15. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius Post author

    BigMike (View Comment):

    My Grandfather was also one of his camp mates, appearing at the gates in July of 1944. My Grandfather (a B-17 pilot) HATED the B-24, claiming the fuel system leaked like a sieve. He also like beautiful things, so I’m sure some of the dislike came from “design by committee” styling of the B-24, which looked like a flying boxcar compared to the elegant lines of the B-17. You are correct they were liberated by the Russians, but they were saved by the United States. The Russians wanted the prisoners to turn around and march to Russia, but the Air Force sent in transports and even bombers to evacuate the liberated prisoners West.

    Yes, I recall my Dad talking about the priority of getting to non-Soviet liberated territory and that it happened pretty quickly.

    • #15
    • June 11, 2019, at 10:26 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  16. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Good story.

    Here’s one I was told back in 1987, about 32 years after the events. One time as a second lieutenant I was in the Officer’s Club at El Toro at some odd hour when it wasn’t crowded, it must have been lunch time. Two men sitting at the bar next to me were there and we started talking (we didn’t have iphones, so people were still social back then).

    They both served in WWII, and one of them told me this story.

    He was in the navy on an LST during the war. He said they regularly had a contingent of Marines on board as they were a landing ship. Sometime in 1944 they got a new skipper who tried his best to accommodate the Marines. When they did their drills for General Quarters, for example, he would announce that it was just a drill and the Marines could continue as normal as long as they didn’t get in the way. The Marines appreciated such courtesies, and several of them struck up a friendship with my new acquaintance.

    Also on board the ship as ship’s company was a navy lieutenant that was a bit of a martinet that the navy guys didn’t like. There’s almost always one such person in any command. This guy went out of his way to make life miserable for the sailors aboard.

    Then the time came when they were to disgorge their load of Marines and equipment for an amphibious assault. I think it was either Iwo Jima or Okinawa, but it’s been a long time, so it could be another. It was late in the war and these Marines were all pretty well experienced.

    The day before the landing, a few of the Marines came to this sailor and thanked him for being such a good guy and treating them so well. They told him they want to return the favor. They were about to land and a lot of them wouldn’t be surviving the landing, so it was nothing to them to take care of the lieutenant. No one would know what happened to him, and they would be happy to do it.

    The sailor and his buddies assured the Marines that they really liked that lieutenant and please don’t kill him.

    That story hit me hard. War really can change people.

    Great story.

    During war, a person like that lieutenant can go from being a pain in the ass to being someone who commands a slew of people to do unnecessary tasks that get many of them unnecessarily killed.

    Marines probably had a lot less tolerance for someone like that. I suspect if that martinet had wiped out a contingent of their fellows, the Navy personnel would not have been so tolerant.

    • #16
    • June 11, 2019, at 2:19 PM PDT
    • 2 likes