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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.