On December 31, 1942, I was transferred from the 92nd Bomb Group, 325th Bomb Squadron, based at Bovington, England, to the 306th Bomb Group, 369th ("Fighting Biting") Bomb Squadron, based at Thurleigh, England. I have the distinction of being transferred into the 306th the same time that General (then Colonel) Armstrong took command of the Group. General Frank Armstrong (native North Carolinian) was the General portrayed by Gregory Peck in the movie, 12 O'Clock High.
I was made an Aircraft Commander before I left the 92nd, and my made-up crew was just as inexperienced as I was. I tell you, it was scary and depressing. I was leaving all my friends and classmates, heading out to a strange place in a strange left seat. It was a low point, but not near as low as it was going to get in just a few more months.
Luckily for everyone concerned, my Squadron Commander, Major Terry, told me his procedure for a replacement crew was to give an experienced copilot (10 missions) my command, and I was to take his position as Copilot for 10 missions. Then I would get my own crew. Good idea! The only thing wrong with this procedure was I was Copilot for 1st Lt. "Rip" Riordan. Well, that really scared the devil out of me because I had been reading in the Stars & Stripes about his escapades, bringing back B-17s all shot up, engines out, stabilizers shot off, holes all over the place. Plus, I found out quickly that he was very gung-ho for flying missions to completion - no abortions, period. He wouldn't even take the two days a month we got off to go to London. He might miss a mission.
First chance we got, we went out to the airplane, WaHoo Mark II. I said, "What happened to Mark I?" I shouldn't have asked. He brought it back from Rommily Sur Seine on two engines, all torn up. It never flew again. It was cannibalized and used for spare parts. When I got in the copilot seat, I immediately noticed a big round hole, filed smooth, in the rudder pedal. "What's that?" "Oh, that's where a 20mm went through the pedal. Luckily the copilot had his foot up on the rudder bar at the time." Hot dog! I wanted to go home! In retrospect, it was a good thing to be with him. He had crammed a lot of experience into a few missions.
We flew eight missions together, starting January 13, 1943. We worked out a neat plan to fly the airplane in formation. If you remember, it handled like a truck at 25,000 feet. Well, he handled the stick and rudder. I handled the throttles, prop pitch, cowl flaps, flaps, landing gear and anything else I could get my hands on, in case of overrunning the formation when some slob leading up front changed his air speed one knot. Believe me, I used them all one day when we were flying in a position called, "Filling in the Diamond." We flew directly behind the fight leader and a little bit below his prop wash. When the FWs came in at 12 o'clock, you flew prop wash. When they came in at 11, you flew echelon behind the No. 2 man. When they came in at 1 o'clock, you flew echelon on the No. 3 man. When the flack came up, we would drop back a few feet and do our own evasive action (for morale purposes only, of course).
We were in this position on the bomb run. We started to overrun the flight leader, coming right under his belly. I looked up through the little window in the roof and could see five 1,000-pound bombs through the open bomb bay doors, which were going to be released in about thirty seconds. Remember, you couldn't chop the throttles off; you had to pull them back slowly on account of the waste gates from the superchargers would slam shut, and you could over speed your engines. Well, off come the throttles, cowl flaps open, props to flat pitch. Still overshooting. Down come the flaps, down come the gear, Uh, oh. We've stopped. Up comes the gear, flaps up, close the cowl flaps, advance the throttles, prop pitch back to normal - busier than the proverbial one-armed paperhanger! I wasn't scared; I was working too hard.
My fateful day was rapidly approaching. March 6, 1943, we had a mission to Lorient, France - Sub Pens, I believe. We barely made it back to Exeter in Southern England - I mean, the whole group. We were all running out of gas. That's another story.
Anyway we spent the night in Exeter. Accommodations were so bad, I couldn't sleep. The next day, March 7, we flew home to Thurleigh. The navigator and bombardier and I went into Bedford to the Bedford Key Club and had a party, and we got to our barracks about midnight. There was a mission the next morning, and I wasn't supposed to go because one of the rank was checking "Rip" out to lead. Well, I didn't want to get behind in missions, so I told operations I'd go along as an extra gunner in the nose. I was qualified as a gunner. "No," they said. "Some `gravel agitator' was picking his own five missions (milk runs) to get an air medal. He was flying as an extra gunner. He was not qualified as a gunner nor was he qualified on high altitude oxygen use.
At three in the morning (3 hours sleep), Rip awakened me and said, "Come on down to the briefing anyway." I said, No, @ *(#@!)+%!. If I can't go the way I was trained, I am not going." But he talked me into it. I got dressed.
The mission was to the marshalling yards at Rennes, France. What was I doing at this briefing? I wasn't going. When the briefing was over, someone called my name, and asked if I wanted to fly with a crew in another squadron whose Copilot was sick. Didn't have to go! Well, I violated the first rule you learn in the service. "Don't volunteer for anything." I volunteered. A little side note of history here. Our squadron, the 369th, went from March 8, 1943 through 47 missions without a loss!!! Incredible! Me and my big mouth!!
I met "Rip" in the locker room getting dressed for the mission. I remember telling him I had a funny feeling I wasn't coming back on this one. Strange.
I was with Lt. Otto Buddenbaum and his crew, and we took off at dawn. Going across the channel, we discovered No. 2 and No. 3 engines were not producing enough power. It was difficult to stay in formation. And, guess what our position was? Last plane, last group, out of four groups. Purple Heart corner! We debated aborting, but decided against it.
As soon as we crossed the French coast, one FW sneaked in on us from 6 o'clock, no less! Bam, Barn, Bam! Three 20mm rounds with instant fusing hit us - one in each wing, severing the aileron cables, and one in the top turret. We immediately lost our position and protection from the formation and were all alone. We used rudder to keep the ship right side up. When she would go into an uncontrolled bank, we would both push top rudder, which would slew the bottom wing forward, more lift, and up she'd come only to dip over to the other side. Buddenbaum told everyone to bail out. I ripped off my mask and hollered, "Let's see if we can turn it around and dive it for home."
Well, about this time, most of the gunners were gone, and this FW began having a field day - another 6 o'clock high pass. The armor plate behind our seats saved us. It stopped shrapnel, but the rest of the shrapnel came between the seats - down the aisle, so to speak, and blew out all our instruments and cut off the throttle handles. Our No. 3 engine was now burning like crazy - all flames, no smoke. It was a mess. The FW then came up and flew on our right wing for a few seconds. I guess he wanted to see what was holding us up. He was so close I could see his drooling fangs, his square, black goggles, and swastika tattooed on his left cheek. Ha, ha! Just like the propaganda pictures! I said to myself, It was time to go. I went out the nose hatch, counted to ten and pulled the ripcord. I guess we were around 22,000 feet by then. I know it took about thirty minutes to come down. It was the only mission I forgot to leave my wallet in operations. So, on the way down, I took it out and tore up all the incriminating evidence, like old football stubs, licenses, etc. I saved Doris' picture and the nine pounds I had in my wallet.
The chute opened with such a jerk it sprained my back, and my left boot and shoe flew off, and my escape kit fell out of my leg pocket. I reached down and took my right boot off and put in on my left foot to keep it a little warmer. It was cold. I estimated I was at 20,000 feet by then, and it was maybe 40° below zero. It was quiet - dead quiet. I made a standing landing on my right foot. With no shoe on the left one, I figured I might break it. I was shaking so badly I had to sit down.
I landed in a farmer's front yard and my chute draped over an apple tree. The French farm people came running to help me. Believe it or not, I still had the ripcord; I had stuffed it in my pocket. Funny how you remember the little things. In the States, if you don't bring back the ripcord, drinks are on you at the club, or so the story goes.
Well, anyway, the women got the chute disposed of quickly - all that silk. About this time someone hollered, "Allemande." German, German! Well, my little crowd disappeared except for one chubby fellow who quickly put me in a pigsty with a bunch of pigs. A German truck full of soldiers came into the farm and looked around. When the coast was clear, the French farmers put me in a little abandoned chicken coop out in the field, gave me some wine and bread and hard-boiled eggs. I stayed there until dusk. I was then escorted to the farmhouse, which was full of peasants and gawking and giggling and shaking my hand. I took off my flying clothes and put on a sweater and civilian pants and a pair of slippers and was introduced to a Frenchman Henri Du Fretay. He was dressed in a business suit and came from St. Brieux about thirty miles away. Remember now - no sleep, the night of the 6th, three hours on the 7th, and we walked most of the 30 miles the night of the 8th. I was tired, to say the least, when we reached his apartment in St. Brieux just after dawn on March 9. I slept all day, and that evening was taken across town to another family. Their names were Madame Dinton and Jeanne-Lou Dinton, her daughter. I stayed three days in their home, hidden in the attic.
The sweater the farmers gave me I found to be full of fleas, and I was bitten severely. Madame Dinton would come to my hiding place and massage my back, as it was hurting especially after walking thirty miles that first night. She washed the sweater for me, also.
A little interesting side note here. I had my Air Force ring on - a gold ring - and Madam Dinton said I had to take it off because it would be too conspicuous. The Germans took all of the French rings and melted them down for their war effort. So she took my ring and buried it in a tin can, along with my nine pounds, in her back yard. Well, in 1946, when I was back at Duke University, I wrote to them, and was immediately sent my ring with an explanation why they couldn't send it to me before - because nobody - all the military occupation forces apparently - felt like helping her, but, anyway, I got my ring back, and I still wear it today.)
After three days, a former French pilot came for me, to be my guide out to the country again. His name is Eric Delval, and he brought two bicycles. We pedaled all day, passed many German soldiers along the way, and arrived at a Catholic parish in Langindias, France. Luckily we were only 100 yards from the house, when I got a flat tire on my bicycle. This was approximately March 13. I stayed here two weeks with a French priest named Monsieur L'abbe Corbel and his maid, Mary. He spoke a little English, and my French was improving. We got along well. He even broke out a bottle of Cognac he was saving for the "Liberation." We finished it.
After the two weeks at Langindias, another priest came, and we bicycled to Dinan. This was about March 27. Dinan is a fairly large city, at the base of the Brittany Peninsula. I spent one night with a family, and it was here I was introduced to Dr. Jacques Coicou and a Spanish man, who was the janitor of the building where Jacques had his apartment in Paris. We left the next morning, March 28, on a train for Paris, a ten-hour ride. Jacques had brought me travel papers from Paris, given to him by the Prefect of Police of Paris, Monsieur Boussiere. My papers said I was a Czech slave laborer named Dumbroski and I was deaf and dumb and that Jacques was taking me to Paris for an operation. I had to act like I was deaf and dumb for ten hours on that train. It was like flying five missions all at once! We got to Paris in the evening and went by subway to his apartment at 1 Rue de Lord Byron, just off the Champs Alisee. I met Jacques' wife, Suzanne, and their maid. This was a five-story apartment building, and they lived on the top floor.
I spent approximately six nervous weeks there. We were told back in England not to stay in any one place too long, so I kept needling Jacques to get me on my way. He kept saying he had to be very careful whom he contacted. I could appreciate that.
One day he told me he had found an American woman caught in Paris by the war, who was eight months pregnant. She was with the underground and would be by to interview me. Her name was Madame Feldon. And I feel, in retrospect, she possibly was the one who informed on me. She came by, asked how long I had been in France. I said, about nine weeks. She said that was way too long. They would take me back out to the tip of the Brittany Peninsula, and I would be flown back to England at night in a Lysander (a British high-wing monoplane that can make short field landings and take-offs); then she asked if I would like to take back some military information with me. "Sure," I said, "No papers. I'll memorize everything." She told me how the Germans were transporting submarines by railroad in pieces to the French coast ports of St. Nazaire and Lorient. She gave me the bomb damage on the raid to Rennes, March 8. Boy, how this information, I was willingly collecting, came to haunt me in the next few days.
She left, and two days later, May 15, 1943, the Gestapo broke open the door of the apartment and arrested me, Jacques, Suzanne, and the maid. We were all handcuffed, taken down the elevator to the waiting prison van, and taken to La Fresne Prison, just outside of Paris.
Here I was put in solitary confinement for 77 days and told repeatedly that I was to be shot as a spy and saboteur! I was in civilian clothes, no dog tags (I never wore them), carrying in my head all kinds of enemy information fed to me by what I think was a German secret agent. I didn't have leg to stand on. Being convinced I was to be shot, it was here I learned how fear can be a physical pain. I was fed a piece of bread a day with some watery soup, full of bugs and worms. This was bad!! The 77 days with the Gestapo was worse than the two years with the Luftwaffe. The bed being infested, I was again attacked by fleas. At one point, I counted over 500 bites from my waist down. Knowing I was going to die, I started to pray. I felt like a hypocrite, "a drowning man clutching at a straw," so to speak. But I went ahead and prayed anyway.
One morning, after having beseeched the Lord twice a day for weeks and nothing seemed to be happening, I looked up at the ceiling and said, "If you don't get me out of here, to hell with you!" That afternoon they took me out of my cell for interrogation at Gestapo Headquarters in Paris. Interrogation was the beginning of eventual release to the Luftwaffe, I found out later. See, they knew who I was. They didn't want me to know that they knew it - the better to sweat information from me. I told this part of my story to my minister of our community church in Syosset, New York 30 years ago. His remark was, "You were in a state of Grace." You know, you can go through your whole life hearing words you don't know the meaning of, and "Grace" was one of them. I didn't want to show my ignorance, so I didn't ask what he meant. But as soon as I got home, I looked it up. The religious definition says, "The unmerited divine assistance given man for his regeneration or sanctification!" Of course, it could have been sheer coincidence, too. I choose to accept the first explanation.
At Gestapo headquarters, I was interrogated for four hours. Now I know all about the training we had back in the States, where they taught us to give our name, rank, and serial number only and don't try to outsmart the interrogator. He's smarter than you are. Don't get cute. Just give your name, rank, and serial number. But I wasn't being interrogated by the military. I was being interrogated as a spy and by the Gestapo. If I had given them my name, rank, and serial number, I would have gone right back to the "hole." I gave this guy a story, which I had practiced in my cell for hours before. It was a story as near the truth as possible without giving away any names of persons or places. He accepted it. He was so dumb I thought it was a trap. He was not an experienced interrogator. He even gave me half of his sandwich and a cigarette. I remember in his room there was a full length mirror. I got a look at myself, and I was a mess. I guess I lost about thirty pounds; long, greasy hair, scraggly beard, etc.
I was released from La Fresne Prison about a week later, on about July 29, 1943 and put in the hands of the Luftwaffe. On to Frankfurt on the Maine, Germany, where DuLag Luft was located. This was a transient camp where I stayed about five days. Here we were given a military interrogation. I didn't tell them anything either. Well, I'd been down for months so there was nothing I could tell them. Next was on to Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Germany, where I arrived around August 5. I remained in this camp until January 27, 1945, when we were forced marched westward - 10,000 American and British flying officers. The Russians were thirty kilometers away, to the east. We marched about eighty kilometers in three days and nights in temperatures around ten to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. It was on this march that both hands and feet were frostbitten. We were later put on boxcars and taken to South Germany, fifty men to a boxcar. We were jammed together, many were sick, and they let us out once a day for water and to relieve ourselves. Those four days were awful. We ended up at Mooseburg, Germany, where we were liberated April 29, 1945 by Patton's Third Army, 14th Army Division. My stay in Stalag Luft III is another story entirely.
Two interesting sidelights:
1. I was one of 24 servicemen during World War II who were reported killed in action and later turned up alive. I was officially dead for approximately two months. I was also one of the few servicemen who had a medal taken away from him. I was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously, and, approximately two months later, when I turned up alive, my mother had to give it back.
2. The day we were shot down, one of our waist gunners, "Mo" Moriarity, landed in his parachute about a mile from me, and he was back in England in 23 days. He wrote a book. It's quite a story!
One last comment: I learned that a person can take a great deal more punishment than he thinks he can, and with no lasting ill effects. I wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience, but I wouldn't do it again for a million.