Half A Mission Gets You

Milton A. Henderson

From the book "Bombs Away!" - Amazon Link

A person flying combat always takes for granted that it won't happen to him. Then, the day of reckoning comes and you are listed as, "Missing in action." You always wondered what happens when a plane went down, and now you know. Our turn was Gotha-24 Feb. 1944. Our crew was on its 22nd mission.

Just as we turned on the bomb run, six FW 190's came in at 12:00 o'clock level; eight more 2:00 o'clock high. We were hit in #4 engine and the oil pressure zeroed out, so #4 was feathered.

Another pass just after bombs away and they got #3 engine and set it on fire. Number 4 engine was un-feathered in hopes we could keep up with the Group, but since it had no oil, it promptly ran away. Johns put the airplane in a steep dive to try to blow out the fire; #4 tachometer had wound around beyond the numbers-screaming away. There was no question-get out and walk! He slowed the aircraft down for bail out-leveling off about 8000 ft.

The bail out was accomplished, but not without a bit of unintended humor. When we rang the bell, "prepare to bail out" the bombardier was locked in the nose turret. He called the navigator to let him out. And what was the navigator doing? Folding maps, putting things away neatly. He finally did open the nose turret door and out tumbled the bombardier. As the navigator was first of the two to bail out, he crouched over the open nose wheel doors, turned to the bombardier and said, "Push me." The #11 shoes did that-post haste.

I made a free fall from about 7500 ft. to about 2000 ft. because we had been told the German fighter pilots might shoot you in your parachute if it looked like you might get away. You never think of the chute not opening while free falling, and mine opened just as it was supposed to. As I was coming down in my chute, I counted the others. Two chutes were missing. We later learned after the war that the graves registration teams had found the graves of waist gunner, Felix Zerangue, and engineer, Jack Indahl. As I neared the ground, our B-24 had made a steep 360º diving spiral and was headed for me when a friendly came between us.

The search party sent out by the Germans had about 8 people in it. They were coming on foot on a road that had a very elongated bend because of a long ridge covered with pine trees about a foot in diameter. I reasoned that it would take some time for them to reach that bend, so after burying my chute in the foot deep snow, I hurried over the hill onto the same road and ran toward them-wanting to be in a position near to them so they would pass me before starting the search. At the bend I got off the road and into the timber and watched them pass by, about 100 ft. away. They had guns, pitch forks, and the like for weapons, not a very friendly reception committee. After they had gone past, I continued through the trees to the road on the far side of the bend; got on it and walked away as if I was one of the search party returning.

I walked across a field in foot deep snow to a railroad to head south, and home. A troop train went by. The soldiers waved and I waved back thinking, "You would be off that train in a hurry if you knew who I was." This gave me confidence in my lack of identity, so I walked down the railroad through a small town, acknowledging greetings with a raise of the hand or a nod of the head, but not speaking. Apparently this was customary of the German populace at the time. The next town was larger. I could speak very little German, but I could understand it to some degree. I asked a German for a drink of water, but I could not say it like a native. He became suspicious. My ankle was swollen, either badly sprained or broken. He took me to the Mayor of the town, who in turn called the authorities.

Thus ended my missions with the 392nd Bomb Group, and the start of sixteen months of prisoner of war time. Next came the ride to the P.O.W. camp, the interrogations, and the delousing, but those events are another series of stories.