We named our airplane "Liberty Belle," #42-7626, and had completed seven combat missions. I later heard there was a rumor that Myron Keilman, our squadron commander, intended to nominate our crew for training at the Pathfinder School, based at Alconbury. However, the fortunes of war decreed otherwise.
On 13 December 1943, we took off for our eighth bombing mission to Kiel, a German ship-building port on the Baltic Sea coast. Our crew, commanded by Douglas Rogillio from Natchez, MS, was leading the second element of our squadron.
All went until we were about to begin our final leg to the target, the bomb run on Kiel. Our #3 engine started to lose oil pressure, but we managed to complete the bomb run and our bombardier, Richard "Dick" Hughes, released our bombs. We then feathered the propeller on #3 while it had sufficient oil pressure. Flares were then fired as a signal to the rest of our squadron that we were leaving the formation because the feathered prop slowed us down and we didn't want to endanger the ships which were following us.
William "Bill" Kelly, our navigator, gave us a heading for home and we eventually found ourselves alone over the North Sea between northern Holland and eastern England. Then, after about 30 minutes, two Ju. 88 twin-engine fighter-bombers picked us up. We couldn't fire at them because they stayed out of the range of our guns. They fired rockets at us, two of which exploded in the near vicinity, causing much damage, injuring three crewmen in the waist position and knocking out our #4 engine, which was then feathered to prevent the propeller wind-milling. The two German planes then departed, heading back to Holland. We figured they were running short of fuel.
We were now losing altitude, so we jettisoned everything of any weight in order to lighten our ship. Guns, ammunition, Norden bomb sight, oxygen bottles, etc., everything and anything that wasn't securely fixed down. Thousands of dollars worth of equipment was dumped into the sea in an attempt to stay airborne. Despite all our efforts, we continued to lose altitude and we realized there was no alternative. We'd have to ditch. All of the crew, apart from Walter Bryan, one of our waist gunners, came forward to the flight deck. He decided to stay in the rear of the airplane. We never saw him again.
Preparing to ditch, all of the crew braced themselves on floor of the flight deck. I opened the escape hatch door and knelt down behind our copilot, Lewis "Rex" Worker. Lt. Rogillio flew the airplane with two overheated, failing engines on the port side and skillfully mushed our 30ton Liberator onto the surface of the sea, nose high. We felt the shuddering thumps as the wave tops brushed against the tail section, then the nose section dipped down and plowed into the water at approximately 100 mph. That's all I remember about hitting the water because the next thing I knew I was under the surface of the intensely cold sea, drowning.
I frantically pulled the cords to inflate my Mae West life jacket. Thankfully, I felt myself rising rapidly and came to the surface beside the leading edge of the starboard wing. I still don't know how I got out of the airplane. I must have been thrown through the windshield on the copilot's side, and when I eventually surfaced I saw the survivors of our crew on top of our rapidly-sinking B-24. I shouted to them to pull the two red handles on top of the fuselage. This they did and our two yellow self inflating life rafts came out and inflated. Al Malak, our radio operator, and Alex Takas, ball turret gunner, paddled one of the rafts over and pulled me aboard. Almost numb with cold, I immediately vomited all the sea water I'd swallowed. I then looked and saw that "Liberty Belle" had slid quietly beneath the waves.
They told me that Marshall Yorra, waist gunner, and Joe Reljac, tail gunner, had been crushed on the flight deck when the tremendous force of water hitting the top turret had collapsed it on top of them. The four officers had managed to clamber aboard the other raft; three had been injured in the ditching. Hughes had a fractured pelvis, Rogillio had cuts on his head, Worker had cuts on his face and his mouth was split open, the two pilots having smashed their heads into the instrument panel as our plane decelerated from about 100 mph to full stop in a matter of yards. Kelly was OK, as were Takas and Malak. I had cuts to my head, arms and legs. We'd hit the water at precisely 2:32 p.m., as my watch had stopped at that time.
We heard airplanes passing over us and shot numerous flares from our rafts into the sky, but it was dull and overcast so we presumed the returning bombers couldn't see the flares through the cloud. After the sound of the last airplane had faded away, we lashed the rafts together to prevent separation during the coming night and covered ourselves with the canvas in each raft. Although there was little wind and the sea was moderately calm, being December, it was very cold. There were tins of emergency food rations and cans of drinking water in each raft for which we were thankful as we drifted along with the light wind. We didn't know our position, only that we were closer to Holland than eastern England.
We huddled together under the canvas, keeping ourselves warm with our own body heat during that first long night. As dawn was breaking the next morning, we saw, off in the distance, what appeared to be a match stick. We paddled all that day and that night in the direction of what turned out to be a light house on the coast of the Netherlands.
We approached the shoreline and landed at about II p.m., 14 December 1943. Armed Germans were there waiting for us with flashlights and we were taken as prisoners of war. Our wounds were treated and then we were escorted by armed German soldiers, traveling by boat, truck and train through Amsterdam, Holland; Antwerp, Belgium, and then into Germany.
It was around Christmas time when we arrived at Dulag Luft, Frankfurt-on-Main, Germany. We spent some time in solitary confinement cells while the German interrogators questioned us. Rogillio, Worker, Kelly and Hughes were sent to Stalag Luft I, Barth, on the Baltic coast, a prison camp for Allied officers. In late December 1943, Takas, Malak and I were taken by rail, crammed into boxcars (40 hommes/8 chevaux), on a journey of about five days to Stalag 17-B, Krems, Austria, a large prison camp for Allied enlisted men: Americans, British, Poles, French, Italians and Russians. We had no idea what the future held for any of us.