5 November 1943... This was an exceptionally bad day, a fact which can be appreciated more readily when one realizes that the following excerpts came from "Chapter I" of my POW Diary manuscript.
Early this morning our new squadron commander, Myron Keilman, announced from the briefing room podium:
"The 392nd Bomb Group has been selected to lead about 750 bombers on one of the largest U.S. raids to date against the marshaling yards at Munster, Germany. The 579th is lead squadron."
After Keilman finished talking, he turned the briefing over to the operations officer.
"Lead crew 9-1," commanded Charles "Dutch" Holloman.
"Yes, sir," replied our pilot, William P. Nicholson.
"We expect poor visibility in the target area so two B-17 radar equipped Pathfinders will lead the formation. You'll fly right wing with them in the lead element."
"Yes, sir," repeated Nick, disappointed because today we'd just be a "wing man" instead of the leader.
The intelligence officer briefed next. "There will be heavy flak on the approach to the target and in the target area, the kind you can walk on." A quiet groan came from all the crews.
There was some good news; we'd have a fighter escort.
We took off a few hours later after a heavy morning fog lifted, crossed the Dutch coast with pure white contrails streaming behind each plane. Everyone below and in the air could see us coming. We reached our mission altitude of 24,000 feet, and ice had formed on the chest of my flight jacket from the steady drip of my oxygen mask.
The formation droned slowly over Holland toward Germany. Everything was ready for combat. There was no conversation except periodically when Nick had the crew check in to make certain that everyone was okay.
I watched for enemy fighters and listened to the squeals and the moans of my ball turret's motors as it swung around. Fleeting thoughts of home, girlfriend and family crossed my mind while the formation seemed to inch its way along the course.
We all became a little more tense when occasional puffs of black smoke began to appear ahead of us at about our altitude. German antiaircraft gunners were checking their guns and our range. Most air crews would much rather face fighters than ride through flak. With fighters we could at least shoot back.
"Fighters! Ten o'clock level!" snapped Ole's voice sharply over the interphone. I swung my turret and saw friendly and enemy fighters locked together in a furious dogfight. Our P-47 escort had arrived early, and were holding about 50 German fighters back from our formation.
The weather had cleared when we reached the IP and turned toward Munster. Some of our bombers started dropping bombs as soon as they had completed the turn over the IP. It was hard to comprehend why, because the target was clearly visible ahead. Bomb after bomb exploded far below in farm fields, hitting a few farm houses and barns along a road that pointed like an arrow toward the city.
"Dumb!" I disgustedly muttered into my oxygen mask.
Poof! Poof! The flak made distant soft sounds, but as it came closer the sounds became heavier.
Nick began the bomb run and turned the aircraft over to our bombardier, J.W. Hammond, and the bombsight. There were flashes all around us followed by sharp, thumping explosions that sent out shock waves that shook and rattled our plane. It seemed an eternity before we surged upward as Hammond shouted, "BOMBS AWAY!"
I watched the twelve 500 lb. bombs down, down, until they faded from view, then reappear as puffs of black smoke that blossomed into deadly flaming rosebuds. Most of our bombs hit in the city, but the last three landed, one in a large building beside the marshaling yard, another in the center of the yard and the last one in the Dortmund-Ems Canal next to the yard. Behind us, literally thousands of bombs spilled out from the formation to rip and gouge a flaming swath through the heart of the city.
Suddenly I flinched, startled by a blinding flash almost in my face, followed by an immediate deafening CURRUMPH from a huge explosion under our left wing. The plane bounced hard, our left wing rose up, and a big chunk of metal ripped through the fuselage next to my ball turret. A second hole, the size of a man's head appeared in our left wing.
"Ball turret to pilot. We've picked up a hole the size of a man's head in the left wing."
"Roger," came Nick's forced, calm reply.
It's a wonder our bomber didn't blow up, I told myself.
The bomber fishtailed, rolled and pitched through the violently turbulent air, which was churned up by the massive barrage of flak being thrown up at our formation. Nick and his copilot, L.D. Culbertson, struggled to hold the big plane's position through a wide formation-turn away from Munster, now blazing 5 miles below.
Angry flashes from German shells burst all around the formation. Shrapnel sounded like hail as it rattled against, and frequently cut jaggedly through, the thin aluminum of our plane. The explosions turned into ugly puffs of boiling black smoke, making obscene splotches against the blue of the sky, while the planes bounced on concussion waves and pilots fought to stay in formation.
Flak was bursting continuously in a tight cluster ahead of our plane. We were moving unswervingly toward that spot.
CRASH! A thunderous explosion jerked the bomber up hard, and it hung half-stalled in mid-air. For a moment smoke enveloped my turret, the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder stung my nostrils even through my oxygen mask.
Hammond, in the nose section, said later that he was slammed hard against our navigator, William Kary, who was manning the nose gun turret. They were both shocked to see a huge, gaping hole where the nose wheel assembly had been.
Our plane banked sharply, then went into a steep dive away from the formation, and oily black smoke streamed from the outboard port engine. On the flight deck, "We're losing altitude at a rate of 600 feet per minute!" shouted Culbertson, staring hard at the spinning instruments.
The two pilots fought to hold the plane steady, but had little control. Then we leveled off, long enough for our pilot to yell, "BAIL OUT! BAIL OUT!" over the interphone. The guys on the flight deck scrambled towards the bomb bay to jump clear.
Back in the nose, Kary and Hammond looked up toward the shredded flight deck bulkhead where wires, tubing, torn metal and dangling parts whipped in the wind that howled through the hole. Thick red hydraulic fluid streamed down the shattered bulkhead from the flight deck. They looked at each other and in unison yelled, "Blood!"
"They're dead up there," one of them shouted. "Let's get out of here!"
They bailed out through the hole.
In the area behind the bomb bay, I spun the ball turret searching for enemy fighters that were certain to come after us. Stragglers had little chance against fighters. "But we'll give'em a hell of a fight," I muttered to myself with grim confidence. Then the bomb bay doors opened. "Ball turret to pilot, the bomb bay doors opened again."
There was no response, but after dropping a few hundred feet more, the plane leveled.
"Bail-out!" shouted Nick over the interphone, and the guys on the flight deck rushed to jump out of the bomb bay.
"What did you say?" questioned a startled voice. It was me, wide eyed in the ball turret. I was keyed to fight, not to jump.
There was no answer, only the hiss of static. Nick had warned us that if he gave the bail-out order, he wouldn't wait around to answer questions. He was a man of his word. I scrambled to get out of the turret onto the rear deck. Both Olson and Martin looked startled as I hurriedly snapped my chest chute in place.
"What the hell are you doing?" bellowed Ole, yanking off his oxygen mask.
"Nick said to bail out." I shouted.
"We didn't hear the order," yelled Ole.
Bosworth left the tail turret and ran forward to see what was going on. He thought I had been hit.
"What's wrong?" he yelled.
With that the plane jolted us almost to our knees. "Oh my God!" Bosworth exclaimed looking back toward his turret. It had received a direct hit and leaned out from the tail section. WHAM! Something slammed us off balance again and a large piece of the right rudder disappeared.
I yanked open the bulkhead door to the bomb bay and the wind almost blew me over.
"Look!" I yelled, pointing toward the flight deck as someone dived out of the plane.
Ole stared in disbelief and headed for the bomb bay.
"I'm going forward to have a look!" he shouted.
I didn't need a look, and climbed up into the waist window. The right inboard prop stopped turning as I lunged out, but something snagged the harness, pinning me to the plane. The fierce pressure of the wind buffeted me and a deadly chill shot through my veins. What if I can't get loose?
Something hit me hard in the rump and I sprawled out into frigid space desperately clutching the rip cord. Then the tail of the plane flashed by. I swallowed hard and looked down at the ground miles below. Thin frigid air stung my face and the wind sounded as though a thousand screaming demons had grabbed me. I had expected a sinking feeling while falling like the ones on a roller coaster but felt nothing, just the wind and a terrible feeling of loneliness.
The crews had been warned during training not to pull the rip cord immediately, but to "wait for your body to slow down to a normal rate of descent. Otherwise the chute can shred or it can break your pelvis." What if this chute doesn't open? I wondered, then decided I'd rather get that bad news later.
Our instructors had told us, "In order to have a better chance to escape, delay opening your chute until you can see the bricks of the houses." But they forgot to say what to do if you couldn't find a brick house.
Finally, I could see boards on houses. This was far enough. I rolled over with my back toward the ground and feet pointed up at a 45 degree angle, then yanked the rip cord and started praying. There was a burst of white from the chest pack and the whisper of shrouds as they uncoiled, then a loud snap. My fall stopped with a jolt as the shoulder straps took most of the force. Overhead the chute billowed out into a great white cloud.
"Oh you beautiful thing," I gasped. "Thank you, thank you, God." Then I realized something was wrong.
When I pulled the rip cord my legs were apart and the chute deployed between them, so my shrouds led from the harness under my left leg up to the open chute. My knee was pulled almost to my chin, and I dangled like an insect caught in a spider's web. Damn! If I land his way I'll break my neck.
I frantically struggled until something in the back of my mind said, "Calm down! Don't panic!"
I settled down and started slipping shrouds around my leg. Finally the last one came free releasing the trap that held me. I was breathing heavily but could see that I was still quite a way up from the ground. I floated in a sea on silent air. I'm deaf, I thought, then I heard the sound of distant engines and saw a B-24. That poor guy's in trouble too, I concluded.
It came nearer, and I could see a smoking engine and the still blades of a feathered prop. It was my plane, headed right toward me. I watched nervously and wondered how to get out of its way. It came closer with three of its props spinning in a deadly, mesmerizing blur.
Suddenly a Me. 109 screamed out of a dive behind the B-24. The fighter's wings leveled as it closed fast. Its guns flashed in the distance putting out long bursts of cannon and machine gun fire.
Now the bomber was so close I could see the rounds chew into the shattered tail, then rip into the fuselage and wings. The ragged B-24 shuddered and veered slowly into a steep bank away from me. I exhaled a long-held breath.
The fighter kept coming at me, its black crosses gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight, and I thought, "This is it." The fighter swooped by in a slight bank while the pilot waved and saluted, and I returned his salute. He pulled up sharply and disappeared into the sun. I realized with great relief that the fighter pilot probably saved me from becoming mincemeat.
Below, the bomber slammed into the ground almost level, skidded, cartwheeled and was enveloped in dust and smoke. I looked up and tried to spot the rest of the crew, but there was only one other chute in sight, thousands of feet above me. A swarm of something whizzed past making a whispering sound. I followed the sound with my eyes and saw tracers disappear into the blue, while the familiar rattle of a machine guns reached my ears from the ground.
"Now what?" flashed through my mind. According to our intelligence officers "The enemy is supposed to capture, not shoot you!" Another burst of lead slammed by closer and sounded like a swarm of angry hornets. Something in my mind screamed, "The next burst is going to get you!"
I scrambled up the shrouds on one side of the chute, yanked the air out of it, and started dropping fast with the chute streaming in the air above me. I was afraid it would tangle and not reopen, but I hung limply in the harness trying to play dead and prayed the shooting would stop. The chute started to fill-out with air again, but the earth was coming up too fast and I slammed hard into a plowed field. Pain shot up through me like red hot daggers. I folded, stunned and paralyzed by the impact.
A strong gust of wind filled the chute which dragged me, face down, halfway across the field. Finally my muscles started working and I got to my knees, fumbling to dump the air out of my chute. Another gust of wind knocked me down. This time I was almost pulled into a narrow canal. I struggled and managed to get hold of the bottom shrouds and yanked hard dumping the air. I now had control and pulled the chute in, rolling it into a ball.
A fleeting thought crossed my mind that I might slip out of the harness and dive into the canal to escape. But I was immediately approached by three elderly farmers who seemed as frightened of me as I was of the pitchforks they pointed menacingly at me.
"Ist dis Holland," I asked in crude German.
"Nein, Deutschland," replied one of the farmers. His saying "No, Germany," just about destroyed any hope I had for escape. I thought that the plane might have flown far enough from the target area to have crashed in Holland where I might have been helped to escape.
Fortunately, all 10 of our crew had managed to bail out safely, but over the next two hours they had all been captured and we were brought together at a flak battery command center near Munster.
After the shoot-down, telegrams were sent by the War Department to the families of our crew reporting us as "missing in action." Mail arriving for us at Wendling was stamped MISSING and returned to the sender.