Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jim’s Ditching Story

            This is an abbreviated version of a much longer story I thought I would share as an illustration of the kind of useful information transfer that can take place online.  Before the arrival of the net, developing something like this was essentially impossible.  For instance, until many of the WWII veterans started retiring in the 1980s, most of them knew very little about the larger story they had once been a part of during the war.  My father, a 21-year old aviator in 1944, built a substantial WWII library and for most of his life, studied the Army Air Force he had been a part of. 

            The wide availability of the net arrived a little late for most of them, but many invested a huge amount of time and effort in further recording their experiences as young men.  Their communication tools:  a phone, mail, and Xerox copies of original documents.

            Jim never flew with my father’s crew although they did fly their missions during some of the same months of 1944, from the same Army Air Force base in England.  A few years ago, as I went through my father’s things, I found the beginnings of Jim’s story.  It was a 1-½ page typewritten letter and a few pictures Jim, then 70, sent to my father as his submittal for possible use in the Group’s reunion history.  Jim’s story wasn’t used; he passed away a year later.

            His brief letter didn’t contain much information, but as I read it I could sense the pride and strength in the once young eagle’s words.  He included a photocopy of his Goldfish Club patch and certificate, which suggested that there might be an interesting story beyond Jim’s words.  I dug into it.

            Here is Jim’s 1991 letter as he wrote it:

A Mission Remembered

“One of the most memorable of the thirty missions as a ball turret gunner was my sixth with the Squadron and the sixty third for the Group.

            “May 12, 1944 was to be a day not easily forgotten.  Our mission was to destroy a parts and repair plant, the Focke Wulf, in Swickau, Germany.

            “Early in our flight we were met with heavy German resistance.  In spite of the loss of one engine due to heavy enemy fire and flack, we were able to continue and deliver the bombs right on target.

            “Returning back to the base was a bit more challenging.  Two more engines were made useless by the constant German fire and flack.  The injured tail gunner managed to down one enemy plane and I downed two from the ball turret.  On orders we’re going to abandon ship.  Within a split second our plans were changed when the injured waist gunner accidentally kicked out another chute as he jumped.  It was decided that we would ditch in the English Channel.

            “As the plane lost altitude, everything of weight was thrown out (guns, ammo, radio), anything to make her lighter.  The plane took quite a beating.  We now had a B-17 with one engine and a flack ridden bomb bay door which could not be completely closed, heading for the channel.  The crew had a fatally hit tail gunner and a severely wounded navigator.  Under the skilled hands of Lt. William Moses, the plane skimmed the choppy waters and an unbelievable landing was made.

            “Our surprise of surprises came as those red handles were pulled and only one dinghy was found put aboard.  I have since learned that a stripe or two was lost due to the oversight).

            “The deceased tail gunner was buried with the fast sinking plane as the others got into the dinghy.  The dying navigator knew I was the only crew member on the outside of the raft, hanging on rather tight.  He asked the co-pilot that he be buried at sea thereby making room for one more, me.  Upon his death, his wish was sadly carried out and I was helped on board.

            “The sight of an English sea plane coming to our rescue made us more aware of being attacked by ground troops.  We were closer to the French boarder than first thought.  The rescue plane took two rough hits but we safely boarded and headed out.

            “After being released from the English hospital, where flack was removed and treatment was given, a week of R&R at Spetchley Park was quite a welcome change.  Then it was back to the base from where the remaining missions were flown.

            “Before leaving for the U.S., I was presented with a patch and a card making me a member of the Gold Fish Club.  On the way home I truly felt exactly what belonging to the “Lucky Bastard’s Club” made me. . .

            “Upon graduating in Larado from gunnery instructors school, it was on to Westover Field, Massachusetts.  Assignment at the Range ended about the time of V.J. Day.  Honorably discharged at Ft. Devens, I headed for Toledo with a new “Ruptured Duck” and a promise that was fulfilled six months later when a New England gal became my wife.  Looking back there is no doubt, I had the privilege to fly with a great crew that day.  As anyone reading this has experienced…some days were a bit easier than others but it’s great that I’m here to write this and that you are here to read it.  So it surely was a good cause after all…God bless America.           

Jim - 1991

                    Jim’s letter was puzzling in that he didn’t name any members of his crew.  A bomber crew was typically a very tight-knit unit, but in Jim’s case, as I discovered later, he was flying as a replacement with this crew…so, he didn’t know any of the others.  He had a story he wanted to tell, but it was really hard to figure out from his letter just what it was.  This is not uncommon when you read old accounts, or more recent accounts written by older men…we all tend to lose our sharp recollections over time.  However, I recognized the specialized terminology from having studied my father’s AAF service.

            There are so many similar stories that time doesn't permit developing them unless they touch my father’s experience.  Jim’s halting story intrigued me.  Within a few hours online, I had the names of the crew and a very narrow idea of what had occurred.  Within a couple of weeks I had the Missing Air Crew Report from Maxwell AFB and a much better understanding of the story.  Of the 10-man crew, 7 had been rescued, 2 killed, 1 bailed out and taken prisoner; and the rescue planes had come under fire from the shore about 4000-yards distant.  This was a far more dramatic event than most similar ditchings with which I was familiar.

            After taking the story as far as I could in 2007, I wrote up a brief piece summarizing the information I had, and posted an inquiry to one of the WWII Air Force forums.  Almost 4-years passed before the first response came in.  It was Jim’s daughter and she knew less than I did about her father’s ditching experience, except that it had happened.

            About a year later, after 5-years had passed, a great nephew of the “deceased tail gunner” and the pilot’s son got involved by comparing their notes and pictures.  The MACR contained a real collection of documents that included reports from nearby aircraft, from a German POW camp, and from several of the rescued crewmen themselves.

            Jim’s crew had been seriously shot up over the target, torn up further by Luftwaffe fighter attacks on the way out, and ultimately they ditched just offshore.  Unlike most ditched aircraft where the crew was killed, 7 of Jim’s crew managed to survive the ditching and escape capture aboard a rescue plane as it came under fire from the nearby shore.  As a result of the "deceased tail gunner's" distraught father being very persistent in seeking the details of his son’s death, the MACR was filled with far more information than are most others.  There are lengthy personal letters from several crewmen describing what had happened in much more detail than Jim wrote in 1991.
            Quite a bit more could be developed about these crews and this particular mission.  For instance, other researchers are working on the details of the mission itself and of individual unit locations.  It is known that the Luftwaffe fighters had repeatedly attacked Jim’s bomber stream in their devastating 10-abreast frontal attacks.  At this point in the war, these attacks were rare--the Luftwaffe had been severely damaged earlier in the year during "Big Week."

            The following is a page from Don’s personal journal describing Jim’s May 12, 1944, mission from Don's perspective flying in a nearby B-17…it was found quite by chance as I was preparing this essay.  These are his words, verbatim, as he wrote them into his journal after returning to base from the mission…it’s poignant to think that as he was writing these words, Jim and what was left of his crew were just being recovered from the English Channel:

 “We started out this morning at 8 O’clock, flying our own ship (400) as #5 in the lead.  Our route was between Dunkirk and Ostend.  A little way in enemy territory, we picked up a few of our escort (P47’s).  Then about half-way to the target, bombardier calls out about 10 e/a which attacked from 12:30 high.  They passed thru us not making any hits, or us on them either.  P47’s jumped, leaving us without dropping bombs on us (no effects seen) and attacked following wing.  That wing was lit up like a Christmas tree with 20 mm cannon fire.  I saw at least 10-12 B-17’s blow up or else go down out of control.  It was a horrible sight.  About 5 minutes later about 15 e/a passed thru our formation, causing one ship in high group to blow up, and a few other planes to feather props.  This was another head-on attack.  From then on to the target we were not bothered by e/a, but were also without visible fighter support.  Our bombs were dropped over primary target O.K., and from what I could see results were not good.  However, the other group really plastered the aircraft plant.  There was no flak there, but during the day we ran into scattered stuff, none of it accurate.  After the target, we picked up some P-38’s which “S” –ed overhead.  At that time we were attacked by 12 ME 109’s from 1 O’clock, a little high.  The escort didn’t seem to pay a bit of attention to them, which burned us up.  From then on the rest of the mission was without incident.  Our crew made no claims on e/a, and I saw only one fighter go down.  Peters (co-pilot) and Prendergast (navigator) flew with us, otherwise complete crew.  Flying time was 8 hrs. about 6 ½ on oxygen.  No damage to our ship.

            This was a helluva mission, and made me admire those old timers that flew without escort (note: just a few months earlier in 1943).  The Luftwaffe still packs a mighty wallop, if they want to come up and fight.  On visual missions, like today, we are going to see a lot more of ‘em. (Hope not!!!)”
            Most recently, and most astoundingly, one of the current descendents researching this story of his great uncle (the deceased tail gunner), found on eBay a picture of a lone B-17 shown in a large, but clear Army photograph.  He bought it knowing only from its markings, that the plane is from his great uncle’s Group.  He sent a copy of it to me after he received it.


             I was able to isolate the plane and enlarge the clear image.  The tail number identifies the aircraft as being Jim’s plane !   And the lower border nomenclature reveals that the mission is the one that Jim’s story tells.  You can clearly see smoke trailing from the off-side, outboard (#4) engine, #3 appears to be feathered, and there is visible damage on the horizontal stabilizer.  As related in the accounts, this plane was shot to hell.

            They were still aloft, by themselves at this point, in slow descent heading for their date with destiny.  And this is a fantastic story that began with a single posting to the net, about 5-years ago.  None of the survivors ever saw this picture...the story now belongs to their descendents.

Do you see any tears in my eyes?

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