March 10, '45 was my sixtieth mission. From now on I'd be eligible for rotation home. It was a happy prospect. What wasn't was a 2,000' ceiling and 5,000' thick cloud cover by no means great weather to be flying combat in. Since I'd joined the 36th Fighter Group on August 1, 1944, a lot of good friends in the Group hadn't made it as far as I had. They'd either been killed or were missing in action.
Among them were pals I'd had gone to flying school with: Jack Wyand, Harry Vibert, and Joe Schultis. Others I recall missing from the pilot's roster of the 23 Fighter Squadron were Don Smollen (K.I.A.), Pit Cole (K.I.A.), Jack Teagarden (K.I.A.), and Don Dreifke (M.I.A.).
But the biggest loss for all of us was Major Albert E. "Easy" Miles, our squadron commander. His chute caught on the tail of his plane when he had to bail out. He went in with his plane. "Easy" Miles was one of the bravest men I have ever known.
The mission today is an armed reconnaissance in an area north of Frankfurt, Germany. My friend and roommate, "Maggie" Magnuson, will lead the squadron of two flights of four P-47 Thunderbolts. I'm to lead the second flight of four.
"Stay the hell away from the Remagen Bridge!" the briefing officer had told us.
The capture of the Remagan Bridge three days earlier had been unbelievably good fortune, and 1st Army was doing everything possible to protect this first bridgehead over the Rhine.
"There is a 15 mile no-fly zone around the bridge and any plane, and I mean any plane-Allied or German, that comes into this zone, is going to be shot down. So stay the hell out of there," he had repeated.
We took off from our Belgian base, and flew east-south-east over cloud cover. Not until we were well into Germany could we see ground through occasional holes in the overcast. In one of these, Maggie spotted a marshaling yard. He radioed the rest of us that he and his wingman were going down and take a look. The two planes of his second element tacked on to the four in my flight. We circled overhead at 10,000 feet and watched Maggie and his wingman dive down and disappear through the hole. Shortly, Maggie radioed up that he'd spotted some locomotives and that the rest of us should come on down.
I radioed my strung-out bunch to follow me and dove down through the hole and pulled out at 1,500' heading north. I saw the marshaling yard and lined up on it, made my bomb run, and released my two 500 pounders, then broke away in a steep 90° left-hand climbing turn. I looked back to see the havoc I'd wrought.
Terrible! My bombs had landed in some peasant's field and blasted a nice big hole in it.
In order that I wouldn't get run into by the planes following me, I climbed back up into the clouds again, made a 180° turn, and came back down out of the clouds and tried to find the locomotives.
I was flying was a brand spanking new P-47D30RA - my plane had been grounded for maintenance. A new plane has the smell of a new car, and I babied this cream-puff along like an old man out for a Sunday drive while I looked for the locomotives. At the same time I was thinking about the marvelous rest leave I'd just returned from in Cannes on the Riviera.
"Ker-thunk." The plane was hit! I didn't even know I was being fired at. No flak, no tracers, no indication of any enemy fire at all.
Aluminum skin over the wheel well on left wing was buckled up. Inside was a raging fire. Every pilot's reaction to such an emergency is to check his controls, and I kicked the rudder pedals. WOW-the fire just spread the length of the wing.
What to do? I could fire-wall the throttle and try to go back on the deck and pray the fire wouldn't get so bad I'd have to bail out. If it did, there wouldn't be time to gain enough altitude to jump. Another problem was, I couldn't remember if there was a bulkhead between the wing root and gas tank under the seat. If I guessed wrong-Blooey!
Then there was the Ramagen Bridge. I guessed it was about 70 miles due west of my position, and if I made, it I'd be shot down by our own people.
My next option was to go up through the 5,000' of cloud cover on instruments, then head for the lines. At least I'd be able to jump, if the plane didn't blow up first. But I was a lousy instrument pilot, and with the plane on fire, I would be watching the fire and not my instruments. No way.
The next choice-jump! The decisions took less than 10 seconds before I started my bailout procedure. I ripped off my oxygen mask, ejected the canopy, and rolled the plane upside down, ready to drop out, exactly as the book said.
Problems: First, I hadn't rolled the trim tabs forward to keep the nose up, when the plane was upside down, and it kept diving towards the ground. Second, you just doesn't "drop" out of a plane going 150 miles an hour. That's no gentle zephyr, and it keeps you jammed in the cockpit. Third, upside down, I was kicking at the stick to keep the nose up, while struggling to get out against slipstream, and I saw I was still hooked to the radio umbilical.
Then pow! Out I went, like a cork from a champagne bottle. I had wriggled out just far enough for the slipstream to grab me instead of holding me in. It was the fastest I've ever gone anywhere, anytime - the radio umbilical didn't slow me down one whit. Forever etched in my memory is the image of the vertical stabilizer going right between my legs. The thought still makes me cringe.
Flight school didn't include practice jumps; from now on it would be on-the-job-training. At best, I was at 1200' and didn't dare observe the nicety of counting to ten before pulling the rip cord. I yanked it. The chute serpentined out and opened with a lovely "WHOOMPH." and had he been there I would have kissed Sergeant McElroy, our parachute rigger.
As the plane flew away-engine roaring-I suddenly felt like two people. One, a stranger, parachuting into Nazi Germany. The other, who was going to get back into plane and fly back safely to the base. This horror just couldn't be happening to me! When the plane crashed into the ground in a huge explosion, I knew I wasn't going back to the base-and I became one person.
Suddenly, everything became quiet-even serene. The first sounds to filter into my consciousness were of the birds singing beneath me. It was eerily disorienting, but beautiful. As I drifted down, Hollywood images of Germans machine-gunning defenseless Allied pilots in parachutes flashed into my mind- I waited?
I pulled on the parachute shroud lines, to control my descent, but I feared if I pulled too hard I'd dump the air from the chute and crash to the ground so I gave it up.
The ground was coming up faster, and I saw a barbed wire fence I might straddle. Then the ground blurred, and I was on it in a heap. I looked around to see that I was in the back yard of a large house on top of a knoll. The six foot hurricane fence that surrounded the property was ample proof that the best way into this place was through the top. Down the knoll I saw a small town.
We had been told in Escape & Evasion lectures that the first thing to do is to hide your parachute. If the Germans found it, they would have a place to start tracking you from. Okay, I gathered up the chute, took it into a shed near the back of the house, and crammed it down behind a woodpile. Outside again, I went around to the east side of the house and looked for a gate-no gate. I hurried back around the house to the west side to see if there was a gate there and came face to face with, what else, eight or ten German civilians on the opposite side of the fence.
Their leader was a wild-eyed string bean of a guy that had a Luger pointed straight at me. My arms shot up in surrender. We stared at each other, wondering who was going to do what next. They seemed as surprised as I was and nearly as scared.
They motioned me to go back around the house. I did, and when I was screened from them by the house, I took out my 45 Cal. automatic, threw a shell into the chamber, left the safe off, and shoved it back into my holster. I would go down with all guns firing!. When I rounded the east side of the house, where I had looked the first time, there was a gate big as life and the Germans waiting for me. Again, my arms flew up in surrender, and they took the forty-five.
We started down the knoll towards the town, with me out front like The Pied Piper of Hamlin with a gun in his back, I think every kid in town showed up. They hooted and hollered at me in the German equivalent of, "We gotcha, We gotcha!" Kids are are kids. In my best military manner-head up chin in-I tried to ignore them and the dour stares of the adults that had joined the parade.
That morning I'd given extra care to my uniform-boots and brass polished. I even wore a tie. If I was going to be their prisoner, at least I could be a proud officer and gentleman of the U.S. Army Air Force.
There was a a small factory at the edge of the town, where they led me down into a basement office. The room was maybe eighteen by eighteen feet with solid concrete walls. The first thing they did was make me strip off every stitch of clothing. They must have thought I was hiding secret papers or weapons. I did as ordered. However, standing stark naked in front of a bunch of people, to whom I'd not been properly introduced, lacked a certain propriety. But I didn't have much choice.
About now, they decided to unload my forty-five. This set off the damnedest brouhaha and commotion among them as none of them knew beans about unloading a Browning 45 Cal. automatic. I was the only person in the room who knew there was a shell in the chamber and that the safety was off. If that forty five went off, in this eighteen foot square concrete room, the carnage would be unbelievable. I wouldn't die with my boots on; I'd die with nothin' on.
Naked as I was, I desperately pantomimed how to unload the piece. They thought I was trying to get the thing back and yelled and cursed me. But I kept at it, and it finally dawned on them I was trying to help, and "we" unloaded the forty-five. It was a scene right out of a Three Stooges comedy.
When they found I didn't have any hidden weapons or secret documents on me, they let me get dressed and marched me over to the burgermeister's office. The kids of course, tagged along and continued badgering me. They were no longer amusing.
Of the four or so Germans in the burgermeister's office the Burgermeister was the kindest. If he hadn't been there, I believe the others would have made short work of me because of the devastation and civilian deaths that resulted from Allied bombing.
Two self-important uniformed officials came in and took over. I had no idea who they were or could I understand a word they were saying. But I got the feeling they weren't sure what to do with me, and I began saying, "Luftwaffe, Luftwaffe."
If captured, we had been told to try to get in the hands of the Luftwaffe-comrades-in-arms, that sort of thing. The next choice was the Wehrmacht, and most of all try to stay out of the hands of the Gestapo, SS, and the civilians. At least these weren't the Gestapo or SS, and the "Luftwaffe" suggestion might work. I must have said the right thing, for the leader quickly started to telephone.
He greeted the person at the other end of the line with a loud, "Heil Hitler," at the same time his arm shot up in the Nazi salute. I couldn't believe it. I thought this only happened in Charlie Chaplin movies. Whatever he said was Greek to me, as I spoke no German. But it seemed to have solved the problem.
I was dying for a cigarette, and with a lot of gestures was able to persuade them to let me have one. I sat ramrod stiff in the straight backed chair, and puffed away "by the numbers" in my best officer and gentleman pose.
The moment didn't last. A man in peasant clothing stormed into the room and began screaming and hollering at me. Then he smashed the cigarette from my hand. I had no idea what was going on. Through a little French, I finally realized he thought I had killed his wife and children. I couldn't have, unless they had been out in the middle of the field where my bombs had landed. No doubt his family had been killed at some point, and, for that, he was taking out his rage on me.
In French he yelled, "Pourquoi? Pourquoi?" (For why? For why?)
My only answer was, "C'est la guerre." (It is war.)
It was the wrong thing to say. He jumped on me, and beat on me with his fists. I didn't dare fight back and just curled up in a ball. The other Germans finally pulled him off and shoved him out of the room. I was damned lucky he hadn't captured me first.
The situation calmed down after he left, and I was turned over to an older man in uniform. I thought he was the town constable. He took me outside, picked up his bicycle and motioned me to come with him. The kids were still with us but had stopped their antics. We walked through the town, until he stopped at a house in the middle of a block. He leaned his bicycle against a low brick fence and went up the walk to a side entrance.
What followed was the greatest pantomime I have ever seen. The constable stood outside the door in profile to me, apparently telling an unseen wife that he had to take this vicious "Terraflieger" to the airfield in Giessen, and that he would be late coming home for supper. But it was just as obvious from the look on his face and the lecture he was receiving that she didn't believe one word of it. She must have yelled that all he wanted to do was to go to Giessen, get drunk and chase girls.
He argued back furiously, while pointing down the walk at me, but staring straight ahead at her. Didn't she realize the importance of his mission and what a hero he was? Finally this shrew's face pops out from behind the door, like a Jack-In-The-Box, she craned her head to see the "Terraflieger." Pop-eyed he'd been telling the truth, she jerked her head back into the house as quickly as it came out. The constable turned and strutted back down the walk full of himself, muttering, "Boy-did I ever tell her!" I didn't understand a word of what they said, but I didn't have to.
The constable shoved the kids aside. He mounted his bicycle and motioned me to get going. I trotted along slowly, as he did S-turns to keep from falling off the bike. The kids had tired of the game and quit. I said the hell with running and slowed to a walk. The constable got off his bicycle, and we walked out into the beautiful German countryside-alone.
The constable was an older man, and I gave a thought to overpowering him and escaping. But he kept the bicycle between us and his Luger on the far side. He knew what I was thinking and was prepared for any tricks I might pull. If I tried it one of us was certain to be killed. If I did escape, I had no food or anything else I would need to survive. It was seventy mile trek to our lines. The risk wasn't worth it.
We plodded along silently into the late afternoon sun. Each deep in his own thoughts. In about an hour I guessed, my watch and all my other possessions had been liberated back at the factory-we came to an airfield in Giessen.
The constable turned me over to the Luftwaffe and without ceremony they dumped me into a cell. My sixtieth mission was incomplete and all hopes for rotation home- shattered.
Note: by 1st. Lt. Philip N. Wright, Jr., 36th Fighter Group, 23rd Fighter Squadron, 9th Air Force