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More than one general has redeemed faulty dispositions and won fame by a suitably glorious death.-- James Lawton Stokesbury
A Window in Time7267 Reads
The date was the 25th of March 1945 and the target was the underground oil facilities at Buchen, Germany (about 6 miles east of Hamburg). The 448th could have easily stood down this day. Yesterday's costly mission took a toll of eight B--24's that were lost to ground fire when we dropped supplies to 40,000 British paratroopers that had just crossed the Rhine River at Wesel, Germany.
This was a specially designed mission that took us over the battlefield at 100 feet for a parachute drop of medical, food, ammunition and a Howitzer Cannon that was stowed in the cavity where the ball-turret had been removed. Admittedly, this was not a great mission for the high flying B-24. So much for low level missions using the heavy bomber.
After 2 hours of forming we departed Seething Air base at 0600 as a 28 plane formation. We were on our 23rd combat mission with only 7 more to go before being rotated back to the states. Severe weather over the North Sea resulted in one squadron becoming detached from the rest of the 448th Bomb Group. However, the remaining 20 bomber formation proceeded to the designated target. As expected, flak was experienced over the Dutch coast and again around the target area. The bomb-run at 20,000 feet was successful and the target was destroyed with precision.
At bombs-away the group was attacked by a swarm of ME-262 jet fighters. Coming out of the sun, the world's first jet aircraft concentrated on our below strength bomber group. This would prove to be a black day for the 448th. Four bombers would be shot down over Germany and two would manage to make it home only to be written off as salvage. Lt. Stallard's B-24, our lead aircraft with the radar bombing equipment, blew up in midair. Only the Radio Operator, who was blown clear of the aircraft, managed to survive the explosion and sat out the rest of the war as a POW. Lt. Todd's plane was mortally hit and turned and headed north for Sweden. Later, that plane ditched in the Baltic Sea. Three crew members managed to survive and were picked up and interned in Sweden. A second pass of ME-262 fighters took out Lt. Steffan's B-24 by strafing it from wing to wing across the flight deck and killing the pilot, copilot, flight engineer and radio operator. Their plane eventually crashed into a shoe factory in the town of Schneverdingen. Only the navigator, Lt. Gottlieb, managed to bail out and survive. He too was taken prisoner.
Our B-24, Do Bunny, piloted by Lt. Paul Jones, immediately took extensive damage including the loss of one engine on fire. The engine was subsequently feathered and the fire extinguished. We maintained formation until a second ME-262 pass on the squadron. This time we responded with all four gun turrets blazing 50 caliber bullets. However, we took several more 20 MM cannon hits, including the loss of a second engine that proved be fatal. Time seemed to stand still. The flight engineer was knocked out of his top turret and he dropped to the flight deck. The Plexiglas in the rear turret shattered in the tail-gunner's face. Fuel and hydraulic fluid from pierced pipe lines were pouring and swirling out of the still open bomb bay which we were never able to close. Do Bunny was in real trouble.
After the second fighter pass we were forced to drop out of formation. We began a gradual decent to lower altitude. Jones ordered all crewmen to prepare for bailout. He also instructed the crew to lighten the aircraft. We threw out everything that was not nailed down -- flak suits, oxygen bottles, ammunition, the waist guns, and even the radio equipment.
Our navigator, Lt. Herman Engel, could see the heavy clouds of smoke caused by our heavy bombing in the Hamburg area. He was able to set a coarse towards Wesel on the Rhine where the British Paratroopers had landed just the day before. I guess that we never really expected to make the Rhine but we did not have many options to consider. We were 220 air miles from friendly territory and we had flown about 50 miles in our crippled condition. Then a third engine over heated and had to be feathered. It was now evident that Do Bunny was not going to make it back.
On our sixth mission we had experienced an emergency landing with our skipper at the controls. We had been on a typical bombing mission to Worms, Germany when we lost a single engine to flak over the target and a second engine became marginal. Jones maintained formation until we were over friendly territory. Rather than risk the 120 mile run to England over the icy North Sea, he elected to make an emergency landing. We landed on the only runway we could find, which was a PSP mesh fighter strip on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. Needless to say, we ran out of this short runway in a hurry and settled in the Belgium countryside. Our B-24, Pregnant Lady, was written off as salvage as two engines were completely burned-out during landing. The successful emergency landing was a great confidence builder for the crew and especially for our pilot. We were indeed grateful for his judgment and piloting skills. The crew had all discussed how difficult our chances of survival might be should we have to bail out over enemy territory. In those days, late in the war when the conflict was going badly for the Germans, the civilians and certain military personnel like the SS and Gestapo were reported to be killing downed Allied airmen. This fact came straight from our Air Force Intelligence at mission briefings. The best chance, if possible, was for the crew to stay together as a group with the hope that the Luftwaffe or the regular German Army would take prisoners of war. This previous emergency landing had a great deal to do with the decision to ride out any subsequent crash landing in enemy territory. Another primary factor in our current situation was the extreme low altitude reached after we lost the third engine. It appeared doubtful that we could survive a bailout under all of these conditions.
Lt. Jim Mucha, our copilot, selected a suitable flat area directly along our flight path to set down our crippled B-24. We landed wheels-up in a field only 500 yards from downtown Soltau, Germany. Jones struggled with the controls just to keep the wings level. The crew had assumed its ditching positions. All went well until a wing dipped into the ground as we lost speed and then all hell broke loose. When that happened the plane just broke apart.
The three crew members in the waist, the tail gunner, the waist gunner and the ball turret gunner were able to jump out of the plane onto the ground. The cockpit was split wide open so the pilot and copilot were able to crawl out of the wreckage. All five were immediately confronted by angry town folk with pitchforks. Then two SS Officers appeared on the scene and the five were run into town and up against the wall of the Mehr Hotel. They were eventually taken control of by a German Officer in the Wehrmacht Army who was in charge of the Soltau Riding Academy. He had his soldiers and the manpower to take control over the civilians and the SS. He took the crew to the Riding Academy and locked them in the stables.
The remaining four of the crew, the Navigator, Flight Engineer, Nose Gunner and I, the Radio Operator, were trapped on the flight deck and still in the wreckage. We were pinned there when the top turret broke away from the airframe and lodged in the flight deck well. The Navigator and the Flight Engineer were unharmed and finally got out after German soldiers axed their way into the fuselage. The Nose Gunner and myself were not so lucky. The top turret had pinned our legs which were broken. The soldiers, including the town Burgomaster, spent considerable time and effort to hacksaw and pry the top turret enough to set us free. They put us on a horse drawn cart and took us to the town hospital where our legs were set and put in soft casts. We then rejoined the other crew members that were now locked up at the Riding Academy. The next morning troops from the German Luftwaffe arrived from a nearby ME--262 air base took over. Lt. Gruenhorst, the Riding Academy Officer, was relieved because he had been worried about the SS Officers and his confrontation with them the day before. We stayed at the air base one night and were then transported to Penneberg, an interrogation center for captured airmen. After four days in single solitary cells (the kind of stuff you see in movies) we were taken to Hamburg and shipped in railway boxcars, with other recently captured airmen, to Stalag Luft I Prison Camp in Barth, Germany. To this day, my copilot, Jim Mucha complains about having to carry me on his back through Hamburg but I counter by reminding him that I took all of the rocks thrown as we were paraded through the streets.
In late May 1945, the Russians liberated our prison camp. Just before the Russians overran the area the Prison Commandant ordered an evacuation and forced march of all prisoners. Colonel Zemke, our senior camp officer, refused to give the order to march. The next day revealed that the German guards had fled during the night and left us to our own device. Colonel Zemke, along with Lt./Col. Gabreski, went out to meet the Russians to make sure that they didn't mistake our camp for a German area and shoot up everything in sight. These Russian troops were the advanced units with a search and destroy mission. Our senior officers made arrangements with the Russians to contact the Eight Air Force and advise them of our situation. It was then just a matter of time before the 8th Air Force flew into the airfield in Barth to get us the hell out of there. All 7,717 American Airmen from Stalag Luft I were flown to tent cities in France to join 90,000 other liberated Americans to await transport back home. Some prisoners had been incarcerated for nearly four years during the US Army Air Corps 1,000 day War over Germany.
A young 12 year old German boy, who was a member of the Hitler Youth Corps, watched our crash landing. Gerhard Bracke was that boy's name. Today Mr. Bracke is a University Professor and a part time WW II aircraft historian. It was during this past year that he made it his goal to find out what happened to the crew in the bomber that he watched as it crash landed. Many of the details, that we never knew from the German viewpoint, were revealed by Brache's research. He was instrumental in locating the survivors of that crash still living today, and brought us together for a 50th anniversary reunion in Dayton, Ohio during the fall of 1995. Gerhard Bracke flew in from Germany to join us for the celebration. The German Officer in charge of the Soltau Riding Academy was a Lt. Joachim Gruenhurst. He watched our B-24 pass directly over the academy and thought it would explode any minute. But there was no explosion nor any sound of any crash so he assembled several soldiers and took off to find where the bomber had gone down. In locating the wreckage, he directed all his attention to freeing the trapped crewmen inside. He then went into the town square where the others were herded. An SS Officer was inciting the angry German civilians and Lt. Gruenhorst initiated an argument with the SS Officers as to who had the authority to take the prisoners. It was probably only because Gruenhorst had several soldiers with him under his command that he was able to take those crew members back to the Soltau Riding Academy stables. He probably saved all of our lives.
The reunion in Dayton was a huge success. Gerhard Bracke arrival from Germany was a complete surprise. Of the nine original crewmen, five are still alive. Four of us made it to the reunion; Paul Jones, the pilot; Jim Mucha, the copilot; Herman Engel, the navigator; and me-- the radio operator. Mr. Bracke brought additional information he had gathered on our crew such as the official missing crew reports from other bombers that had seen the four bombers of the 448th Bomb Group go down that day. Bracke also had the biography of the German pilot, a Lt. Rudolf Rademacher, who shot us down. Rademacher had 118 victories in the ME-109 and 8 more in Luftwaffe's hottest jet, the ME-262 ( At least we were not shot down by an amateur). Lt. Rademacher survived the war only to die in a glider crash in 1953 about 10 miles from where we crash landed. Poetic justice.
Bracke also brought a personal letter from Lt. Gruenhorst who still lives in Soltau and a letter from the Mayor of Soltau inviting our crew to a City Of Soltau reunion in 1996. A highlight of Bracke's research was his uncovering of five photos of our crashed bomber that laid in the archives of the Soltau newspaper since 1945. What a treasure to acquire after all these years.
So, that is my story. Four planes shot out of the sky in minutes and only our crew survived intact. With hundreds of holes in our B-24, no one was seriously wounded or killed. Why didn't the plane burn or explode in flight or upon crash landing. Was it just luck or was God the "tenth man" man in our crew that day. --- I would like to think that he was.
Note: by Charles W. "Chuck" Blaney.
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