On my 13th mission, to Turin, Italy, I was in a slipstream, which quickly froze the exposed skin area of my face; I did not realize a problem until we were off oxygen and nearing base. I was grounded from 1-22 to 3-11, 1944,and I was given an opportunity out of Headquarters, to fly photo. The Mission on April 2nd was to Steyer, Austria. We were within minutes of Bomb Drop when an aerial rocket launched from an ME-109 exploded – taking the left wing from the #1 engine off. I was knocked to the floor, aware of fire, smoke. I was wearing my ‘chute’ that day and was lucky.
"Who Fears" is a brief history of the 301st and its four squadrons, beginning in 1942. It was authored by Kenneth P. Werre II and reports events that day- involving our aircraft, as follows. "Zuidema's B-17 was hit by fighters attacking from the front after turning at the IP. …Knocked off the Fort's wing at the number one engine. The Boeing flipped onto its back and fell into a spin. No parachutes were observed." Apparently I passed out and lost consciousness. I heard beautiful organ music from church back home. Mom and Dad and my brothers were attending Church with me. I became aware of pressure release and I was going to stand-up and go out the top radio room hatch-instead I was in space and in debris.
In space I could reach and touch the radio operator’s chair, bomb-bay door and other debris. I do not remember pulling the ripcord on my chute, but it opened. I soon realized that the chute had spun to the point where I could not reach the lines. I had thoughts of it collapsing. I fell through tall trees, in a mountainous area, breaking branches and landing on my back in snow. Those branches I'm certain helped me. The hills and forest area was quiet and peaceful, a welcome change. Finally got to my feet and looked around, saw a man in civilian clothes; he waved, as did I. Then soldiers appeared from behind trees with rifles and etc. Was searched, ordered to carry my chute, then I must have passed out again.
Approaching a large building at a lower level I noticed there were three soldiers putting a wing of a B-17 on a cart. They pointed to the wing, then to me with a circular motion. I knew it was part of our plane. I was taken inside a large building, stripped to the skin and left standing. A young girl came running, picking up my chute and ran back. I thought possibly I was the only survivor at this point. Finally they brought a few of my clothes back, taken to a table and given a plate of potatoes in a white sauce and a small bottle of beer. I couldn’t eat the potatoes, as the sauce tasted like wallpaper paste should taste. I ate what I could and the beer helped wash it down. Later, was led to a hospital, treated by a doctor and a nurse. Eventually arrived at Dulag Luft, which is near Frankfort, for downed airmen. I still had no dog tags and was placed in isolation.
To keep halfway sane I would count the grain in each board in the room. I spent a lot of time remembering the numbers on each board. Occasionally an ant or a bug would appear – it was a way to pass the time. When my last interrogation session had come, I sensed something was different as I was given a "Babe Ruth" candy bar, a "Camel" cigarette from a fresh pack and seated before an SS officer. His English was excellent. He took a loose-leaf binder from a shelf behind him and announced, "I know who you are – your mother's name is Blanche." and you came from Manchester, Iowa. He showed me the newspaper item from the Manchester Press, my hometown paper.
I was later led to an open area awaiting the trip to 17-B. On arriving at 17 -B, we were photographed and assigned a number. My German prison number was 106244. I was issued two blankets – one was a lace curtain, the other part of a carpet. It was several weeks before I got my first pair of resoled GI shoes and the blankets replaced. For our 1944 Christmas Day meal we had our usual cup of hot water for breakfast, I had five potatoes, all the size of a quarter or less and hot water for supper. Each Combine of 10 men got a loaf of bread, which was divided into 10 slices. Trying to divide oddly shaped loaves of bread 10 ways was one of many problems.
I assembled a small crystal radio set. The powers in the camp wanted this outside source of information so I had help in getting needed items. The headset came into camp by a German guard for the price of a few cigarettes, as did the crystal. A coil was made by wrapping a Pepico tooth powder tube with wire and thread. The larger you made it, the greater the range, and a magnetized needle. Wiring in the barracks was such that we could unravel it. On barracks checks, etc., I carried the headset, which consisted of one earphone, around my waist. My set was working the night that news of D-Day came in. Each radio operator reported to a news team who in turn delivered the news to each barracks after all news was confirmed.
The winter of 1944-45 was a cold one. We had to stand "roll call" at any time of day and often in rain or snow. We apparently were being punished and were held outside in formation for great lengths of time that winter in snow, mud and cold. We had no way of drying out or warming ourselves.
Both my feet started turning black, which became quite a concern to me. Our camp doctor treated me, which was all that could be done and I was given the privilege of remaining in the barracks while "roll calls" and "picture checks" were made. I don't recall how long this privilege continued. To wear shoes, when I was finally able too, I cut the toe section away and all that kept the sole of the shoe on was a strap over the toes and a shoestring around the ankle. I got a newer pair of shoes by the time spring came around.
Our library had copies of Hitler's "Mein Kampf' which I partially read. Its main purpose was to lie on my bunk. When the German's searched the area, this book became a helpful item. One particular barracks search, we were pushed out of the barracks, but walked around the outside and back in again. This upset the Germans, who then brought in the dogs. I was on top bunk and a dog came at me, I had a "billy club" and swung it hard enough so that the dog collapsed and fell. I jumped to the floor; others put the dog's paws over my shoulders and covered all with my overcoat. We walked to the outdoor latrine and dropped the dog down a 'hole.' The German's never found out what happened to one of their dogs, but we paid for it by having more "roll calls" and "picture checks." They also lost a ladder that day, which was never recovered….
Every POW (Kreigic) in the barracks had a three-legged stool. With one leg that could be removed quickly, and I used mine on the dog.
301st / 419th Sqdn 2-April 1944
Office of the Operations Officer
SUBJECT; Witnesses the accompanying Air Crew report on A/C No 42-31639
The following are statements of witnesses who last saw A/C #42-31639 before it was lost by this Squadron on 2 April 1944 while participating in operational mission.
"I was flying tail gunner of the plane in 1-2 position of the High Flight Sqdn. I saw the reserve plane of the second element A/C # 42-31639 move into the 2-1 position. Shortly thereafter the plane was attacked by an M E 109, which came in from about ten o’clock. It was hit near #1 engine in left wing and as it slid away, the B-17 turned on its back. 1 saw no chutes come from the plan, then lost sight of it."
(Signed) S/Sgt John E Stuart, Tailgunner
"On 2 April 1944, while enroute to Steyr, Austria, I was flying the tail position on the plane which was flying the 1-3 position in the High Right Sqdn. Shortly before reaching the target at approximately 12:00. Our sqdn was attacked head on by five enemy fighters. During this attack the plane flying 2-2 position in our sqdn was hit by an enemy rocket which blew off its left wing. The plane immediately went into a tight spin. The last I saw of it, it was spinning earthward, and no chutes had appeared"
(Signed) James L Morris Tailgunner
"I was flying tail position on the lead ship. 1 saw the plane flying in the 22 position attacked by M E 109 which came in direct from the nose. The B-17 was hit in the left wing by 20 MM fire. The wing was knocked off just at the # 1 engine. The plane rose and turned on its back and went down at 7 o'clock. At that time my attention was drawn on an enemy fighter and I lost sight of the plane. I saw no chutes.
(Signed) Loredam Champaene, Tailgunner