At 2 p.m. that sunny afternoon of Nov. 2, 1944, our "big-ass bird", as we lovingly called the World War II Boeing B-17 bomber, The Worrybird, limped along on only two of its four engines, barely holding 2,500 feet of altitude. An hour earlier, our tail gunner died from antiaircraft fire over the target, an aircraft factory at Merseburg, Germany. Half an hour earlier, our radioman bailed out believing we were on our way down. With two engines knocked out by flak over the target, and without radio or use of gun turrets, we now struggled back toward England.
Because of the danger of flying so low over the enemy lines in Holland and Belgium, our pilot decided to land at a small airstrip he spotted just south of the Belgian border. With the electrical system shorted out, the engineer tried to crank the landing gear down manually while we circled the little airfield. But one landing gear jammed and the engineer told me later he, "Sweated blood trying to turn that damned crank."
As a substitute bombardier and nose gunner with The Worrybird's regular crew, this was my very first combat mission — the rest of the crew was on their seventeenth mission. Now my job was to drop the secret Norden bombsight out of the forward escape hatch because we weren't supposed to land in enemy territory with it intact. About the size of a casaba melon, I still remember the weight of the 30 pound bombsight cradled under my arm. I crawled to the escape hatch, turned the hatch handle, pushed the door open against the slip stream, dropped the bombsight through the opening, and watched it fall toward the earth where it would be destroyed upon impact. It became smaller and smaller as it fell until finally I could see it no longer.
I closed the hatch door and started to crawl back toward the front of the plane when, at the top of his voice, I heard the navigator shout over the roar of the engines, "Bill." I glance up and he pointed back over my shoulder. I turned my head and saw our copilot, who had just come down from the cockpit above, crouched in front of the escape hatch door I'd just closed. With a look of intense concentration in his eyes, he reached for and pulled the red escape hatch jettison handle. This pulled the hinge pins and the door flew off, and he rolled head first out into thin air.
When I looked back at the navigator, who was in a position to see what was happening outside, he shouted, "Go Bill, go," and signaled me to follow the copilot on out. With no idea why the copilot bailed out, but without thinking about it or even having time to be scared, I crawled back to the open hatch, crouched in front of it, and I too rolled out into thin air. Then, as I fell, I realized what had happened.
With the whistling rush of wind in my ears, I fell head first. I saw my feet and our B-17 beyond them, perhaps less than 100 yards away. It nosed down at about a 45 degree angle, its right wing trailing flames that stretched back as far as the tail assembly. Beyond the plane I saw the belly of a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf 190 fighter, obviously pulling up from what must have been at least a second attack on The Worrybird. And I saw the rest of the crew that had successfully completed seventeen combat missions over Germany, drop out of their beloved "big-ass bird" like peas out of a pod.
Well clear of the plane, I grabbed the rip chord, gave it a hard yank, and it trailed out above me while I continued to fall head first. Then it quickly blossomed open with a loud pop and whipped me around with a violent jerk. Suddenly everything went quiet while I drifted silently toward earth. I still recall how fresh the air smelled after hours of the odor of hydraulic fluid in the confined nose section of The Worrybird.
My eyes riveted in an almost morbid fascination on that magnificent hulk of machinery called the "Flying Fortress," while it angled ever steeper toward the earth, its left wing lower than the right. Within 30 seconds from the time I bailed out, it slammed into a hedge row about a quarter-mile away, exploded in a great ball of flame, and was instantly enveloped in a huge cloud of black smoke. My God, I thought, what a humiliating end to such a proud aircraft.
In a little more than two minutes from the time I bailed out, I hit the ground hard with my feet, my butt, and then my head. I rolled over, got to my knees, collapsed the chute, stood up, and got out of the harness. I looked around and saw the crew strung out in the middle of a large plowed field, only about 50 yards apart. Then I heard my down-wind crewmate shout that the man beyond him had broken his leg. I passed the word along and jogged over to him. It was our co-pilot with a grimace of pain on his face. Soon the remaining seven of us gathered around him.
While we tried to figure out what to do with the copilot, a grizzly little old farmer ran up to us and starting shouting at us in either German or Dutch. We couldn't understand what he said, but we understood his frantic gestures to get the hell out of there. He didn't want us caught on his farm where he might be suspected of aiding the enemy.
But we didn't know where we were — Germany, Belgium, or Holland, so I walked up to the little farmer guy and held up my hands until he stopped jabbering. Then I pointed in a northerly direction and said, "England." Then I point toward the west and said, "France." Then I pointed straight down at the ground and asked, "What is this?" He didn't understand those last three words, but he certainly understood what I wanted to know, because he turned his shriveled face up to me and answered, "GEER-mony!" That was his way of saying "Deutschland" in English.
About then someone said, "That's it. We've had it." I looked up and saw a cloud of dust rising from behind a small camouflage painted panel truck, headed in our direction, right across the plowed field.
The little truck bounced to a stop twenty feet from us and, I swear, at least a dozen German Wehrmacht soldiers spilled out the back door. They aimed their rifles at us and shouted, "Heben, heben!" Clearly, they wanted us to raise our hands. This we did, in complete surrender.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a dozen and a half civilians ran toward us to gawk at the "Yanki Terra Fliegers" (Yankee terror flyers). But these people were more curious than hostile. As country folk, they lived far removed from the terrible destruction of war in the cities and were more curious than angry.
Finally, the soldiers put the co-pilot in the truck, instructed the rest of us to gather up our parachutes, and marched us down a country road. I remember the worst part of that march was constantly trying to keep my silk parachute and its shrouds from slipping out of my arms and trailing on the road where I'd trip on them. After about three miles we came to a little Wehrmacht garrison where we officially started our six-month tour as prisoners of war.
That night, miserably billeted in a cold damp stable, we talked about our fate and the last flight of The Worrybird.