Our crew, commanded by Lt. Stukas, had arrived at Wendling on October 15, 1943 as one of the early replacement crews and had completed eight combat missions when, on January 29th, 1944, we were awakened in the very early hours for our ninth and what eventually turned out to be our last mission.
The primary target was Frankfurt, central Germany. The misfortune began during the Group's assembly over East Anglia when one of our ships, from the 577th Squadron, had a terrible midair collision, in cloud, with one of the 432nd Group's Pathfinder B-24's with one of our original 392nd Group crews on board. From the two ships, a total of only three men managed to escape from the tumbling wreckage of the Pathfinder and survive.
Due to those same clouds which extended all along our route, with a few breaks, we lost contact with our Group's formation en route to Frankfurt. We decided to turn back when we failed to locate any other B-24's with which we could have joined up and so complete the mission as briefed.
Shortly after turning back, we came under attack by a swarm of German fighters and a running battle ensued for the next 20 minutes or so, in and out of the clouds at high altitude, but as our ship sustained and absorbed more damage we were forced down to 2,000 feet, losing altitude and on fire.
Our navigator and bombardier had been killed during the battle, our gunners were completely out of ammunition, three German fighters were coming in fast and lining us up in their gunsights so we survivors had no alternative but to bail out. I scrambled from the tail gun turret, went forward and hauled the ball-gunner up from his plexiglass turret. After standing at the open waist exit door for a moment, absolutely terrified as I looked down at the open countryside slowly passing below, I jumped into space. I've never forgotten getting out of that burning bomber.
I had no idea where I was as I floated down and landed clumsily in an open, freshly-plowed field. Quickly unbuckling my 'chute harness, I started running across the field, looking for a hiding place. As I was stumbling my way over the plowed furrows I saw someone waving frantically at me from the edge of the field to get down and stay down.
Little did I know that this was my first contact with the Belgian resistance movement. I immediately flopped forward, face-down on the soft soil and checked my wristwatch. It was 11.00 hours. I stayed as still as possible, face-down and hugging the cold, damp ground while hearing the distant shouting and yelling from German patrols as they traveled along the surrounding country roads, tracks and through woodland, searching for me and the other survivors from our crashed plane.
We'd been told back at Wendling that if we could manage to get through the first 12 hours in enemy-occupied territory without getting caught, there was a reasonable chance that the underground movement would make contact. I was very lucky because as soon as it began to get dark a resistance member came for me.
I soon learned, at first-hand, of the ingenuity, the bravado and the courage of the resistance organization. They hid me, together with two other crew members from our plane, in a small room built with wooden boards and corrugated iron, which had been dug underneath a haystack. The secret hiding-place was beneath the closest haystack to the road. Their reasoning was that a very obvious hiding place would be the last one to be thoroughly searched, if at all.
The resistance kept us supplied with sufficient food and drink during our time in the hide-out, visiting only after nightfall. Each and every time I heard an unfamiliar sound outside our haystack I had terrifying visions of Nazi soldiers stealthily approaching.
When the resistance decided the time was right for our next move, they made all the necessary arrangements for us to be issued with forged documents, civilian clothes and a guide to take us by train into the large, sprawling city of Brussels, Belgium.
I had just got off the train at the rail-road station in Brussels and was making my way through the crowds of milling people when I saw a German soldier, in field-grey uniform, walking along the platform towards me. I kept changing direction to avoid him, but clumsily walked right into him. I can only speak English, so there wasn't anything I could say. Luckily, he just laughed. So I laughed and managed to smile. He then said something unintelligible, I could only smile weakly in response and saunter away, my heart beating wildly.
Months later, when I became more accustomed to my behind-the-lines status, I would even ride the city street-cars, occasionally sitting beside German soldiers. If I was captured, I would be sent to a prisoner-of-war camp until the end of the war. What really worried me was that if any of the resistance people, who were hiding me in the city and transferring me to various addresses in Brussels in order to avoid the suspicions of neighbors, were unfortunate enough to be captured, they would either be tortured for information then shot, or shipped East to face the horrors of a concentration camp where death often came as a blessed relief. For this reason, the percentage of volunteers for the highly dangerous work involved in the resistance organizations, especially those with children, was very low.
Of course, there were a few exceptions. One of the key members of the underground in Belgium was British-born Anne Brusleman, a 39-year-old mother of two. I first met Anne in a Brussels basement in February 1944. She played a leading part in looking after us and arranging our moves to different locations. An estimated 130 Allied airmen eventually found their way to freedom because of her efforts. On one occasion the Gestapo managed to infiltrate the resistance network and caught one of her friends harboring shot-down American airmen. The father of the family was shot and the rest went into concentration camps.
The resistance members in Holland, Belgium and France were truly heroic people and took tremendous risks. A young woman, who I subsequently named my own daughter Jane after, was another typically courageous young woman.
She had previously been caught and beaten once by the Gestapo, but hadn't cracked under extreme interrogation and was subsequently released after managing to convince them of her innocence. Jane, and two resistance men in German uniform, would drive towards a specific border point where they tied her up. At the border crossing they'd say she was a prisoner being taken to France for questioning. When they wanted to get back into Belgium they'd use a different border checkpoint and drive through again.
I well remember the Belgian Count who was also a member of the resistance organization. He spoke fluent German and, with forged ID documents, would go to an airfield wearing a Gestapo officer's uniform, complete with skull and crossbones insignia, and dine at the officer's mess. In the meantime, Louie, the Count's chauffeur/handyman, wearing the uniform of a German Private and who was a quite extraordinary character, would wander around the airfield pouring sugar in the fuel tanks of their airplanes. They would do anything.
I had given my service number to the underground to notify the International Red Cross authorities, not realizing that Europeans use a small cross mark on the number 7 and, because of this, an error was made in transmitting my number. Subsequently, all the figure 7's in my number were thought to be figure 1's, so without any underground or German confirmation of my status the Red Cross reported me as dead. My mother, at home in Mabelvale, near Little Rock, Arkansas, was notified by our War Department that I'd been reported as "Missing in Action" and then, a little later, as "Killed in Action." But she adamantly refused to accept that I'd been killed.
During the following weeks and months, I didn't know what was going on. Someone would come to the house where we were hiding and say, "Let's go," and we'd go. We didn't know because we were not supposed to know.
After months of hiding at various locations, I sat in a Belgian café and witnessed the German Army in full retreat following the Allied invasion of France. It was really something to see. Thousands of German troops with their equipment (some of the trucks and staff-cars were being hauled by horses due to the lack of gasoline), jammed the road, barely moving, all heading towards Germany. I felt sorry for the plainly undernourished horses, but had not the slightest sympathy for the soldiers.
After being reunited with the American forces as the Allied Forces advanced across Europe, I was flown back to England in September 1944, and saw, from the air, the thousands of bomb and shell craters that marked the Allied advance from the Normandy beaches and extending back inland as far as the eye could see.
As we flew over the English Channel and the southern coast of England came into view, I vividly recall seeing one of the biggest and the most beautiful rainbows ever created.