4 June 1944. It was a Sunday and the target was St. Avord Airfield, just south of Paris. It was a "no-ball" - short, not much reported enemy action, but it counted just as much as a trip to Munich. We didn't take off until 4 p.m. The procedure was to warm up, trim the autopilot and put it on "standby" en route to the target. I was a seasoned pro with eight missions under my belt, so I didn't bother with that minor procedure.
Everything was normal until the bomb run, when flak became unseasonably heavy and we received several hits. One or more tore through our rudder cables, which ran along the inside top of the aircraft, rendering our rudders inoperative. I switched on the autopilot, which took effect, but it was a struggle to keep the wings level. So I was alternating between turning the turn control from "full left" to "full right," with the plane leveling briefly, then starting to turn fully in the opposite direction.
When the time came to "open bomb bay doors, " I found that our hydraulic system had also been shot out. But "no sweat" -1 had the manual bomb release handle. At "bombs away" I pulled the handle, and away the bombs went. Unfortunately, the bomb bay doors went with them. While returning to England, I was having so much trouble flying in a stable manner I felt I was more danger to our formation than the enemy. Slowly, but surely, the rest of the squadron pulled away from me. The fear at this time, of course, was that enemy fighters would spot me. How they loved straggling, lone airplanes.
We hit the southeast coast of England at about 10:30 p.m., dusk, not dark. My idea was to land at that big, long runway at Manston, Kent. I'd recently read where some pilot had landed there with no hydraulic system. By that time I was over Manston Airfield and down to 1,000 feet to keep under the clouds. By the time I'd decided on how I would approach the airfield, and turned the turn control, the plane decided it was going to go straight on! After several vain attempts while the plane continued straight on, it finally dawned on me that I couldn't control it. The decision was then made to bail out.
One of my concerns was to not have the plane crash on land, so I took up a heading to the North Sea and explained the situation to the crew. The whole crew, apart from my copilot John Martin and I, went to the rear of the plane.
I gave the signal to bail out, three short rings on the bell for "stand-by to bail out" and one long one to "go." There was dead silence over the intercom for what seemed like forever. Then a solitary voice came over the intercom, "Dunbar won't go out."
Robert Dunbar, one of my waist gunners, was scheduled as the first to go in an emergency. This absurd scene was then repeated several times. It wasn't a situation I'd anticipated nor practiced. Finally, I told the second man to go, and the sequence then began operating as it should with Dunbar eventually going. We found out later that Dunbar thought we were playing a joke on him, and that after he jumped we'd all fly back to Wendling!
It eventually got down to John Martin and me. At times I have a weird sense of humor. I looked at John and said in all innocence, "Which of us goes out first?"
John's eyes opened wide, "Me, you dumb shit!" Then he bailed out. It's surprising how quiet and lonely it is to be all alone in a big airplane.
I was beginning to worry that I might be over the North Sea with solid undercast below, and I certainly didn't relish the though of landing in water. I did my best to trim the aircraft, check my parachute harness, unbuckled my seat belt and headed for the bomb bay.
Then confusion set in, and I drew a complete blank on the correct way to leave the airplane. I proceeded to attempt rather stupid things:
1. I grabbed hold of the bomb racks and stuck my foot into the slip stream as one would test a tub of hot water.... (That's not the way.)
2. I saw the oxygen tube extension flapping in the breeze and thought that I could shimmy down that until I got clear of the airplane. (That's not the way, either.) By this time, my thoughts went to the plane itself and the fact that nobody was at the controls. It was erratic enough when someone was flying it.
3. I grabbed the "D" ring of my parachute, bent over to tumble out and finally remembered one thing - do not hold the "D" ring before clearing the aircraft as you could most likely pull it too soon and get entangled on the plane. I took my hand off the "D" ring, looked down (nearly dark - about 11 p.m.) and thought, "There's no way I'm going out there not knowing exactly where that thing is." Ire-gripped it and jumped into space.
The `chute opened with a tremendous jolt that knocked all the wind out of me. When I drifted down through the clouds I could just discern the ground and thanked heaven it wasn't water. I then noticed I wasn't drifting in the direction I was facing so I reached up and pulled a couple of risers, which did nothing but threaten to collapse my parachute, giving me one more scare and the start of my gray hair. I eventually got turned around by just twisting in the wind.
The first place where I looked likely to land was a small forest, and I was sure I'd never survive that. Then I saw I'd miss the forest and end up in a field beyond the trees. I breathed a sigh of relief until I saw some movement in the field to my left. Good grief! A herd of horses were all looking up at me, and I immediately knew I would be trampled to death. Relief! I was drifting past them in the wind and towards what appeared to be a nice wheat field.
Now, for the final decision on how to land. Again I couldn't remember the recommended procedure, so I decided that I'd have my legs moving as fast as I could when I landed, and just slow down to a walk. However, I discovered later that there was a 25 mph ground wind, and I cannot run at 25 mph! The inevitable happened - I hit hard and immediately went face down into the wheat and the topsoil. I was being dragged along quite fast until my billowing parachute hit a barbed wire fence and collapsed. I couldn't get it off the fence, but I retrieved the pilot chute. By then, about 11:30 p.m., it was quite dark so I started walking.
About half an hour later a house appeared through the gloom. I went up to the front door and knocked. After a short delay the door slowly opened and about three inches of the biggest double-barrel shotgun I'd ever seen in my life was pointing straight at my head.
The chap who was holding the gun was a member of the Home Guard. At that time we were anticipating a possible German invasion prior to our D-Day and here, in a flying suit, was a blonde Aryan-type fellow out at midnight, claiming that he'd just bailed out - with no identification documents.
His wife appeared about 15 minutes later and seemed to believe the extraordinary situation. She gave me some milk and biscuits and talked her husband into accepting that I was an American. It then transpired that the chap had a friend who owned a local pub, so he called him. The publican agreed to open up and we went over and had a few drinks. I needed that! He later drove me back to Wendling. I'd landed about five miles south of the base.
Our tail gunner, John Wehunt, landed in an anti-aircraft encampment and was given a third-degree grilling all night long. Our bombardier, Harry Green, and navigator, William Forde, landed together in a yard where the owner had been saving a bottle of Scotch whiskey for "some special occasion" and he'd apparently decided that this was it.
Disposition of the crew: John Martin, copilot, never recovered from bailout and a sprained ankle and was sent home.
John Wehunt, tail gunner, was killed in action on 15 June 1944, when we were attacked by fighters during a mission to attack a bridge across the Loire River near Tours, France.
Glen Barnes, top turret gunner/flight engineer, suffered 32 wounds in his face and neck from splintered Plexiglas and flak when his turret was hit during the same mission. He never returned to the crew.
During that same mission (15 June) our two waist gunners, James Braceforte and Robert Dunbar, bailed out and later became prisoners of war after our oxygen system was hit, exploded and caught fire. We went temporarily out of control and they thought we were going down. It was our 13th mission.
On 13 July, the mission was to Saarbruchen, Germany. We went into clouds at 200 feet, were still in them at 12,500 feet and hit extreme ice (not briefed for) which froze the ailerons. We stalled, went into a spin and one thing I clearly recall is that the artificial horizon, which would spill at 110 degrees, spilled.
As it began to look hopeless, I gave the signal to "stand by to bail out," but both my navigator and bombardier, William Forde and Harry Green, bailed out on the stand-by. Unfortunately, we were over The Wash on a northerly heading at that time. They both landed in the sea, were drowned, and their bodies were washed ashore two months later. That left me with just three original members of my 10-man crew.
We finally got control of the airplane at about 3,500 feet, descended to below the clouds and headed for the first airfield we could find. My notes reveal it was Cambridge RAF Station. I recall the British gave me hell as I'd forgotten to tell them I had a full bomb load, but it was the farthest thing from my mind at the time. We landed there, waited for the weather to clear and then flew back to Wendling.