Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Descent into Captivity

by Wayne W. Livesay, 1985

Although this experience occurred over forty years ago, it still stands out as the most vivid event in my life. As I look back in sentimental memory, I find the story sobering, quite humorous, and worth retelling.

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It was August 9, 1944. The day began as just another Wednesday for me and the other members of bomber crews stationed in England. We were awakened around 2:00 A.M., had breakfast about an hour later, and attended mission briefing at 4:15. The target for this day was Munich with our group scheduled to plaster Nazi airfields on the outskirts of the city. We had been to Munich before and had neutralized these targets, but the Germans had rebuilt the runways which gave us an invitation to return.

Takeoff was uneventful as the fully-loaded Flying Fortress lumbered down the runway and became airborne with all four engines straining in rhythmical accord. Assembling into wing formation was completed with ease, and by 7:30 A.M., we were at 8,000 feet and climbing on course toward the North Sea. Before reaching the enemy coast, all guns were tested and we were ready for what was to become my thirty-third and last time to participate in a bombing run over Hitler’s Europe.

From the standpoint of enemy action, this was one of the easiest missions I experienced. As we moved inland over Holland without seeing a burst of flak, I thought of those rough days during ’43 when we couldn’t stick our noses across the English Channel without doing battle with the cream of the Luftwaffe based along the coast. This day was also a far cry from the missions where much flak and numerous fighters were thrown at us in strikes on Berlin, Schweinfurt, and targets in the Ruhr Valley. On this final trip to Munich, I did not see a single enemy plane and very little antiaircraft fire was dispatched in our direction. Our 54-plane group was just a small portion of the large armada which left England that day to pulverize targets throughout Europe. We were virtually unopposed – the air war had been won.

It was not until were approaching the coast of Holland on our way home that I was forced to reassess my complacent reasoning. Flying over an area where no German antiaircraft guns were plotted and with no fighters in the area, we took an attitude of “mission completed” and were almost ready to begin our letdown from 23,000 feet before adversity took control of the mission. As I gazed down upon the scene below, I was thinking ahead to the huge steak I would receive when we arrived back at the base. Steak was a rather rare commodity for us except upon our return from a combat mission, and each of us looked forward to the routine of selecting a choice chunk of beef and having it prepared under our personal direction. The cook at the combat officer’s mess never served a steak less than two inches in thickness and the caliber of preparation was such as to put most top-rated restaurants to shame.

My thoughts were suddenly interrupted as I heard a loud “Bang” somewhat similar to the noise of an exploding firecracker. In the same instant the plane flipped upward and we spiraled lazily out of formation. I wasn’t sure what had happened as the physical sensation was about the same as running over a rock or metal object in an automobile and having it thump against the underside of the car.

We were able to level off at 21,000 feet and continue on course toward England. Apparently we had received a direct hit from a burst of flak knocking out two of our engines, but at our altitude this in itself presented no reason for panic. No one had been injured by the blast and we thanked God for seeing us through this narrow chasm of disaster.

Since we were now alone without fighter escort, all gunners were cautioned to be alert for the Luftwaffe who might be in the vicinity and looking for cripples such as us. We flew along for about two minutes and I once again started to think of the base, a shower, and most of all…the steak. I then had my dreams destroyed as I heard twelve words that should go down as the most disruptive sentence ever put together. One of the gunners came on interphone and in a voice as calm as an experienced mortician stated, “Sir, you’ve got a fire on top of number three gas tank.”

When I looked out the right window and saw a hole in the wing with fire coming out and the aluminum peeling backward, there was an emptiness in my stomach which defied description. The hole in the wing was rapidly increasing in size and the escaping flame reminded me of a blacksmith’s forge as it shot forth with leaping force. I knew in a glance that my bombing days were over and that I wouldn’t enjoy a steak for many days to come. As the bail-out alarm was sounded, I picked up my chest chute and secured it to the harness I was wearing. There was no panic as I and other crew members seemed to move like precisioned robots in accordance with practiced procedure for abandoning the aircraft. Later, while lying in a cold cell during my first night as a prisoner of war, I experienced a seizure of fear as I recalled the events of the day; but while the incidents were taking place, we didn’t have time to be afraid.

I had never made an actual parachute jump, although all bomber crews received extensive training in both ditching and bail-out procedure. The one concern going through my mind as I prepared to exit the plane was that I might hit one of the open bomb bay doors which were located just a few feet to the rear of the escape hatch under the nose of the plane. We had witnessed one man meeting his fate after a B-17 had been hit by flak over Berlin as his chute seemed to open prematurely causing him to be swept backward into the bomb bay doors. Although I tried to think of more pleasant things, it was impossible to dismiss this adverse image from my mind.

By this time all escape doors were open and members of the crew were bailing out. The plane had become a roaring inferno when it came my turn to crawl to the exit. Without stopping to look, I lowered my head and pushed my feet against a side bulkhead. In an instant I was clear of the aircraft and started my downward journey.

Once out of the plane I experienced a sudden sense of relaxation. There was absolute silence as the noise from the crackling flames and roaring engines was out of range. I felt no sensation of falling but seemed to be floating on a cloud. Slowly and deliberately I began to count, “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three.” I then pulled the rip cord and settled back to enjoy a new adventure as I thought the parachute was opened.

However, as I blinked my eyes I began to realize that something was wrong. I was viewing the sky, then the water in a series of monotonous successions which meant that the world had either increased its pace of rotation or that I was still plummeting downward in a somersaulting motion. Although these events were taking place in a short space of time, it seemed like an eternity before I reached the conclusion that my parachute was still tucked neatly in the pack.

Glancing down at the unopened chute pack I saw the small lead chute extended about six inches but not out enough to deploy the main parachute. I grasped the pack with my left arm and pulled on the extended portion with my right hand. All of a sudden I felt like someone had struck me across the bridge of my nose with a boat paddle and I was stunned to the point of near complete disorientation. As a navigator, I had studied celestial navigation and had learned the identity of many stars, but I had never seen this number together at one time. I do not believe the blow knocked me unconscious, but my reasoning processes were addled for several minutes and my head felt as if it were locked securely in a vise. Two days later when I looked in a mirror, my nose and the underside of both eyes reflected the appearance of a losing participant in a bruising fist fight.

When the chute finally opened, it seemed like I was on an elevator going upward at a fast clip. To see the opened umbrella above me was about the only point of comfort I had garnered from the experience thus far, and although more problems were still to be faced, I now had a chance. My first concern was to account for the rest of the crew as I looked around the sky and began counting the chutes. It appeared that all were safely out of the plane and one thing was for sure – although I had been third from last to exit the doomed aircraft, I was going to be the first one down. All the others appeared to be from 6,000 to 8,000 feet above me as the unscheduled free fall had put me well in out front in the race downward.

I then began to face the prospect of another danger. I had never been the best of swimmers and now it appeared that I would spend a few hours in the water. I estimated my altitude at about 10,000 feet and I was well over a mile from some islands off the Dutch Coast. Under my harness I was wearing a small “Mae West” type life jacket, and as I descended slowly toward the water I began to mentally rehearse the procedure of extracting myself from the harness and inflating the life jacket in a simultaneous motion as I hit the water. If I were to eventually drown, I at least wanted to get clear of the parachute and make a try at reaching land rather than perish while entangled in the lines of the chute.

I then remembered watching some movie heroes manipulate the direction of parachutes by pulling on the shroud lines, and I attempted to follow their actions in an effort to steer myself closer to the islands. About all I accomplished by doing this was to create a severe rocking of the chute which could have led to its collapse. I soon stopped this futile effort and tried to condition myself to the prospects of a long swim.

If I had been thinking clearly, I would have realized that the wind was blowing out of the west onto the Dutch Coast. On this particular day the velocity was stronger than usual which had given us a faster ground speed on our way inland at the beginning of the mission. This fact hit me when at about 3,000 feet above the water I noticed that I was less than half a mile from one of the islands and that I was drifting in that direction. At about 2,000 feet I was sure that my landing would be on terra firma, and I began making plans for my initial movements on the ground.

I took a good look at the island before me and estimated it to be from six to eight miles in length from east to west. It was shaped like a football with two very small villages visible on the western side of the island. I had heard much about the Dutch Underground and wondered if there was a possibility of getting in touch with them. Our chutes were visible for all to see, but my being the first man to land might give me opportunity to hide until nightfall before the Germans got organized to search for me. Many thoughts were going through my mind by the time I hit the ground. I had decided on two things: (1) hide until dark, and (2) work my way eastward toward the mainland while hoping to make contact with the Underground.

During his first parachute jump a man is just not prepared to cope with the speed he seems to gather as he approaches the ground. At about 200 feet, I became aware that I was falling very fast and I had little time to make adjustments to control my method of landing. Just as I was about to hit the ground, a sudden gust of wind took charge, causing my feet to swing forward, making me practically horizontal with the landscape. Then as my body started its return in an arc to the upright position, I abruptly reached the point of touchdown. My heels hit first, then the seat of my pants, followed by the back of my head. I rolled backward two or three revolutions and found myself entangled in the shroud lines like a butterfly trapped in a net.

After getting free from my cage, I stood in utter dismay at the scene before me. Finding a place to hide was my primary concern as I found myself standing on the flattest piece of real estate in all of Hitler’s Europe. My past aviation training had been based upon the premise of finding a place to hide during the initial hours in enemy territory, and here I was in a place without a tree, a haystack, a barn, or anything which could furnish temporary cover. Of all the areas I had flown over which offered a bonanza of hiding places, I went down in a freshly-seeded lowland with nothing but canals crisscrossing the island.

Still hoping to find a place of safety, I moved toward the north away from the villages I had seen from the air. I ran for about two minutes, slowed to a walk, and then stopped to raise my hands in the air. Two members of the German Occupation Army intercepted my exercise in futility and made it quite clear that I had officially become a guest of the Third Reich.

Later that night as I lay in a cold cell in the town of Flushing, I was given a small ration of cheese and two slices of bread. I tasted it but had no appetite since my thoughts were still fixed upon the steak I would have received if some gunner’s aim had been less accurate.

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