MY "SHOT DOWN" STORY
William E. Whitney, Jr
Every airman who has been shot down in combat has a "Shot Down" story. They usually get better as they are repeated and often the facts are stretched a bit to make a better story. In my case, I was always hesitant to relate my experience in detail in that I had the great misfortune to be shot down on my first combat mission. Not only was I embarassed in the company of those with many missions but also with reflection as to what I might have done differently and was there some other action that I might have taken especially to assist other crew members to get out of the plane. Our situation was not that experienced by many shot down aircraft in that we were immediately spiralling at a high rate of descent with severe centrifugal force and with very little time to rationalize action decisions. Now after 50 years I am documenting my story for my grandson who may someday find it of interest. It is based on a rather hazy memory and is not very exciting; which will be evident from the following:
I was transferred to the 496th Squadron of the 344th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force, at Stansted, England on April 24, 1944. In checking in, I was assigned to a cot vacated by a pilot who had been shot down a few days before on April 20. I assisted packing up his gear and noted that he was a friend of mine from one of my previous assignments at Barksdale Field, Lt. Jack V. Porter. Later on we met as POW's and were cellmates at Stalag Luft III, the huge flying officer prisoner of war complex at Sagan in eastern Germany.(Now Zagan in Poland)
After checking in, I went to operations and inquired as to when I might start flying missions. I was given a curt reply by the Major; "take it easy, don't be eager, you'll get shot down soon enough". He glanced at my orders and papers and then said: "I see it is your birthday; go into London for a couple of days. Come back the afternoon of the 26th". Little did either of us realize the consequences of his statement. I took off for London and had a big time enjoying the sights and night life in the city, which in spite of bombings was quite active.
Upon My return late on the 26th, I went to bed only to be awakened very early the following morning of April 27 and requested to report to Operations. The same Major of a few days before greeted me; "Well since you are so eager to start missions, we need a replacement for a co-pilot who has not returned from holiday." "You should enjoy this easy 'Milk Run' as it is just across the channel." I hurried into briefing which was just finishing and met the pilot I was to accompany, Lt. J. Savko. We were then transported to hardstand #14 where his plane "Canteen Eileen" and the rest of his crew awaited. The remainder of the crew were S/Sgt L. F. Lampman, Bombardier; S/Sgt R. E. Whicker, Radio Gunner; S/Sgt A. B. Whitworth, Engineer Gunner; and S/Sgt F. E. Botti, Tail Gunner. I had never met them before.
Our target was to be V1 sites at the German Fort Mardick Coastal Defense site located quite close to Dunkirk which had become one of the most highly defended locations on the French coast with a large number of anti-aircraft gun batteries and certainly was no 'Milk Run' target area. I finished becoming acquainted with the crew over the intercom while we were enroute. We were in the final box of the group in #2 position. Upon reaching the target, the lead bombardier goofed on his diversion moves and ended up flying a long straight & level approach of about 2 minutes duration which enabled the German gun positions to zero in on our altitude and course. Since we were at the tail end, we were the most likely ones to be hit. I believe we were at about 14,000 feet, which without oxygen was also a possible problem to making good decisions.
We had just dropped our bombs and closed the bomb bay doors in the midst of increasing flak from 88 mm artillery type guns with its reddish black puffs and minor jolts when suddenly there were two tremendous jolting explosions and we immediately had a rapid onrush of air seemingly coming through the nose cone area and the port engine seemed to be dislodged from its mounts. The starboard engine appeared to be running at full power and to be pulling us into a tight downward spiral dive. Lt. Savko grabbed the throttles back and was pulling on the wheel trying to break the dive and spiral to no avail. I also grabbed the wheel and attempted to pull but the controls seemed jammed. Savko was shouting into the mike but the intercom was inoperative and the rushing noise was such that I couldn't hear what he was saying. He then yelled and motioned with his hand to "get out" and I assumed he would be following me. The status of S/Sgt Lampman in the nose cone and the remainder of the crew could not be determined because of the extremely severe spiral spin force, the lack of intercom communication and limited vision resulting from what appeared to be electrical fires behind the instrument panel and a gasoline fire developing in the radio compartment area. I attempted to open the bomb bay doors to develop an escape route but there was no reaction. By this time, several seconds had passed and at the speed of our dive we were faced with less than 30 total seconds before ground impact would occur. (Our speed was probably well in excess of 250 mph and seemed to be increasing; we had already dropped to below 9,000 feet altitude) I next decided to open the top hatches as a last resort. (We had been instructed to never use a top hatch for bailing out from the B26 as one would likely hit the tail assembly). I finally mustered enough strength to open the top hatches. I started to exit through one of them when some kind of explosion occured.
I apparently was briefly unconscious and the next thing I remember was that I was at about 3,000 feet with a partially open chute. The chute pack had apparently scraped on the hatch or when I may have hit the tail section and had been ripped open. I franticly worked on fully opening the chute, pulling on the rip cord which seemed to be still engaged and working the twisted shroud lines. The chute finally opened fully, but there was a rather large tear which probably occured when the pack was ripped open. Because of the tear, I was descending at a somewhat higher rate than a normal parachute descent. I was over a farm area with a small hay field, a marshy area and a drainage ditch. There was a power line running adjacent to the field. Using the shroud lines to avoid the power line, I landed on the steep bank of the ditch and somewhat slid down the bank at the same time. I was badly bruised and it was extremely painful to move but I unhitched from the chute and gathered it into a bundle. I struggled toward some small brush cover and burried the chute by digging a hole with my hands. I then began to painfully crawl along the ditch with intent to get away from the area where I had landed, assuming I had no doubt been seen parachuting by German ground forces. I did note a French farm laborer working in an adjacent hay field who I was sure had seen me coming down by chute but continued to act like he was working and hadn't seen me. He, no doubt, also was sure that the German forces had seen me and he didn't want to become involved.
After struggling considerable distance to the ditch end, I decided to crawl into a hay shock and hide until evening darkness came. My back was giving me lots of pain, my right shoulder was also quite painfull, my right knee was extremely sore and I had various bruises and scratches plus a severe and bleeding bruise on my forehead; otherwise I seemed to be ok. Little did I realize that the injuries were somewhat more severe than at first apparent. Unfortunately, the effect of these injuries would plague me for the rest of my life, having major impact on my career and life associations. (After the war, my injuries were reviewed by the Veterans Administration and given a disability compensation rating of 60% and later increased to 100%).
I burrowed a hole and covered myself in the shock, leaving a small peep hole. After a while, I heard dogs yelping and I looked out to see them rapidly approaching me. I also could see Wermacht soldiers surrounding the field. The dogs began to establish quite a clamor as they approached closer. The germans shouted for me to come out and I was captured. I was taken by motorcycle sidecar to St.Omer, a small village, known as a famous battle site in World War I.
At St. Omer, I met S/Sgt Whitworth, Engineer Gunner, who was the only other survivor from our plane. He had bailed shortly after the plane started to spiral and dive downward. Reports from other planes in our group indicated that they only saw one chute from our plane, which was apparently his and they had not seen anyone else parachute. They reported that the plane had suffered a delayed fire explosion after diving in a tight spiral for a limited distance . A longtime pilot friend who was also on his first mission on the raid, even wrote my parents that because of the explosion, he was confident that I had died instantly and had not suffered! (He was very surprized to later learn that I was alive).
Whitworth advised me that one other B26 had been shot down and that the German soldiers told him that there were no survivors from the other plane. After the war, I learned that the other plane was piloted by A. B. Rubin with J. W. Dye as co-pilot.
During recent years, the nephew of S/Sgt Botti the tail gunner on our plane made a rather thorough investigation of the incident. He was able to review U.S. Army records and actually contact the French farmer of the field where the plane remains crashed. The field in an area called Grande Synthe near the coast was heavily mined at the time and no one was able to venture near it due to the mines. The wreckage lay undisturbed until the end of the war. After the war and with de-mining of the field, American Graves teams went to the site to check for remains. Three body remains were recovered and tentatively identified as Radio Operator/ Gunner S/Sgt Whicker; Bomadier S/Sgt L. F. Lampman and Tail Gunner S/Sgt F. E. Botti.
In January, 1947, the French farmer Amedee Muyls decided to again farm the field. While pulling the wreckage away, he found human remains which he wrapped in a mattress cover and contacted the local police. He also recovered the dog tags of Lt. Savko. However, later analysis in 1949 by the U.S. Army forensics people using dental records concluded that the body found beneath the wreckage was that of S/Sgt Botti and his remains were returned to his family in the U.S.
Whitworth and I were locked in rather crude cells at St. Omer in an old roadside building. The following day, I was escorted to an underground installation at Fort Mardick where I was interogated by an SS Captain. It was interesting in that he had an unopened bottle of coca cola on the table in front of him plus a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. He began by asking if I was thirsty or if I would like a cigarette. I refused and after a few rounds of "name, rank and serial number" and "I am sorry but I cannot answer that!", he became irritated and had a guard escort me outside where a Wermacht guard took me back to the cell at St. Omer.
I learned after the war that my Squadron was never notified that Whitworth and myslef had survived the crash and were captured and become prisoners of the Luftwaffe.
Initial Days As A POW Page
Additional pages covering POW experiences are under development.