Catastrophes and Adventures

A Wartime Adventure

Catastrophes may strike anyone at any time, as Noah’s Boys discovered.  But whether or not they are later seen as an Adventure has to do with the End of the Story.  My own father experienced a personal catastrophe when he was shot down over Nazi Germany.  Later, however, he described it as “My Wartime Adventures.”  

Here is a part of his story.

“For our first actual mission over enemy territory in September of 1944, we were given a “used” B-17-E: the patched-up veteran of many missions.  The ground crew said it was a lucky one.  Very early that morning we joined up with a big formation of B-17’s.   I recall looking out my Co-Pilot window as we first flew into “flak.”  I saw the B-17 on my right hand get hit by Ack-Ack and explode on the bomb run.  It went down fast —and no parachutes appeared!  Ten men were doomed!  That was a sobering first vision of combat.

Being winter, many missions were called off due to adverse weather or bad vision over the “target.”  But we still got up early every time and assembled in the aerial squadron.

We actually flew nine full missions, going through anti-aircraft “flak” each time as we dropped our bombs over Germany.  When we flew, our squadron was in close formation: our wingtips were nearly touching our neighboring airplanes.  The idea was to keep the German fighters from flying in between us, shooting up a bomber, and coming back. On one of our missions a “V-2” came up at our B-17 formation on its flight to London.  We were close, and felt the rocket’s wake. 

We saw our buddies get hit and go down on nearly every mission.  There were very few parachutes!  We lost 10 percent or more on every mission. I have recently heard that the common loss of planes on a bomb run was about 10%, so we were running about average when we were assigned to bomb some submarine pens for our tenth mission on 17 Jan 1945. 

By that day all was becoming routine: I got up around 0300.  We took off with our plane fully loaded with bombs, fuel, ammo, and our normal crew, and climbed up to altitude in the dark.  We joined up with an immense formation, and were heading for Europe by dawn. 
There really were a thousand airplanes in those formations.  The deep drone of so many engines must have been a thunderous rumble to the Germans.

On that mission we encountered very heavy flak, but were able to drop the bombs on the target.  But we hadn’t escaped unhurt: our right hand engine suddenly stopped—there was a hit on the oil hopper!  With so much less power we had to drop out of our position.  This attracted more fire from the ground --anti-aircraft gun, rifle, and anything else they could shoot. 

Another engine soon overheated and caught fire-- it had to be shut down.  We still hoped to return to England, but could not stay with the formation.  The bomb run had given us a run east into Germany; we now turned north, planning to go over the North Sea into Sweden.  To reduce our weight, we threw our machine guns and ammunition overboard —and anything else we could.  Before long, we realized our engines did not have enough power to get over the North Sea!  We were going down!

Our descent took about an hour. Maylan told me to pick the spot, and went back to help the tail gunner and ball turret gunner out of their turrets, and to get everyone into crash positions.  Crash landing with the wheels retracted was standard procedure; but the dangling ball turrets would have been immediately smashed off, meaning certain death if they had remained. Another engine lost power—that left us only one!  From about twelve thousand feet of altitude I looked at the forests of Schleswig-Holstein, and chose a green pasture for our landing.

Then I looked out of my window, and was startled to see a Messerschmidt keeping pace with us!  I turned the plane away from the North Sea and aimed for the now-closer green rectangle.  The fighter could have turned and easily shot us down; but we are indebted to him, and I thank God he left us alone to crash land!

As I nosed our plane down for the last few seconds before the crash, Maylan joined me in his seat and helped pull the heavy rudder up full.  We approached the ground, the wheels still retracted, the rudder sluggish, and only the far left engine still working.

We touched down at 90 miles per hour, plowing into a flock of 12 sheep, killing them instantly, and began a long skid. We avoided a full collision, but scraped the left wing against a barn.  The right-hand inboard engine tore loose and tumbled to a near miss of the farm building—which actually turned out to be a school, filled with students.  The left wing ground against the barn; if it had ground any more, it would have sparked against the leaking fuel, and blown up the aircraft.

Amazingly, however, the crew all got out unharmed!  Maylan climbed through the left window; I went head first from my right window, flipping over to land feet first on the ground!  (The photos above of our plane were taken by an 11 year-old German student the day after our crash, and sent to us just a few years ago.)

Procedure in such cases was to destroy the airplane to prevent the enemy from examining it.  The crew spread parachutes over the dripping fuel tank to spread a fire; but no one had a match or cigarette lighter!  Frustrated, we all ran together to hide in a stand of trees, but the schoolmaster came out with a shotgun and found us at once.  He had help from teachers and students, and we soon were all lined up against the barn we had scraped.  Then the schoolmaster went inside and put on his Kaiser Wilhelm helmet with the spike on top! 

Several boys seemed to want to see us shot—a pair of them got into a fight.  The audience enjoyed the fight, which was the dirtiest I had ever seen, grabbing genitals and the like.

Eventually Army trucks came and took all of us away to “Interrogation.” We two pilots were separated from the crew, and I was separated from Maylan, too.  We were all put into different trucks.  That was the last contact I had with any of the crew until after my discharge.  The interrogating officer seemed to know more about me than I was willing to tell him. 

After that I was marched to the nearby train station, where a crowd of German villagers viewed us with hatred.  A little girl with a missing leg caught my eye.  That night I was put on a shot-up German passenger train, and rode from Schleswig-Holstein to Frankfurt, and from there to Nuremburg—no food that I recall.  Next was a 3 or 4-day march under old German guard troops.  No food that I recall: by now I was hungry.  We slept in barns, on cold hard floors. 

Marching across a farm field I stooped over and picked up a turnip… the marching guard yelled at me and someone behind me said: “drop it or they’ll shoot you.”  I turned and saw a rifle pointed at me—so I dropped it.  I have not liked turnips since that moment.  We were marched past Nuremburg, Mosseburg, and then into Stalag Luft prison. 

I was with other American prisoners of war, but did not feel like talking much.  Once in the prison camp, I slept on a pile of straw with a blanket.  We must have lined up for food distribution, but it was awful—all I remember is weed soup.  We were mostly left to ourselves all day: there was no reveille or routine like that. 

I had left my clarinet “Elmer” in the barracks in England.  (It was mailed to me years later—I had my name on the case.)  But somehow I got a metal clarinet that came from the Red Cross—I still have it!  I would go out into a ditch to play it, and had no trouble from the other prisoners.  It kept me sane! 

We divided up Red Cross boxes from America that included cigarettes.  I swapped mine for food and for a little notebook that was made by Russian POWs.  The Russians were in their own compound enclosed by a barbed wire fence.  It was separated from our compound by a space patrolled by police dogs.  But the Russians somehow got over our fence anyway, and traded stuff they had made from scraps for cigarettes.  The guards would gladly have shot them!   Our “toilet” was a barracks with rows of slanted seats with buckets.  But it kept the stink under control.  The Germans had some prisoners man the “honey buckets.”

Three months later we heard rumors that Patton’s tank troops were coming to free us.  I do not recall the date but on that day there was much excitement in camp.  We heard that “S.S.” troops were on one side of the camp, and Americans on the other!  Lots of gunfire erupted.  Since I was outside, I dived into a ditch and lay still.  Looking up, I saw that bullet holes had appeared in the wall of a tent next to me: if I had sat up, I would have been killed, shot by one side or the other. 

After more shooting, things eventually quieted, and there were shouts: “The Americans are here!”  We scrambled out, happily liberated from the clutches of the Nazis.  I recall stepping over some old German guards—now quite dead—as we were guided out.  After de-lousing and feeding, we burned our stinky uniforms and got new clothes.  I was flown in a DC 3, which circled around the Eiffel Tower, and brought to “Camp Lucky Strike,” a big Army Field Hospital Camp in Saint-Sylvan, France for liberated prisoners of war. 

I brought my Red Cross clarinet with me, and soon was being checked over by doctors.  I weighed only 95 pounds, and was suffering from starvation, lice, and I’m not sure what else: I felt very weak.  Because of my poor physical condition, I ended up convalescing for some time at Camp Lucky Strike.  We were lined up for good meals, and could brush our teeth and bathe whenever we wanted. 

Some of us went to Paris on leave, but I did not—I was in a hurry to get home. I got on a “Liberty Ship” by way of buses, trucks, and trains, and spent 20 days in the “Last Convoy” of the war.  Forming up, we steamed west by way of Newfoundland.  The convoy did zigzagging, as there was still fear of submarines, and we deliberately went through fog and storms to avoid them.  Finally, we got to New York City, and were delighted to see the Statue of Liberty.  We were home: the war in Europe was over.”

Notes: Excerpted from “Dad’s Wartime Adventures.” (Donald Horning, 2005) The first photo was taken by a young German boy who shared them with my brother Stevan Horning during a personal visit to Germany about 60 years later.
The Catastrophe
The Happy Ending: An Adventure!

Gregory Horning


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