Tuesday, February 28, 2012

WWII Pilot Story

NOTE: I mentioned this story in a blog a few weeks ago and a number of people asked when it would be available. It's fairly long, but it's a fascinating story.

Fateful Day in France
 On December 7, 1941, Bill Massey sat with his family in front of an old wooden radio the size of a small china cabinet, listening to the tinny voice of a newscaster coming from the tweed-covered speakers: “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” It was a sobering time for America. And for Massey. “I knew that those words would change my life,” he says.

 He realized he'd soon be drafted into the military, so to ensure that he got into the Air Force he decided to volunteer. By August of 1942, he was an aviation cadet.

 America didn't really have much of an Air Force at the beginning of World War II, but within a few years it would become the mightiest flying armada in history. The Air Force didn't have enough instructors to train the number of pilots they needed, so they looked to Great Britain. Massey received his training from the Royal Air Force.

 After months of rigorous flight training in various types of aircraft, Massey received his orders for Europe, where he would be piloting a B-17 bomber.

 The Air Force played a key role in destroying enemy industry and infrastructure, but the costs were high. Massey recalls that, of the airmen sent on bombing missions, one in four didn't return.

 He flew four missions to Berlin in May of 1944. “That month was an all-out effort to convince the Germans that the jig was up,” he says.

 “We in the Air Force had two assignments—to neutralize the German air force so they couldn't attack allied troops on D-Day or protect any part of Germany, and to disrupt their manufacturing and transportation so the country couldn't turn out new war materials.”

 Massey and his 10-member crew flew two missions on D-Day. Their morning flight took them over Utah Beach, and in the afternoon they flew over Omaha Beach. “I had a bird's-eye view of the D-Day invasion,” he says.

 But the date that stands out in his mind as though it were yesterday is June 19, 1944.
It turned out to be a good news/bad news sort of day. The good news (although he didn't know it at the time) was that the Air Force had promoted him to captain. The bad news was that his crew, who was supposed to have the day off, would instead be flying a short-notice mission to cover for another crew whose pilot was sick.

 “We were about 30 minutes from our target in Bordeaux, France,” he recalls, “when we encountered anti-aircraft flak so thick that it actually turned day into night.” At that moment, a round hit his plane's hydraulic system and the cockpit quickly filled with acrid black smoke.

 The crew couldn't extinguish the fire, so Massey gave the order to bail out. But before he could snap his parachute to his harness, the oxygen tanks in the B-17 exploded and ripped the plane apart.

 “I found myself flying through the air at 26,000 feet, with my parachute pack in one hand,” he says. The temperature at that altitude is about 25 degrees below zero and the air is too thin to breathe.

  Massey kept desperately trying to secure the chute to his harness, but his hands were so numb and he was so weak from lack of oxygen that he couldn't make the clip fasten.

 “I remember thinking, 'Well, I guess this is it,'” he recalls now. But as he plummeted toward earth at more than 150 miles an hour, the air became warmer and thicker. He managed to use both hands to get one clip secured to the harness, but was still too weak to fasten the second one:

 “I knew I didn't have much time left, so I just pulled the ripcord and hoped for the best.”
When the partially attached parachute popped open, the jolt was so strong that his boots flew off his feet. He hit the ground, hard. But as his heart finally stopped hammering, he realized he wasn't seriously injured.

 With the help of local farmers, Massey found the two other members of his crew who had somehow survived the plane's explosion. The remaining seven men had died. “That was the hardest part for me,” Massey says. “We'd been together all through training, and they'd been with me on all 19 missions.”

 During the 76 days that followed, the survivors moved from place to place behind enemy lines, dodging patrols of German soldiers.

 But they had a stroke of good fortune where food was concerned. “The French had learned that the Germans wouldn't bother children,” he says, “so a little girl of about five would carry small amounts of food on her bicycle and leave it on the steps of the abandoned building we were hiding in.”

 Finally, a member of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency) discovered the survivors and reunited them with invading American forces.

 It wasn't until Massey's debriefing that he learned of his promotion to captain. The interviewer assured him the paperwork would “catch up with” him, but it never did. He can only speculate, he says, that the process was interrupted when he was listed as having died in the crash of his plane.

 After the war, Massey sought out families of the lost crewmen. “I sat down with the mothers and fathers of my men and told them what happened on that day,” he says, choking back tears. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”

 In 1961, Massey and his surviving crew members returned to France for a reunion with many of the villagers who had sheltered them from the Germans during the war. A group photograph he has of the occasion includes the young girl who brought them food—by then, a striking dark-haired young woman.

 Massey says he's proud of his service to America:
“War is bad, but the loss of freedom is even worse.”

9 comments:

  1. Fascinating story and very well written. The boots came off his feet! I tagged you on my blog today. Give it a chance! You might laugh.

    Love,
    Janie, now on twitter

    ReplyDelete
  2. What a miracle he survived, and how wonderful people helped him and his crew afterwards. It was so kind of him to visit the parents of those who died that day. Thanks for sharing his story.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It's thanks to men like him that we enjoy the freedom we do today.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What an incredible story, thank you for sharing it with us!

    ReplyDelete
  5. We should be so proud of the men and women who fight for us and so grateful.

    ReplyDelete
  6. well told...and well lived! Sometime around the time this was occurring Don would have been on the ground with the 42nd Rainbow Division. All the men and women who were involved in this war (and children too) have my utmost respect.

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a most amazing story! There is the bravery and courage of Mr Massey and his crew and then there is the bravery and courage of the French people who kept him and his two remaining crew alive. Wonderful!!

    Thanks for sharing! Take care
    x

    ReplyDelete
  8. Anonymous4:52 PM

    Wonderful story! I'm so glad you shared it and so thankful to that lovely man and all the men who served to keep us free.

    ReplyDelete
  9. What a story!! I remember being enthralled with WW11 stories as a young girl romanticising them and not realizing they were someone's lives. Not I read them and chills run down my back as I shake my head. This is an amazing tale. So many true heros we had!!

    ReplyDelete

Please consider sharing

Email Signup Form

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required