ROBERT W. BLAKENEY|
World War II
Memories and Biography
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy)
August 31, 1988
The photograph of Lt. Austin's crew on page 8 of the August 1988 logbook brought back memories of 45 years ago. I recognize Lt. Austin, Sgts. Warth, Hickerson, and Joe Jett. They were flying on our right on the Loggia raid and they were hit and bailed out. They were with us at the Sulmona prison camp and as you know, every American flyer in that camp (16 to 18 of us) escaped and made it back safely. As I recall, Lt. Austin and others also escaped while being taken to Germany.
If you have Joe Jett's address, would you be good enough to send it. I had a lot of respect for him and we turned out to be good friends.
As I told you before, Lt. Carl Hager, our pilot, passed away in July 1984 in Florida. Every August 16th, I spoke with him and now I call his widow. I also call John Hess with whom I escaped, and the sister of Sgt. Woods who was killed in our crash landing. I lost track of Rene Dones and Donald Farley, our other surviving crewmembers.
Enclosed is a check for the following books:
1. 44th Roll of Honor and Casualties
2. History of the 67th Bomb Squadron.
I am also sending a check to the treasurer to help with the costs of the logbook.
Thanks for all your help.
76 Oak Hill Rd.
Needham, Mass 02192
World War II
Memories and Biography
Abstracted from a letter to Will Lundy from Bob Blakeney March 1993.
When I first had my story published in the 44th BG's Logbook (December 1989 and Spring 1990), I sent John a copy of it. He called me to remind me of several facts that I had not covered in this writing.
It was John Hess who saw the gate unlocked and partly ajar as he and I were walking in the compound of the prison camp in Italy. He reminded me that I went back to the barracks to tell all of the guys that John and I were going out the open gate and that this was everyone's chance to escape.
The more I heard from John, my memory was also more clear. John had two sons and three daughters, and is survived by his wife, Ethel. Fortunately over the years, our families visited each other here and in Penna. We kept in touch twice a year, at least twice a year, and I promised Ethel that would continue.
You see what effect your books and your information have had on me? They got me to writing to everyone and I am so grateful to you for all of your work.
(See Dale Lee's diary telling about "escape" from Italian prison when Italy gave up.
ROBERT W. BLAKENEY
World War II
Memories and Biography
(Taken from a letter to Will Lundy)
28 May 1991
I read in the Logbook that you were writing another book about the 67th squadron of the 44th. Is it true? You have certainly done enough work and research to fill ten books.
Will, I'm not sure I ever thanked you enough for steering me to the proper authority regarding the gravesites of my deceased crewmembers. You must know how deeply I wanted this information and frankly it has meant a great deal to me. Many, many thanks!!
Hope you and your family are all well and enjoying life.
God bless you, Will.
From the Diary of Bob Blakeney
World War II
Memories and Biography
AUGUST 16, 1943, about 1:30 p.m. We crash-landed on a beach in Regglo Galabria in Italy while on our way back from a mission over the Foggia Airdrome.
About 125 to 150 B24s took off in the early morning hours, with our plane the tall-end of a 4-plane diamond formation. Our pilot this day was Robert F. Pimentel, who had more experience than our regular pilot, Carl Hager, who for this mission, flew in the right seat.
Our crew was as follows: Pilot - Lt. R. F. PIMENTEL; Copilot - Lt. CARL S. HAGER; Navigator - Lt. JOHN D. MILLS; Bombardier Lt. WALLACE P. BAKER; Engineer - S/Sgt. FRANK X. CURRY; Radio Operator - S/Sgt. H CLIFF WOODS; Top Turret
S/Sgt. "RENE DONES; R.W. Gunner S/Sgt. BOB BLAKENEY; R. W. Gunner - S/Sgt. BOB BLAKENEY; L.W. Gunner - S/Sgt. JOHN M. HESS; Tail Gunner - S/Sgt. HENRY R. FARLEY.
We checked the plane, loaded the bombs and checked the ammo - then took off, circle D and joined up with the group formation. We were flying a diamond formation, with our plane being the tail of that diamond.
Over the sea, after we had been flying for several hours, each plane dropped a bit from the formation and we test-fired all our .50 calibers. Hess was loading his gun when he accidentally pulled the ammo box off, and all his ammo went onto the floor. He reported this to the pilot and Curry came back to hand feed Hess' gun as we neared the target.
About 20 minutes or so before we reached the target at Foggia, we saw Ack-Ack, but don't believe it hit any of the planes.
Thereafter, we saw German fighter planes all over the place. They were mixed ME109s and FW190s and my guess is that there were over a hundred of them! Almost before we knew it, our fight inboard (#3) engine was on fire. I told Hess and our pilot about it, that it was flaming and smoking, so Hager finally feathered it.
All of a sudden, the fighters seemed to pick on us. Hess hollered that B-24s were going down on his side. It was horrible to see a B-24 go straight down around and around, so we yelled for the guys to bail out. Six to eight of our 24's suffered the same fate. On my right, one of the planes in our formation dropped back to fly parallel with us. Next thing I saw was the crew in the back of this plane jumping out, their chutes opening.
Just before they bailed out, two German fighters came at us from the right and rear, so everyone was shooting back at them. They came in so close I could see the pilot's faces for a second or two.
Anyhow, all the guns on the right side and tail of our 24 and the plane next to us were shooting at these two fighters making one of them drop off. I saw it smoking as it went down and the pilot balled out. But they had hit us, too, and our other inboard (#2) engine was on fire.
Then 3 or 4 fighters attacked two of our planes directly from the rear. I heard Farley yell over the intercom from his tail turret because a fighter had hit his turret, peppering him with Plexiglas. Later, I saw him with Plexiglas in his face and he was bleeding badly. His guns were not damaged, but the turret would not turn to follow the attackers.
All this time everyone was firing at these fighters and one went down, smoking. And in the adjacent plane to ours I saw the crew go out the waist windows. This plane was on fire, too.
By now we had dropped our bombs and were heading out from the target, when the fighters swarmed in on us again. They shot down another 24 close to us while we were hollering over the intercom to have our pilots maneuver up or down to avoid the attacking fighters.
By this time we had a third engine on fire and the wing was smoking. I tried to get the tail turret going, but had no success. Curry was called up to the front of the plane by Pimentel or Hager to help with the feathering buttons. We could see holes in the plane from the hits we had been taking but miraculously no one had been wounded. We all felt ourselves to make sure we were okay.
It seemed that the fighters followed us for a long time, I cannot remember how long. but when they finally left, Dones came to the back of the plane because the pilot had told us to put on our chutes and to throw out everything we could to keep our altitude. But we kept dropping. even though we tossed everything lose overboard -- guns, ammo, etc.
As we were doing this, Hess, who always was the nervous one, yelled that we should jump. We were going down gradually, but it was too late for that as we were already too low over the water. Besides, I did not relish the Idea of jumping into the water. Besides, I did not relish the idea of jumping into the water.
Of course, we all had been ready to jump if we got the pilot's signal, but now it was too late to bail out. We went into steeper dive and Hess hollered that we were going to crash. I heard a bell sound, so those of us in the rear - Hess, Dones, Farley and myself- started to brace ourselves for the inevitable.
We learned later that we had had no flaps, the wheels were up and we hit the ground at about 150 to 160 mph. Hager and Pimentel made a tremendous landing on the beach in Reggio Calabria, but we did not know where we were at that time.
When we hit the beach, the sand broke through the bomb bay doors and flew all over the place. The doors came off and slammed into us, but fortunately it only hit our legs. Hess got whacked on his head by a door, putting a hole in his head that bled for hours. Farley got knocked down and injured, but not too seriously. Dones and I were not touched.
When the plane had almost stopped, we heard an explosion that blew out the bomb bay area. There was no immediate fire, however, just that explosion.
When the plane came to a halt, Hess was first one out of the plane, yelling for us to follow him. We had no idea what had happened in the front of the plane until we all got out from the back. Then we saw that the whole front section of the plane was on fire.
Don's and I tried to go through the bomb bay to help our guys in the front, but by then the flames were everywhere and very hot. We were forced back, then removed our parachutes but kept the packs as we exited the wreck.
We found that Hess and Parley had moved away because they thought the plane was going to explode. But as we were leaving to join thorn, we heard someone call from the front of the plane. We ran to the front to find Lt. Hager alone -- he was the only one from the front to get out. He had taken off his flight jacket, Mae West and parachute in order to wriggle out the open side window.
He told us that he heard the guys in the nose section screaming as the flames engulfed them. He had told Pimentel to take off his gear and go out his side window, but there wasn't time enough, the flames too severe. He didn't make it.
We helped Hagar out and away because he was badly burned on the face and hands. His ears were really scorched, and he was in intense pain.
We had to abandon all efforts to free the others as the flames were consuming what was left of our plane. We heard nothing from inside.
So five of us had managed to escape - Hager badly burned, Hess still bleeding from his head wound, Farley bleeding from his many facial cuts, Plexiglas still embedded in some, while Dones and myself were in pretty good shape. None of us knew just where we were, but we saw a farmer going down a dirt road nearby with a cart pulled by an ox, I think. We yelled and he waited for us so that we could load Hager and Hess, who thought he was dying. We tried to halt Hess' bleeding, finally slowing it down a bit. He was weak, though, from the loss of blood. Parley was very excited. But we could hardly touch Hager to help him as his burns were so painful.
About this time, we got on the back of the open wagon to ride for help. Then soldiers came down the road in a truck. We learned they were Italian soldiers, who took us into a town; Cantanzaro, I think, in Reggio Calabria, which is in the toe of Italy.
They put us in a room that was free of any furniture and there we met a very angry, small round, and completely bald Italian Colonel. There were about eight to ten soldiers with him, too.
Instead of applying first aid or trying t help Hager and Hess, the Colonel pointed out numerous bullet holes in the walls of the room where our fighters had strafed the place a night or two earlier. The Colonel was mad and started to ask questions in Italian.
Luckily, Dones spoke Spanish and I understood most of what the Colonel said due to my knowledge of French. So Dones and I exchanged our interpretations with glances and gestures. Later, when we knew the Italians did not know English, we told the rest of the fellows what was said.
The Colonel kept insisting we tell him where we came from, what kind of a plane we were on, how many planes, what was the target, and all of the usual military questions. But when he got no satisfaction from any of us, he began to gesture that he was going to slit our throats and have us shot. I told him to go to Hell - and Dones swore at him often. Of course, he did not know what we were saying, so when a question was asked, I'd tell him to jump in a lake and Dones kept up his swearing at him. This went on for over two hours with the Colonel becoming more frustrated, mad as Hell. He again gestured that he was going to have us shot.
During all this time, Lt. Hager got no medical attention. I kept asking for a doctor by pointing to Carl and gesturing for medicine and bandages. They, apparently, had neither. John Hess's head wound finally stopped bleeding and I could see he had a hole as round as a dime in his head.
At some point, I'd guess about 5 or 6 p.m., we were told to march out into the street and led over and upstairs into another building and locked in. It had a slanted wooden partition on the floor so I helped Hager while Dones helped Hess to lay down and to get them more comfortable. Hager had been in bad shock almost from the time he got out of the plane so needed all the assistance we could give him.
We still had our parachute packs, which had emergency rations in them. The irate Colonel was so emotional that he forgot to have us searched, or the packs. So we gave both Hager and Hess some chocolate. I cannot recall everything in the packs, but there were large pieces of chocolate, sugar, candy, etc. But Hager was in such pain that he could not sleep. I put my flight jacket under his head, but the poor guy was still in agony, no way to relieve him of his pain.
Dones, Farley, and I talked about what we thought they were going to do with us. We must only give them our name, rank and serial number. Farley was afraid they were going to shoot us, but Dones and I tried to assure him that they wouldn't.
Later, perhaps 8 or 9 p.m. we heard the guards come up the stairs to get us. Fortunately, they only came to get us to feed us. I wanted one of us to stay with Lt. Hager, but they insisted that all of us go downstairs with them. I don't know what the food was, but it was okay, and we all were starved.
Our guards tried to talk with us again when one of them started talking in French. I knew what he was saying so tried to whisper it to the others. Somebody came in, bringing some bandages and a sort of salve or lotion - at long last!
I experimented with the salve or lotion first by applying it to Hager's hand, to see what his reaction might be. The soldier in charge began blabbing to me and I gathered he thought I didn't trust them to give Carl the right medication - he was right. Anyway, Carl stammered that the hand was okay after I had put the stuff on it, so we did his face as gently as possible. But to just touch his hands, face and ears caused him to moan in pain. I'll tell you I never in my life saw a guy with the courage Carl had through all the pain his burns caused him throughout this ordeal.
I think he was in shock for several days. Every time it was necessary to change his bandages and I had to remove the old, it almost killed him. Of course, this would open his wounds again. There was puss coming out of the blisters, especially with his ears - they were the worst.
After we finished our first meal, they took us back to the upstairs room and locked us in again. Carl got sick at his stomach; then we used whatever clothing we had to serve as his bedding. The rest of us slept on the concrete floor, mostly sitting up against a wall. No one slept well because either John or Carl kept moving or moaning. There were no facilities such as a bathroom, either, and the two windows had bars on them.
In the very early morning, I told Dones and Farley that I was going to try to get the "Eyties" to take Carl and John to a hospital. I didn't know where they were going to take us next, but Lt. Hager, especially, needed medical care immediately. We had some medication, sulfur or some other compound in our packs, but we used all of it the first night. Dones and Farley were sure that the Eyties wouldn't know what we were asking for, but to hell with it, I was going to try. I said that I'd talk in French to the Sergeant and he'd understand. We agreed that both the Sergeant and he'd understand. We agreed that both the Sergeant and the Colonel would be damned mad when we they learned I understood the Sergeant's French the day before, but Hager simply had to have help. So we agreed with my plan.
Again the soldiers came to get us, took us down to breakfast. Hess was so weak that we had to help both him and Carl. Downstairs the same Sergeant was waiting and I asked him in my best French, "Avez vous un hospital?" and pointed to Carl and John.
The Sergeant was surprised, no doubt, but instead of running over to get the Colonel, he asked me if I spoke French and said something about the Colonel being mad if he found out. Fortunately, the Sergeant had some compassion and did not send for the Colonel. He used French to inform me that there was a hospital, but in another town.
Carl didn't want to leave us even though I told him that John Hess would go with him to the hospital. He still refused to go, so all we could do was try to get the dirty bandages off ourselves and to put clean ones on. It was slow and painful, to say the least.
"Breakfast" was a cup of coffee and some stale bread, then back to our cell. The guards returned again about noon and loaded us into one truck with an Italian driver and four guards. I don't remember now the name of the town where we stopped for the night, but I know we were on the road all afternoon and most of the night. On the way, we went up and down and around mountains and hills. The driver was always talking to the guard with him and he was a lousy driver. It was scary because there were no rails on the side of those roads.
During the ride, we still had our parachute packs with us and fortunately, there were chocolate bars and sweets in them. We were able to sneak them out of the packs without being seen. Half the time one or two of our guards were asleep anyway. We talked of jumping off the truck - and I think we probably had some good opportunities, but with Hager and Hess, could not get far even if we did escape. But we talked of getting away if the chance came up later when Carl and John felt better.
We finally arrived at this town, name unknown, and drove about one half mile out of it to a stone building. They made us get out, and frankly, we were relieved to get out. They put us in one room that looked and felt like a dungeon because it was down in the basement of the building. It could have had a dirt floor, or cement with hay scattered over it. There was a hole in the ground at one end and, obviously, this was the toilet. It stunk!
Locked in, we got nothing to eat. I tried to make Carl as comfortable as possible, but he sure was in bad shape. Eventually, due to his extreme pain at all times, shock seemed to be worse. He was moaning, and we could not help him. So we started yelling for the guards, got three of them to come to the outside of our cell. I told them that Carl must get some medical attention and medicine. By gesturing and some French, I tried to make them understand there could be some medicine in our packs that they finally had taken from us. Could I go look?
They would not let me out of the cell, but they motioned to Dones, who was small, that he could go. It old Dones to strip all the packs of food or anything else he could find to help us and to bring it along if he could. Dones spoke Spanish to the guards and they understood him.
Dones finally came back with everything from the packs, which wasn't much - the usual chocolate, some sugar and sweets as I remember it now, and some gauze. By then Carl was sinking lower and we though that he was going to die. I again tried to get the guards to get a doctor for him, but they only gave us a hard time. It seems that some planes had shot up the town a few days or nights before, and they certainly were not about to do anything for us. Dones and I got mad and were really spouting off - so much that they called the other guards down, plus an officer, I believe, and they started the same old business of gesturing they'd cut our throats, etc.
I remember inviting them into our cell, but of course, the door was locked. It is peculiar, but as afraid as we might have been, the fear gets overwhelmed by anger, and then there no longer is fear. Had they opened the door that night to shut us up, I suspect that Dones and I would have gone after them. The anger came from our feeling of helplessness in seeing that Carl was dying and we could not do anything to help - nor would they.
For four nights and three days we were kept in thus dungeon. The stink got worse, Carl got worse, but Hess improved a little. They gave us one meal of macaroni a day, usually about 4 to 5 p.m. We didn't' eat the chocolate, deciding to give it and the sugar cubes to Carl. Both Dones and Farley were okay, but I was always a bit afraid that Farley might crack. He was quite young (about 19 or 20) and very immature, more afraid than the others. But we treated each other well and equally, which seemed to help him. As long as he could follow someone's lead, he'd be okay and he was.
During our stay, we again talked about putting Carl to sleep, something to spare him his pain. But we couldn't' hit him, nor do anything else. He did manage to sleep at times due to sheer exhaustion, but it was only in shot spells. I remember trying to stay up with him as long as I could, but I'd still doze off and wake up in the morning.
We complained about the stink in the place but got nowhere. Rarely during the day did we see any guards; they stayed away from us. But, as I remember it, on the third or last night, the guards brought in a lieutenant named Wilson, who was supposed to have been from the Midwest. We all remembered the warnings that the enemy planted people among prisoners, so we acted accordingly. This Wilson must have thought we were either the rudest or most stupid people he had ever met. I told our guys not to say anything in his presence. He, of course, overheard me say this, and insisted that he had been a P-38 pilot and had been shot down a few days before. He said he was glad to see us, but we weren't too happy to see him.
He was about 5 foot 8 inches tall, wore a flyer's suit, had a mustache and, I guess, he was about 25 to 30 years old. We never trusted the poor guy and as I learned years later from Hager, Lt. Wilson was truly a P-38 pilot, was sent to a German POW camp in Germany.
On the morning we left the dungeon, we got into a truck with the same four guards. Carl still showed a few signs of improvement though he could have been a bit better. I don't recall our route now - if I even knew then - but we finally got to one town with a railroad station where it looked like an army guarding it. I could not determine if it were Italian or German. The town was Taranto, but it took me many years to establish its name.
We stayed here for several hours, then finally put on another train, in a cattle car, and taken to the town of Bari. It was here that we had the toughest time. The guards took us off the train and walked us from the square on down the street. But before we left the square, there were people lined up on both sides of the street, yelling and raising their hands. Their ages varied from young to old and were getting stirred up. Definitely, we were in for it. They pointed to bullet holes in houses and just screamed at us. But the guards said and did nothing. When one elderly lady raised a stick as though to hit Hager, I raised my hand to take the blow. It was looking very bad for us and we were thinking we surely would be mobbed. Still, the guards did nothing.
Just at the time we heard machine gun fire from two motorcycles as they roared down the street, firing into the air. The mob dispersed rather quickly as they were afraid of these two Germans.
We were taken to a German headquarters for questioning, we guessed. So I reminded our guys to give only name, rank and serial number, to say nothing else. Both Hess and Dones said they weren't going to salute any German or Italian officer; and, in fact, when Hess came out he told us he did not salute and did not stand at attention. I thought that this was wrong and told him so.
When I went in, there were there officers at a table, two Germans and one Italian. I clicked my heels and saluted. I heard one of the officers say, "Bona soldaten" and was glad that I had saluted.
After we all had been interrogated, they took us to a temporary prison camp in Bari. We took care of Hess and Lt. Hager both of whom were feeling better. Carl Hager's face was still swollen, hands still bandaged. So I helped him change his clothes, helped dress him, washed and sometimes fed him.
It was here we met about 25 to 30 other American airmen, all shot down at Foggia on the same mission with us. We were there only three to five days; one meal a day eaten about 5 p.m., usually just macaroni and hard tack, and no Red Cross packages. We spent our time doing nothing except a little boxing with each other. One Italian considered himself a professional boxer, had a pair of gloves, and wanted to challenge us. However, he sparred with one of the officers and tried to knock his head off, but happily, took a beating instead.
While there, formations of some Allied planes flew over on bombing missions. The funny part is that they had an air raid shelter at this camp and when the planes would come over, the siren would go off and all the guards ran for the shelter. But all of us Americans ran outside and cheered the planes.
We left Bari the same way as we entered - walked through the streets to the train station. But with one exception, we had German guards. They put all of us in two cattle cars, and our train went through and over mountains in the central part of Italy. They had to stop at every steep hill, unloosen all but one car and then take it over, one at a time. I don't' remember how long it took, but somewhere along the way they separated the enlisted men from the officers, sending them into Germany and prison camps there.
We enlisted men went to a prison camp in Sulmona, Italy, which was somewhere east and a bit north of Rome. It was a valley surrounded by mountains and contained some 3 to 4,000 prisoners. There were over 3,400 English, French, Turks, or Greeks and whatever, but we were the only Americans - about 18 of us.
The first night an English Colonel came into our barracks and laid down the law to us. He was in charge! We were to do nothing including trying to escape, without his knowing and permitting it. Immediately, we did NOT like him.
By now it was September, 1943. We had German and Italian guards around the prison at various stations. There was a high stone wall with, as I remember it, one gate. Could have had barbed wire on top of the wall, but I don't remember for sure. There was a dirt field where we played softball, a small church area and a priest. I got a prayer book from this priest, still have it at home. I always wore my rosary beads while flying and still had them around my neck there.
We all wondered and talked about the others that were killed in the crash. We talked about whether our families knew we survived and were all right. Again, we had but one meal a day - macaroni and hard tack - but we got so hungry that it started to taste good. We received only one or two Red Cross packages while we were there. Don't' remember all that they contained, but it was just great, especially the chocolate malts and crackers.
We were in Sulmona prison camp for about four to six weeks - I lost track of dates. The weather always seemed to be good, we slept on straw or concrete. It was uncomfortable at first, but one can get used to it. I don't recall any interrogation of us while we were there. On one or two occasion, we saw our bombers flying overhead and, of course, we hollered and waved to give them hell.
But each passing day was just like the others. Except for softball, we did absolutely nothing. Oh, we did exercise a little, but not much of that either. All of us were still wearing our flight suits and jackets. I do not recall any of the Americans with us ever complaining except about the food. We all lost much weight, I am sure.
During the time we were there rumors kept spreading around camp that Italy had capitulated in September. After awhile, we noticed that some Italian guards seemed to be missing. We were told they left for home when they heard Italy was out of the war. Anyhow, as the days drug by, there were fewer and fewer Italian guards on the walls around our camp. We saw considerable numbers of German troop movements by truck. Sgt. Jett had talked with one of the German officers who, apparently, told him Italy was out of the war but he warned Jett not to try to escape or he would be shot.
This is the end of Section one. The escape will be covered in the next Section 2.
One day in October, it appeared that there weren't too many guards on the corners of the wall, and somehow, the gate did not appear to be closed. About late afternoon, maybe early evening, all 16 to 18 of us wandered toward the gate. We flung it open and all raced to some nearby woods and then up the side of the mountain. While we were running up the side of that mountain east of the camp, we heard gunfire. Whether it was aimed at us or perhaps others who were trying to escape out the gate, I don't know. We were all too busy breaking the mile record going uphill.
We grouped together at one point and decided we'd have a better chance if we split into pairs, or into threes. There was one English soldier with us - a fellow named Graham, who was from Lowell, as I recall, and who had joined the Army in Canada. John Hess and I decided to pair off. Farley and Dones went with a Sgt. Henderson (or Glenn Hickerson) from Texas. The rest split into small units, as well.
By this time it was getting or was dark. John and I kept going to the top of the mountain where the woods were thick. We kept moving most of the night and slept little. By the next morning, we felt we put in a good distance from the camp. We were hungry as we had taken no food with us. But we wanted to stay in the mountains for better cover and we did so the rest of the way.
That evening, I remember, we were so hungry that when we came upon a farm area, we dug out some potatoes and ate them raw. We also took some tomatoes and ate them. We had no matches to start a fire, but we didn't want to light one anyhow. We had raw potatoes for 3 to 4 days and some tomatoes. Later on, when we came onto some fig trees, we ate many figs. Unfortunately, diarrhea followed.
It is difficult now to remember the days thereafter, but primarily figs and tomatoes were our diet. Both of us were sick once each, so we had to stop and hole up for 24 hours or so. We never saw any of our group again.
One night, we were so hungry we approached a farm house. We had been out about 6 or 7 days by this time. I remember talking in French to the Italian at the house and getting some bread. We decided not to sleep in his barn, but rather, in the pile of hay (with mosquitoes) in the field. John woke me later during the night, told me that he saw the Italian leave the house, and seemed to head toward a village. John figured he was going to turn us in, so we got up and ran again for as long as we could.
Our compass was the sun. Although we heard rumors in the prison camp that the Allies had invaded north of Rome and from the East Coast to Italy, we felt our best bet was to head south as directly as possible. Although we did most of our walking during the dark, we marked some area as south during the day, and we did our best to go that way in the dark.
Both of us had bad diarrhea a few times. We lost considerable weight, as well. We lived mostly on the figs, tomatoes, and water.
One evening, we stopped at another farm house. There was only a man and his wife there, both seemed to be in their 50"s or early 60"s, so we felt safe. We watched the house for awhile, but because we were so hungry, we approached it. I again spoke to them in French. They gave us some hot goat's milk cheese. It was delicious. They gave us some bread, as well. Also, we took some bread with us for the next day. They seemed like nice people, but we did not dare to stay long. We kept going.
Every night we slept on the ground or in some rocky areas. We stayed up in the mountains as best we could. We did very little walking in daylight to avoid being seen.
Finally, we reached a town near Campobasso. It was named Ielsi. The first night we made our observations near a farm house. We saw considerable German troop movement at night, by truck. They were going up a road toward Campobasso. We tried to count the trucks, but couldn't get close enough to see or to count the troops in those trucks.
Outside the town of Ielsi was a farmhouse. An old Italian farmer appeared to live there, so when he was alone in the field working, we went up to him. He spoke a little broken English and understood what we were saying to him. We did not tell him we were escaped prisoners, however. We only told him that we had been shot down. He told us he had a son in Chicago and last he heard, his son was in the American Army. We knew this farmer only as "Sam."
We were so hungry and tired, and he seemed so sincere, that we stayed close by, but in the woods, for three days. His wife was afraid the Germans would see us in the house, but she still baked bread for us, and even gave us chicken once. We also got back to the macaroni - all of it was great. I think we had some more goat's milk cheese there, and again, it was great. This family, as well as a few of their neighbors next door, were very good to John and me.
Come the day we had to leave, John and I felt better with some solid food in us. We knew the Germans were doing considerable moving and we heard exchanges of artillery every now and then, so we knew our lines had to be close by. We told Sam we were going and he insisted that his nephew (or son - I don't recall) would show us the way to the front lines. This guy had been in the Italian Army but had come home while we were there. He wore a sidearm.
We started out after we had seen a German patrol of about 6-8 soldiers several hundred yards away. We now foolishly had civilian clothes on. We were sitting on a hill with this guy when suddenly we heard artillery booming ahead of us and behind us. We apparently were in the middle of a battle. It seemed that the shells raining down were getting closer to us. I turned to our hero guy who was going to show us the Allied lines, but he was running back toward his house! John and I came close to laughing.
We then moved forward, toward where we figured our guns were. We stopped at a farmhouse, again an elderly man and his wife, and we asked for some water. But as she was giving us water, she spotted a German patrol and, unfortunately, she screamed "tedeschi."
We looked, we saw, and we ran like hell. But we heard no gunfire. Nevertheless, we put plenty of distance from that place before we stopped to rest. We were now on a hillside with a wide open field in front of us and woods beyond that" field. We hesitated, thinking this field had to be mined, but we knew we HAD to cross it.
I took out the prayer book and read a prayer to the Blessed Mother. I then gave the book to John, told him to read the same prayer. This he did even though he was not a religious person.
We then ran as fast as we could across that open field - about 100-200 yards wide - no gunfire, no mines. When we reached the woods, we rested. There were empty cans of food with German markings scattered about, but we touched nothing. We kept going through the woods and in a distance, saw another farmhouse. I peeked around the corner of that house while John stayed back in the woods. I saw guns, but just the heads of some soldiers minus their helmets. I went back to tell John, and to work out our next action.
For awhile, we did nothing, waited until the elderly Italian lady came to the back of the house for reasons unknown. We quietly asked her who the soldiers were. Again, my French came in handy and I learned from her that the soldiers were CANADIANS!
I had John stay in the woods because he had real blond hair. With the name of "Hess," he'd surely be mistaken for a German before I would.
I walked back with the woman and shouted out, "Je suis American." And I kept yelling it.
One of the soldiers answered back in English, so I explained we were escaped prisoners, my buddy was back in the woods. Then John came out and I recall one of the Canadians remarking it was a good thing John did not come out first!
We were now safe. We made it to the Canadian 5th Army. Shortly thereafter, we talked with Major John MacDonald, Canadian Army, but who lived in Hartford, Connecticut. And we stayed with them for three days and nights, giving them all of the information we had about German movements and locations.
Next, we were given a ride back to American Headquarters. Ironically, it was back to Foggia where we had bombed when we were shot down. The ride back was on a motorcycle - the first and only time I've even been of a motorcycle.
After briefing and interrogation by American Officers, we were told that several other prisoners had made it back to Foggia a few days before us. We were clothed and fed - good to be back in uniform again. Then we were taken to the Foggia Airport where we boarded a C-47, I think, and flown back to Tunis. We asked the pilot if he could fly over Reggio Calabria where our plane went down. He did! We saw only the tail section left of our plane. The rest had been burned to ashes.
This was the end of our story from 16 August, 1943 to sometime in the October-November period of 1943. We were given a 20 day leave in London; decorated by General Eaker.
In July of 1984, June Hager called me to advise me that Carl had passed away in Florida. Each year for the past 25 or more, I have called on each August 16th Carl Hager; John Hess and Lorene Long in Rocky Comfort, MO., Sgt. Wood's sister.
I have been to John Hess' home twice, and he came to Needham with his family once. Have not seen him since about 1968. I lost track of Dones and Farley. Our original navigator, Lt. Latimer, was lost in the North Sea on 18 Nov. 1943. John and I saw him when we got back to Shipdham in November. Our original co-pilot, Lt. Greyhofsky, survived the war.
I got home in time for Christmas, 1943. Robert W. Blakeney
NOTE: The 44th BG enlisted men who also went down on that 16 August "43 mission, became POWs and escaped from this same Ban Prison were:
66th Sq. W. L. Zimmerman, only survivor.
67th Sq. Isabeline Dones
Henry R. Farley
Leroy R. Winter
Gerald A. Sparks
68th Sq. Dennis E. Slattery
C. W. Strandberg
C. H. Rothrock
R. I. Vogel
506th Sq. Joe W. Jett
Dale V. Lee
Charles Joseph Warth
Ralph B. Knox
Ret'd 29 Oct.
See Original Formation Sketch for positions that these crews flew that fateful day in August, 1943.
It would be very interesting reading if these other escapees could write up their experiences concerning this mission, their capture, and their successful flight from prison and return to Allied lines. How about it, you'all?