Dale V. Lee|
Southern Comfort #F
I was the Left Waist gunner and assistant Eng. on the Lt. H. W. Austin crew -- B-24D, #42-40778 "Southern Comfort," and we were known as "T" in the formation. I trained at Mechanic School, Kaiser Field, Miss, B-24 School at Consolidated Aircraft Plant, San Diego, Calif. Gunnery School at what is now known as Nellis Air Base, Las Vegas, Nev. I started crew training with Lt. Austin as pilot at Tucson, Arizona, then to Flight School at Alamogordo, New Mexico and Clovis, New Mexico.
We picked up our plane, "Southern Comfort" at Lincoln, Nebraska, then on to Detroit, Michigan to Bangor, Maine -- to Newfoundland and on to Prestwick, Scotland and finally to the 44th Hdq. At Shipdham, England, AAF 115.
We flew training flights out of Shipdham and then were transferred on D.S. at Bennia Main Air Field at Benghazi, N. Africa.
I flew 11 ½ missions, some of which included Rome, the first Ploesti (August 1) raid, Wiemer (Aug 13), Neustadt and Loggia (Aug. 16). Many different experiences came to mind.
On one flight, the #I Cylinder on our #2 engine was hit. Our instruments were reading okay and we still had plenty of power, but we were losing oil like crazy and it caused us a lot of concern. The No. 2 engine was feathered and we flew back on the other three. We came home late but we made it back okay.
I was on the low-level Ploesti mission and that still stands out clearly in my mind. We had a super group commander and a great crew and I've always felt proud that our group hit our target in spite of all the obstacles. As we approached our target, there was lots of fire and smoke. Airplanes being hit and going down on all sides. I distinctly remember one plane going down in the mass of black smoke. The wounded plane pulled straight up. Before stalling out, two airmen bailed out. Their chutes were so strikingly white in all that dark, black smoke. Two German fighters came in and got those guys. You could see their bodies slumped in their chutes. It's a sight I'll never forget.
During this flight, I saw a German sergeant. He had three rows of troops all lined up in formation. I just wanted to even the score for them having wiped out so many of my good buddies and in my anger and frustration, I opened my 50 cal. Gun and mowed right down their lines. That experience has come back to haunt me many times in my later years, but at the time it seemed so justifiable and right.
One time during the flight, our right wing was very, very low to the ground. The pilots had the control wheel against the stops and the wing just stayed down. (We could have been in the slipstreams of the lead aircraft). Co-pilot Lt. Fabiny reached over and got just a little bit more power out of No. 4 engine. The wing quivered and came up ever so slowly. It appeared to have had zero clearance between the wing and the ground. After our return to base, the first thing three different of us crewmembers did was to go out and examine that wing -- Fabiny, Jett and myself. We hadn't previous voiced our anxiety. We just stood and looked at each other and were all amazed that the paint was not rubbed off.
We had two boxes of incendiaries and as we came down over the oil tanks, we poured them out. I tried to pour a steady stream out my left waist window. Hickerson, our tail gunner kept shouting, "You got another one. You got another one." About that time, a big concussion from a large gun knocked Purcell on his butt. (He was manning the right waist window). He spilled his box of incendiary all over the floor of the plane. I made a mad scramble to pick them up and tossed them out in a hurry.
Another picture that comes to mind was this old lady that stood right out in the middle of all this commotion. She was calmly pumping water into a bucket and if there is any humor in all this, it would have to be this scene. At the end of the mission run, there was a cornfield. There were a number of high, two-wheeled carts pulled by a team of oxen and there were carts all over that cornfield. Those poor oxen were just going berserk and the excited farmers were in hot pursuit, trying to bring them back under control.
When we got back to home base, Col. Johnson met us at the interrogation shack. We shook my hand and said, "One of those is enough in anybody's lifetime."
Each mission had different problems. Most German fighters would usually attack from above and behind. Lt. Austin would carry 2° flaps on our ship. When the fighters came in, Glen Hickerson (tail gunner) would yell, "Move," and Lt. Austin would pull the flaps up. The plane would drop about 20 feet and the fighter's 20 mm's would burst overhead. In my position (Left waist gunner), I could not see the fighters because they flew by so fast, but Hickerson would shoot his guns and a half a second after his guns stopped, I would lay on mine as the fighters would come flying through and underneath. We got a lot of "hits" using this sort of teamwork.
Our last trip was the second Foggia mission (Aug 16) and this was probably the most successful mission you could ever want. There were three 44, 93, and 389 of us. Number 1 group got the first third of the air field. Number 2 group picked up where number 1 left off and wiped out the 2nd and third and our group, number 3, picked off the last third of the field. Mission accomplished.
On our way out, we could see flashes of the ack-ack guns and just knew that a "beast" was on its way. Approximately 15 minutes after releasing our bombs, our group was covered by 50 to 150 fighters from Goering's pet squadron. We had a bomb hang up and I was trying frantically to pry it loose. About that time, our ship gave a big shudder and I finally managed to release the bomb by disconnecting the whole damn shackle. Then I could get the bomb bay doors closed. I looked out my window and saw a hole about 3' in the top side of the wing (outboard from No. 1 engine). It looked like a giant blow torch. I've marveled then as I do now, why that wing did not fold. The fire was following the transfer hoses into the airplane and it was one big inferno. The left rudder was completely shot off -- holes appeared in the fuselage. Looked like a newspaper with holes poked through with a pencil. One thing still puzzles me. On the curvature of the fuselage, over my head, there was a split -- approximate ½" wide and 1 ½' long and this split followed the curvature. Not only was the skin split, but the stringers as well. At that time, I remember thinking, "Now how can they shoot like that?" By this time, 50% of my clothes were burned off. Our communications system was gone so there was no way of knowing what was going on up front, but I knew it was time to do something. I poked Joe Worth and pointed to Hickerson in the tail. I bailed out the left waist window.
We were approximately 25,000 feet and the cold air felt oh, so good. I free-fell as far as I thought I should and about that time, I fell through a bunch of German fighters. I remember this image of the two airmen shot in their chutes on the Ploesti mission. So I delayed opening my chute. I remember floating on my back in what seemed a slow-turn, watching our burning plane go down and though it still seemed a long way to the ground, I finally pulled my chute. I felt a jolt and right after that was another big jolt. I glanced over my left shoulder and discovered that I was on the ground. I was immediately surrounded by Italian civilians with guns and various forms of weapons.
Singer (navigator) had a ripped chute and Fender (bombardier) was killed in the plane. The rest of the crew all made it to the ground.
I was taken to a civilian jail. It had beautiful tiled floor but there was at least six inches of human excrement in the entire two-cell jail. There was one other soldier here. He had a broken right arm (compound fracture). The bones protruded through the flesh what seemed like six to eight inches. He was in extreme pain and shock, but could not lay down in all that filth. I managed to take off the door between the two cells and lean it against the wall at a slight angle so he could at least lie down. He soon passed out. Was still breathing the next morning when the guards came to get me.
I was taken to Bari for interrogation by the Nazi's and we were paraded through the streets. Absolutely no compassion was shown for the guy with the broken bones, severe burns, and sounds. Some had eyes so badly swollen and bruised they couldn't see. All the while, civilians were throwing stones at us, spitting on us along with their shouts and jeers of contempt.
From Bari, I was moved by train to Sulmona, Italy, Concentration Camp No. 17. There were 20 Americans and the remaining 2,500 were British. Many of them showed the results of imprisonment -- both physical and mental abuse and poor and inadequate food and false propaganda.
We felt the war would continue for a long time yet, so thought it was necessary to make a "break" as soon as we saw the first possible chance. The camp was surrounded by an 8' cement and black wall with jagged glass pieces imbedded on the very top side. Outside the wall was a 20' wide road. Beyond that were electric high tension wires and beyond that was a large barbed-wire entanglement. Of course, we had the inevitable guard towers, which were manned 24 hours a day, so making an escape would be no simple thing.
One day some important Nazi officers arrived at the camp. (We later learned that we were to have been moved to a camp in Germany the following day). There was a big commotion at the main gate. Seems everyone in command was pretty excited. The Italian guards left the guard towers to investigate the excitement. That's when we saw our chance. One of our English buddies had worked in the power house so knew that the power was off during the daylight hours. That was to our advantage. In one section of this cement wall was a small section of brick blocks so with our crude tools, I bused a hole in the wall. Somehow we got through the power lines and barbed entanglement and then we ran like hell for as far as we were able on that first night. When we could run no more, we slid down off the slope of a steep mountain road. We caught brush, trees, or whatever we could grab. These we straddled and leaned our back up against the bank in a sitting position and were able to rest and get a little sleep to renew our energy.
Military patrols were out looking for us all night, patrolling the road, which was approximately 50 feet above us. It always bothered me that we weren't able to go farther that first night until my wife and I returned some 40 years later. We revisited the camp, rented a car, and retraced, as nearly as possible, our escape route. I discovered that we had covered approximately 18 km of ground and had climbed about 4,000 feet.
There were six guys in our group -- Ray Whitney, Joe Jett, Tom Purcell, Wesley Zimmerman and an English man and myself. Our plans were to head for the high mountains as our chance of being seen would be in less populated areas. We would "observe" and plan by day and walk during the night. We used the North Star as navigation and head for the "boat of Italy" as we figured the allied invasion would be coming from that direction.
We survived mostly on what we could steal -- figs, grapes, and garden stuff. Occasionally we were able to bargain for food. Joe Jett traded his jacket for a "hunk of cheese." It tasted so good -- that is until the next morning and it got light enough to see. It was full of worms -- big, fat worms! But we weren't about to throw it away so every time a worm crawled out, we just eliminated the rascal with a quick flip of the finger.
I had a lot of bad sores on my legs, probably from shrapnel wounds. These were infected, would rupture, and reinfect. This was painful and bothered me. Joe Jett said he had heard that garlic was a good "blood purifier," so the next garden we found, I looked for the garlic, which I found. I ate three big ones -- the whole thing! Usually we walked single file and I was lead man -- after my "garlic feast," the guys made me walk in the rear so that they didn't have to endure my garlic breath.
One night we stopped at a farmhouse, a very, very well-kept farm. It looked quite prosperous. "Ma-Ma" was cooking spaghetti and it smelled so good, until I noticed that "Pa-Pa" was not around and hadn't noticed when he left. Instinct made me suspicious. I told the guys that I was getting the hell out of there. It was hard to leave as we were really hungry, but they all left too. After getting to a hiding place up on the mountain, we saw "Pa-Pa" returning, accompanied by three or four German soldiers.
We had a number of close calls. One night we came to a high railroad bridge. We had debated whether we would walk under the bridge or retrace our steps and walk around it. It would mean approximately ten to 15 miles farther. We had watched this bridge for a day and had not seen any guards, so decided to take our chances and walk under it. We were all tense and I was wondering if I'd hear the "shot that killed me." At a later conversation, Jett said he had thought of the same thing.
As we got close to the bridge, one of the guys said, "Hey you got to stop. I gotta take a leak!" and Jett said, "Well, piss in your pants! You've been wet for a week." What is so humorous about that is the fact that Jett was always such a gentleman, but when you've been cold and hungry and tired and walking in the dark and rain and then wondering if you're gonna be shot in the back, Jett lost his "cool."
Another time, we came to a railroad crossing. We had been skirting this track for two or three days and there had been no trains so as we were about ready to make the crossing, we were surprised to hear a train whistle -- sort of a quick tweet-tweet and a train came barreling around the corner. We all dropped to the train bed bank. The train was loaded with German troops. It stopped about 50' in front of us, unloaded two civilians, and took off again. When all was quiet again, we made a "quick" crossing.
Sometimes we misjudged suitable hiding places. We had spotted this olive grove that looked great, but when we got to the area, we discovered it was a camouflage for German motorized equipment and troop camp. Needless to say, we made a silent retreat.
We spent about five days in some brush on a steep hillside. There was an exchange of artillery from east to west and vise-versa and we didn't know who was firing on whom. We knew of a small village above us and felt that perhaps we could get something to eat. There was a high wall leading around the city and up to the heart of the village. We followed this wall, with our back flat against the wall until we were directly under the bell tower of a church. It was a really dark night. The village looked deserted. Not a light or a person in sight. Not even a stray dog or cat. Instinct again told us that it was too quiet so returned back to our hiding place, still hungry. We felt trapped and became even more hungry. If even a leaf fell to the ground, it sounded extremely loud.
The next day in the p.m., there was a ruckus in the village above us. Soon three German soldiers came running from the village directly toward our hiding place. They were very excited and each was loaded with side arms and carrying parts of a machine gun and its tripod. They "set up" about 100' from us, deliberated for a few minutes, then quickly moved further down the valley. We got the feeling they were running away from something, so we went up to he village again to investigate. We learned that our receding German soldiers had been stationed in the church bell tower the night before which accounts for the quietness of the village.
Very soon, a jeep manned by two Canadians who were with the British 8th Army arrived in the village. We approached them and had a chat -- a most welcomed chat! They told us to "pile in" and they would take us to their camp, but to get there, we had to climb this steep slope with six to eight inches of sloppy, greasy mud. We were hanging on real good and this four-wheel drive jeep crept forward ever so slowly, spitting mud out behind (and you know why I like four-wheel drives!)
All the time during our slow progression, the Germans kept lobbing shells at us, but they all landed behind us. I was thinking, "My gosh, I bailed out of a burning plane, escaped from prison camp, walked through 300 miles of enemy territory, have been wet, cold and hungry for days, eaten up by flies and get this close to allied lines "I 'get it' going up my last hill."
We did make it to camp, however, and they had food and coffee -- hot coffee -- and it was "wonderful!" We were so happy to be back and there was a lot of camaraderie with our new-found friends. They had this story of their "big hit of the day." They had had their guns lined up in a certain mountain road. They knew something was coming so they fired and "all they did was blow the guts out of a donkey and get a man's legs," and then they would laugh like hell.
The Canadian Lt. (driver of the jeep) insisted that he would take us to a "dry bed with sheets." It must have been at least a two-hour drive, raining all the way in an open jeep. I've always respected Canadians as the result of this man's kindness. He took us to a place -- sort of a Red Cross set-up. We even had a cot to sleep on and it was dry -- pure luxury!
The next day we were taken to the nearest American camp which was the 47th Fighter Group (Flying P-40's). We tried to convince them to go and blast that olive grove, but they hardly believed our story until one day one of the fighters happened to have one of his bombs hang up over target and on his way back to base, swung by the olive grove. He loped in his bomb and stirred up a hornet's nest. He came back to base to report his find and the "47th" went back in force. They had a "hay-day."
From the "47th" we were taken by G.I. truck. The C.O. wanted us guys to guard some German POWs on our way back. None of us felt like it, but when the C.O. kept insisting, I said, "Hell yes. Give us some guns. I doubt if any of these SOBs will make it all the way." After a brief discussion, other plans were made. We didn't do guard duty!
We spent several days with the 101st Airborne as we were going through the mess line one day. I went back for a second helping. The food was being served by Italian POWs. Well, this certain POW refused to give me a second helping and I just blew! I grabbed him around the neck and we went round and round -- pots and pans all over the place. The guys from the 101st just kept cheering me on. Great guys, that 101st!
We got a flight from there to Africa, close to Tunis. We had a difficult time convincing anyone of our identity and our story. We kept bugging a certain major, trying to convince him. He finally became irritated with us and said, "Well, I've got you now! Anyone on the Ploesti raid is to be awarded the DFC and I've got the list!" We said, "Dig it out!" He got his list and our names were on the list and he decided that maybe we were speaking the truth.
It was decided to have us decorated by Gen. Doolittle at the 12th Air Force Headquarters. They said we'd have about five minutes in Doolittle's office and get to meet him personally. It turned out to be a 45-minute to an hour session. We asked him about his Tokyo raid and he replied, "That was nothing compared to your raid on Ploesti," and he wanted to know all about it -- our prison camp experience, our escape and that sort of thing. A very easy, friendly conversation (43 years later at the AFA Convention at Los Vegas, Nevada, General Doolittle autographed my picture for me). He is one of the greatest men I have ever known.
General Doolittle wrote our return orders back to England and the USA -- a great set of orders marked "secret" and signed by General Doolittle himself.
We left there and stayed at an air base near Tunis and then caught a flight back to England. While there and at the mess hall, some sergeant read us the riot act and refused to serve us unless we had mess kits. He sent us to the supply sergeant who was even more obnoxious. The supply room had the usual half door with the counter-like top. The supply sergeant too, proceeded to give us "hell" for losing our mess kits. After a few minutes of his vile, berating lecture, Joe Jett, first in line at the door and who was always so calm and very much the gentleman and always in command of himself, just blew up! He leaped right over the door, grabbed that sergeant round the neck and forced him back into the corner and was beating the sergeant's head against the wall with these words, "You God-damn son of a bitch, when I bailed out of that damn plane on fire, the last thing I thought about was my mess kit," and with that he dropped "Sergeant Bad Mouth" to the floor. We got our mess kits!
We returned to the 8th Air Force Headquarters in London for interrogation and spent some time there. We were sent to the various military camps to speak to the troops about our experiences and particularly about our experiences behind enemy lines.
After that time, we returned to the 44th Bomb Squadron at Shipdham, England and from thereto the USA -- Home by Christmas!
Everyone had such tremendous respect for General Leon Johnson -- a great leader and great gentleman. I felt honored to have had him as our group commander.
I also feel thankful to have been part of such an outstanding crew. Lt. Austin and Lt. Fabiny were both a real credit to the pilot profession. As a tail gunner, Glen Hickerson couldn't be beat -- top man in every respect. Joe Jett was tops as flight engineer and even though Ray Whitney (radio man) was only with us on a half a mission (our last) there is none better than he and Jett as "traveling companions" and especially behind enemy lines. Joe Worth was our hatch gunner and, you, of the "44th" all know him. We were a good crew.
I need to thank my wife, Alice, and my sons and daughters for bearing with me and still loving me during my many moods these past years. My wife was an army nurse in the 179th Fen, which was designated a POW hospital. She knows first hand what it is to feed soldiers whose bodies are so emaciated and too weak to stand and almost unable to swallow so that they had to be fed with eye droppers until they could tolerate solid food. Her experience and caring helped her to really understand me and sometimes I know it was not easy. I must not forget my mother. Thanks to her many prayers, I'm here to tell about my experiences.
There are many experiences that keep coming back to haunt me!
1. On three separate bombing raids, low level Ploesti, Weiner Neustadt-Foggi, we lost 50% of our planes and their crew. That is 150% loss in three missions.
2. I killed at least 30 Nazi soldiers with a blast from my 50 caliber machine gun.
3. Frantically throwing spilled incendiaries out of our plane before they exploded.
4. Helplessly watch two of my best buddies get shot in their chutes. (Ploesti -- both survived)
5. Trying to dislodge a bomb that hung up in the bomb bay of our plane.
6. Our plane was hit in the gas tank -- entire left vertical control surface completely disappeared -- fire all through our plane. I had shrapnel wounds on my legs, clothes on fire, bailed out and free fell from 20,000 ft. to 10,000 ft. (oxygen level), fell through six to eight Nazi fighters, hit the ground very hard, severely injuring my back.
7. Clothes burned off -- shrapnel wounds on my legs -- captured by eight to ten angry civilians. Was beaten on my head, shoulders, back, and legs with guns, clubs, pitch forks, or whatever they had in hand.
8. Held in jail with at least six inches of human excrement covering entire floor. No place to lay down or even sit.
9. Next day, taken with eight other prisoners, tied together with ropes, lead through the streets -- beaten, rocks and stones thrown at us -- spit on.
10. Held in jail at Bari. Marched to railroad station while British were bombing it and wondering if they would hit us.
11. Loaded into crowded railroad boxcar. Moved to prison at Sulmona, 2,500 British prisoners there. Food consisted of two macaronas in two cups of water, once a day. Impossible to survive for two more years.
12. Broke hole in brick wall with bed post. Escaped through brick wall hole, crawled through high-tension wires and barbed wire entanglement, then things got tough!
13. Walked and hid out 300+ miles -- headed for Southern Italy, hoping that the allies had invaded Italy. I had six POWs with me. Some in complete shock. Two of us made all the decisions. No food, no clothes, no water. Slept in the mud and on frozen ground. I had large sores on my legs from the shrapnel wounds--yellow jaundice. Nazi's dropped flares on us. Hunted us day and night -- had dogs out. I was in enemy territory, headed for two large armies each trying to eliminate each other and us, too.
14. Two Nazi soldiers with machine guns, side arms and other equipment come charging close to our hiding place. I could have spit on their boots.
15. Was planning to hide out in a large olive grove one night, but when we came closer, discovered it to be a large camouflaged Nazi armored group camp. I reported this information to he 47th Fighter Group. They did not believe me, but I kept insisting. They dropped one bomb in there and all hell broke loose. Then they went back and totally wiped it out.
16. Every time a dog barked, we wondered if we would be caught.
17. When we got back to a military unit in Africa, we couldn't convince anyone who we were, as we had no uniforms, no dog tags or any kind of identification.
18. When we got to Washington, D.C., I was given Secret Orders stating that I should not reveal to anyone, anything about our escape or activities at that time. I have a signed Letter of Restriction from G-2 General Adjutant Office, Washington, D.C. -- dated December 7, 1943, stating that any information concerning our capture and evasion was secret to everyone except Commanding General of G-2. I felt isolated from everyone -- my wife, my family and friends. I felt abandoned by my government and the V.A. This letter has never been rescinded to this day. It was a big load to carry. All my old friends before my military life could not believe me or understand me and abandoned me. This feeling has followed me throughout my civilian life.
I've been hired and lost many, many jobs, one of which was flight engineer with TWA Airlines. It is difficult to get a Flight Engineers License. I got top grades on all my written work, but on my check ride, the instructor insisted on standing behind me and looking over my shoulder. I couldn't handle that feeling. My nerves couldn't hand it. I didn't pass the test. I tried to hire in for united Airlines and American Airlines. They, in turn, checked with TWA -- that was the end of my Flight Engineer career.
I worked at ten to 15 different jobs, but always had trouble getting along with my co-workers. I bought a farm in Washington state and moved my family there. I tried to physically work off my frustrations. I operated the dairy farm for ten years. My dairy herd was second in the state of Washington and 13th in the nation on production per cow. After selling the dairy farm, I raised Holstein dairy replacement heifers, selling them at the time of calving. Having been in the dairy business, I was confident of my knowledge in this field. I had information as to where to buy quality stock, locations of reasonably priced quality feeds and many sources of markets through the entire U.S., Canada and Mexico. These animals required individual inspection and care to make sure that vaccinations, blood tests, shots and such met all legal health requirements for selling. This was enjoyable work and it was paying for my farms, but the pain in my bad back and knee made me physically unable to continue and I had to sell the farms.
I have been to psychiatrists. The first one was very strange. After my third visit, my wife (she is an RN), told me that if I went back to him, she would leave me. Another psychiatrist sneered at me and said, "You were only a prisoner for a short time." And all I could think of was all that had happened in that "short time." No one had ever escaped from that prison before.
Most of the treatment that I have received at the Phoenix VAMC has been satisfactory. The POW group meetings have been good, especially at the S.E. VAMC Clinic. I think June Harris is a very capable and caring person.