Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, 42-97747, Mid Atlantic, May 1944
The 16th of May 1944 seen one of the stranger incidents included in the list of foreign aircraft crashes in or around Ireland. In reality it didn't happen 'near' Ireland and the crew members never set foot on Irish soil but they were plucked from the wide Atlantic by an Irish ship!
The pilot of Boeing B-17G serial number 42-97747, the wonderfully named Clarence W Fightmaster, was in command of the aircraft on a transatlantic ferry mission, delivering the new bomber to the Eighth Air Force in England for the ongoing bomber offensive against Germany. The crash report in the US Air Force archives includes his report filed in the aftermath of the incident and tells the story in simple terms:
"Last radio contact with any station was made with Goose Bay
at the time flight altitude of 11,000 ft. was reached. We
proceeded on course as briefed to the navigator.
No other radio contact was made. Our liaison transmitter was not working properly, apparently due to a broken trailing wire antenna. Many attempts were made for [text unreadable] and other radio aids.
We flew out our ETA plus forty min., and at no time could we pick up the Meeks radio, or any other radio. The navigator made several shots, but they showed to be roughly several hundred miles off DR course, so we followed Navigators briefing and remained on DR.
Due to the overcast and following flight plan the Navigator assumed a DR position and altered course for Stornaway. No indication was ever found of destination so at the end of new ETA plus thirty min. course was altered to the east in approximate direction of land. A London civilian radio station was also [text unreadable] up on the compass that roughly indicated that direction.
With about thirty min. of fuel remaining and no indication of land a ditching was made beside a tramp steamer approximately 160 miles south west of the Irish coast. Dingy procedure was followed and all of the crew were rescued. The ship remained afloat for thirty min."
In the above account, the following terms are:
ETA - Estimated Time of Arrival
DR - Dead reckoning
The Army Air Forces report includes the following summary of
"On May 16 1944 at approximately 1200 GMT, B-17G 42-97747 ditched at 49" 46'N 13" 01'W.
This ship was cleared from Goose Bay, Lab. destined from
Meeks Field, Iceland, Pilot Fightmaster, Clarence, 2nd
Lt , AC, O-1291613.
According to the pilot and crew no radio contact was made
from the time they took off or left Goose Bay the navigator
was depending entirely on DR, and not celestial. He took
several shots which put him several hundred miles south of
course, but according to the navigator remained on DR,
according to briefing.
The ship finally ditched appr. 1000 mi. S.E. of destination
due to lack of fuel. The ship was ditched beside a tramp
steamer which picked up the crew.
Recommend that Briefing Officers stress a point that
celestial navigation should be depended on when shots are
taken rather than DR. In addition it is also recommended
that navigators before making an overseas flight should have
navigation equipment checked. This particular navigator
did not have his sextant checked in the last six months."
Gustav Ranzinger the navigator had his own report on the
ditching in the files he left his family.
The ship they landed beside was the Irish registered SS Lanahrone. This was on a voyage from New York destined to England. Evidence provided by Gustav Ranzinger shows that the vessel called to Fishguard in the UK to disembark its unexpected passengers.
The Lanahrone had been built in Scotland in 1928 for the
Limerick Steamship Company. She plied her trade between
Ireland and the UK throughout the 1930's, her name appearing in
the shipping news in newspapers at all times. R J Scott in
a 1982 "Ships Monthly" article mentions that in October 1936,
the Lanahrone was present to rescue two German aviators who had
crashed off the Weser. It was the first of a number of
rescues the Lanahrone found itself involved in. The
Lanahrones first brushes with war were in the late 1930's while
sailing to Spain for cargo's during that nations civil war.
The start of the war would see neutral Ireland almost bereft of
shipping and the vessels that were available were used where
ever they were needed, including voyages beyond what the vessels
would have been expected to do in peace time. On the 27
August 1940, the Lanahrone picked up 18 survivors of the British
ship Goathland, which had been sunk two days previously by a
German aircraft. A year later and while sailing with the
British convoy OG71 to Gibralter, her sister ship Clonlara was
sunk and the surviving ships had to make for Lisbon to escape
the German onslaught. R J Scotts article mentions that
Lanahrone in early 1944 made a transatlantic voyage to Saint
John, New Brunswick to load wheat, having sailed a number of
times to West Africa earlier in the year. October 1945
would see her providing assistance to the sinking Royal Navy
submarine HMS Universal. Then finally, in August 1949, the
Lanahrone again was on hand after the ditching in Galway Bay of
Douglas Skymaster N79998. On this occasion however, she
was only able to recover bodies of some of those who died.
She seems to have sailed thereafter without incident and was
broken up in Holland in 1959.
An intriguing notice found in the Wicklow People of 30 November
1946, in describing the contents of the latest Maritime and
Aviation Magazine includes the following:
A wartime incident which occured to the Limerick Steamship company's "Lanahrone" is the basis for Malachy Hynes' story, "The Lanahrone Comes Through". Mr Hynes contrives to get a deal of atmossphere and shrewd characterisation in this story of an Irish Skipper and crew who pick up, under difficult circumstances, an American flight crew.
The crew of 2/Lt Fightmaster's aircraft consisted of seven aircrew and two radar technicians.
2/Lt Clarence W Fightmaster O-1291613 (Pilot)
2/Lt Neil K Gehret O-821257 (Co-Pilot)
2/Lt Gustav Ranzinger O-699960 (Navigator)
2/Lt George Silverstein O-757050 (Bombardier)
S/Sgt Harry W Clifford 39908529 (Radio Operator)
S/Sgt Harry A Phillips 35684917 (Engineer)
Sgt Carrol S Hurdle 34479180 (Air Gunner)
Cpl Bernard Nitkin 31143663 (Passenger, Radar Technician)
Cpl Robert D Shaver 39274851 (Passenger, Radar Technican)
After their rescue from the sea, three of the officers and all
the sergeants were posted to the 91st Bomb Group flying from
Bassingbourne in . The 91st Bomb Group website records their
arrival as follows, with EM indicating Enlisted Men:
11 June 1944 – The following EM and Officers assigned and joined from AAF Station 112: 2nd Lt. Clarence W. Fightmaster, 2nd Lt. Neil N. Gehret, 2nd Lt. George Silverstein and S/Sgt. Harry W. Clifford. The following EM assigned from AAF Station 112, DS to AAF Station 172: S/Sgt. Harry A. Phillips, Sgt. Carrol S. Hurdle, Sgt. Charles R. Knox, Sgt. Robert C. (Last name illegible.) Sgt. Virgil S. Skagsbergh
Just two days later and they would be off on their first bombing mission to Hamburg, 2/Lt Gehret getting to sit this one out while 2/Lt Fightmaster flew as co-pilot to 2nd Lt. Neiswender. The mission reports can be read on the www.91stbombgroup.com website. Five days later and Wally Fightmaster would lead his crew back to Hamburg. After one more mission to Berlin, 2/Lt Fightmaster no longer appears in the mission records of the 401st Bomb Squadron, but Gehret, Silverstein, Phillips, Hurdle and Clifford continue to fly missions into Autumn and winter of 1944 with other pilots and thereafter the newly promoted 1/Lt Gehret takes command of his own crew. Crew lists are varied at this point and different crews flew on different days. The enlisted men may have been transferred to another Squadron in the 91st in July 1944 after completing about 17 missions.
Clarence W Fightmaster was an Oklahoma born pilot. He had enlisted in 1940 and married in Florida in 1943. He was an industrial engineer and an expert at industrial equipment like boilers and pumps. Wally, as he was known to family and friends, passed away in Oklahoma in October 1980. His wife and son kindly provided the photo on this page. He recalled that Clarence suffered lacerations to his head during the ditching. In her letter, his wife recounted what she knew of the landing, as told to her be Neil Gehret and George Silverstein: "
The B-17 Wally was piloting was one of a group that had to be ferried overseas by their crews because they were fitted with (secret) radar that enabled them to fly at 30,000 feet—quite highjin those days. When their fuel began to run low, they jettisoned everything—all the clothes they weren't wearing, all their belongings---everything. They were carrying two passengers who were not crew members. When those in the plane spotted the ship, they realized that ditching was their best chance to survive. As the plane splashed down on the water, Wally went through the windscreen, injuring his head and cutting up his hands. One of the passengers had hysterics and had to be pulled bodily from the craft. Gus Ranzinger, the navigator, apparently sustained an injury that destroyed his balance. The seas, reportedly, were 20 feet. I do not know how the ship's crew got the plane's crew aboard, but one thing Wally did relate was that he got his first taste of Irish whiskey shortly thereafter. The ship had a cargo for London, so, the survivors were informed, they could go to London and rejoin the war effort or they could go back to Ireland and be interned for the duration, Being patriotic, foolish, young men, they opted for London, where they were treated like spies because of their "irregular" entry. Wally spent 6 weeks in hospital, Gus, longer. When Wally finally went back on duty,he got opportunities to go to Ireland on leave, where he bought me beautiful tweed, and where he remembered fondly having steak with an egg on top.
Neil K Gehret was a Pennsylvanian born pilot. He enlisted in July 1942 in Allentown. Following his arrival in the UK he was posted to the 91st Bomb Group but had returned to the United States by December 26th 1944. Neil was featured in his local Florida community newsletter in July 2014, with a group of similar veterans reflecting on being fathers. The article can be read here. It records for Neil, Neil Gehret served in WWII in the Army Air Force, as a pilot on a B-17. After the war he went back to a job as a controller for various manufacturing companies in south Florida.
In 2008 Neil was able to pass on the following narrative via his care assistant: After completing radar bombing training for the bombadier at Langley Field, Virginia, we left England by B-17 by the northern route. Our first stop outside the U.S. was at Goose Bay, Labrador. Our departure from Goose Bay was delayed because it had snowed during the night. Our next stop was to be Iceland. As we flew towards Iceland we found all the radio equipment onboard was not operating. Without radio contact, it was not possible to land in Iceland. At our briefing before leaving Goose Bay, we were told if it was not possible to land in Iceland, our alternative landing field was Stournway, Scotland. Also, we learned that our navigator's sextant was missing, making celestial navigation impossible. Following a compass course without knowledge of wind speed or direction would cause drift from the compass course. After many hours in the air and fuel running low, we spotted a ship. As we circled the ship, the radio operator flashed in morse code to the ship requesting directions to land. The ship responded with the code letter of the day identifying them as a neutral. It became necessary to ditch the plane while we still had fuel to make a power-on landing in the water. We ditched near the ship, inflated the life rafts, and eventually we were picked up. We were told by the crew of the Irish ship that they got the coal to run the ship from England, and had to report to an English port for inspection of their cargo before they could dock in Ireland. Upon arrival in the English port we were sent for more combat flight training before our arrival at our bomb group to engage in bombing missions for which we were trained.
Ranzinger was a German born immigrant born in 1918. In
1923 he arrived in New York with his mother and sister,
traveling to meet his father John who had preceded them. Growing
up in New York city, the 1940 census shows Gustav to be working
as a Bank Clerk. He was often reported upon prewar
for his local newspaper due to his involvement with local tennis
competitions. He enlisted in the Air Corps in 1942. The
small article at right was published by the XXX in XXX and goes
on to say: Lieutenant Gustav Ranzinger of Whitestone
who recently spent a furlough with his parents has reported
for active duty "somewhere overseas" his parents have
learned. Lieutenant Gustav Ranzinger is a navigator on a
B-17 Flying Fortress. He completed his training in this
country several weeks ago and received his commission and
navigator's wings in the Air Forces at San Marcos,
Texas. A well-known North Shore athlete, Lieutenant
Ranzinger is the son of Mr and Mrs John Ranzinger, long term
residents of Whitestone, whose home is at 147-05 Willets Point
boulevard." Beyond his presence on B-17 42-97747,
little more is known of Gustav's service career as he does not
appear to show up the the records of the 91st Bomb Group. His
family understand that his hearing was damaged during the
landing in the sea and this resulted in him being removed from
flying duties. His service records indicate to them that
he served with the 94th Bomb Group. Documents kept by
Gustav show him as being posted to the 482nd Bomb Group (P) in
He was able to retain copies of the original movement orders
that the crew of 42-97747 received during their departure for
A further movement order supplement repeated the information
above but with all MOS.
In these documents Gustav is making a loss claim report for his lost equipment and belongings. The documentation retained by Gustav includes his claim form for his belongings and equipment that were lost with the ditching of 41-97747. This document is one of the only contemporary documents that mentions the name of the ship.
His daughter of her father: "My Dad never spoke of
it. He was angry that they removed him from flying due
to his injury from the ditching. He fought for years to
prove...he finally did...that his hearing loss was service
connected. It was Meniers syndrome from the shock of the
crash. They tried to say it was nerves when it happened.
The only stories I remember hearing was when he was in the
hospital. He spoke of hearing the bombers struggling to
take off and some not making it with the heavy bomb
load. Also, one of his last assignments was stateside
discharging GIs. Apparently he signed Ronald Reagans
discharge papers...so we were told...not proven.
After the war my Dad went into business with his father and started Broadway Confectionery..an ice cream parlor in Flushing Queens. I included a picture..from left to right my Dad, his sis and Father. It was better known as the Slab...from the marble slab counters. That picture hangs on the wall still today. It is a coffee shop and we recently went there when we visited my Dad and family in Flushing Cemetery. He had the store until about 1959.
He bounced around a few years before becoming an insurance agent with Prudential. He retired in the late eighties after many years with them. He then battled prostate cancer and passed away April 4, 1990. He and my Mom married in 1946."
He passed away in New York in March 1990.
Silverstein was a resident of Brooklyn, New York, born in
1915, the son of Sam and Fannie Silverstein. He along with two
other brothers Milton and Martin, served during the war. George
was awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross
(DFC) during his service. He flew as bombardier under the
command of a number of pilots up to at least the end of November
1944 with the 401st Squadron.
George is shown on the right of the photo at left, with his
brother Milton on the left. Milton served in the Signal
Corps during the war.
He passed away in 1985 in the Bronx, New York.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of 22 Oct 1943 carried a photo of
George on the occasion of his graduation as a bombardier.
Harry W Clifford was born in 1923 in Colorado to Harry and Eva Clifford, moving later with his family to live in Weber County, Utah. He enlisted at the start of February 1943 and served through until release from the services in November 1945. The Salt Lake Tribune of Sep 5, 1943 records him as having graduated from radio school at Scott Field, Illinois. At that time his father and step mother, Harry and Channie Clifford lived at 704 1/2 West 2nd Street in the city. Harry's brother Raymond L Clifford also served in England with the Army Air Forces, but the exact details have yet to be determined. He was awarded the DFC as well as the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters during his time with the 91st Bomb Group. Harry passed away in December 1987 in Salt Lake City.
Harry A Phillips was born in 1923 in Campbell,
Kentucky. Harry passed away in September 1984 and had told his
family little about his wartime service. They did know that he
carried out 31 missions with the 91st Bomb Group and he had told
family members that he had been shot down over the Irish sea and
had to be rescued. As the family understood it, he was given a
long recovery period in Colorado after this, however the facts
are unclear. Harry was the airplane mechanic - gunner
within the crew, evidenced by his Military Occupation Specialty
(MOS) of 748.
Harry passed away in Kentucky in September 1984 and is buried
there in Campbell County.
His family had the following two photos of Harry with wartime comrades, and it appears it shows the enlisted men group that stayed together throughout 1944.
The names here , listed from left top are: "Harry,
Lee, Clifford, Hurdle and Sandy" Comparing the faces from
photos it is assumed that the men are as follows:
Harry is Harry A Phillips;
Lee: its not clear who this might have been based on the names presented in the 401st Bomb Group diaries.
Clifford: Harry W Clifford;
Hurdle: Carroll S Hurdle
Sandy: It is expected that this was Robert C Sandblom who served with Hurdle, Clifford and Phillips during combat based in the UK.
They together served with a numbers of pilots including
2Lt. Charles K. Neiswender O-803255, Clarence Fightmaster, and
This additional photo shows, it seems, the same five individuals, albeit this time without names recorded. They appear to be:
Rear row, left to right: Harry W Clifford, Harry A Phillips, Carroll S Hurdle
Front row, left to right: Possibly Robert C Sandbolm and perhaps the in the individual named 'Lee" in the other photo.
Hurdle came from Marshall County, Missisippi. He studied
at Mississippi State University and was working before the war
in a sales roles. He died in November 1983 in his native
Marshall County. The American
Air Museum website also has a page dedicated to Sgt.
Hurdle however it too mentions that he spoke little about his
wartime experiences. Carroll Simpson (“Simpson”) Hurdle, oldest
child of Donny Oscar Hurdle and Cornelia Bell (Bull) Hurdle, was
born 7 October 1908 (Mississippi) and died 17 November 1983,
married Margaret Louise (“Louise”) Winter who was born 19 April
1915 (Holcomb, MS) and died 23 February 2008. Simpson and Louise
are buried in Slayden Cemetery (Marshall County, MS). They had
no children but are fondly remembered by relatives.
Carrol carried the MOS 612 which classified him as an Armourer
Bernard Nitkin came from New Haven, Connecticut. He remained a resident there until his death in 2011.
Bernard's life in public service was recorded in online Obituaries including this one at Legacy.com
Shaver was another radar technician on B-17 42-97747. His
enlistment number unfortunately falls within a batch of numbers
not saved in historical US Army enlistment databases, however,
his name and serial were found on a shipping manifest of the
Queen Mary, dated July 11th, 1945 arriving in New York. At that
time he is listed as sailing with the 446th Bomb Group, but it
may have been a posting for the purposes of shipment. His
enlistment number starting with 3927xxxx suggested that he may
have come from California. It turns out he was Robert Dale
Shaver, from Manhatten, Kansas, who was working for the Douglas
Aircraft Corporation in Long Beach, California at the time of
his draft registration at the end of June 1942. Robert was
born in 1922 to Claude and Bertha Shaver. The local Kansas
newspapers in July 1945 reported that Sgt Robert or Bob
Shaver had returned from England.
Bob and his son very kindly collected by memories of the
incident and his wartime adventures. These are presented
below due to their extensive length. His posting to an
airfield near Ipswich ties in with the 446th Bomb Group being
The aircraft, a Lockheed Vega built B-17G-30-VE, was one of the
famous wartime Flying Fortress bombers. It had been delivered
only in February 1944 and was enroute to Europe. The
presence on board of two radar technician passengers hints
towards the fact the aircraft was equiped with the then top
secret H2X bombing radar. This was also known as the
Mickey set or as the BTO, Bombing through Overcast unit.
Compiled by Dennis Burke, 2019, Dublin and Sligo. If
you have information on any of the people listed above, please
do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The testimony of Robert D Shaver, prepared in April 2019.
WW2 Experiences - Robert Dale Shaver (39 274 851), 8th Air Force radar technician on a B-17 (42-97747) that ran out of gas and ditched in the Atlantic at 49 Deg 46 Min N x 13 Deg 1 Min W off the coast of Ireland in May, 1944 - my story.
As a corporal just out of radar school in Florida, the story of my trip to England to deliver a specially outfitted B-17 Flying Fortress with the Air Force's most top secret radar precision bomb site that I now know they were trying to get to the front by D-Day is something I have never forgotten. With the help of my son, Joel, I will try to relate the story as I remember it, as well as some general recollections from the war. In early 2019, Irish researcher Dennis Burke who had been collecting accounts of that flight for www.ww2irishaviation.com contacted me with details gleaned from others and I am now able to fill in gaps in the larger story I have wondered about ever since the events transpired.
My name is Robert D. Shaver, a Kansan from Wabaunsee County near Topeka. A guy came through town looking for aircraft workers in California to support the war. To get there, I hired on to drive a brand new Dodge for an elderly couple that rode in the back seat. I was working for Douglas in California building B-17s when I joined the Army Air Corp at Ft. MacArthur in January 1943 at age 21. I took a troop train all the way across the country to basic training at St. Petersburgh, Florida, followed by Radio School at Truax Field in Wisconsin, and then Radar Technician school around Boca Raton back in Florida as part of the 8th Air Force. I reported to Langley Field, Virginia where I got what they call a delay-in-route so I could go back home to Tonganoxie on a 30 day leave then report back to Langley. Bernard Nitkin, another radar technician, and I were assigned to support the game-changing radar gear that would allow for precision bombing through clouds and bad weather or in total darkness in a specially modified B-17. I knew of Bernard at radar school, but he was in a different class and we didn't really meet until being assigned to the same plane. The 9-person flight crew assigned to ferry the plane over had flown together before, so Bernard and I were there more as "passengers." Since the radar antenna was substituted into the waist gunner bay, Bernard and I took the place of two of the gunners who were to travel by ship and we were being piloted by Lt. Clarence Fightmaster and his men to England to deliver the aircraft in a hurry. Before leaving, they gave us instructions on what to do if ditching the airplane was required. There was the pilot and co-pilot, bombardier and flight engineer, all on the flight deck. Then five of us; the tail gunner, the radio operator, the navigator, Bernard and I were in the radio room.
We took off from Langley Field early one morning headed for Goose Bay, Labrador. We got up to Maine and lost a super-charger on one of the engines. We landed and called back to Langley to get parts. That threw us behind and we landed in Goose Bay about dark and just ahead of a storm. We were socked in there for seems like several days.
The radar we had on the plane was the most secret thing in the Air Force. It could do precision bombing through clouds or at night where normally you had to be able to see the target visually. The radar antenna gear could be cranked down in place where the waist gunners normally sat, then there was like a TV screen where we could see the ground to bomb. So we had to stand 24 hour guard on that plane the whole time we were there. We weren't dressed for that and it was the most miserable thing I've ever seen. There were four officers and five enlisted men and the enlisted men had to take turns on four hour shifts guarding that plane. I got acquainted with a guy there at Goose Bay, I don't remember all the details, but somehow I beat him out of a brand new sheepskin flying suit. It fit me good and was the warmest thing we had. We took turns wearing the suit on guard duty to stand the cold. I stood the last watch so was wearing the flight suit when we took off.
In a briefing we were told to take off and climb to 11,000 feet where we were to break through the clouds and then set a heading to Iceland. We ended up having to go higher to get above the clouds and that threw us way off. We called back to Goose Bay to request permission to return but were told they were completely socked in tight. Iceland was still open so we were to head there. The pilot called back to Chris the navigator (we called him Chris, not Gustav) that he needed a heading for Iceland. The navigator had his sextant in a nice wooden box he had to keep with him all the time. It had snowed the night before leaving Goose Bay, and when we were loading the plane, the box was dropped. Chris looked at it when it happened and thought it was okay. He gave the pilot a heading, but after a while the pilot asked him to re-check the heading because something didn't seem right. Then Chris checked and started cussing. The sextant was damaged and no good to use. There we were not knowing where we were and no navigation. We radioed someone, I think in Greenland, and they said to go on to Iceland. We asked how we were supposed to do that without navigation, but headed on east. We did make brief radio contact with Iceland but about that time the radio went out, and then we didn't have any navigation or radio, and all we could do is fly. The only thing we knew is that we were ultimately headed to England. We were to be told our next stop from Iceland, so all we knew was to fly east but we didn't want to go too far to Finland where the Nazi's would shoot us down. We threw everything out we could to lighten the plane, and the pilot leaned it out to just where we could stay going. We started flying south (towards England, we hoped) but shortly after that the pilot announced we were about out of gas. We talked about whether we wanted to bail out or ride it down together, and decided to stay together. We'd have been strung out across a section of the North Atlantic and been almost impossible to find if we had bailed out. They had told us the temperature of the water was 26 degrees, and the longest one could survive in that water was about 25 minutes.
We started doing our ditching procedure. I had that heavy flying suit on, which was lucky. The first thing we were to do is jettison the machine gun but we couldn't get the mounting loose, so we sort of tied it off to the side. We had assignments for what we were to do before and after the plane hit the water. The five of us in the radio room were to sit on the floor with our backs to the forward bulkhead with the navigator and radio operator to the front, then with their backs to them was the tail gunner and Bernard with me in front of them all so I was to be the first one up after we ditched. I was the tallest one of the bunch and I was to stand up and there was a lever right there to release the life rafts. They were attached up high on either side. I was to go to the left wing and hold the raft against the trailing edge and the tail gunner was to go to the right. We hit the water and I got up and the machine gun came loose and hit me in the side of the head and knocked me down. We skipped on the water and when we came back down there was water coming in and I tried to get back up. The tail gunner used me as a ladder to get out of there, but when I got to the left wing the raft was clear back by the tail. I jumped into the water to go back to get the raft but that heavy flight suit started pulling me down. I had a Mae West on and I pulled the chain and inflated it. That brought me back up and I got the raft back to the trailing edge of the wing and there stood the tail gunner. I said "What are you doing here?" He said "Mine didn't come out!" So all of us tried to get in the one life raft, but it wasn't big enough. Bernard and I, I guess because we were "passengers" and not part of the core crew, were off the side in the water but Bernard started wailing and they pulled him into the raft to shut him up.
There were supposed to be two paddles and some rations and water in each raft but there was nothing. The only thing was a patch kit in case we got machine gunned. We were trying to get away from the airplane paddling with our hands because we didn't know if the plane going down would have a suction that could pull us under. There was a cord attached to the plane keeping us from getting past the wing tip. I tried to break the cord but couldn't. Finally I wrapped the cord around my arms to get more leverage. I said to Chris, "Grab my arms and break it!" He said, "I’ll break your arms!" "Break it!" I said, and we started snapping it and it finally broke. We had big oxygen bottles in the plane tied together to some orange plywood boards that all broke loose when we ditched. I grabbed a board to be used as a paddle. We then started counting noses and the bombardier and the flight engineer were missing. We tried to decide whether to go back to the airplane. We started hollering and looking for them. The next thing we knew the front section came loose at the main bulkhead and dropped down. Shortly after that the right wing broke off and the left wing came up and slipped out of sight. We thought they were gone. I was still in the water and felt myself sort of slipping away. Chris was right above me and was holding on to me. I finally wrapped my arm through the rope around the top of the raft and sort of hung there tied to the raft and passed out.
It was about three and a half hours later when I came to on the deck of this ship. It was a pretty small ship, it seemed. I was stripped with one man rubbing each leg and arm and a couple rubbing my body trying to warm me up and rub life back into me. Finally I came to and said "What the hell are you guys doing!" In a little bit they wrapped me in blankets and took me into the cabin. It was an Irish ship and the captain came in with two or three fifths of whiskey under each arm. He said, "The good stuff is all gone" as he poured out a big glass of whiskey for each of us. We hadn't eaten for I don't know how many hours. I drank it and it started warming me up. They came around with another glass and I started getting warmer and the room started spinning and I passed out. And, you know, I came out of that without so much as a cold.
I got to looking around and there was the bombardier and flight engineer. They were supposed to go to the right wing then had seen there were too many people on the left side so they dug the life raft out on the right and took off. The ship found them first and they told them about us and they started the search. I don't remember knowing about it at the time, but stories from those on the flight deck say the pilot saw the ship and signaled to it before hitting the water. I am sure now that cockpit decision was what allowed us all to survive. The bombardier and flight engineer would have known the ship was in the vicinity and must have headed right for it. The pilot and co-pilot in our boat would have also known, but I don't remember hearing about a ship being near at the time.
I remember asking the captain how far it was to land. "Two miles - straight down!" he said.
I don't think I really realized it at the time, but we couldn't go to Ireland because they were neutral and we could have been interned for the duration if we set foot on their land. We just wanted to get to England where we were headed, and the Irish ship was already headed for England, so we sailed on in radio silence. The ship was running short on food, and I remember us having ham and eggs for just about every meal.
The German U-boats were supposed to be around and the waters along Ireland and England had been mined to keep them out. The ship was carrying a load of wine from Portugal. To get around the U-boats, they had to make a big loop and that's why they were up there where we came down. The captain, using a map, had to make it through the mine field and our crew spent time on the front of the ship looking for mines, trying to get to the clear passage nearer land. You could see them in the water and we even scraped some. You have to hit them pretty good for them to go off. We went along the west coast of Ireland and were on the ship for I think several days. The ship's crew treated us well. We would talk with them but we mostly didn't have much to do.
They finally broke radio silence and called the British because they didn't know if we might be German spies trying to get into the country. We docked in Fishguard, Wales and the British met us. They had us for a week or two, questioning us separately time after time. We finally convinced them who we were. Then they turned us over to American intelligence and it didn't take them too long to figure out who we were. We had lost everything but the clothes we were wearing and our dog tags on the airplane. I still had that flying suit and it had got the side all torn up coming out of the airplane and we were all a mangy looking bunch, out of uniform and getting stopped by the MPs several times on the way to a base near London. Since Bernard and I were not really part of the flight crew, they put us into a little Quonset hut on the base. They were trying to figure out what to do with us with someone watching us all the time and all we could do was go to the mess hall and come back. That went on for several days. I finally got permission to talk to the boss-man, he was a captain. I explained everything to him and convinced him. He told me to go get Bernard and we were supposed to report to somewhere else on the base. They had us fill out our own service records to the best of our recollections and you know, that thing followed me back to the states and that’s still the only record they ever had on me as far as I know.
We were first at Alconbury (482nd Bomb Group), a base in the town Lord Haw-Haw (a.k.a. William Joyce - American born but raised in Ireland) was from or well known in. He was a traitor that went over to the German side and would be on the radio like Axis Sally. He would taunt us and say "You Yanks can't be on time; the clock in the officers mess is 4 minutes slow" and we checked and it was so he had eyes in the base. All the radar bomb site planes we had were at that base and Lord Haw-Haw would talk about how they were going to get them and us. You could go into a pub in the town and if you mentioned his name, they'd show they really hated him. We were there on D-Day with the planes going over by the hundreds.
Since the Germans knew we had all those planes at the same base, they decided to split them up and I moved to a base at Ipswich with two of them and that was right in Buzz Bomb Alley. Every evening the buzz bombs would start and there were anti-aircraft guns blazing. They told us they were manned by women. They would get a lot of them but a lot of them got through. We'd see the tracer rounds going and then they'd bring one down. We had some fall in the vicinity but nothing right in the base. I'm not sure the radar bomb sites were ever used much. We Americans flew missions during the day, then the British took over at night when it was safer from German fighters. I don't remember many cloudy missions where the radar bombing was needed, but two radar planes went out with each bomb group, generally. I was ground crew for the planes to check them out between missions. I was the only one with a driver's license so I had to position all the power units under the planes to do our system checks. There wasn't all that much to do once I got to Ipswich since there were only two planes to support.
I got a real nice bicycle so I could get around away from the base. It was a deluxe model that really turned the heads of the local boys. When it was time to go back to the U.S. on the Queen Mary as war wound down, I rode that bike to the dock. I knew I couldn't take it with me, so there was this English boy that was really admiring it. I said "How would you like to have this bike?" "Gee, mister, my mom would whip me if I came home with this thinking I stole it!" So I wrote him a little note explaining the situation and put my name there. He was so tickled with such a gift, especially after all the sacrifice that was made by everyone during the war. I've often wondered about how that boy with that bike made out.
On the way across the Atlantic, the ship got hit by a big storm. All the gyros went out and the ship was really rolling around. Almost everyone but me and a friend got sick. When I got back to the States and was getting off the Queen Mary, there were USO tents all along the dock. Most of the guys were going over to get a belly full of booze, but I grew up on a dairy farm and I had really missed good non-powdered milk over in England. I went to a tent with milk and drank it until I was about sick.
After a 30 day leave, I reported to Clovis, New Mexico and started training on a B-29 system for Pacific duty, but the war ended before I got overseas again. I was honorably discharged as a Sargent from Lowrey Field in Colorado in October, 1945.
I took the train back home but my duffel bag got lost. I went to the train depot in Tonganoxie about every day "looking for it" but I was more wanting to see Pattye in the office. A lot of jobs back then were being filled by women since so many men had been away in the service. I finally got her to go out with me and we eventually got engaged. We got married and have been so for the last 72 years, living in Wichita where we raised two boys and I retired from Boeing after 32 years.
I am trying to find a picture of me in uniform, but any that I had were left at my dad and stepmother's house and have disappeared. My wedding picture is attached and that is about as old a photo as I have at this time. I am still trying to see if a photo can be found in a WW2 museum or archive.
My son has pointed out that my account differs from the official story in that I recall us having some radio contact after Goose Bay and in us having a sextant but it was ruined. It was a long time ago, so recollections can be tricky. I only offer this account as my side as I remember it, and hope it serves to illuminate history in some way. These memories seem very clear to me and I even still have nightmares about that plane trip and my time in the water.