"DON'T WORRY ABOUT THE FLAK, LADS, THEY CAN'T HIT YOU"
Henry R. "Russ" Spicer was still a lieutenant 3 months after Pearl Harbor, despite having graduated from Advanced Flying School at Kelly Field in 1934, and having served as an instructor in both bombers and pursuit. After 7 December 1941, the promotion floodgates opened and by June 1942, he was a major. By December 1943, he was a full colonel and executive officer of the 66th Fighter Wing, 357th parent unit.
The 357th had come to England under the command of a colonel, who was not held in high esteem by his pilots, and for unknown reasons, he was transferred to the 9th AF, and Spicer became C.O. In a position of influence in the 66th Wing, one can be excused for suspecting he may have used his clout to get a combat command.
Spicer was a dynamic and colorful commander and quite possibly would have been a fighter leader of the caliber of the great Hub Zemke of 56th Group. However, a burst of flak eliminated that opportunity. Many surviving pilots recall him telling them, "don't worry about the flak, lads, they can't hit you", but he was wrong.
He led the Group for the first time on 21 February 1944, 4 days after assuming command, and led every mission (9) before he was shot down. During that brief period, he shot down three enemy aircraft.
It was the 5th of March, just 2 days after Foy's first dunking in the channel. He had led the Group on a 5.5 hour mission supporting the bombers at various targets, during which five Focke Wulfs (two of them big FW 200 transports) were shot down. There were two losses, Spicer and Flight Officer Chuck Yeager. Lt. Johnny Pugh, Spicer's wingman reported: "I was still flying Colonel Spicer's wing when we came out from Bordeaux at 10,000 feet, heading north."
"We let down to the deck upon crowing the Loire, coming out near Caen on the deck. Colonel Spicer's plane was hit by white bursting flak. The Colonel told me he was going to bail out after riding it as far as he could over the water. He said; "be sure to call MAYDAY and get me a fix". We climbed to about 4,000 feet, still heading north, when the Colonel's plane caught fire. He again to me to give a MAYDAY, he bailed out about 10 miles off the French coast. I saw the Colonel's chute in the water and his dinghy inflate. I climbed to 12,000 feet and gave MAYDAYS and then switched to D channel and told Parker I had received no acknowledgement. Then I switched back to B ad gave five more MAYDAYS at 15,000. Being low on gas, I landed at Tangmere and my report was given to Shoreham."
After Pugh landed at Tangmere and contacted ASR, RAF Typhoons searched for him, but found nothing. He was however, still in the water and the Germans did not find him until two days later when his dinghy drifted ashore near Cherbourg.
Why Johnny Pugh was unable to contact ASR and why the Typhoons did not find him is unknown. The Spicer case can in no way be considered a rescue, although he did survive. It does however; illustrate the many things that could go wrong, and that all too often, rescue attempts were unsuccessful. The odds were heavily against the man in the water.
When German soldiers found him collapsed on the beach, he was in shock and unable to stand due to badly frost bitten feet. Eventually he ended up as senior allied officer at Stalag Luft I in northern Germany. He immediately began to harass the prison guards and staff, finally making a speech to his fellow prisoners about the German nation. This so infuriated the commandant that Spicer was tried for inciting a riot, and sentenced to 6 months in solitary, and then was to be shot.
Colonel Hub Zemmke, 56th fighter Group. Arrived at the camp soon after the famous speech, and became the senior allied officer until the Russians liberated the camp in April, 1945, one day before Spicer was due to be shot. Spicer's rousing speech is still remembered vividly by many of the ex-prisoners of the Stalag Luft I.
After the war, he remained in the USAF, retiring as a Major General in 1964. He died in December 1968.