Down in the Drink Twice

Twenty-seven February, 1945, 49 P-51s in A and B Groups, Heavy bomber escort, up at 1112, down at 1650. "LF (Landfall) in Walcheren 17,000, RV 1221 with 7th and 8th Combat Groups, 2nd Force, north Trier, 23,000. Escort uneventful, B Groups Ivg Bs 1520 south Koblenz 17,000. A Group left Bs 1415 Reichenbach 23,000 for fighter sweep south of bomber course. Due to adverse weather strafing was done in area Nurnberg to Bamberg along Regnitz River with above claims. Dropped wing tanks on lumber mill, lvg it in flames. LF out 1620 Ostend 10,000.

Among the locomotives, trucks and assorted railway equipment and the lumber mill were these two entries: "One staff car and jerry officer", and "one high tension line." This last is listed with the other claims without a hint of humor, but one is safe in believing that someone flew through the wires, perhaps bringing a section of it back as "captured enemy equipment".

The mission report also lists "One NYR (not yet returned). "Lt Meyers, 363rd, left group in target area due to fuel shortage, believed landed in France."

There are several errors in these assumptions. 1st Lt. Daniel N. Meyers, a native of Harrisburg, PA, joined the Group in the fall of 1944. He does not remember the date, but he does recall it was the same day that British AA guns shot down a B-17 over the base.

This tells us that Meyers arrived at Leiston airfield on 30 October. By the 27th of February he was a veteran with 35 missions behind him. On that date he was flying P-51D, 44-14356, which at one time had been named Lonesome Polecat. In several letters to the author, Meyers tells what happened during the mission that day, and its aftermath:

"On February 27th I flew my 36th mission during which our group escorted bombers to Leipzig. About an hour after we left the target, still with the bombers, enemy fighters were reported in the area. Nothing noteworthy had happened up to this time, but we did become more alert. The next thing I saw however, was the bottom of another P-51 coming down on top of me. I slid off to the right and into a dive to avoid collision. By the time I recovered and looked around, the rest of the group were tiny dots far to the west and high above me. Being all alone and fearful that I might encounter enemy fighters I dropped down into a welcome overcast, headed west on instruments. Every so often I pulled up above the clouds and about the third time I did this, the sky had mostly cleared and I recognized the Dutch islands in the delta of the Rhine River. This was a welcome sight as I knew that in a half hour I would be home. I attempted to call for course, and discovered my radio was out, which was not of any great concern. Of more concern however, was the fact that I now found that my fuel tank selector valve was jammed and there was insufficient fuel in the tank I was using to get me home."

"Now I was scared! The water down there looked very cold. Flying with my left hand and trying to turn the selector valve with my right, almost made it across the water and then emerging from the twilight mist saw a boat directly in front of me and started to circle the vessel just as my engine began to sputter. I knew I was going to get very wet. I climbed to about 1500 feet and bailed out, released my chute harness when I hit the water and inflated my Mae West. Since I could see the boat approaching I did not bother with my dinghy. After what seemed like only a few minutes, one of the crew went overboard and hoisted me on deck."

The vessel that came to Meyers’ assistance was the fishing trawler Reako, out of Grimsby. the Captain was William W. Watson, whose rank in the accounts is given as "Skipper Lieutenant, DSC". From a photo showing his rank badges, he appears to be a Lieutenant, RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve). He was also holder of the Distinguished Service Cross, a naval decoration.

We quote from a Grimsby newspaper account:

"Skipper Watson’s ship, the Retako was engaged in fishing in the North Atlantic Sea, when a pilot was seen to bale out from an American aircraft. The skipper immediately gave orders to proceed at full speed to the rescue, although he knew that this involved a hazardous journey of about three miles into a declared mine field. The Retako was brought alongside the airman in about 25 minutes."

"Skipper Watson displayed great courage in taking his trawler into the minefield and by his prompt action was responsible for the rescue of the pilot."

For his actions that day, Watson was awarded the M.B.E. during ceremonies at Buckingham Palace.

The man who jumped into the water to assist Meyers, was the ship’s cook, and equally noteworthy. Noel A. Kinch, Merchant Navy, already held a silver medal and that Stanhope Gold Medal, the highest award for lifesaving. He had carried out, or assisted in, 15 other rescues at sea. In addition, Kinch received a lengthy personal letter from 8th Air Force Commander, Lt. General Jimmie Doolittle, thanking him for his actions.

Upon arrival in Grimsby, Meyers spent the night in a local hospital and returned to base on the 28th, grateful that the Retako and her intrepid crew were there when he needed them.

By the end of March, 1945, it was apparent to even the most uninformed that a momentous event could not be far in the future – the end of the war in Europe. After only some 10 years, Adolf Hitler’s 1000 year Reich was collapsing under an avalanche of Allied explosives. Millions had died and now the survivors were looking forward to the imminent end of it all.

There was, however, no slowdown in 8th Air force operations. The Group flew missions on 21 days in March, several of which were doubles or triples in one day. Most did not result in contact with the now fading Luftwaffe, although two Me 262s were cornered and shot down. On the 24th, the Group claimed 16 enemy shot down in the only major engagement of the month.

During March, seven pilots were lost, four of whom were killed in action. On the 30th, the Group launched 60 Mustangs on an uneventful escort to Hamburg. However, the loss of 1st Lt. Dan Meyers into the sea was to trigger one of the largest North Sea/Channel rescue efforts. Before it was over, Group records indicate that 173 aircraft were involved and a continuous fighter cover by many different groups, was maintained over the area, from 30 March through the 4th of April. One Beaufighter with it’s crew was lost, and an OA-10 Catalina was sunk, without crew loss.

The mission to Hamburg had been generally uneventful. Two Me 262s were seen in the target area, but not engaged. Meyers was completing his 42nd mission as the Group crossed out near Heide, a small coastal town 50 miles north of Hamburg. From there the course would have been almost due west back to bases in England.

We quote Dan Meyers as he tells of his second bailout into the sea in a month:

"As was our practice when we were going to and from targets in nothern Germany, we flew off the coast and as we were returning I could see the north shore of Germany and the Frisian Islands close by under my left wing. Suddenly I was flying in a cloud, in what was a cloudless sky and my engine screeched to a stop. Instantly I knew what had happened for I had seen it happen to others. The thermostat struck and the coolant boiled away. We were at 18,000 feet so I did have some time to think. I made sure my parachute, dinghy and Mae West were properly attached and then released the canopy and pushed myself out of the airplane. Instantly, I struck the stabilizer with my stomach which hurt, but did no harm, thanks to all the situps we had done during our training.

"As I was falling I watched the airplane circle around and seen to head directly toward me. Feeling that we might collide I pulled my rip cord, the chute opened and the airplane passed directly below me. On my way down I watched it spiral downward until, far below, it went into the sea. It was an almost brand new P-51D (serial number 44-72328) with less than 100 hours on it, and this had been its 4th mission. After what seemed like an eternity I finally hit the water and slipped out of the chute harness. After inflating my Mae West, I inflated the dinghy, but it was upside down and try as I might, I was not able to turn it over. Exhausted, I gave up and climbed aboard which was comfortable enough with no standing water, but since the bottom was dark blue I was afraid that my friends circling above could not see me. They knew where I was and as they left I knew that they had already contacted ASR. Cold and alone there wasn’t anything to do but watch the sky darken and wait to be rescued."

The mission returned to home base at 1645 hours, and 30 minutes later, Capt Stern was airborne with three other P-51s to provide cover in the rescue area. He reported:

"RV with one Catalina approx. 15 miles off Terschelling Island at 1845 hours, approx 2,000. Were directed to Lt. Meyer’s dinghy which was about 4 miles off NW tip of Schiermonnikoog Island by two P-51s of the 359th Group, which were circling and maintaining Lt. Meyers position. The Catalina landed on the water at 1910 hours close to dinghy from which Lt. Meyers was firing flares. Gave top cover to Catalina until 2000 hours when bad closing weather and darkness made it necessary to return to base. flight cannot say whether or not Lt. Meyers was picked up prior to 2000 hours due to darkness, rough seas and altitude of top cover. " Stern also reported intense flak from German shore batteries.

Dan Meyers continues the story: "Shortly after dusk a Catalina flying boat appeared, landed near by and taxied quite close. A crewman threw me a line but it fell short, and he tried several more times. However, the sea was getting rough and there was some wind which made it difficult. Slowly the Catalina started drifting away from me and I could no longer hear it’s engines so I assumed the pilot had lost one or both engines and was no longer able to maneuver to pick me up. It was soon out of sight, but then a pair of Me109s appeared and opened fire on the Catalina. After the 109s started strafed the flying boat they appeared to be looking for me, but in the growing darkness I figured that a pilot on a dark dinghy in a rough sea would be very hard to see. The 109s then left and since there was nothing else I could do, I did what I do best, and fell asleep."

Former Sergeant Dan Hochstatter, a crew member on the OA-10 Catalina recalls: "We never knew what happened to Meyers. At one time he was between our pontoon and the hull, but because of lousy weather we were unable to land him."

Dan Meyers continues the story: "Very early in the morning I was awakened by a bumping sound which turned out to be my dinghy hitting the muddy beach of Borkum Island. I stepped out of the dinghy into ankle deep ooze and pulled my dinghy up on shore just as if I were I were going to use it again! I then pulled my pistol out of my pocket and threw it hard as I could into the sea. I started to walk along the beach toward some lights which were at the island’s electrical generating plant. I entered the building and walked through the foyer leaving a trail of muddy water and entered the generating room and sat down against the wall. The room was well lit and immaculate so that I felt bad about tracking all the dirt into it. I had hardly gotten seated when an elderly man who looked almost exactly like my grandfather appeared and took me through the foyer to a small room where we waited for the police to arrive."

This ends Dan Meyers’ part in the great rescue effort of March/April 1945. He was to follow the usual path of POWs ending up in Stalag Luft I at Barth, in northern Germany. Here one of his roommates was fellow 363rd pilot Frank Gailer.

Due to the rapid end of the war, he was back at leiston in less than 2 months after bailing out of his P-51.

Of course no one involved in the rescue effort knew what happened to him, and it was hoped that he was with the Catalina crews, on which all attention was now fixed. Retrieving this crew turned out to be a knotty problem with many pickup attempts going wrong.

The next morning (34 March), by VOCG 66th FW (Verbal Order, Commanding General, 66th Fighter Group), Major Leonard "Kit" Carson led two other P-51s to the area, found the derelict flying boat with no trouble and observed it to be listing with one wing float and part of the tail shot away. This would be the result of the Me 109 attack at dusk the day before. Carson reported three dinghies with five men aboard. His flight remained in the area for 2-1/2 hours until a Wellington (probably a Warwick) and two P-51s arrived to relieve him. Carson’s comments on the intervention of two Me 262s is of considerable interest:

" I took off at 1015 B.S.T. with three P-51s to give top cover to a crippled ASR rescue PBY. We found it with no trouble and were circling at about 4,000 feet when two Me 262s came out of the lower overcast and initiated a strafing attack, with apparently the smallest concern of us. On the first attack they shot off the PBYs tail assembly and the pontoon on it’s left wing (part of this damage would have been from the 109 attack.) I sent one Mustang up to altitude to contact Colgate and give him the dope, and to ask for further instructions; so there were only two of us when the 262s started strafed. We dropped our tanks and closed on them as they began their second pass. They discontinued it quickly though, when we began to get strikes on them from long range. Then the jet jobs leveled out and headed for the mainland, pulling away from us with ease despite the fact that we were clocking about 370 mph at 1,000 feet. They made another turn back towards the PBY after they were well ahead of us (2,000 to 3,000 yards) probably contemplating another pass on it. We cut them off again, closing t about 600 yards. They leveled off and I fired a 4-second burst, dead astern of the lead man, getting more strikes. The Me 262s headed for home in earnest this time."

"My wingman, Lt. Becraft, and I returned to the PBY and stayed until relief arrived. The crew had left the Catalina and had shoved off in three dinghies."

During the 5 days the Catalina crew were adrift, three airborne life boats were dropped. The first was retrieved and tied to the aircraft, but was lost the first night. The crew could not reach the second, and the third had capsized.

There was in England at this time, a B-17 from Wright Field, modified to drop life boats and rafts. It was experimental and had never made an operational drop. It was dispatched to the scene and a successful drop of rafts with outboard motos was made, which the crew managed to board.

On 2 April, search aircraft lost contact with the raft, but regained it on the 3rd. Finally on the 4th of April, Royal Navy boats homed in on the raft’s Gibson Girl transmitter and Lt. John Lapenus and his crew were rescued and returned to base. The massive effort rescue effort, during which the 357th had provided fighter cover on all 5 days, had finally ended. Group records indicate that 93 ZZP-51s, 38 P-47s, three B-17s, 25 Warwicks, six Mosquitos , and eight Beaufighters (one of which was lost in full view of the Catalina crew in their dinghies,) had been involved at one time or another.

By the time it ended on 4 April, Dan Meyers was in a jail cell in Aurich, and on his way to a brief stay in Stalag Luft I.

Two further 357th pilots parachuted into the English Channel, and were pulled from the water by ASR units, but their 1996 whereabouts are unknown, and nothing is known of their rescues except a few words in the mission reports.

The 13th of September, 1944 was not a good day for the Group. Although 15 enemy fighters were claimed destroyed in three separate engagements, five pilots did not return. Three were dead or missing, one bailed out over Allied territory, and Lt. Robert Goldsworthy, flying a P-51B, serial number 43-6795 bailed out into the Channel only a few minutes after takeoff. The mission report says simply "picked up by ASR."

The final incident occurred on 26 February, 1945. Colonel Irwin Dregne, the mission leader reported: "One plane hit by flak NW of Delemenhorst, cought fire, and Lt. Roy Anthony bailed 10 miles off Southwold. Picked up by ASR."

In summary, approximately 28 pilots of the 357th Fighter Group went into the sea. In only 10 incidents did the pilots survive. Two drifted into an enemy shore in their dinghies and were captured (one had been rescued on a previous occasion). Eight men were rescued, one of them twice. Of those who did not survive, many were the victims of mid-air collisions or other accidents, such as Lt. Jacob Geil, whose aircraft was hit by a drop tank from another P-51, and spun into the sea. From these, there was no chance of survival anyhow.

Nevertheless, it is not a good percentage, and illustrates that, despite the most vigilant efforts of the British/U.S. air sea rescue service, with an unairworthy aircraft over the unforgiving waters of the English Channel or the North Sea.

Merle Olmsted, 357th FG Association Historian

 

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