Lt George A. Behling Jr.
THE HARD WAY HOME
George A. Behling, Jr.
It's ancient history. Specific dates, places and names are forgotten but the personal experiences and thoughts remain as vivid as if they occurred yesterday.
First Lieutenant George A. Behling, Jr., on 14 January 1945 is flying element in the 362nd Squadron, 357th Fighter Group on his 42nd mission over Germany. Later, I was to find out through
newspaper clippings saved by my father that it was truly a memorable day for the 8th Air Force. I remember as I climbed into my P-51, "Chi-Lassie," that my crew chief remarked that the spark plugs were leaded but he believed they were good for one more mission.
All that morning as we dressed, ate breakfast and prepared for takeoff, we heard the constant drone of B-17s overhead. A good idea of their plight is fairly accurately portrayed in the postwar film "Twelve O'Clock High" starring Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger. Because the bombers flew slower, we took off later and caught up. When we arrived at our escort position over the North Sea, the B-17s stretched in a continuous line as far as I could see forward and backward--all headed for Berlin. In order not to pass the bombers, we flew above them and zig-zagged.
Before getting into the details of the attack, a little background music. I arrived in England in August 1944. I should have been dead several times. Once on takeoff when I couldn't correct for torque, I drifted left and almost tore my element leader's tail off. Needless to say, I was severely reprimanded.
Another time, we came down through overcast over the North Sea so close to the water that it was an absolute miracle that I was able to pull up. Once we went through overcast so thick that
I lost sight of my flight leader, had to go on instruments and get through by myself. My wingman wasn't so fortunate; he spun in. I've lived with this, blaming myself, but rationalizing that it was war and these things will happen.
Coming back from another mission, my plugs were so loaded with lead that it sounded as if I was flying a tin lizzie. I decided to chance going across the North Sea and barely made the field. My crew chief was aghast and stunned that the plane could be brought back in that condition.
Then there was the time we came in to land with a low ceiling and a group of '17s flying at about 200 feet crossed our path just as we were about to set down. It was a wonder that there weren't more midair collisions. the FAA would have had conniptions.
The good things: 24 December 1944, my first kill, a Focke- Wulf 190. I dove on him and almost outsmarted myself. My speed was so great that only a completely closed throttle and full flaps kept me from passing him and becoming the hunted rather than the hunter. My speed equaled his just as I came abreast. We looked at each other briefly, then my plane rapidly lost speed. I kicked right rudder, slid behind him and pressed the trigger. The German plane began to disintegrate, the pilot
ejected and somersaulted over me, just missing my prop and canopy.
After the kill came the real test. I realized I would have to roll during the approach to the runway, something I had never done, signifying my victory. I found a cloud, dove as if it were the runway, pulled up and jammed the stick left. To my amazement the plane rolled, came upright and I was still above the cloud. I tried several more times--all were successful.
I proceeded home, dove at the runway, pulled up, pushed the stick to the left, held my breath, rolled, came out upright, banked to the left, lowered my gear and flaps, circled and landed. Eureka! This tryst is recorded on 16mm film so brittle that I'm almost afraid to touch it. It's probably the greatest record of a kill ever made. No one, not even Chuck Yeager, would ever do it on purpose. But it did astound the personnel reviewing the film and raise me to hero level. Of course, I did
not reveal the sordid details that I've just disclosed.
Besides, the glory was erased several days later when I fired at a Spitfire, taking it for a Messerschmitt. For that I got my second reprimand and four weeks of aircraft recognition
One last anecdote. In late December, one cold night I made my way from my Quonset hut to the outdoor toilet. As I stood relieving myself, my squadron leader stepped up to the next
urinal and said, "Behling, I'm putting you in for first lieutenant." I claim the record for being the only officer of the 357th or possibly of WW II to get promoted in the latrine!
Back to 14 January. Several hours have passed since rendezvous and we're approaching the target at about 30,000 feet. Berlin is easily discernible by the heavy flak smoke at our
altitude. Suddenly, a maze of German pursuit planes come screaming down on us from above. The sky is filled with airplanes. B-17s begin bursting into flame, trail smoke and spin like toys as parachutes pop open. I jettison my wing tanks and take a bead on an enemy fighter. A fellow P-51 drifts across my bow at a 30-degree angle in slow motion, so close I still don't
know why I didn't tear its tail off with my propeller. I'm completely distracted and lose sight of my quarry.
I bank left and look behind. There's a plane on my tail but it isn't my wingman. It has a large radial engine and is identifiable as a FW-190. What happened to my wingman who was supposed to cover my tail? To this day I have no idea.
Now I turn to the left. Left rudder, left stick, more throttle. I've got to out-turn him. I see his cannon bursts but he can't lead me enough. I wonder what I'm doing here; a person could get killed. Why did I ever want to be a pilot? I'm only 20 years old and should be home, going to school and returning in the evening to my parents' comfortable home.
I pull into a tighter turn, feeling so many Gs that I can hardly turn my head. Then the stick goes limp. I'm spinning-- but you never, never spin a P-51 because it might not come out. My primary training instinctively takes over. I kick the right rudder hard. The plane stops spinning and I pop the stick forward. I'm flying again at 20,000 feet.
This time I turn to the right and look behind. The SOB is still there. He followed me through a spin and 10,000 feet! It can't be! These German pilots are supposed to be under trained,
wet behind the ears kids.
Some scenario. Tighter and tighter to the right. More cannon bursts. Another spin, coming out at 10,000 feet. He's still there.
Well, if I can't out-turn him, surely I can out-run him. I shudder at the thought of one of those cannon shells tearing through my plane. In fact, I'm nearly paralyzed with fear.
Behling's P-51D, 44-15527, G4-J, named Chi-Lassie, which he was flying on 14 January 1945
I point the plane at an approximate 10 degree angle
toward the ground and open the throttle. It's working; he's falling behind, out of range. Now I'm at treetop level just west of
Berlin passing over the Elbe River. My engine sputters, intermittently spewing white clouds. I cut back on the throttle
and lean the mixture, but the sputtering gets worse. Suddenly the engine goes dead, streaming two contrail-like bands from each side. Hurriedly I try the starting procedure several times, to no avail.
I'm directly over a dense forest. No place to land. Pull up and bail out. But I'm now going less than 200 mph. Not enough speed to pull up to altitude that will give my chute time to open. Look for someplace to put this baby down dead stick. Dead stick! It was my worst thing in basic training. Without power I would have killed myself every time.
There--20 degrees to the left is an open field running parallel to a railroad track. I'm barely flying so don't turn too sharply. The stick feels mushy. Easy, easy! I'm lined up, 50 feet above ground, wheels up. Then, right in front of me are high tension wires. I close my eyes and pull back on the stick. Somehow I bounce over the wires and hit the ground with a thud. It's a frozen plowed field and my plane skids along like a sled. Up ahead is a line of trees and I'm zooming toward them with no
way to stop. But I do stop 50 feet short.
Open the canopy. Nobody around. I hear the clickety-clack of a diesel engine. Look behind. There's that 190 coming right at me. Get out of this plane and get behind one of those trees! I get tangled in the straps so I crouch down behind the armor plate in back of my seat. The 190 doesn't strafe and passes overhead. Now, with him in full sight, I disentangle myself, get out of the plane and run for the trees.
I make my way along the line of trees some 200 feet to the railroad embankment, go over it and head away. Up ahead is a bridge. But two figures are on the embankment coming toward me
from the other direction. I stop and wait.
I'd been well coached about Nazi Germany. Newspapers, newsreels and service orientation. Here I was, first hand right smack dab in the middle, miles from any border. The feeling was devastating, crushing, hopeless. the best that could be said was that I was temporarily alive and able bodied. Up to this point I really hadn't had too much time to think. Every decision, less than minutes apart, had been instinctive with no room for error. The fact that I was here, with both feet on the ground, was incomprehensible.
I've thought many times about how this could have been avoided. But it's like any other accident--it happens quickly and can't be undone. To rethink the details only heightens the frustration. All my other errors had been educational and correctable. This one was final.
The four Germans approached and I put my hands in the air. They were all old, carrying rifles, and later I learned they were the home guard organized for just such a purpose.
One of the four frisked me and began babbling in German. I couldn't understand but perceived from their motions that they wanted my gun. We were issued .45s but I never carried mine. Shoot my way out of Germany with a .45? I might do something foolish. I had a real time, by gesturing, convincing them that I didn't have a gun and that I hadn't dumped it.
The four marched me back to the plane. to my amazement it was swarming with people, including children climbing all over and into the cockpit. It was a sad sight--that beautiful airplane that had been my faithful companion for so long, just sitting there with its torn undercarriage and twisted propeller, as helpless and forlorn as I. This "Little Friend" (the bomber crews' term of endearment) was down and out. Then a horrible thought crossed my mind. I had not turned off my gun switches.
If one of those children pressed that trigger on the stick, it would cut at least 10 Germans in half.
An officer approached me. He was a colonel, home on leave from the Russian front, and spoke English. He said, "For you the war is over. I bet when you took off this morning you didn't think you would be here this afternoon." I don't think I've ever heard truer words. I replied with true survival instinct, "Don't let those children in the cockpit; the guns are live." He shrugged and began marching me across a field, toward a ditch. I thought, "OK, they'll just shoot me and lay me in that ditch.
How long could my luck hold out?" But we went through the ditch and to a farmhouse where the colonel left me in the charge of a farmer, his wife, and their teenage daughter.
The people were friendly as the roar of bomber engines continued overhead. Apparently they had not experienced the devastating bombing directly. They produced an atlas and asked me to indicate where I was from. They were amazed I was so young--but why wouldn't I be? Otherwise I would have known better than to volunteer as a pilot.
All the time I was disinterested, worried about myself and what my family back home would think when they received the crushing news. Several hours later the frau gave me a sandwich
but when I was about half through eating it, a Luftwaffe officer came through the door. Thank goodness it wasn't the Gestapo! The officer grabbed the unfinished sandwich from my hands and
began screaming at the woman. I knew from his gestures and tone that he was berating her for feeding me and making me comfortable.
It's dusk and I'm led to a halftrack and sat with five Germans soldiers. They're glum and don't speak to each other or to me. An hour or so later we arrive in the dark at an airfield outside Berlin where I'm placed in a stonewalled cell for the night.
The next morning I'm assigned a guard at least 65 years old and shorter than my five-foot-six. He slings a rifle over his shoulder, the butt just barely missing the ground. We proceed to a railroad station. It's loaded with civilians waiting for the train to Berlin. I stand out like a sore thumb in my American flying suit and I'm very uneasy, fearful for my safety. We board the train and are jammed in. One passenger shows me the front page of a newspaper with a picture of a huge German tank. He points to it and babbles but I don't understand his point. Another passenger gestures to the bombed-out buildings and points to me. Him I understand. Berlin is rubble. I don't see one inhabitable structure.
Finally we arrive at our designation for transfer to another train. Now I meet my first Americans. They're a sorry looking lot--foot soldiers and B-17 crewmen. We're all going to Frankfort for interrogation. I'm glad to see some of my own, simile and perk up. They want to know what I'm so happy about. They're depressed, tired and hungry. Some of them are injured, including several with badly burned faces. A B-17 pilot and copilot tell me their plane was hit amidships by flak and they
escaped through a small window in the cockpit which they were told never to try because it wasn't big enough! They can't explain how they did.
We're jammed into boxcars, about 40 men per. Twenty-five percent of the car is set aside for our three guards. There's a pressed coal-burning stove in the middle of the car. Its sides glow, too hot to get near but the inside walls of the car are frosty and the floor is ice cold. We lay down, huddled, try to sleep and intermittently must stand up to get some warmth. We stop occasionally for relief, and between stops, in an emergency, the guards will slide the door open enough for a man to hang his rear end out of the moving car. Breakfast is a cup of ersatz tea, lunch two slices of black bread and a pad of margarine, and supper is boiled potatoes and rutabaga leaf soup. We're hungry and always cold. I had never experienced being constantly chilled with no prospect of warming up. It was a sorry state of affairs for Americans used to plenty of hot, cooked food and warm quarters even under adverse field conditions. I never again would underestimate the survival instinct.
In Frankfort we're put into solitary confinement. My cell is about eight feet high by eight long and four wide. It's bare except for a cot and a small electric heater at one end. The heater goes on for 10 minutes every two hours. I'm cold. When I see the filament in the heater glow, I drape myself around it to absorb all the heat I can while it's on.
I'm fed the same food as before, through a small swinging door at the bottom of my cell door. There's no communication between me and the guards. Solitary really softens you up to
Unfortunately for the Germans, the place isn't well insulated. I can hear footsteps and talk of the guards plus the clanging of doors. After hearing a tap on my wall I carry on a conversation with the prisoner in the cell next to me by placing my lips close to the wall. One of the things he tells me is that
he's worried because he's of Russian descent. The sound reverberates throughout the entire complex. Now I hear clanging doors, shouts, and my door opens. An irate guard gestures to me
that talking is forbidden. He knew someone was carrying on a conversation but couldn't pinpoint my cell or the one adjoining. The scene was repeated half a dozen times during my three days in isolation.
Finally my door opens and I'm taken for questioning. My interrogator is a typical late 20s blond, good looking Aryan. It turns out he's a flying who had been shot down over London, imprisoned and repatriated. Because of physical disabilities and the Geneva rules of war he is forbidden from active combat.
To my amazement, he starts talking about women. "How are the women in the United States?" Women! I hadn't thought about them since before the air battle. I never knew it before, but
women run a bad third behind a full belly and warmth. The German officer shows me a picture of a buxom girl in a bathing suit. "This is the way we like them but I know you like them a little
skinnier." I agree. He tells me how the Germans are on food rationing and how he and his fellow officers romance the girls, go to their homes and eat up their rations.
Now he starts asking me questions about where I came from, my squadron and fellow fliers. I say, "You know I can't tell you those things." He answers that it makes no difference because he
already knows. I snicker cautiously. He said, "You landed your plane, it's sitting in a field and has numbers on it--right?" I say "Yes, but so what?"
He pulls out a huge book about the size of a Sears catalog and proceeds to tell me about my fellow fliers, my field and my group. I'm dumbstruck at the efficiency and thoroughness of German intelligence. He asks me the name of my group commander. Now I have him because we had just recently changed. I reply that I can't tell him, and he says, "No matter; we already know." He says he'll bet me. I tell him I'm a POW and have nothing to bet with. He says we're both officers and he'll bet me a bottle of wine payable after the war. I say OK, but if he isn't correct I won't tell who it is. I still owe him that bottle of wine.
Now I ask him what is the point of all this solitaire and interrogation when the Germans know more than I do. He tells me it's routine, and once in awhile they do pick up an unknown tidbit.
The next day we're put back in boxcars for the trip to our permanent camp near Potsdam, just outside Berlin: Stalag Luft III. The journey is the same as coming except for one divergence. About halfway back we stop in a rail yard at night to refuel. Suddenly, air raid sirens shriek. The guards jump out of the car, secure the door and disappear. We have one small window about four inches high by eight long, just big enough for one man to peer out. He gives us a running account. "I see the
flares; they're way off in the distance." We're absolute sitting ducks and sit, petrified, in silent, abject fear. We hear the bombs explode several miles off. Then one sounds much closer; the boxcar shakes violently. This is repeated several times. No one speaks but I suspect a lot of praying was going on. After about half an hour the all-clear sounds, the guards return and we continue our sojourn. None of us ever speaks among ourselves or to others about the bombing.
Our camp at Potsdam is made up of various compounds: American, British, Norwegian, and Russian. Many of the prisoners have made forced marches from eastern camps overrun by the
Russians. I meet Englishmen who had been captured at Dunkirk nearly five years earlier. We anticipate war's end in several weeks--they say it will take years.
The sections of the camp are separated by wire fences. We have a view of the English and Norwegians, but not the Russians. During my stay the Norwegians treat us to fish soup passed through the fence and poured into our canteens. The English are amazingly bold such as during morning roll call mingling around and irritating the Germans by making it difficult to get an accurate count. They also strip wood from the latrines and use it for heating fuel. The Germans warn them that it is destruction of German properly and could be punishable by death. The Brits also mimic the Germans by doing the goose step immediately behind the guards. I don't know what would have happened if one of those guards had suddenly turned around. We Americans are ordered by our superiors to obey the rules to avoid making things more uncomfortable than they already are.
Our barracks are in two sections, each housing about 100 men, with a sink in between that has cold running water. In the center of each unit is a huge brick furnace. Each day we get one bucket of pressed coal dust bricks. It's barely enough to warm the bricks of the furnace. The bunks are two-tiered with straw mattresses and a blanket. We spend most of our time lying in out bunks wrapped in the blankets, trying to keep warm. The mattresses and blankets are full of lice and after several days I look as though I have a case of the measles. The various postwar movies and especially the TV serial "Hogan's Heroes" are pretty accurate portrayals of the makeup and condition of the camp. Ours just wasn't so lighthearted.
Some of the men were burned and they lay quietly waiting to heal without medical attention. One man developed appendicitis and was taken away, presumably to a hospital. We never saw or heard of him again. An infantry officer gets up every morning and takes a bath in the ice cold water. He's very quiet, stays to himself, and stares.
Our diet is as described before: ersatz tea in the morning, bread and margarine for lunch, and boiled potatoes for supper. After the potatoes are distributed some of the men grovel in the
barrels for scraps. I prepare for possible harder times by saving half a slice of bread every day. I keep it as fresh as possible by rotating the older bread for the new. Some of the men have a few cigarettes and others make their own by scouring for small, discarded butts. Sometimes a cigarette is passed around to as many as six men--the ash never stops glowing red.
As bad as it was, we were never physically mistreated and I believe the Germans did as best they could by us, considering their condition and the state of the war.
Finally, after about a month, several things happened that ameliorated our condition considerably. First, we received Red Cross parcels. Never underestimate the Red Cross. They not only
furnished the parcels but actually got them distributed to us. Each parcel contained spam, cheese, crackers, jam, coffee, five packs of cigarettes, and other things. We each got a parcel every week and it did help. Some of the bigger men lost a lot of weight. I was lucky, only losing about 10 pounds.
The Red Cross parcels induced bartering. One of the men actually built up a store where you could trade for whatever you wanted. He built his inventory by requiring a premium for every item--a true entrepreneur.
Some men made bets that they could finish an entire parcel in 24 hours. None of them won, always being stopped by the cigarettes or coffee. One man had a quarter of a jar of powdered
coffee left with half an hour to go and had to give up. His throat was so sore that he couldn't swallow.
There was no shortage of cigarettes. To pass the time and alleviate my hunger, I started to smoke for the first time. It developed into a habit that plagued for my next 22 years.
I must also mention that the home-made stoves and other utensils the prisoners made from the emptied Red Cross parcel cans were truly remarkably innovative.
The second favorable happening was the weather. About early March it started to moderate. We had sunny days and could get outside to warm our chilled bones. We finally even played
baseball. Food and warmth--a double barreled simple combination of basic need that most of us had never given a serious thought.
Once a week we were marched about half a mile to a shower building accommodating about 50 men. Our clothes were left outside for fumigating while we were locked naked in the
partitionless building, one shower spigot to each man. We were given a small bar of soap and on signal got hot water for one minute, during which we soaped vigorously, and then one minute of cold water for rinse. Incidentally, these were the same shower buildings that Hitler ordered to spew gas instead of water to eliminate prisoners. I do believe the only saving factor was that the German guards saw no future in that, considering the imminent end of the war and their being held responsible. After the showed we redonned our debugged clothes to get reinfested from our non-debugged mattresses and blankets.
I made several friends, one an infantry second lieutenant who told me the only way to get off "the line" was to get killed, wounded, or captured. He was weary and said that most of his comrades hoped for a minor wound, the lesser of the evils, that would send them back from the lines. Because of their experience they had learned that their superiors' talk of rotation was only a dream.
Another friend, George Ross, was a B-17 copilot from California. He told me how he had romanced the girls before the war by telling them he was in the movies. He would mention an obscure scene in a popular movie and tell them he was that actor. Naturally, the girls wouldn't remember the scene, even though they'd seen the movie, and he being a Tom Selleck type, they'd
gobble up the bait. I mention this now because our basic hunger and warmth requirements being off zero, we spent our time talking of home, food, and women.
The days dragged on. Our estimate of the end of the war lengthened. One morning in early April we heard the sound of cannon fire in the distance to the east. Each day it drew nearer. Our leaders set up a plan to take over the camp to preserve order and protect our meager food supply. About two weeks later we arose and couldn't see one German. The guards had left. We immediately put our plan into operation. It was a good thought because we did have to ward off other prisoners who
attempted to raid the larder.
The next day about noon a Russian tank column rumbled up to our front gate. What a sight--the tanker were interspersed with an assortment of other vehicles including horse-drawn carts filled with hay, and Russian soldiers (men and women) carrying rifles and a loaf of bread under their arms. They were a solemn, intent group obviously battle- and travel weary, observing us unemotionally. They looked like Santa Claus arriving with a sleigh full of goodies.
The Russians took over the camp and we learned they had joined with the Americans 10 miles to the west. Our leaders negotiated for our return to the American lines but the Russians said they had no trucks to spare. They wouldn't let us walk because they said it was too dangerous, considering they were still mopping up.
The upshot was that they would send us to Moscow for processing and then home southward from the Black Sea. Each morning our numbers dwindled as more and more of us sneaked out at night to find our own way back to the American lines. The Russians didn't tolerate this and set up a guard around the camp.
The Russian commandant was a sight to see strolling around with a young German girl five paces behind like a puppy dog. Every evening scores of German women would flock to the front
gate, asking us to spend the night with them. When we asked what was wrong with the Russians, they said "Nothing" but apparently the Russians would leave them alone if they were with an
American. Otherwise, a parade of Russians would traipse through their bedroom all night long. One American was less grueling than 10 or 20 Russians.
We also observed one compound that housed teenage German prisoners. Every morning they were let out to exercise by marching around the barracks. And we got to see the Russian
quarters adorned with beautiful colored religious scenes on the walls. Where the Russians got or how they made their paints is still a mystery.
One day my infantry lieutenant friend said that there were Americans at the Russian command post negotiating for our release and suggested that we take a look. Parked in front of the post was an empty jeep and halftrack with American prisoners milling around. Some of the prisoners had climbed into the track. I didn't hesitate and climbed onto a fender of the jeep; my friend found a spot on the hood. Soon both vehicles were completely covered with men inside and out. About 10 minutes later four U.S. officers left the Russian headquarters for the jeep and half track. They were somber and looked straight ahead, completely ignoring our presence. To our surprise they drove off and through the gate with practically no visibility over the bodies on the hoods.
I was out of the camp and never found out what happened to my comrades left behind. (Editor's note: at least 12,500 U.S. personnel in German POW camps over-run by the Soviets were never
returned. Apparently neither President Truman nor General Eisenhower ever confronted Stalin about the matter; a similar situation existed after the Korean War.)
Simultaneously with our escape, the Americans had pulled back to the West bank of the Elbe so we had about a 60-mile trip instead of 10. Along the way we saw column of captured Germans being marched east. In one group I spotted several of our former guards. Also, we had a flat tire and had to call for repairs. While waiting we entered a middle-class German home. There were only very old and very young people present. The Russians had come through and smashed every bit of china and glassware. The occupants were petrified, wanting to know when the Americans were coming. My heart was cold--I couldn't muster any sympathy even though I knew their fear was justified.
We finally arrived at the American lines after dark and were taken to a mess hall for a good old GI supper. Later, I got nauseated because the food was too rich for my condition. The next day we loaded into trucks for a trip down to autobahn to Paris. I had never seen an expressway before. Arriving in Paris we were put on a train for a trip next day to Camp Lucky Strike, a disembarking center on the French coast. That night the Parisians celebrated the end of the European war. We were confined and couldn't join in, but I really didn't care.
After about a week of waiting at Lucky Strike, we boarded a Liberty Ship for the trip home, which also took about a week. The seas got rough and waves broke over the bow, inundating the
entire deck and forcing us to stay below playing cards.
Suddenly we were entering New York Harbor and I got my first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. I don't think any immigrant could have been more impressed. For me it had a special meaning. I had been on the other side of her and knew what was there. They had only heard and dreamt. My heart swelled when we were met by boats with "Welcome Home" banners, dancing girls, and
After one night in New York and I boarded a train. The next morning I arrived home at 65th Street and California Avenue in good old Chicago. It took only three weeks from the time I left
the prison camp, a most remarkable feat as all of you know who are familiar with the ways of the U.S. Armed Forces. I've always been grateful for that. Incidentally, the number one song on the
Lucky Strike Hit Parade was "Don't Fence Me In!"
To the best of my recollection that's the way it happened. Hopefully it's abridged enough to avoid reader boredom. I've tried not to understate or exaggerate. As time passed I tried to forget. Obviously I can't. Only small portions of this tale have been wrung from me at times in answer to direct questions. It's a real baring of the soul, almost like detailing your
Even at this late date, recalling the episodes sends chills down my spine. Can you count the number of times that I should have been killed? And it all happened in less than one year-- most of it in a period of four months. It's the story of a loser but several cliché's come to mind:
"It was a dirty job but somebody had to do it."
"I complained about having no shoes until I saw a man with
Many of my friends did not come back. Lou Gehrig probably put it best when he said in his farewell address at Yankee Stadium, "Some people say I've had a bad break, but today I
consider myself the luckiest man on this earth."
Outside of the many bad nightmares and the devastating feeling of assault and infringement on my personal rights and freedom (akin, perhaps, to that felt by a rape victim) I came through mostly unscathed. Through the years it made me impervious to many so-called crises that I brushed off as trivia.
Without getting maudlin, I must say that through it all I still remain a patriot, with Patrick Henry, Nathan Hale and John Paul Jones. However, I am most happy that if I'm ever called to
serve again I'll be too old to fly an airplane.
I will close with the plaudits--
To my crew chief, my wingman and the dogged German fighter pilot who relentlessly pursued me; wherever you are, this is your story as well as mine.
To my parents and fiancée' who suffered that age-old pain upon receiving the telegram; you didn't know whether I was dead or alive, and if alive the state of my health until several suffering months after I had been downed. At least I knew what had happened and where I was.
To the policeman who stopped me shortly after my return for a minor traffic violation and said, "Listen buddy, just because you're in that uniform doesn't mean that goes here," you didn't notice me bite my lip or my hands grip the wheel while I fought back the urge to kill. After what I'd been through it wasn't worth winding up at a court martial over such a jerk as you.
To the many bartenders who refused me a drink, even a beer, because I wouldn't be 21 for another five months; you're forgiven--you only followed the law for your own protection.
And finally to Dr. Joe Cannon, who trained with me, flew with me, became my life-long friend and consultant, at every opportunity, never ceases to remind me and everyone else that I'm the kid who took the easy way out. AMEN TO THAT!