General Fiction posted August 17, 2021

Not yet exceptional. When the exceptional rating is reached this is highlighted
One mans story of of survival. And the friends he lost.

Buried Memories

by Richard Frohm

The author has placed a warning on this post for language.

As I lied on my bunk, looking at the picture of my wife holding our baby daughter. I glanced at my wristwatch. It was almost 0200hrs. The day sergeant would be gently knocking on our Quonset hut door and as he turned on the overhead lights. Then in a soft voice say, "Gentleman would you mind getting up."

I held on tightly to my photograph. While I started thinking. Our daughter was going to be one-year-old that day. I had not seen her and wondered if I ever would. The Eighth Air Force stationed in England had suffered tremendous loses since joining the Brits in early 1943, with bombing German targets. I wondered if I would live to see my daughter. The Army Air Force suffered incredible losses. At that point in the war, over 40,000 men had been killed, missing in action, or prisoners of war.

The rumors floating around had us bombing either the railroad marshalling yards at Hamm, Germany, or the Lutzkendorf oil refinery near Merseburg, Germany. I was hoping for Hamm. With the Germans suffering severe shortages of fuel and oil. They had surrounded the oil refinery with a wall of flack. We had just bombed it two days earlier. We thought Charlie Ignatovich, our ball turret gunner, was going to lose it. I don't blame him. He had the worst spot on our B-17. A turret mounted in the plane's belly. Charlie was fully exposed to the flak. He could see the shells as they exploded. It was so heavy that day. It scared all of us. Charlie in the ball turret pissed his pants when a shell exploded ten feet under him and blew two red hot pieces of German steel past his head.

Except for Lt. Booth, who was flying his twentieth mission. The other nine of us were on our third. Lt. Booth would be flying with us because our pilot, Lt. Allen Johnson, had taken a large round in his left thigh from a German fighter. When it happened. Lt. Morris our co-pilot shouted for me; "Irish, Lt. Johnson's been hit." I dropped off my stand and could see blood everywhere. Lieutenant Morris was wiping the blood of his face with the sleeve of his jacket. Lt. Johnson was shaking from the loss of blood.

Our radio operator, Tony Marino, came up with the medical kit and stuck Lt. Johnson just above the wound with a morphine syringe. The lieutenant let out a loud scream. Seconds later, he was in la-la land. Tony and I got him out of his seat and carried him back to Tony's area.

We thought the German fighters were bad, the flak was like flying thru hell. They were shells set to explode at the altitude we were flying. The Germans had spotters that watched as we flew across country. They determined our altitude. By the time we reached the target, they had us.

I remember before I flew on a B-17; I saw the shiny metal and figured it was bulletproof. The truth is, the metal skin of a B-17 is just a little thicker than paper.

I caught a reflection on my watch and saw it was almost time for our wake-up call.

Precisely at 0300hrs, the on-duty duty Sergeant flung the door of our Quonset hut open, flipped on the ceiling lights and yelled, "Briefing at 0500hrs, rise and shine you pups."

There were eighteen of us enlisted men in the hut. We were three crews of six men. It was an interesting scene. Watching guys not quite awake bumping into each other.

The one thing special about bomber crews. Unlike the regular army or marines. Bomber crews were close and had a more relaxed relationship with their commissioned officers. This could be seen in the mess hall. We ate as a crew. Breakfast and dinner. It was noticeable on the plane. For example, we usually called the pilot "Skipper", Lt. Morris our co-pilot went by Mooretown, that was his hometown in New Jersey.

Our group was Sgt. Tony Marino (radio operator), Sgt. Charlie Ignatovich (Ball Turret) Our waist gunners were Sgt. John Laughlin, Sgt. Doug Aldrich and last but not least, our tail gunner, Ralph Dorning.

Ralph was the oldest at twenty-three. Tony was the youngest at eighteen.

We made it to the mess hall and knew instantly it was Merseburg. The cooks had made real eggs, not the powdered egg crap. Whenever they served real eggs, that told us it was going to be bad bombing run.

Our commissioned officers sat down with us. They were an excellent group, Lt Charlie Morris (Co-pilot) Lt, Curtis: "Chappie" Chatman our bombardier, Lt Marvin Brewer the navigator. Lt Ray Booth was unknown to us. The word around the base was he was cool as ice. Nothing threw him off his game.

Breakfasts were very interesting. Newer crews like us were quieter. Because we worried. The veteran crews had reached the point where if it's your time, there ain't nothing you can do about it. So they laughed and joked.

As soon as I finished breakfast, Tony, Laffy, and me, the Catholics on the plane, made our way to the back of the mess hall. The Catholic Chaplain would say a prayer over us and give us each communion. The Chaplin served all religions. He absolved all of us of our mortal sins. That way when we died we could go to heaven. I thought I could use all the help I could get to survive.

Next stop was the briefing room. Like the mess hall, it was loud until the commanding officer walked in. His adjutant would shout "ten-hut". We would all stand at attention until he said at ease. They stood on a stage with the curtains pulled together. Behind the curtain was the target for today. We waited with great anticipation. Hamm or Merseburg.

I pulled my wife's and baby's picture out of my jacket pocket. I whispered and pulled it up to my lips and gave the picture two kisses, one for each of them. I wished my daughter a happy birthday and prayed for Hamm. The curtain was pulled back and everyone just sat there, stunned. It was Merseburg. The secondary target was the chemical plant in Zeitz. If the weather over Merseburg was bad, we would hit Zeitz.

After the briefing, we made our way down two huts. One to get our gear; parachutes, leather flight suits, gloves and turn in all of our personal items. Such as wallets, rings, holy medals, money, everything we had on us except for our dog tags. Command did not want any of us to have something that may aide the Germans. The other was the crew chief's. Here the gunners would get their 50 caliber machine guns.

Lt. Booth had requisitioned Jeep for us to ride out to our bomber. We showed off our Jeep to the other crews. They had to drive out to the tarmac in three-quarter ton Fords trucks.

Once we got on the plane, every man had a job and got to it. We put the guns in their holders. Fed the ammo belts in and locked.

Today's raid had five hundred B-17's. Coming from several airfields across England. We were in the air by 0715hrs. Over the next ninety minutes, we circled, as, one by one, each group joined us. We were the 447th bomb group and selected to lead today's bombing run.

At 0905hrs, everyone was in the assembly area. The lead plane radioed it was a go.

Just as before we hit the French coast, Lt. Booth turned around to me and said "Irish, I hear its someone's birthday today?" "Yes, my daughter Denise turns one today." "I have a two-year-old. Her name is Donna. Look Irish, I know it sucks to be here on such a special day, but we need all of you here today. Merseburg, as you know, is going to be a living hell. In about ten minutes, our Luftwaffe buddies will pay us a visit. I want all of us to get back to the states. I have barely seen my Donna and I know you have not seen Denise." "I hear you Lt." Alright Irish, time for you to get on your perch.

The worst gun positions on the plane were the ball turret gunner, tail gunner and last mine. I did not have room to wear a parachute. All I could do was keep it lying on the floor near my perch. I stood on a metal plate with a support post for me. I had two 50-caliber machine guns. The turret could turn 360° and controlled by my hands on the 50 cal's.  

Lt. Booth got on the intercom and gave the order for the guns to be tested. I fired a brief burst. I did not want to use up too many rounds.

As I scanned the sky for German fighters. I saw a group of P-51's at ten o'clock. I yelled to Lt. Booth, "We got a nice-looking group of mustangs at ten o'clock." After seeing those fighters in action, I knew when the boys in the Luftwaffe showed up; they were going to get their asses kicked.

It was a quiet flight until we crossed the French border into Germany. From that point to the target, it was non-stop shooting. Ralph Dorning took out a German Focke Wolfe. That was Corny's sixth confirmed kill. He was the top gunner in our plane. The chatter on the intercom was non-stop. The ball turret gunner, shouting to the right waist gunner, "One just went under us and coming up on your side."

The closer we got to the target, the worse it got. John Laughlin, our right side waist gunner, started screaming over the intercom. "I got hit." Dougie Aldridge got on the intercom yelling. "Laffy looks bad, real bad." I heard Lt. Booth tell Tony Marino to get back there and see what he could do for Laffy, and take over his guns. As good as the boys in the P-51's were doing. I saw the German fighters shoot down two of our 17's. Finally, Tony got on the intercom. "I got Laffy all patched up. I hooked his shoot up in case we need to bale." Iggie jumped on the intercom. "Hey, Babes Boys are dropping out of formation. Looks like they lost engines three and four. Oh shit, there's two 190's on them." I yelled, "Where the hell are our mustang escorts?" Corny in the tail." They left us a few minutes ago. We're nearing the wall of flak." Iggie jumped back on the intercom. "Skipper, it looks like the 190's got em. They are spinning downward." "Iggie, keep your eyes on them as long as you can" "One, two, come on, boys, everybody get out." All of sudden Iggie stopped talking. Lt. Booth said, "Iggie, what the hell is going on." "Skipper, it blew apart. Nobody could have made it." They were one mission away from going home." "I whispered, "Those poor bastards." Right then I could see the German greeting, a sky filling with black clouds. Lt. Booth got on the intercom. "Boys, I believe they may outdo themselves today with the fireworks. Get your chutes on in case you have to bail." As we entered the flak, I could see the LT was right on this one. This time the flak was worse then our first visit. When you are flying through flak. It is like riding in a truck with no shocks or springs and driving down a pot-hole infested street.

As I spun my turret around, I saw "Painted Lady," just as she exploded. "Skipper, "Painted Lady just blew apart. No chutes." Lt. Booth called Chappie our bombardier. "Chappie, this flack is going to kill us. How long to the target." "Three minutes, bomb bay doors open." As I turned my turret towards the tail. There was an enormous explosion in the bomber's midsection. As the force threw me backwards in my turret, I saw the tail section with Corny still inside separate from the plane. I dropped off my perch and landed on top of my chute, right behind Lt. Booth and Lt. Morris. I heard Lt. Morris yell there's a hole in the right wing between engines three and four. I grabbed the right hook of the parachute and hooked it to my harness. By then, the plane was in a downward spiral. The centrifugal force was pinning both lieutenants in their seats. As I frantically tried to get the other strap hooked onto my harness. I looked back and watched as the two men tried desperately to get out of their seats. The last thing I heard was Lt. Booth shouting, "God let me out of here. I have a family." Just then, another explosion threw me into the bomb bay and out through the open bomb bay doors. The fact the bombs were still in place, leaving a very small opening for me to fit through, made my escape miraculous. Later when I looked back on that day. I thought, "Don't tell me there is no God."

As I headed downward, I was able to pull the ripcord on my parachute. It didn't fully open, So I was coming down hard and with only one strap hooked on and I was spinning. Making things worse, when I looked up, I saw falling pieces of debris. I said a prayer and my goodbyes to my wife and daughter. I kept looking for chutes. Finally, I saw two. I landed hard and was knocked out. When I came too. I began trying to hide my chute. Just as I stood up, trying to see who else made it. A shot rang out over my head. I saw a large group of German soldiers with rifles running toward me. I immediately threw up my hands. They brought me back to a truck. Inside were Lt. Chapman and John Laughlin, lying on a carrier. A German medic was cleaning his wound. I was happy I was not alone and Laffy had made it. I asked Chappie if he knew where were. Just out of Zeitz. His survival, like mine and Laffy's, was a miracle. The explosion that knocked me through the bomb bay was a flak shell blowing the nose off the plane. The explosion blew him out. Sitting only four feet away was Lt. Brewer. Chappie was not sure what happened to Lt. Brewer. Laffy told us when the tail section separated, it sucked him out. He had enough strength to pull the ripcord. Tony was still on the plane.

Our German guards drove us north to an interrogation camp. They separated us right after we arrived. I would spend the next ten days in a windowless cell. A dim light bulb was the only light. Over the next ten days, they interrogated me. The Germans had different ways. They would slap me around or they would not let me sleep. The worse was not giving me enough food or water. They were starving me. During the ten days, they gave me almost no food and so little water that I had to pea in a bottle and drink my urine. After all of that I gave them nothing.

On the eleventh day, they transported me to Stalag Luft IV. It was December 10, 1944. I would spend the next two months in the camp with over eight thousand other P.O.W'S. It was overcrowded, no heat, little food and no real medical care. Added to that, our German guards enjoyed letting their Dobermans off their leads and attack one of us. They enjoyed listening to the screaming. I will never forget their faces. Smiling, laughing as their dog mauled a prisoner.

I experienced that two weeks after I arrived. I was in a group of prisoners when the bastard released his Doberman. The group ran in different directions. I was the unfortunate one that he caught. He hit my back and knocked me to the ground. Then proceeded gnawing on my right arm. At first, his teeth could not get through my jacket. He finally ripped enough to get at my arm. I fought back and was bitten on both hands. When the guard finished having his daily fun. He called the Doberman off me. I was lucky in a way. When he called him off, the dog was trying to get at my face. The other prisoners had to watch. Because if one of them stepped in to help, the guards in the watchtower would open fire and kill you, the guy being attacked, and anyone near. After he walked away, my camp mates picked me up and carried me back to our barracks. All they could do for me was the wounds and wrap some cloth around them.

Just when I thought my life could not get worse. In early February 1945, with the Red Army approaching from the east. The Germans told all of us we were moving to another camp. It was only a day's walk away.

They lied. Eight thousand of us would walk six hundred miles over the course of eighty days. Through bitter cold, with little food or water. We slept on the frozen ground most every night. If we were lucky we slept in a barn. Those prisoners that fell behind never returned. Almost every man was sick. I suffered from dysentery and trench foot. My boots by the end had there seams split open. Water filled my boots which made my trench foot worse. I was becoming nothing but skin and bone.

They say the mind is a powerful tool. When I thought I could not go further. I pulled out the picture of my wife and baby girl. Sometimes I cried, other times I just stared and dreamed I was home with them. Each time I promised them I would make it and come home.

On the 2nd of May, near Lubeck, Germany. British and Canadian troops rescued all of us from what eventually would be called the "Black March". Knowing the war was over for them. The rats left us a few days earlier.

I would return home to my wife and child. Eventually, we had three more children. The New York Police Department hired me. There I would spend the next twenty-five years.

Lt. Chatman and Sgt. John Laughlin both survived their time as prisoners of war. Both married and had children. Sadly, Chappie passed away in 1963.

The remains of our seven crewmates lost on the 30th of November 1944 were never recovered. Their names are listed in an American cemetery in Belgium.

The war and my memories of it. Have never left me and they will be with me until I die.

John Flynn - Irish

War writing prompt entry
Writing Prompt
Write a story where a character is in war or is about to be in war. Fiction or non-fiction.

This story although written as a fictional account. Is based on true events in the life of Staff/Sgt John "Jack" Flynn.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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