PREPARE TO DITCH

PREPARE TO DITCH

From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Prepare to Ditch

Flak took out the number-three engine of our newly delivered B-24 Liberator and badly damaged two others as we made our run on Ludwigshafen, Germany, April 1, 1944. This was my fourteenth mission, leaving the unlucky thirteenth behind me.

Hundreds of bombers—B-24s and B-17s—were on this raid in southern Germany. We were informed the target was heavily defended and warned to expect deadly flak and plenty of German aircraft.

With the number-three engine out and two others barely hanging on, we managed to drop our bombs. The loneliest feeling I’ve ever had was watching our squadron fly on above us as we lost altitude, alone now and sitting ducks for German fighters. On the intercom, I told the crew, “We’re hurt bad. I’ll try to make the coast. If you’re bailing, bail now while we have enough altitude.” No one did. Our only hope now was sinking into an overcast that, hopefully, would shield us from the Luftwaffe.

Nearing the coast of France, down to eight hundred feet with one sputtering engine left, we had only minutes before ditching in the English Channel. The Germans were firing at us from the ground with rifles. We had to make the channel! And we did, barely a mile off the French coast. I hollered into the mike, “Prepare to ditch!”

I had a decision to make and make quickly. Current ditching procedures for the Liberator were “to tail-drag the aircraft onto the water.” But too many Liberators had broken apart using this tactic. They’d sunk almost immediately and lost the crew. I decided I would attempt a normal landing—as normal a landing as could be effected on white-capped waves. As our last engine sputtered and died just feet above the water, I hollered into my mike, “We’re going in.” Then we hit the water—hard.

The copilot was thrown through the Plexiglas over us into the water and was lost. I plummeted headfirst into the instrument panel from the impact, and my legs jackknifed beneath me. Panic hit as I realized that if she sank quickly, I would go down with her. Wrenching my head free, I floated out the awful hole the copilot’s body had made.

Our Mae West life preservers were keeping us afloat, but we wouldn’t last long in the icy water; we had to get into the dinghies. I didn’t realize those dinghies were still hung up inside the bomber. “Thank God. It’s still floating,” I muttered to myself, realizing the plane hadn’t sunk in the presumed five-minute time period.

The radio operator swam back into the plane and released the two dinghies, a courageous act that saved our lives. To everyone’s surprise, the plane continued to bob on the water for forty-five minutes. The crew seemed okay, except for the flight engineer. We guessed he had internal injuries, but were helpless to do anything for him. He kept calling his wife’s name; hours later, sometime during the night, he fell silent. One of the crew said, “He’s gone, Lieutenant.” We all joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer, and someone said a Hail Mary as we gently slipped him into the black waters of the channel.

Dawn found us surrounded by heaving water, no land in sight. We took turns paddling, hoping we were headed toward England. Allied aircraft flew over, but didn’t see us; fortunately, neither did the German planes.

Huddled under our parachutes, we were miserably cold and soaking wet from the constant spray. One of the crew blurted out, “Pee in the dinghy, guys.” It was good advice; the urine was warm, and no one much cared where the warmth came from. Someone found a small bag of hard candy in a survival kit, and we all shared it.

As we drifted aimlessly with no land in sight, I wondered how many nautical miles separated England and France. Too many. But at least the Germans hadn’t come out after us.

One fear was constant: We could be swept past the tip of England and out into the Atlantic Ocean. The second dawn showed nothing but endless water. Surely, someone had to see us. An airplane, a ship, a fisherman! We couldn’t survive much longer.

We’d had nothing to drink or eat, except for the candy, for almost forty-four hours, and the constant tossing in the waves weakened and sickened us all. How long can we last? I wondered.

I was half-dozing when I heard the bombardier cry out. “Hey! Hello! Hello!” Then he shouted to the rest of us, “There’s a fishing boat over there.” Tying a piece of parachute to an oar, he waved it frantically, screaming, “Hello! Hello!”

The fishermen called back. “Ahoy! Ahoy! Yanks?”

“Yes, yes, Yanks. We’re Yanks,” we all yelled back as loudly as we could. It was hard for us to believe, almost too good to be true, that we were about to be rescued.

Satisfied we were indeed “Yanks,” the fishermen immediately started their engines and chugged slowly through the choppy water to the two dinghies. To a man, we all thanked God in our own way as we watched them approach us.

They gently lifted each one of us onto their boat and offered us food and cigarettes. A cup of steaming hot tea was the best thing I had ever tasted! These men may have been rough-and-ready English fishermen, but they looked like angels to us. Now that our ordeal was over, my mind drifted to my copilot and the engineer. If they’d only made it, our miracle would have been complete.

Two hours later, we landed at Folkestone in southern England. It was a moment none of us would ever forget. The tail gunner knelt and kissed the ground. I think, given the strength, I think we all would have, but as it was, we could barely walk.

The relief of being rescued was so great that only later did we realize something more about these fishermen: They had cut their commercial nets to come to our aid— those nets that were their livelihood. And they had not hesitated for a moment before doing so.

Many times since then, I have thought of those men and the sacrifice they made to rescue an unknown bunch of American airmen. I have often wondered how they managed afterward without their nets—but, then, angels must have a way.

Jack Black
As told to Patricia Black

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