Walkout Excerpt

Excerpt: Printed with permission of Hank Woodrum Jr.

We hope the Woodrum family will have success having the total book published.

The story of how the French Underground helped Woodrum survive needs to be told.

By Henry C. Woodrum Copyright 214546
Redding, California

The following is an excerpt Almost forty-five years ago, 10 days before the D-Day landings at Normandy, German flak shot my airplane out of the sky over the northern suburbs of Paris. I expected to be captured. Suspended in my parachute, I looked down upon some of the world’s most famous landmarks signaling my arrival in Nazi-occupied France. The likelihood of evasion seemed remote; but I did have hope.

In the ensuing years, numerous books have been published about life in German prison camps and of bold escape attempts, some successful. European authors have described their evasions from the Germans. Others have written about the Underground. A book written by a man responsible for devising escape routes for downed flyers, revealed the scope of planning necessary and the danger of involvement by civilians in the occupied countries. I have read many of these accounts with interest. All stress the importance of Underground contacts.

Some accounts written by men famous for war-time exploits, or those who gained fame since then by performing some particularly amazing feat, have outlined the event of their own “walkouts” via Spain or by boat across the English Channel. Each of them described the heroic acts of French, Dutch, or Belgian men and women, without whose assistance many Allied airmen would undoubtedly have been captured.
In my case, three months passed before I returned to safety in London. Talking with other evaders through the years has confirmed my feelings: without the help of the Underground, many more of us would have been caught. Only with luck and the help of the French Resistance did I avoid capture on several occasions.

I am telling this story more than four decades later, to explain how they helped me. I do not wish to dramatize my role. I just rode along with the Underground. As a young American pilot who couldn’t speak a word of French, certain events presented very tense moments; but there were also frustrating periods of waiting and wondering. Many days were filled with apprehension, when all I could do was try to stay aware of the events that were unfolding around me. This book is written in the sequence in which the events occurred and is based entirely on my personal experience.

I want to pay tribute to those wonderful people in the Underground who gave me every possible measure of assistance, always at great risk to themselves. Many of them paid with their lives. I remain in contact with some of those who are still alive, and I corresponded with others before their deaths. But there were many I could never contact. I have used real names whenever possible, although at the time I deliberately tried to forget names to avoid inadvertently revealing them if I was captured. This is for all of them. They have my everlasting gratitude for everything they did for me and other airmen who were shot down but didn’t make it back.

Henry C. Woodrum Lt. Col. USAF (Ret.) October 1989



We switched off the Quonset hut lights and stepped quickly outside into the cold English fog. It was 4 a.m., May 28, 1944, too early to be out of bed. Bud Morgan went first, angling the blue-lensed flashlight downward as we picked our way toward the latrine. Although it was just 15 feet ahead, it was invisible—as were the trees, thickly shrouded in the blanket of fog swirling around us. As we reached the latrine, the early morning silence of the 495th bomb squadron’s hutment was suddenly shattered by a sputtering B-26 Pratt-and- Whitney engine on the flightline several hundred feet away. It coughed and wheezed like an old man stumbling out of bed in the morning. At last, the engine caught and settled into a dull roar.
Inside the latrine, I made a useless attempt to shave with the lukewarm water. The razor pulled raggedly through my overnight stubble, leaving patches of whiskers behind. But I didn’t care what it looked like – and where we were going; no one else would either. Ah, another day at Stanstead, our 9th Air Force base. Smitty had just roused us from desperately needed sleep with the news that we would be replacing another crew with a sick pilot on an early morning flight. Our other hut mates had already left for the briefing.
I might have figured: Bud and I were supposed to be free on a three-day pass in just a couple of hours. I hoped the fog would linger just a little longer until a regular stand-by crew could be organized. Back at the hut I pulled on a pair of green slacks and a green shirt—we never wore insignia on missions—then topped the ensemble with a leather flight jacket. As I pulled on my fleece-lined flying boots, I saw Bud was already dressed and waiting for me at the door. We headed to the club, still using the blue flashlight as we inched our way along the edge of the road to the creek where we both stepped gingerly along a rickety plank to cross the waterway. Bud led, flashlight pointed toward the narrow wooden board. I followed with a hand on his shoulder.
“You know Bud, some morning we’re going to fall off this damned plank, our luck can’t hold forever.”
He glanced back at me and grinned in agreement. We’d been together almost a year, having flown a bunch of training missions in the States before crossing the Atlantic via the southern route over 20 countries before reaching Land’s End in England, a 52-hour trip even when traveling at an average ground speed of 231 miles an hour along most of the 12,000- mile course. Now we flew combat missions together.
Entering the club, we spotted a lone cook sitting on a small stool, hunched over a pulp magazine, in the warmth of a crackling wood stove. Bud and I had just left the club three hours earlier. It had been packed and, anticipating our three-day pass, we had stayed until closing, hoisting drinks with the others. Now my queasy stomach and aching head told me that perhaps I’d hoisted a few too many.
“What’s for breakfast?” Bud asked as the cook glanced up.
“Spam and eggs, that is if you’re on a mission,” he said, friendly enough, considering the time of the day. Only mission crews were allowed precious fresh eggs. He started frying them, along with the canned meat as we helped ourselves to some coffee from a huge urn on


the other side of the room. It helped the queasiness a little, but I still hoped a replacement crew could be found. We sipped the coffee silently until the cook slid the greasy plates in front of us. Just then, our squadron navigator, Lou Offenburg, and a new navigator I hadn’t met yet came in. Apparently the briefing was over.
“Where are we going?” Bud called across the room. Lou poured a cup of coffee, and then walked over to join us. He glanced toward the kitchen, making sure no one would overhear.
“You guys were on the one yesterday, weren’t you?” We nodded. “Well, you won’t have to strain to see the tower this time.”
“Damn.” Bud swore softly, but with a lot of feeling. I knew what he meant; we were going to Paris again.
The Jerries were moving every 88-millimeter gun they had to the coast of northern France, convinced that the invasion was near. Most of the weapons were centered in Paris where the country’s numerous transportation routes converged.
We finished breakfast in silence, and then went to the briefing room where I pulled on a pair of tan-colored bib overalls that had just been issued. But I decided to keep the leather jacket I was wearing instead of taking the tan cloth jacket that completed the set. It was actually a tank corps outfit, lighter that our winter flying clothes that were too warm now that summer was near.
My overalls were baggy looking. Bud’s seemed tailor-made, but I was tall and lanky at 6-foot-2 and 152 pounds. I glanced at the mirror and winced at the sight of my thoroughly mussed blonde hair, worse than in my escape photos when the photographer did the mussing deliberately. Bloodshot eyes glared back. All in all, I looked awful.
I slipped a Mae West over the jacket and felt to make sure my escape kit was in place. Then I felt for my escape photo in the left pocket of my shirt. As always, my dog tags dangled around my neck and my class ring was in place on my left hand. I checked everything else in at the counter, including my wallet, for safekeeping until I returned.
I met up with Bud again in the briefing room with two other pilots and a navigator. The major, who had been waiting for us, drew the curtains covering the big operations map to reveal a red line that traced our route from Stanstead to the Channel and across a point near Le Havre, then into Paris. It was almost the same route we had flown the day before, but this time our target was much closer to the city. Again, we were aiming for a bridge.
Suddenly I felt nervous. Paris was rougher now than ever. There was no way of telling how many guns were moving to the west wall of Fortress Europa. The day before they’d briefed us that is was about 500. We were assigned as number five in the first flight. A guy I knew and respected was deputy lead. I’d be on his right wing in number five. He’d joined us after 25 missions with another group and was now nearing a total of 60 completed missions. I was always glad to fly with someone like that—someone who knew his stuff. This would be my 35th.
There wasn’t enough time for a full briefing, but the major did give us a weather forecast and warned us to expect more flak this time.


“Your target is closer to Paris than it was yesterday. You may be getting hit from new areas as well, so watch out.” He paused, waiting for questions that never came, and then added, “One more thing. Intelligence reports indicate that evasion from Paris would be nearly impossible now; the German’s have been picking people up off the streets. So, if you get in trouble, avoid Paris at all costs.”
“Jesus Keerist, major,” muttered the skinny pilot sitting next to Bud. I couldn’t have said it better myself. It just didn’t make much sense: we’d be flying into a 40-knot wind, giving the Jerries just that much more time to shoot. Now they were saying that if you were hit and had to bail out, fine, but just don’t land in the city below.
Personally, I never worried about bailing out, but about getting blown up without a chance to jump. I’d already seen that happen to enough pilots on other missions. Some planes blew to smithereens, while others ignited like 100-octane torches. We seldom talked about it, but everyone thought about it. The Germans had a technique of firing an overlapping barrage with their mass of weapons. They were bound to hit something.

The major interrupted my thoughts.  “Woodrum, we have two propaganda bombs today, and you’ll have one of them along with your 2,000 bomb. Your gunners should be able to see it come apart as it falls away from the plane.”
He jerked his head toward the door. “Okay, that’s all, now get out to your ships.”
Our group commander was Col. R.F.C. Vance, and one of my buddies coined the group’s motto: “See France with Colonel Vance.” I knew for sure we would get to Paris again long before we saw London.
I wanted more coffee, so Bud and I headed to the canteen where two British Red Cross volunteers served us. The sweet-looking American girl dressed in Red Cross garb was there too, but she didn’t look up from her work when we entered. We knew why. Her fiancé, a pilot, had recently been shot down. Now she seldom talked to crewmembers. But the British women bubbled. “Give ’em ‘hell,” they told us as we left.
I grabbed my steel helmet from my locker, checked out a chute, then jogged over to one of the trucks. As I slid my chute onto the tailgate, I heard someone calling.
“Hey, lieutenant, wait a minute.” I looked up and saw my bombardier coming out of the hut. It was Griffith, a staff sergeant and one the last graduates from the enlisted bombardiers school before the war. I was surprised to see him.
“What happened, Griff? You look terrible,” I asked, as he reached the truck.
“Hell, we weren’t supposed to fly today, lieutenant.” I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t feel all that great either. He climbed in beside us. He was tall and blond, with a ruddy complexion and usually a cheerful grin. Today he just looked plain sick. The pouches under his eyes were red and puffy.
“Where’s Burton?” I asked. “He’s out at the ship.” “You guys tie one on last night?”


“We were going pretty good, but don’t worry about me, I’ll make it, but I’ll bet I’m a lot sicker that the guys we’re relieving.” He leaned back and closed his eyes as the truck slashed through the fog.
When we reached our revetments, we climbed out and saw a shadowy figure approaching with one of the blue-lensed lights. It was Rogers, our crew chief. We gathered around the nose of the aircraft, our shoulders hunched into our jackets for warmth. Another figure appeared as I was about to climb into the aircraft.
“Morning, lieutenant.” It was Burton, our regular engineer. I returned the greeting. Burton and Griffith looked at each other but didn’t speak. Burton grinned and Griff snorted. I figured they’d had another squabble, probably over a woman—as usual.
“She ready to go?” I asked.
Rogers nodded. “I pulled a ‘mag’ check 30 minutes ago, everything’s okay.”
“Good, where’s the rest of the crew?” I wanted to brief them on the phony bomb. Rogers scrambled through the nose-wheel hatch to call the others. When they gathered, I passed the word. Just as I finished the instructions, someone poked his head through the hatch.
“Lieutenant, it doesn’t look like you’ll be flying for a while. How about joining us for some coffee?”
It was the first sergeant from the anti-aircraft artillery unit. His company had a position a few yards from our revetment. I told him we’d be right over. There was a new man with us this trip, so I introduced myself and asked if he had any questions. He’d be flying tail gunner this mission. I asked him to stay on board and monitor tower frequency, that we would bring him some coffee. He seemed eager. Since he was new, he was probably the only one excited about flying that day.
We followed Rogers to the partially underground gun crew’s dugout. It was 12-foot- square with overhead timbers covered with plywood and several feet of dirt tamped into place. The furniture was strictly GI, fashioned from old packing crates. Coffee was brewing in a two-gallon percolator.
“By golly that smells good,” Griff said, inhaling deeply. “I can sure use a cup.” “It’s just about ready,” he told Griffith. Then he turned to me. “You weren’t supposed to fly again today, were you lieutenant?”
It was more of a statement than a question, and I wondered suddenly if the gunnery crews followed our schedules just as the bunch of GIs I’d served with at Wheeler Field followed individual fighter pilots after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7. I’d been transferred from the infantry to the Air Corps in Hawaii in September of “41 and was stationed at Wheeler, the fighter base for the islands. After the attack, I worked in the ground defense battalion and lived in a dugout similar to the one I was in now. I’d applied for aviation cadets, leaving Hawaii the following June with dreams of becoming a fighter pilot. And now here I was, waiting for the fog to clear to fly another mission piloting a B-26.
The NCO was still talking. “Hell, lieutenant, you guys have been flying a lot lately, we thought this was your crew’s day off.”


I shrugged. “It’s only one mission. We can start our leave this afternoon.”
The gunner who had been making the coffee filled four heavy crockery mugs with the steaming brew and brought them to the table. I reached for one and added a little cream and sugar, watching the lazy swirl of colors. I was feeling better and tipped my chair against the wall. The gunners were kidding with the flight crew. One of them was saying how he wished he was going on the mission—that he’d love a chance to hit the Germans.
“Be thankful you don’t have to go, kid,” Griff was saying. “Keep your ass on the ground while you have a chance.”
“Just the same,” the kid argued, “I always liked the looks of a B-26—it looks fast just sitting on the ground.” I’d heard that before. It was in Hawaii, not long after the war started. A lot of GIs from Wheeler were sent to Hickam to reassemble B-26s shipped from the States to Pearl Harbor. The pilots were all fighter pilots reassigned to Marauders. With little training after they checked out, they flew from the East Coast to Southern California and were getting ready to fly to the South Pacific. When they came back from Hickam, one of the guys told me the B-26 looked fast just sitting on the ground.
Those Marauders quickly earned two nicknames, “The Baltimore Whore” and “The Flying Prostitute.” It was a different bird alright; after growing up with aircraft that had wings longer than the fuselage, you blinked twice the first time you saw a B-26 with its short wings and negative angle of attack. It was the first American combat aircraft with a wing loading that required a mile-long runway.
We were in the dugout about an hour before we were told the weather would clear shortly. Bud and I walked back to the ship with Rogers. As we stepped closer, I could hardly make out the Y-5-T on her fuselage. It was our second bird, assigned after Lou Clay belly- landed our “Shopworn Angel” on its 13th mission when the gear hung up.
Hickey, the new guy, was still monitoring tower frequency.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Lt. Christenson just came by and said they expect the fog to lift within the hour. He wants us to roll the moment it clears.”
I climbed in and called the rest of the crew back. I glanced at my watch: 8:30 a.m. and they’d roused us out of bed at 4:45 a.m. Same old army, I thought—hurry up and wait. From the cockpit, I could see the ghostly shapes of trees looking wobbly in the fog. Within a few minutes, the fog lifted, and we could see a hundred yards.
I gathered the crew and said, “It looks like we’ve been blessed with good weather. When you see the blue flare, we’ll start to taxi.” I felt pretty good considering the lack of sleep the night before, and was glad that I’d had a chance to relax with some coffee before takeoff. We were ready. I settled back into the cushioned confines of the pilot seat and waited for the flare.



During the next few minutes, the fog melted and the ceiling lifted. Scud floated over the airfield in patches as the breeze grew into an 8 mile-an-hour wind. As it cleared, a blue flare arched up from the tower. Across the airfield, engines coughed as pilots nursed the first faint sputterings into full-throated roars. Flight commanders reviewed mission notes as all of the crews completed taxi checks. As the pilots eased in their throttles, each ground crew offered a thumbs-up.
We taxied at 1200 RPMs, steering with our brakes, throttles, and rudders. When the leaders reached their positions, they stopped on the diagonal and eased their ships into place, babying them until they were precisely parked. The first two Martin Marauders took the runway; the leader was on the left of the number two plane, with both running at near full power as final engine checks were made. Brakes held back wings straining to become airborne. A green flare arched upward, signaling the lead pilot to take off. The mission was underway.
Ten seconds later, the next ship followed, its nose wheel lifting and holding until the plane became airborne. The main gear was retracted and the ship stayed only inches above the runway for an instant before beginning its ascent. The other planes followed suit. Only the 497th practiced a different style, keeping their noses high after gear-up, straining for altitude.
Morgan and I preferred speed, so when our turn came, I held the nose down after Bud retracted the gear, letting our air speed build. Then I eased the throttles back, climbing at 160 miles an hour and started a left turn, noticing the flight commander’s aircraft completing its 180-degree turn.
I steepened my turn, judging the precise spot I would intercept the formation: about mid-point on the down wind leg. The first three planes were already tucked into a tight V and number four was slowly easing into his slot, below and behind the leader. I adjusted the throttles and slipped into formation, a moment before the sixth ship took its position. The deputy leader, in the number four ship, leaned across his co-pilot and gave me a thumbs-up. I was glad to be flying on the wing of such an experienced pilot.
Although I wanted to be in London on this particular day, it felt good to be part of a formation that proceeded so flawlessly. I relaxed in the armor-plated, bucket seat and framed the number four aircraft in my left window. We were the first six-ship flight in a cluster of three that would form an 18-ship box when assembled. Another box of 18 followed us closely. When the 36 planes were finally massed beneath the overcast, each in turn climbed out on course in the looser formation designed to get us through the overcast by completing timed 45-degree turns, resuming parallel courses, and climbing on course at 180 mph. Our flight broke through the clouds at 8,000 feet into blindingly brilliant sunlight, rejoining the formation in a marvelously blue sky.
We turned toward the coastal beacon east of Brighton, which marked our departure point. As we passed near London, the raucous warning of barrage balloons filled our headsets. The clouds were solid below us and I hoped that the weather forecast had been right in predicting clear skies for our return.


As we headed across the channel, our gunners could see fleets of B-17s and B-24s heading toward their targets in Germany. The plodding heavies left billowing white vapor trails, criss-crossed by thinner streaks from fighter escorts throttled back to stay with them.
“Want me to fly a while, Woody?” Bud asked.
I nodded and he took over while I leaned back, pulled a pack of Luckies out of my jacket pocket, and lit up. I pulled off the light silk gloves that were starting to make my hands sweat and stuffed them into my pocket. Halfway across the channel I instructed the crew to clear their guns and felt the aircraft shudder as the short bursts were fired together. Shell casings fell away from the aircraft ahead of ours as they too cleared their guns.
When I checked the intercom, each crewmember answered in turn with an “OK.”I watched Morgan fly formation. He did so effortlessly, seldom adjusting the throttles. We were so close I could see the deputy lead grin at me and wave.
When the enemy coastline became faintly visible, I took off my jacket and shrugged into a heavy flak suit. I picked up my steel helmet and returned to my seat. I slipped the steel helmet over my cloth-flying helmet, and fastened the strap.
“Better get your flak vest, Bud. I’ll take over now.” I took the controls and relaxed, feeling good, remembering when I was a GI and thought I’d never have the chance to get near a plane. Now I was doing what I always wanted. I began mentally running through the flight plan, remembering every place where we took flak on the way in yesterday.
The nervousness took hold as we neared the enemy landfall. It always came on the same way: beginning with a subtle tenseness, then building until I spotted the first burst of flak. Suddenly it would release and I would concentrate on flying. Now, all I could do was wait for the inevitable. I thought about the percentages. To most of us that’s all it was; just a percentage. If the gunners below are lucky, you’ve had it. But if they aren’t, you go home and come back the next day to give them another crack at you. It was very impersonal.
Pilots never see the gunners on the ground who are trying to kill them, only the flak exploding, that is if they’re lucky, because you never see the one that gets you. A pilot rarely sees his bombs exploding, buildings destroyed, or people killed. All he sees are those ugly, black blotches as the flak bursts, and he wished to hell it was all over so he could get back to the other side of the channel.
Our landfall was just south of La Havre. We took evasive action along a zigzag course that closely paralleled the Seine. We saw no flak until we neared Rouen where we bombed an airfield a few days ago. After the first burst puffed harmlessly nearly 200 yards away, I gave the airplane to Morgan to fly, suddenly realizing just how tense I was. I could clearly see the city, which seemed small from our altitude, and could make out the big cathedral. A few white, popcorn-shaped clouds were scattered below us.
Flak continued to burst around us as we moved upriver toward our target. A lot of it was from mobile units, not places where we’d picked it up before. As we approached our initial point, the air ahead suddenly blossomed with the barrages of a forewarned enemy. So much for the element of surprise.
Our flight leader failed to turn toward the target heading, but the deputy commander spotted the error and indicated with hand signals that I was to follow him. He started down


the bomb run with me and number six on his wing. Flying straight and level, bomb bays open, we held 195 mph through the black, welcoming bouquets from German anti-aircraft gunners. The sound of laboring engines was accompanied by the thudding WHAM of exploding shells. Acrid smoke filled the cockpit, stinging our nostrils. Our ears were filled with the unsettling combination of deafening flak explosions, and an eerie silence in the headsets. In front of me, the flight leader was hit. His ship nosed down and pulled to the right, forcing me to throttle back and pull away. Smoke billowed from the rear escape hatches, and I watched the gunners’ faces until the moment they leaped out, their bodies tumbling down and away until their chutes trailed out. At one point, the stricken aircraft nosed up slightly and I could see the pilot and co-pilot in the glow of the reddening cockpit, still trying to fly a torch about to blow.
Then the plane was out of view, but I could hear my gunners repeating “Bail out, bail out for Chris’ sakes, bail out!” as they watched flames and smoke from the waist gunner’s position leave a streaming trail.
But we couldn’t worry about the other crew for long, we’d suddenly become the lead ship. Number six was way off to the left, so I flew the heading and told Griff to take over the run. The flak was intense, more than I’d ever seen. Griff fed me directions and I flew the heading as close as possible. Normally, Griff couldn’t take over since the Norden bombsight is always in the lead ships only. But we’d flown some practice bomb runs two days earlier and a D-8 bombsight was still on board. I didn’t know what we could hit with that from 9,000 feet, but we’d give it a go.
“You gonna be all right, Griff?” I asked on the intercom.
“Yeah, but I’ll have to make it short,” he answered. The flak remained heavy, rocking the ship. I concentrated on the instruments, my eyes flicking from airspeed to altimeter and heading.
Suddenly, three heavy bursts hit us simultaneously, rocking the plane sharply. The stench of cordite, or whatever it is that makes flak bursts stink, filled my nostrils. Man, that was way too close, I thought as another explosion twisted the wheel in my hands. I wondered where we were hit, but before I could ask, Burtons’ voice announced, “Fire in number one!”
I turned my head and saw some damage, then leaned out to peer through the side window to see the entire engine nacelle. The cowling was loose, but still held together by fasteners on the bottom. Grayish-black smoke gushed from the cowl flaps while flames flickered from fluted openings. The slipstream held the flames inside the cowling, but I knew we had to douse the fire immediately.
“Feather number one!” I yelled. Morgan’s hands flashed through the feathering sequence, and when the prop stopped turning, I called for cowl flaps closed and the fire extinguisher to be discharged into the burning nacelle. After a moment, I leaned around to get a better look. The nacelle was black, but there was less smoke now. Flak continued to burst around us. My mouth was dry as I glanced ahead, seeing numerous black puffs.
“How much longer, Griff?” I asked. “Not far. Gimme two degrees left.”


Just then, the ship gave another lurch and the wheel was wrenched from my hands. We both grabbed it. Burton’s voice came over the intercom.
“They got us in the left wing. It’s a hell of a hole but the shell didn’t explode,” he said. Again, I turned aside to check the damage while Morgan kept the ship on its heading. When I saw the hole in the wing, I was engulfed by a sense of helplessness. The shell had pierced the wing, leaving a ragged-edged hole the size of volleyball. High-octane fuel gushed out, about three feet from what was left of the fire. Still, we were damn lucky the shell had burst harmlessly somewhere above us. If it had exploded on contact as was intended, our left wing would have been torn off and the whole plane set afire.
I turned back to the instrument panel as we took another burst in the bomb bays. Zagorski moved in to fight it. I glanced back and saw that his hand-held fire extinguisher wasn’t doing much good. Just then I felt the ship lighten and Griff said, “Bombs away. Let’s get the hell out of here!”
I began a turn away from the target, but our cockpit was suddenly filled with smoke and ear-splitting sound as the window on my left shattered and the controls felt limp in my hands. There was a burning sensation on my jaw and I gasped for air in the stench of the explosion. The smoke cleared quickly and I noticed a hole in the fuselage below my left foot. Rushing air filled the cockpit. Griffith appeared in the gangway in front of Bud, who slid his seat back so Griff could crawl out of the bombardier’s compartment and into the cockpit. I eased back on the yoke until the wheel was almost against my chest, before I finally felt the elevator controls tighten. I tested the aileron and found only fifty percent use of the left aileron, but I had full rudder control. The fire in the bomb bay was blazing, and I knew we’d never get it out. I reached for the throttle and reduced power on the good engine, bringing the left wing down a little. We had to abandon ship.
“Bail out! Bail out,” I yelled on the intercom, while wondering if I was doing the right thing. With the right engine churning, the other feathered and afire, we had another fire in the bomb bay. The hole in the left wing was still spewing fuel and my controls were shot. I couldn’t even make a controlled turn. With all of the left aileron cranked in and power reduced to keep the left wing down, we were still in a right turn, heading right over Paris. All I could do was to try and hold it level enough for us to bail out.
Morgan turned on the alarm bell. Griff started for the bomb bay, but came back, shouting to Morgan. “Put the gear down! We gotta go out the nose wheel hatch. The fire’s too bad in the bomb bay.”
I glanced in that direction and saw flames and smoke. Morgan pushed the lever down and I saw a narrow slit of blue widen as Griff slid the nose wheel hatch cover open. The nose wheel fell away and the gear clunked into the down and locked position.
I thought about the props and kept the plane as level as I could to avoid hitting them as we bailed out. Griff climbed into the hatch and suddenly disappeared. Morgan stood up, ready to follow, but then leaned back and flipped on the destruct switch before stepping into the hatch, giving me a nod before he just disappeared. Now it was my turn. I peered toward the back of the plane, through the smoke, but couldn’t see anyone else. As I leaned forward, I saw my steel helmet fall away. I’d forgotten to remove it. The mike cord gave a tug as it


pulled free of the jack. The fuselage was straining and creaking with noises I’d never heard before.
I stood where Morgan had been just moments before, leaned down, pushed out, grabbed my knees, and left old Y-5-T forever. The sudden change was startling. I was surrounded by silence and lulled for a moment into an almost dreamlike unreality. It seemed as if I could stay that way forever, just floating along. It was a deeply satisfying feeling. I began counting, but then realized I’d already fallen quite a distance. I counted anyway, up to six or seven, before pulling the ripcord. I caught a glimpse of the ground, growing much closer now. Nothing happened. I pulled the ripcord again, the metal ring feeling cold and hard in my hand as I flung my arm outward, tugging. Then came the shock of the chute opening, not as violent as I’d expected. It was my first jump. Above me, I could see the whiteness of the silk canopy billowing in the air, fluttering with little noises as it formed into bulging roundness. I felt an overpowering sense of exaltation at just being alive, knowing that I would drift to the ground and go on living a little longer.
With that thought, I realized for the first time how strong my fear of getting hit and blowing up had been. Instinctively, I looked at my wristwatch. It was 11:43 a.m. I thought about the others and turned my head from side to side looking for chutes. I couldn’t see any and wondered where they were. I twisted and turned my head and finally saw two chutes much higher to the east, then a third, beyond and above the other two. I counted again. There were only three; there should have been five. Where were the others?
I focused on the ground and spotted the Eiffel Tower and the Arche de Triumphe a mile or so to the south. The Seine curved and twisted its way through the city. Suddenly I remembered our briefing officer’s advice—avoid Paris at all costs—and laughed aloud.
I looked around, craning my neck from side to side to find the plane, and finally saw it off to the north, below me. Smoke spewed from the fuselage, which was burning fiercely now, wild flames engulfing it. As I watched, it augured into a vacant area surrounded by buildings on three sides. It was the only open spot where it could have hit without demolishing something.
I guessed that I’d land on the northwest side of the city, most likely among some buildings. To the west, I saw a few open fields. I doubted I’d drift that far. The streets were empty. There were no people around; they were probably in air raid shelters.
Just ahead and below me, a burst of flak exploded with a loud WHUMP. It was so near I saw the burning crimson of its center as white-hot shrapnel screeched past me. Out in the open like this, the explosion was deafening, and my feeling of exaltation fizzled as I realized they were trying to kill me before I hit the ground. One man, alone, dangling helplessly in a parachute.
“You dirty, God-damn sons-of-bitches,” I shouted. Another burst dotted the sky on my right and I shouted again, outraged that I might have survived all that flak on the bomb run, just to wind up a corpse in a parachute. Then another round appeared and I cursed them at the top of my lungs. The war was suddenly too damned personal, and I was furious.
Now, I was drifting faster. The arch was already some distance away and the open spaces I’d seen were closer. The ground was coming up fast. I began to relax again as the firing stopped, thinking I might have a chance to land in an open field. Out of habit, I reached


for a cigarette, but I’d left my jacket in the plane along with my Luckies. I stretched against the harness and checked the terrain below, wondering how long I’d stay free after hitting the ground. I saw a few people below now. I then floated over a field and past a populated area with more people in the streets.
Small arms tracers whizzed toward me, but fell away just short of their mark. More tracers curved upward from the ground, red fingers reaching out greedily, and I wondered if I’d had it. The ground was rushing toward me now, and I could easily distinguish people below, all of them hurrying along, some glancing up at me before running toward the spot where they apparently thought I’d land. Tracers still whined past, closer than before, and I began pulling on the shroud lines in a side-to-side motion. Finally, I decided it wasn’t doing any good, especially after I pulled too hard and spilled air from the chute, which caused me to very quickly drop for a few feet before the chute again filled with air. When I stopped swinging, the firing also stopped. Did the gunners think I was dead?
I watched the people running below me. I wondered how they felt; living in a country occupied by their enemy for four long years, and remembered a photo I’d seen. It showed a man standing in a street, listening to the Marseillaise being played for the last time before the Germans arrived in his city. His face was set, tears streaming down his cheeks, the skin around his eyes tightly crinkled and the muscles at the corners of his mouth clenched.
On impulse, I began shouting the tune of the French national anthem. It was a crazy thing to do, but it made me feel good. The ground rushed up quickly and I saw a vacant lot near a tiny railroad station. Up the street, two German staff cars and four trucks loaded with soldiers rounded a corner and headed toward me.
I pulled too hard on the lines and spilled some air, just missing a chimney, then slammed flat on my back, onto the concrete tiles lining the steep roof. Stunned, I began slowly sliding down the steep slope of the roof. The blow of landing knocked my breath away and even though I clawed feebly for a hold, I kept on sliding towards the edge. I saw my chute settle slowly over the chimney behind me just as I dropped over the edge, unable to prevent myself from falling to the ground. The shock I got when the slack in the shroud lines took up about two feet above the ground was tremendous.
As I gasped for air, my hand found the metal disk of the chute release and I pounded on it violently. As the harness fell away, I fell the last two feet, shrugged out of the Mae West life jacket and stumbled toward the back of the house, away from the street. My groin hurt like hell.
I heard German vehicles stopping out front. After a few steps, the pain in my groin intensified. It hurt like hell and I wanted to lie down and grab my crotch while I caught my breath. But as I came around the corner of the house, an old woman moved across the back porch and stopped suddenly, throwing up her hands with a startled look as I appeared. She turned and scurried into the house. I continued across the backyard and stuffed my pistol, still strapped in its holster, into one of the hollow-centered cement blocks stacked there. Our instructions were to ditch side arms in the event of imminent capture.
I heard German voices shouting out in the street. I saw no place to hide, so I walked on behind the next house, turned the corner, and headed for the sidewalk. I heard a strident


German voice shouting orders. I noticed a canvas drop cloth spread on the ground with several cans of paint on it. I picked up a can with a brush in it.
Carrying the bucket, I tried to look casual as I crossed the yard to a low fence. I stepped over it to join a group of people gathered on the sidewalk and moved to the back of the crowd of people intently watching the Germans pile out of their trucks. They were milling around in front of the home where my chute still dangled from the chimney. I stood among the French civilians watching as German soldiers ran through the gate. A portly German officer stood in the backseat of an open staff car, gesturing directions. I was feeling pretty clever when a man moved up to my left elbow. He stood there for a moment before turning to give me a full-face stare. He knows who I am, I thought. I wonder what he’ll do. As he turned back to watch the Germans, he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered me one without turning his head. I glanced quickly at the man, who turned and smiled. I nodded and took a cigarette. He struck a match and gave me a light. Again, I nodded my thanks. I smoked the cigarette and almost choked as I inhaled the strong tobacco.
The chubby German officer started giving his troops hell. Red-faced and screeching, his chest puffed out and he gasped for breath as he shouted—furious that they hadn’t caught me yet.
The Frenchman nudged me with his elbow. He motioned with a sideways nod of his head for me to follow and we walked past the car, not six feet behind the German officer’s back. When we reached the vacant lot I’d been aiming for, the guy turned and walked along a three-strand barbed-wire fence to a spot opposite a bunch of grape vines in full leaf planted in rows running parallel to the fence. Their leaves were bright green in the sunlight.

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