On December 28, 1943, seventeen B-24's from the 376thH.B.G. headed for the railroad yards in Vicenza, Italy. About ten minutes from the target, we were attacked by forty to fifty German fighters. They came at us three and four abreast, firing rockets at 1,000 yards, and then coming in for the kill with 20mm cannons. Our 512th Sqd. trailed the rest of the formation, so we were hit first. Our plane lost two engines, all communications and most of the flight controls. Jim Collison, our pilot, put the plane on autopilot preparing to jump. Whitey Whitesides climbed out of the top turret, opened the bomb bay doors, and said, "You go first." I jumped out and didn't see another American for seven weeks. We lost all six of our 512th Sqd. planes within minutes and a total of ten B-24's that day.
I landed in an olive grove with twenty to thirty people watching. A young lad on a bicyc1e took me to his home for the night. The next day, we walked up into the hills to stay with his relatives and try to escape the Germans. Four days later, my right leg became infected from a piece of shrapnel. The boy took me to an English-speaking doctor, who wouldn't treat me because he was afraid the Germans were watching his house. The lad then took me to the home of a registered nurse and left me there for treatment. Two weeks later, my leg was healed enough to travel. I didn't see the boy again but the nurse informed me that he had threatened to report me to the Germans for ransom. The nurse and I made plans for an early departure for Yugoslavia. I gave her all the money I had in the escape kit, plus about $75 of my own money to buy c1othes and train tickets.
On January 20, 1944, we left the nurse' s home at dusk and boarded a train to begin our trip to Fume on the Yugoslavian border. The nurse and I never identified with each other on the whole trip, She would buy tickets and leave one on a ledge or in a crevice for me to pick up. We had many delays because of the English night bombings. We changed trains often, and saw so many German soldiers; we thought we were on troop trains. German officers accompanied the conductors taking tickets and spot checking ID's.
After traveling all night and morning of the next day, we arrived in Fume at 11:30 a.m. Upon entering the station, we saw five guards checking ID's and asking questions. When I saw this, I made my way back to the station platform looking for another way out. The whole area was surrounded by guards with automatic weapons. I waited until the crowd c1eared the station and then went back in, ready to give myself up. The nurse had all five guards in one comer talking excitedly and diverting their attention from me. I slipped out the door into the city and later she joined me. We had lunch and said our farewells. She spoke no English and I spoke no Italian. My guide was intelligent, dedicated and fearless in facing our common enemy. I thank God for sending her into my life to make my escape possible.
I crossed the border into Yugoslavia and the guard didn't even stop me. I traveled south on the main highway that follows the Adriatic coast until almost dusk. I headed for a small village in the hills to try to make contact with the Partisan army. I met an old man with a long white beard on my way to the village and told him who I was and what I wanted. He didn't say a word, but motioned me to follow him. He took me to a home where they gave me food and put me to bed. About three hours later, I was awakened with a gun pointed at me with ten people looking on. The man with the gun was a high-ranking officer in the Partisan Underground army and he could speak perfect English. He quizzed me for thirty minutes about my escape from northern Italy and also asked many questions about America. I don't think he fully accepted my story, I can hardly believe it myself. Only God knows why I was able to escape when the rest of my crew was either killed or captured.
The next day, he assigned a guide to take me to the Northern Partisan Army HQ. Here I was housed with a British (82) group that had radio contact with the Allied army HQ in Italy. The Partisans asked them to verify my identity. I stayed with the British for three weeks waiting for an American colonel, commander of a P-38 fighter group. He and a German had shot each other down head-on. After the colonel arrived, we joined a small group of Partisans heading south for Tito's HQ where we could catch a plane back to Italy.
We were on the road for about ten days when my feet developed infected blisters caused by an ill-fitting pair of British army shoes. I was sent to a Partisan army hospital, which was a farm house. Two weeks later, I was able to travel again. We left after dark and headed for the Adriatic coast where I was taken by a small boat to an island occupied by the U.S. Army Rangers. They gave me food, a bath with soap and hot water and a good night' s sleep on an army cot. The next day I was taken by Navy LST back to Italy and spent the next ten days in an army hospital for observation and a cure for scabies and lice.
I rejoined the 376th B.G near Bari, Italy, after more than three months in enemy territory. After being interrogated by S2 about my entire escape experience, I was told that I would be going home as soon as orders and transportation could be arranged. This was great news because I'm not sure I had much fight left in me. I lost about thirty-five pounds on this little trip; however, my crew members in German prisons lost a great deal more.
On that one day in 1943, ninety-nine men in ten planes were either killed or taken prisoner. One escaped. This is my story!