391st Bombardment Group, 572 Bombardment Squadron
|A WWII PILOT'S STORY
'Nothing but fog, and no place to land'
BY 1ST LT. JAMES FISHER
Flying over Europe, a 22-year-old combat pilot confronts the greatest challenge of his life when he realizes that he's trapped in thick fog, someone forgot to put batteries in his radio and he has no place to land.
JAMES FISHER The late Dr. Fisher wrote a horrifying account of a 10-day mission that began Dec. 23, 1944
The radio operator pleads for permission to jump rather than crash land ....
This is an account of an unexpected World War II event that occurred on Dec. 23, 1944 - and lasted approximately 10 days.
I was a 22-year-old B-26 Marauder combat pilot, always on call. We were usually not called for a mission for two days and once called, expected to fly the next two days, rotation. This was the day before Christmas Eve and we had hoped we would not be called out.
As members of the 391st Bombardment Group, we were separated into three squadrons which revolved the two day on/two day off rotation period.
This day, Dec. 23, 1944, was my day off, but it did not stay that way.
All of our squadron was ordered out just before noon of that day. The squadron that was just returning from their mission was in terrible condition. More than half did not return and of those that did, they were terribly shot, broken, covered with blood, yet still trying to fire their guns.
Immediately, we were ordered to prepare for another combat mission. During the following two days, our group dealt fierce blows at other strategic enemy bridges, contributing vital assistance to the ground forces at a most critical time. The determination, outstanding skill and unrelenting courage of the officers and men of the 391st Bombardment Group in so brilliantly carrying out the attack to the enemy was in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Our combat crews were scheduled according to our squadrons, dividing combat hours, some training time and a small amount of leisure time. Orders that day were to attend to business, get our equipment together in our B-26 Marauder Bombers and do our best to be our most effective in operation. Officers and crewmen ran to get into our appointed airplanes.
Upon approaching our designated plane, we found a crew of six men already aboard.
I asked the pilot why they were in our airplane and he stated that the crew appointments were changed and to call headquarters for our new appointment.
The officer at headquarters affirmed the assignment and told us to report back to headquarters with co-pilot and radio operator. He presented a surprise for all three of us. We were going to Liverpool, but we did not know it until we arrived there. We were traveling all day in the pitch dark belly of the bombay of a B-17.
Upon arrival, we were ordered to get into one of the new B-26 Bombers and fly it back to our home base and get it back to operation.
We were wearing our combat uniforms accompanied by our boots, gloves, helmets, pistols, jackets, parachutes and, of course, no food. We had no food that day and we were very tired and very hungry. We were cold and our new B-26 was even colder. Neither the plane nor we were ready to fly.
We had to fuel the plane and then order the ground crew to remove the U-locks from the wheels and to start the engines.
We taxied out and got the message from the tower to take off. The dust was so thick that we could hardly see. We raised to a safe height and raised the wheels. The nose wheel came up so fast it felt like it was coming into the cockpit.
I immediately knew the U-locks were still on the main wheels - the men on the ground had not removed them. We could not fly safely like this because an enemy could very easily spot us and force is down.
We were extremely anxious and worried - it was getting darker and we desperately needed a suitable airfield where we could land. We were still in combat clothing, had no food, no identification, only a pistol in our belts.
Then, just at sundown, I spotted a small opening in the clouds, and after we studied it, we decided it was an airbase and we could see some of the runway, although short.
We began to slowly coast and spiral downward. We could see smaller airplanes near the runway, so we decided to land.
The strip was too short, but by making a U-turn we could maneuver the airplane a half circle and stop it with the brakes.
We still did not know what type of base it was, but we were soon informed. It was a training base for the British Air Force and there were a lot of cadets and instructors.
They wanted to know who we were and what we were doing there. I must admit that we looked pretty rough and they insisted on first obtaining our pistols.
After that, they were very willing to assist us and gave us food and shelter. They were very interested in seeing the inside of our Marauder which was far superior to what they had ever flown or seen.
Our new plane had no radio equipment yet installed, so the officers made contact with our base in France and our colonel was put at ease.
He allowed us to stay until the weather was more suitable - at least enough so to return to the base. The weather remained bad for a week and then our base called and told us to attempt to return.
There was fog, we were told, but we were not told just how dense it was.
British balloons flew very high to keep the German Air Force from attacking England (and us, as well.) Fortunately, we did not have a heavy load as we would go over obstacles on our flight back to France. But even with no load, a Marauder weighs 19 tons. We were able to gain enough altitude to safely fly over the balloon obstacles and steel wires that can cause trouble. Now we were looking down the English Channel. We set course for the coast of France and then for our base.
The ground appeared good with only a little snow, so we thought we would soon be back to our barracks, but as we watched the ground, it continued to be more and more covered with snow. The air became more and more thick with fog. In a rather short time, the air was so thick with fog that I could see nothing but white. I could not see trees or houses, or land or anything - just white. Our condition was obviously getting very serious. We could not communicate with anyone by radio because the men in Liverpool did not put the batteries (back) in our radio as ordered. We could not even visually find a point. I could not see or touch the ground without the risk of a severe crash.
At this point, my radio operator pleaded for permission to jump out rather than try to set the Marauder down on the runway.
I told the two men with me that I thought it best to gain altitude and get out of the dense white fog and away from the trees and any other high object with which we might collide. They quickly agreed.
With the fog so dense and heavy, it took a while to finally get out of it. We headed for what we thought was Reims Airbase.
However, what we found was not the airbase, but a suitable cow pasture for an emergency landing. It appeared smooth enough for the large, rough new tires we had on this new Marauder.
It did not set down easily.
We were able to land on the pasture and taxi to a large metal barn-like building and parked it as close as I could to the front door. We did not get out for a while because we were unable to see anyone. Finally, a young man in a U.S. Army uniform came out and told us we could sleep in the barn overnight. Comfortable it wasn't, but it was better than outside - it was a very, very cold night, covered in snow.
The next morning we were awakened by yells that our plane was sinking into the thick mud. The surface of the pasture was beginning to melt and the wheels were sinking deeply and quickly.
We started the engines as quickly as we could and the tips of the propellers were slinging mud everywhere. We hurried as fast as we could, but the mud hurried just as quickly. The windshields were covered with mud and the wheel nacelles (outer casings) were packed with mud. There was no place for the wheels to draw up out of the blast of the wind pressed by the propellers.
We scrambled into the Marauder and managed to get it out of the mud and into the air. Without any other misfortune, we made it back to the base although we were extremely muddy.
At this point, we did not know whether to run away or get on our knees before Colonel Williams and explain to him the situation could not have been helped, but instead, could have been much worse. No one came out to see us and we didn't know whether that was good or bad.
The ground crew cleaned the B-26 and it looked good as new the next day.
Shortly afterward, I was granted a week of leave to the Riviera on the southern coast of France. Upon return, I was presented an order that was a promotion to First Lieutenant and Colonel Williams was promoted to General Williams.
IN THIS FIRST-PERSON ACCOUNT, THE AUTHOR ASKED THAT IT NOT BE PUBLISHED UNTIL AFTER HIS DEATH.