I was a member of a bomber crew in the 9th Air Force, 386th
Bomb Group, 554th Bomb Squadron (B-26 medium bombers) located at Great Dunmow, Essex County, England. I was a pilot in the crew which consisted
of two pilots, a bombardier/navigator, a radio/top turret gunner, an
engineer/waist gunner and an armorer/tail turret gunner.
The mission for that day (and this was the second mission of the
day) was a German fuel dump near Foret d'Andainne, France. Our regular
gunners had finished their missions and we had three new gunners - their
The required number of missions was 65, but our regular gunners had
flown some extra missions with other crews, so this was the 63rd mission
for the three officers.
Our target was hidden in the forest and could not be seen from the
air, but our intelligence officers had pin-pointed the spot for our
bombardiers and navigators and we dropped our bombs on that spot. We hit
the target and this was made evident by the large amount of smoke, flame
and explosions on the ground.
On the way back to the base in England, our bombardier/navigator
said we are going too close to Le Havre, which was defended by many flak
guns. He could not understand why we did not turn, but we had to follow
the lead aircraft so there wasn't much we could do about it. We could see
the fighters in front of us were getting a lot of flak but, for some
reason, we did not change course.
As we neared the coast, there was an ear-splitting explosion and we
realized we had taken a direct hit from the 88mm flak guns in Le Havre.
The windshield was hit and the pilot compartment was full of dust and
debris and Plexiglas splinters and some shell fragments.
One of the gunners called on the intercom and said the top turret
gunner had been hit and killed. He also reported that both fuel tanks in
the right wing had been punctured and were spewing aviation gasoline.
Shortly after that he called and said we were on fire. I told him to
throw the turret gunner out of the aircraft and pull his rip cord and that
he and the other gunner were to bail out immediately. Our bomb/nav said we
were only three minutes from the British lines, but I said we do not
have three minutes - we may not have one minute . I was afraid the wing
would burn off or that we would explode.
Our normal exit from the aircraft was through the nose wheel well
so I tried to lower the landing gear and discovered that the hydraulics
had been shot out. We remained calm, but I can tell you that all three of
us were white as a sheet. Our only salvation was an emergency air bottle
that would open the bomb bay doors and hold them open for sixty seconds. The
three of us bailed out through the bomb bay taking care that
we went out head first so that if we hit anything on the way out it would
be our heels and not our heads. We were at approximately 10,000 feet
None of us had ever jumped before but we had been told not to pull
the rip cord until it appeared that the ground or water was coming up at
us. After the initial rush of air when I bailed out everything got very
quiet and I waited until the water looked like it was coming up at me and
I pulled my chute. I had never pulled a rip cord before and it came so
easy I thought I had broken the cable, but then I felt the pilot chute pop
out and then the main chute.
I was over the water near the beach, but I spilled my chute a bit
to carry me closer to the beach and, with the help of an onshore breeze, I
landed on a sandbar about fifty feet from the beach. I landed very hard
and ended up on my back.
It was low tide so there was shallow water between the beach and
me. I realized that I needed to get out of there before the tide came in
so I started walking toward the beach. I had taken only a couple of steps
when a machine gun ripped the water about 25 feet in front of me. I still
couldn't see anyone so I tried again and the same thing happened. This
happened one more time and I put my hands in the air and very soon six
Wehrmacht soldiers and a very young-looking 2nd Lt. came out of the trees
and waded out to get me. They took my pistol and the young German officer
asked me (in perfect English) if I was an officer. I told him I was and he
saluted me and I returned the salute. He said " I must apologize for
firing at you, but I found it necessary to stop you from walking. You were
walking into an underwater mine field". I thanked him (he probably
saved my life) and they took me up to a building that was serving as a
headquarters building for a communications battalion. Soon the other two
officers of our crew were brought in and the German sergeant told us we
were in Trouville, France and that they had found our gunners and that one
of them was dead.
It is still Aug. 6, 1944 (the day we got shot down) and we are in
the headquarters building of a German communications center while the
Germans are deciding what to do with us. They decided to take us by car
inland to a temporary holding area for captured prisoners. We were put
into an open French car with an officer and driver in the front seat, the
three of us in the back seat and two German guards rode on the back of the
We traveled about 12 kilometers inland to a small town called Pont
L'Eveque which was also the location of another communications center. We
were taken to an old three story building which, at one time, had been a
schoolhouse which the Germans were now using as a holding area for
transient prisoners. We were taken inside and up to the third floor. A
guard opened a door where a young woman was sleeping on the floor on a bed
of straw. The guard yelled at the woman to "raus" and go find
another place to sleep. This then became our bedroom where the only thing
in the room was straw on the floor. We were all so exhausted that it took
very little time for us to fall asleep.
The next morning we were taken downstairs to the office of the
German sergeant in charge of this unit. He got our name, rank and serial
number and told us we were free to roam in the enclosed compound in back
of the building. We soon discovered that, other than the sergeant, there
was only one other guard and he was a man who had to be in his 60's. His
name was Pvt. Schneider. He spoke enough English and, with what little German
I knew, we could converse fairly well. He had sons in the military
and grandsons in Germany. It was not long before he was
calling me Mark.
I teased Schneider from time to time telling him to keep a sharp
lookout because I was going to escape from that place. He took this very
seriously and became quite agitated saying no! no! no! no! - you
must not try to escape. They will shoot you.
Each morning three or four very young French Red Cross girls came
to the compound and brought us fresh milk. They also had sulfa powder
(American) and I needed some for a bad cut on my left hand. They also
informed us that they were Resistance members and advised us not to try to
escape from there. There was simply no place we could go without being
On about the third night, the guard came up to get us (1:00 AM)
saying the sergeant wanted to see us. We went downstairs to the
office and the sergeant was quite drunk. He put come glasses on the table
and poured a drink of Calvados for each of us. All he wanted was some
drinking buddies. The Calvados tasted like a mixture of cough medicine and
machine oil, but, after I got the first one down, the rest got easier.
Toward the end of the week four more officers were brought into the
unit - three army officers and an RAF fighter pilot from Canada.
The next day we were informed that the Americans and British forces
were advancing in our direction and that we were to be evacuated that
night. The truck arrived after dark and we were all in the hall near the
door when I saw Schneider in the background. I went over to him and
took off my gun belt and holster and gave them to him and
told him to give these to his grandsons as souvenirs. He said Mark
do not try to escape and his eyes were full of tears. I think he
looked upon me as a little boy, sometimes prone to be naughty.
We were loaded onto the truck, which was a wood-burning truck, and
headed east in pitch black darkness. The RAF pilot had spotted an opening
in the front wall of the truck, And whispered to us to have the tallest of
us to stand up and stretch. He was about 5 ' - 1" and very small and
when we did get up and stretch he went out that opening into the camouflage
foliage on the truck. He must have picked a good time to jump because he
When we made a relief stop down the road, a German sergeant counted
us and, of course, came up with six, not seven. He kept yelling in German
-where is the seventh officer? Naturally, we made out like we did not
understand what he was saying and I thought he was going to shoot us. He
was so mad he did not know what to do. After all, he was responsible for
losing a POW - poor fellow. Since he had decided not to shoot us there
wasn't much else he could do so we traveled on.
We came to a large open field near Laigle, France which was a large
collection point for captured personnel. They gave us some thin soup which
was so bad I could not eat it. Shortly, we were all loaded onto open
trucks and headed for Paris.
This was a very dangerous time because a large convoy of trucks is
just what fighter pilots love to see. Fortunately, that did not happen.
The truck convoy that left Laigle, France appeared to consist of
about 20 trucks, each carrying 20-25 POW's. We had to stand most of the
way since the truck bed was so crowded that it was difficult to sit down.
Here, again, we were in great danger from attack by our own aircraft, but
we were lucky again.
When we reached Paris, we crossed the river near the base of the
Eiffel Tower and proceeded down a wide street. As we were moving, a
shot rang out and this was frightening. As it turned out, one of the
German soldiers in one of the trucks had fired at some French people and
the bullet ricocheted and hit the windshield of a truck behind him. This
caused the convoy to stop while the truck drivers got out and started
arguing and cursing each other. The driver of the truck that got hit
was furious and it appeared that he was trying to find out who fired that
shot. It also appeared that he found the culprit since he vented his wrath
on one particular soldier.
After calm was restored, the convoy moved on and
stopped in the middle of a park or plaza. The Germans wanted to show off
how many prisoners they had, but it did not work out quite that way. The
French people around us, and there were many hundred, were friendly toward
us and kept crowding closer to us. The Germans tried to keep them back but
the crowd got very noisy, flashing the victory sign, and pressing
ever closer. The Germans got very angry and beat one poor man unmercifully
and then mounted machine guns in the plaza. The French did pull back then
and the convoy moved on.
We traveled through some narrow streets where women on the second
floors of several of the buildings tossed long loaves of bread to us and
little children ran beside the trucks trying to hand bread up to us.
We traveled to a place called Meaux where we were told we would
spend the night. We off-loaded and were taken into what appeared to be an
empty warehouse. We spent the night sleeping, or trying to sleep, on the
The next morning we traveled to a place called Chalon-sur-Marne, to
an old French army barracks which was filthy and spent the night on beds
with nothing but steel slats
Shortly after we were liberated, a group from our camp
entered the concentration camp located near our camp and came upon a scene
of utter horror. The German staff had obviously fled many days before the
Russians arrived and had left the prisoners locked up and helpless. Many
of them were dead and many were transported into our camp hospital. I was
standing near the gate into the camp and saw as many as I could stand to
look at. Their conditions were too horrible to describe. The British
doctors did all they could, but I do not know how many they were able to
A German major and several of his men stayed with us and helped our
people remove the mines from the runway at the nearby air base and left
before the Russians got there. I never learned his name, but he was very
helpful to us.
After the runway had been repaired, the B-17's could then come in
and start the airlift. This was a tremendous undertaking since one plane
could take only 30 men.
Thus began a period of anxious waiting for each of us. Since there was
almost 10,000 of us, it took weeks to accomplish this enormous task and we
simply had to wait for our turn to go.
When my time to board the plane came, the first thing I thought of
was a parachute since I had sworn I would never fly without one again, but
I found out that was exactly what I was getting ready to do. None of us
had chutes, but I felt better about it when I remembered we had little
chance of getting shot down.
The B-17 I was on took us for a lower level look at the Ruhr Valley
and I was amazed at the destruction.
We landed at Rhiems, France and sat on the runway until trucks came
to pick us up. It was now dark so I'm not sure just where we went, but we
stopped and they fed us a good meal. After that, we began the trip to Camp
Lucky Strike at St. Vallerie, France.
After we got to Camp Lucky Strike we were deloused the
assignment process began. We were divided up into packets by state and
North Carolina and South Carolina were considered one state. There were
eleven officers and over 100 enlisted personnel. It was the task of the
high ranking brass at the camp to choose a packet commander and since all
of us were 1st Lt.'s, a colonel asked each of us our date of commission
and I won the nomination. We were taken to our tent area, and I asked the
ranking sergeant to be my assistant. His first duty was to call the group
together so I could talk to them. I had to tell them that I had no idea of
when a ship would be available to take us home. I did tell them I would
write passes to Paris, but I also told them that when I got word a ship
was there for us, I would have the sergeant call the roll and if you are
here you go and if you were not here you stay. I did write out the passes
and made up some silly excuses to explain why they weren't there when the
high ranking officers would come by and ask me how things were going. I
would generally reply " fine, sir - the men are on egg nog break right
now". They would say very good - carry on. I think they knew I was
lying. The only thing I regret was that I never got to Paris myself.
While we were there General Eisenhower came and told us personally
that he was sorry that we were having to wait, but that the ships were
needed to carry troops to the Pacific.
Also, while we were there, an A-26 (my group had changed to A-26's)
flew from Liege, Belgium (where they were then stationed) down to Camp
Lucky Strike and took the three officers in my crew back to Liege and
threw a big party for us at a local hotel including a girlie show from
Paris. We did get back to Lucky Strike O. K.
Finally, after over three weeks, I was informed that we were
scheduled to be shipped out very soon, probably in 24 hours. I had the
sergeant call the roll and every man was there with one exception and he
was in the hospital. The word of the ship grapevined to Paris that quick.
In a very short time we were put on trucks and taken to Cherbourg,
France and boarded the Coast Guard Ship U.S.S. Admiral Mayo and headed for
home. Because I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was
ordered to be officer of the guard. I didn't have the nerve to ask just
what the hell are we guarding.
My duty was to go around most of the night to each guard station
and when I found someone asleep he got a swift kick on the bottom of his
foot and when he looked for his rifle he was a mite sheepish when he saw I
had it. Nothing was ever said about any of that.
My guards were to come off duty at 4 AM and I had to make
arrangements for their meal. The non-com I dealt with was Victor Mature.
He was very efficient and told me " It'll be ready, sir"
and it was.
It took us a week to cross the North Atlantic. I didn't get sick
but many did. We finally got to Boston and were taken to Camp Miles
Standish where I reported to the Commanding officer and soon we were on a
train and finally on our way home.
Mark Altvater - 2000