Bail Out
A memoir by Sterling Tuck, a pilot shot down on April 11, 1944

Also read Lt. Tuck's memoir of the POW camp

The illustrations were drawn by the author while a POW

April 11, 1944. On this day, the lives of ten men changed drastically. We were scheduled for a bombing mission deep in the enemy territory of Germany This was to be our next to last mission. One more after this and we were going home. Not much was different. The briefing was in the early morning and there were the usual groans when the target was revealed. We were a seasoned crew and had gotten over the adrenaline shock but you could see the concern on the faces of the newer crews. Our regular plane, the Banger was in the shop for maintenance and we were scheduled to fly #572 which belonged to Lt. Wylie.

And of course he was there to remind us that it was his airplane and it was fairly new and we were to bring it back in one piece. Yes, he was serious. #572 had two names. On one side it was the Werewolf and on the other it was Princess O'Rourke. Take off was normal. The climb to altitude, the gathering of the formation, the flight over the channel, and the approach to enemy territory was uneventful.

On the way to our target, we were required to cross the Dummer lake area. We had been there before and knew what to expect. The flak in that area could be moderate or heavy. One of our planes flying the low left position dropped out of formation and turned back toward England. I flew into his position and shortly thereafter, we encountered more flak bursts. When a flak shell bursts, there is a bright red flash which disappears almost immediately to be replaced by a starkly black cloud. You very seldom see the red flash but you can see quite a bit of the black cloud. It is frightening because you know what the probability of damage is at that very moment. Those black clouds enlarge and take on an ominous shade of grey.

Photo at left: Not the author's plane, but a similar situation

The first indication that we were hit was a violent jarring of the airplane. A shell had burst directly below our number two engine. When flak bursts, shrapnel is blown upward. The worst place to be is directly above the bursting flak. Our engine was knocked out of commission and was burning fiercely. Our first action was to hit the feathering button. Lt. Poore, the copilot, turned off the fuel to that engine. The propeller failed to feather. Sgt. Korte, the engineer, appeared quickly and tried to assist in putting out the fire. We were having no luck and knowing that a fire of that type could easily spread to the wing fuel tanks, I pulled slightly off the left of the main formation so that if my plane exploded, the other planes in the formation would not be affected.

What I didn't know at that time was that we had a hole in the waist of the plane that was large enough to jump out of and the entire fabric cover on the inside of the left vertical stabilizer was blown away. My engineer informed me that the engine was starting to melt off. I turned and saw the cowl flaps melting away. It was only a matter of seconds before the flames reached the fuel tanks. For some reason or other, I accepted the fact that we were going to die and only a miracle would save us. I believe that at that moment, shock began to set in and I became very mechanical. I pulled the plane away from the formation and turned back toward England. I gave the order to bail out. I saw the bombardier's head appear in the glass hatch directly in front of me. Lt. Day's face was one big question mark. He had been so busy in the nose turret watching for enemy aircraft that he did not know the seriousness of the situation. However, he did notice that the navigator was gone. I gave him a nod and a hand signal. I then had to keep the plane level so that my copilot and Lt. Day could safely leave the aircraft. When I saw that the copilot was gone from the flight deck, I moved from my seat and retrieved my chest chute from behind my seat. Everything I did was very methodical.

I knew I was not going to make it and there was no reason to hurry. I got to the edge of the flight deck only to find that my copilot was lying on the cat walk staring up at me. He had picked up his chute by the rip cord and had tried to get out with the spilled chute in his arms. However, he could not go out because the spilled chute was trailed up on the flight deck where I was. Had he rolled out, he would have been killed. I turned and gathered up his chute and carried it to the edge of the flight deck and dropped it to him. My heart went with him as he rolled off the cat walk into the slip stream. It's bad enough to bail out of an airplane but when your only means of survival is gathered loosely in you arms, it can be horribly frightening. One panel of his chute was ripped open as he slid past the ball turret guns. He received a bad gash on his knee but he made it safely to the ground three miles below. I don't think Lt. Poore ever recovered from that traumatic experience. When the war ended, he returned to civilian life and did not fare well. He died before reaching 60.

I crawled down to the catwalk and rolled out. Suddenly I realized that I was not going to die. My body was turning and flipping rapidly. Remembering the little training that we had received, I went into a spread eagle position. Immediately, I straightened out, flat on my back with my arms and legs slightly bent upwards. I had lost my flying boots and I saw that my heated slippers had come off but were still attached to the cord which ran down the legs of my trousers. There were those two slippers about six inches above my feet. They appeared to be frozen because there was no whipping in the wind. The heated cord which came from my waist also was standing straight up. I worried about that cord because I was afraid that it might tangle in the chute when I opened it. When I reached up to pull in the cord, I changed my spread eagle position enough to start rolling.

That was an uncomfortable feeling but I felt the need to store that cord was more important so I reeled in all three feet of it and stuffed it into my trousers. My oxygen mask was still attached to my head. I do not remember detaching the oxygen hose from the aircraft when I left the pilot's seat. And of course the hose was standing straight up from my face. The wind going by the hose caused a venturi effect and created a slight vacuum making is hard for me to breathe. I yanked the mask from my head and threw it away. Much to my surprise, it dropped up. It was then that I saw a very large explosion well above me. It was not flak so I assumed it was an airplane and probably ours. I dropped about 15,000 feet and when I could see the windows in a farm house, I opened my chute. Another surprise occurred. The sudden deceleration gave the sensation of going back up and after falling all that way, I certainly did not want to go back up again.

While floating to the ground, I saw a fighter aircraft which appeared to be a P-47 flying at low altitude. I didn't float very long before hitting the ground. My landing was very hard. I came in at an angle toward what looked like a barbed wire fence. In order to miss that fence, I slipped some air from the chute and landed directly against the side of a ditch. My knees and arms took most of the impact. I wasn't knocked out and fortunately had no broken bones. An older man and a young boy were standing very near where I landed. I asked if they were Dutch. The old man replied "Ja, Deutsche". Not being versed in the language, I believed that we might have gotten back to Holland. I insisted that we were friends to no avail. I later learned that Deutsche means German. Since I was having no luck with them, I decided to get away from there as quickly as possible. The nearest trees were about 100 yards away. Then I noticed a German soldier walking toward me. He was too far away for me to see if he had any sharpshooter medals pinned on him but since he did have a rifle, I thought it best to stay put.

I was taken to a small village where I was united with my copilot, navigator, bombardier, and two of my enlisted crew members.

We were not put into a jail but were kept in the village square under guard. The townsfolk were very curious and it seemed that they had never seen American flyers before. They did not appear to be openly hostile. Irv, our bombardier, had some sulfa powder which he applied to the copilot's injured knee. Eventually we saw and heard the bombers on their return home. There was no attempt by the villagers to take cover. Although they knew they were not the target, there was a siren alarm which sounded the all clear.

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