Bonnie Vasser Smith & Roy Juch
This account written from the perspective of the plane’s co-pilot 2nd Lt. Dennis L. Birkes of Chilton, Texas
The date: September 20, 1944
The target: Railroad Marshalling Yards at Budapest, Hungary
Our mission: To do as much damage as we could to the railroads at Budapest in order to slow the movement of troops and material of the German war machine, using 500 pound bombs dropped from the B-17s of the 97th Bombardment group stationed near Foggia in southern Italy.
For me, this was mission #10. Previous missions had been a mixture of easy milk runs to the dreaded kind with heavy flak and at high altitude. My first mission was sure enough a milk run, bombing for troop support. (Marshall Tito) The worst one was a mission to Blechhammer, Germany – mission #6, bombing from 31,500 feet and flak was very heavy and very accurate. Our plane had one engine that had lost considerable power, and we couldn’t keep up, so we were a couple of miles behind over the target. Ahead of us, we were able to see several planes exploding and scattering debris all over the place. In all, four planes exploded almost simultaneously, and another one damaged so much the crew had to bail out. On that day, out of 71 men who left with the squadron that morning, 34 were killed, 17 were captured, and 20 made it back that evening. Some of us survivors later thought there must have been a protecting hand over us, maybe even manipulating the circumstances just a bit.
On this mission, the flak was moderate but very accurate. Our plane was hit pretty heavily, knocking out both engines on the left side, and we could not maintain altitude or level flight. So, we were going down at a very steady descent. Actually, we did manage to get about halfway back to base. Along the way, the crew members in the back were throwing out anything with any appreciable weight. This included the ball-turret, which when unbolted, not only had quite substantial weight, but also left a neat round hole through which to exit the plane. Then the pilot gave the order to “bail out”. Crew members in the back were the first to go, and right on up to the front. Finally, only the pilot, navigator and myself (the co-pilot) were left. The navigator wanted to go after me, so I made my way back to the hole to exit, and I decided to check my chute. Well, I FOUND MY CHEST PACK CHUTE upside down. So, I turned it over and jumped out. But I was holding onto the carrying handle. After a couple of yanks on that handle, with nothing happening, I reached for the ripcord handle, and one pull did what it was suppose to do. The chute opened and I hit the ground. I did not have a whole lot of altitude to waste when leaving the plane, and I used a lot of it getting to the ripcord. Thus, I hit the ground hard enough to break my left ankle. So, this is where the title of my story comes in. No way could it have been more than three seconds from pulling the ripcord to hitting the ground. It was probably less than that. So, I’ll ask the question, “Were circumstances changed or manipulated?”
Soon after, I was scrambling to my feet to look for possible observers to what was happening to me. My ankle was hurting pretty sharply, as I began to gather my chute. Uniformed soldiers were coming toward me from all directions, and seeing right quickly that I was certainly outnumbered, I lifted my hands to surrender. The soldiers just as quickly let me know that they were my friend, not my captors. They were quick to point out the red stars on their caps identifying them as members of Marshall Tito’s forces. When they saw I was having trouble moving about, they brought up a white horse for me to ride. Then they led me down a ravine with a high bank on the right side. Soldiers were lining the bank as though they were ready to ward off the enemy with their riffles. As we passed by, each soldier rose and saluted me. This made me feel like a celebrity.
They took me to a first aid station where there was a doctor who had received his medical education in part of the U.S. and interned at a hospital in Chicago. This doctor could speak very good English. He told me that I would be put in contact with a British liaison group (3 Limeys) who would bring in a C-47 at night to fly me back to Italy. It was a distance of about 12 miles over to where the British were, and these Partisans would carry me to their place after dark that night.
While waiting for them we watched some night skirmishing between the Partisans and the Germans. We were on a ridge overlooking a valley with opposing forces on opposite sides, and they were firing machines and a few mortars at each other. Their tracer bullets were making a pretty picture, going back and forth. We could also hear the “whomp” of some mortars intermingled with the other sounds. This was all very interesting to a country boy.
My night ride was also very interesting. The mode of transportation for the 12 miles to the British was a two-wheeled ox cart, pulled by a pair of oxen. The cart was about half filled with freshly killed hog carcasses, still warm. This was covered with a tarp, and there was still some body warmth present to make it more comfortable for me on this chilly autumn night. Also, on our little journey a young woman was in charge, and she flirted quite a bit with me. (After all, I was a young, six-foot, three-inch, good looking American airman who needed some help.)
When we arrived at our destination, the British had a small room with a feather mattress. It was thought that I would be picked up soon, but it did not work out that way. The weather did not cooperate, turning wet, rainy and disagreeable. We waited for 18 days until that plane was able to come in to pick us up on a short, dirt runway that was lit with smudge pots. During my stay with the British, we had hot tea in the morning, and then we had to go about 300 yards to another house for two meals a day. The meals were usually a stew served with black bread. During my stay there I had no change of clothes nor a razor, so I was really ready for a clean-up when I got into the hospital.
My hospital stay took up the next five weeks, and I was finally returned back to the squadron. I was not immediately scheduled to fly on a mission until December 27th. On many of the subsequent missions I saw a lot of flak, but we did not have any really close calls, for which I was grateful. I flew 10 more missions as a co-pilot, and then I was moved over into the pilot’s seat for my last 10 missions. Then the war was over, the peace treaty was signed, and we came home as fast as we could.