Pi­lot’s nar­row es­cape and walk to safety

The Covington News - - Local -

Con­tin­ued from last Wed­nes­day’s, Aug. 22 edition “From Ga. Tech to bomb­ing Ger­many.” SEPT. 6, 1943 The B-17 had been shot to pieces by Ger­man fight­ers af­ter a dis­as­trous bomb­ing run on Stuttgart. Not a sin­gle bomb from 338 Fly­ing Fortresses had hit the tar­get; at least 45 bombers had been lost, and the sur­viv­ing B-17s were fight­ing for their lives. Al­ready at dan­ger­ously low al­ti­tude with fight­ers in hot pur­suit, pi­lot Jim Arm­strong gave the or­der to ‘bail out’ over Ger­man-oc­cu­pied France. His hands and arms burnt from a rag­ing blaze be­hind the cock­pit, Arm­strong ‘trimmed’ the Fortress for level flight, then hit the silk.

Still inside the B-17, a waist gun­ner had caught a round in his right tem­ple which ex­ited through his right eye. The eye­ball lay dan­gling on his right cheek. The ball tur­ret gun­ner tried to push the waist gun­ner out of the plane and pull his rip­cord so the body could be re­cov­ered for proper burial and clo­sure, but took a round to the head and died in­stantly.

The big bomber was go­ing down with the ball tur­ret gun­ner and waist gun­ner still on board. Prob­lem was, the waist gun­ner was still alive.

Once Arm­strong’s para­chute opened, he watched the B-17 glide gen­tly down as if try­ing to land it­self. He said, “I kept wait­ing for the bomber to lose the ‘trim,’ maybe bank or nose­dive, but it never did. With the wheels up, she made a belly-land­ing in a su­gar beet field all by her lone­some. I doubt if I could have made a bet­ter crash-land­ing. It was re­mark­able, if not a mir­a­cle.”

And the mir­a­cles con­tin­ued. The B-17 came to rest be­side a Ger­man-con­trolled French air­field near the town of Etrepagny in Nor­mandy. Be­liev­ing the pi­lot had crash-landed the B-17, the Ger­mans dis­patched a French am­bu­lance and troops to rum­mage for sur­vivors, bod­ies and in­tel­li­gence ma­te­rial.

Upon their ar­rival, the fire was ex­tin­guished, the waist gun­ner helped to his feet, and with his eye­ball still dan­gling on his right cheek walked out of the B-17 un­der his own power into the wait­ing am­bu­lance. The eye could not be saved, but he re­ceived treat­ment at the lo­cal hospi­tal be­fore be­ing trans­ported to Paris where he ob­tained spe­cial care at a Ger­man Air Force (Luft­waffe) hospi­tal. The waist gun­ner made a full re­cov­ery and even­tu­ally came home in a pris­oner swap. He still re­sides in Hot Springs, Ariz.

Arm­strong landed in a field close to the vil­lage of Ga­maches. He said, “I ran into some woods and cov­ered my­self in a briar patch. I’d chipped bone off my an­kle and the next morn­ing it was hurt­ing re­ally bad. I drank wa­ter from a nearby ditch and I could hear church bells in the dis­tance. When I looked up a French­man was stand­ing across the ditch wear­ing World War I type pants. He mo­tioned for me to re­take cover in the woods. He didn’t have to ask twice.”

The French­man fed Arm­strong for a week un­til other vil­lagers feared reprisal from the Ger­mans. With a com­pass and still wear­ing his flight suit, Arm­strong started a trek in the di­rec­tion of Paris. He would walk for 50 miles un­de­tected by Ger­mans. His odyssey is wor­thy of a book.

He met a farmer churn­ing but­ter; used an English to French book­let to con­verse, and dis­cov­ered the man and his mother were White Rus­sians. These kind peo­ple gave Arm­strong a change of clothes, milk, but­ter, an ap­ple and a satchel of food.

Con­tin­u­ing his jour­ney, Arm­strong fi­nally reached the Seine River. “I tried to drink the wa­ter,” he said. “It was hor­ri­ble. A young boy near the river fetched me what he con­sid­ered clean wa­ter. It was full of tad­poles.”

Later, Arm­strong came upon a maid peel­ing pota­toes in the front yard of a nice home. The maid got the lady of the house who had a cousin in New York; they fed Arm­strong break­fast, then the lady’s son went off to school and com­plained to his class­mates that an ‘Amer­i­can’ flyer had eaten his break­fast. Time to move.

Arm­strong was moved to Triel-sur-Seine to stay with an English-speak­ing lady, Anne Price, who fed and hid him for more than two weeks while the French re­sis­tance in­ter­ro­gated him to be sure he was le­git. Anne Price’s daugh­ter ar­rived from Paris, treated Arm­strong’s blis­tered hands and arms, and within days he was en route to Paris by train.

“Ger­man sol­diers were all over the place in Paris,” he said. “I just tried to look nor­mal and kept my mouth shut.” Arm­strong met and bunked with a diver­sity of British and Amer­i­can fly­ers un­der the pro­tec­tion of the French re­sis­tance. Days of bore­dom com­peted against days of ap­pre­hen­sion; mov­ing about to avoid cap­ture or trav­el­ing via train or wood-burn­ing trucks to points of hope­ful es­cape.

Homes and hope in towns like Drancy near Paris, Car­cas­sonne in south­ern France, Quim­per and Douarnenez in Brit­tany would be for­ever etched in Jim Arm­strong’s grate­ful mem­ory of the French re­sis­tance.

“Those peo­ple put their lives on the line for Al­lied air­men,” he said. “Many were caught, and many lost their lives, but they saved thou­sands of fly­ers. I will al­ways re­mem­ber them.”

The town of Douarnenez was Arm­strong’s last portof-call in oc­cu­pied Europe. He said, “We were fi­nally able to board a boat and slipped by a Ger­man guard­house at the end of an es­tu­ary. Two French look-outs work­ing for the Ger­mans spot­ted us and warned the Ger­man guards, but the Ger­mans told them to ‘Shut up,’ that we were noth­ing but a rock. I guess God wanted us to go home.”

The boat ar­rived in Eng­land with 31 Al­lied air­men aboard. Arm­strong’s war was over in Europe, but back home in the states, he trained on B-24s, then the mas­sive B-29 for de­ploy­ment to the Pa­cific. Two atomic bombs saved him from ad­di­tional com­bat.

Af­ter the war, Arm­strong at­tended and grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Florida with a de­gree in agri­cul­ture, met and mar­ried his wife Anita, and worked for an as­sort­ment of com­pa­nies in­clud­ing DuPont un­til he de­cided on a life he’d al­ways wanted — the Columbia The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary to train for the Pres­by­te­rian min­istry. He spread the gospel in Thomasville be­fore start­ing his own non­de­nom­i­na­tional house of wor­ship, The New Covenant Church.

Now re­tired for 10 years, 90-year-old Arm­strong said of his 64 years of mar­riage to Anita, “Well, it’s a good start.”

Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, free­lance writer and colum­nist. You can contact him at avet­er­ansstory@gmail.com.

(Left) Jim Arm­strong present day at his home. (Right) Arm­strong served as a pi­lot dur­ing his time in the mil­i­tary.

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