Pilot’s narrow escape and walk to safety
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 email@example.com.
(Left) Jim Armstrong present day at his home. (Right) Armstrong served as a pilot during his time in the military.