Monday, July 30, 2007

Alan Magee: The Luckiest Ball Turret Gunner of WWII?

Alan Magee's B-17 was named 'Snap, Crackle, Pop' because the Fort's original pilot, Jacob Fredericks, had worked for Kelloggs Cereal before the war. Kelloggs was famous for its 'Rice Crispies' cereal, and the three little men, Snap, Crackle and Pop are still the mascots for the cereal. Ball turret gunner Magee fell over 20,000 feet without a parachute, and was saved when he crashed through the glass ceiling of the Nazaire, France train station.

This is an interesting story, and verified in different sources including the Arizona Republic and the 303rd Bomb Group website. Another version of the story is found at the 303rd Site at If anyone knows more, please feel free to add.

Alan Magee ranked among the luckiest of those who served in the Air Corps during World War II. A B-17 ball turret gunner, Magee had no choice but to jump out of a disabled, spinning-out-of-control bomber from about 22,000 feet without a parachute...and miraculously lived.

His incredible story was featured in a Smithsonian Magazine on the 10 most amazing survivals during World War II. Magee seldom spoke of that death-defying drop. He died 60 years later of complications from a stroke and kidney failure in San Angelo, Texas. His niece described her uncle as "just a regular guy." "He didn't like to talk about it...then he wouldn't dwell on it," the niece said.

"One of the people who saw him fall through the glass roof of the railroad station tracked Alan down. Before that, Alan wasn't interested in discussing this." However, he did mention: "God was certainly looking out for me."

Magee, was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. The youngest of six children, he enlisted after the Pearl Harbor attack. He was 5-foot-7...and just barely small enough to fitin the B-17's ball turret...a cramped, donut-shaped plexiglas and metal turret on thebomber's underside. It was a tight fit - a gunner's knees were practically against his chest- that Magee had to leave his parachute up on the (flight) deck of his four-engine Flying Fortress.

"His ball turret offered a panoramic view, but it was also a vulnerable target for (the attacking) German fighter planes. And there was a high casualty rate among B-17 gunners," said Don Jenkins, Magee's friend of 38 years and a World War II Navy veteran." He was very easy to get along with - very cheerful, very talkative and a very sweet person," Jenkins said. But, he said, in all those years, Magee only spoke to him three times about the incredible events taking place on January 3, 1943.

Sgt. Magee, 24, was one of the oldest of the 10-man crew who flew out of Molesworth,England, on a bomber nicknamed "Snap! Crackle! Pop!" His pilot was only 19. His seventh mission was a daylight bombing run on St. Nazaire, France, called "Flak City" because of the many anti-aircraft guns defending the German's submarine pens. On that day, his 303rd Bomb Group had sent 85 B17s with fighter escorts.

Over the target area, flak damaged Magee's plane...then German fighters shot off a section of his aircraft's right wing. Magee, who was wounded, scrambled out of his restrictive ball turret, and up on to the flight deck where he noticed his parachute was ruined. "He saw a gap in the side of the spinning plane and jumped out," said Jenkins, who explained that in the confusion Magee forgot he wasn't wearing a chute. "He remembered tumbling, but at that high altitude, he quickly lost consciousness from lack of oxygen."

Eyewitnesses saw Magee's body crash through the Nazaire train station's glass skylight - breaking his fall. When he regained consciousness, Magee said to his German captors: "Thank God I'm alive."

Magee's injuries included 28 shrapnel wounds - a punctured lung and kidney - nose and one eye ripped open - right arm nearly severed from his body - a broken right leg and ankle. The Germans decided that anyone who could so miraculously survive deserved "real special medical attention." With the doctors' high priority assistance, Magee fully recovered.

In total, 75 U.S. airmen were killed that day, 7 Fortresses were shot down - forty-seven damaged. Two other members of Magee's crew survived. McGee was a prisoner of war until May 1945. He received the Air Medal for meritorious conduct and the Purple Heart. "Alan was never the type to look in the past," said his friend. Despite the harrowing experience, Magee still loved to fly airplanes and earned his private pilot's license. He lived for the enjoyment of each moment - did a lot of walking and backpacking, and led a pretty good life.

On Jan. 3, 1993, Magee and the other two crew members were guests of the St. Nazaire,France townspeople. They hosted a banquet and erected a six-foot-tall memorial to salute the flight crew of Snap! Crackle! Pop! "He was very excited and honored," Jenkins said.
On the 23rd of September 1995 Alan E. Magee, accompanied by his wife Helen, returned to St Nazaire to take part in a ceremony sponsored by French citizens, dedicating a memorial to his seven fellow crewmen killed in the crash of Snap! Crackle! Pop! in the forest at La Baule Escoublac on Jan. 3, 1943.

By Paul Logan Journal Staff Writer (edited/abridged)


Les said...

This story got to me so much, I had to close the door to my office here at work, if you know what I mean.

Just when I thought I had heard everything about these guys...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments, Alan was my uncle and is missed by all of us.


anonymous said...

These were the very early daylight missions for the B-17s (mission #9). My great uncle was lost in another B-17 on that same mission. He was well spoken of, wish I'd known him.