Monday, July 21, 2008

Absolute Courage Against All Odds

Good evening readers of Rob's Blog. This is Les Poitras again filling in for Rob. Rob is currently visiting with his friend Leonard Herman, the main subject of Leonard and Rob's book Combat Combardier.

To say Leonard is a hero is a gross understatement. I'll defer to Rob's books Untold Valor and Combat Bombardier for the description of how this man served not one, but TWO tours, in the skies of Europe, enduring all of the horrors of aerial combat and then coming to the aid of displaced Holocaust survivors after the war. Lest we ever forget...

The purpose of this post is to draw attention to another story of bravery, courage, self-sacrifice, heroism and love the likes of which I don't think I've read before in my lifetime. I'm certain there are many other similar accounts, there are many Medal of Honor citations and many more accounts that will probably never be told, but this one hit me so hard in the gut when I read it this past Saturday that I don't think I will ever recover. I'd like to share what I read. Please forgive me if you are already familiar with the story. It was my first time reading it.

The following excerpt is quoted from the book "Big Week" written by the late Glenn Infield, an author and B-17 pilot in WWII. The book was lent to me by my friend Maurice Rockett, a bombardier with the 95th Bomb Group who Rob has written about in this blog and one of the heroes to which Rob's book Untold Valor is dedictated.

Big Week is about the perilous missions from Feb. 20th - Feb. 25th flown by 3,300 bombers from the Eighth Air Force and 500 from the Fifteenth Air Force over Europe, an all out "maximum effort" with the objective of destroying the Luftwaffe in preparation for D-Day.

Both Maurice and our friend Dan Culler, also written about in Rob's Untold Valor and author of The Black Hole of Wauwilermoos (Dan and Maurice are described earlier here in Rob's blog, reader's are encouraged to search this blog for more info on both) and the author, Glenn Infield, are veterans of some of the aerial battles that took place during Big Week. In fact Maurice and Dan whom I email regularly both indicated they were each flying one of these missions on Feb. 20th, the very day the following event occurred. God Bless you Dan, Maurice, Glenn Infield and Medal of Honor recipients Archibald Mathies and Walter Truemper for courage and sacrifice unsurpassed. Thank you for the freedom we enjoy today. The more I study your history, the more I realize why yours' is called "The Greatest Generation".

Now onto this story of seemingly impossible courage, quoted exactly from Glen Infield's book: Big Week, which I highly recommend:

"On February 20, 1944, a Flying Fortress of the Five Hundred Tenth Bomb Squadron, Three Hundred Fifty-First Group, a B-17 with the name *"Mizpah" painted on its nose, went to Leipzig and came home to England, but not all of the crew survived the lonely ordeal. Their story is an example of the love of man for his fellow man and what happens when airmen are forced to decide whether merely to mouth these nice-sounding words or back them up with action.

The Mizpah was no different from hundreds of other B-17s that took part in the first blow of the all-out aerial assault...except for Archie Mathies, her flight engineer. Tall and husky with blond hair and blue eyes, Mathies didn't look like the raw, rugged Pennsylvania coal miner he had been before joining the USAAF after graduating from Monongahela High School. After the usual training courses, Mathies headed for England in December, 1943, just in time to take part in Big Week.

In England he met a big four-engined drab-colored Flying Fortress, which he learned to know better than he had ever known his own home in Pennsylvania. At Bovington and later at his base at Polebrook, northwest of Cambridge, the sergeant studied and worked on the B-17 until he knew every bolt, fuse, cable, and engine part intimately. When his buddies teased him about the attention he was paying the bomber at the expense of the girls in the surrounding villages, Mathies just patted the side of the Flying Fortress and said, "Someday the big girl will get me a medal." After a conference, during which every crew member had an opportunity to suggest a name for the B-17 Mathies took such good care of, it was decided to name it Mizpah. The mother of pilot Lieutenant Clarence R. Nelson had mentioned the word in a letter to him, remarking that it was a Biblical term meaning "The Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent from one another."

It proved to be a long separation!

The Mizpah came under attack by Ibel's Messerschmitts in the Leipzig area. Mathies was firing at the attacking Me-109s when he suddenly detected the acrid smell of smoke in the heavy bomber as the plane bounced crazily from the prop wash of the enemy fighters. Without warning the B-17 seemed to stop in midair, remain motionless for a few seconds as though trying to decide what to do next, and then with slow deliberateness it slid off on the left wing and headed straight down through five miles of empty space. Mathies immediately dropped straight down from the top-turret and looked into the cockpit. One glance told him that Ronald E. Bartley, the copilot, was dead. In the left bucket seat, Nelson, the pilot, was draped unconscious over the control column. Mizpah was on the loose with no restraining hand to guide her and she was taking full advantage of her freedom.

By the time Mathies extricated himself from his headset, oxygen line, and safety belt, the navigator, Walter E. Truemper, had crawled up through the nose hatchway. Between the two of them they managed to lift the wounded and unconscious pilot from his seat and onto the floor of the cockpit of the diving plane.

Mathies slid into the vacant pilot seat and grabbed the control column with both hands. Using all his strength, the strength his coal-mining labors had developed, the flight engineer finally pulled the damaged B-17 out of its death dive and got it flying straight and level over the German countryside. Immediately the navigator warned the crew to bail out, that both the pilot and copilot were wounded and unconscious, that there was no choice except to abandon the Flying Fortress.

Mathies, however, didn't agree. "Let's try and take the plane home, Lieutenant. Right now she's flying okay. We can bail out later if it's necessary."

Truemper didn't look forward to becoming a prisoner of war either and after staring at the snow-covered terrain below for a few seconds he nodded. "I'm game. I'll tell the crew. Those that want to take their chances with us can stay in the plane. The rest can bail out."

The remainder of the crew stayed with Mathies and Truemper as Mizpah began the long trip home. It was a flight that later seemed impossible. Alone, deep in enemy territory, the pilot unconscious, the copilot dead, and the B-17 a flying wreck held together by a few undamaged braces and bolts and piloted by a flight engineer with no previous flying experience, it was an unlikely gamble. Yet, at 1630 hours on the afternoon of February 20, 1944, Mizpah appeared over the airbase at Polebrook, England.

"Mayday! Mayday! Polebrook, this is Mizpah calling!"

In the tower at the Eighth Air Force field everything else was halted at the urgent Mayday call. Colonel Eugene A. Romig, commanding officer of the Three Hundred Fifty-First group, looked at the operations officer standing beside him holding a clipboard. "Who is Mizpah?"

"That is Lieutenant Nelson's plane."

The control-tower operator tried to contact the Flying Fortress but there was no answer. Suddenly another call came from the damaged B-17.

"Mayday, Polebrook. Mayday!"

"Go ahead, Mizpah. We receive you loud and clear."

For a moment there was no reply as the big bomber wobbled above the field at less than 1,000 feet altitude. "Tower, this is Sergeant Mathies. I need help."

Colonel Romig looked at the other men in the control tower and saw they were as puzzled as he was. Why was a sergeant making the radio calls usually made by the pilot or copilot? He walked over and picked up the microphone. "Sergeant, this is Colonel Romig. What is your trouble? Where is Lieutenant Nelson?"

The B-17 had made a wide turn to the right and was now headed back toward the air base. It was low, so low that at a distance it was partially hidden by the trees at the edge of the field.

"Do you hear me, Sergeant?" the colonel asked when there was no reply to his question.

"I hear you, Colonel, but I can't talk right now. I'm trying to get above the trees."

Romig stared at the plane for a moment and then asked, "Who is flying that B-17?"

"I am, Colonel."

For the next few minutes the colonel asked enough questions to discover the situation in the Flying Fortress crossing and recrossing the airbase in an erratic flight pattern above the tower. It was hard for Romig to believe that the sergeant, with the help of Truemper, the navigator, had flown the B-17 to England from Germany-but since Mizpah was directly overhead at the moment it was obviously a fact.

"Now what do we do, Colonel?"

Romig knew there was only one answer. "I want you to climb to an altitude of three thousand feet. Just take it slow and easy. Listen closely to what I tell you. First, increase the rpm to twenty three hundred."

"No instrument, Colonel."

The colonel grimaced but when he spoke again his voice was cool and collected. "All right, bring the propeller controls forward until they are about an inch from the stop." Turning to the other officers in the room, Romig said, "This boy is in a bad fix."

"Prop controls set."

"Good work. Now check and make sure the mixture controls on the pedestal are in the 'rich' position."

They were. Gradually going over the "before climb" checklist with the seargeant, the colonel prepared the plane for a climb to an altitude of 3,000 feet. It was a long, slow ascent. Mathies kept the plane in a wide climbing turn so that he wouldn't lose sight of the field while Romig talked to him and encouraged the sergeant in every way possible. Finally, the colonel estimated that the B-17 was high enough.

"All right, Sergeant, ease the nose of the plane down to the horizon slowly, bring the throttles back about halfway, and reduce the prop controls to the midway position."

It took about five minutes for Mathies to get the B-17 leveled off, and when he had finally accomplished it, Romig called him once again. "Real good. Now I want you to make a wide circle to the south and come back across the field holding the plane as straight and as level as possible. When you cross the edge of the perimiter, order the crew to bail out and then you follow. Is that clear?"

There was no reply from Mathies for several seconds and then he asked the question the colonel had dreaded.

"What about Lieutenant Nelson?"

The answer couldn't be avoided. A decision had to be made. "Has Nelson regained consciousness?" Romig asked.

"No, but I think he is still breathing."

"Think?" There could be no softness now. "Come, Sergeant. Is he or isn't he?"

There was no answer. As the B-17 passed over the field three parachutes blossomed in the sky. The heavy bomber made a slow turn to the left and on the second pass over the runway two more crew men left the doomed aircraft. Patiently, the colonel waited for the Mizpah to make the third and final circuit, but instead the plane turned wide of the base.

"All right, Sergeant. It's getting dusk. Come back over the field and bail out."

Mathies' voice was calm as he radioed. "I'm not jumping. I'm not going to leave Lieutenant Nelson up here alone."

The colonel did everything he could to get the sergeant to bail out-threatened, pleaded, frightened-but it was a waste of time. Neither Mathies nor the navigator would bail out and leave their pilot.

"When I get north of the field, have the fire trucks and ambulances ready, Colonel. I'm coming in."

Romig tried one final time to stop the determined sergeant, but Mathies didn't even reply. Slowly, inexorably, the heavy bomber circled around the west side of the air base and banked to the north. At a distance of approximately three miles from the runway, Mathies banked the B-17 again and headed for the runway.

"Wait," Romig radioed. "I'm coming up in another B-17 to help you."

Five minutes later Romig and another pilot took off in a second Flying Fortress, climbed to the same altitude as the Mizpah and flew alongside. Since the sergeant was unsteady on the controls, it was difficult for Romig to fly close to the other Flying Fortress, but even at a distance he could see the white-faced, sweating sergeant sitting in the Mizpah's pilot seat. After establishing radio contact with Mathies with help of the tower, the colonel made one final effort to convince the flight engineer and the navigator to bail out, but it was a futile effort. Mathies and Treumper were determined to land the huge bomber.

"All right," Romig said. "In that case, let's go over the landing checklist item by item."

The colonel made certain that the sergeant understood each item on the checklist and that he complied. When the checklist was finally completed, he ordered Mathies to follow him down, doing exactly what he did and flying at the same speed and altitude.

"When I drop my landing gear, you drop yours. The same with the flaps and everything else. Do you understand?"

The sergeant said that he did and the two Flying Fortresses started a slow descent toward the runway at Polebrook. Initially the letdown went very well. Romig led the Mizpah down to traffic-pattern altitude, rolling out on the downwind leg at 1,000 feet above the hangars. While the sergeant's turns were not smooth, at least he kept the big plane out of dangerous altitudes. The wind had increased to between ten and fifteen mph, with gusts to twenty mph, by the time the two B-17s reached the landing pattern. The colonel knew that this would make the actual touchdown more difficult but there was nothing he could do about it. The two aircraft turned ninety degrees to form a base leg, but for the first time Mathies faltered. He didn't recover from the turn quickly enough and nearly hit Romig's B-17. Frightened at the near miss, he banked sharply in the opposite direction and by the time he regained complete control of the Mizpah, he was out of position for a landing attempt.

Realizing that he was making the sergeant nervous in the formation-type landing attempt, the colonel landed his B-17 and hurried back into the tower to try to talk Mathies down safely. On the first attempt, the sergeant allowed the Flying Fortress to get too low too far from the runway, but he managed to climb back to landing-pattern altitude without incident. On the second attempt Romig successfully directed Mathies onto the base leg, but as the sergeant made the final turn to approach the runway he permitted the nose of the bomber to drop too far. Realizing his error, he leveled off, but he was too low and moving too fast by this time. Romig tried to get Mathies to climb back to landing-pattern altitude and start over but the sergeant was too tired, too nervous.

"It's now or never. I can't do any better."

He reduced the power as instructed, but when he dropped the flaps, the officer and enlisted men in the control tower saw the B-17's nose swerve dangerously. Making a low, long approach to the runway, with the B-17 flying a snaky course that had the plane lined up with the runway one moment and not lined up the next, Mathies did the best he could. The tires touched the runway, squealed in protest, and then because of the excessive speed, the B-17 skipped back into the air. The sergeant was too inexperienced to handle the situation, didn't have the coordinated instinct a veteran pilot needed to make the proper correction for such a touchdown. The left wing of the B-17 dropped while the big plane was at the top of a high bounce, dug into the ground beside the runway, and the Flying Fortress did a gigantic cartwheel and crumpled into a mass of flames.

There were no survivors.

February 20, 1944, was the only day in the history of the Eighth Air Force that more than one Medal of Honor was bestowed upon its members. Both Mathies and Truemper were posthumously awarded the medal in addition to Lawley. As Doolittle had predicted, the all-out air assault was going to be costly."

SSgt Archibald Mathies

Lt. Walter E. Truemper

The Congressional Medal of Honor

Nelson Crew

Standing (L-R): Mathies, Rex, Moore, Robinson, Sowell, Hagbo. Kneeling (L-R): Nelson, Bartley, Truemper, Martin

For more info about the Nelson Crew and for info about William R. Lawley, to whom the other MOH was awarded that same day, the start of Big Week, visit the following website:

*note: in some websites I have visited it has been indicated that the name of the B-17 was "Ten Horsepower"


r morris said...

Excellent story, Les. If I ever can't keep this blog going, I know just who to turn to. You and I share the passion. God bless.

Richard Havers said...

Les, great story, thanks!