‘My loaded pistol was in an enemy’s hands. And that was the good news’.
Disaster almost always comes at you without warning. There is no time for preparation; you can’t brace yourself, or dodge. It just clobbers you when, where and as you are, with God-awful consequences. As a B-17 pilot with the Eighth Air Force, I experienced disaster that way several times. What happened on September 28, 1944, was the worst of the lot.
That day, we set out to bomb the Krupp tank works in Magdeburg, 88 miles southwest of Berlin, deep inside Germany, flying at 25,000 feet. We had been briefed that enemy fighters would attack just before the IP—the “Initial Point,” where a formation turns toward the target on a bomb run—and that they would come from 6 o’clock, low in large waves. We were instructed to stay in formation and let our gunners take care of them.
I had been given a payload of propaganda leaflets instead of bombs, and also was given the low slot on the left in the formation. That was the toughest position for formation flying. My B-17 was assigned there because the leaflets were just a tad lighter than bombs.
The mission that day was routine until just before the IP, and we had the best fighter cover I had ever seen—P-51s all over the sky above us. Then, right on schedule, my tail gunner said: “Fighters, 6 o’clock low. I’ll watch and see what they are.” A few seconds later: “They’re coming around.” Every machine gun on every airplane in sight opened up, and my upper turret guns roared just above my head and behind me.
Bright red flames started pouring out of a fuel tank of the airplane on the leader’s right. It turned sharply away to the right and exploded. Then the plane in front of us was hit. It slid off gently to the right, missing another plane by inches, and vanished. About this time, I heard two loud bangs, like the sound of someone slamming two screen doors in very quick succession, and the manifold pressure gauges of my two left engines dropped way down.
I shoved the nose of the plane down and turned sharply to the right, away from the formation. As I rolled back to an upright position, I glanced at my left wing. It looked as if someone had taken a giant can opener and opened up its trailing edge, right behind the left engines. I could see a stream of burning gasoline coming out of a jagged opening where the wing joined the fuselage.
The stream was about an inch in diameter, like the output of a hose under pressure. I knew that when the tank emptied, it would explode. In the case of an airplane carrying bombs, ammunition, oil, gasoline and oxygen, such an explosion would mean inevitable destruction. My favorite axiom applied: “When there is no alternative, there is no problem.” My crew and I had to get the hell out.
B-17 pilots are issued chest parachutes in the event they have to bail. I had to pick up the chute pack, which I kept under my seat, and snap it onto a harness I was wearing. Of course, before I did any of this, I had to open my lap belt, take off my flak suit and helmet, and disconnect my heated flying suit, radio and oxygen supply. All of this is difficult and clumsy, especially when you are scared shitless. And let me assure you I was terrified.
Even though the fighter attack came as no surprise, deep in my heart I never figured to get shot down. Now, instead of returning to England for a shot of hooch and a hot meal and a bed, I was—at best— going to spend the rest of the war in an alien and hostile environment.
Big John, the co-pilot, infamous for his belligerence when guzzling beer, was sitting in his seat. He had not seen the fire because the left side of the fuselage had masked it, and he was definitely unwilling to get out of the airplane. I hit him about six times on the left shoulder and hollered: “Bail out! We’re on fire!” and John climbed down into the nose area where the escape hatch was located.
I quickly untangled myself from all the junk attaching me to the airplane and worked my way into the nose. The bombardier, navigator and upper turret operator were already gone, and I saw no damage in the nose section at all. But Big John was sitting there, with one leg strap attached, trying to attach the other. I hit him on the shoulder a few more times and hollered, “Get the hell out of here!” Like that, he just disappeared out the hatch. I don’t know how he did it: He was very big to go through such a little hatch so easily.
I stuck out a leg, thinking to slide out feet first. But the slipstream was much stronger than I had anticipated and terribly cold, so I brought my leg back in. Then I said to myself, You’ve just got to get out of this thing, even if you get scratched up doing it, and I rolled forward and out.
The contrast was astounding. Instead of the loud roaring noise inside the airplane, suddenly it was absolutely, beautifully silent. Better yet, I was still in one piece. I was on my back, head down, spinning like a top. I remembered being briefed that to stop spinning, I should hold out an arm. So I stuck out an arm, but I spun faster. I stuck out the other arm but spun in the other direction. The hell with it, I said to myself, I’ll just go ahead and spin.
I could see the clouds below me: very nice fair-weather cumulus clouds—the kind that are brilliant white on top and very dark on bottom. What’s more, I knew that they are never close to the ground: always 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the terrain. So I said to myself, I’ll just wait until I see the dark side of the clouds, then I’ll open my chute.
How long does it take for a human body to fall 23,000 feet or so? It seemed like an hour, but to my surprise, I never felt any falling sensation. After a while, I saw the dark underside of the clouds and reached down and decided it was time to give a great big yank on the chute’s “D” ring. I was greeted by the sound of the nylon canopy sliding out of the pack, the chute opening and a hell of a wallop as the harness yanked my shoulders.
Then I heard what sounded like the crackling of a fire in a fireplace and looked up. Very high above me, the sky was glittering. Off to one side I saw the fuselage and tail section of my B-17, missing both wings, falling nose down, smoking heavily. The plane crashed about half a mile away. The glittering in the sky, it turned out, was our load of propaganda leaflets—delivered the hard way.
I hit the ground very hard, falling backward, and had some difficulty getting the harness off because the shoulder straps and the chest buckle were all around my upper arms and face. I had landed in a plowed field that looked as smooth as a baby’s butt. There wasn’t so much as a blade of grass to hide behind.
As I desperately looked around for some place to run, I heard a shout. Suddenly, from the direction of a small town about 150 yards away came a group of men, wearing blue uniforms and carrying rifles. In front of them were two men in green uniforms. I tossed my pistol on the ground and raised my hands.
The first man to get to me was one of those in green. He was carrying a Luger, and said, “I speak English.” In fact, he didn’t—at least not very well. But he said he was a staff sergeant. He was obviously the senior line noncom on the scene and therefore in command. Then the next green-uniformed man arrived, unarmed. The sergeant asked if I had a pistol, and I pointed to mine. He picked it up, handed it to the other man and started walking toward the airplane wreckage.
The young one, now armed with my pistol, motioned as though asking how to operate the slide, and I responded by nodding my head. I wondered why he wanted to be sure he could work the pistol. I was, after all, totally under his control at that point and deep inside enemy territory. About this time a civilian arrived, also carrying a Luger. He was obviously insanely angry and rushed up to me, stuck the gun against my head, and started screaming at me in German. He yelled, “Englander?” I shook my head.
“Amerikaner?” I nodded.
Then, “Offizier?” I could understand that, and I nodded.
Then, “Pilot?” and again I nodded.
The next one was tougher: “Vier Motor?” I hoped I didn’t understand that, but as it happened, I did. He was asking if I flew a four-engine airplane. What would be the right answer to that one? Had some two-engine bomber killed his family? Or a four-engine? Or had the terrible punishment of almost continuous bombardment by the Eighth Air Force and the Royal Air Force infuriated this man? I had no idea, of course, so I just shook my head.
In any case, the young soldier stuck my pistol in the man’s gut and said something quiet but firm in German. The civilian then started a big and very loud argument, but the young soldier stood his ground, holding my .45 right in the civilian’s stomach. In sheer rage and frustration, the civilian finally whirled around. He hit me in the face with his pistol and then stalked off. That young soldier had clearly saved my life.
I spent the rest of the war as a POW at Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, on the Baltic coast. The camp was liberated by the Soviets on May 1, 1945.
Editor’s note: Sadly, William Miller died, at age 85, as this issue of World War II Magazine was going to press. “I have had a very active and adventurous life,” he wrote in an introduction to a collection of his wartime stories; “not always easy—but seldom boring.”
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.