A fateful day in France

Bill Massey, who lives at Brookdale Place in Homewood, points to the pilot compartment of the B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft that he flew in WWII. Photo by Rick Watson.

By RICK WATSON

June 19, 1944 stands out in Bill Massey’s mind as though it were yesterday. The B-17 bomber pilot had flown four missions into Berlin and flown over Omaha Beach with a bird’s eye view of the D-Day invasion, but this day was different.

It was the day the Air Force was supposed to promote the now Homewood resident to captain. And it was the day he would fly over France at 26,000 feet—without a parachute up in 25-degrees-below-zero temperatures.

Massey’s crew had been about 30 minutes from their target in Bordeaux, France when they encountered anti-aircraft flak so thick that it actually turned day into night. At that moment, a round hit his plane’s hydraulic system and the cockpit quickly filled with acrid black smoke.

His 10-member crew couldn’t extinguish the fire, so Massey gave the order to bail out. But before he could snap his parachute to his harness, the oxygen tanks in the B-17 exploded and ripped the plane apart.

“I found myself flying through the air at 26,000 feet, with my parachute pack in one hand,” he said.

Massey kept desperately trying to secure the chute to his harness, but his hands were so numb and he was so weak from lack of oxygen that he couldn’t make the clip fasten.

“I remember thinking, ‘Well, I guess this is it,’” he recalls now. He knew that of the airmen sent on bombing missions, one in four didn’t return.

But as he plummeted toward earth at more than 150 miles an hour, the air became warmer and thicker. He managed to use both hands to get one clip secured to the harness, but he was still too weak to fasten the second one.
“I knew I didn’t have much time left, so I just pulled the ripcord and hoped for the best.”

When the partially attached parachute popped open, the jolt was so strong that his boots flew off his feet. He hit the ground, hard. But as his heart finally stopped hammering, he realized he wasn’t seriously injured.

With the help of local farmers, Massey found the two other members of his crew, who had somehow survived the plane’s explosion.  The remaining seven men had died.

“That was the hardest part for me,” Massey said. “We’d been together all through training, and they’d been with me on all 19 missions.”

During the 76 days that followed, the survivors moved from place to place behind enemy lines, dodging patrols of German soldiers.

But they had a stroke of good fortune where food was concerned. “The French had learned that the Germans wouldn’t bother children,” Massey said, “so a little girl of about five would carry small amounts of food on her bicycle and leave it on the steps of the abandoned building we were hiding in.”

Finally, a member of the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency) discovered the survivors and reunited them with invading American forces.

It wasn’t until Massey’s debriefing that he learned of his promotion to captain. The interviewer assured him the paperwork would “catch up” with him, but it never did. He can only speculate, he said, that the process was interrupted when he was listed as having died in the crash of his plane.

After the war, Massey sought out families of the lost crewmen.

“I sat down with the mothers and fathers of my men and told them what happened on that day,” he said, choking back tears. “It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.”

In 1961, Massey and his surviving crew members returned to France for a reunion with many of the villagers who had sheltered them from the Germans during the war. A group photograph he has of the occasion includes the young girl who brought them food—by then, a striking dark-haired young woman.

Massey said he’s proud of his service to America:
“War is bad, but the loss of freedom is even worse.”

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