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Dr. George Saunders Crommelin

Dates: 1923

Terror over Italy

November 20, 1944

I was a navigator with the 15th US Air Force, stationed in Italy near a village called Ascoli di Satriano. My base was an airstrip with groves of olive trees on one side. A tent was my “casa” and my roommates were the pilot, co-pilot and the bombardier.

That morning we arose at 4:00 A.M., went to briefing, had breakfast and headed for our Liberator Bomber. The target was the oil storage dumps near Poland. All went well as we took off, got in formation and flew north. Our fighter escort left us in Austria and we were on our own.

Over the target, at 27,500 feet, the flak was thick. I often thought I could light a cigarette by reaching out the window near a close one. We dropped our bombs. Then it happened. We were hit. The No. 3 engine, which controls the hydraulic system, was smoking. My pilot feathered the engine and we gradually lost altitude. I saw the rest of the B-24’s begin the long trip home leaving us behind.

What to do? Perhaps we could make it to a base in Russia. Or cross the Alps to Yugoslavia. Tito’s partisans would surely get us back to Italy. The decision was made to try to reach Yugoslavia and think of something there - if we made it!

Then the No. 2 engine began acting strangely and more power was lost. Fortunately, we were already over the Alps and Tito’s boys were dead ahead. Now the Alps were behind us, and we threw everything that was loose out of the window. The plane had to be lightened. First went the heavy flak suits, then machine guns, 50 caliber ammunition and personal articles. Over Yugoslavia, I calculated that in thirty minutes we could be over Italy. The decision was to keep going. The relief in being over Italy, south of the German lines, was beyond words. But now, being late Fall, it was nearly dark. It had taken a long time for our damaged ship to get this far. A night landing would be dangerous. Why not bail out?

The pilot gave the command and within seconds seven men were falling in the caterpillar’s gift to the Air Force. The pilot, co-pilot and I were left. We were now below 2000 feet, almost five miles below the altitude when we were hit. The ship was on automatic pilot and heading toward the Adriatic Sea. I snapped on my chest parachute. The bomb-bay doors were open. I stood over the opening looking down on a farm with a man plowing a field. How peaceful it seemed! What I would give to trade places with that lucky devil. I had never jumped in a parachute. You practice for when your plane is going down, but those were only drills, not real jumps. These and other thoughts raced through my mind. Then a horrible thought occurred. What if I couldn’t find the handle to pull open the chute? This thought was so overpowering that I put my hand, with the heavy flying glove, on the handle of the ripcord. To make sure it wasn’t stuck I gave it a slight pull.

Within seconds my chute was open and all over the bomb-bay. The silk and the shroud lines were caught on the bomb shackles. I then knew I was dead - and only twenty-one years old. I pulled the chute towards me, ripping it as I gathered it in my arms. And there I stood, holding the pile of silk. If I jumped, the chute would never open and I would “Roman Candle” to my death. No plane carried an extra chute.

We could try and land the plane. But how could I ask my pilot to belly-land in the dark? All three of us would be killed. There was a way. I could hold on to one of them and then jump. Someone did it in the movies. But which one was to be my hero? Besides, both my pilot and co-pilot were over six feet and two inches and two hundred pounds - too much weight for one chute. I didn’t want to hear either of them say no. It was my fault and so I must die alone.

At that moment my pilot and co-pilot came up to me with incredulous expressions on their faces. Not one of us knew what to do. Who would know if they jumped and left me there? Then my co-pilot ran to a space beneath the pilot’s compartment. There he found an old back-type chute. He raced towards me, gave me the chute and he and the pilot jumped. Now I was really alone.

I put the chute on and froze with horror. It was adjusted for a man 6’-3” or more. I was 5’-9 1/2”. A loose chute would crush my… well, you know… groin - I might as well be dead. There was no time to adjust the chute by shortening the straps. Besides, I was shaking too badly. I dashed to a forward compartment, and with superhuman strength, ripped fabric from the sides of the plane. I pulled away handfuls. This was stuffed between the straps about my legs and shoulders. I had little time. In minutes I would be over the Adriatic Sea where I would surely drown. Rushing to the bomb-bay, I jumped. The chute opened and I was safe out of the plane at last - floating in the air.

But was I safe? In the semi-darkness it seemed like I was going up, not down. My mind was playing tricks, I thought, but the ground seemed farther away every second. Then I prayed. First the Lord’s Prayer and then the 23rd Psalm, over and over, and before long the ground came up and hit me. I landed on my right leg and fell flat on the ground. When I came to, I was looking into the barrel of a 45 caliber automatic held by a sergeant. I quickly said my squadron, group and wing numbers and he moved away ordering me to get up. I did and in a few minutes I was talking to a colonel at group headquarters.

My pilot landed in an olive tree, my co-pilot walked half the night through plowed fields and there was I, not at a squadron, but at group headquarters.

The next day I was back at my base.

Dr. George S. Crommelin
June 1973