“Rescued by the Bravest People I’ve ever Known”

Large formation of Boeing B-17Fs of the 92nd Bomb Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Large formation of Boeing B-17Fs of the 92nd Bomb Group. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Synthetic oil plant at Zeitz, Germany, destroyed by Americans in aerial bombing operations during World War II. 1944.
Synthetic oil plant at Zeitz, Germany, destroyed by Americans in aerial bombing operations during World War II. 1944.

On the 5th September the USAAF mission target was the Opac Synthetic Oil plant at Ludwigshaven. It was part of the priority programme that was gradually starving all parts of the German armed forces of the fuel they need to sustain operations. Losses were now much reduced amongst the bomber crews, mainly thanks to the accompanying long range fighters but no mission was without risk. The figures showed that experienced counted and that new crews were more often casualties.

For pilot Bob Kelley this was his only his second mission, his first run had been as second pilot. For the remainder of his crew it was their first mission. They were the last B-17 to take off with the 322nd Squadron from Bassingbourn that day and despite being told that ‘My Baby’, a 58 mission veteran aircraft, was in ‘mint condition’ they suffered two engine failures and were unable to keep up with the rest of the group.

Then they got bounced by two Me 109s. With the rear turret gone and the aircraft on fire Kelley ordered his crew to bail out. He then spent an alarming few minutes trying to find a parachute, and then, when he was falling through thin air, trying to open it. After surviving an attempt by one of the Me 109s to shoot him in mid air…:

I entered a second set of clouds just as he passed back over and didn’t see anything else until I came out of the mist and rain about 300 feet off the ground. I could see a farmer with a horse pulling a farm machine in a field, a colliery to a mine to one side in a valley, and I noted that I was heading for the only woods around.

In fact, I was drifting quite swiftly in a wind right to the center of a four-square-block area of dense woods. I was also amazed to see that the B-17 had done a full 180-degree turn and was now coming towards me, but off half a mile or so and heading for a small town.

The woods were coming up fast so I closed my eyes and doubled up my legs and arms, which I’d read somewhere was S.O.P. The last thing I saw was the B-17 passing directly over a town (which I later learned was called Bazailies), missing the city hall and a church steeple by just a few feet, and hitting in a field just outside of town with a crash and a tower of flame.

I opened my eyes and found I was sitting unhurt in a hazelnut bush. My chute had hooked on a beech tree and swung me gently to the ground. I had no idea where I was. It could have been Belgium, Luxembourg, France or even (if we had drifted north) Germany. I took off running as I could hear voices and a dog barking. As it turned out, it wasn’t German soldiers with dogs as I had feared, but rather a farm dog barking at bombardier George Lancaster who was running with a limp due to a sprained ankle.

After running up a creek and sprinkling pepper on my trail, I realized I could run no longer. I decided to sneak up on the voices to see what language they were speaking. I finally got close enough to see an elderly man and woman. I heard him say, in French, “He has to be still in the woods as we found the parachute.” My mother was born in northern Italy but the family was French and my grandmother always spoke French when she talked to me, but in the confusion I accidentally answered in English. Then I ran to them and said, in French, “I’m the pilot.”

They quickly took me out of the woods to a meadow, across a footbridge into another woods, and up a path to where I was met by Jeanne Jacob, wife of the chief of the Underground. She stooped, crawled under a hazelnut bush, and opened up a trapdoor in the ground. She told me to descend, and that Anderson the co-pilot and Karoli the navigator were already underground.

The opening was about 2,5 feet by 2.5 feet square. It was made of logs with cleats for footholds and went down some 30 feet before opening into a room. There I found my two crewmen plus two Russian soldiers, Paul and Timothy, who had escaped a year ago from the mine at Bazailies where they had been forced to work….

The cave was lit by carbide miner lamps, the smell of which I hate to this day. I had bailed out at about 11:30 A.M. By the time I was safely ensconced in the cave, it was midafternoon and raining hard. Anderson the co-pilot told me he had come down in the meadow.

The chief of the Underground, Roland Jacob, and his wife Jeanne were eating their noontime meal when they saw him come down. They rushed out and took him to the underground hideout immediately. They heard the gunfire and the crash and realized that the Germans were out looking for the crew so they and others from the town of Baslieux bravely entered the woods in hope of finding them first.

The navigator came down in a wooded area. He was partially dazed from being dragged by the wind while in the chute, but he was unhurt.

After night fell, Roland Jacob came to tell me to come with him. The bombardier was several kilometers away, in the woods. He was on a stretcher because he was having trouble walking. He did not understand French, and was frightened. He was making so much noise that they were afraid the searching Germans would hear them.

I reluctantly left the safe dry hideout and went with Roland through the heavy rain and the dark to where four farmers had Lancaster on a blanket on two poles. I talked to him and explained the situation and the need for quiet. After a struggle, we got him to our underground home.

I’ve since met and talked to farmer Pierre Francois, who saw him enter the woods pursued by two German soldiers at a distance. Pierre met him as he exited on the other side of the woods, put him on his mowing machine, and drove him to a temporary hiding place until he could contact Roland Jacob and arrange to have him transported to a permanent hiding place.

See http://www.91stbombgroup.com/91st_tales/01_1944_rescuedbythebravest.pdf to read the whole dramatic story.

Boeing B-17G formation bomb drop. Closest aircraft from the 384th Bomb Group, 547th Bomb Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Boeing B-17G formation bomb drop. Closest aircraft from the 384th Bomb Group, 547th Bomb Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo)

One thought on ““Rescued by the Bravest People I’ve ever Known””

  1. french NCO, I’ve in my collection one propeller’s blade of the shot down B17G “my baby” serial number 42-107033.
    it has benne given to me by a friend who lives near the crash site! he found it back (with some others parts of the plane) 20 years ago!
    if you need a picture of this historical item, let me know

    best regards

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