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2nd Lt. Warren S.Follett
722nd Squadron

Letters To His Grandson

TO: Patrick C. Follett From: Warren S. Follett Date: December 5,1995

 

THE LONGEST DAY

 

It was early morning on June 26th,1944 and there was a hush in the briefing room, except for the "experts" who were describing the mission for this day. It was an industrial target in Vienna, Austria, where ball bearings were manufactured for use in aircraft engines, etc.

 

It was also mission number thirteen for me:

 

The briefing continued - - "expect clear skies - - heavy flak and enemy fighter activity. You will have friendly fighter protection from the 356 Fighter Group"(This was the all black P-51 fighter group out of Italy with a superb record).

 

The mood of our crew was somber. We had learned the previous day that we would not be flying in our plane for some time. The final count of flak holes in our plane came to one hundred and twenty-eight and the self-sealing gas tanks were in the process of being replaced, with new. The damage had been done on our previous mission over Ploesti. The tanks re-seal after puncturing if the holes are not too large, and it was standard practice to replace all punctured tanks. (Did I mention earlier that Ploesti was well defended?) I had hoped that we would not have to fly until our plane was repaired, but no such luck.

 

Breakfast didn't do anything to improve my mood.  The scrambled eggs and

sausage sat heavily in my stomach.

 

We were driven out to our replacement plane, and first sight of it did nothing to aid my digestion. As we drew closer to it, it looked even worse. Rather than the bright new silver looking "I'll Get By", it was an old olive drab "D" model, obviously very "long in the tooth" , and with more patches than original skin. It was most distressing. The ground crew in charge had nothing very encouraging to say about her except that she "keeps on returning" from missions.

 

We did the customary visual external inspection and climbed up inside through the open bomb bay to our respective positions and I was immediately reminded that I was not going to have the extra flak vest protection which had been built into our own ship.

 

Each of us ran through our pre-flight check lists and at the appointed time, started cranking the starboard outboard engine - - it was most hesitant, groaning, belching whitish blue smoke, and the thought that one of the engines might not start was my silent prayer - - we would have to abort our contribution to the war effort this day. But, as was usually the case during my service experience, prayers (well, strong wishes, anyway) were rarely fulfilled.

 

All four engines eventually started, and we took our place in line, - became airborne, and slowly climbed in a northerly direction over the Adriatic –headed for 'our I. P: just a few miles southwest of Vienna. As Bob and I took thirty minute shifts at the controls, each of the other crew members went through standard routines - - - radio checks, oxygen connections (at about 10,000 feet of altitude); guns were all checked, including the firing of a few rounds each. Shull seemed busy navigating with his maps, sharpened pencils and straight edge...I don't know what our bombardier John Karabaic had to do, but later this day I would be glad that he was with us and that "screw-up Picone" was back in Cuba, or wherever...

 

At the I.P. we followed other groups in line making a slow turn to the northwest toward Vienna at approximately 20,000 feet altitude.

 

Perhaps a minute or two beyond the I.P., and Vienna, a couple of warning lights on the instrument panel came on.  The outboard starboard engine was losing oil pressure and the temperature was increasing to a dangerous level.

 

I throttled 'back on the engine speed while Bob checked all of the remaining instruments for signs which might help us solve the problem, but to no avail.

The two bad readings just got worse and we had to shut down the engine and feather the propeller to reduce drag. We increased throttle settings on the three remaining enginess, overworking them somewhat, in order to keep up with the other planes and to stay in formation - - - at least until we could drop our bombs. We shut off the fuel to the bad engine, and were just barely able to maintain formation position - - -"but, not for long.

 

We were still several miles from the target when several more things, unpleasant things, started to happen so fast that it is hard to remember the exact sequence of events. More warning lights came on, and a second engine failed. Mind you, there had been no flack - - no fighters - - we were simply flying an old piece of junk which was not airworthy. It should have been salvaged for parts at an earlier date, and should not have been in use for bombing missions.

 

With only two functioning engines, we could not make it to the target, and we certainly were not going to be able to stretch our flight and get back to Italy.

 

As we lost altitude, Bob and I considered just what our best scenario was and decided that we had to lighten our load to slow our descent and extend our range and pick a probable best direction to head. I directed each of the crew to throw everything not anchored down out the waist windows. Flak vests, radio equipment, oxygen bottles and we turned southward - - at least it was in the general direction of home.

 

At this point two engines were feathered and two were red lined at maximum RPM to get us as far south as possible. We dropped our bombs on empty fields, Waist guns were thrown out, as we tried to get as far from Vienna as possible.

 

More than half of Yugoslavia to our south was in friendly hands, and I asked Shull for a heading toward the nearest point within Yugoslavian boarders. Not getting a fast response, I turned to see him just staring at his maps - - - in the pressure of the moment, he didn't even know where we were.

 

We took a compass heading of 170°, which certainly would take us over Yugoslavia - - - tried to restart each of the dead engines, but to no avail.  At 12,000 feet, Bob and I agreed that in all probability we all would have to bailout - - - even if we could reach safety, since it would not be appropriate to land the B-24 on only two stressed engines - - - even on a runway, let alone in hilly and/or forested terrain, Moreover it seemed more likely by the minute that safe territory was out of our reach.

 

I talked to each of the crew on intercom and advised them as to our situation, where we were trying to get to, that we all should be ready to bailout at a moment's notice. Asked each to help snug up one another's harness and have chutes at the ready. We talked about the best exit for each - - the bomb bay seemed the most likely jumping platform. They were reminded to check their exit paths for obstructions which they could get hung up on, and obstructions en route. Each was checked individually and at 10,000 feet, the third engine failed

 

There was no way we were going 'to reach Yugoslavia!

 

Bob agreed that ten thousand feet was a reasonable altitude to leave our craft safely, giving everyone plenty of time to exit.

 

I gave the order to bailout and thought that I heard eight responses of "roger" I unfastened my seat belt, stood up and said "Let's go Bob." He said "Right behind you."

 

I stooped through the opening to the front right bomb bay and was totally surprised to see Baptista Sartori hanging on with both hands to the bottom most bomb shackle, with feet and legs hanging and blowing aft in the slipstream below - - he was emotionally unable to release his grip on something familiar.

 

I pointed and gestured - "down".

 

He looked at me with a terrified gaze while shaking his head in the negative.

 

I repeated my gesture with even more emphasis, as he continued to shake his head "NO" !

 

I placed my left foot on his left shoulder and pushed with increasing force until his fingers straightened, and he fell away.

 

I didn't do any counting. I was out of there with my right hand clutching the rip cord ring, and a second later pulled it.

 

The jerk of the chute harness as the silk filled, was rude and an uncomfortable jolt - - but all of the earlier noise of a single racing engine, and the air roaring around in the bomb bay was gone. The lack of sound of any origin was gone. The silence was beautiful, and I was still alive, what could possibly go wrong now? I was floating downward in what seemed like complete silence.

 

I looked around, but saw no parachutes, and no B-24. It was very rural farm country, but whatever had been growing in the small fields had been already harvested. There were narrow uneven rows of small trees and shrubs marking boundaries and unplowable areas such as rivulets, etc.

 

The ground came up to meet me at what seemed like an accelerating rate, then, like a helping hand, a small willowy tree caught my chute and stopped me only inches from the ground, and then almost immediately released me

 

I unbuckled, pulled my chute down and pushed it under some bushes next to a tiny stream - - just a few inches of water and barely a foot wide. Since this shrubbery was the only available cover, I started walking down stream, but within a few yards, although the water continued, the cover did not. On the other side, was another field also with only a few stubs of the earlier harvest remaining - - - ,none of which was more than a few inches high.

 

This second field held a surprise, however. About one hundred yards away, was a guy crouching and doing a kind of duck walk - - - in my direction.

When he was a bit closer, I yelled out "hey Riley!" The "duck", wearing a broad grin, was James Riley, our ball turret gunner, glad to see a familiar face, even here in Southern Austria.

 

We had just decided which direction to take to find some better cover, when two people came out of the shrubs about a hundred feet away and yelled something at us. They were both armed, and Riley and I stood facing them as they approached. In closer proximity, it was apparent that one was a farmer, perhaps in his fifties, and directing a double barreled shotgun in our direction.  The other was a young chap with a small caliber rifle. Riley agreed with my suggestion that we not make any moves which might be misinterpreted and when they were about ten paces away, and while I concentrated on eye contact with the older individual, we raised our hands, palms forward at about shoulder height as I told the farmer that we were American soldiers, which he seemed to acknowledge with a nod; I also very slowly pointed to the bulge in my flight jacket, and very deliberately unzipped, opened it and pointed to my holstered 45 caliber pistol - - - - again, always watching his eyes. I slowly loosened the holster and allowed the gun and holster to fall to the ground. Talking very slowly to Riley, I suggested that we take a few deliberate steps backward.

 

The younger chap came forward, picked up the holstered gun, separated one from the other and started playing with the gun which went off. The "45" has the kick of a twelve gauge shotgun with its lower mass, and the youth promptly landed on his ass with a surprised look on his face. The farmer barked something at him and took the pistol away from him, while at the same time removing his finger from the triggers of his shotgun. He waved his gun in the direction he wanted us to walk and we were soon on a dirt road.

 

The road led us to a small community of several small houses. There was a truck there and two policemen. The police were a picture worth recording: They were both of a size, about five feet four inches with uniforms which included black shoes, trousers, shirts and derby hat. Even the rooster tail feathers in the derby hats were a shiny black and arching back from the hat bands. Both sported square black mustaches. If the shoes had been a bit larger, we might have thought them to be part of a Max Sennett movie production. Before the day was over we saw several more gendarmes - - - all exactly like the first pair, even to the facial hair.

 

We were gestured up into the back of the truck, and with guards, were driven several miles to another community somewhat larger than the first, but with the single exception that there was one home, much more substantial, with white stucco exterior walls and an orange tile roof.

 

Inside the house were several surprises. The entire community's population was inside awaiting us. Also, with the exception of Bob Schoeffler, all of the "I'll Get By" crew was present. There were no walls or partitions inside.  Only the one single room of approximately twenty by thirty feet dimensions. A halved log lay across the dirt floor. On one side of the log was living quarters and included a wood stove, wooden table and chairs, and that's all.  On the other side of the log, the sleeping area, there was a bed of hay. The dirt area contained the town's people, including the bergermeister (mayor), whose house this presumably was. He was a short grandfatherly type and the only one wearing a suit.

 

No one in the house was smiling:

 

The seven crewmen were standing side by side in the straw and facing the townspeople. They had nothing on but their undershorts. None of the crew were smiling either. The mayor, in barely understandable English, told Riley and I to join the seven and to undress accordingly. The expressions on the crew's faces varied from serious apprehension to utter panic.

 

The mayor had a few words for the people, and they all turned to face the captive airmen, and all was quiet. The mayor immediately faced the prisoners, directing questions to the crew member on the mayor's far left.  Since I was at the extreme other end, I would most probably be the ninth and last interview. The questions were simple and straight forward:  "what is your name, rank, serial number?" "What did you do with your gun?" It is my best recollection that only the four officers carried side arms.  In any event, as each interrogation ended, the mayor appeared to become more and more agitated, so by the time he got to the last, me, he looked most belligerent. I got the same questions. In answer to "Where is your gun?", I answered that I had given it to the gentleman standing next to him, and pointed to same. The mayor asked the farmer a couple of questions, and the farmer handed the mayor my "45", which the mayor passed under his nose and announced directly to me that "It has been fired". I explained that a young boy with the farmer had fired it, and that I had not fired it. There were more questions for the farmer, who must have confirmed that I was telling the truth.

 

There was a very quiet pause, after which the mayor made an announcement.

 

Looking very angry, the mayor looked hard at each of our faces as he pointed to a very young boy with a heavily bandaged foot and very slowly and clearly declared while moving his stare from one to another of our faces:-

 

"THE ONE OF YOU BANDITS THAT SHOT THIS BOY MUST STEP FORWARD AND ADMIT YOUR GUILT. IT WOULD BE A SHAME TO HANG ALL OF YOU BECAUSE OF THE FOLLY OF JUST ONE OF YOU"

 

Well, the adrenalin which started entering my circulatory system when engine number one failed, had been serving me well up to this point, but now it proved inadequate. I could hear a knocking sound and realized that it was my trembling knees hitting one another.  Separating my feet stopped the noise, but the shaking was uncontrollable.

 

There seemed to be a very long silence as if everyone in the room was waiting for the next "shoe to drop", when little John Karabaic started talking to the mayor in a language which I did not understand, but it was obvious that the mayor did. John was of Slavic descent and at an early age had learned the language of his parents and other family members at this formative time of his life. And, even though we didn't understand a word of his and the mayor's conversation, We could see from his gestures exactly what he was selling to the mayor.

 

First, John' asked to look at the boy's wounded foot, and once it was unbandaged, asked for one of the bullets out of my gun clip. The mayor hesitated, and John re-defined his request to explain that he did not want the whole gun, or, even the clip, but just one bullet. He slowly showed the mayor how the clip was removed, and took a single cartridge. John then stooped and placed the large 45 cal. end near the small wound.

 

Leaving nothing to chance, John went on to describe a plausible scenario regarding the boy's wound. What with ten parachutes and a crashing airplane, the entire community was nervous. Almost everyone had a small arms rifle for target shooting and hunting. Someone made a poor judgment and fired their gun prematurely, or for whatever reason, and wounded the boy by error.

 

The mayor's demeanor mellowed as he began to accept this probable explanation, and after a long thoughtful pause, he told us all to put on our clothes and that;-

 

"THERE WILL BE NO HANGING TODAY'.'

 

By the time I was fully dressed, my knees, although still weak, were not shaking and my thoughts went back to the day when Ben Picone screwed up in Havana, and to the day when John Karabaic joined our crew and we all left in our new B-24 from Mitchel Field, New York. What were the odds that this substitute bombardier would be a Slavic linguist?

 

We were still standing in the straw when I looked at John and just barely got out a choked "Thank you John Karabaic!"

 

The tension released, the town people drifted out of the "mansion" and the now dressed crew were herded into the back of the old truck and dropped off some few miles later at nine separate houses. There were no jails, but most homes had a lockable cellar room for short term wrong doers.

 

At the home where I was the guest, I was given some thin soup and bread, after which the single light in my cell was turned off. The only thing inside was a long low bench for sitting or sleeping. I didn't do either;  the bed bugs and fleas saw to that.

 

It had been one long day! Also, I was still alive, and each step from now till war's end would bring me closer to a more organized form of captivity.

 

P.S. Somewhere about the middle of "Into The Guns Of Ploesti", L.W.Newby reserved a section of his book to describe his trip to Vienna on June 26,'44.

As I recall, he was a bombardier in the 460th Bomb Group located just north of Manduria, Italy. His group was just in front of my 450th on this day.



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