TO: Patrick C. Follett From: Warren S. Follett Date:
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.