Partial text of Robert Mundell's story due to restrictions in the design of the database. Full text will be included in an Updated Version of the Military Heritage Database (V4.0) scheduled for release 05/26/2002.|
Robert F. Mundell
44th Bomb Group
On the night of June 9, 1943 our crew of ten took off from Gander Bay in a B-17, bound for Prestwick, Scotland. The crew consisted of gunners Hills, Rush, Duquette, and Freeland, engineer Clyde Fry, radio operator myself, pilot Ed Wilson, co-pilot Roberts, navigator Novack, and bombardier John Waite.
We had been warned that we might get a message from a German sub telling us to return to base. Sure enough, well into the flight, we got a message, in plain English, to "return to base." But I could not get the sender to use the letters of the day. I gave it to the pilot and he said we were already passed the point of no return, so we continued toward Prestwick.
It turned out the message was for real, and we wound up in a storm. We did a lot of circling, and at one point the co-pilot took us down so low over the water that it knocked off the trailing ball antenna. We were nearly out of gas when we found the landing field.
The pilot (Wilson) was still tense and sweating pretty good by the time we got off the airplane, and when we heard an explosion in the distance (actually, somebody was doing some artillery practice), one of the gunners jumped and said, "What's that?" Wilson snapped: "There's a war going on ... in case you haven't heard!"
We were at Prestwick for a day, then put on a train for Shipdham. They took our B-17 away from us and put us back on a B-24. We flew a couple of search missions over the North Sea looking for flight crews returning from bombing raids, and a skeleton crew of four of us picked up freight two or three times; one time included an overnight stay in Belfast.
Everybody whooped it up on the Fourth of July. The English didn't seem to understand.
Our crew was on pass to London in late July when the call came for the 44th to go to Benghazi for the Ploesti raid, so we didn't take part in Ploesti. We flew from Shipdham to Oran on August 13 and spent the night. I believe we stopped at Gibraltar on the way. The next day we flew on to Benghazi and arrived late in the day Saturday, August 14th.
Two women had gotten on board at some point, to be taken to Oran. I think they worked for the Red Cross or U.S.O. One of them asked if we had a rest room on board. Somebody took her down and showed her the relief tube in the nose of the airplane and then left. I never did know how that worked out.
Three of our original crewmen had been placed on other crews before we left England: co-pilot Roberts, engineer Fry, and gunner Freeland. One of the replacements was Emil Kosch, who was the engineer on the way down to Benghazi but flew as a gunner on the Foggia mission. I can't remember the names of the other two fellows.
The men we found in Benghazi weren't the ones we remembered from Shipdham. The Ploesti raid had shaken them all up, and they didn't act the same. I remember seeing a pilot, I think his name was Richard A. Larson, walking in the distance, and I remember saying: "That's too fast for him." But it was Larson, and he was walking a lot faster than he used to.
We went swimming in the Mediterranean Sunday afternoon. When we returned, we checked the bulletin board, and four members of our crew were listed for a mission to Foggia on Monday, August 16: Our pilot, Ed Wilson would be the co-pilot, John Waite: bombardier, Emil Kosch: waist gunner, and myself the radio operator. We were paired with six members of another crew: Charles Whitlock: pilot, Robert Ricks: navigator, Ed Stewart: engineer, Ralph Knox: well gunner, Hugo Dunajecz: waist gunner, and Robert Bonham, tail gunner.
We took off early Monday morning in a D-24D named "Timba-a-ah." The crew chief seemed to sense that I was a little nervous and assured me that it would be a "milk run."
It was a long flight, and as we neared the target, "Airdrome at Foggia," the flak was heavy. We made our run and were headed back, thinking the tough part was over. Whitlock (pilot) even asked me to see if I could find some music on the radio. About that time a voice over the intercom had spotted some German fighters; it might have been the navigator (Ricks).
A wave of them came in and raked us pretty good, but we were still flying, and I thought they might leave. But that was not to be. There was only one burst from our tail gunner, and he was evidently killed early in the fight. That left the rear end a good target, and we didn't have fighter escort.
They came in again, plenty of them, and shot up the plane badly. There were bullets whistling by all over the place. I stood directly behind the pilots during the fight, and Whitlock later told me that he didn't know why I wasn't hit; he said he could feel bullets hitting the back of his armor plating.
A big fire had broken out in the bomb bay, and I emptied a fire extinguisher on it. It didn't make a dent in the fire.
The engineer (Stewart) had come down from his turret and was standing there. We didn't say anything to each other, but I noticed that he had opened the top hatch. I stepped up behind the pilot (Whitlock), and he said it was time to get out, that he was losing control of the plane.
I started out the top hatch but was having a hard time getting out. Whitlock gave me a shove and out I went. I hit something and ended up with a skinned knee. I really don't know if I went down behind the wing and in front of the tail or straight back above the tail and between the two vertical stabilizers. I remember thinking for a second that I was hung up. Whitlock later told me that he came out right behind me and didn't have any trouble that he dropped down right behind the wing.
The bombardier (Waite) and the navigator (Ricks) got out through the door in the nose, l don't know what happened to Stewart and Wilson, but they never got out There was no way to go out through the bomb bay; it was a roaring inferno.
I don't remember pulling the ripcord. I might have snagged it on something as I was getting out, but whatever happened, my chute opened right away. I remember that it took a long time to get down (we had jumped at 18,000 feet), and I had a front seat to an air battle for quite a while. At one point I saw a German fighter heading my way, and I remembered the stories we had heard about some of our men getting strafed in their chutes. Talk about a sitting duck. There's probably not a more helpless feeling in the world, but as he drew closer, he banked his wings and went on by.
I hit the ground pretty hard but wasn't hurt. I had landed next to some trees on a small farm. A farmer and a bunch of kids came running up and started examining my parachute. They looked thrilled with it and started jabbering in Italian and pointing to a donkey under a shed. I thought they might want to make a trade, and I could get on the donkey and get the hell out of there.
But about then an Italian policeman came up and put a pistol to the back of my head, and another farmer leveled a shotgun at me from about 30 feet away, so the trade was off. They marched me down the road a short distance to where they had captured Whitlock. He was surrounded by a bunch of people, and they were all giving him a hard time.
They started marching both of us down the road, and in about a quarter of a mile we went past the wreckage of a German fighter. The pilot must have bailed out OK; I didn't see anyone in the plane. We continued on down the road for another quarter of a mile and saw the body of Emil Kosch, one of our waist gunners. It appeared that he was still wearing his unopened chute.
Our B-24 was about 200 yards away, still burning. The tail gunner was still in his turret, and some of our captors took a morbid delight in taunting us and pointing at his badly charred remains. One of the policemen spoke good English and asked us a couple of questions about the plane. We acted like we didn't know the answers, and he didn't persist.
They then marched us to a barn, took us inside, and closed the doors. They got into a pretty heated discussion about something, and a large crowd had gathered outside and was raising hell. I didn't know what to think; Whitlock thought they were going to hang us.
But before long an Italian army truck showed up, and they took us into the nearby town of Potenza. A little later they brought in Ricks, Waite, and some others. Ricks had talked to Knox, who was injured, and Knox had told him that Kosch and DunaJecz (waist gunners), and Bonham (tail gunner) had all been killed. We had lost five of our ten-member crew.
They put me in a small dungeon by myself that night. I tried to sleep on a concrete slab about a foot off the floor, but it had a slope to it, and I could hardly stay on it, much less sleep. There was a hole in the center of the floor full of excrement, and there were brown finger marks all over the walls. Fortunately, we stayed there only one night.
The next day they put us on some trucks and took us to Ban where we met the other downed airmen from the same raid. There were about thirty of us. The living conditions were decent, and we ate the same as the Italians did-macaroni and bread. They interrogated us and kept us there eight or nine days.
The interrogation was conducted by an Italian officer and was fairly routine. I gave him my name, rank, and serial number, and nothing else. But as he was talking to me, a German officer walked in. The thing I remember most about him were his eyes; they were like blue ice. He walked around behind me and started slowly pacing back and forth. I didn't know what he was up to and kept trying to get a look at him out of the corner of my eye. After a while he came around and conferred with the Italian about something. They were looking at a map I was then allowed to leave. The other guys waiting their turn had seen him walk in, and when I came out, they all wanted to know what had went on inside. They were relieved to hear that nothing had happened.
On Thursday, August 26, we were taken down to the train station and split up. The enlisted men were put on a train to Sulmona, and I never knew where the officers were sent. Lieutenant Ricks came over and shook hands and said good-bye.
The train ride to Sulmona took three days, and we arrived Sunday morning, August 29. They gave each of us a piece of bread and a piece of cheese before we left, but I ate mine right away and didn't eat again until we arrived. We got some oatmeal from the Red Cross at the prison, and we built a fire in the yard and cooked it. Dennis Slattery (Slats) ruined it by pouring in too much salt, but I was so hungry I ate some anyway.
There were eighteen to twenty Americans and about 3,000 English prisoners at Sulmona. We played the English softball almost every day and always beat them pretty badly. They didn't know much about playing softball, but they were good sports. Tom Purcell (from the Austin crew) was our best player. We also watched a play or two that the English put on.
We were fed mostly spaghetti and bread and treated pretty well. There was an Australian named Pat who called us out for roll call every morning and was more or less in charge of us Americans A little Italian captain was in charge of the prison, and Pat said that he was a good man.
We were there about three weeks when Italy surrendered. The gate was open and there were no guards around, so we fled into the hills. I spent the first night in the nearby hills with Slats.
The next day we decided it was safe to walk back down to the prison. There was no sign of any guards, and a lot of Italian civilians were coming in and looting food from the Red Cross building. I picked up a few things, including a mess kit and a can of pudding. I spent most of the day beating the can against some rocks to get it open.
The Italian mayor of the town down below the prison had said that we could all stay around until we were rescued if we wanted, but Slats and I decided to take our chances elsewhere.
During our time in prison, Slats had talked with an Englishman named Duffy. He had been a British Commando, I believe, and Slats had a lot of confidence in him and thought he could get us out of there. Duffy and four other Englishmen invited Slats and me and another American (I can't remember his name, but he was from Kentucky) to team up with them, so we did, and the eight of us took off.
The English had been in prison for a while and had mess kits, matches, cigarettes, and other supplies. We traveled mostly at night and ate potatoes, which we dug up from fields and boiled. Once in a while we would find some tomatoes, and we begged some bread (and occasionally figs) from the local people from time to time.
The terrain was pretty mountainous and there was a lot of brush. It seemed like every step was uphill. The English were in better shape than we were and kept up a pretty good pace. At one point I was about to ask if we could slow down a little, but Slats beat me to it.
One day we ran into another group of former prisoners digging potatoes in a field I remember that Tom Purcell was in the group. It was the only time we saw any of the other Americans from the prison.
One of the Italians we ran into told us he could get shoes for all of us if we went into town with him. He was acting a little funny, and when we got into town a lot of the local people were giving us dirty looks, We decided he was going to turn us in to the Germans, so we took off.
The eight of us were together about two weeks when we got split up. We were all sleeping in a shack near a train station when a bunch of kids hit the door in the middle of the night screaming "Tedesco!" It turned out that a German troop train had pulled into the station. Everybody ran like hell, and the group got separated. I ended up with an Englishman named Jesse Goldspink.
Jesse had been a prisoner for more than a year and could speak a little Italian. He had been shot through the mouth fighting the Italians in North Africa and wasn't too fond of them.
We continued as before, traveling mostly at night and eating potatoes. There were plenty of potatoes in the fields. Jesse would also bum some bread and, occasionally, figs or tomatoes at the homes we came to. At one of the farms we did some work in the field in exchange for board and room that night.
At one point Jesse decided that it would be better if we got rid of the army clothes we were wearing and get some Italian clothes. One of the farmers gave us some clothes-black pants and grey shirts. My pants were about six inches too short, so I got an old woman to sew on some more to the legs. I don't think we fooled anybody. I was 6'2" and 195 lb. with black hair; Jesse was 5'6" and 145 lb. with red hair. I wore a hat and he didn't. We looked more like Mutt and Jeff than a couple of Italians.
One family was really good to us, and we ended up staying with them for about five days. They fed us well, and we even had sausage one time. It was the only meat we got during this time. We didn't have any way of repaying them for their kindness, so we gave them our overcoats when we left.
We were crossing a river one day, and Jesse lost his shoes. He was pretty upset about it since it was now October and winter was coming. An Italian farmer made him some wooden slabs, and he walked with a "clomp, clomp, clomp" sound.
Since I didn't speak any Italian, Jesse would always be the one to ask for food. I thought that I was depending on him too much and wasn't pulling my share of the load, so one evening I told Jesse that I would go ask for food. I knocked on a farmhouse door and asked an elderly woman for some bread. She looked at me and let out a blood-curdling scream that could be heard for miles. I looked around and saw Jesse already in full flight. I caught him pretty quick, and we ran for what seemed like miles. We decided that Jesse would do the begging after that.
Jesse had a wife and three kids at home in Hull, Yorkshire. I asked him one day what he would do if he got home and found out he had four kids. He said he'd take the three of them and the other bastard could go with his mother,
He also told me about another guy in Hull. He and Jesse hated each other, and they swore to each other that when they got back from the war they were going to have it out. Jesse wasn't very big, but he was tough as nails, and I knew he'd do pretty well in a fight.
We encountered Italian soldiers or Englishmen (who had been in prison at Sulmona) almost every day, usually traveling in pairs. They would tell us that the Germans were bumping off every one they caught. I don't know this to be true. From our various hiding places we could see Germans on the road every day, and we would hear shots being fired at numerous times, sometimes pretty close by. But with the mountainous terrain and all the brush around there, it was hard to know what they were shooting or where it was coming from.
We came within a few miles of a town named Casacalenda that was being shelled every night. A woman told Jesse that it was held by the Germans and being shelled by the English. About three days later we were told that the Germans had pulled out the night before, and the English had taken over. The town was located on top of a high hill, and there was no way we could tell, from where we were, who held the town.
We started walking up the road toward Casacalenda when a couple of Englishmen came running up. They told us the area was thick with Germans, and they were bumping everybody off. They didn't think that the British had occupied it yet. Jesse decided that we would go on in. I thought about it and decided to stick with Jesse; I had come this far with him.
It was great to see that the English army was there. They were in the process of setting us their machine gun nests, communications, etc. We found the kitchen area right away, and Jesse and I each grabbed a large handful of bacon they were cooking and wolfed it down like a couple of dogs. God, it tasted good.
An English soldier was leading a prostitute down the hill; I suspect she had been with a German soldier on the previous day.
It was October 16, exactly two months since I'd bailed out.
We rode an English truck down to Ban and were there for two or three days. I said good-bye to Jesse and caught a ride on a C-47 to Naples to rejoin the American forces. It was great to see the Stars and Stripes flying in the breeze and to know that I was going to be useful again. From Naples I flew to Tunis where I spent a couple of days, then flew on to London with a stop in Gibraltar.
I received the Air Medal in London, and I felt especially honored to receive it from General Ira Eaker.
I went back to Shipdham and opened up a bottle of Scotch that I had picked up in Gibraltar. Everybody gathered around, and the bottle didn't last long. It was a great to see those guys again.
I hung around for a couple of days, but they were flying missions and I wasn't, and I felt a little funny about that. So I went back to London where I spent a few days. I ran into Slats somewhere in London, and we ended up flying back to the States together. We flew from Lands End to Dakar, Africa, where we crossed the Atlantic in a C-47 to Natal, Brazil, and from there to Washington, D.C., with a stop at either Panama or Puerto Rico.
I said good-bye to Slats and was home in Walsh, Colorado, for Christmas 1943. Jesse later wrote me that he had looked up his old nemesis, but they were both so happy to be back they had kissed and made up.
end of biography