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He Fought for Freedom - Part One

Story ID:4496
Written by:Michael Timothy Smith (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Biography
Location:Stalag XVII Austria
Year:1945
Person:Chet
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OurEcho Preface This post deals with a mature theme or contains explicit language. While the post is not extremely violent or pornographic, it does contain language or explore a subject matter that may offend some readers. If you do not wish to view posts that deal with mature themes, please exit this post.
He Fought For Freedom

Chet, a young man in his senior year of high school, stood outside the movie
theater selling popcorn. It was December 7, 1941. A car passed and blew its horn. A
young man leaned out the window and yelled, “The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor!”

The car pulled away. Chet wondered to himself, “Who are the Japanese? Where’s
Pearl Harbor?”

Chet arrived home from work and found his home filled with neighbors and
friends. They crowded around the radio. Chet’s mom looked at him. “Well, I guess you’ll
be going to war, Chet.”

He had no idea how right she was.

After high school, Chet joined the air force. He was shipped to Indiantown,
Pennsylvania for processing. His next stop was Atlantic City, New Jersey for basic
training.

Chet marched in formation with the other recruits through the streets of the city.
In the crowd of admirers who watched and cheered the young heroes-to-be, stood
twenty-year-old Annamae. She waved and screamed encouragement to the handsome,
young men as they passed. She locked eyes with one man. Her hand froze in mid wave.
Her heart skipped a beat.

Chet passed by and disappeared around a corner. He stared straight ahead. The
vision of the young woman stuck in his mind.

After basic training, Chet was shipped to air mechanics school in Nebraska, where
he twice spent ten days in hospital with pneumonia. He did well in school and was
offered the opportunity to become a sergeant and an instructor. He turned it down,
because he wanted to go to aerial gunner school and fly as an engineer.

Chet was shipped to Long Beach, California, to spend a month in B-17 specialists
school. He ranked high and was transferred to gunnery school in Arizona and then to
Ephrata, Washington to complete his training.

After training, he was assigned to the 15th Air Force, 5th Bomb Wing, 99th Bomber
Group, 416th Bomber Squadron, which flew out of Tunis, Tunisia, Africa, where they
flew missions across the Mediterranean Sea to targets in France, Italy, Greece,
Yugoslavia, and Austria.

Eighteen missions later, Chet, now twenty-two, moved with his squadron to
Foggia, Italy. They were now in bombing range of Germany. After his twenty-fourth
mission, he was given leave. They travelled to the Isle of Capri, on the Bay of Naples.
The men arrived late, missed the Ferry to the Isle, and were assigned to a hotel reserved
for the military in Naples.

Chet woke at 2:00 AM to the sound of what he thought was thunder. It was a
German bomb raid. There was a flash. The windows blew in. The force of the explosion
threw Chet and his cot across the room. The cot sandwiched him against the wall and
protected him from the imploding shards of glass.

In the silence that ensued, Chet pushed the cot away, stumbled to his feet, and
prayed the raid was over. All was quiet. Another flash lit the room. It illuminated a man
standing in his doorway. Through the dust and smoke, Chet watched the man’s mouth
move, but no sound came out.

It took five hours for Chet’s hearing to return, but it would never be the same
again.

Their leave ended. They returned to base and received shocking news. Before
they left for leave, bomber crews flew twenty-five missions and were shipped home. The
severity of the war meant change. They learned they had to fly fifty missions before they
could return to their loved ones.

April 2, 1944, Palm Sunday, Chet prepared for mission twenty-six. Seven
hundred and twenty planes gathered together – four hundred B-17’s and three hundred
and twenty B-24’s – the most he’d seen in formation at one time. Their target was a
ball bearing factory in Steyr, Austria.

The bomber Chet and his crew flew was “Tail-end-Charlie”, the last plane in the
B-17 squadron.

They left the airport, gathered into formation, and approached the bomb line – the
imaginary line where they could expect enemy fighters. Their group continued to climb
to bombing altitude. The men were alert.

The fighter guides, low on fuel, turned for home. The bombers were on their own
at twenty-seven thousand feet.

German Messerschmitt – ME-109’s – approached from all directions. Chet and
his fellow gunner, Moe, opened fire. As they fired, they struggled to stand in the pile of
spent shell casings that grew around their feet.

“We have ME’s behind us!” their tail gunner screamed. “They’re firing rockets!”

A moment later he screamed again. “Number two engine is on fire!”

It was a fatal hit. The pilot jettisoned the bombs and rang the alarm to bailout.

Chet took a breath of oxygen, stripped off his flack vest, and strapped on his
parachute. He grabbed the door release cable and pulled. The door remained in place – jammed.

The plane took a violent lurch to the right. Chet was thrown across the fuselage,
where he slammed into the wall on the opposite side. He still held the door-release cable
in his hand. The pins holding the door had pulled free, but the door remained closed.

The plane righted itself. Chet was thrown against the front edge of the doorframe.

The door popped open.

He knelt at the edge of the door. With no time to think, he rolled out and was
soon swinging back-and-forth under his chute – five miles in the air.

He looked down and saw his bomber tumbling below him, as he floated into a
formation of B-24’s. The lead bomber saw him, turned, and led the formation away,
saving Chet’s life.

Chet landed in four feet of snow on the side of a mountain, with his chute on
top of him. He pulled himself free and stared at the barren, white land. The wind blew
powdered snow into his eyes and face, where it melted, dripped from his chin, and froze
in beads on his clothes. For the first time since he joined the Air Force, Chet was alone.

He turned his back to the mountains and headed downward, wading through the
heavy snow. The sun disappeared behind the mountains. In the dark and unable to see,
Chet kept heading downward. Several hours later, Chet bumped into a snow covered
fence and followed it.

Twelve hours after crashing, he saw a light in the distance. It was a farm house.
A dog barked. Chet froze. The door to the farm house opened and a man stepped out
onto the porch and stood there for several minutes. Chet remained in the dark. He stood
still until the man reentered the house.

Chet turned from the house and found a road. After the trudge through the
mountains and deep snow, it was a relief to walk on flat land.

Two hours later, exhausted, wet, and cold, Chet stumbled upon a small wooden
structure. Careful not to leave tracks in the snow, he entered it, and settled down for the
night.

In the morning, he discovered he was in a farmer’s empty beehive. In a corner, he
found blankets, which he wrapped around his feet and shoulders. He settled in for a day
of rest. At one point he woke and heard voices. After they passed, Chet curled up and
slept until nightfall.

He followed a pattern of sleeping in barns and beehives during the day and
walking through the night.

One night, he rounded a curve in the road and saw a man approaching from the
opposite direction. Chet held his breath and kept walking. The man drew close, raised his
hand in salute and said, “Heil Hitler!”

Chet returned the salute and kept walking. As soon as the other man was out of
sight, Chet ran for his life.

One morning, after walking eight or nine miles, Chet stumbled upon a barn. He
entered and climbed a rickety ladder into the barren loft. The sun came up. Chet heard
voices. A boy stepped out of the farmhouse with a steaming bowl. He set the bowl in
the snow to cool. It was a pot of potatoes. Chet was about to attempt to get some, but
the boy returned to retrieve them.

Near sunset, Chet heard the door of the barn open. The ladder to the loft creaked.
A woman’s face appeared above the floor. She screamed and fell. When Chet looked
down, the woman was gone. He climbed down and opened the barn door. In front of
him stood three of the family holding each other. Chet ignored them. He walked to the
well, broke the ice covering the surface, and drank. When he turned to the family again,
they ran and Chet fled in the opposite direction.

That night, Chet saw searchlights in the distance. They scanned the sides of the
road, searching for him. He ran, leaped over a snow bank, and covered himself with
snow. A short time later, he felt a boot slam into his ribs.

To be continued....

Michael T. Smith