Military history

Chapter 2

Abandon Ship!

Clare Musgrove ended up in Yugoslavia in the same way hundreds of other Allied airmen had in the few years before him and as many more would after him: He climbed into a bomber in Italy, flew into Nazi territory to bomb critical oil refineries and other targets, and never made it back to the safety of his home base. Every time a fleet of bombers went out, some were heavily damaged by German defenses and either went down immediately or limped back toward Italy, trying to make it as far as they could.

By 1944 downed American airmen were piling up quickly in Yugoslavia as bombing raids on Nazi targets, especially the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania, resulted in many planes making it only that far on their return journey before the crews had to bail out and try to survive behind enemy lines. The quest to destroy Ploesti would leave hundreds of airmen stranded in the hills of Yugoslavia.

To get to Romania, the Allied bomber crews had to fly westward, usually from bases in the recently liberated Italy, across the Adriatic Sea, then across Yugoslavia to their targets in Romania. Then they had to get back again, often limping home with planes and crew injured from the intense fighting at the target site. Romania was a top target because it represented one of the westward strongholds of the German military, and particularly because it was the major source of fuel for the German war machine. The country was smaller than the state of Oregon and had little chance of resisting the Germans, though it took a shot at staying neutral. Hitler, of course, saw pleas for neutrality as a sign of weakness and rolled into the country.

Romania was in an untenable situation, perched between German advances in Poland and Hungary and Soviet advances from the Ukraine. In June 1941 Romania officially joined the Axis, primarily in hopes of regaining some provinces that it had previously been forced to give up. Though Romania had fought Germany in the first World War, the country allied itself with the Nazis strictly as a desperate measure for self-preservation. Romania’s pact with the devil would be costly, however. It was no surprise that once the country joined the German rampage across Europe, Britain declared war on Romania on December 5, 1941.

On June 5, 1942, the United States extended its declaration of war on Germany and Italy to include Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Before long, the same resource that had made Romania so desirable to the German war machine—massive oil fields and high-capacity refineries—made it a prime target for the Allies. American bomber crews who had barely heard of Romania months before soon learned all about a Romanian city called Ploesti, an oil boom city in the plains below the Transylvanian Alps in northern Romania and thirty-five miles north of Bucharest, the national capital. Ploesti was a massive complex consisting of seven major refineries, storage tanks, and related structures covering nineteen square miles.

Oil refining had been big business in Ploesti since 1857, which means the city was one of the first to build riches on the resource that would dominate the world’s economy within decades. By 1942 the refineries at Ploesti were producing nearly a million tons of oil a month, accounting for 40 percent of Romania’s total exports. Most of that oil, as well as the highest-quality 90-octane aviation fuel in Europe, went to the Axis war effort. Ploesti, a prosperous but otherwise little-known city in a quiet country before the war, suddenly became a central component of the Nazi military, key to everything Hitler wanted to accomplish. The refineries of Ploesti provided nearly a third of the petroleum products that fueled Hitler’s tanks, battleships, submarines, and aircraft.

The Allies had to put Ploesti out of the oil refining business and they were willing to risk as many lives as necessary to do it. The Germans were just as determined to protect this vital supply of oil, and they installed an astonishing array of antiaircraft guns all around the refineries for miles and miles. Some of the best German fighter pilots were stationed at airfields around Ploesti, with orders to protect the refineries from Allied bombers.

Ploesti was the first target in Europe bombed by American aircraft. Many more attacks would follow the first.

The honor of hitting Ploesti first went to Colonel Harry A. Halverson in May 1942. He led twenty-three factory-fresh B-24 bombers from Florida on a journey to bomb Tokyo in a follow-up to the Doolittle Raid, the daring assault on the Japanese homeland that was carried out as retribution for the attack on Pearl Harbor. But when the bombers reached Egypt, Halverson and his crews were informed that they had a new destination: Ploesti. The planes took off for their new target on the evening of June 11, arriving over the target at dawn the following day. The mission was a success: Ten of the bombers hit the Astra refinery at Ploesti, one B-24 attacked the port area of Constanta, and the remaining two B-24s struck unidentified targets. Damage to the planes was minimal.

The first bombing run caused substantial damage, but it was clear to the Allies that many more young men would have to risk their lives to keep the refineries off-line. Bombing runs continued, and then in August 1943 the Allies launched Operation Tidal Wave, intended as an all-out effort against Ploesti. Unlike previous attacks that had been made from thousands of feet in the air, Operation Tidal Wave called for striking the oil fields at very low levels—treetop level sometimes, so low that the exploding bombs and oil fires actually threatened the planes. And then, of course, there was the problem of a B-24 bomber making a very big, very easy target at that altitude.

The extreme risk required that the plan be approved all the way up the chain of command, with even President Franklin D. Roosevelt agonizing over whether the need to knock out Ploesti justified the extreme risk to the aircrews. He decided that it did, and the bomber crews were given terrifying orders.

The increased danger called for more than the usual mission preparation. The low-level raids on Ploesti were practiced on a full-scale replica of Ploesti built in the desert. The crews had to perfect their navigation skills and fly in strict radio silence if there was any hope of reaching their target without being shot down. Getting back home was even tougher, and more of an afterthought in the training.

One hundred and seventy-seven B-24s took off in Operation Tidal Wave on August 1, 1943, a huge wave of bombers that filled the sky but nevertheless intended to sneak into Ploesti. The extensive planning did not ensure success. Things went badly right from the start, as one B-24 crashed on takeoff. The strict radio silence caused the bomber groups to became separated on the long flight across the Adriatic, and then when the planes neared Corfu, Greece, the lead aircraft—the one carrying the route navigator that was to lead the whole group into Ploesti—suddenly dove into the water for no apparent reason. Another plane, this one carrying the backup route navigator, circled down to check for survivors but lost so much time doing so that it couldn’t catch up with the formation. So it turned back to base, leaving the lead bomber group with no expert navigators to lead it on this extremely dangerous low-level approach to Ploesti.

The planes continued on anyway, the importance of their mission having been drilled into them. They met thick cloud cover as they approached the mountains around Ploesti, and the various bomber groups making up the overall attack chose different paths through the clouds. The two lead bomber groups carefully made their way through or under the clouds, while the three other groups climbed over them. The high-flying bombers took a while to get back down and by then they were half an hour behind the others. The carefully choreographed mission was falling apart.

As they approached Ploesti, the crews were looking for waypoints to mark their path, especially other towns they could recognize from the air. One of the bomber grouşte for Floreşti, an error that went undiscovered until it led them to the outskirts of Bucharest, way off target. At that point, the crews realized there was little hope of carrying out the attack they had practiced for so long. They broke radio silence and turned north to attack the complex of refineries in Ploesti as best they could. Hit anything you can, they told one another. Just find a target and drop your bombs.

German fighters attacked the bombers, which did their best to pick out high-value targets and bomb them at very low altitude, as planned. The fighters pursued the bombers as they left Ploesti, shooting down fifty-four planes, each with a crew of ten or twelve men. Another fifty-three planes were heavily damaged. Though reconnaissance flights confirmed that the damage to Ploesti was significant, it was a costly victory. Allied bombers would continue hitting Ploesti over and over again until August 19, 1944.

Every bomber that left from an Allied base to bomb Ploesti carried up to a dozen young men like Clare Musgrove. Some of them would die before they ever reached their target, many would die as they reached the target and met withering antiaircraft fire and attacks from German fighter planes, and others would make it through the worst of the fighting only to find themselves in a crippled, rapidly dying airplane that would not make it back to base. The bombing runs were always harrowing and violent, with every successful return seeming like a triumph over fate.

Musgrove was typical of the bomber crews that flew these critical missions, wondering each time he climbed into the plane if he would make it back alive. Growing up in Hersey, Michigan, a small community north of Grand Rapids, Musgrove never imagined he would be flying missions that were so important to the Allied war effort and that could kill him every time. One of four children, Musgrove had spent much of his childhood helping his grandparents on their small, twenty-five-cow dairy farm and graduated from high school in 1937. He then went to a local community college and spent four years teaching in rural schools, which he enjoyed but knew he would not make his life’s work. Instead, Musgrove looked to the military for a better career, one that might offer more adventure than he saw in central Michigan. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Musgrove knew his path was clear.

America had been at war in Europe for about six months in 1942 when, at age twenty-two, Musgrove volunteered for the air force because he wanted to fly. Most of his former classmates and most of his friends were volunteering also. Everyone wanted to fly because it was the glamorous way to serve in the military. The recruiting posters showed handsome young men in flight suits and leather caps, heading off for grand esca pades that outshone anything in a schoolteacher’s life, so that was the choice for Musgrove. Unfortunately, Musgrove ran into the same road-block that stymied many young men’s aspirations for flight. He couldn’t pass the eye test. Musgrove’s less-than-perfect depth perception meant the government wasn’t going to put him in the pilot’s seat, but hey, there are plenty of other seats on those big bombers, the air force pointed out.

Musgrove could still fly if he found another position, so he considered navigator, radio operator, and engineer. But the one that sounded best was aerial gunner. The air force obliged and transferred him from Shepherd Field, near Wichita Falls, Texas, where he had undergone basic training, to Laredo, Texas, on Rio Grande River at the border with Mexico. This was the site of the air force’s first aerial gunner school, and Musgrove excelled at his work so much that he was tapped to stay on as an instructor in how to use the ball turret gun on a B-24 bomber. Having already gotten his fill of teaching before joining the service, Musgrove taught for a year before becoming restless as he watched other, less experienced men, go off to war. He lobbied for an assignment to active duty and the air force relented, sending him overseas to the Fifteenth Air Force stationed in Italy.

Musgrove still didn’t leave his teaching role, however. The air force assigned him to be the instructor for ball turret gunners with the Fifteenth Air Force, reinforcing what the newly arriving crew members had been taught Stateside and helping them hone their skills for life-or-death missions over Europe. And there were always plenty of new recruits to bring up to speed. Every time a plane went off on a bombing mission and came back loaded with dead and dying crewmen who lost their fight with a storm of shrapnel, or when a plane never returned at all, that meant more young men had to be brought in as replacements. Musgrove stayed busy teaching the new ball turret gunners how to protect their bombers and how to stay alive. Neither was an easy task for someone hanging in a Plexiglas sphere from the belly of a bomber.

Nobody really wanted to be in a ball turret. This Plexiglas ball hanging from the bottom of the bomber was one of America’s latest innovations in warfare. An ingenious piece of machinery built by the Sperry Corporation, the ball turret was a heavily armed bubble just big enough to hold a grown man—but only one on the small side. It had room for the gunner and its two fifty-caliber machine guns—and little else. The extremely cramped quarters meant that the gunner was the only crew member on a bomber who did not wear a parachute during the mission. His was left sitting up in the main part of the plane, where he would have to go get it and put it on before escaping with the rest of the crew. Musgrove always told his students: “Stow your chute where you can find it in a hurry. You won’t have much time.”

The ball turret was not a place for the claustrophobic. It was a tiny space, though it had a great view of the scenery below—or the fighter planes coming up to kill you. The entire unit rotated around in a circle and also up and down, so that the gunner could fire on planes coming from any direction. Being suspended underneath the plane gave the gunner a sensation of flying free, and that often meant that the attacking fighters seemed to be going after him personally rather than trying to shoot down the bomber itself. Everyone on the plane was riding an adrenaline surge during a fighter attack, but none more so than the ball turret gunner who was furiously firing his fifty-caliber machine guns at the German plane trying to kill him in his little glass bubble.

The ball turret gunner sat curled up in a fetal position, swiveling the entire turret as he aimed the two guns. As he moved the turret quickly to find attacking planes and then follow them with his guns, the gunner could be in any position from lying on his back to standing on his feet. The gunner sat between the guns, his feet in stirrups positioned on either side of a thirteen-inch-diameter window in front, his knees up around his ears and very little room for moving anything but his hands. His flight suit provided the only padding for comfort.

An optical gunsight hung in front of his face, and a pedal under his left foot adjusted a reticule on the gunsight glass. When the target was framed in the sight, the gunner knew the range was correct and he let fly with the machine guns, pushing down on the two firing buttons located on the wooden handles that also controlled the movement of the ball. Shell casings were ejected through a port just below the gun barrel, pouring out as fast as the beads of sweat on the gunner’s face.

The plane carried two hundred fifty rounds of ammunition per gun for the ball turret, fed down from boxes mounted on either side of the hoist. The ball turret in the B-24, which Musgrove flew, was electrically raised and lowered, unlike those in the B-17 bombers, which had to be manually cranked up into the fuselage. Musgrove thought this was a great improvement over the B-17 design, because no one wanted to be trapped in a ball turret. There was no way to exit the turret without raising it into the fuselage of the plane, so a turret that could not be retracted was a deathtrap for the gunner. Any system that made it faster and easier to retract the turret was welcomed by the gunners. They had all heard the stories of ball turret gunners who were trapped in their glass bubbles when battle damage prevented them being retracted into the fuselage. Not only was the gunner left out there with no protection, probably with his guns empty or inoperable, but he also faced the prospect of the big plane landing with him hanging from the belly.

It was every ball turret gunner’s nightmare, and it became a horrifying reality for some. If the gunner was already dead in the turret and it could not be retracted into the plane, the crew sometimes would jettison the whole apparatus because the plane was not designed to land with the ball turret hanging underneath. But if the gunner was alive, they would have to tell him that they had no choice but to put the plane down eventually. The ball turret gunner had a long time to contemplate his fate, maybe to say good-bye on the intercom to his crewmates, as the damaged plane limped back to base or looked for a field in which to crash. All he could do was sit in the glass bubble like a helpless fetus in the womb, watching the ground come up closer and closer.

When the plane landed, the ball turret was scraped off the belly, taking the gunner with it.

Musgrove knew the risks, and he had heard all the terrible stories about how ball turret gunners died. But he wanted to fly missions, not just teach others how to risk their own lives. His superiors agreed to let him fly missions as long as his main priority remained teaching the new crew members who were streaming in all the time. That meant Musgrove couldn’t be teamed up with one flight crew that always went out on missions together, as most of the crew members did. Instead, he would rotate through the different flight crews to fill in for ball turret gunners who were out of action that day or whose replacements had not yet been assigned.

Musgrove never knew when he was going to fly and when he was going to stay at the base and watch the planes leave on their bombing missions. Less than two weeks shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, he had been on eight missions already—bombing power plants and railroad junctions and participating in the invasion of southern France—and he had seen a fair share of heavy-duty combat from his position in the ball turret. He was sleeping soundly when, on the morning of July 28, 1944, an officer came to his bunk and woke him up much earlier than he had planned.

“Get ready to fly. Be at the briefing by 0430,” the officer said, pausing only briefly to make sure Musgrove was awake and then turning to leave. When Musgrove made his way to the briefing with a dozen other bleary-eyed men, he found out that he was flying on a mission to Ploesti. The briefing officer explained that a number of bombers would be flying directly over the main production areas of the Ploesti oil fields.

“It’s a very hot target area, well protected by the Germans,” the officer explained. “This target’s been hit almost daily for about ten days, and we’re trying to eliminate this last energy source for the Germans. They’re desperate to protect it, so you can expect a lot of resistance. But you’re the best damn bomber crews in the air force, so they’ve got a real fight coming!”

Despite the somber warning about how tough the mission would be, the young airmen left the briefing feeling elated and eager to get underway. At dawn, Musgrove climbed into a B-24 with nine other men and found a position near the tail gunner for takeoff. In addition to Musgrove, the B-24 carried a pilot, copilot, navigator, and a bombardier—all officers. The crew also included an airplane mechanic, who operated the top turret located above the cockpit, and a radio operator, who manned the nose turret when he wasn’t on the radio. Two wing gunners manned the big fifty-caliber machine guns on either side of the fuselage, and the tail gunner protected the rear of the plane. Because the ball turret gunner didn’t lower the ball until after takeoff, he was the only crew member who was away from his assigned position when the plane sped down the runway. And because Musgrove was a floater who flew with whatever crew needed him, he was the only member of this crew that had not flown with the others on previous missions. He was welcomed and the rest of the crew were glad to have a talented gunner onboard, but Musgrove knew he was not part of this plane’s tight-knit brotherhood, a bond that forms naturally when men fly into danger together over and over. This crew had been in Italy for only a short time, and they were going out on their third mission. But Musgrove knew they had trained and flown together, so they were a family, and he was a stranger to them.

“All right boys, let’s go show ’em what we got!” the pilot called out over the intercom as the plane taxied for takeoff. Musgrove and the other crew responded with a hearty yell.

Thirty-six B-24 bombers from bases all over Italy formed up for this mission to Ploesti. Musgrove and the other crew members were mostly lost in their own thoughts as they flew four hours to the oil refineries in Ploesti, the unmuffled noise of the plane combining with the rushing wind to make conversation difficult without using the intercom. They each sat at their stations, going through checklists and confirming operational details with one another, sharing a bit of dark humor here and there about their prospects of returning from the mission. They all knew that each mission could be their last. But despite the looming threat of death, the men were not overtly scared or apprehensive. They were excited, eager to do the job they were trained for, to accomplish the task they knew was so important for the Allied war effort. Like the rest of the young men on the B-24, Musgrove wanted to get the job done, return, and celebrate a successful mission.

Musgrove was trying to stay warm as the plane climbed higher and higher, soon putting on a flight suit over his summer khakis when the air became colder and colder. By the time the plane reached twenty-two thousand feet, Musgrove had already plugged his flight suit into an electrical port that allowed the garment to heat up like an electric blanket. After a few minutes, the suit was warm enough that he could forget the bone-chilling cold wind rushing through the plane.

As they crossed over into enemy territory, Musgrove heard the pilot call out to him on the intercom. “Ball turret gunner, take your position.” That was his signal that it was time to leave the interior of the plane and drop down underneath it. He unplugged his flight suit from the port in the plane and stuffed himself into the ball turret so that his knees were almost up around his ears. Then he used the electro-hydraulic controls to lower it into position beneath the plane. Once he was in position, Musgrove gripped the handles to maneuver the turret fully through its rotations and test the movement of the guns, ensuring that the turret was ready for action as soon as German planes showed up. Once he was satisfied that everything was in order, Musgrove plugged his suit back into the warming port and settled in. There was nothing for him to do but sit and wait for the inevitable leg cramps and the itch you couldn’t reach.

He rode another couple of hours toward Ploesti, scanning the skies all around the bomber for any sign of German fighters as the formation descended down to ten thousand feet. The planes made it nearly all the way to the target without being intercepted, but then Musgrove could see that the Germans were well aware of their arrival. The sky ahead of the bomber was already filled with the inky black bursts of antiaircraft fire.

The flak over the target rattled Musgrove like a piñata, the explosive concussions shaking the plane hard and bouncing him around in the tight confines of the turret bubble. With every booming blast, Musgrove waited for the one piece of red-hot shrapnel that could come flying through the Plexiglas and kill him like so many other ball turret gunners. That piece of shell casing never came, and the plane flew on through the inky black clouds left by the explosions. After what seemed an eternity, as any flight did when flak was exploding all around you, Musgrove saw the bombs fall and felt the lightened plane rise higher in the air.

Musgrove began to breathe a bit easier after the bombs were away and the plane pulled away from the target, but once the immediate danger died down a bit, Musgrove could hear the telltale sounds of a sputtering B-24 engine. The plane had been hit by the flak, and Musgrove could tell right away that the damage was serious. He heard what he thought was first one, and then two of the plane’s four engines coughing and sputtering, sounds that were disturbingly different from the incessant drone that the crew listened to for hours on end when flying. The open intercom line allowed the entire crew to hear the pilot and copilot talking, so Musgrove followed the play-by-play as they dealt with the damaged engines.

“Engine two! Losing power!” the copilot shouted. “Engine three’s going. We got hit bad!”

And then he heard the two troubled engines shut down. First engine two stopped struggling, and then engine three. Both inside engines were dead. The sudden end to the noise was even more troubling than the rough engine sounds. Musgrove listened as the pilots throttled up the other two engines to compensate and try to keep the plane aloft. The plane stayed in the air, but on only two engines it was too slow to keep up with the formation as all the surviving planes turned away from Ploesti and started their journeys home.

From his position in the ball turret, Musgrove could see that his B-24 was dropping out of formation. Then he watched as the dozens of other B-24s flew on toward Italy, leaving Musgrove’s plane to limp along behind. The plane could make it back on just two engines, Musgrove knew. He’d seen plenty of planes come struggling back to the base on two engines; they just showed up a lot later than everyone else.

The real danger came from being alone in the sky. With dozens of bombers flying in formation, each of them loaded with fifty-caliber machine guns, there was safety in numbers. Fighter planes attacking the formation had to get through not just one plane’s defenses, but several. Now Musgrove and the rest of his crew were on their own. If a German fighter found the lame duck, defending the bomber would be much more difficult. Musgrove was sweating in his flight suit now and unplugged the heating port. He moved the ball turret around in all directions again, making sure it was ready if a fighter appeared. He had not yet fired a single shot that day because German fighters never came up to greet them.

Musgrove listened in as the B-24 pilot called on the radio for a fighter escort to help them make it back without being torn to shreds by a German attack, and then it was only about ten minutes before two P-51 Mustangs came alongside to offer protection, diving down from where they and other Mustangs had been providing cover for the entire formation during the bombing run. The other fighters remained with the faster-moving pack of bombers in formation. Musgrove was glad to see the sleek fighters and gave the pilots a wave as they took up positions on either side of the slow, lumbering bomber. He kept his hands on the ball turret controls, ready if a German fighter thought the slow plane made a good target.

After a short while, Musgrove could see that the plane was steadily losing altitude. He could hear the pilots talking about losing power and trying different strategies to keep the plane up, but it was clear to him that the plane was not going to make it back to Italy. Then the pilot made an announcement to the crew.

“Hey, guys, I don’t think we’re going to make it back to our base,” the pilot said calmly. “We just don’t have the energy to get back over the mountains.” He didn’t say anything else, but the crew knew what he meant: Get ready to bail out. It won’t be long.

A few minutes later the navigator came on the intercom and told the crew that the plane was approaching the Bulgarian/Yugoslavian border. Thanks for the information, Musgrove thought, but it doesn’t help me much. Where on the border? Where are we going down?

It was about eleven a.m. when the pilot came on again.

“We’re going to have to get ready to abandon ship because we’re just not going to make it,” he said, sounding more tense than before. Musgrove’s stomach came up into his mouth as he heard the words “abandon ship.” Like the rest of the crew, he had been trained in the procedures but hoped he would never have to jump out of a B-24. The very idea sickened him, the thought of jumping into the unknown when you thought you would be sleeping in your own bunk again that night.

“Okay, we’ve gone as far as we can go. We better bail out,” the pilot said, hitting the switch for the bailout bell, an alarm no flier wanted to hear. The words seemed to pound in Musgrove’s ears through the intercom headset. “Everybody bail out. Bail out!”

The bailout bell rang incessantly as the rest of the crew started double-checking their parachute harnesses and then making their way to a side door in the fuselage and throwing themselves out. Musgrove first had to get out of the ball turret, so he hit the switch to raise it up into the plane and climb out. Nothing happened. He hit the switch again. Nothing. He hit the damn thing over and over, harder and harder, and still the turret didn’t move. He was trapped.

Musgrove called out on the intercom, “I’ve got no power! No power! I can’t get up!” There was no reply. The rest of the crew were bailing out already, and besides, Musgrove knew there was nothing the crew could do for him anyway. He was on his own.

Musgrove realized he had to use the backup method for raising the turret—a hand crank that relied on pure muscle and a few gears to lift the heavy mechanism up into the fuselage. He had taught his students this lesson a thousand times and now it was his turn to put it to use. Musgrove wasted no time grabbing the crank and furiously winding, winding, and winding. He could feel the turret moving, but he was sure the ground was coming up faster. Musgrove’s adrenaline surged and sweat poured off his face as he cranked as hard and as fast as he could in the cramped bubble, his heart pounding so vigorously he felt it throbbing in his eardrums.

I’ve got to get out! I’ve got to get out before I’m too low for my chute to work!

Musgrove cranked the handle for almost ten minutes, his wide eyes focused intently on the landscape below, trying to gauge how low the plane was getting. Finally, with his arms searing from the work, the turret was up in the fuselage far enough for Musgrove to get out. He furiously undid the latches and scrambled out of the hatch, crawling out backwards. He stood up quickly and looked around, but he was all alone. There was no one else on the bomber with Musgrove. In the ten minutes it took him to get back up into the plane, they had all successfully abandoned ship, even the pilots who customarily were the last out. They knew it would take Musgrove a while and they couldn’t do anything to help, so they wisely left without him. Musgrove was eager to follow them, so he went to the spot where he had stowed his parachute at the beginning of the flight, in a corner of the fuselage framing just behind the ball turret.

It wasn’t there.

The rough flight and flak concussions over Ploesti had bounced the plane around so much that Musgrove’s parachute wasn’t where he left it. It took a panic-filled moment to look around and find it; then Musgrove quickly attached it to the parachute harness he already wore. With the parachute in place, Musgrove went to a side door and looked out. The plane was getting lower all the time, but he thought it was still high enough for his chute to work. He got down on his knees, as he had been trained, and rolled out into the rushing wind.

After waiting as long as he could stand, to ensure he was clear of the plane, Musgrove pulled the rip cord on his parachute and braced for the sharp jerk on his harness. He had already winced in anticipation when he realized nothing was happening. He looked down to make sure he had really pulled the rip cord and, sure enough, there was the thing clenched tightly in his hand. His chute wasn’t opening.

Furiously, as fast as he could while in a free fall from about ten thousand feet high, Musgrove reached into the parachute pack and dug out the cloth with his own hands. He grabbed the soft silk and pulled over and over, until a pocket of the cloth caught the air and the rest exploded out above him.

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