Military history

Chapter 3

Counting Parachutes

The young men parachuting into the hills of Yugoslavia had no idea what awaited them. They knew only that this was their last chance to live when their bomber was on fire or the engines went out or they had lost too much fuel from shrapnel on their bombing runs over Romania. Some, like Musgrove, made several death-defying missions before they were forced to get out of their crashing planes, while others like twenty-one-year-old Tony Orsini had to bail out of his bomber on his first mission.

Orsini had been in Italy for only a week when he was assigned to his first bombing mission over Ploesti. A navigator, Orsini had guided a B-24 from Lincoln, Nebraska, across the Atlantic Ocean and up the coast of Africa. The crew of green-horns reported to an air force base in southern Italy named Grottaglie as part of the 716th Squadron of the 449th Bomb Group. Orsini had been there for only a few days, waiting for more orientation and local maps, when he was awakened at four a.m. on July 21, 1944, by someone shouting, “Briefing at 0600!” At the briefing, Orsini learned he had been assigned to fly a mission with a more experienced crew. They would be bombing the Ploesti oil refineries.

In addition to all the usual information about the target, the bomb loads, the route, and what resistance to expect, the officer briefing the crew gave them a curious warning, one they had never heard before.

“You’re going to be flying over Yugoslavia. If you have to bail out, avoid the Chetniks. They’re the followers of General Mihailovich,” the officer said sternly. “Seek out the Partisans. They’re the followers of General Tito.”

The advice was completely wrong, but the officer believed it and was trying to be helpful. It would be years before the source of the misinformation became clear. But at the moment, Orsini didn’t give it much thought anyway. Orsini had heard only the sketchiest information about the ongoing civil war in Yugoslavia and the two factions that were fighting for control of the country while simultaneously fending off the Germans who occupied their land. He took note of the warning, but gave it much lower priority than everything else he had heard that morning. This was Orsini’s very first mission, and the rest of the crew would be depending on him to navigate their B-24 skillfully. He didn’t want to miss anything.

Orsini was scared to death as the plane neared its target in Romania. He tried to focus on the maps on his small desk in the plane, checking and double-checking everything he could think of, but he was terrified by the thought of the air defenses around Ploesti. When his map coordinates showed that they were nearing the oil fields, Orsini looked out a window and saw his fears take form. The sky was filled with exploding shells, the shrapnel tearing through anything in its path—aluminum, steel, or flesh. German fighter planes were zooming through the bomber formation, strafing planes as they held their course and attempted to drop their loads on the target. Orsini was waiting to hear the bombardier call out, “Bombs away!” over the intercom, because that would mean their work was done and the pilots could hightail it out of that god-awful mess. After what seemed an eternity, with explosions booming all around and buffeting the plane back and forth, Orsini heard the bombardier’s call.

And almost immediately after, he felt the plane shudder violently, a sensation he hadn’t felt before. He knew right away that the bomber had taken a direct hit from the antiaircraft fire. The explosion knocked the B-24 out of formation and the pilots struggled to maintain level flight as two of the four engines died. Just as with Musgrove’s crippled bomber, the crew of Orsini’s plane worried that a German fighter would find them separated from the protection of the pack, flying slow and low. Every so often the pilot would ask Orsini, who had been carefully plotting the plane’s progress, for an update on whether they could make it back to Italy at this speed and fuel consumption. Each time, Orsini replied that it would be close, but they could probably make it. A couple of hours went by that way, the plane slowly losing altitude and the crew deathly silent as they prayed for a good outcome and watched the skies intently for German planes. The quiet was broken when the tail gunner’s voice came on the intercom.

“Fighters at six o’clock!” he screamed, indicating the sky behind the plane. “Fighters at six o’clock!”

The gunners all tensed and prepared to fight off the attack, but then the tail gunner came back on the intercom about thirty seconds later and said, “They’re P-38s. It’s okay.” P-38s were American fighters, and these had spotted the B-24 limping home. They flew in alongside and escorted the B-24 as it continued descending, eventually reaching ten thousand feet, far lower than the twenty-one thousand feet where it had dropped its bombs. At that point, the pilot turned back to Orsini and asked him for a final assessment of whether they were going to make it back if they continued descending at that rate.

“No sir,” Orsini answered. “There’s no way.” The continuing rate of descent had removed any optimism.

The pilot was prepared for that answer and immediately called out on the intercom, “Abandon ship! Abandon ship! I repeat, abandon ship!” Orsini wasn’t surprised because he had contemplated that possibility for the past hour, and he knew the pilot was making the right decision. Better to bail out now instead of waiting until they were over the Adriatic Sea. The bailout bell was almost a welcome sound by then.

The only problem was that Orsini didn’t know exactly where they were. He could tell from his calculations that they wouldn’t make it back, but he was missing several key maps that would have told him what region they were about to jump into. When he realized at the morning briefing that he was missing the designated maps, he had asked an officer for them. But the officer dismissed him, telling him not to worry because his plane would be number four in the formation and he only had to play follow the leader. Now Orsini was frustrated that he couldn’t give the crew any idea what they were jumping into. He had some idea that they were over Serbia, but he didn’t know they were in a very mountainous region called Ravna Gora.

As Orsini prepared to jump out of the ailing plane, he suddenly wished he had taken better care of his parachute. Since it was issued to him nearly six months earlier, he had tossed it around nonchalantly, using it for a pillow and a football on more than one occasion. Now his life would depend on that chute opening.

He had been trained to count one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three before pulling the rip cord, but Orsini was so anxious about whether the abused parachute would work that he couldn’t wait. He yanked the rip cord immediately and was relieved to see the canopy snap to attention over his head. After the brutal yank of the chute on his harness, everything became surreal.

The sky was so quiet, with just a soft whisper of wind passing his ears. Orsini had been in the loud plane for hours, the constant rumble of the engines overshadowed only by the deafening booms of the antiaircraft fire. The sudden silence was unsettling.

Orsini felt like he was suspended in space, as if he were not descending at all but just swaying back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The sensation, along with all the fear and dread that gripped him for hours already, caused him to vomit on the way down.

A navigator like Orsini, Robert Wilson knew it was practically inevitable that he would be shot down eventually. He was a navigator on B-17 bombers, similar to B-24s, and he was specially trained in a new type of radar that enabled the Allies to bomb the Ploesti oil fields even when there was heavy cloud cover or smoke. Normally the bombing runs had to be delayed or cancelled when the cloud cover or smoke was too heavy or else the bombardiers would just be taking a wild guess at where they were dumping all that firepower. The Allies did not indiscriminately drop bombs, so the planes would divert to another target that they could see. The Germans knew this and installed giant smoke pots all around Ploesti, creating black clouds that effectively obscured the target on some days.

But with the system Wilson used, the planes could still find their targets no matter how obscured they were. Wilson had grown up in Peoria, Illinois, and had completed one semester of college when, at age nineteen, he signed up for the air corps, attracted by the glamour of flying like so many others. And like many others, he was cut from pilot training. He went to navigation school instead and completed his training in December 1943. B-17 crews trained as a unit, but when Wilson’s crew graduated they didn’t immediately go to active duty like their classmates. Instead they were sent for secret training on the new equipment that required Wilson to be looking for the target on his equipment at the same the time the bombardier was looking for the target visually with the Norden bombsight. If the bombardier couldn’t see the target, Wilson released the bombs based on his readings.

The radar system improved the effectiveness of the Ploesti bombing runs. However, the air force didn’t have many of these new units. There was only one in the region around Italy where Wilson was based, so it was used as much as possible. The other problem was that the one B-17 with that radar unit—and Wilson operating it—had to be at the front of the pack of bombers every time it flew. Normally, the many flight crews took turns as the lead plane because that was considered the most dangerous spot in the formation, and the pilots had to work much harder to manage the formation and get the bombers to the target. With enough crews rotating, nobody had to put themselves at the head of the pack too often. But when the mission depended on the radar unit finding the target, Wilson’s plane had to be at the front so it could drop its bombs first. Seeing the bombs away on Wilson’s plane was the signal for all the other bombers to drop theirs.

When they got to their base in Italy to begin active duty, the rest of the crew that Wilson had trained with was assigned to another B-17 and they rotated through the front position like everyone else. But not Wilson. He was permanently attached to the one plane that housed the radar unit, and a different crew was slotted to fly that plane at the lead on every mission. For the other nine crew members onboard, it was just their unlucky day to be in the most dangerous position. For Wilson, it was every mission.

In July 1944, with twenty missions under his belt already, Wilson was one of the more experienced fliers in his unit. But he knew that every time he climbed into the B-17 again, he was pressing his luck. How many times could he fly into danger, at the head of the formation, and make it back to the base? He found out on his twenty-first mission.

It was July 15, 1944, and Wilson was making his third trip to Ploesti. As he had twenty times before, Wilson braced himself for the long, uncomfortable ride to the target—bundling up as the plane climbed into the high-altitude chill, donning his oxygen mask at twelve thousand feet and then a steel helmet and bulky, chafing flak vest as the plane neared the target. It was standard on these flights for each crew member to be extremely uncomfortable for as long as nine hours—cold, sweaty, with gear rubbing the wrong way, the griping in your head momentarily taking your mind off the fact that you might die very shortly.

When the B-17 approached the target at Ploesti, the pilot put the plane on a form of automatic pilot that shifted control to the bombardier, and in this case, to Wilson also. They would fly the plane, making minor course adjustments to get the plane on target and then release the bombs. As the outskirts of Ploesti came into view, Wilson could see that the refinery they were hitting that day, Romana Americana, was covered by smoke. He knew he would be dropping the bombs on this mission.

As soon as Wilson called, “Bombs away!” he felt a direct hit on the left wing, and then the two engines on that side sputtered to a stop. About the same time, Wilson heard someone calling over the intercom.

“Larry’s hit!” someone yelled urgently, referring to Lawrence Norton, the engineer. “He got it in the head!”

Wilson ran forward from his station to see about Norton and found the young man dazed, with blood streaking down his face. Norton was leaning against a support frame in the plane as Wilson took a look at his injury, trying not to react too strongly as he saw the large piece of jagged shrapnel sticking out of the man’s head, right on top. The still-hot piece of an exploding antiaircraft shell had come through the fuselage of the plane, penetrated Norton’s steel helmet, and embedded itself deeply in his head. The wound was not bleeding profusely, but it left Norton semi-conscious. Wilson and another crew member applied a dressing to the wound and helped Norton sit down. Then they gave him a dose of morphine from one of their escape kits, opening his warm flight suit to press the syringe into his upper arm, but there was little time to fret about their injured crewmate.

There was more trouble. The antiaircraft fire had severed the fuel tank in that wing also, and Wilson looked up from his radar station to see gasoline pouring into the fuselage from the broken lines. The fumes from the fuel started filling the fuselage, burning Wilson’s eyes, and in moments the crew members were standing in two inches of gasoline.

Wilson, and every other man onboard, was terrified. The gasoline had them thinking that the next bit of red-hot flak, a spark from the damaged wiring, anything, might turn them into a flying fireball. There was nothing they could do to stop the fuel rushing into the fuselage and no way to get the gas out, so they sloshed around in it as they continued looking for German fighters that might want an easy target. Meanwhile, the pilot was struggling to keep the plane aloft with just two engines on one side of the plane. The plane was descending quickly, even with the remaining engines pushed to their limits.

“We gotta lighten the load! Get rid of everything! Everything!” the pilot called out on the intercom. “The guns, ammunition, anything you can throw out!”

The crew reacted quickly, heaving out anything they could pick up: chairs, spare equipment, ammunition boxes, and finally the big fifty-caliber machine guns. They hated to fly without the big guns, their only defense against a fighter attack, but they were desperate to get lighter and stay aloft. All the while as they were heaving the gear over, Wilson and the other crew thought the gasoline might explode at any moment. By now, they were all soaked in it. They could feel the caustic liquid burning their skin as they worked; the fumes stung their eyes and burned in their noses. They knew that if the fuel ignited, they had no hope of survival. This was the worst, Wilson thought, sweat pouring off his face even in the frigid air. Not only am I going to die on this mission, but I’m going to burn to death.

The lighter load enabled the plane to hold its altitude enough to get over the first chain of mountains on the way back to Italy, and once he was finished throwing out anything not essential to flying the plane, Wilson saw something that surprised him. The rest of the squadron had stayed with them. His B-17 was crippled, flying low and slow, but the rest of the formation had stayed with it instead of continuing on. Wilson was surprised and elated. At least they weren’t alone.

The safety of numbers proved its value before long when German fighters showed up and immediately zeroed in on Wilson’s B-17 as the weak point of the formation. His crew couldn’t do anything since their machine guns had been thrown overboard, and they knew that just one lucky shot by a German pilot would send the B-17 up like a Roman candle. All they could do was crouch and try to avoid any stray gunfire as the other bombers in the formation fired on the German planes swooping in and out of the formation. Wilson scarcely breathed for several long minutes, and then the fighters turned, leaving the bomber formation on its own again.

With the situation calm again, but far from resolved, Wilson and several other crew members turned their attention back to Norton, the engineer with the serious head wound. They knew they might have to bail out of the dying plane before long, and they worried that Norton might not be in any shape to parachute out and land safely. They debated what to do.

“We could just pull his chute and throw him out. It should open okay,” one man offered.

“He’d land like a bag of bricks. He’s barely awake,” another countered. “That thing in his head has him all messed up. Besides, if he lands hard and hits his head, he might just jam that thing in deeper. It would kill him right away.”

Wilson agreed and offered the only solution he could think of. He didn’t like the idea, but he said it anyway.

“We need to pull that shrapnel out,” Wilson said. They all looked over to Norton, who was still too groggy to know what they were talking about. Nobody wanted to do it, but Wilson volunteered. “I need some pliers.”

It took a while because the toolboxes had been thrown overboard, but Wilson came up with a set of pliers and went over to Norton, followed by three other crew members. One held Norton’s shoulders firmly and another tried to steady his head as Wilson went in with the pliers. He wanted to do it quickly and firmly. He couldn’t stand the thought of wrenching and twisting on something that might be deep in Norton’s brain.

One good yank pulled the jagged metal out of Norton’s head and Wilson threw it down in disgust. Over the next half hour, the injured man recovered his senses somewhat and the crew felt more confident that he would be able to bail out if that time came.

That time came in short order. The two engines on the undamaged side of the plane had been pushed beyond their limits and, as expected, they started to overheat and churn out thick black smoke. The pilot, William J. Kilpatrick, gave the order that everyone knew was coming sooner or later: “Abandon ship! Bail out now!”

The crew members were ready for the order and, after making sure Norton made it out, they started tumbling out of the side door one after another. Wilson jumped out and braced for the jerk of the chute on his harness, welcoming it even as he cringed with pain. He had made it out of that flying bomb alive, and assuming he could make it to the ground without running into any ignition sources, he wouldn’t burst into flames the way he had been fearing for hours.

But even as Wilson realized his worst fear would not come to pass, he saw more tragedy unfold. This terrible day was not even close to finished. Wilson hung under his parachute, gently gliding to whatever fate awaited him on the ground and watched his B-17 continue on without him. He looked around and could see several other chutes in the air and he thought he saw seven others, plus his. That was eight chutes in the air.

Good. That means we’re all out except for the pilot and copilot.

Wilson knew that when bomber crews bailed out, it was customary for the pilot and copilot to be the last out because they remained at their post as long as possible, holding the plane steady to facilitate everyone else’s bailout. Wilson kept his eyes on the B-17, waiting for the other two chutes to appear.

He could see that another bomber had dropped out of the formation to fly alongside the crippled bomber, its crew watching intently as the young men bailed out one by one. The crew of the other plane was especially interested in the outcome of this drama because Kilpatrick, the pilot on the ailing plane, was the pilot that usually led most of the crew on the other, undamaged B-17. The crew rotations had split them up that day, and Kilpatrick’s regular crew members wanted to make sure he made it out of the damaged plane safely. Several of them were at the hatch on that side of their bomber, watching the damaged plane.

Kilpatrick’s buddies in the other bomber flew alongside, counting the parachutes as Wilson and his fellow crew bailed out. Then they watched intently to see Kilpatrick and the copilot bail. The entire crew on the other plane was watching out the windows and hatches, wanting to count ten chutes and be certain their crew leader had made it.

Wilson watched too, praying that everyone would make it out safely. Then the two B-17s flew into a cloud, obscuring the moment when the pilot and copilot bailed out. Wilson saw their chutes emerge a moment later from underneath the cloud. He was relieved, realizing his entire crew had made it out safely, but then he felt a horrific knot in his stomach as he saw the two bombers emerge from the cloud, still side by side. The undamaged B-17 was not breaking away even though all of Wilson’s crew had made it out. And they were rapidly approaching a mountainside.

Oh my God. They didn’t see the pilots get out. They’re still waiting.

Wilson understood that Kilpatrick’s regular crew mates had not seen him bail out because they were in a cloud, and now it looked like they were so focused on waiting for two more chutes that they didn’t realize they were following the crippled plane down. All he could do was hang there under his chute and watch.

They’re out! Pull up!

He watched helplessly as both planes crashed into the mountainside. Everyone had made it out of Wilson’s damaged B-17. All ten crew on the other plane died as the bombers exploded and fell in heaps on the mountain.

Wilson floated there in eerie silence, gently moving through the sky wherever the breeze sent him. All he could do was turn his head to the side and close his eyes tightly. He couldn’t stand to look anymore.

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