World War II veteran William D. Whittaker of the 398th Bomb Group, recalls the dramatic moments as he found himself jumping out of his B-17 after it was hit, parachuting right into a Prisoner of War camp.
On November 2nd 1944, the target would be the heavily defended synthetic oil plant in Meersberg Germany, it was his 20th mission and it would prove to be his last.
When I looked ahead and saw the flak which is the black explosion of 88 millimeter shells going off I thought my god we’re going to be lucky to get through this and we got through it fine and we were hit a few times and you can always tell when you’re hit because we could smell the burning hot flak metal going through the ship and we got out of that fine and as soon as we were out of that the Luftwaffe attacked us.
The first attack, they always attacked from the tail because their 20 millimeter cannon would go further than our .50 caliber machine gun. The tail gunner was pretty busy on that first mission and I think he shot down one of the planes and one of the fellows said “you got one” over the intercom. So on the second attack we were hit really bad the tailgunner was shot bad and the waist gunner went back to check on him he did he said “he’s dead”. About that time we were hit real bad and the plane was out of control.
The pilot gave the word to bail out and me being the navigator right by the nose escape patch I was the first one out. Before I could go out I had to release, I wore what they called a flak suit, an armor, a vest, there’s an escape tag on that, that you pull and its supposed to be released well it didn’t release and I was fighting that trying to get that off and I said man I gotta get out of here and you know I had a voice kind of my father had passed away about 8 months before I went into service and I thought I heard his voice say ‘you get out of there now’. So I did, when I jumped out I said ‘I can’t wait any longer’, I jumped out of the escape patch in the nose and as soon as I hit the slip stream it tore the flak suit off but my parachute was only fastened on one side because I couldn’t fasten the other side when the flak suit was on.
So here I was fighting all the way down trying to fasten the other side and at 28,000 feet you have no strength, you’re just about ready to pass out and I started entering some clouds at three thousand feet and I thought well I better pull this now whether its fastened or not and I pulled it and I was floating down and I could hear shots coming up at me and the Germans were shooting at me as I was coming down.
And this was fire from their aircraft or from the ground?
That was from the ground it was civilians on the ground they were shooting, they all had guns and the odd thing about this when I was, before I hit the ground I could hear cheering and I thought who the heck is cheering in the middle of Germany and I just about landed in a German Prisoner of War camp that held English prisoners and luckily a guard from this camp come running out of the camp and made the civilians stop shooting me. They had their rifles all ready to aim at me so they stopped shooting and the guard guttered me up and took me into the camp and the English Prisoners of War gave us tea and crumpets, it was really something.
William Dean Whittaker was a Second Lieutenant and bombardier-navigator in the 398th Bomb Group of the Army Eighth Air Force. You can read more on his captivity in an article that appeared in the Las Vegas Review Journal. A wartime photograph of 2nd Lt. Whittaker with B-17 ‘Bebe’ and her crew can be seen on the 398th Association’s website with lots of other information.