Death in the skies: A Remembrance Day memory
May 28, 2013
On Thursday I called John Gann in Little Rock, the lone survivor of my dad’s B-17 crew during WWII. John said that Memorial Day should be called “Remembrance Day.” I think he’s right. John was 19 when he was sent to England on the Queen Mary and served as a togglier and nose turret gunner on a B-17. Here’s his story of a mid-air collision that happened on March 17, 1945, on their way back from a bombing mission in Germany.
“The sky was cloudy and filled with the exhaust of other planes in the formation, but Navigator Lt. Chet Deptula and I were glad the mission was over and our formation was heading back to England. I was looking out the right front window and a saw a plane rising up into us from the right. I screamed as it hit the nose and the next thing I knew, I was sitting on the floor minus my helmet, intercom mic and oxygen mask. I saw that my legs had been cut off and were lying across my lap. I was in shock and made no attempt to move or do anything at all, because I thought my legs were cut off and I couldn’t walk. Then I had a near death experience as I stood at the “Bar of Justice.” All my sins and shortcomings were revealed — on the other hand, the only good thing I had done was write a letter to a friend of my father.
“My head cleared and I looked around; there was no Plexiglas in the nose—it was crushed and our plane was shaking and falling. I thought it would shake itself to pieces. I passed out again, but this time when I came to, the legs across my lap were gone and I realized that I had a big cut on my head. Then I saw the airspeed indicator and we were doing about 160 mph. I decided to move around and try to bail out. I tried to stand, but couldn’t get my 45-pound flak vest off. I literally tore the rivets out of the shoulder straps to get rid of it. There was an oxygen hose on my right. I had been off oxygen too long and really needed that, but my lips froze to the hose. I pulled it loose and now my lips were bleeding as well as the hole in my head. The nose compartment looked like a slaughterhouse. I was freezing, but crawled around and saw my parachute pack on the floor. I was afraid it was going to fall out of the plane, so I grabbed it and hooked on my harness. For the first time, I thought I might have a chance to make it.
“I stood halfway up and looked around. It was then that I saw our navigator, Lt. Chet Deptula, hanging half out of the plane. He was holding on for dear life with his hands and feet inside the plane, but his body was outside the crushed nose. He was not wearing a parachute and was very near the wind milling propeller of number three motor. I stumbled across the nose and used all my strength to pull him back inside. He put on his parachute and we crawled farther back into the nose to the escape hatch. Chet got the door open, but sat at the open hatch with his legs hanging out. I wondered why he waited, but then I saw our engineer, Technical Sgt. Joe Pour, who had crawled down from the flight deck to see if we were still alive. Joe told us not to jump because the pilots had the plane under control. My memory from the point is hazy. My legs wouldn’t work, but Joe Pour and another crew member managed to get me through the bomb bay and back to the waist area. They put me in an electric blanket and I was warm again. We had dropped out of the group formation and were flying at a low altitude and didn’t need oxygen masks. I remember that Joe counted our crew at all gun positions before telling us the other bomber had gone down and there was a dead man in the nose of our plane. A body of an airman from the plane that crashed into us had been drawn into our nose. He also told us that our plane was in poor shape, but we still had two good motors and a good chance of landing safely in friendly territory. It was then that I realized whose legs had been in my lap and that I had seen his torso on the navigator’s table. I also remembered the marking on his jacket I had talked to him that morning when we were cleaning our guns. He had told me that he was going to London that night. I later learned that he was Technical Sgt. George Devlin, radio operator on the Lt. Albert Stern crew.
“ I do not remember much of the rest of the flight until the pilots landed our crippled bomber at a Belgium airbase which our Army had recently liberated. Our crew had survived a mid-air collision and we were safe on solid ground. I remember them taking me off the plane and the ambulance ride to the hospital on the cobblestone pavement. They put me on a stretcher and my first stop was an x-ray table. They cut off my clothes, put me back on the stretcher and carried me to another room. I was the center of attention lying naked on the floor as a man shaved my head with a safety razor. They sewed up the gash with a needle and thread and put me in a plywood bed with a very thin mattress.
“Just about sundown the rest of my crew came by to tell me goodbye. They were catching a plane back to England. Co-pilot Lt. Joel Johnson gave me some money because I didn’t have a cent. When they started to leave, I just lost it and began to sob and cry. Of course, I was a wounded teenager who had just survived a mid-air collision and I was being left on the Continent all by myself. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They called the nurse; she gave me a shot and I slept like a log.
“How I experienced the hospital and hitch-hiked a ride back to England is another story.”
John is now 87 years old and is starting to feel his age. I’ve not yet met him personally, but we’ve exchanged letters and phone calls. He’s my last link to dad. I remember.
Shari Garvin is a Minden resident.