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TWENTY FIVE IS A BAD NUMBER
by Major General (USAF Retired) John W. Collens, in WW II assigned to 96th Squadron, 2nd Bomb Group (Italy) What does a 20 year old kid airplane driver think about as he takes off as a group spare? Well, its March 15, 1945 and his crew has already survived a whole bunch of hits from German flak over targets in Austria, Germany and Italy on the previous 24 missions. So, "spare" hell, they seldom go to the target anyway. We'll be back in our comfortable (?) sacks in those palatial tents at Amendola in an hour or two. OK, copilot Harry, let's get them turning and taxi out with our squadron (96th) for this easy day of flying time. Little did we know that this day would end up being our 25th Mission Bad Day! As the wheels came up into the well, Collens kept a slight back pressure on the stick to maintain climb and join the formation. His thoughts drifted back to his crew. With the exception of Bill Prescott, the ball turret gunner, all were older than he. Skipper they called him. A proper term befitting a young, almost smooth faced, Lieutenant. As Collens' aircraft approached the bomb line over northern Italy en route to the target, one of the 20th squadron aircraft aborted. Collens filled in at the #9 slot (tailend Charlie). Now, they are truly on their way to the target, an oil refinery at Ruhland about 75 miles southeast of Berlin. There they all at at spot #9, a truly unfamiliar position, and they were penetrating deep into Germany. Oh well! The briefing said that Ruhland would be a lightly defended target. Events would record that they were shot down over Kolin, Czechoslovakia. That's where the returning 20th crews last noticed them in their formation as they reached the IP. All Collens knew is that they were on the bomb run for Ruhland, and all of a sudden one flak round went through a gas tank without exploding. There went the fuel needed to get back to Italy. Another round took out an engine on the right while a subsequent one took out an engine on the left. With the bombs still in the bay they fell like a "load of bricks". With a flash, the bombs were jettisoned and at 10,000 feet they were able to maintain altitude and head for Lodz, Poland and sanctuary with the Russian allies. What happened to that lightly defended target? The only answer was that the Russian push to the west and the "Fodderland" gave the Germans so many excess 88s that they just stacked them up around Ruhland. With the exception of Bill Prescott there were no crew injuries. This despite the fact that the aircraft looked like a sieve. Bill had been hit in the forehead by a (fortunately) mostly spent piece of flak. He had been rendered unconscious with some break in the skin and bleeding. The crew pulled him out of the ball turret and gave him first aid. Lodz finally comes into sight. Collens circled Lodz looking for the Russian airfield which had been briefed as a refuge. All of a sudden a Yak fighter makes a close pass in front of Collens' B-17 (Collens says very close!). This provokes the firing of the Very pistol with the colors of the day - the message of course: "we friendly-friendly!". With no more Russian hostile moves, Collens lands his sieved B-17 on the Russian aerodrome. Safe at last but miles from Amendola. While there at the airfield Collens learned that the Yak that buzzed them shot down a B-24 from England that was attempting to make an emergency landing at Lodz. The surviving members of that B-24 crew joined John Collens' crew for their repatriation journey back to Amendola. The landing roll was short and we were immediately surrounded by a horde of Russians in uniform. Our #2 engine prop had been windmilling when it wouldn't feather. After the engine seized from lack of oil, the stage was set for a fire once the slipstream was gone. True to form, a fire ensued after we rolled to a stop. Bless those "Russkies", they started throwing dirt at the cowling to put out the fire (you gotta go with what's available). Fortunately our top turret gunner-engineer jumped out and used the aircraft's hand-held extinguisher to save our bird. In the distance we noted a large cloud of black smoke. Soon a couple of other U.S. airmen came walking up with the remains of their chutes. We learned that they were the survivors of that "unfriendly" B-24 that the Yak shot down. Later when we were interrogated by the Russians to determine if we were friend or foe, we learned that the Germans had used captured U.S. bombers against Soviet forces. They took no chances - you had better fire the colors of the day from your Very pistol or face a shootdown. After what seemed an eternity, and several shots of potato vodka to make us talk ("what base did you come from; how many airplanes in your raid; what was your target; why did you come to Poland?"), we were packed off in a truck to downtown Lodz. Our Russian guards (we were still considered captives) entered a hotel, herded out a number of civilians, and gave us their rooms. With those guards in the hallway outside, Thompson-style machine guns in hand, we wondered about our fate; when and where do we eat. Soon we were declared friendly, but the guard remained. Our two older, regular Army gunners displayed that knack of ingenuity for which peacetime soldiers were famous. Somehow they got some vodka, got the guard pie-eyed, put him in their room, and strolled off in pursuit of a skirt they eyed upon entering the hotel. The navigator and I also took off to see the sights of Lodz. Those sights included large groups of half-starved German POWs being herded down the street. We encountered a man who offered to take us to his home for ersatz coffee. Upon meeting his wife, we learned that they were Jews who survived the holocaust due to being accomplished concert musicians. We were in Lodz but just a few days. A truck took us from Lodz to a Soviet tactical airfield* closer to the frontlines. We could hear the artillery in the distance. Our Russian hosts weren't prepared for our arrival and we spent the first night sleeping on straw in a barn along with other "grunts". Later we were moved to better accommodations just slightly better than an outhouse. We also got our first taste of how a Soviet soldier/airman got to bathe and change into fresh underwear (but still retaining the outerwear). They had constructed a steamroom in the barn. When you exited you turned in your dirty underclothes and were given clean longjohns. Our next issue of clothing would await our arrival at the American shuttle base, Poltava, Ukraine SSR. While at this forward tactical airbase, we were split up-- officer crewmen one place, eating with other Soviet officers, and our enlisted crew elsewhere. The Soviet political officer wore a different color uniform than the other aircrew officers. His manner was very officious and he alone spoke English. The Russians lived off the land. We observed them leading in a cow on a rope behind the mess hall, shoot it, skin it on the spot and that was our meat for the meal. Polish peasant women were observed being herded down the road, implements in hand, and they brought in the potatoes for our meal. Other American airmen were being brought into this forward airbase for repatriation back to U.S. hands. Our proximity to Berlin found us in the company of 8th Air Force crewmen who were also shot down and made their way into Soviet held territory. One, a Major, expressed a desire for a haircut one night following our meal. It was dark, we were loaded into trucks, taken to a nearby village, and the Russians went to the homes of the village barbers, forced them to their shops and demanded they cut our hair. When we offered to pay for the haircuts, the Soviets said "nyet". We were still under guard. So controlled were the Russians that when we expressed delight in seeing American jeeps, trucks, C-47 aircraft, etc., they reminded us that these were Soviet-built vehicles and aircraft, not Lend-Lease offerings. We can now realize after the collapse of the USSR how they were able to keep their people unaware of events and contributions in the free world. Freedom of information is the foe of totalitarian governments. I lost track of the days, but soon a U.S. Army Air Corps C-47 with a Soviet navigator showed up to take us back into U.S. hands. They gave us a case of C-rations to consume our last night with the "Russkies". We never had better grub after subsisting on borsch and the like. The candy bars and cigarettes were quickly consumed. Next day we flew low-level under the direction of the Russian navigator to Poltava. The low-level flight was designed to prevent the American C-47 aircrew from viewing USSR airfields and other military activity. The Cold War had its beginning even before the hot one (WW II) ended. While at Poltava, we were issued uniforms and underwear to replace those we had been wearing for two weeks. The trek from Lodz back to Amendola would be via Teheran, Iran; Cairo, Egypt; Athens, Greece and Bari, Italy. Upon arrival back at the 2nd Bomb Group we found our possessions were packed and about to be shipped to our next-of-kin. Our tentmates had removed and consumed our hoarded beverages. We were, after all, declared missing in action and presumed dead. The dead don't drink, so our stash of booze was gone. Thanks, guys! By now, Bill Prescott's wound was healed and the Group's medics would not support award of the Purple Heart. They reasoned that since he was not hospitalized nor a wound visible, the request for the award could not be honored. It would take another 46 years for the Air Force to finally give him that medal that none of us seeks. At its 1991 reunion in Dayton, Ohio, the Second Bombardment Association's program included an awards ceremony at which former SSgt Bill Prescott received that long overdue Purple Heart! Thus the final chapter was closed on "Twenty Five Is A Bad Number."
* The author has been in touch with a Polish aviation writer who has published accounts of allied aircraft that were shotdown or landed in Poland during WW II. The writer, Michal Mucha, has identified the sod airfield where the Collens aircrew was taken as Opole, Poland. Mucha and others are collaborating to produce an historical account of those events. More detail can be obtained by contacting Mucha at email address firstname.lastname@example.org."
"The article...is my account of our aircrew experience when we were forced to land at Lodz, Poland on March 15, 1945 due to flak damage while attempting to bomb the refinery at Ruhland, Germany. The article was published in the Second Bombardment Association newsletters of January and June 1993, and excerpts in both Polish and Russian by an aviation writer in Poland.