As written by Robert L. Fowler for the book "Shoot-Downs and Captures of 390th Bomb Group Personnel", compiled by David W. Wetherill, August, 1991.
Robert L. Fowler
Another Unbelievable Shot Down Story
The December 20, 1943 mission for the 390th Bomb Group was
Bremen. The Big Bad Bremen. We had been there before and
vividly remembered the flak barrage. Our crew was part of the
Pilot- 2nd Lt. Bill Riley, Copilot- 2nd tt. Robert L. Fowler,
Navigator- Ed Kodis, Bombardier- 2nd Lt. Red Mulloy, TTG-Ray
Brooks, RG-~S/Sgt. Carboneau, BTG— S/Sgt. Fura, LWG-S/Sgt. Bob
Hansen, RWG-’Sell, TG S/Sgt. Frank Marianni.
By the time we reached the French Coast our No. 4 engine, that had just been replaced, was heating. We backed off a little on the power and relaxed our tight flying position on the outside of the formation. About fifteen minutes before we were to make a ninety degree turn to the left, toward Bremen, number 4 was smoking and we were falling behind.
We had a dilemma! We could see German fighters trailing our formation, waiting for stragglers. We had no fighter escort this deep into the continent.
We decided to “cut across shorty’ to join the intended run to Bremen because the engine had to be shut down. It was windmilling and smoking.
Then all hell broke out. Flak was hitting us as we were losing altitude. Another engine was smoking. ME 1lOs and FW 109s began their shooting gallery. The ME l1Os were coming up under us, making huge holes with their 20 mm cannons. Our gunners got four or five fighters, but we were badly crippled. Most of the controls out, the auto pilot out and couldn’t dump our bombs. We dove the plane down to the tree-tops to protect our belly, red-lining all the way. Another engine on fire, we realized we weren’t going to get back to Framlingham. We thought we might be able to make our way to Sweden, but at ~ about this time we skimmed over the trees right over Wilhelmshaven on the coast and they shot everything they had at us. Cap pistols, BB guns, up to 105 mm cannons.
We could ditch or bail out. Ditching was out because we know that we would last thirty minutes in the North Sea in December. So Riley ordered everyone to bail out. Up to this point no one had been injured, which was incredible. Lt. Ed Kodis, the navigator, was the first man out, and we found out later from the Germans that he drowned in a canal. I’m sure he was shot while he was in his parachute, because we were under fire all the time the crew was bailing out at 500 feet! Riley and I were fighting to control the plane halfway level. We both stood up behind the pilots’ seats. The plan was to dive out the front hatch on the count of three. I beat Riley to the hole and got my chute open at about a thousand feet. I saw the plane, with six tons of bombs still on board, crash through a forest. No explosion and I did not see Riley chute out. As I was coming down in my chute I could picture in my mind a squadron briefing the week before presented by a guy in a body cast telling us how not to land in a parachute backwards. I managed to get forward just as I landed in about two foot of snow on a wehrmacht drill field!
Two German soldiers ran toward me shouting, “Hands up!” Every time I put my hands up my chute would drag me filling my A-2 jacket with snow. I finally disregarded the rifles and dumped the chute and unbuckled. They marched me to the day room where a sergeant sat me down in a chair. He got on a phone shouting German. They did not search me, but when I reached for my cigarettes and lighter they took them away from me.
About two hours after dark a Luftwaffe sergeant came, searched me and locked me in a little paddy wagon. The next hour or two he picked up the rest of my crew. Then Lo and behold! There came Riley, alive and grinning but limping, with one flying boot missing.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d thought he had gone down with the plane. Riley said, after I dove out of the plane it dipped the left wing so bad that the centrifugal force prevented him to make it to the hatch. He then got back in the pilot’s seat and shoved the wheel forward to get it over with! Riley said the plane skittered through the trees tearing one wing off and the throttle quadrant had his foot pinned down. He managed to slip his foot from his boot, fell outside the plane, and crawled away, where the Germans found him. Now, that is unbelievable!
Gathering our crew took nearly all night and by morning we were After this ordeal they took us by train to Frankfurt on Main where we put in solitary confinement for about three days. They threatened us with shooting for being gangsters and spies to get information. We didn’t know anything and we didn’t tell them anything. We got out on Christmas Day 1943.
They put us in a box car with other prisoners with one bucket of water and three loaves of the hardest black bread I ever saw. We were sent to Stalag Luft 1, at Barth on the Baltic Sea. There were about 100 British Pilots who had been shot down at Dunkirk in 1939! We were very hungry but managed to survive until May of 1945 when our captors informed us that all prisoners of war were to be marched to Berlin or be liquidated because the Russians were coming to our vicinity. We flat refused to budge and the guards left during the night. We took over the towns, rounded up what live stock we could find. A few paratroop prisoners, knowledgeable of booby traps, etc., went over to the adjoining airport and “debugged the premises, got the radios going and in contact with London. The mayor of Barth wanted to send all their women and children out to our camp, but of course our officers refused to take that responsibility. When the Russians came to Barth, it was reported that the mayor shot his wife and daughter and then hanged himself.
I was happier to get away from the Russians than the Germans. The Russians had to document everyone before we could leave the camp.
We were finally flown out to Rheims, France, to Camp Twenty Grand, a tent city reception center for prisoners of war. We were fed soup and soft foods and eggnog because our stomachs were shrunken. For several days I would walk through many thousands of ex-prisoners until I found our sergeants who had been interned in Austria. They were together and well.
We left Le Havre, France, on a Liberty ship, June 1, 1945 and arrived fifteen days later to see the Statue of Liberty and New York.