Virgil Marco, Sr.

B-17 crew
A B-17 bomber crew during World War II.

The Price for Freedom

Then suddenly, Bert F. Kaylor, the tail gunner, screamed, “Jerries at 6 o’clock!“ I thought, "Boy, that’s right up our butts!” 

Contributed by Virgil R. Marco, Sr.

As Hitler’s war machine rolled over Europe in 1941, America began preparing for war. Peaceful negotiations had failed to stop Hitler. The Europeans found out too late that negotiations with a dictator are useless and soon found out what it’s like to lose their freedom. If only the great depression had never happened. Blame it on the depression. People were hungry and desperate for jobs, blindly supporting the politicians promising good times. The last thing anybody wanted was war. However, to stay free it became necessary.

I was a senior at W. H. Adamson High School in Dallas, Texas when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. My friend, Robert Carlisle, had joined the naval reserves and was on the Arizona for training when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred. Robert was killed in the attack. He lived only a few houses east of my home on Sunset Street.

In the fall of 1942, while attending my first semester at Texas A & M University, I learned that another one of my friends and former neighbor had been killed in action on a bomber raid over Europe. His name was Truman C. Wilder, Jr. Truman was an only child and his mother, Mrs. Birdie Wilder, was his only support working at the nearby Sears store. They lived at 312 ½ Sunset in a four-unit apartment house across the street from my home. Truman graduated from W. H. Adamson High School in June 1940 and joined the Air Force in January 1942 along with several of his classmates, Jack Harris, Bob Redwine, Ernest A. Redwine, Jr. and Mike Elphingstone. Jack Harris and Bob Redwine survived the war but Ernest, Bob’s brother, and Mike did not. Mike lost his life in 1943 on a heavy bomber in the South Pacific. Ernest was with the 305th Bomb Group flying as waist gunner on a Flying Fortress when he lost his life on May 17, 1943 on a mission to Lorient, France. He was buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery in Cambridge, England.

At the end of the 1942 fall semester when I returned home from Texas A & M, I found that I had received my greetings from Uncle Sam. By February 1943, I was in the Air Force training to be a gunner on a B-17 bomber like Truman, Ernest and Mike.

Most 19-year-olds living in Dallas never think that in a little more than a year they will be traveling through an unfamiliar country evading enemy capture during a war, but that’s exactly what happened to me over 60 years ago.

I entered the military at age 19 on Feb. 12, 1943 and was sent to Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells, Texas, where I received my uniforms and was given two choices for training in the various branches of the Army. My first choice was the Air Force and my second choice was the Infantry. I was granted my first choice and was sent to Sheppard Field for basic training.

I went to Buckley Field, Colo., and then to Lowery Field, Colo., to train as an armorer. I then attended flight training as gunner on a heavy bomber at the Las Vegas Aerial Gunnery School at Las Vegas Army Airfield where I received my gunner’s wings.

I was then assigned to a B-17 crew at Dalhart Army Airfield, Texas, as tail gunner where I received combat training with the Lincoln Crew, named after Capt. J. W. Lincoln, our combat crew commander. I was then assigned to the 8th Air Force as a tail gunner on the Lincoln Crew, a part of the 366th Bomb Squadron, 305th Bomb Group.

On April 24, 1944, our crew was on a mission to bomb a target 15 miles south of Munich, Germany.

When approaching our target, 20 or 30 ME-109s attacked us at 1:00 high, hitting our number one engine. Without enough power to keep up, we continued flying over the target, dropped our bombs and began drifting back and below the rest of our group. Our escorting P-47 fighters arrived after the battle and informed us that we would have to fly home the best way possible without their protection. They had to stay with the rest of the group.

Our Crew proceeded toward our home base, Chelveston, England. We continued to lose altitude as we went along.

We were now flying at an altitude of 1,400 feet. An enemy FW-190 sneaked up on the rear of our plane and began firing its guns. The navigator, Phil Campbell, left the plane by parachute along with the waist gunner, Bill Bergman. Then a few minutes later, the FW-190 opened fire again. Gene Snodgrass, the other waist gunner, myself, the tail gunner along with the ball turret gunner, James Mayfield bailed out in that order.

Captain Lincoln flew the crippled plane down to a successful crash landing in a cow pasture near Leuze, France, close to the French-Belgian border. The radio operator gunner, I. W. Denemy and the ball turret gunner, James Mayfield, lost their lives as a result of this short battle.

After parachuting from the plane, I landed in a field near where Gene Snodgrass had landed. We met up and were led by a French boy named Pierre Bonnet to a Catholic priest’s home. The priest gave us a map and some directions.

Following the directions on the map, we made our way to Guignicourt, the last town circled on the map. Six days had passed since the plane was shot down. Guignicourt’s mayor drove us to Bouconville, where we hid in the home of an underground agent.

After about two weeks, Gene Snodgrass and I were taken to Chauny, France, where we stayed with the Tavernier family. Another underground agent brought Bill Bergman, also a member of our crew, to the Tavernier home.

On June 6, D-Day, Gene, Bill and I were taken to a farm near Chauny where we met 50 American And British fliers who had been hiding in Chauny. Some were shot down a few days earlier and some over a year ago.

Gene, Bill and I spent the next three months in hiding until liberated by the American 1st Army on Sept. 2, 1944. We were very fortunate that the French and Belgians were waiting to help us.

I survived the war however some of my friends did not. Since then I have been searching and wondering what happened to Truman Wilder. While reading Martin W. Bowman’s book, “Castles in the Air”, I found Truman’s story told by his surviving Bombardier with the 306th Bomb Group, 367th Bomb Squadron.

The 306th was activated at Boise, Idaho, on 1 March 1942 as the 306th Bombardment Group, trained in B-17s in the Western US until the Group deployed to Thurleigh, Bedford County, England in August 1942. The 306th Bomb Group became one of the pioneer units of the Eighth Air Force. Training continued until the Group was operationally ready to flew their first combat mission on 9 October 1942. The 306th Commander, Colonel Overacker, led this daylight precision attack against locomotive works at Lille, France. Only one B-17 was lost, even though this mission had no allied fighter escort.

On October 9, 1942 between 08:00 and 08:30 hours the John Olsen crew in their plane, Snoozy II, took off finding their place in the 306th Bomb Group formation headed to France.

The Bombardier of the John Olsen crew, Al La Chasse recalls: “Some smoke and dust covered the target area in Lille, France. As we continued the run, a line of B-24s out of position, were coming across the target area from the east, heading towards England. Flak hit our right inboard engine and set it on fire. Norman Gates, the co-pilot, somehow extinguished it. Flak increased. I was surprised it came in so many colors. On the bomb run Captain Olsen trimmed the ship before turning the controls over to me. After our flak, the Norden bombsight automatically made the corrections necessary to right the ship on course. I released the bomb load, not knowing there would be several malfunctions causing bomb rack problems.

The plane lifted, lightened by the bomb drop. The B-24s were now behind us. It was 09:42 – time over the target as per mission plan. For Snoozy II (41-24510) the war was about to begin and end. With only three engines pulling we began a silly 360-degree into enemy territory. Where were the P-38s? None! At about 1,000 yards at 3 o’clock there immediately appeared in line astern, a gaggle of ME-109s with four years war experience stalking us. “Ass-end Charlie” was about to become a “sitting duck!” The interphone came alive with voices.

“Bandits were everywhere. “Where are those damn P-38s?” Sounds like typing on loose paper indicated that enemy shells were ripping into the ship’s skin surfaces. Snoozy II began to lag behind the rest of the formation. “Honest John”, McKee’s ship, tried lagging back with us. Good old “Honest John”, he tried.

Tracers were coming and going in all directions. “How can I toggle armed bombs in a canted ship?” I thought. They hadn’t taught me that in cadet training. I thought, “Salvo!” That’s it, dump the whole damn load, bombs, shackles and all”.

Now we were headed west, towards the White Cliffs of Dover. Then suddenly, Bert F. Kaylor, the tail gunner, screamed “Jerries at 6 o’clock “! I thought: boy that’s right up our butts”. Out of the sun the bastards came. I could feel each gunner’s position as they fired. Tail, ball and waist each took turns. Again, “where are those damn P-38s?” Now only Truman Wilder, the ball turret gunner, was still firing. Oh, oh, a belly attack was coming. All at once a German fighter right by our nose with a dirty yellow belly and nose with a white prop’ spinner and black painted corkscrew lines like a top. I tried to contact everyone on the interphone but there was no sound. From behind came a hell of a thumping noise. We had taken a full burst of 20 mm cannon into the flight deck. Shortly thereafter the sun went by the nose as the ship went into a flat spin. We were lucky; it could have been in a right vertical spin. Bill Gise, our navigator, got caught in the centrifugal force of the spin. Everything loose flew through the air and plastered on the side of the ship. We finally made it back to the escape hatch to bail out into the “wild blue yonder”. I followed Gise out after some trouble with the hatch. God must have opened it. The ride down was just like the book on parachutes said it would be—scary, but nice. I was alive!

A twenty-two year old German FW-190 pilot, Otto Peter Stammberger, gave this account of his second victory. “I carried out my approach from the rear of the Snoozy II. At full throttle I fired way too early concentrating on the engines of the left wing After the third pass the left two engines were in flames as I concentrated on the right wing. The enemy bomber began slipping to the left while losing altitude and began a big spiral. At an altitude of 200 meters, three or four men were able to bail out before the plane crashed to the ground.”

La Chasse, Gise and Erwin Wissenbeck, the top turret gunner, were the only three to bail out. La Chasse was thrown into various jails including the infamous Napoleonic prison of St. Giles near Brussels. At Dulag Luft he discovered that he was only the 18th American POW. La Chasse finished the war at Stalag Luft III, Sagan in Silesia.

Truman Wilder was returned to the USA for burial on April 30, 1952 at the Ft. McPherson National Cemetery near Maxwell, Nebraska.

We paid a huge cost for freedom in this war by trying to negotiate peace with dictator nations. Will we ever learn? Nobody wants War, however Peace is usually the result of War. Too bad it does not last longer without further violence.

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