FRANK FARR & MERSEBURG, GERMANY
|B17 mission: Merseburg, Germany
Just out of Merseburg was the Leuna oil refinery, perhaps the most important of several such refineries
in the Reich. It was tenaciously defended. I've heard that there were more flak guns ringing Merseburg than Berlin.
I don't know if this is so, but certainly Merseburg was one of the most dreaded targets we flew to in Germany. Merseburg
is in the vicinity of Leipzig, a great city in the east-central Germany.
On Nov. 2, 1944, when the 91st BG flew
to Merseburg, it lost 13 B-17s, each with at least nine men on it. That was the largest number lost by the 91st in a
single mission in the entire war.
I was in the 323rd Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group (of Memphis Belle fame). On Nov. 2,
1944, our group was sent to bomb the refinery at Merseburg. It was my second trip there, and I didn't look forward to
I was flying as a substitute navigator with Lt. O.J. Snow in "Winged Victory," a B-17 with an image
of the Venus of Samothrace (Nike) painted on the nose. My regular plane, "Pard," was being flown by "Rusty" Rustand.
He died in the Merseburg battle. Nice guy, and a fine pilot. I had navigated for them (as a veteran of combat)
in their first mission.
We flew through heavy flak to drop our bombs. Flak accounted for at least one of our
group before the fighters came. Fighters, Me109s and FW190s, hit us right after "bombs away," just before 1 p.m., if
memory doesn't deceive me. They ripped us. They lined up several abreast high and behind us, then zoomed down
through our formations, tearing us apart with 20 mm. cannons. With all our guns firing, they darted through us repeatedly.
The third pass hit our left wing tanks and set the wing afire. With no hope of putting out such a fire, out pilot ordered
I recorded all this faithfully in my navigator's log--time of bandits attack, direction of the attack,
the usual log entries. Then I got up from my navigator's work bench and turned to my machine gun in the right side of
the nose. Before I could get the second of two hooks undone, the bail out order came. I was happy to leave the
burning plane. I had been hit by tiny 20 mm fragments, but I didn't know how seriously. When I bailed out, I didn't
attempt to open the chute until I judged I had fallen to about 10,000 feet. (We bailed out at about 25,000) When
I pulled the rip cord, it failed to open the chute. I can still see that bright red handle with a wire attached--and
I was still falling. Reflexively, I clawed at the front of my chest-pack chute and succeeded in pulling out a piece
of silk (nylon) that the wind caught. The chute opened, and I was falling through the most intense quiet I ever remember
experiencing. I could see bits of burning airplane falling.
When I hit the ground, I was covered immediately
by two men, one with a rifle, the other with a shotgun. My jacket was shredded by the 20 mm cannon fragments, but only
three tiny bits penetrated my shoulder. I remember walking with my arms up, the two armed men behind me.
The shoulder hurt a little bit, and my left arm tended to sag. Each time, the guy with the shotgun would tap it with
the barrel of his gun, and I'd hoist it up again.
November second –
Merseburg day –
So many airmen
Marked by death
And blood and gore.
Six-score and ten
Went down in flames.
Went down in flames –
What were their names?
In the sky –
Doomed to die.
Six-score and ten
Let’s not forget
This fateful day.
by Frank Farr
|"B-17 Navigator" by Frank Farr
The two gunmen escorted
me into an enclosed farm yard—one of those European farms where the house, the fence, and the outhouses join to make
a complete enclosure. Then the man with the shotgun, by far the most unfriendly
of the two, told me to back up against a stone wall, and he took his gun off his shoulder.
For a fleeting moment, I was sure he was going to shoot me; and I determined instantly not to show him I was feeling
Almost as quickly
I realized he hadn’t intended to shoot me after all. This was a tiny community,
and I was an instant curiosity. Among the handful of people who came to look
was a jovial gentleman who seemed to be a man of some influence. With him was
a young girl, perhaps 16 years old. We had a pleasant little conversation while
the man with the shotgun glowered. The man asked where I was from in the States. Aware that I shouldn’t really tell him the truth, I said “San Francisco.” The girl admired the shiny green nylon that covered the wiring in my electrically
heated vest. I took it off and gave it to her.
She put it on and preened like any American teenager. A young woman in
the farmhouse wanted to bring me a chair, but the shotgun guy wouldn’t let her.
After an hour or
two of standing in the yard, I was taken to what appeared to be a little home guard station just outside the village. I was to be kept there until transportation to a larger center arrived—Dessau,
I believe. While I was there, a sympathetic soldier, several years older than
I, took from his footlocker a cookie and gave it to me. He let me know that his
mother, who lived in Hamburg, had made them. I was touched by his compassion,
the more so because the 8th Air Force had bombed Hamburg relentelessly. The
man told me was a veteran of the fighting on the eastern front (Russia). When
I offered to share a bite of chocolate from my flying suit, he refused. I thought
he was telling me that I would need it.
A badly wounded
airman was brought in, his face covered with blood so I couldn’t recognize him.
He knew me, though, and told me he had survived the explosion that took Rusty’s life. He had flown his first combat mission with me as navigator. I
had done an outstanding job on that day, and he thought I was something special. I
gave him a blanket that the soldier-guard had given me and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Besides the head injuries he had a broken arm. (The guard
brought me another blanket.) A young nurse came in to tend, as best she could,
to the wounded airman—a sling for his arm, a bandage for his head. She
asked if I had been wounded, and with my left shoulder still smarting a bit, I said that was minor damage to that area.
When I peeled back
my shirt so we could see the shoulder, we burst out laughing. The only visible
wound was three tiny punctures that had bled maybe a drop or two each. I hastily
covered my shoulder, considerably embarrassed; but the girl said, “Nein, nein,” and directed me to uncover my
“wounds” again so she could put disinfectant on them. I hated to
see her go.
Some time after
dark, a truck came to transport us to a larger “collection center,” Several
other captured airmen were already in the truck. The guards took us to a basement
in the downtown district of what I believe was Dessau. More than 100 prisoners
were already there. The following day they put us on a train, and we were taken
to Dulagt Luft, a notorious interrogation center. We were too many to allow for
the full treatment of incoming prisoners, so some of us were lucky and were not kept very long at Dulag Luft. I was one of the lucky ones; after three days, I moved on to a sort of clean-up delousing center in Wetzlar
along with many other prisoners. There we were given showers and new GI clothing,
Red Cross food parcels (with cigarettes), and felt generally comfortable. We
were there a week. My pilot, O.J. Snow, and I and a man who could play the saxophone
formed a little band and entertained the other troops for three or four nights of the week we spent there. O.J. played piano, and I played guitar.
Our next move took
us by train east across Germany to Stalag Luft III at Sagan, near the Polish border.
Six American airmen were moved into a large room with six RAF flyers. The
British already had things pretty well organized, and we were comfortable in Stalag Luft III.
We were only there two months, though, before orders came to pack up and prepare to hit the road. The Russians were coming in from the east, and the Germans didn’t want us to be liberated. We marched for five bitter winter days in January, 1945, along snow-covered roads, sleeping in whatever
makeshift accommodations the German guards could find. We spent at least one
night in a barn. Another was in a bomb-out glass factory. We carried as much food from our Red Cross food parcels as we could—and as many cigarettes. Cigarettes were like money. They could
be traded with the Germans for items of food or, on at least one occasion that I remember, a canteen full of beer.
The march was brutal
for some. Those who couldn’t make it were loaded onto wagons and trundled
along at the rear of the column. After five days we were loaded—crammed-into
the little box cars that were called “40 and 8s” in World War I and hauled southwest to Stalag VII-A. It was just outside of the little city of Moosburg, not far from Munich.
Stalag VII-A was
desperately overcrowded and with very few comforts. There were no baths to be
had there, though a very few hardier prisoners than I stripped in the cold and sponged off with cold water from the only tap
available for a prison hut with two or three hundred or more airmen “making do.”
We had a large, pit-type outdoor toilet—perhaps a 10-holer. We wore
the same clothes that we arrived in during our stay in VII-A—about four months.
I was interned in
an officers’ section of Stalag VII-A, and we suffered more from neglect than from any real ill treatment. However, I have read real horror stories told by enlisted prisoners in other sections of the camp.
I believe that the
degree of “horror” the prison camp had for individuals depended a great deal
upon the individual’s perception of it. So the same conditions that
were uncomfortable and inconvenient for me, essentially an optimist, might have seemed horrible to another person.
I lost about 20
pounds during my six months as a prisoner, weighing about 115 when we were liberated by Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Bigger guys lost a lot more weight.
My experiences in the prison camp, from my capture Nov. 2,, 1944,
until the liberation April 29, 1945 are detailed in my book “P.O.W. – A Kriegie’s Story.” My training and preparation for combat are described in my second book, “B-17 Navigator.” A third book, when it's done, will fill in the gap and deal with my experiences
flying combat out of Bassingbourn, England, where the 91st was based.
These books may be ordered from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org), from the publisher (<authorhouse.com>) or from amazon.com.