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303rd Bomb Group – Luckiest Man Alive

Reprinted from Flying Fortress Newsletter, Spring 1997

On January 3rd, 1943, in the midst of a bombing raid on German torpedoes stores at St. Nazaire, France, a miracle took place that is remembered 50 plus years after.

S/Sgt. Alan Magee, from the 360th Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group , a gunner in B-17 #41-24620 , aptly named Snap! Crackle! Pop!, was tossed out of his burning aircraft at 20,000 feet. Unfortunately he was not wearing a parachute. As he fell from the B-17 four engine bomber, he asked God to save his life. I don’t wish to die because I know nothing of life, was his appeal as he hit the freezing air at 20,000 feet. Then he lost consciousness and crashed through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. He regained consciousness in the first aid station where he was carried before he was taken to the hospital.

I owe the German military doctor who treated me a debt of gratitude , said Magee. He told me. “We are enemies, but I am first a doctor and I will do my best to save your arm..” The doctor, whose name he never found out, saved his arm and also took care of his multitude of injuries. All of this action took place on the 303rd Bomb Group’s ninth bombing mission and the fifth mission to St. Nazaire. It proved to be a costly mission. The group lost four aircraft to enemy action. One carried Major C.C. Sheridan, the 427th Squadron Commander. On the 23rd of September 1995, Alan Magee, accompanied by his wife, Helen, returned to St. Nazaire to take part in a ceremony sponsored by French citizens, dedicating a memorial to his even fellow crew-members that were killed in the crash of Snap! Crackle! Pop! In the forest of La Baule Escoublac on January 3rd, 1943.

The Magee’s were welcomed to France by Michel Lugez, American Memorial Association President, who greeted them at the Nantes/Atlantique Airport and acted as their escort throughout the various ceremonies. On Saturday morning, September 3rd, after a mass in memory of the seven killed aviators, the entourage proceeded to the crash site where the memorial was unveiled and dedicated, decorated with many wreaths. This was followed by the planting of “Tree of Peace” by Magee.

The following day the Magees were escorted by Michel Lugez to visit the U.S. Military Cemetery of St. James in Normandy, where Alan paid his respects at the graves of his crew-mates; Lt. G. Wintersetter, T/Sgt. L.C. Hart, T/Sgt. A.M. Union, Sgt. M. L. Milam and S/Sgt. E.W. Durant. During his visit to St. Nazaire, Alan visited the Hermitage Hotel, where he was treated by the German doctor, they also visited the submarine pens, the harbor, the ancient railroad station with glass roof that cushioned his fall 50 years before, he said, “I thought it was much smaller.” Actually he had never seen the railroad station before because he was unconscious when he hit it on his 20,000 foot fall. Alan was named “Citizen of Honor” of the St. Nazaire by it’s Mayor. “It should be reported that St. Nazaire was 90% destroyed,” said Michel Lugez. Also numerous Nazairians were deported to the concentration camps by the Germans or were shot while helping U.S. Aviators evade the enemy in their escape efforts to get to Spain to rejoin their units back in England. Also, the landing in Normandy and our liberation by the U.S. Army and Allied troops was very much appreciated by the population.”

Lt. G. M. Herrington, the navigator of the crew lost his leg to enemy gunfire. He was captured upon landing and later became one of the first A.A.F. men to be repatriated. He died in 1987. S/Sgt. J. I. Gordon, who also bailed out and became a POW is still among the unknown number of people we have never located.