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Bianchi War Experiences

by Leo J. Bianchi

POW 26 Nov 1943 – Bremen

I entered-the Army Air Force in November of 1942. (The Air Force was called the Army Air Force then ) I took my basic training at Miami Beach, Florida. I was sent to Lowry Field, Colorado for “aircraft armament” training. I was then sent to Rattlesnake Bomber Base in Pyote, Texas where we had our bomber training. My bomber crew was sent to Dalhart, Texas for our second phase of training. We practiced bombing at the Wichita Falls and Midland, Texas bombing ranges. I was trained for all types of aircraft armament for almost a year. Upon completion of training we received our orders for duty overseas.

We flew to Scotland and then to Thorpe Abbotts, England where we were assigned to the 349th Bomb Squadron of the 100th Bomb Group. It was difficult getting use to the English weather because it was foggy and raining all the time and the German bombers kept us awake all the time. Our bomber was a B-17G with a chin-turret mounted under the nose of the plane. Our bomber consisted of 10 crewmen. Pilot, (George W. Ford) Co-pilot) (Jean B. Pitner) Navigator (Arno E. Plischke) Bombardier, (Arthur G. Bodei) Radio Operator (Max S. Newman) Top-Turret Gunner (Andrew F, Hathaway) Ball-Turret Gunner(George E. Jones) Right-Waist Gunner(Leo J, Bianchi) Left-Waist Gunner (Delton L. King and Tail-Gunner(Garl G. Glasmeier).

In November of 1943 we got orders to fly a diversion raid for Bremen, Germany. To divert German air defenses from the main Bremen raid we had to bomb a “Ball-bearing Factory” in Paris, France. We were to precede the Bremen raid; to draw the German planes and anti-aircraft fire away from the main attack force. When the flare went up (the signal to take off) we were off

into the darkness. By the time daylight broke all the B-24’s, B-17’s and P-47 Fighters that went with us were in the air flying in a giant circle over England as far as the eye could see there were over a thousand air- planes in all directions making up the formation that were to fly our missions. Finally the “go flare” came up and we headed across the English Channel to our target. Well, I guess we did draw the fire away from the main body. I never saw so many anti-craft puffs in the air in one raid. We also encountered Luftwaffe Focke-Wolfe fighters,

About 40 miles from Paris we were hit in the right wing with anti-aircraft fire which set the wing on fire, Then FW’s came in with 20 millimeter machine gun fire which completely disabled our plane. It was on fire and going down and the communications to the front of the plane was shot away along with the control cables, I looked around and saw that some of my crewmen were badly injured, Left Waist-gunner, King, was closest to me. He seemed dazed and in the state of shock, He was just standing in the escape hatch, I saw that he had his chute on so I pushed him out of the hatch. The Tail-gunner was very badly injured and was entangled in the control cables. I untangled him, put on his parachute and put him gently out of the hatch. I looked around once more and saw the Radioman, Newman with his hand on his chest. I pulled his hand away and saw a lot of blood and realized that he had a large chest wound; I strapped his chute on him and helped him out of the escape hatch. I was ready to jump when I saw the Ball-turret man, Jones, trying to stand up, It was difficult because his left leg was shot off and it was hanging on with the wires on his heated flight suit, I had no time to apply a tourniquet or give first-aid because the plane was on fire and going down. I pulled the chute harness strap up as hard as I could because I had to shut off the blood supply on the right side of his crotch. He screamed all the time I was attending to him. Finally after what seemed and eternity I gently dragged him to the escape hatch and pushed him out. Later at the Dulug Luft I learned from a British Spitfire pilot that he thought Jones was in a German hospital ward in France with him, Evidently Jones was very upset because of the loss of his leg and he wouldn’t eat, He literally starved himself to death according to this British Pilot, During all this time there was 20 millimeter machine-gun fire popping all around us. I was hit in the legs and didn’t realize it until I saw all the saturated blood on my legs, I was very fortunate to have time enough to help my wounded crew members, get to the escape hatch and bail out before the plane went down, According to eyewitnesses a total time of 15 to 18 minutes had elapsed between the time the plane was hit and I bailed out.

Due to the strong crosswinds I landed on my side and injured my back upon impact with the ground, Two French boys tried to reach me before the German soldiers but they were captured and taken away for trying to help me, I never saw them again and often wonder what happened to them, I had to be carried to an interrogation center by the Germans. Upon reaching the interr-

igation center in Frankfort, Germany, I was put in a cell 6ft. by 6ft. These cells were used to “sweat-out” information by making them very hot and then icy-cold. This lasted for about 10 days, We were then put in railroad box-cars which were used to ship about 8 horses, The Germans packed 50 men in each box-car with no food, no heat, no toilet facilities and nothing to sit on The trip lasted about 5 days through the mountains to Krems, Austria, There we were to be imprisoned in the famous Stalag 17B Prisoner-of-war Camp, The buildings were built for 50 men but the Germans packed 300 prisoners into each building. We had no heat, water was scarce and food was of starvation quantities. The winters were very cold and we had very little warm clothing and no warm foot protection, Some prisoner’s feet froze because the Germans made us stand out in the cold 2 or 3 times daily. One time we had to stand out on the parade grounds for 3 days and 3 nights while the Germans looked for a missing prisoner. I suffered frost-bite of the feet and hands at this time.

We dug many tunnels at the camp but were never successful in escaping. The Germans fed us a watery soup once a day made from weeds and coal oil. We were given a small chunk of rye bread every other day. It was made with flour and wood chips. Once I had a piece of wood in my bread as large as my little finger, Red Cross food packages were very scarce and when one food package came the Germans would puncture any canned food so we couldn’t keep it. I spent a total of 17 months and 1 week at Stalag 17B. In early April of 1945 we were taken out of the prison camp and put on a forced march across Austria, We were taken to a Point where the Inn and Danube Rivers meet in Bavaria. This forced march lasted 25 days, We had very little food with us and no protection from the rain, snow and cold. We were put in a forest at this location still under German Guard. We had to build our own shelters which was very difficult without tools,

Finally, after a few weeks we were liberated by tank spear-head of General Clark’s 3rd Army. ( Actually was Patton’s Third Army) We disarmed the German guards at this point. I disarmed a Captain and took his rifle, 22cal. pistol and a knife. We brought the German guards to a place where German prisoners were kept by the Americans.

Three days after we were liberated we flew to Reims, France on a C47 cargo plane. There we were deloused, cleaned and given clean clothing. Our next destination was LeHavre, France where we were put on a diet of boiled chicken, 1 slice of white bread and an orange to get our stomach back in shape. This place in LeHavre was called “Camp Lucky Strike, ” We were then

put aboard a Red Cross ship and brought back to America. Upon reaching the USA we were taken to “Camp Shanks” in New York, In June of 1945 I finally realized that I was on my way home to Springfield, Massachusetts. After the ordeal I had been through the world seemed

a brighter and more beautiful place. In addition to the medals my unit earned, I was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism and service above and beyond the call of duty, I also received the Purple Heart for wounds that I encountered when my plane was shot down.

I have since learned that there was an eye-witness to our bomber’s crash. A Frenchman has written to Carl Clasmeier and said that he saw what happened to our bomber. He enclosed a French map and marked the spot where our bomber crashed in France, It was gratifying to me to have the Tail-gunner/ who was from Hamilton, Ohio, live to be best man at my wedding. He is married now and has 5 children and about 6 or 7 grandchildren. We had lived and almost died together during the last moments of our bomber’s life. He will always be my friend and brother.

Leo J. Bianchi