Splasher 6 Newsletter
On September 16, 2000, Bob Wolff wrote a letter to his six surviving crewmates. He began the letter by telling his friends to note the date and think back 57 years! No doubt the men didn’t have trouble visualizing the date and happenings from so long ago.
Bob and Barbara Wolff had decided to tour southern France. They found the country beautiful and the people very nice. After the tour, they hired a drive/interpreter and headed for La Rochelle to see if they could locate the stone prison that held Bob’s crew the night of 16 Sept 43, their first night of captivity. Bob could visualize his cell, but couldn’t recall the building or the surroundings too well, so he hoped to find some local people that might remember the location.
Rob, the driver/interpreter had written ahead to several people in the area who had agreed to help Bob and Barbara with their search. One was Monsieur Jean Labadans, a hero of the resistance fighters. "He did a lot of damage to the Germans during their occupation of France in WWII and has many medals from his grateful country."
Monsieur Labadans drove with the Wolff to the Mayor’s office, where the police had reserved a parking place for them. They found 15 or so people waiting for them there. Bob and Barbara were treated to a speech by the mayor, followed by the presentation of medals and a bottle of Napoleon cologne made in the area.
The Mayor’s ceremony was followed by a short journey to a Veteran’s Hall where 30 or more people greeted the party. The room was decorated with paper garlands and American and French flags. Bob found himself being interviewed, photographed and giving endless handshakes. "I was flabbergasted! I was a celebrity to these people and I felt very honored. Many of these people had not been born at the time we ditched; yet they were interested in helping me to find the plane and the prison where we were held our first night as POW’s. I was humbled, honored, speechless, and amazed."
The following morning they boarded a boat for a tour around the peninsula and Ile. d’Aix, a small island where Bob thought the prison might be located. "The entire forward portion of the tour boat was reserved for our party, which included a TV anchorwoman and cameraman! On the far side of the island the boat stopped and an announcement was made that this was where our plane rested. It was at Latitude 45 58.70N, Longitude 1 11.76 W. It’s actually marked on the local charts as being about 50 feet down at high tide. The announcement included the story of our final flight and I found myself thinking back.
The war that we were expecting to engulf the U.S. came in an unexpected way, Pearl Harbor. I didn’t want to be drafted, so I enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Thus began my journey to Thorpe Abbotts and the 100th Bomb Group.
The day before our last mission, our plane had been flown by another crew who brought it back with quite a few holes in it. Repairs were being made all night, but were not complete by takeoff time, so we were two hours late in taking off. It was no big problem because we were "tail end Charlie"…the last and the lowest plane in the formation…so it was easy to fit into the group when we finally caught up to them. It was the most dangerous spot in the formation and was our eighth mission. On our way to the target, which was in Southern France, the group flew very low to avoid German radar which covered most of England. At one time, over Wales, I believe we were so low we had to go around a hill with a tall antenna on it.
As we approached our target, near La Rochelle, we turned inland at about 17,000 feet to find the target was obscured by clouds. As the group turned to the secondary target, we were attacked by fighters and flak. Our plane lost the number three engine and after getting it feathered we started to catch up to the group with three engines. At that point, the number two engine got it and, as we found out later, we acquired large hole in the tail.
With only two engines in operation, we could not maintain formation and were falling behind, so we dove toward the ground to get away from fighters and flak. However, six German ME-109 fighters came after us. We got two of them. I saw one go down, smoking, behind some trees, and, flying at an altitude of about 50 to 100 feet, we dodged a bridge and a church steeple. The town was Rochefort, I think, and then we were out over water and the fighters left.
Three miles out to sea, I heard a ‘pop’ and then a ‘pop, pop.’ The right outboard engine had blown three cylinder heads and caught fire. We were pushing it too hard, I guess. There was no choice but to land in the water. It was a good landing, the water was smooth and we all got out and into the dinghies. The plane floated less than ten minutes, but we had a good chance to see the hole in the tail (which I hadn’t felt when it happened). Then it dove to the bottom.
A French fishing boat picked us up in a short time, but a German patrol boat was right behind them, with a machine gun trained on us. The fishing boat was directed to a dock on a small island not too far away where the Germans surrounded us. We were now prisoners of war. The date was September 16, 1943.
The German military, at that time, did not mistreat their prisoners, but we were not treated as heroes either. Our first night was in an old stone castle on the island. It was not too pleasant. We were in individual cells, about four by eight feet, a stone shelf with straw for a bed, a pit at one end for ‘relief’ and a covered hole in the heavy wood door thought which we received food, a gruel with black bread."
Bob’s attention was brought back to the present as the announcer finished his story. He was astounded when the other people on the boat burst into applause. It was quite an experience.
The Mayor of Aix came out in a Coast Guard boat, and followed the tour boat into shore. He greeted Bob and Barbara. The Mayor had been 13 at the time Bob’s plane ditched, and he had seen the aircraft go in. He has lived on the island most of his life and indicated that he knew of no prison cells on the island. The most likely spot of incarceration was the Citadel on Ile. D’Oleron.
The next day we left for London. From London, the Wolffs took a train to Diss, where Ron Batley, the 100th BG Museum curator, picked them up. It was, in a way, the finishing of that last mission…returning home to Thorpe Abbotts.
"We were last at Thorpe Abbotts in 1984, and at that time is was a pretty good museum. However since then, they have done a fantastic job of transforming the control tower from what was originally a neglected and shabby building in a field of weeds, to an interesting and historical site that does credit, not only to the 100th, but to those that rebuilt and maintain this site. It is one of the finest museums of its type in Britain.
Ron and his crew gave us the grand tour. The tower and the adjacent Nissen huts are a gold mine of information. My granddaughters said that it made the war real to them, not just pictures or lines in a book. We rode the big jeep out to where the runway was. It’s now part of a farm, but you can still see where it was. In the tower were my dog tags (both GI and POW), and other wartime items I had sent them, including my GI watch, which was still ticking! (No joke, I think they wound it for my visit.)
The Varian Center is big and comfortable with pictures, videos, gift shop and refreshments. The area is beautified with grass and trees, and is truly a fine reminder of a great organization. After several hours, we took our leave on the late afternoon train knowing the museum is in good hands.
If you get the chance, go. You won’t regret it.