I used the following story in conjunction with several important passages in the later chapters of Isaiah. I will be posting how the chapters are connected to this amazing experience in future posts. This story is a stunning illustration of the importance of staying engaged in the present. We never know when what we are learning right now may have application in the future. Joseph Banks is an example of this important principle. The following is a true story from his book entitled A Distant Prayer.
A Miracle Mission
By now the routine of the missions was nothing more than drudgery to be endured. When our crew name showed up on the flight list, we endured a sleepless night. At 0500 a flashlight would shine in our face and we’d crawl out of bed, get dressed, and go for breakfast. I found it odd that on some of these mornings I was famished, while on others I had no appetite at all. We always hoped for a “milk run” mission over a lightly defended target where we could go in, drop our bombs, and get out of there without having to face the black flak clouds that typified the defense of a more important military target. Unfortunately, such dream missions were few and far between.
It was about this time that we went on the second-most memorable mission of my military career. It was a raid on the Ploesti, Rumania Oil Refineries, the most heavily defended target in the Third Reich. Shortly after takeoff Jack Cook, our tail gunner, asked me to say a prayer for the crew, which I did over the interphone. When we were within range of the objective I looked out of the top gun turret. My gaze met an unbroken blanket of black smoke. The Nazis were already putting flak in our path, somehow guessing our course and altitude before we even got there. By the time we started to descend to the target the flak was unbelievable, literally shredding the metal skin of our aircraft until it looked like we were flying inside a giant sieve. As the aircraft reached a position called the Initial Point of Contact, the bombardier actually assumed control of the aircraft so he could maintain course and bearing until the moment the bombs were released. He did this using a sophisticated instrument called a Norden Bombsite, which allowed him to pilot the aircraft and release the bombs at the precise moment required to hit the target. To help everyone prepare for the inevitable jump in altitude that occurred when thousands of pounds of bombs were released, the bombardier always called out a ten-second countdown through the interphone. My heart raced at this moment, since we were most vulnerable while maintaining the constant speed and altitude needed to make an accurate drop. On this particular occasion Batch started his countdown, released the bombs, and the pilot resumed control and started a sharp banking maneuver to draw us away from the heaviest Triple A.
Just then I felt the deep concussion of a flak explosion, and the aircraft lurched underneath my feet. From my position in the top turret I could see that the number-three engine had been hit. The copilot immediately feathered the prop, (moved the disabled propeller to a neutral position where it didn’t interfere with the aerodynamics of the aircraft) and I shut down fuel lines to the engine to stave off a fire. The pilot dropped our altitude in response to the loss of power, and we started to limp back towards the safety of our own lines. The pilot instructed me to secure a damage control assessment from each member of the crew, and to report back on any damage. After all stations reported in, I was relieved to find that while we were peppered with holes, there were no injuries. The actual reporting went something like this.
Tail gunner, “We have quite a breeze back here from several large holes in the tail.”
Waist gunners, “Ten to twelve obvious holes in the fuselage.”
Lower ball turret gunner, “Visual inspection shows two or three large holes visible from this position.”
Radio operator, “No damage visible, radio functional.”
Navigator and Bombardier, “Two holes in the nose, but we have them plugged.”
As Engineer, I completed a visual inspection from the upper turret, particularly searching for damage to the tail and engine cowls. I reported, “No obvious damage, except to the number three engine.”
All in all, it was pretty bad, but the B-17 was still airworthy with three engines and adequate fuel. The fortunate thing about the B-17 was that it could take more of a beating than this and keep on going.
Our greatest danger at this point was from enemy fighters, particularly since we were flying alone. It was unsettling to watch all the other aircraft of the squadron disappear over the horizon on their way back to our home base in Italy. With three engines we couldn’t maintain the required airspeed and altitude to stay with the squadron, and it would have placed all of them in danger to slow down for us.
We flew along for a while and saw nothing. Then the tail gunner reported that he saw several Messerschmitt ME 109 and Fock-Wulf FW 190s coming at us from the aft position. Almost immediately we heard rapid fire of the tail gunner’s weapon. The enemy aircraft made several passes, firing away at us, when I suddenly heard the tail gunner scream through the interphone, “I’m hit, Joe, please help me!” I disconnected from the main oxygen hose, put on the portable oxygen mask, and left my post to rush to his assistance. He was hit in the leg, and was bleeding quite badly. I pulled him out of the tail position (a feat in itself since it was excruciating for him to straighten his leg from the kneeling position required in the tail) and dragged him to the radio room. I broke open the first-aid kit, cleaned the wound as best I could, put sulfur on it, then bandaged it to stop the bleeding. He wanted to go back to his position, but his leg was too injured to kneel on, so he had to stay where he was. Every so often the waist gunners and I would take turns going back to the tail to fire off a burst of rounds to make the enemy think this position was still manned. If they figured out that we were unarmed at that spot they would have focused their attack on that vulnerability. After moving the gun around, we rushed back to our own positions and fired from there.
The lower ball turret gunner, Shorty, cried out that he had been hit and his turret would not function. I had to manually crank him up and open the door without the benefit of the electric motors to get him out. Shorty had been shot in the hand, and his fingers were badly angled. I put him in the radio room and attended to his injured hand. By this tie the aircraft had so many flak holes in it I had to watch where I was stepping to avoid tearing my flight suit on the razor sharp edges of the holes. Some holes were large enough that I could have fallen out of the aircraft.
The attack continued unabated, with the enemy fighters circling us like angry hornets attacking their victims. The adrenaline rush made us fight with everything we had to kill them before they killed us. They could smell blood and were anxious to add another flying fortress to their list of conquests. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, both the waist gunners were hit with disabling wounds. I dragged them to the radio room only to discover we had run out of bandages. The only thing I could think of was to shred a parachute and turn it into bandages. They protested that we might need the parachutes, but I had to do something to stop the bleeding.
Next, the bombardier was hit by shrapnel, which tore a large gash on the side of his head. He screamed for help in his microphone, and the navigator brought him back to the radio room where I was just finishing up with the waist gunners. I tore some more fabric from the parachute and wrapped it around the wounded area of his head. A red spot appeared in the fabric, but as I tightened it a bit more the bleeding stopped. I laid his head gently back to the floor, resting it on a parachute.
No sooner had the navigator returned to his position than I heard the explosion of a rocket blowing up near the nose of the aircraft. I crawled forward and found the navigator sprawled in a pool of blood, his body battered by the wind that was coming through a large, gaping hole in the Plexiglas nose of the aircraft. I recoiled at the sight, but fought back my fear and pulled him to the radio room to administer first aid.
Realizing that we had no defense against a forward assault, the radio operator moved to the navigator’s position to fire the cheek guns. It wasn’t long until he was hit in the chest. He somehow managed to cry for help into the interphone, and I moved forward to carry him back with the others. By now I was covered in blood and desperate to somehow help everybody survive.
Oh, the scene in that radio room- blood puddle on the floor, men writhing in agony from their wounds, and everyone terrified by the knowledge that we were completely defenseless. There were only three of us who remained uninjured (the pilot, copilot, and me). None of our machine guns were manned. Our aircraft was being buffeted by the air currents created by massive holes in all sections of the fuselage. A knockout blow could come at any moment, and we couldn’t bail out because I had used the parachutes for bandages.
Just then the copilot called to me and said that Tonk, the pilot, had taken some shrapnel in the buttocks and I had to get him out of there fast. It was difficult to extract him from the seat, but we finally succeeded in getting him to the radio room to join the others. He was able to help me get the bleeding stopped, but he was in too much pain to assist in operating the aircraft.
I then stuck my head in the cockpit to see how our copilot, LoPriesti, was doing. He ordered me to climb into the pilot’s seat, as the aircraft was very difficult to control and he needed my help. I took the set and just then Batch, the bombardier, called and said, “Joe, if there is a God- and you claim there is one- would you please pray to him right now, and ask him to get us back to Italy safely?” Everyone joined in this call, so I prayed out loud through the interphone. It seemed to calm everyone down. After my prayer LoPriesti exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! Look at what’s headed our way, Joe!” I looked out the window to the 11:00 position and saw that the sky was full of fighter aircraft. It looked like a black cloud swarming towards us. We agreed that we were through and that we had better start looking for a place to crash land. Just then I glanced back out again and saw the black cloud was our own P-38 fighters coming to protect us and drive off the enemy. As we told the rest of the crew, Batch said, “Maybe your God did hear us, Joe; we better talk more about it when we land.” The radio operator remained at his station in spite of his wound, trying to establish contact with the fighters, but to no avail. His radio had obviously been disabled. At this point we were flying blind. Our compass and other navigational equipment was shot out and we had no way to find our way back to base. In the intensity of the battle we’d lost the number two engine, so we were now flying on just two engines, making it difficult to maintain altitude and the minimum airspeed required for flight. With no way to communicate with the fighter pilots to help us find our way home, it looked like a crash landing was inevitable in spite of their arrival. Just then one of the P38s broke out of formation and flew up next to us so close that I could see the pilot’s face. He waved ahead to indicate we should follow him back to base. The rest of the P38s fanned out to protect us from the German fighters. It looked like we might have a chance of getting back to safety after all. I was so grateful for these pilots that I said a loud thank-you to God. We followed the fighter pilot’s lead for some time until we could see the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea out of the front windows, and what a glorious sight it was. In just a few moments the runway came into view, and I could see ambulances and fire trucks waiting.
At this point it took all the skill our copilot possessed to prepare the aircraft for landing. Many of our controls had been shot up so badly that it took our combined strength to hold the aircraft in proper position. As we made a banking turn into our final approach the number four engine went out, and I looked down to see that we had only twenty-five gallons of aviation fuel left for the sole remaining engine. We’d burn through that in just a few moments, leaving us with no power to stabilize the aircraft during landing or to operate the hydraulic systems needed to deploy the landing gear. As I reached to put the landing gear down I could tell that the aircraft was losing altitude fast. I only hoped that it locked into position. The cockpit instruments were nonfunctional, so the copilot had to make a “seat of the pants” landing, relying only on his experience and feel for the aircraft. This was an amazing challenge with three engines out, since the natural reaction of the aircraft was to turn in the opposite direction of the engine that is providing thrust. Our copilot had to fight this tendency by holding the rudder in an opposing position to keep the aircraft on a proper approach. Call it the grace of God, but we actually made a good, solid landing. As the wheels touched the ground I heard the guys in the radio room let out a cheer and break into relieved laughter. We both “stood on the brakes” the moment we had firm contact with the ground.
Just when it looked like we’d make a clean landing, another problem came into view. About midway down the runway an Italian worker was using a steamroller to work on the surface. I could see the panic in his face when he saw our unexpected approach, and I prayed that he’d clear the runway before we got there. To my horror he jumped off and started running, leaving the steamroller in our path. The last thing I remember seeing was the steamroller pass under the right wing of the aircraft. Everything went black as I was knocked unconscious.
When I came to I was disoriented and couldn’t figure out where I was. As my mind cleared, I realized that I was in the nose of the aircraft with the Norden Bombsight wrapped around my neck. I was upside down, with dirt in my throat and face. I then heard someone say, “He must be in there, but he can’t be alive.” Then another voice said, “Too bad, he’s the only one left!” I was too disoriented to say anything. I didn’t know if I was alive or if I was dreaming. Finally I got my wits about me enough to cry out “I’m here, please help me get out!” I heard startled voices say, “He’s alive! It’s a miracle!” and “Be careful, but let’s hurry.” They cut me out of the mangled cockpit and helped me to my feet. My ankle hurt and I could feel a cut on the top of my head. Painfully, I started to walk. The mechanics who cut me out of the aircraft tried to help, but I told them I was okay and asked about the rest of the crew. They said they were all on their way to the hospital.
Two debriefing officers came to take me away, but I paused to stop and look back at the aircraft. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Apparently we had hit the steamroller with the tail section of the aircraft. Since it had so many holes from enemy fire, that section had torn off from the main fuselage, causing the front end of the aircraft to take a nosedive into the dirt. The nose of the aircraft hit with such force that it peeled the fuselage open like a banana, and threw me through the instrument panel and into the nose. Damage crews were taking pictures of the wreckage with astonished looks in their eyes. One of the doctors had returned by this point, and he wanted me to go directly to the hospital by ambulance. I probably should have gone, but I declined, saying I was okay. He looked me over and patched up my head, then helped me get in the car that would take me to headquarters for a debriefing. The debriefing officers offered me a drink and I gratefully accepted a glass of Coke. They started asking a long list of questions that included when and where we got hit, what kind of fighters attacked, and how many men were wounded. They also asked me what I was doing in the pilot’s seat. As I answered their questions, a scribe who was taking notes said under his breath, “This is incredible! You’ll be put in for the Distinguished Flying Cross for sure.” Though this award was a rare honor given to those who showed “extraordinary achievement” in air combat, I hadn’t really had time to think about that, and right then I didn’t care.
As I recounted the story, I was amazed to think about everything that had happened and how I’d somehow had the presence of mind to care for all those wounded men. It struck me as interesting that my first assignment in the army was to train as a medic, which I thought to be a huge mistake at the time. I’d been relieved to transfer into the air corps. Yet even though my time in the medical corps was brief, the instruction and practice I gained undoubtedly helped me handle the urgent needs that developed on this flight. I was also grateful that we had landed behind Allied, rather than enemy, lines.
After what seemed an hour or two of questioning, (though I’m sure it was much less) I started trembling from shock. They helped me into a Jeep and transported me to our tent. I went in and flopped down on my cot to try and calm down, but my mind replayed the events of the flight over and over again. I found myself particularly focusing on the huge holes in the aircraft, and the miracle of landing with just one engine and twenty-five gallons of fuel. If the runway had been just two minutes further away, we’d have been helpless. We were so blessed to have all ten of us make it back alive. As the only one who hadn’t been taken straight to the hospital, I couldn’t help but ask the question, “Why me, why was I spared?” There was no answer, but I did feel with all my heart that God was protecting me for other experiences, even though I had no idea what they would be.
I was so overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude that I bore my testimony to God that I knew He lived and that I knew He heard and answered our prayers. Suddenly I felt His spirit come over me as I never had before, and I wanted to shout from the rooftops that God is real and He will listen to those who call on Him. Forgotten were the depths of great darkness I had felt in my soul from the chilling events my crewmates and I had passed through. I now felt my spirit illuminated by the light of His spirit. I knew that as long as I lived, I would never forget that moment. No matter what adverse circumstances I found myself in again, I could count of God to help me according to His will. (Joseph Banks and Jerry Borrowman, A Distant Prayer, Covenant Communications, 2001, p. 21 -28)