Emergency landing in liberated France
by William R. Dewey
On August 25, 1944, Paris fell, 1944, after a five-day battle. It was a turning point in the war. One week later, Bill Dewey and his crew from the 445th BG made an emergency landing at Le Bourget Airfield outside the capital city. Here’s his account of that experience.
Earlier in September, we’d landed on a 2,700 foot grass field. Normally we had 6,000 feet of tarmac. On that mission to Hamm, Germany, we’d put on our oxygen masks as we crossed the Channel and began to rise above 11,000 feet. We had to ascend above 18,000 feet before hitting the European coast, where the worst concentration of flak guns would fire at us. Set to go off at a certain altitude, flak didn’t work over 18,000 feet.
We went through our routine checks. The gunners shot short rounds, testing their guns. Then Medlock went back to pull the pins, arming the bombs. Each bomb had a propeller that the pin stopped. Pulling the pins allowed the propellers, once in the air, to rotate until they stopped and were fully armed... The bomb would detonate when it struck the ground.
The plane began to pull to the left. I checked my instruments and gauges. The oil pressure on our Number Two engine showed zero. Outside my window, the left inboard engine rotated toward the cockpit. For some reason, it had no oil. Without lubrication, propellers were known to break off and come through the plane’s cockpit.
“Feather the engine, Bill,” I said to Boykin.
He reached above the windshield to push the Number Two or second inboard engine’s feathering button. The three propeller blades would ordinarily slowly turn so that their edges faced the wind and the prop would stop wind-milling.
“We’ve got big problems,” I said.
“Yeah, it looks bad.”
We had crossed the Channel and made landfall in Europe, but with only three engines, we couldn’t keep up with the group.
I called squadron leader, identifying our plane. “We’re dropping out of formation,” I said. “We’ve lost an engine, over.”
“Roger,” replied the leader. “And good luck.”
We broke away and dropped down to get off oxygen somewhere over Holland or Belgium. They really hurt. We loved taking off the masks. We’d already passed the enemy coast, so we weren’t in as much danger of getting hit with flak.
The lower altitude, although more risky, was worth it to get off oxygen and to find a place to drop our bombs. But first, Medlock had to disarm them. Standing on the catwalk in the cold bombay, he reached out and put a pin in each one—hard to do when the plane is vibrating. It would take at least five to ten minutes for him to do this. This kind of bomb was often found later in a field. A bomb squad would have to retrieve it, since there was always the danger it would go off.
We didn’t know if we were over enemy territory or not. Part of France was liberated, part wasn’t. We salvoed our bombs in an open field and circled over farmland, while Herb Bailey on his Gee Box—a little monitor screen where he could pick up coordinates of different locations—picked up the coordinates, and we headed for no other than newly liberated Paris.
On our approach at Le Bourget Airport, we faced new problems.
“The runway’s full of craters,” said Boykin. Our bombing attacks which had liberated Paris, had made it unusable.
I scanned the scene ahead of me—decimated tarmac, and C-47’s taking off on the only good spot left, a grass landing field about 2700 feet long.
“We’ll land on the grass strip,” I said. Normally a B-24 had to have anywhere from 3500 to 6000 feet to land. Four-engine planes were never supposed to land on grass, but it was all we had. “We’ve only got one shot at it.” You can’t abort a B-24 landing with only three engines. She’ll never get back up.
We didn’t have radio communication, but I had a radio operator. “John,” I said through the intercom to Elson, “fire the red flares.” He shot them, signaling an emergency situation.
We’d had three-engine training as a crew at Tonopah and by myself before that. The instructor would pull one engine, so that we would have to fly and land on three engines. The plane tended to pull toward the single remaining engine, and had to be trimmed with our trim tabs to counter it.
Trim tabs, small fins on the upper surface of ailerons, could be activated by wheels on either side of the pilot/copilot console. They would lift up on either the right or left wing aileron to compensate for the instability of the plane, to make it fly straight and level, especially when an engine was out. Good pilots always trimmed their planes so they didn't yaw or fly somewhat sidewise, even in good four-engine operation. I received compliments after I became a squadron lead pilot for always keeping my plane trimmed, with the needle and ball centered on autopilot when leading the squadron. .I guess some lead pilots just set the Minneapolis Honeywell C-3 autopilot and let the plane fly skewed.
In a three-engine landing, you released the trip tabs, and both pilot and copilot had to use heavy opposite rudder control to keep the plane straight on final approach.
“Bill, get on the rudders with me,” I said to my copilot. “Let’s keep this plane steady as we come in. We’ve got to drop it on the end of the field immediately. If we land halfway down, we’ll be in trouble.”
Fortunately, the bad prop had frozen and was no longer a danger. But the die was cast, and as we headed for this short grass strip, both Boykin and I pushed with all our might on the rudder pedals, because of the great yaw pulling to the left. We made a good landing on the first third of the field. I put on the brakes, and we skidded all the way to the end.
A jeep with a big “FOLLOW ME” sign came out to meet us, and we taxied off the landing strip and got into a six by six truck that took us right to downtown Paris and let us out, no questions asked. Here we were in the middle of Paris—unshaven, grubby, and in our flying clothes. But we didn’t care. Excited, we split up and explored the city that had been liberated just a week before.
Right away we heard gunfire somewhere away from us. There was still fighting in the streets, pockets of German resistance. Charlie Craig, the engineer and I walked around. I can remember standing in a beautiful park the length of a football field, when two or three four-door cars with “FFI” and “Maquis” spray-painted on white pulled on their sides pulled up across the park from us. The doors opened, and four men jumped out of each and ran into an apartment building, their sub-machine guns going off. We thought they were Germans, but we heard later that it was French underground going in and wiping out conservatives, communists and German collaborators. We stood and watched in amazement as this internal struggle went on, heard them chatter, and stayed away.
When it was over, we walked on toward the Palace of Versailles. We must have walked twenty miles that day and saw everything—Eiffel Tower, the Tuilleries Gardens, Palace of Versailles—all the sights. The town was without electricity, subways, and we saw very few automobiles except for military vehicles. When we got to the Eiffel Tower, we couldn’t get to the top because the elevators didn’t work.
As we walked all over Paris, we ran into Montanez, of all people. He took us up to Pigalle—the red-light district, where he took us to a bistro where soldiers and women went up and down the stairs from the bar and restaurant area, the girls stripped to the waist. DIALOGUE Charlie and I had lunch with families—and children—while the women escorted their trade up and down the stairs.
We had landed at about noon. By the end of the day, we were tired and hungry. It was getting dark, and we had to find a place to sleep. We were on a main drag and went to a residential side street with a row of apartment buildings.
We went to the door of an apartment. We had to stay someplace, and the door opened. A woman came, with a man standing behind her. I’d had a year of French in high school, and I identified myself in English, and the man said he was a veteran of WWI and had stayed behind in France. Here we are in this foreign city with fighting still going on in the streets, and we just happen to come upon this home of a WWI US veteran! He’d stayed over and married this woman. They invited us in, gave us a room and gave us breakfast.
The next morning, Charlie and I headed back to a point where GI trucks came in and out, and thumbed a lift heading back to the airfield, and got on a C-47 heading back to London.
Looking back, I realize that I should have given instructions for the whole crew to meet at a specific time and place, instead of letting everyone go the day before. I’d had great training and could pilot a B-24, but that part of the training—the duties and responsibilities of an aircraft commander—was missing. To some it was innate, but looking back, I should have known to be in control and could have given instructions and orders to meet at La Bourget at a certain time the next day.
On the plane back to England, I sat next to a fighter pilot who had all kinds of souvenirs. He had a German P-38 pearl-handled pistol, one of the most beautiful handguns ever made, and he bragged about having strafed about a bunch of civilians coming out of a church, killing all the Germans he could. He had a German helmet, an Iron cross and other really neat stuff.
© 2019 Linda Alice Dewey