Thursday, April 25, 2013

Four Miles High and Falling

 American airman survives free-fall
by Robert A. Waters

High above Saint Nazaire, France, Sergeant Alan Magee, a ball-turret gunner from New Jersey, began his fall out of the sky.  On January 3, 1944, while engaged on a bombing mission, his plane took a direct hit from enemy flak.  Magee later described the hectic scene: “We were hit by anti-aircraft guns, but what knocked us out of the sky was a [German] Focke-Wulf FW 190 shooting our wing off.  The last thing I remember was that I was at 20-some thousand feet trying to get out of a burning plane.”

During the dogfight, exploding shrapnel shredded Magee's body.  Worse, flying metal tore a large hole in his parachute, making it inoperable.  

“Snap! Crackle! Pop!” began to spin. (The B-17’s nickname was a tribute to Captain Jacob W. Fredericks of the 360th Bomb Squadron, who’d worked at Kellogg’s Cereal before the war.)  The wounded plane, now out of control, suddenly erupted in flames.  Seven of its ten crew members died instantly. 

Magee had a choice.  He could be roasted alive, or he could dive out of the plane.  22,000 feet up, he jumped.

All around him, gunfire and explosions rocked the sky.  “Snap! Crackle! Pop!” had been one of 17 American bombers sent to destroy a major U-boat port at Saint Nazaire.  Two dozen German planes met them head-on.  During the battle, seven B-17s were shot down, and 85 American airmen killed.

Magee stated that as he fell from the sky, he asked God for divine intervention.  He remembered telling his Maker, “I don’t wish to die because I know nothing of life.”  Shortly after his prayer drifted toward the heavens, he lost consciousness. 

Falling at 120 miles per hour, Magee’s chances of survival seemed non-existent.

But after two minutes of freefalling, the airman plummeted onto a skylight at the Saint Nazaire train station.  The glass shattered, somehow cushioning his landing.  He ended up in the rafters, alive but severely injured.

Magee woke up in the Hermitage Hotel.  Afterwards, the airman always stated that when he awoke, he thanked God for being alive.  A German doctor, amazed that he’d survived, examined him and found 28 shrapnel wounds, a punctured lung and kidney, a nearly severed arm, and a broken leg and ankle.  He also had massive facial injuries.

The doctor said, “We are enemies, but I am first a doctor and I will do my best to save your arm.” True to his word, the doctor provided excellent care, and did indeed salvage the American’s arm.

After spending two and a half months in a German hospital, Magee ended up as a prisoner of war.  He was liberated in May, 1945, and later received a Purple Heart and an Air Medal for meritorious conduct. 

Magee worked in the airline industry until he retired.

In 1995, the old soldier and his wife flew back to France, this time to be honored by the citizens of Saint Nazaire.  The railroad station still stood, and Magee got to see the skylight that miraculously saved him.

He died at age 84, in San Angelo, Texas, the recipient of one of the most unfathomable feats in World War II.

NOTE: Two of Sgt. Magee’s fellow-crewmen survived the crash.  Lt. Glen M. Herrington, navigator, lost his leg in the dogfight, but parachuted to earth.  Upon landing, he was captured by the Germans.  He later became one of the first USAAF men to be repatriated.  He died in 1987.  S/Sgt. J. I. Gordon also bailed out and was captured.  He disappeared somewhere in the brutal German concentration camps—he is still missing.

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