Thursday, September 13, 2007

My Last Combat Mission

My Last Combat Mission - No ordinary Day -
Roy E. Daniel

You are not going to find this book in Borders or Barnes and Noble. It was author published. A Google search does show a few copies on Internet book search sites. I had a personal interest in reading My Last Combat Mission and was able to get copy from the author. What's my interest in Roy's story? My father was the radio operator and waist gunner on this mission.

I have supplemented this description of Daniel's book with material of my own such as images related to this book here. These images include a scan of the papers issued to prisoners by the Germans as well as postcards written from the prison camps. These bookmarks helped me understand the air war and POW experience.

My Last Combat Mission - No Ordinary Day - is not a long book. There are 86 pages of text and 33 pages of photographs. Oddly, the photographs of aircraft on the cover and in the book are not B-24s, which is the type of bomber Daniel was flying.

Daniel wrote his book more than fifty years after the events at the urging of a friend. His writes sparingly but well and his story deserves to be preserved. This generation is now in its eighties and their contribution needs to be remembered.

At the time of these events, Daniel was twenty-two and my father nineteen.

On 29 May 1944, at 0700, 35 B-24 Liberator's from the 485th Bomb Group, took off from their base at Venosa, Italy to bomb the Atzgersdorf aircraft factory near Vienna, Austria. Daniel describes the target as the marshaling yards at Wiener Neustadt. Both identifications of the target are correct. They joined a much larger raiding force on the way to the target. This was the 14th mission for the 485th Bomb Group in which 61 tons of bombs will dropped. Watching the news from Iraq we are used to seeing pinpoint accuracy with smart bombs but it wasn't like that in 1944. Then the bombers flew in the combat box, straight and level, under attack from the ground and the air, until the lead aircraft released its bombs. That was the signal for the rest of the bombers to release their bombs. Daniel's plane was #3 in the lead box and on the left wing of the group commander.

After releasing its bombs, aircraft 41-28797, assigned to the 829th Squadron, was hit by flak. The crew attempted to keep the bomber in the air but fire in the #3 engine and right wing forced the ten members of crew # 36 to bail out over Zara, Yugoslavia. Daniel and the rest of the crew parachuted safely but were captured by the Croatian army and turned over to the Germans. The MACR gives the time of capture as 1230 but this is certainly an estimate because the crew was not captured at the same time but brought together in the same place over several days. This is considered the first loss of an entire crew due to enemy action in the 485th.

About a third of the book describes the mission, capture and interrogation of Daniel and the crew and was the most interesting for me since my father was present at several of the events. For that reason, they were also the strangest for me to process as I read. These were the times of the most fear and uncertainty and this come across in his narrative. After his capture, Daniel was saved from a impromptu Croatian firing squad by a Croatian colonel who was sympathetic but forced to turn him over to the German army.

Eventually the crew was reunited and held in the countryside in a grain room for several days while being questioned and arrangements were made to move them to another location for processing as POWs. They were to be flown to Zagreb, Yugoslavia on a JU-52. Daniel realized that he could fly the plane and developed a plane to hijack he aircraft. The sympathetic colonel was prepared to make his sidearm available to Daniel. At he last minute, an armed German soldier appeared and thwarted what would have been their best opportunity to escape as a crew.

The rest of the book describes his life as a POW and eventual liberation from Stalag Luft VII-A in Moosburg on 29 April 1945, eleven months after capture. For most of his time as a POW Daniel was in Stalag Luft III which you may know as the scene of The Great Escape which occurred several months before his arrival there. Later, as the Russians got closer, the camp was evacuated to Stammlager XIII-D and then, finally, to Stalag Luft VII-A where they were liberated by Paton's 14th Armored Division. My father was also liberated from Moosburg though he and Daniel never met there as Daniel was an officer and my father an enlisted man.

Daniel gives the reader a feeling for the privations the POWs suffered. The transportation by train in "Forty-and-eight" rail cars is particularly vivid. Forty-and-eight referred to rail cars designed to transport forty men and eight horses. Here, however, fifty men were crammed into a car, sat in rows, with their knees nearly up to their chins and no toilet facilities.

He also describes in ingenuity of the Prisoners to utilize everything they could put their hands on. For example, they found themselves without pots and pans to cook in but were able to improvise by joining food tins from Red Cross packages.

Circumstances make for incongruous incidents such as the time a German soldier asked him to hold his rifle while he went to find them some food. My father had a similar experience on a march between camps.

While still prisoners, the POWs heard about the recently enacted G.I. Bill. After encountering a fellow airman with a bad tooth, Daniel realized that he could become a dentist after the war. He made good on that dream and became Dr. Roy E. Daniel.

Reading Daniel's account of life as a POW, I can see why my father hated, really hated, the TV show Hogan's Heroes. He saw absolutely nothing funny about it.

I recently spent two weeks sitting by my father's bed in a state veterans nursing home. It was sobering to see him and other men and women from "The Greatest Generation" at this stage of their lives.