Jetty Cook

Lt. Col. Jetty Cook (Ret) contacted me when he saw an article that I had sent to the 92nd Bomb Group Memorial Association that was published in the Newsletter. He is another one of my heroes, so willing to help me learn about my father’s experience. He, like my father, was assigned to the 407th Bomb Squadron of the 92nd Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. I sent him dad’s Missing Air Crew Report and he explained each of the pages to me so that it was much clearer. Jetty had published his bibliography in 1995 and aware of my obvious interest in his story, he sent me the following excerpts from “The Path of a Warrior” stating that “the original version contains significant, and many insignificant, events in which I partook or witnessed from childhood in Big Spring, TX, until after my retirement in Hunt, TX.” These pages were written in, and the information is as of, 2005. He took the time to type 16 pages of his experience. It is interesting and valuable information and I would not want to leave out a thing so the following is as it was written by my dear friend, Jetty……….

The Last Flight of “Berlin Special”

I was the top turret gunner/flight engineer on a B-17 crew. Other crew members were: Bill Stein, pilot; Rozelle “Rusty” Kennedy, copilot; Bill Clerkin, navigator; Herbert Burbank, bombardier; John Kocon, radio operator/gunner; Stanley Jones, ball turret gunner; Fred Noble, waist gunner; and Melvin Crouch, tail gunner.

(Ed Adams was also a waist gunner on our original 10-man crew. After our seventh mission, the 8th AF decided that the German Luftwaffe had been sufficiently suppressed that one waist gunner would suffice. Our families had been close friends for years; Ed was five years ahead of me in the Big Spring schools.)

Our crew was assigned to the 407th bomb Squadron, 92nd bomb Group, 8th Air Force based at RAF Station 109, Podington, England.  On the evening of 19 July 1944, we had just completed our ninth bombing mission; to Augsburg Germany which was 8 ½ hours long. This was our fifth mission in the past week: Munich 12 July and again on 13 July, each 9 ½ hours long; a 5 ½ hour “milk run” on 17 July to hit V-1 sites in France and then on 18 July Peenemunde, Germany, a 10 ½ hour mission.

These were just the flying hours: Add the hours for mission briefing and debriefing, aircraft pre- and post-flight inspections, meals and other personal needs, and we had time for about five hours sleep, at the most, each night.

At crew debriefing on the 19th, word was passed that the group commander had declared a three-day stand-down so the ground crews could perform much needed maintenance on the planes. This was certainly welcome news to the air crews as we were all bone-weary and could use a little rest, too. So my crew planned a three-day pass to London the next day, the second since arriving at Podington four weeks earlier.

After chow, the other four NCOs (non-commissioned officer) on our crew and I returned to our Quonset hut and relished the thought of enjoying a good meal at a small Chinese restaurant near Piccadilly Circus. One of the men in the hut picked up Radio Berlin on his radio and heard “Lord Haw Haw.”

We heard him say, “You Yanks of the 92nd bombardment Group had better get a good sleep tonight as Field Marshall Goering is going to have quite a surprise for you tomorrow when you arrive over Leipzig.” This got quite a laugh from all of us and someone shouted, “this is one time you got it wrong, you SOB!”

(“Lord Haw Haw” was William Joyce, a British turncoat propagandist for Josef Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. After the war, Joyce was tried for treason by a British military court, found guilty and hanged.)

We were sorely disabused at about 3:00am on 20 July 1944 when the CQ (charge-of-quarters) turned on the lights and said: “Out of the sack, you guys – mission briefing in one hour.” After we were seated, the blanket was removed from the route map and the string led to Leipzig! The B-17 we were assigned that day was named “Berlin Special.”

We first assembled squadrons into groups, then wings and finally the air division. Two other divisions, one of B-17s, the other of B-24s, also formed up for 8th Air Force armada of 12 – 1,500 heavy bombers. The bomber streams sometimes reached 250 miles in length! Add to this nearly an equal number of fighter escorts and this made an awe-inspiring sight to people in occupied countries and a very fearful sight for the German enemy.
At a certain point, the armada began detaching into divisions and wings and sometimes groups to attack their assigned targets. Our target was actually Kothen, 35 miles north-northwest of Leipzig. Before we reached the IP (Initial Point – a geographic or constructed feature visible to the bombardier through the bomb sight from which he flew the plane to the target through the automatic pilot), a stripped-down B-17 joined our formation and we realized it was one that had been captured by the Luftwaffe.

We couldn’t shoot at it for fear of hitting one of our own planes. It remained in the center of our formation until we approached a light flak barrage then dived away rapidly. Its mission was to radio to the flak batteries our exact altitude and heading. Since we were on the bomb run, we couldn’t change our altitude. To do so would have meant we couldn’t hit the target thus forcing us to make a 360 degree turn and try it again.
Only seconds after we dropped our bombs, I had my top turret at the six o’clock position and saw a flak burst about 500 yards behind us, then another burst 150 yards. I called Lt. Stein, telling him to take evasive action as we were being tracked when there was another burst 50 yards behind us. Before he could take evasive action, we took two bursts, both 20-30 feet above each wing.

I knew the “50 yard” burst was very close as I saw the bright red/orange fire of the explosion. I felt the heat on my face from the last two!  Seconds later, I glimpsed an eruption of some sort in the center of the right wing which left a hole 12-15” diameter with jagged metal bent upwards. A second or so later a rocket exploded about 1,000 feet above us. Fortunately, it had passed between our inboard and outboard fuel tanks which were separated by only a few inches. But most fortuitous for us was that the rocket must have had a timed fuse – not a proximity or an impact fuse – or we most certainly would have been killed instantly.

We lost number 1 and 4 engines, the radio, oxygen and hydraulic systems. There were many holes in the wings, fuselage and tail and large, jagged pieces of still-hot shrapnel lying on the floor of the plane. But, miraculously, not a single man had been hit! (Mel Crouch still has a piece of that shrapnel.)

As we started down, I turned my turret towards the B-17 off our right wing as I knew Ray Schlobohm was its flight engineer/top turret gunner. I raised and lowered my guns in a “Goodbye” salute; Ray returned my gesture by raising and lowering his own guns.

(Ray had been my best friend since we entered service 16 months earlier. We were together in B-17 flight mechanics and aerial gunnery schools as well as combat crew training in preparation for overseas deployment.)

Earthbound

Lt. Stein put the plane in a steep descent as the other men passed all spare walk-around oxygen bottles to him and Lt. Kennedy. Stan Jones and Mel Crouch joined John Kocon in the radio room and others sat on the floor at their battle stations and soon passed out due to hypoxia. (We were not worried about this as all had experienced it previously in altitude chambers while undergoing training.)

The crew regained consciousness at 14-15,000 feet but we couldn’t maintain that altitude with two engines. Lt. Stein ordered us to start ditching everything possible to lighten the plane. The gunners held down the firing switches on their .50 caliber machine guns until all the ammo was expended or the barrels got so hot the guns ceased firing. My own guns ceased when I still had hundreds of rounds in their dispensers. So I started dragging long lengths of linked ammo below to the nose hatch to drop it from the plane. On my third or fourth circuit, I passed out again as I neared the hatch due to the thin air and exhaustion.

I partially regained consciousness some seconds later and only remembered I was trying to get to that nose hatch. So in my semi-conscious state, I started towards the opening head first – without a parachute pack!!! Bill Clerkin, our navigator, was nearby and saw what was happening and grasped my ‘chute harness and pulled me back in after my shoulders had already protruded from the plane!

After jettisoning our 13 machine guns and ammunition, we started ditching radios, flak suits, and anything else we could, including the Norden bomb sight. I used the few tools available to drop the ball turret thus reducing the load another 1,200 pounds.

We limped on towards England even though we realized our chances of making it back were nil. The best we could hope for was getting out of Germany. We knew we could not attempt to cross the English Channel (about 125 miles wide at our crossing point) for two reasons: (1) without a radio we could not call Air/Sea rescue and (2) but mainly because with that gaping hole in the bottom of the plane where the ball turret had been, we could not risk ditching. The fuselage would break apart. So very soon we would either be shot down by Luftwaffe fighters or flak, and we would have to parachute or make a crash landing.

We had no idea exactly when and where one of these would occur; after all we had experienced during the past two hours, the navigator couldn’t help. About two hours after “bombs away,” and down to less than 3,000 feet, Lt. Kennedy suddenly yelled: “Number three engine on fire!” Lt. Stein gave the signal to bail out.

As I looked through the bomb bay to ascertain if the men in the rear had heard the bail-out bell, I saw them diving through the hole where the ball turret had been. I crawled to the nose hatch and estimated the altitude was below 1,000 feet. I sat down with my legs protruding from the plane, not really wanting to do what I was about to do. But I knew I had no choice.

I bent over, fell out, and extended my arms and legs. I was facing upwards and saw “Berlin Special” perhaps 100 feet above and away from me. I didn’t count to ten; I pulled the rip cord and all that beautiful white silk streamed out in front of my face.

Seconds after my ‘chute opened, I heard gun fire and saw muzzle flashes of rifles and machine guns on the ground, about 1,000 yards to the east. I thought: “If I have to die today, I prefer it be from sudden impact with the ground, not from bullets tearing into my body.” So I pulled hard on one of my parachute risers, dumped the air from the canopy and free-fell until I was about 200 feet above the ground. I released the riser and the canopy blossomed again, fortunately, and I hit the ground only seconds later.

(I’d received no instructions at all on situation such as this.)

There was little vegetation for a hiding place; a few bushes 6-8 feet tall, perhaps five or six ten per acre, and grass about 18” high. I crawled to the nearest bush, pulled the canopy to me, rolled it into a ball and laid on top of it. Peeking through the foliage, I soon saw four German field cars with about 15 soldiers racing towards the general area where I was trying to hide. I also saw John Kocon, our radio operator, who had landed about 100 yards to the east of me.

I watched as the Germans captured John. Evidently he didn’t stand up as quickly as the Germans ordered as one of them hit John in his back with the butt of a rifle. (John had sustained a severe injury to his back when he landed as his ‘chute canopy had been torn by bullets.) He was placed in a field car and they all stopped about 20 yards to the south of my hiding place. I was especially alarmed when I saw the Germans had three dogs with them! But by the Grace of God, there was a stiff breeze blowing from the south placing me downwind so the dogs didn’t detect my scent. (I had now pushed myself deeply into my bush. Luckily, my green flight suit was about the same shade of green as the bush.)

One German had his rifle pointed towards me and walked several steps forward when the others yelled and commenced firing at a target to the west of me. I looked in that direction and saw Lt. Kennedy fall to the ground about 75 yards from me. The Germans rushed towards him and he stood with his hands in the air as they approached. Fortunately, he had not been hit.

The Germans, with my two companions, drove around for perhaps 30 minutes as I kept crawling around to keep my bush between us. They then drove back towards their bivouac area; presumably they had not seen me come down since I had free-fallen a few hundred feet.

(I later learned this area was called “De Schietveld” or “Shooting Field. I was very fortunate the Germans weren’t sharpshooters.)

It was a very hot day, easily 100 degrees. I was wearing a dark green electrically heated flight suit which made it seem much hotter and my bush offered little shade. I remained hidden until dusk when I commenced walking to the west. By this time, I was extremely tired, hungry and thirsty as it had been 18 hours since I had breakfast.

I don’t recall having fear. I was safe on the ground, for the moment, at least. The only emotion I recall was forlorn loneliness, absolute loneliness which I had never felt before nor have I felt afterwards. After the Germans departed, I don’t recall hearing any sound nor seeing even a bird in the hot July sky.

I had to helplessly watch as Kennedy and Kocon were taken captive. But what had happened to Stein, Clerkin, Burbank, Jones, Noble and Crouch, my closest buddy on the crew?

About midnight I came to a darkened farm house. (I later learned the farm house was about two miles north of Leopoldsburg, Belgium.) Not knowing where I was – I could still be in Germany – I was prepared to run when I knocked on the door. After a minute or so, a man opened the door and I said: “American – American.” The man quickly pulled me inside, closing and locking the door.

The next day, a young Resistant came to the farm house and asked questions to verify that I was an American, not a German plant. Three days later he told me he had learned I was an American and not a German plant. He also said I was fortunate because it would have been his duty to shoot me if my answers had not been correct.

(I never learned how he got the answers to my questions, such as names of my high school principal and teachers, and other mundane questions about my hometown, big Spring, TX.)

(I do know, however, that even now, over 60 years later, the methods used to verify our identity is still classified in event others go down behind enemy lines.)

The Resistant informed me I had two options: [1] He could arrange a safe rendezvous with the Germans if I wanted to be taken prisoner. Or [2] if I elected to take my chances of returning to England with help of the Resistance, he could place me in the underground escape line. I elected the latter, of course, but I had to surrender all military identification, including my dog tags. He told me someone would bring me civilian clothes soon. I did, however, keep the sterling silver ID bracelet given to me by my brother shortly before deploying to England. My name, serial number and USAAF were inscribed on it. (USAAF: U.S. Army Air Forces)

(According to the Geneva Convention and the Rules of War, a member of the enemy forces captured when not in the uniform of his country was subject to execution. All military were made aware of this before being deployed to a combat zone. Airmen in Europe were also advised if we were captured by the Gestapo (Geheime Staats Polizei: Secret Service Police) or the SS (Shutz Staffel: Personal Staff/Elite Guard/Shock Troops) while wearing civilian clothes they may be shot on the spot.)

The next day a beautiful blond lady, about 30 years of age, brought me a Belgian ID card with my photo which was taken before we flew our first mission. My nom de guerre was Jean Louis Delrez, I was a deaf mute and a laborer. She also gave me a nice suit which fit me very well.  The blond lady’s instructions were that I was to follow her (we both had bicycles) at a distance of about 100 yards so that in event either was stopped the other could, perhaps, escape. Upon reaching the center of Leopoldsburg, my escort turned a corner and when I arrived there, she was nowhere in sight!

I then saw a bike leaning against a wall half a block away. I rode there, leaned my bike against the wall and walked through a nearby open door. It was a small bar with 10-12 German soldiers seated at the few tables eating and drinking beer. I was about to turn around and try to calmly walk out when I looked at the bartender who motioned me towards a stairway.

I walked up the stairs, opened a door and was greeted by a huge, snarling mastiff. The lady was in the room and calmed the dog which commenced sniffing at my clothes and wagging its tail. The lady then told me the dog had detected the scent of its master; the suit I was wearing was the last one of her husband, a Belgian army major who had been a German POW since the fall of Belgium in May 1940.

The next day I heard trucks on the street below my window and peeked through the lace curtains to see what was going on. I was extremely surprised to see a truck-trailer transporting four engines and the wings of a B-17 passing by. It was followed by another carrying the fuselage and empennage of a B-17. You can imagine my surprise when I saw its name painted on the nose – “Berlin Special”!!! It appeared to have made a good crash landing on its own; it was pretty much intact and had not burned.

I had been in the apartment four days when there was a knock on the door. When the lady opened it, I was startled to see a tall man wearing the black uniform with silver piping of a German SS officer walk in!!! I was greatly relieved when she told me he was the leader of the Resistance in the area and that I would go with him. He then told me if he rendered a salute, I must do the same.

As Capt. Kurt and I passed through the bar, all the German soldiers jumped to their feet, gave the Nazi salute and a “Heil Hitler” salute. Capt. Kurt casually returned their salute and I did likewise. We walked outside where I climbed into the sidecar of his motorcycle.

We headed south and I thought: “At this rate I’ll be in Switzerland in 4-5 days.” But that thought vanished as we rounded a curve and I saw a German checkpoint ahead. Evidently, though, Capt. Kurt’s rank insignia was sufficient for the German soldiers and after exchanging “Heil Hitler” salutes, we were waved through without having to show identification. After perhaps an hour, and two more checkpoints, we arrived at the home of Capt. Kurt’s parents near Waremme, a village situated between Brussels and Liége.

Two days later, Capt. Kurt’s wife escorted me to the station where she pointed to a man nearby and said he was a RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) airman who would sit with me. We boarded a small intercity tram and when the other airman sat down, I surprised him by saying: “welcome aboard!” There were few people in our car at the time so we introduced ourselves.

His name was Jack Gouinlock, a flight officer in the RCAF. He had been shot down two months earlier after bombing a German installation near Leopoldsburg and had hidden at a nearby farm until we were shot down. The Resistance then decided that the area was much too hot to remain there with so many Germans searching for the evading American “criminals.” At the next station, about 200 German soldiers boarded the train and two sat in the seat facing Jack and me. The seats were so close together that our knees rubbed together as I pretended to read a book the lady had given me. Thankfully, the Germans, just like all GIs, took the opportunity to take a nap. And I relaxed – a little.

The train stopped at a small station on the outskirts of Liége and our escort signaled that we were to get off and she quickly left the tram. She later told us she had been given a signal by the conductor that the Gestapo was waiting at the main railroad station in Liége to search for evading airmen or those who had escaped from POW camps.

Jack and I were hidden with a family (father, mother and an eight or nine year old daughter), in an apartment on the south bank of the Meuse River. On our third day there, men of the Resistance rushed in and told us to come quickly and we drove across a bridge to a place where we had a good view of the apartment.

About 15 minutes later, several German soldiers, and what I assumed were Gestapo, arrived in four or five vehicles. The soldiers surrounded the area and halted all traffic across the river. The Gestapo entered the building and after twenty minutes or so, we had to helplessly watch as the family was taken away. Jack and I were told later by the Resistance that the family was executed for hiding us.

Jack and I were then hidden in various places in Liége: First, a “house of ill-repute” frequented by German soldiers. This refuge was probably one of the safest hiding places as it was the last place the Germans would expect to find “enemy criminals.” All the “ladies of the house” worked for the Resistance collecting intelligence information from their “clients.”

We kept our door locked at all times to preclude a drunken German from entering, opening it only at a coded tap to allow the madam or one of her girls to bring us food, water or wine. (No, we did not partake in the “services” the house provided.)

After about five days, I guess the Resistance felt we needed to get some religion as we were moved to a large convent in the city center. I was surprised how many evaders we found there; at least 35-40 ate in the dining room at each of our two meals per day.

Jack and I were then separated and I was instructed to follow a young girl on foot as she rode a bicycle out of Liége. About two hours, later, my escort turned a corner and when I reached it I saw she was peddling faster. I then noticed five or six German soldiers standing guard at the entrance to a steel mill about 50 feet away. I knew they had seen me and it would appear very suspicious if I turned and walked away. So I continued on, casually crossing the narrow, cobblestone street.

When I got nearly opposite them, one yelled at me but since my Belgian ID stated I was a deaf mute, I tried to ignore him. The German took the rifle off his shoulder and started across the street, waving at me so I stopped. I then saw he was holding an unlit cigarette and realized he wanted a light. I took out my trusty Zippo, held it with both hands so he wouldn’t see the brand, one that was well-known in Europe, and also to assure my hands wouldn’t shake too much. After I lit his cigarette, he said “Danke” and I started to breathe again as I walked on. I started breathing even much easier when I saw my escort waiting about 100 yards away.

We soon arrived in Seraing, a suburb of Liége, and home of M. and Mme. Jean Colleye and Jeannine, their charming and beautiful nine-year-old daughter. I was distressed on seeing her as I immediately recalled the young girl who was killed along with her parents for aiding me and Jack.  M. Colleye was a Seraing police officer. They were the only ones whose names I learned during the war because of the secrecy necessary to protect other members of the Resistance.

I had two or three uneventful weeks, during which Mme Colleye gave me refresher courses in French. This seemingly tranquility rapidly changed one morning when we heard the distant rumble of heavy artillery fire to the west. M. Colleye turned on his secret radio and picked up English news BBC broadcasting from London. I was astounded to hear the U.S. First Army had made a very rapid overnight advance and had reached Huy, only 20 miles away! I said, “At the speed they’re advancing, we should be free by sunset.”

In my meager French, I tried to tell the Colleyes what I had heard but they couldn’t believe me. M. Colleye then picked up a broadcast out of Paris, which had been liberated less than two weeks earlier, and heard the same news.

We were all absolutely thrilled, delirious in joy; the Colleyes even more than I as they had endured over four years of brutal occupation by the much hated “Le Boche.” A belittling term for Germans. (It’s loosely translated as “the blockheads.” Germany had also occupied Belgium for four years in World War I.)

Later that day, M. Colleye and I looked down from a nearby overlook, and saw long columns of German soldiers passing hurriedly on a major highway. It linked northern France and southern Belgium to Aachen, Germany, 35 miles northeast.

But at sunset, cannon fire was still distant and the retreating columns had become a ragtag horde of beaten and fearful men. There were no tanks – only a mixed type of vehicles: Men piled all over trucks and cars holding tree branches in a vain effort to camouflage themselves, some bicycles with two or three men riding, but most were walking. A very badly bruised, if not yet beaten, army.

The next morning Mme. Colleye departed for the market to buy whatever food may be available. I was in my upstairs room when I heard the door open and went down to see if I could assist her. Near the bottom of the stairway, I glanced toward the door and saw two Germans had entered, turning to the dining area which had a large window level with the nearby sidewalk. The Germans took the Colleye’s bicycle placed in front of the window and left. Surprisingly, they didn’t also look for food in the pantry.

I was amazed the next day when I had a visitor – Mel Crouch! Evidently, the Resistance knew the hiding place of some evaders even though they may not have known we had been close friends or crew mates. Mel had been staying with a family two miles away.

Our joy nearly came to a tragic end a few hours later. I asked M. Colleye if it would be safe if Mel and I took a walk. He said it would be safe if we remained far from the main highway, on which tens of thousands of Germans were now retreating.

As we were walking along, three cars full of very young Belgians stopped and accused us of being Germans who had stolen civilian clothes in an attempt to escape to Germany. Despite our loud protests, they put ropes around our necks and pulled us to a nearby lamp post to lynch us. I pleaded in my poor French for them to call M. Colleye at the police station who would verify that we were Americans but to no avail.

As the ropes were placed over the lamp posts and tied to a car’s bumper, a young girl heard me calling the name of M. Colleye and stopped our imminent lynching. She had heard M. Colleye was hiding an American and convinced them to call M. Colleye, which they did. The young men quickly removed the ropes and commenced celebrating as Mel and I were the first Americans they had ever seen.

The young lady who saved our lives was Mlle. Rosa Grosjeau who lived at Rue Rotheux No. 49 in Seraing. She was 18 years old; I was 19. I mention this because on the first of six return visits in 1947, I proposed marriage to her. Her parents would have none of that as they didn’t want her to come to the U.S. as they might never see their only child again.

The following day M. Colleye asked if I wanted to join him on a ride toward the roar of artillery which now seemed closer. I eagerly said “Yes” and jumped in the motorcycle’s sidecar and we took off. We rode on a narrow macadam road through a heavily forested area anxious to encounter American tanks.

After six or seven miles, we rounded a curve and there they were! M. Colleye drove off the road and stopped as we saw large tanks approaching. (The road was barely wide enough for the tanks.) I immediately stood in the sidecar and waved wildly. M. Colleye quickly jerked me back onto the seat and said “Allemand, Allemand!” (German, German.)

My exhilaration immediately turned to gloom as 21 huge “Tiger” tanks passed by with their commanders glaring at us. I first saw the German Iron Cross painted on their turrets. Then the Death’sHead emblem of a Panzer (Armored) Division of the Waffen SS was also emblazoned on them. This was the most fanatical of the German armed forces.

We took a different route back to Seraing.

When we arrived at the city’s center, hundreds of people were gathered at the town’s square anxious to learn if we had seen “Les Americain.” Unhappily, M. Colleye had to tell them no.

Without realizing it, the sterling silver ID bracelet, given to me by my brother, had slipped down from under my sleeve. A young man only needed to see the letters “USA”, grinned broadly and asked: “Vous Americain?” M. Colleye quickly started the engine and we took off. When we arrived home he insisted I give him the bracelet, saying that was a dangerous situation as Gestapo agents could have been present in the crowd.  That bracelet is still in the same home, now occupied by Jeannine and her husband, Joe Misic. I last saw it in 1994 and again, Jeannine asked if I wanted it back. I gave her the same answer as I had on five other occasions: “No, I want it to remain here in what I consider my second home.”

That evening, M. Colleye asked if I wanted to help the Resistance round up collaborators by driving one of their cars. I told him I would and, accompanied by three Belgians, we set off. We made four trips picking up collaborators and carrying them to a gymnasium which had been set up as a detention center.

As we set out again, one of them saw two men running down a side street and told me to follow them. We soon caught them in a cul-de-sac. Both were armed with machine pistols but they put up little resistance when they saw the Belgians and I were all heavily armed.  Both men were very surly and would only speak German and the Belgians surmised they were Gestapo. As I drove towards the gymnasium at about 50 MPH, the German setting beside me tried to grab the steering wheel in an apparent attempt to wreck the car. But a Belgian in the back seat fired point blank into his head killing him instantly.

When we arrived at the gym, the body of the dead German was thrown on the floor in front of the other prisoners. A Belgian questioned the other German but he said he spoke no French. I asked him if he spoke English and he responded by asking me if I was American. When I said yes he spat in my face. Instantly, a Belgian grabbed the German’s throat and before others could pull him off, he crushed the German’s larynx. (This Belgian was one who had been with me all evening and whom I learned worked at the steel mill where a German soldier had asked for a light for his cigarette.)

Liberation

Early the next morning I rushed down to the overlook to see what was transpiring. The first thing I noticed were the thousands of people lining both sides of the main highway waving and cheering. I then saw why: A jeep with the American flag on its bumper-mounted staff was passing by. It was followed by at least two squadrons of Sherman tanks then many other heavy vehicles, including some carrying tons of shells

.
What a day of celebration it was! People went wild with exhilaration. Several convoys passed by but I couldn’t get one to stop. After all, I appeared to be just another exuberant Belgian.

Finally, near the end of a convoy, I stepped in front of a jeep and the driver blew his horn and slowed down as he swerved around me. As he passed, I yelled, “Hey, stop, you SOB.” (I didn’t use the acronym.) The jeep stopped! A tall major with the brightest red hair I’ve ever seen, asked “What did you say?” I gave a smart salute and said: “Sergeant Jetty Cook, 92nd bomb Group, reporting for duty, SIR.” The major just grinned and said “Oh, another one of you fly boys, huh? Hop in.”

We had been liberated by the 3rd Armored Division (AD) also known as the “Spearhead Division,” a title bestowed on it by Gen. Pershing during World War I as it was the division credited for breaking the back of the German army.

The 3rd AD earned the distinction of being the first Allied force to breech the supposedly impregnable Siegfried Line and to capture a German city – Aachen. General Montgomery’s British Army was advancing northeast along near the Belgian coast to capture Antwerp and Rotterdam. Their ports were of the utmost value for logistical support to Allied forces in the West. The 3rd AD even beat Gen. George Patton’s Third Army which was racing across France to be the first to enter Germany by crossing the Saar River and capturing Saarbruchen. It would be four months before the Soviet Red Army advancing from the east would enter Germany.

I spent the next two nights with this unit bivouacked in the forest east of Liége near Aachen, Germany. The Siegfried Line was only about five miles away! Sleep in a pup tent was nearly impossible, especially with the continual roar of thunderous artillery and small arms fire.

My liberators had no spare uniforms so I was still wearing civilian clothes and I had no U. S. military identification – not even dog tags. I fully recognized I was in a very precarious situation: If captured, I probably would not be taken as a POW but immediately shot by my captors. I asked the tall major if there was some way I could get a lift to the west but he told me that every vehicle in the division was headed east – none to the west.
(I had known for many years that the 3rd AD had liberated the Liége area. In 2003 I obtained a history of the 3rd AD from “D-Day” to Liége area. “V-E Day” and inside the cover was a photo I immediately recognized — the face of the man whom I had yelled at – Major Sherwood L. Adams, Intelligence Officer of combat Command “A,” 3rd AD. I found in Mesa, AZ, the sergeant who was driving the Jeep that day. I called him and learned Adams had been the chief actuary officer for the State of California for several years until his death in 1993.)

I was finally able to hitch a ride in a jeep with two war correspondents who were heading away from the front. (One of the correspondents was well-known Associated Press correspondent Don Whitehead.) We made a brief stop in Seraing so I could say “Goodbye” to the wonderful Colleye family. Also, the two correspondents could get a good personal interest story from them.

On the western outskirts of Liége I saw a man holding out his right thumb – a gesture that only Americans used at the time. As we got closer, I recognized my best buddy, Mel Crouch!

At dusk we arrived at a bivouac near Charleroi, Belgium. The correspondents showed their ID and the MP waved us on. One of them pointed out the mess tent to Mel and I and we started walking in its direction. We hadn’t gotten far when we were challenged again, obviously because we wore “civvies.” After convincing him we had been evaders, he took us to a different tent, pulled back its flap and we walked in.

I turned to look at our “guide” and saw a tall two-star general, only the second general I had seen in my 18 months of service and the first one to whom I had talked. The general introduced himself; Gen. Elwood Quesada, commanding general of the IX Tactical Air Command. (He commanded most U.S. fighter and all medium and light bomber units in western Europe attacking German ground forces, especially trains headed for the front and heavy enemy armor.)

We were in the officers’ mess tent and the general told the cook to prepare Mel and me a hot dinner as we probably hadn’t had one for some time. (Actually, we had not had a really good meal since leaving the States six months earlier.)

While waiting for our meal, he asked more about our escapades since the time we were hit over the target. Then Mel and I got a great surprise – T-bone steaks, French fries and a bottle of exquisite wine: We thought we had died and gone to Heaven!

Gen. Quesada told his aide-de-camp he had been invited by the Countess to spend the night at the castle overlooking Charleroi and since we had no “pup tents” to sleep in, Mel and I could spend the night in his trailer. (It was a large trailer which served as both his living quarters and command post.)

With no worry of Gestapo knocking on our refuge doors, Mel and I had the best night’s sleep we had since leaving the States.

We joined officers at the mess tent the next morning and had an American wartime breakfast of fried Spam, powdered eggs and good coffee. The only semblance of coffee the Belgians had was ersatz coffee made of ground, burnt acorns.

As we ate, the officers were talking about two Germans killed near the trailer attempting to assassinate General Quesada!!! Mel and I were surprised as we had not heard a sound that night. We laughed at thinking if the Germans had been successful, they would have been disappointed to learn they had only killed two insignificant sergeants instead of Major General Elwood Quesada. Mel and I would never again sleep in any general’s quarters.
The next day, Gen. Quesada ordered his aide-de-camp, a Polish Air Force major, to drive us to Brussels in his staff car. We drove through Waterloo and entered Brussels with an American flag on the right bumper-mounted staff with a two-star flag of a major general on the left. Belgians went into a boisterous celebration as ours was the first American flag they had seen in many years.

(Brussels had been liberated by the British only five days earlier. I might add the Belgians had no great love for the British as they felt, unjustifiably so, they had been abandoned in 1940 with the British Army retreat to Dunkirk and flight to England.)

Mel and I were quartered in the Hotel Metropole, the premier Brussels hotel in the city, one floor beneath Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s suite! When we had a meal in its dining room or a drink at the bar, all we had to do was sign a chit. So Mel and I plus 50-75 other evaders had a ball.  However, after a week of celebrating our freedom, we were told the British would no longer pick up the tab for our expensive tastes. I can’t really blame them as we all ran up sizeable tabs for champagne and other luxuries.

We had been trying to get a flight back to England but without success. So we joined 25-30 other evaders gathered on a highway to hitchhike to Paris. After a short wait, a Canadian Army truck stopped, we all crowded into the back and off we went to “The City of Lights.”

Except there were no lights! A blackout was still in effect as it had been only 12 days since Paris was liberated. And at night, sporadic firing of small arms and machine guns could still be heard. I knew my mother and father would be worried sick after getting the MIA telegram two months earlier so I borrowed $5.00 from the Red Cross to send a cablegram (which cost $1.00 per word) to my parents. It stated “Am safe. Letter follows. Jetty.”
Mel and I finally caught a C-47 to London where we were debriefed by military intelligence officers. The third day we were in London, we ran into Herb Burbank, Stan Jones and Fred Noble. They were in Herstal, also near Liége, when they were liberated.

All the NCOs were given a promotion: I to technical sergeant and the other three to staff sergeant.

The five of us had successfully evaded capture only with the courageous assistance of the brave Belgian patriots. At that time I thought the past three months was all kinda exciting for this 19-year-old son of a sharecropper family on a dry-dirt cotton farm in west Texas. This was during “The Great Depression” and further aggravated by the five-year drought causing “The Great Dust Bowl.”

Being “kinda exciting” illustrates the naiveté of the young men most at risk in war, feeling they were forever immortal. It always has been that way. That explains why older, more mature men seldom volunteer for combat duty.

(I had enlisted in the Army Air Corps Reserve soon after my 18th birthday with the understanding I would not be called to active duty until I finished high school. I was called up three months before graduation.)

Mel and I made a short visit back to Podington. Our first stop was at the parachute shop where we profusely thanked the technicians for saving our lives. Literally tens of thousands of airman worldwide owe their lives to those highly dedicated professionals whose contribution to the war effort is seldom recognized.

I was deeply saddened when I inquired about my dearest friend, Ray Schlobohm who had exchanged with me goodbye waves with our machine guns as we started down. His crew was shot down over Peenemunde five weeks after we went down. He was also only 19 when he was killed.  I then no longer harbored the idea that youth gave you immortality. Learning of his death quickly brought me back to the realities of war – dirty and horrendous – nothing but blood, brains, guts and tears of the deepest sorrow and suffering.

Home Sweet Home – At Last

Mel and I received orders to proceed to Valle, Wales, where after a week or so, we finally got a flight back to the States. The plane was to land at Mitchell Army Air Field on Long Island, New York, but due to bad weather, it landed at the LaGuardia airport.

When I got off the plane, I saw a large sign reading “American Airlines Maintenance Facility” painted on the nearest hanger. I knew my brother, Curtis, was a foreman there and walked in, asked where Mr. Cook was and a voice said “Right here!” What a great homecoming we had! He asked where was the silver ID bracelet he had given me and he was pleased to know it was still in Seraing, Belgium, where it would remain.

When I finally arrived home in Big Spring, TX, in late December 1944, I learned the anguish of my parents was exacerbated about two weeks after they received the MIA telegram. The Adams family, long-time family friends, brought them a letter from their son, Ed. He had written that when he didn’t see “Berlin Special” return that day, he sought out Ray Schlobohm to learn what had happened. (Ed had been a waist gunner on our crew for our first seven missions.)

Ray had told Ed our plane had been hit over Kothen, we had lost two engines and were last seen rapidly descending through a solid layer of clouds below. Since there had been no radio transmission from our plane, it was assumed we had crashed.

The unintentional consequence of this news sent Mama to her bed for nearly a month.

In the past six months I had confronted more emotions than most men experience in a lifetime: Camaraderie, anger, trust, hate, joy, sorrow, fear, exhilaration, and loneliness. But the predominant emotions which remain with me to this day are my love and admiration for the many brave Belgian patriots who risked their lives and the lives of their families by helping me evade capture. I shall never be able to repay them.

Epilogue

Bill Stein, pilot, was lucky. He later told me he jumped from the plane when it was about 200 feet high. He said as soon as he cleared the plane, he pulled the rip cord, counted to four and hit the ground, breaking his ankles. I used “lucky” as he was placed in a Luftwaffe hospital n Brussels where he remained until the British Army approached at which time he and other POWs were placed in a truck convoy headed for Germany.  The convoy was about 40 miles east of Brussels when it was strafed by P-47s of Gen. Quesada’s IX TAC. The POWs and German guards ran for cover. Stein escaped to a house some distance away where he was hidden by a Polish forced labor farm family until liberated by the British Army. His location was about 20 miles north of mine when we were both liberated.

Rozelle Kennedy, copilot, was held at Stalag Luft I, near Barth, Germany, until liberated in May 1945.

Bill Clerkin, navigator, was initially placed in Stalag Luft III near Sagan, Germany. John Kocon, radio operator, was imprisoned in Poland at Stalag Luft IV, midway between Stettin and Danzig. As the Soviet Army, and winter approached, they were forced to join the tens of thousands of POWs being marched through Germany, along with hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees and German civilians afraid of the Russians.  This was the coldest winter (1944-45) in Europe in over 50 years – the same winter in which the Battle of the Bulge was fought.

In that cold, bitter winter, it’s a miracle anyone survived. About the only food they had was what they could forage along the way. John Kocon says he learned pig mash wasn’t too bad. Thirst was quenched with snow, making certain it did not APPEAR to be contaminated with human waste by those ahead of them on the march.

Medical supplies were non-existent. The men learned eating ground up charcoal was the best, and only, remedy available to treat dysentery.
If a man fell, as many did, but couldn’t get up to continue dragging themselves along, dogs would maul at their legs. If they still couldn’t get up, German soldiers would frequently shoot or bayonet them. The men had ample opportunity to escape but to where? Most realized their best chance of survival was to stay on the march as they knew their comrades would do whatever they could to assist them on this brutal, inhumane march.
John Kocon and Bill Clerkin were finally liberated just prior to V-E Day. John by British Army and Bill by Gen. Patton’s Third Army.

I recently asked John what kept him and all those thousands of others going forward on that brutal march. He replied: “Because he knew that each step forward brought him a step closer to freedom. Also, knowing, eventually, he would be able to take a long, warm bath, sleep in a bed between clean sheets and have a wonderful hot meal cooked by his mother. But not necessarily in that order.”

Reunions

In 1992 I located or accounted for each of our original 10-man crew, including the widow of Stan Jones who had died 15 years previously.  By the end of 1993, I had learned the names of most Belgians who had assisted me and four crew mates evade capture. I also learned the addresses of some. This endeavor was successful only with the invaluable help of Rudy Kenis, a young Belgian school teacher.

These two accomplishments brought about three wonderful, unforgettable reunions.

In September 1994 Wanda, my wife, and I, accompanied by Melvin Crouch and his wife, Barbara, returned to Belgium for a reunion with the brave Belgian patriots who had helped us evade capture. We timed this visit, my sixth back to Belgium, to coincide with Belgium’s 50th anniversary of its liberation.

My niece, Barbara Pritchett, and her husband, Jerry, joined us in Belgium. It was Barbara who persuaded me to write “The Path of a Warrior” and assisted me immensely in that long endeavor. Jerry was our “CNN” videographer for the visit and produced a splendid video tape of the exceptionally emotional visit.

The primary reunion was in Leopoldsburg hosted by Burgemeester Steyaert. About 35 people who helped us, or their children, were present. They included: A son and three daughters of the Stessens farm family who had first given me refuge. (They were teenagers in 1944.) A niece of Jan Vrijs who had interrogated me to assure I wasn’t a German plant. (Regrettably, Jan had died years earlier. His niece gave me a photo of Jan which I appreciated greatly.)

I was most happy to once again meet Arthur and Jeanne Schalenborghs. He was the Limburg Province Resistance leader whom I previously referred to as “Capt. Kurt.” Jeanne was the lady who escorted Jack Gouinlock and I via tram from Waremme to Liége.

(Arthur showed me records he kept of all Allied airmen whom he had aided – a total of 172! He had taken many to the Swiss-French frontier with his motorcycle where he turned them over to others to guide them across the border.)

Most others present were, or represented, those who had aided my four crew mates, including the Brussels police chief. (In 1944 he was four years old, but remembered the Americans hiding in the attic of his home, the Villa Sans Souci.)

Also present were Rudy Kenis, who had located all these people for me. (He had located in Waremme the Schalenborghs only the day prior to our arrival.) Also present were officials of the Belgian, Limburg and Leopoldsburg governments, including the Belgian Air Force. The local news media gave wide coverage of the event.

My greatest surprise on the occasion was our guide who took me to all the places in Limburg Province where Mel Crouch and I landed or were hidden. His name was Victor Berckmans of Hechtel-Eksel. In 1944, when he was nine years old, he watched from a nearby coppice as I came in my parachute. He had seen where I had hidden in the small bush and after the Germans ceased searching for me, he went to that bush and recovered my parachute!

In 1994, “De Schietveld” was the first site to which Victor took us. It is now a Belgian army firing range. (Burgemeester Steyaert had obtained assurances from the Army commander that firing would cease while we were there. To make certain, he provided an “honorary guard” as escorts.
We then visited what was the Stessens’ farm house, now a barn to store hay. This was followed by a short drive to Hechtel where Mel, Fred Noble, Stan Jones and Herb Burbank had landed. Victor took us to five locations where the four had landed or were hidden.h evening our hosts served us lavish seven-course dinners some with a special wine for each course. We felt like royalty!

After four days in the Leopoldsburg area, we proceeded to the Liége area and first visited Jeannine Colleye, her husband, Joe Misic, and their family. Jeannine and Joe still live in the same house in Seraing where I wasw hidden in 1944! Again, I was offered the silver ID bracelet but I refused to accept it as I had on five previous occasions.

We visited Elisabeth Vanparijs-Cox in Momalle at the home of her son, Dr. Fernand Vanparijs and his wife, Martine, along with their son and daughter, Phil and Caroline. Mme Cox had given me the last suit of her husband 8n 1944.

(Fernand, Martine and Caroline visited Wanda and me for a week in 1995. Phil, who was in medical school at the time, came for a week in 1999 and again in 2003.)

Mme Cox is now (2005) 93 and lives in a nursing home near her Fernand’s family in Momalle.

That reunion was followed in 1995 and 1997 by four-day reunions with seven of my former crew mates. (Ed Adams and Stan Jonew were deceased.) The other men and their families were very appreciative of the fact I had located all of them and arranged the reunions. More emotions: Many laughs and few tears.

With much regret, I must add that my only Belgian helpers still living are two of the Stessens daughters, Jeannine Colleye, Jeanne Schalenborgh and Mme Cox. Victor Berckmans, whom I corresponded with most frequently after our 1994 visit, passed away in 2000.

It saddens me to add that John Kocon and I are surviving members of our crew. May God bless them, each and every one of our Belgian helpers, their families and my dear crew mates.