From the September 2007 issue: A Downed Navigator Flees for His Life Behind Enemy Lines
“My darling Cornie — This is my first letter to you in almost five weeks!” twenty-three-year-old Lt. Richard G. Fowler, a U.S. Army Air Forces navigator from Minnesota, wrote to his wife Cornelia on May 25, 1944. “And I’m writing it not knowing when I’ll be able to mail it, since believe it or not, I’m behind enemy lines.” After his B-24 was shot down over German-occupied Yugoslavia, Fowler was running for his life. During moments of rest, he wrote letters he knew he couldn’t send, which chronicled his experiences and, most important, helped him feel emotionally connected to his wife. In the first of these letters, Fowler continued:
On April twenty-third we were assigned a bombing mission to carry out that day. We were to go to an enemy airfield and bomb it with fragmentation bombs, so as to destroy as many enemy aircraft as possible, on the ground.
Our take-off and assembly went as usual—a little rough, but without any unusual happening. After two and one-half hours of flying and keeping watch for German fighters, I was almost ready to relax a bit for our rendezvous with our P-38 escort in a few minutes. When our fighter escort is with us, there is little danger from the enemy fighters, so I usually sit back when they appear, to watch any battles that may ensue so I can accurately report the results.
During the engine warm-up before take-off a small oil leak developed in number one engine. It was small but its repair took about fifteen minutes, so we were delayed and could not take our place in the formation, but had to fill in as the last ship in the whole formation—not a good position at any time.
Well, as I was saying, we had been out for more than two hours and were due to pick up our escort in a few minutes. I thought I’d take one last look around, so I poked my head up into the astrodome to see what was going on. I saw what looked like our escort behind us, buzzing around as light fighters can and always do.
At first I assumed they were our fighters, but a second later I saw the guns on the fighter spurting fire. The machine guns on fighter planes are in the wings pointing forward, so when you can see the whole wing span of a plane spouting fire and bullets, you know damned well that plane is an enemy, and he is trying to kill you—it’s not a pleasant feeling.
I didn’t hear our gunners shooting at the German fighters behind us so I grabbed my microphone switch to tell them to begin firing—those are enemy planes! Not our escort, as they probably thought! The switch didn’t work and a second later there was an explosion in the ship! Those fighters had been fiendishly accurate with their machine-gun and cannon fire, and their incendiary bullets had exploded our gasoline tanks. In a fraction of a second, flames had spread all over the plane, and were licking at my feet—I knew we would have to bail out. I quickly looked up in the pilot’s compartment to see if George and John were O.K. All I could see was a wall of flame, so I knew they had died quickly.
The Emerson turret gunner, in the nose, was unaware of what had happened, so I turned around, jerked open the turret doors, and half pulled him out of the turret. By then, flames had filled my compartment too, and I could feel them burning my head and face. By instinct I closed my eyes and held my breath because it is certain death to breath flame….
Before I had opened the escape hatch to try to blow the flame back in the rear of the ship so the turret gunner could escape, so the second my pack was on my chest I fell forward and was out in the cool, soft air—fifteen-thousand feet above the ground! I can remember pulling the ripcord and almost immediately my chute popped-open, giving me a good hard jerk, but it felt wonderful!
Since I was fifteen I have wanted to make a parachute jump, and were it not for the circumstances under which this one was made I think I would have enjoyed it.
When I was certain the chute was open, I looked up and saw the white silk billowing and swaying in the wind. It was very quiet and you have no sensation of falling until you near the ground—just floating in space. My face and right hand had been burned quite badly and hurt like the very devil. A thousand thoughts ran through my head as I was falling. It took about ten minutes before I hit the ground so I did have time to think. First of all I wondered what you would think not hearing from me for a long time—I was quite certain I would be captured by the Germans and taken to a prison camp in Germany.
I thought then that I had been very seriously burned, but miraculously I will have only some very small scars on my face, and they will disappear in a year….
When I could distinguish objects on the ground I began to think of landing—I didn’t want to break a leg because then all chance for escape would be gone. As it was I might possibly hide in the hills which were all around. I could see I would hit the ground in a green valley and I could see hundreds of people looking up at me.
When I was high in the air I could see one other parachute from our plane—only one—that meant eight had died. I had hoped the other man and I myself would land together but he was two or three miles beyond me—I learned later, in German hands! When I hit the ground I relaxed and rolled, and when I stood up found I was unhurt except for my burns.
A parachutist is always a sensation, but that is especially true in this country where I fell. People—at least two-hundred—quickly gathered around me to see the strange sight. Of course I didn’t know if they were friendly, but I soon learned they were….
About that time a young fellow rode up on a bicycle and spoke to me in broken English! He had lived in America for eleven years before coming here. He told me I must hurry. The Germans were coming for me, and that he would take me to a Partisan who would hide me from them. I had to trust him, so we both rode bicycles along a road for 4 kilometers to another little village….
When we arrived at the village I met the Partisan (named Korelli) and his wife—who also had lived in America and could speak a little English—who were to become my friends, and who were later to sacrifice much to save my life, or at any rate to save me from a prison camp. They gave me wine and let me rest a few minutes, and then Korelli said I must go with him up into the hills because the Germans would soon be there.
My burns hurt like hell, and I knew if the Germans got me I would at least have a doctor, but by then I was damned determined not to be captured whatever the cost. I have always said I’d hate to be captured—a matter of pride. I guess I’d just do about anything to prevent it.
The letter ends abruptly for reasons that are not known. Fowler eventually made his way to safety and returned to his squadron on July 4, 1944. He survived the war and came home with no additional injuries. Fowler’s children did not find the dramatic letters their father wrote from behind enemy lines until after his death at age fifty-eight in 1979.