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Letter from Aviation History—May 2014

By Carl von Wodtke 
Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: February 28, 2014 
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Staff Sergeant Alan Magee demonstrates the cramped confines of a B-17 ball turret. [Weider History Archive]
Staff Sergeant Alan Magee demonstrates the cramped confines of a B-17 ball turret. [Weider History Archive]

The Miracle of Saint-Nazaire

Like many young men of his generation, Alan Magee enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At 5 foot 6 inches, he was judged the perfect size to man the cramped ball turret of a B-17 Flying Fortress. Assigned to the 360th Squadron, 303rd Bombardment Group, Magee joined the crew of the B-17F Snap! Crackle! Pop!, which had been flown to England and named by Captain Jacob Fredericks, a former employee of Kellogg Co., maker of Rice Krispies.

Magee's seventh mission, on January 3, 1944, targeted the German U-boat base at Saint-Nazaire, France—known to American airmen as "Flak City" for its formidable anti-aircraft defenses. Snap! Crackle! Pop! was one of 85 B-17s, including the celebrated Memphis Belle, sent on the raid. As it approached the target, Magee's Fortress took a flak hit, seriously wounding him. Then a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 shot off a portion of the bomber's right wing, sending the Fort into a spin. "The last thing I remember was that I was at 20-some thousand feet trying to get out of a burning plane," recalled Magee.

The ball turret gunner either jumped or was flung from the spinning B-17. He wasn't wearing a parachute.

Rendered unconscious during the nearly four-mile terminal-velocity free fall, Magee plunged through the glass ceiling of Saint-Nazaire's train station. Miraculously, when the Germans found him he was still alive, albeit with severe injuries including several broken bones, 28 shrapnel wounds and a nearly severed right arm. Taken to a field hospital at the nearby Hermitage Hotel, he was treated by a German doctor, who told him, "We are enemies, but I am first a doctor and I will do my best to save your arm."

Magee made a full recovery after 2½ months of hospitalization, spent the rest of the war in a POW camp and was liberated in May 1945. He credited the many layers of clothing he was wearing with having helped save his life, and also evoked a higher power: "I don't know how I got there, but here I am, thanks to God." Some dubbed the incident the "Miracle of Saint-Nazaire." Others suggested a fortuitous bomb explosion had somehow cushioned his landing, and TV's Mythbusters even tested that theory, concluding such a blast would have done more harm than good.

After the war Magee earned his pilot's license and worked for the airline industry in a variety of roles. In 1995 he returned to Saint-Nazaire to attend the dedication of a memorial to his seven fellow crewmen killed in the crash of Snap! Crackle! Pop! (two other crewmen had escaped by parachute and been taken prisoner). A piece of the bomber showing its distinctive nose art, recovered by the Germans, now resides in a Saint-Nazaire museum.

Magee's "miracle" is one of many such tales populating aviation history. In this issue, Stephan Wilkinson deftly covers 10 more in "Amazing But True Stories." Complementing Wilkinson's engaging prose are the humorous illustrations of long-time Weider History Group contributing artist Mike Caplanis, which lend a lighthearted touch to an admittedly serious subject. We hope you enjoy our amazing aviation story picks, and look forward to hearing about your own personal favorites.

 



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