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In his twilight years, a WWII tail-gunner relives the perils of his youth and takes home a powerful memento.

Secured in his tail-gunner position at the rear of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, 20-year-old Sergeant Francis J. Lashinsky was about to age several additional years within a scant few minutes. Lashinsky had never been inside an air- plane before joining the U.S. Army Air Forces. In fact, he didn’t even have a driver’s license. Soon, however, he would undergo the most trying ordeal of his life.

Below lay the Liberator’s target: the Floridsdorf oil refinery in Vienna, Austria. By this late date in the war, March 12, 1945, the Allies had gained a foothold across the Rhine, and German Luftwaffe defenses were frail. But Lashinsky knew this was no milk run. Even a tiny piece of flak could have deadly consequences.

The B-24 disgorged its load of 10 500-pound RDX bombs and made a descending turn to the right. Bomb run completed, the crewmen looked forward to returning to their 455th Bomb Group home base at Cerignola, Italy.

Suddenly a shrill whine filled the Liberator, overwhelming the normal roar of the massive radial engines. A shell fragment had likely hit the No. 4 engine, damaging the propeller pitch control. The runaway engine threatened to tear loose from its mounts. Vibrating like a tuning fork, the badly wounded B-24 dropped away from the 42-bomber formation.

The crew desperately struggled to regain control. They shut down No. 4, but the propeller would not feather and continued to windmill until it eventually froze. Returning to Cerignola was out of the question. Captain Richard J. von Schriltz decided to divert the crippled Liberator to an airfield behind Soviet lines at Pécs, Hungary. He ordered the crew to jettison weight to stabilize altitude. Unfortunately, a piece of equipment ejected from the front of the plane struck the radome, rendering it inoperable. Without radar, and with the B-24 folded into a thick undercast at 11,000 feet, navigation was nearly impossible. Compass, airspeed and wind information from the morning’s briefing were all they had to go on.

Chaos prevailed as weight shedding continued in earnest. Machine guns were dismantled and hurled out, along with ammunition. Crewmen popped the rivets holding oxygen tanks and threw the tanks out. Finally, the Liberator steadied at 8,000 feet.

When the navigators estimated they had arrived over Pécs, von Schriltz put the plane into a spiral descent through the undercast to visually identify their location. He instructed navigator 1st Lt. Charles M. Brazelton to call out every 100 feet of descent. Around 4,000 feet, they could make out the ground, but the anticipated airfield was nowhere in sight. The navigators gave von Schriltz a heading based on sighting two rivers that they assumed to be the Danube and the Drava.

In the tail turret, Lashinsky huddled defenseless, having traded his two .50-caliber machine guns and ammunition for altitude. Only the skeletal remains of the perforated cooling barrels allowed him to mount a faux defense. He turned the turret and aimed the useless barrels at three fighters bearing down on the stricken Liberator.

The B-24 suffered repeated additional damage from the fighters’ fire. The aft section filled with white smoke and something resembling confetti, probably from a shell burst in the belly radar turret that scattered the debris of paper capacitors. Von Schriltz had no choice but to order a bailout.

Ball turret gunner Art Colton delayed his exit, signaling Lashinsky to get to the forward side of the escape hatch, but the tail-gunner waved him ahead. As Colton jumped, the hatch fell closed, leaving Lashinsky alone in the bomber’s waist. What he saw next terrified him. One of Colton’s flying boots was jammed between the hatch and its frame.

Lashinsky recalled the moment with chilling clarity: “I had a mental picture of Art hanging out of the plane, held by his foot stuck in the hatch. I faced a dilemma. Had Art struck his head on the aircraft? Was he conscious or unconscious? How could I help? I reasoned I could hold him from falling with my right hand and open the hatch with my left. To this day, I still believe the feat was possible. I grasped the boot, opened the hatch and was relieved to have only the boot in my hand.”

Kneeling, face to the rear, Lashinsky dived headfirst from the crippled B-24. During his freefall tumble he saw the Liberator about 1,000 yards above and ahead of him. Suddenly two shell bursts flashed just below the wing, and the bomber’s landing gear dropped out of the retracted position.

As he fell, Lashinsky’s mind reeled. He and his crew had already miraculously survived the loss of three B-24s (see sidebar, P. 47). The grinding stress of yet another life-or-death episode nearly overpowered him. “For a brief instant the thought of not pulling the ripcord crossed my mind,” Lashinsky recalled. “I wearied of coming face to face with death so many times in my short lifetime. But realizing what I was contemplating amounted to suicide, I dismissed the thought.”

His chute deployed, Lashinsky’s descent was now accompanied by an unexpected new hazard: Bullets hissed and snapped close by. He grasped the shroud lines, spilling air first from one side of the chute, then the other, oscillating and increasing his descent rate.

Two other crewmen were recovered unscathed by the Soviets, who also nursed a third back from near-death. Three did not survive. Second navigator 1st Lt. John A. Coates was wounded as he descended in his chute. He was picked up by the Soviets and treated at a field hospital in Siklos, but died during the night. The Soviets buried him near a chapel in a Catholic cemetery in Siklos. In the late 1940s, graves registration teams recovered his body for reburial. First navigator Lieu – tenant Brazelton, who had been severely wounded in the abdomen, landed on the Gordisa farm of Ozslar Ferenc. Brazelton crawled a few feet, collapsed and died. Ferenc later claimed to have buried him, and stated further that Swabian German residents pressed into service by the Soviets reburied the airman. The remains of radar officer 1st Lt. Charles S. Adams have never been recovered.

After a hard landing in an area bristling with barbed wire, Lashinsky stood up and found himself directly in front of a trench line. “A bareheaded trench occupant beckoned me with his finger to come into the trench,” Lashinsky said. “I jumped in to face about 10 Ger – mans armed with rifles with fixed bayonets. The bareheaded one ex – tended his hand and said, ‘Pistol.’” Lashinsky surrendered his Colt .45.

Now a POW, Lashinsky endured several harrowing incidents during his captivity. A German commander, speaking English, ordered him to strip and hand his clothes to a colleague. “I did as I was told and stood stark naked among them,” he said. “I felt more vulnerable and solitary than I had minutes earlier. I fully realized that the Fifteenth Air Force would not have the slightest notion of our fate or location. If the Germans decided to execute me, the world would never know.” The Americans had heard rumors, later confirmed, that Adolf Hitler had ordered captured airmen executed because they were “gangsters.”

Lashinsky’s captors discovered a prayer book in his pocket. They slapped his face hard with it, admonishing him that he shamelessly carried a prayer book yet killed women and children. They asked what he would say if told he was to be executed. Whenever queried, Lashinsky only responded with his name, rank and serial number.

His captors questioned him about the recent firestorm bombing of Dresden, asking if he had participated. Lashinsky was not aware of the bombing. When he responded with the customary name, rank and serial number, Lashinsky said his inquisitor “sprang to his feet instantly, like a spring uncoiling. A torrent of loud, strong and I assumed Teutonic curses were hurled at me. Even though I did not understand a word of it, there was no question I had provoked his extreme anger.” Miraculously, without a further word, the Germans returned his clothing and told him to dress.

Lashinsky and five of his fellow crew members became hostages of the retreating German army. Loaded into a troop train with flak guns on flatcars, they traveled by rail through Croatia into Germany. The six B-24 crewmen, 10 other Americans, 13 Bulgarian officers and a Russian officer shared half of a “40 and 8” boxcar (originally designed to hold 40 men or eight horses). A barbed wire barrier down the middle separated them from their guards in the other half. Allied fighters strafed the fleeing train during its long journey, and it was also bombed in Brod. The prisoners went days without food. They drank from streams and rivers.

A month later, the train was parked in a marshaling yard in Regensburg, Germany. Air raid sirens sounded, and the guards abandoned their prisoners, leaving them locked inside the boxcar. Bombs struck nearby, igniting fires in surrounding trains. The POWs broke out of their boxcar by pulling the iron-barred window from the car wall and hoisting the smallest man through it to the ground. He undid the latch, and the men escaped to a quarry beyond the railroad yards. The guards saw the men and approached with sheepish looks on their faces, presumably because they had abandoned them.

It soon became obvious the guards were hoping to be captured by the Western Allies—preferably Americans. They seemed to regard the prisoners more or less as safe conduct passes to be used for their eventual surrender. Amid increased indications of a German collapse, however, the guards conceded they no longer considered the captives their prisoners. The POWs agreed to surrender the guards to Americans if an opportunity presented itself.

The guards and prisoners set off on foot for their eventual destination, Stalag VIIA in Moosberg. It took about 2½ weeks to get there, walking by day and spending the nights in barns. On April 25, 1945, they finally reached Stalag VIIA, and the guards turned the prisoners over to the camp commander. It was the last the POWs saw or heard of them.

On April 29, a flight of North American P-51 Mustangs buzzed the camp. “They were warning us that attack was imminent,” recalled Lashinsky. The prisoners all cheered. The message became even more emphatic when the Mustangs began to dive and strafe the camp-perimeter. Lashinsky and his fellow detainees lay on the floor of their barracks—questionable shelter, but better than nothing.

After the planes withdrew, Lashinsky witnessed the drama unfolding outside the main gate. A few of the guards had their arms raised above their heads. A Sherman tank slammed through the unopened gate, with infantry close behind. The prisoners would learn their liberators were members of General George S. Patton’s Third Army.

“They proceeded to the flagpole, lowered the swastika and raised the Stars and Stripes,” Lashinsky remembered. “Unless you’ve experienced captivity by a foreign power, you never have experienced this singular thrill, to see your own flag raised, restoring your liberty. Reliving this event in memory even today, during a flag raising ceremony, can choke me up and bring tears to my eyes.”

Twenty-seven thousand prisoners were freed that day, the largest single liberation of Allied captives in World War II. “Patton arrived wearing his signature battle dress, complete with ivory-handled revolvers,” Lashinsky said. “He addressed the freed men briefly, standing up in his jeep. Then he left to continue pursuit of the enemy.”

Nearly six decades later, in January 2004, Frank Lashinsky received a phone call at his Pennsylvania home from Chief Petty Officer Dennis Friedbauer at the Pentagon, part of a team working in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, POW/Missing Personnel Affairs. Friedbauer was working on the case of 1st Lt. Charles Adams, the crew’s still unaccounted for radar officer.

Friedbauer had visited Gordisa, Hungary, and the site outside the town where Lashinsky’s B-24 crashed. Although the bomber’s markings had been obliterated in the conflagration, identification was made from serial numbers on portions of two machine guns that remained in the wreckage. Friedbauer had examined the area and interviewed residents, including eyewitnesses to the crash, and also scoured archives relating to the incident. He and Lashinsky talked for hours by phone and for seven more hours face to face. Contact was also made with other surviving crew members.

Friedbauer sent Lashinsky pictures taken at Gordisa showing the crash site and pieces of wreckage. Via the Internet, he introduced Lashinsky to Nandor Mohos, a young Hungarian interested in World War II. “Nandi,” who spoke English, had investigated a number of sites where American planes had crashed. He and the Pentagon team had trekked more than 1,000 miles in Hungary looking for the remains of missing airmen. He provided Lashinsky with maps that pinpointed the area where the crew had parachuted.

Lashinsky’s desire to learn more about that fateful day 59 years earlier compelled him to return to Gordisa. At Friedbauer’s urging, and knowing that his recollection of the incident might assist in the search, Lashinsky and his wife Dorothy committed to the trip. The Hungarian language barrier was the last obstacle. Nandi agreed to accompany the Lashinskys and act as their interpreter.

At Cerignola they toured the former airfield, site of the final departure for the ill-fated Liberator. It was now planted with wheat. They saw the ruins of a wine cellar that had been the bomb crew’s briefing room. The Lashinskys were received by Cerignola’s mayor, and learned that the father of legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had emigrated from the town.

After driving up a mountain abutting Pécs, the group took an elevator to the observation deck atop it. Nandi pointed out the location of the airfield that had been the crew’s destination. It was now a housing development. Pécs’ open pit coal and uranium mines were still visible but now idle.

When Gordisa’s mayor, Lukacsne Kislaki, received the group at her home, two other important guests were present. Joszef Kovacs and Sandor Pupos, who were 15 and 11 at the time of the incident, had been eyewitnesses to the B-24’s death throes.

Soon a TV crew arrived at the mayor’s house for filming and interviews. The entourage walked down the unpaved street to Janos Szabo’s house, where a group had assembled. In the backyard, several pieces of aluminum airplane skin were propped against the fence. Lashinsky examined them as TV cameras rolled. The group then rode a horse-drawn buggy to the area where, Kovacs and Pupos indicated, the plane had come down. Returning to Gordisa, they were driven around and shown the town.

While the Lashinskys attended church in Harkany, Nandi went back to Gordisa to secure a portion of the wreckage for Frank to take home. The piece he brought back was about 3 feet by 20 inches and included one of the blue-outlined white side bars that joined the circle, enclosing the white star, in the insignia painted on the wing surfaces. Lashinsky wanted a piece that would fit in his luggage and could be easily transported, but Nandi insisted the artifact should remain as is.

Nandi carefully packaged the wing piece and wrote a note in Hungarian to explain the unusual parcel to airport security personnel. Lashinsky showed the note to security and customs officers, who did not question him further. He returned home with a piece of the Liberator that had held him aloft just long enough for him to bail out—and also with a sense of closure about the event that had changed his life so many years ago.


Gary Wright is an Illinois-based freelance writer with a special interest in aviation history. He is a “friend” member of the Air Forces Escape and Evasion Society ( He suggests for further reading: The Forgotten 500, by Gregory A. Freeman; and B-24 Liberator Units of the Fifteenth Air Force, by Robert F. Dorr.

Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here