Tuesday, April 23, 2024

B-17 veteran’s memoir reveals horrors and heroism of air war

They faced flak, fighter planes and fear of their own comrades’ stricken aircraft knocking them from the sky. It was combat that left bomber crews “quaking, rubber-legged, and with the sensation that someone poured ice down the backs of our shirts” — if they survived.

Now, a US veteran’s visceral memoir of some of the Second World War’s deadliest aerial battles has been made available to a global readership for the first time ahead of a TV drama series that draws on his experiences.

Captain Frank D Murphy, of the US Army Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, was a navigator on B-17 bombers at the height of the air war in Europe when casualties were enormous. He was shot down on his 21st mission and held at the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape. Later, he saw fellow POWs fall by the wayside, frozen, on a forced march west.

Murphy’s book, written in his retirement for family members, builds on his memories of 126 hours of daylight combat flights, as well as years of research and interviews. It has been published this month after writers for Tom Hanks’ production company chose to feature Murphy’s story in their forthcoming Apple TV+ series Masters of the Air.

The veteran, who died in 2007, was one of 28,000 airmen of the Eighth Air Force who were taken prisoner or interned in neutral countries, while 26,000 made the ultimate sacrifice. Due to its devastating losses in August and October 1943, his bomb group came to be known as the “Bloody Hundredth”.

Frank Murphy’s aircraft is lower left in this photograph taken from another B-17. Image courtesy of the 100th Bomb Group Foundation

In his book, Luck of the Draw, Murphy, from Atlanta, Georgia, describes his childhood fascination with First World War flying aces. He was a student at Emory University and had already learnt to fly light aircraft in his leisure time when the US entered the Second World War and he enlisted as an aviation cadet. A problem with his depth perception made it unlikely that he would be accepted as a pilot so he agreed to train for the equally vital role of navigator.

In June 1943, Murphy arrived at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in Norfolk, England, where the sparse comforts included hot coffee and doughnuts served by pretty Red Cross girls. The odds of completing a tour of 25 combat missions and being rotated home were slim. Day after day the bedding and possessions of airmen posted missing or killed were removed unceremoniously from their living quarters. The names of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses bought a little light relief: Impatient Virgin II, Sexy Suzy Mother of Ten and so on.

Murphy’s baptism by fire came when he first encountered heavy flak from anti-aircraft guns defending German submarine pens at Saint-Nazaire. As he writes: “My heart felt as if it would stop. It did not appear possible that anyone or anything could fly into that hell and come out alive on the other side. But somehow, despite being buffeted by thunderous explosions and the incessant clinking, clanging, and pinging of shell fragments striking our airplane, we made it through.”

Frank Murphy, kneeling, left, after the Regensburg mission, when crew members obtained fezes in Marrakech. Photo: Murphy Collection

France seemed close to home compared with subsequent missions deep into Germany, beyond the range of fighter escorts. He describes how, early on August 17, 1943, his crew was briefed for what appeared to be a “suicide mission”. As part of a larger force, they would fly to Regensburg in Bavaria, bomb a Messerschmitt aircraft factory, cross the Alps and make their way past Corsica and Sardinia to a base in Algeria.

The 100th proved particularly vulnerable as the last in a taskforce of eight bomb groups stretching over at least ten miles. Once over the Reich, they were met by enemy fighters coming in “wave after wave of frontal attacks as well as massed attacks from the rear”. At the same time, German fighter-bombers operating beyond range of the Americans’ machine guns lobbed rockets into the formation from all directions.

Wartime portrait of Frank Murphy. Photo: Murphy Collection

As a navigator, Murphy didn’t only set the aircraft’s course but also doubled as a gunner. The only instance when he knew for sure that his bullets hit home was on this mission. As he writes: “An elegant, mottled-gray Me 109 fighter had made a pass at us from the rear and foolishly flew straight through our formation instead of rolling over and diving. He was traveling only slightly faster than we were and was making a slow climbing left turn about one hundred yards to our left when he came into view. He gave me an easy deflection shot, and I poured it on with my left nose gun. I could see my tracers ricocheting from the bottom of his aircraft as he disappeared behind us. I have no idea what happened to him, but I have often wondered.”

In all, ten B-17s of 100th BG were lost on the Regensburg mission and only seven made it to the desert airstrip near Telergma. Murphy recalled: “Even though we had landed safely, I still could not easily get over the sickening feeling of gnawing desperation that the German fighters would never stop coming and there was nothing anyone could do about it.”

There was a brief, welcome respite. The crew would travel home via Morocco, where they were billeted in the grounds of the luxury La Mamounia hotel. Weeks later they were caught up in their biggest fight yet. Murphy’s was one of 13 crews of 100th BG that were part of a massive mission to bomb railway marshalling yards at Münster.

Only one of those crews returned to England and it wasn’t Murphy’s. After making its bombing run, their B-17 Aw-R-Go was shot down by devastating cannon fire from a German fighter that disabled the flight control system and started two uncontrollable fires. He recalled being thrown to the floor in a violent explosion and feeling a burning sensation after he was wounded by shrapnel in his arm and shoulder.

As he struggled to stand up, “slipping and sliding on expended shell casings”, he saw the co-pilot motioning for him to follow him and bail out. After his parachute snapped open, a lone Me 109 fighter passed by so close that he started to swing wildly in the turbulent air. He landed heavily in a field and was brought to a farmhouse by locals who gave him bread and fetched a policeman. He was 22 years old and would spend the rest of the war as a POW.

Of the ten-man crew, seven others survived and were taken prisoner and two died: radio operator Orlando E Vincenti and tail gunner Charles A Clark.

Bombed railway yards at Münster, as seen by British ground forces on April 7, 1945. Photo: Imperial War Museum, © IWM CL 2370

Murphy describes life in the South Compound at Stalag Luft III, where he suffered reprisals after the Great Escape of 76 Allied airmen from the camp in March 1944. Three of those escapees made it to Britain and 50 were murdered by the Germans. Murphy was not involved, although he would assist in American tunnelling attempts. Nevertheless, he endured days of numerous extra Appells, or roll calls. And, worse: “At all hours of the night, the Germans would suddenly enter our blocks screaming ‘Raus, raus!’ and send us outside to stand in the cold, snow, or rain for one or two hours while they methodically searched the buildings for evidence of escape activities.”

Finally, when the advancing Soviet army approached the camp, in the east of the Reich, Murphy was among the prisoners forced to march west in freezing snow. He recalled: “Sometimes a man could be seen lying by himself [by the roadside], perhaps dead or because his friends had been unable to help him or persuade him not to give up.” The POWs were eventually transported by rail in freezing boxcars to Stalag VIIA in Bavaria, where they were liberated by the US Army after a short, fierce firefight against SS troops.

Murphy doesn’t only tell his own story but gives broader insights into the experiences and attitudes of American airmen. As for how they faced the dangers he vividly describes, he writes: “… the single driving force that kept us going was the bond one felt with the men who stood steadfastly beside him when all their lives were at stake.”

Murphy’s granddaughter Chloe Melas, the NBC journalist, was instrumental in getting his book published. Explaining the backstory, she said: “In the 1990s my grandfather decided to write down his memories of being a prisoner of war and what it was like growing up in Atlanta, Georgia — for his four kids and seven grandchildren. He had been retired from Lockheed Martin for about a decade. And so, in his home office in the basement, he started typing away on a typewriter, then later a word processor and eventually a computer… He started writing just for the family and it took on a life of its own. It took about seven years to write.”

A German sentry stands guard in a watchtower at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Silesia. Photo: Imperial War Musuem, © IWM HU 21027

“I knew some of the stories about him being a prisoner of war, or parachuting out of an airplane. But I didn’t think it was anything that spectacular, because I figured everybody had a grandfather that served in the war. And he was very humble and downplayed it. These were just brief stories told over dinner with some of my cousins. So I was very surprised when reading it in its totality.

“I didn’t realise there were so many different times when he almost lost his life. And it wasn’t until my 20s that I really started looking at the percentages and learning more about daylight bombing raids, and realising that to make it to 21 missions was an incredible accomplishment. It’s not like I’m a big military history buff. I specifically know my grandfather’s story. But when I read his book the second, third and fourth times, I realised what an incredible writer he was.”

Murphy self-published the book in 2001, but the family’s stockpile of copies was exhausted by the time of his death. It was after Melas learned of plans to include his story in a TV drama about the Eighth Air Force that she thought of approaching mainstream publishers.

She explained: “I met people from Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone, and learned that they were making a TV show based on Don Miller’s book Masters of the Air. The head writer of the show, John Orloff, also leaned on my grandfather’s book, especially for the prisoner of war scenes. My grandfather is a character in six episodes, played by a fantastic actor from England, Jonas Moore.

Crowded conditions inside tents at POW camp Stalag VIIA in Bavaria, where Frank Murphy was held at the end of the war. Courtesy of the US Air Force Academy Library

“I thought, wouldn’t it be a shame if people wanted to read grandpa’s story and they’re not going to be able to get it or the only copies on sale are $60 or $70, used. So I went to my family and said, ‘Let’s try to publish it’.” They were successful and the book is published by Macmillan in the US and Elliott & Thompson in Britain.

Murphy believed that, as a survivor of combat, he had a moral obligation “to speak to subsequent generations with pride of the valor, dedication, suffering, and sacrifices” of his fallen comrades.

As such, Melas said: “He would be absolutely thrilled that the book is being read, that it has been well received and has become a New York Times bestseller — it’s all incredibly exciting. I think he would be shocked that one of his grandchildren shepherded this through and carried the torch.

“My grandfather was a great writer and loved to write. He would be very touched that his second profession, as a writer, came to him posthumously.”

The image at the top of the article shows Frank Murphy, top left, with USAAF comrades. Photo: Murphy Collection. Murphy’s book Luck of the Draw is published in the UK by Elliott & Thompson (£25). The Masters of the Air TV series will be released on Apple TV+ on January 26 2024

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