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Buried Memories

Updated: Nov 11, 2021

Jack Flynn’s wartime story started like any other Sunday for a seventeen-year-old in December of 1941. However, this Sunday was December 7th. Jack along with a group of his buddies were playing basketball at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea school gym on City Island, Bronx, New York. Everything came to a stunning halt when they were told the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The boys all went back to their homes to find their families. Their world forever changed that afternoon. War with Japan was declared the following day. On December 11th just three days later Germany declared war on the United States. Jack like so many young men would soon be fighting in the Pacific or Europe. Jack graduated in June 1942 from Cardinal Hayes h High School. After graduation from high school, he worked for his father, who owned and operated a supply boat that provided fuel for the many luxury yachts that moored off City Island in the Long Island sound. Turning eighteen in August, he became draft eligible. Knowing that he wanted to join the Army Air Force, rather than being drafted Jack and his good friend Wyatt Pick had for some time been talking about enlisting. On Wednesday November 25th, 1943, the day before Thanksgiving the two childhood friends walked into the Army Air Forces recruitment office in the Bronx and enlisted. Thanksgiving that year was a day the Flynn family will never forget. Jack told Dolores, his parents and family he enlisted, Jack explained to them when you are drafted, they put you where they want you and he wanted to be in the Army Air Force. His father no doubt took the news the worse. Even though he was proud of his son and knew the cause was just, he had the memories of the horrors he had seen in Word War l and the thought of his only son going to war was very difficult. Jack’s father Eugene Flynn, in 1917 at the age of twenty-four volunteered for the American Field Service, providing medical care for the French Army. He would be wounded by machine gun fire and injured in a German gas attack on a French position. For his heroism under fire Jack’s father was awarded the Croix de Guerre with a silver star.

Jack entered the Army Air Force that December and soon began training. Over the next nine months Jack received extensive and specialized training in all areas of the operation of a B-17 bomber. During that time, he was promoted to the rank of Staff/Sergeant. During his training he was selected and assigned as the Flight Engineer / Top Turret Gunner on a B-17.

During his training Jack proposed to the love of his life, Dolores McGrail. With Jack in service the two agreed to a wedding after his return from duty. Like all brides, Dolores wanted a silk wedding gown, but due to wartime rationing it was not possible. Dolores was never far from his mind and one afternoon after completing a training exercise he spotted a parachute that had not been picked up. Risking being court martialed and sent to federal prison, yet knowing how much he wanted Dolores to have a silk wedding gown for their wedding, Jack with the help of two of his crewmates opened the bag and cut the lines and took the silk chute. Dolores would have her silk wedding gown.

With completion of their training the ten-man crew led by pilot Lt. Raymond Buthe, co-piloted by Lt. Charles Norris, left Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah Georgia on October 17, 1943 ferrying a new B-17 which was loaded with spare parts and headed for England. Their flight route took them near New York City. Lt. Buthe said to the crew “Let’s go take a look at the Statue of Liberty.” They all told him they will get shot down. Lt. Buthe went ahead and circled the Statue of Liberty and to Jacks excitement flew over his home on City Island. Jack said jokingly to Lt. Buthe, “Oh boy can I jump out?” We can only guess at Lt. Buthe’s response to Jacks request. From there they made one stop at Grenier Field, New Hampshire for fuel. Their next stop was Iceland where they would spend the night getting some badly needed rest and fuel for their bomber. Leaving the next day, they flew to an airfield at Valley, Wales. The new bomber was then flown to the Army Air Force base in Burton Wood, England for modifications. From Valley, Wales the crew travelled by train to a base for incoming air crews in Stone England, where the crew spent a few days awaiting assignment to a permanent base.They received orders on the 24th of October to report to Rattlesden Army Air Force Base for assignment with the Eighth Air Forces 708th Bomber Squadron which was part of the 447th Bomb Group. Between their arrival and their first actual combat mission as a crew they needed to complete a concentrated ground school introducing them to Eight Air Force and air combat against Germany. Although each man had received extensive training in the states this training was geared for what they would experience over Europe. This training was to ensure the crews were taught everything they would need to be ready before actual air combat. No one could fly until they completed the training. Crews also had to complete practice missions. Jacks crew like other air crews developed a strong bond, in many ways they were closer to each other than their own families. This closeness could be seen in the relationship the officers had with the enlisted men. It was a relationship unique to the Army Airforce. They knew everything about each other and knew they could depend on the other guy.

On November 21st, Jack said they were all woken up at 3am. The crew got the word they were going on their first combat bombing mission. Their training was over, this time in the air they would be together as a crew knowing that not only did, they depend on each other, but everyone else in their bomber formation would be depending on them. They had enough time to get dressed, go to the mess hall for breakfast, Jack a catholic would receive communion and a blessing from a priest prior to the mission briefing. After the briefing the crew drove together out to their plane. Once they took off each plane would circle until all bombers were in the air. This could take anywhere from one to two hours, sometime longer depending on the number of bombers going on the mission. When in formation the lead pilot would say “go” and the mission was underway.Their mission that day was the was the oil refinery and marshaling yard in the German city of Koblenz located approximately 200 miles from the Belgium border. The young crew managed to get through both the German fighters and heavy flak to drop their bombs on the target and make it back safely to England.

The next mission was on November 26th with the target being the railroad marshaling yards in Hamm, Germany located northeast from Cologne. This time they made it back to their base at Rattlesden a lot more aware of the danger to their job. In a letter to his family after their second mission Lt. Curtis Chapman the bombardier wrote he felt like a veteran now. He also wrote on one of the bombing missions their squadron was shot up considerably, but he and the crew returned home safely.

Their last bombing mission was November 30th. Jack wrote it began as the ones before, up at 3AM, mess hall for breakfast, church, briefing, take off and into formation. That day’s target was the Lutzkendorf Oil Refinery near Merseburg, Germany. That morning they would be one man short as their waist gunner Sgt. Douglas Aldrich was assigned to another crew. That would be a blessing for Sgt. Aldrich would go onto finish the war and return home.

Over the target at 27,800 feet at 1318hrs and receiving very heavy German flack their bomber was hit just minutes before the bombs were released leaving the bomb bay doors open. From his top turret position Jack saw the tail section explode. Sgt. John Lafferty the waist gunner later reported that they had been receiving flak and set afire. Fortunately, he had one side of his parachute fastened. There was another explosion that blew him out his gun opening. Jack believed the tail section was completely blown off, killing the tail gunner immediately. Jack said the radio operator and the ball turret gunner were all killed at the same time. When the tail was struck the force knocked Jack out of the top turret and he landed behind the pilot and co-pilot. Since the top turret was too small to wear a parachute, Jack wasn't wearing his, but miraculously he landed on top of his chest parachute and hooked one strap.

The plane then started to turn almost completely upside down into a downward spiral. Jack looked up and saw Lt Buthe and his co-pilot Lt. Charles Norris struggling frantically to get out of their seats, but with the plane a downward spin, the centrifugal force held them in their seats making it impossible for them to free themselves. Suddenly the plane was ripped by another explosion, this one blew Jack through the opening leading into the bomb bay and out through the open bomb bay doors. The fact the bombs were still in place leaving a very small opening for him to fit through made his escape even more miraculous. Jack would later write “Don’t tell me there is no God.”

As he headed downward, he was able to pull the ripcord on his parachute. To his horror it did not fully open and with only the one strap hooked on, he was spinning. Making things worse when he looked up and he saw falling pieces of debris. With only one strap on and falling debris he thought he was not going to make it.As he headed downward, he continued to look up watching as debris fell, but his main concern was his crewmates. Was he the only one to escape? Finally, he saw two parachutes and knew at least two of his crewmates had made it out. With his chute not fully opening his descent was fast and his landing so hard, he was knocked unconscious for a short time. When he came to, he began to hide his parachute when a shot rang out over his head. He could see German soldiers with rifles out running toward him at that point he knew his only option was to surrender. He was brought back to a vehicle under guard and hed.

He noticed other German soldiers heading towards him with two American fliers it was Sgt. Lafferty and Lt. Chapman. Jack learned from Lt. Chapman that he had been in the nose preparing to drop the bombs when there was an explosion. He was knocked unconscious but fortunately came too finding himself in a free fall from the plane in time to pull his parachutes ripcord. Like Jack and John Lafferty, he was caught by German soldiers as he was attempting to bury his parachute. They were captured near the German town of Zeitz. The three were placed in the back of a German vehicle. As the three were being driven away they drove through a town that was still on fire from the bombing. A German soldier sitting infront of them turned around and spit on the three. They knew they were hated by the Germans.

The three were transported to Frankfort arriving the next morning around 8am. From there they were then taken by train to Oberursel and held at Dulag Luft (Durchgangslager der Luftwaffe). This was a transit camp for captured members of the Army Air Force. The main purpose of the camp was to be a collection and interrogation center for newly captured aircrews, before they were transferred in groups to permanent Prisoner of War camps. The three were separated when they arrived. Jack after being photographed and fingerprinted was placed in windowless cell. He would spend the next ten days in solitary confinement. Jack described those ten days as horrendous. He said, “you start to go out of your mind”. The Germans would do things to him such as at midnight turn on the cell lights and three soldiers would come in and make him get up and stand. All to exhaust him and make any interrogation go easier for them. The Germans would not take him to the bathroom so in his cell all he had was a bottle to use. He was given very little water to drink and when his thirst became unbearable, he had no choice but use his own urine to survive. During those ten days of confinement the only food he received was bread. Jack being the man that he was never said anything about being abused by the German’s for information.

However, since the end of the war allegations of interrogation under torture have been made by numerous POWs who passed through the camp. After his tenth day he was transported with a group of other American aircrews to the Dulag Luft near Westlar. Here Jack was able to locate Lt. Chapman and Sgt. Lafferty. The three weren’t together long before each was transported to a Prisoner of War (POW) camp.

That would be the last time the three sole survivors would ever see of each other. Lt. Chapman was sent to Stalag Luft I, while Sgt. Lafferty to Stalag Luft III and Jack was sent by train to Stalag Luft IV near Gross Tyschow in eastern Germany in what today is Poland. This prisoner-of-war camp held almost 8,000 American airmen along with several hundred prisoners from other countries. Jack rarely spoke of his time in Stalag Luft IV. Looking into the camps history it was easy to see why. It was overcrowded, housing was poor, little if any heat, inadequate food, clothing and medical supplies. An International Red Cross report from October 1944 described the camp conditions as generally bad. Arriving in mid-December, this nineteen-year-old who the year before celebrated Christmas with his family was about to celebrate his first Christmas away from his family surrounded by the horrors of life in a prison camp. Early in January the Russian army initiated its winter offensive.

The Russians were advancing from the east and by early February were only 40 miles away from the camp. With the Russians advancing the Germans decided to abandon Stalag Luft 4. The sick, injured and crippled prisoners were transported by train to prison camps in western Germany. Prisoners such as Jack considered fit to march left the camp, on Feb. 6, 1945, on what later would be called the “Death March”. They were originally told by their German captors the walk would last only three days, the march would eventually cover over 600 miles and last 86 days, in some of the worst weather seen in many years. During the course of the 86 days he later would write “if we were really lucky, we spent a night in a barn giving us shelter from the cold, snow or rain”. But most nights they had no shelter at all and were forced to sleep on the ground. Like many of the other pow’s Jack contracted dysentery, diarrhea along with trench foot. Since no medication was available, Jack like his buddies ate charcoal from the bonfires they had the night before to battle dysentery and diarrhea. Those prisoners that were unable to walk for themselves or too ill to go for food were helped by those prisoners who were healthy enough to help care for them. Food was very limited, mostly potatoes or a vegetable. Malnutrition was the norm. Jack who was thin to begin with was very fortunate to survive.

Exhaustion, exposure and other illnesses took its toll on the pow’s. Those who could not keep up with the group and fell behind, were never seen again. Their fates left in the hands of their German guards.

For Jack and the surviving members of the “DEATH MARCH” the nightmare would come to an end on May 2, 1945, near Lubeck, Germany. Their German captors fled the day before. Sitting exhausted and ill they waited not knowing what was going to happen. Military vehicles approached the group and to the pow’s joy it was British and Canadian soldiers. Jack like most of the others pow’s was paper thin, sick and exhausted.

But the sight of the Brits and Canadians made him realize that his nightmare was over. He knew he would be going home. The airmen were treated by British medical services, able to shower, receive clean British uniforms, eat and finally sleep on a bed indoors. Jack attributed his survival to his faith in God and his desire to get back to Dolores and his family.

Jack would return home to his beloved City Island in time to marry the love of his life Dolores McGrail. On August 11th, 1945 at St Mary Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church, Jack stood in-front of family and friends and watched as Dolores walked up the aisle wearing her silk dress made from the parachute he had risked going to prison for. They took their vows that day and over the next forty-nine years would go onto raise four children and have nine grandchildren. Sadly, he lost his Dolores to cancer in 1994. My father in law Jack Flynn joined Dolores and his crew on February 9. 2009. Dolores silk wedding dress is still part of the family’s history.

Jack like so many veterans came home from World War II, buried the memories of the horrors he suffered, he witnessed, the friends he lost, the pain he endured and kept it from his family. They had lives to start living again. The family knew very little about what their father had done or what he had gone through during the war. It was only later in his life when his children sat down and spoke with him about his wartime years they found out about his miraculous story of survival.

Even though five decades had passed since the war ended three words, he spoke during his interview with his children said it all “You never forget.”

This story although about my father in law could not be told without acknowledgingthe men of that plane. Six of them paid the ultimate sacrifice, in the process leaving behind wives, children and family. We owe all nine men a debt of gratitude for it is because of their sacrifices we enjoy the freedoms we have in this country and the world. Their story must never be forgotten.

Pilot: Lt. Raymond Buthe

Co-Pilot: Lt. Charles Norris

Navigator: Lt. Marvin Brawer

Bombardier: Lt. Curtis Chapman

Engineer: S/Sgt. John Flynn

Radio Operator: Sgt. Anthony Demarco

Waist Gunner: Sgt. John Lafferty Jr.

Ball Turret: Sgt. Charles Agnatovich

Tail Gunner: Sgt. Ralph Corning

Like Jack Flynn, Lt. Curtis Chapman returned home, married and would raise a family. Sadly, he passed away in July 1963 at the age of 43. Sgt. John Lafferty would return home as well, marry and raise three children. He passed away in 1995.


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