A Pilot’s Survival

A Pilot’s Survival
A fully restored Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress awaits departure on April 20 at the Ramona Airport. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

Ed Davidson smiles for the camera after flying in a fully restored B-17 Flying Fortress from Ramona to McClellan-Palomar Airport on April 20 in Carlsbad. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram

On Jan. 5, 1944, Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Ed Davidson was at the helm of “Little Girls,” a Boeing B-17 bomber flying confidently over Bordeaux, France, on his seventh mission during World War II. Then something went terribly wrong — the aircraft carrying a crew of 10 was shot down.

Without panicking, Davidson ditched the burning bomber into the Bay of Biscay, losing half of his crew.

Davidson survived to tell the tale, which includes watching his co-pilot die before his very eyes. Later, he and four others were captured by the German Luftwaffe and they would spend 16 months at a German POW camp.

To say he has had an amazing life is truly an understatement.

At 94 years young, the La Jolla resident and World War II veteran has many stories to share, but before he does, here’s a bit about Davidson.

Ed Davidson at Primary Flight Training. Courtesy photo

Who is Ed Davidson?

Davidson was born on July 31, 1923, at Bovina Center, located in the Catskill Region of New York State.

His love for flying began at a young age: “I was always fascinated with the early aviators like Charles Lindbergh, and I would listen to my dad talk about World War I with his buddies, and a Marine friend would share stories,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to be in the air.”

Immediately after graduating from high school at Delaware Academy, Delhi, N.Y., in June 1941, he started Aviation Mechanic Ground School at Elmira, N.Y.

“I spent all my savings ($75) on flying lessons there. By working at the airport on weekends, I was able to log 20 hours of flight time before April 1942.”

He then enlisted on April 4, 1942, in New York City for the Aviation Cadet program. Preflight training at Maxwell Field, Ala.; Primary Flight Training at Decatur, Ala. (PT-17); Basic at Walnut Ridge, Ark. (BT-13); and twin engine Advanced at George Field, Ill. (AT-9), where he was commissioned on May 28,1943. Then, B-17 training at Columbus, Ephrata and Spokane, Wash. followed.

And on Jan. 5, 1944, his life changed dramatically.

“Around 3 a.m., the crew was awakened by the CQ (charge of quarters) and told to report for briefing. The weather was cold and dreary as usual. After a breakfast of powdered eggs, toast and scalding hot tea, we reported for our briefing.

“The main bomber stream today was over northern Germany; the target for the 96th Bomb Group was the airport at Bordeaux, France.

“The first 96th Bomb Group B-17 was lost early that day when the plane failed to remain airborne after the take-off run. The remainder of the group assembled over various ‘bunchers’ and ‘splashers’ (radio beacons) and departed south across the English Channel with our fighter escort. Soon after crossing the coast of France at the Brest Peninsula our fighter escort turned away to return to their base,” he said.

The group continued without interference to Bordeaux. Over the target, the B-17 fortress received minor flak damage, but the squadron leader took much heavier hits. As it turned right after bomb release, the squadron fell behind the rest of the group, he said.

“We were turning north over the Bay of Biscay and heading home when we came under attack by a swarm of Me-109s. S/Sgt. Robert Drumhiller called from the ball turret to advise that he had used up all his ammunition. I told him to keep aiming at the attacking aircraft anyway,” he said.

“On the fourth fighter pass ‘Little Girls’ was badly damaged — my co-pilot, Bud Trubey, was killed instantly by a 20-millimeter cannon shell passing through his chest.”

Davidson said there was a raging fire in the cockpit, the intercom was disabled, the No. 3 engine was on fire and soon dropped off the wing, the No. 4 propeller had stopped turning.

“The shoreline was in sight off the right wing and I started a turn toward land while Lt. Johnny Johnston, the navigator, went back to alert the crew for bailout once we had reached the coast line. He returned with word that the tail gunner, both of the waist gunners and the ball turret gunner had already bailed out.”

Ed Davidson circa 1942 flying a PT-17 Stearman Model 75 biplane during Primary Flight Training in Decatur Ala. Courtesy photo

Davidson said he soon realized that “Little Girls” would not make the shore line so the crew was alerted for a water landing. The touchdown was smooth.

“After ditching, I left the cockpit by the side window, climbed to the top of the fuselage and walked aft where the survivors of the crew were getting the life rafts inflated and secured. Lt. Johnny Johnston and I returned to the cockpit but were unable to extricate the body of Lt. Bud Trubey,” he said.

They were forced to leave the sinking airplane and joined the others in the dinghies that were tied together so that they would not become separated. He estimates that “Little Girls” floated eight to 10 minutes from splash down before sinking into the depths of the Bay of Biscay.

After about four hours of paddling toward shore a Flying Boat appeared, made several passes over their life rafts with all their guns pointing at them. Then, the Flying Boat landed beside them — they were greeted with the words: “FOR YOU THE WAR IS OVER.”

But his story doesn’t end in the dinghy, no, Davidson was headed for a POW camp.

Prisoner of War

Davidson and his remaining crew were taken to the hospital in Bordeaux where they spent the night after the Germans captured them.

“During the evening a young German pilot came to confirm that I was one of his victims that day. The German pilot reported that he had been shot down by my tail gunner and that he also was recovered from the Bay of Biscay. The Germans continued searching until nightfall but my gunners, who had bailed out, were never found,” he said.

The report back at Snetterton Heath was that five parachutes were observed before the airplane exploded … NO OTHER SURVIVORS!

Davidson’s German POW identification card. Courtesy photo

On Jan. 6, 1944, the Red Cross visited them in the hospital before they boarded a train for places unknown. Survivors of several crews were traveling together under escort and Davidson was separated from his crew.

They changed trains at a station in Paris, then on to Frankfurt, Germany and Dulag Luft, he said.

Davidson spent about a week in solitary confinement at the Dulag with daily interrogations, but name, rank and serial number was the only information he would give. Finally, the interrogator said that he couldn’t waste any more time with Davidson.

“After several minutes of letting me wonder ‘what next?’ he opened my dossier and read the date that I enlisted, where I trained, when I arrived at the 96th Bomb Group, etc., then he asked if I had seen any submarines when I came across on the ‘Queen Mary’”!

Davidson said he and the group were then locked in boxcars and sent on the way to a permanent POW camp. They were held one night in the rail yards at Berlin while the RAF bombed the city — fortunately their boxcar was not hit. The train arrived at the rail station in Barth, Germany, on Jan. 16, 1944, and they were marched about two miles to the Stalag Luft 1 POW campsite.

“I don’t think about it all, it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “For a long time, we didn’t talk about our experiences, I never had PTSD — never — it was a different generation. When we were shot down, I don’t remember being panicked, we were trained not to panic. I guess I was a little angry because we got shot down and I didn’t have the chance to finish my 25th mission and go home …”

Life at Stalag Luft 1 POW Camp

As for life at the POW camp, Davidson said he and the others were treated OK. 

“They were German air police and there was still that camaraderie between airmen at that time. They didn’t mistreat us, and under the Geneva Convention, they couldn’t allow us to work,” he said.

That meant there was a lot of boredom that included answering to roll call twice a day, and “everyone had to get out of their barracks and stand in formation to get counted.”

There were 9,500 airmen in the camp (Mostly Americans, but Brits, Poles and French, too) and Davidson spent time working in the tunnels — but escape was never in the plans.

“We excavated the earth and spread it around the barracks, and parade grounds, but the Germans let us dig only until we got to the outside fence then they closed us in,” he said. “We never had a chance to escape.”

During his 16 months in captivity, Davidson would exercise, walk around, read books and try to keep busy.

When his 21st birthday arrived, he was still imprisoned and — there was “not a birthday party.”

“We did get hungry and it was cold,” he said. “We all lost weight while there — and were fed barley soup with pieces of horse meat and were rationed black bread that had more sawdust than flour to give it bulk.”

Luckily, the POW camp was liberated by Russian troops on May 1, 1945, and less than two weeks later he returned to Allied Military Control through Camp Lucky Strike and was sent back to the USA on June 21, 1945.

Courtesy photo

After the war

Today, Davidson is the only remaining member of his original crew.

After the war, he was processed at Atlantic City, N.J., and separated from active duty in January 1946. He started studying mechanical engineering at Cornell University while flying with Air Corps Reserve at Rome, N.Y. He transferred to Parks College in September 1948 and graduated March 1951 and was recalled to active duty with his Air Force Reserve unit.

He later flew C-46 and C-119 aircrafts in Korea until the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.

He was hired by American Airlines in March 1955 and flew for the airline for 28½ years, logging more than 22,00 hours before retiring in 1983.

But ask him today if he would do anything different and he’d tell you no way. He adds that in these times: “So many young people are not educated about World War II and I like spreading the word about these Flying Fortresses.”

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