6:15 | It was the last test. Clayton Nattier's crew was aloft in a B-17 for their check ride, after which they would be assigned to a bomb group in England. The testing officer took them up to a higher altitude than they'd ever been and this contributed to an unfortunate situation which would separate pilot from crew.
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His first semester at Kansas State University was going fine. Then came Dec. 7, 1941. Clayton Nattier knew that, if he had to go into the military, he wanted to fly airplanes, so he went to the airfield where Kansans could take the tests for cadet training.
Having successfully passed all the tests for cadet training, Clayton Nattier arrived in Santa Ana for preflight classes. The next step was primary training where he flew the Stearman trainer, a bi-plane. The site had been a private aviation school and was fairly luxurious compared to the next stop which was an actual military base.
The second phase of pilot training was called basic training. You flew a more powerful aircraft and you did acrobatics, which taught you how to recover from bad situations in the air. Clayton Nattier knew he wanted to fly the big planes, the bombers, so when he moved on to advanced training, he flew multi engine aircraft.
Transition training is the part of pilot training where you move from trainers to the actual aircraft you will be flying in the military. For Clayton Nattier, the move was a significant one. He would be flying the mighty B-17. The last training stop was crew training, where the men who trained in different disciplines leaned to jell as a unit.
B-17 pilot Clayton Nattier had a great crew assembled as he readied to join the air war against Germany. He goes through the roster and describes all the men who would be joining him in the skies over Europe.
He picked up a new B-17 loaded with freight for some bomb group in England, then Clayton Nattier flew the first leg of the trip up to New Hampshire. That's where the weather got nasty and he and his crew had to wait out several delays.
A new B-17 pilot was required to fly two missions with an experienced crew before he flew his own missions. The first of these for Clayton Nattier had him over one of the most heavily defended targets in Germany. He would return more than once.
The 306th Bomb Group flew in very tight formations. This greatly lessened the losses from German fighters, which faced withering fire from multiple aircraft if they got close enough to attack. B-17 pilot Clayton Nattier also had the luxury of his own fighter escorts, which were not available earlier in the war.
It was his sixteenth mission and, once again, it was Merseburg, site of a synthetic fuel plant. Clayton Nattier's plane had a mechanical failure so a substitute B-17 was brought to the flight line. Everything was fine until, as the flight neared the target, an engine went out. This was only the beginning of a disaster. Part 1 of 3.
Tail Gunner Richard Edwards was one of the first to bail out. When he landed, he was beaten by a German worker swinging a lunch pail. Pilot Clayton Nattier was trying to stabilize the plane while the flight engineer tried to put out the fire. Finally, they, too, plunged into the sky over Germany to face an uncertain fate. Part 2 of 3.
It was a long descent for B-17 pilot Clayton Nattier, who was barely conscious in his parachute. He heard a German fighter circling above him as he landed near a Luftwaffe training school. After the students worked him over for souvenirs, he was taken to a jail cell where a medic from the school bandaged him up. Part 3 of 3.
When he got to the interrogation center, he was placed in solitary confinement, interrupted only by repeated questioning. Downed B-17 pilot Clayton Nattier was determined not to reveal anything, not that he really knew much. After a week of this, he was taken to a train station where he was reunited with the surviving members of his crew.
Clayton Nattier was headed for Stalag Luft I on Germany's Baltic coast. His first three weeks were spent in the camp hospital, where he was treated for burns received when his B-17 was brought down by flak. The original bandaging of his wounds, which was done by a German medic near the site of the crash, proved to be a first rate job.
The room in the POW camp barracks was small but it housed eighteen men, including downed pilot Clayton Nattier. It had a tiny stove which was much improved with a little American farm boy ingenuity.
There were radios in the camp, built with bartered parts that the guards traded for D-Bars and cigarettes from Red Cross parcels. Clayton Nattier didn't have a radio in his barracks, but he saw the typewritten rundowns of the latest news from the BBC. He well remembers when the Germans stopped distributing the Red Cross parcels. It was just after the best meal he'd had as a prisoner.
Col Hubert A. Zemke was the senior Allied officer among the POW's at Stalag Luft I. When the Germans stopped delivering the Red Cross parcels that were keeping bellies full, he negotiated with the camp commandant until they were restored. Clayton Nattier remembers that, after three months with little food, he couldn't eat without getting sick.
There was no friendly interaction with any of the German guards, recalls downed pilot Clayton Nattier. They were just plain mean. As the end of the war neared, Col Hubert A. Zemke again negotiated a deal with the commandant which guaranteed the safety of both prisoners and guards as the Germans withdrew.
The German guards had fled in the night. The next day, a Russian tank was at the gate of the POW camp and, soon, a Russian general to go with it. Downed pilot Clayton Nattier recalls that the Russians wanted to remove the men to Soviet territory, but the senior Allied officer wasn't having it.
Newly liberated POW Clayton Nattier arrived at Camp Lucky Strike, where thousands of men like him waited for passage home. When his turn came, he rode in a Liberty ship, fighting seasickness all the way. He was soon in a luxury hotel in Miami Beach.
B-17 pilot and former POW Clayton Nattier reflects on the possibilities of escape and also on the psyche of the German people. Before he joined the 306th Bomb Group, there was some controversy in the unit because of heavy losses and the new commander brought in to solve the problems. Those events became the basis for the movie Twelve O'Clock High.
After bailing out over Germany, Marvin Russell couldn't find any of his crew where he landed. He found a Italian work crew and tried to get some civilian clothes from them, but he wound up in the hands of the Germans. He was taken eventually to a military base where he was subjected to a humiliating interview.
The first operation for the 4th Division was the landing on Roi-Namur. Lawrence Snowden remembers that, though it was an easy victory, valuable combat experience and important lessons were imparted on the Marines.
When he had to bail out, Jim Wicker was literally sucked from the cockpit when he released the canopy because of his high rate of speed. He was just a hundred miles inland a few days after D-Day and the Germans caught him almost immediately. As he sat in solitary confinement waiting for interrogation, he was comforted by his faith.
After his interrogation, downed airman Marvin Russell was sent to Stalag 17B in Austria. Living conditions were minimal, with no heat and little food. No breakfast was the standard but on Christmas morning, he got a bowl of oatmeal with a little extra protein.
Bill Adair was suffering from the effects of a concussion when the battle for the Philippines came to an end for him. Along with thousands of others, he was forced to surrender and was facing the prospect of joining what would become known as the Bataan Death March. Then fate intervened in the form of an ambulance without a driver. Part 1 of 2.
Two engines were out, a third smoking, and they were were losing airspeed and altitude, but they were flying level and pointed home. Then time ran out for the B-17 and Don Scott had to slip down the hatch into the slipstream. Part 2 of 3.
In the prison camp, cigarettes were currency and the guards loved them. Marvin Russell didn't smoke, so with his packs from the Red Cross parcels he could get more D-bars. Next to his compound was the Russian POW compound, where conditions were nightmarish and grizzly.
Bill Garrison was standing in a chow line when a man up the line suddenly dropped, shot dead by a sniper. That was only one hazard at the air fields in China; the others being Japanese air raids and infiltrators. (This interview made possible with the support of COL ROBERT W. RUST, USMCR (ret.) in honor of LtGen Lawrence Snowden & LtGen George Christmas.)
He bunked with regular B-17 crew members, but Bill Livingstone was a gunnery instructor who was there to keep skills sharp. He was also there to substitute for any crew member who was not able to fly. His very first mission turned out to be a memorable one. Part 1 of 5.
Bill Adair may have been the luckiest man in the Bataan Death march. With a commandeered ambulance full of casualties, he threaded his way through the ordeal thanks to luck and guile. At the end, though, there was a camp waiting for him just like all the rest. Part 2 of 2.
Hannah Deutch was a teenager when the Kindertransport rescue effort became her means of escape from Germany. England was taking in thousands of Jewish children and she got her papers in order and left. Right away, as the oldest one in the large group, she became the leader on the journey.
It was their third mission over Berlin and they were heading home. Four German fighters pounced on the B-24 and it was engulfed in flame and going down. Clyde Burnette fought for consciousness as the other crew in the back of the plane bailed out. He woke in free fall with no idea how he had made it out, and soon he was in German custody. Everyone made it out of the plane except George "Danny" Daneau, the nose turret gunner, who went down with the aircraft.
B-24 flight engineer Bill Toombs was over Germany when bad went to worse. One engine was shot out. Then an 88 round went right through the number four wing tank. It didn't blow up the plane, but they lost all the fuel for that engine, so now they had two engines out. They made a desperate run for Brussels, which had been liberated.
During one mission, B-17 pilot George Stamps was startled when another formation of bombers passed through his at the same altitude. That was scary but the Germans had something that was also very frightening, the Messerschmitt Me 262, the first jet fighter.
After a nerve-wracking mission to bomb Tokyo and a typhoon, B.E. Vaughan and the destroyer O'Brien suffered a second kamikaze attack which killed all three of his hometown pals who served with him on board. Then, began the grim task of collecting the personal belongings of the dead and preparing them for burial at sea.
Rufus Dalton was at the Maginot Line bouncing mortar shells off an old citadel. His unit was suddenly pulled and sent to take Patton's place in the line after the general was summoned to the Bulge. Once they got there, a fierce ten day battle ensued due to the last major German offensive, Operation Nordwind. Part 1 of 2.
Near the end of the war, the food supply in Holland had been disrupted and there was widespread hunger. Henk Duinhoven was lucky to be in the countryside, where gardens had been harvested. When he heard the sound of Canadian tanks, he knew that liberation was finally at hand.
Robert James was in the shower aboard ship when the alarm went off. He scrambled to his gun mount to man the 20 mm gun and then the threat became apparent. Kamikazes had broken through the air cover and were headed for the convoy. He heard some firing from another gun and turned around just in time to see a horrifying sight. Part 1 of 2.
It was a fierce week long battle for the city of Heilbronn. Even though they were only delaying the inevitable, the Germans weren't beat, yet. Forward Observer Rufus Dalton went into the demolished city looking for a rifle company he was instructed to find. It was an eerie setting with the city in flames all around him. Part 2 of 2.
Robert James was propped up against a bulkhead, going in and out of consciousness. The kamikaze had destroyed the starboard gun mounts and there were many dead and wounded. He was grateful when someone gave him some morphine to ease the pain from multiple shrapnel wounds. This was the beginning of a painful journey to healing. Part 2 of 2.
The men of the 92nd Infantry Division had to fight on three fronts. They had to fight the Germans. They had to fight the racial animosity of their fellow soldiers and commanders. And they had to fight Congress, which wanted to maintain segregation in the Army. Lyle Gittens made it through all that with an undampened spirit.
On his first raid in North Africa, reconnaissance platoon leader John Souther captured a hundred Germans with no losses to his own unit. His job in the 1st Armored Division was to be out in front with his eyes open, and he was doing just that when a huge amount of enemy was spotted. Rommel's big push had begun.
Wes Ruth was eating breakfast when he saw the planes coming in. He thought they were ours until the bombs started falling. As he drove frantically to his hangar on Ford Island, he saw the USS Arizona hit. The Japanese had made their move. As a photo-recon pilot, he was dispatched as soon as the attacks ended to search for the enemy fleet.
John Souther was on reconnaissance patrol when he nosed his halftrack up over the edge of the gully in the Tunisian desert. A round from a German 88 immediately tore through the engine compartment, but left him unhurt. They paid mightily for that shot. With his radio, he began spotting artillery on their position, under fire the entire time. He was awarded the Silver Star for this action.
As if a year in a German prison camp wasn't enough misery, when Marvin Russell was settling into life back home after the war, he suffered a serious injury which nearly took his life. Two things saved him, a new drug and an innovative doctor.
The Germans had been chased back into their homeland. B-17 pilot George Stamps was taking his ground crew for a ride over the Ruhr Valley to see the damage their efforts had inflicted on the enemy. Suddenly, there was a call on the radio. It was over. The Germans had surrendered. Forget the Ruhr, we're going to Paris!
It was the day to practice bomb but there were no practice bombs available. The crews were allowed to take a pleasure flight anywhere they wanted. Marvin Russell's crew headed up to Atlanta, but they never got there after a close encounter with a tree.