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US Air Force

The Last Mission

The Last Mission

B-17G n° 44-8192 (Lindy Lou)

 
Charles "Chuck" Haskett pass away on February 13, 2007
 
As visitors to Duxford look at the pristine aircraft on show, it is easy for them to forget that these machines and the people who flew in them had to operate in the harshest and deadliest environments.  This is the story of one man's last wartime flight as a gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress.
 
It all began on Saturday December 16, 1944.  The fog moved over our base like a blanket and you could not even see a few feet in any direction.  The fog lasted over a week and even the trucks that carried us to the mess hall were grounded.  We knew the Allied troops were in dire need of air support or the Battle of the Bulge would be lost.  So, for once, our crews were anxious to get into the air so they could help our men on the ground stop this move by the Germans to recapture Belgium. 
 
Finally, on the evening of December 23, the fog lifted and the alert light was on at the squadron office, meaning we would go the following morning.  We knew it would be rough because the Germans were throwing everything they had at us.  I wrote some letters home and to my girlfriend thinking they may be the last I would write.  I had a feeling that sooner or later our luck would run out, and this might be it.  We all knew that our chances of surving our tour of duty were slim anyway. 
 
At briefing, we were told to expect heavy fighter opposition from the Germans, as they had moved many new groups into the area from other fronts.  Also, as our group, the 487th, would be leading the whole 8th Air Force in, we could expect plenty of action.  This was the understatement of the year!  Due to some mix-up, we missed our fighter escort, leaving us wide open for the Luftwaffe.  And here they came! 
 
We had just passed over Liege, Belgium, when a group of Messerschmitt 109s came at us head on. General Fred Castle was in the lead plane (the Germans may have known this) and his aircraft was hit immediately and severely damaged.  Our plane was hit up front and I believe our pilot, Lieutenant Kenneth Lang, was killed at this time.  About this time a large group of Focke-Wulfe 190s lined up behind us and attacked – all hell broke loose.  With their 20mm cannons, they began firing at us just out of range of our .50 caliber machine guns.  I thought at first they were using rockets because I could plainly see the smoke from the projectiles as they came toward our plane. 
 
The first indication that we had been hit was when I heard a loud 'whump".  Looking to my right, the left side of the plane, I saw the fire coming from the engines.  I had been firing my guns alternating from one to the other to save the barrels but when the holes began to appear along my right side, I thought "To hell with the barrels" and squeezed both triggers and held dead aim on the plane coming right at us.  I saw a piece fly off, then it exploded, I exclaimed "I got him!" but while firing I heard our ball turret gunner, Bob Yowan, say "I'm hit!". 
 
Also at this time, I heard the top turret gunner, Jim Weber, say "Hit the silk, boys, she's burning like hell". 
 
This was the first and only order to abandon ship.  That is one reason I believe our pilot was already dead, since he normally would had been the one to do this.  I know the co-pilot, Lieutenant Howard Miller, was still alive at this point, because I heard him call my name about this time.  Everything was happening so fast that it is difficult to say just in what order things did occur, but this is the way I remember it. 
 
I was feeling woozy – I think my oxygen lines had been severed.  My right gun's ammunition was completely gone and only a few rounds remained in my left, in spite of my taking extra ammunition on board that morning, anticipating these attacks.  The Plexiglas window on my right was broken and I had been showered with fragments from it.  I could no longer see behind us due to the flames from the left wing, so I began to disconnect the electrical lines attached to me and prepared to bail out.  I pulled the emergency release handle on the escape hatch but it did not work the way it was supposed to fly off, but it didn't, so I had to force the door open with my left hand and dive through it.  Somehow I made it and the prop wash from the two right hand engines, that were still running good, grabbed me and flipped me over, like doing a somersault in mid air. Then I began to fall away from our burning plane, at first it seemed very slowly. The plane was still flying straight and level. The co-pilot must have still been at the controls. His last word that I heard was "Chuck", my nickname, but when I tried to answer him, my line was dead, either from gunfire or I had pulled the plug.  I believe he should have received some commendation other than a posthumous Purple Heart.  Maybe his story has never been told until now, but I'm sure the other survivors of our crew would agree that someone was keeping that aircraft level, when all common sense would tell us the plane should have gone out of control with both left side engines in flames. 
 
Once I had stabilized my fall, I soon learned that by manipulating my arms and legs, I could determine my position and I soon decided it would be best to fall with my back toward the ground.  A thought all at once occurred to me "I'll be damned, I forgot my parachute". 
 
But without realizing, I had somehow grabbed it off the catwalk behind me where I always kept it, and snapped it onto the harness which we always wore. 
 
We had been told to make a delayed opening when bailing out over enemy territory, to minimize the chances of being seen from the ground.  We had also heard that enemy fighters sometimes attacked aircrew hanging below chutes.  So I kept watching the ground while trying to pull my left glove on, which was dangling from the electrical cord attached to my flying suit.  The glove had probably been torn from my hand when going out of the escape hatch.  After I reached what I thought was about 2,000ft I pulled the ripcord.  My first sensation was that I had suddenly stopped and reversed direction and went back up.  The straps cut into me and when I snapped into an upright position, I almost lost consciousness.  And at that instant I hit the ground. 
 
A sudden pain shot up my leg and I knew I had broken it.  The ground was frozen with a light snow and my chute had folded up in a neat pile beside me.  Luckily, there had been little wind at ground level and I had missed the trees.  I had fallen into a small valley with a wooded hillside, and a small ravine that came down the hillside.  I felt lost at this point, not being sure just where I was or who controlled the territory.  I could hear gunfire, both small arms and larger guns of some sort and figured I must be in enemy-held territory.  I thought at any time, someone would appear and either shoot me or take me prisoner, so I crawled up on my parachute, lit up a cigarette and thought "Let them come, I'm waiting".  
 
After a short while without seeing or hearing anyone nearby, I thought I'd better head for home.  While sitting on my parachute, I did see pieces of planes falling and a few parachutes off in the distance. None near enough to me that I could get to, especially with my leg broken. I always carried a Bowie standard Colt 45, and I used it to cut myself a crutch from a small tree. It was high noon and I figured the sun to be in the south at that time of year, so I headed west, hoping to find friendly forces somewhere. There was light snow on the ground, so I traveled in the small stream bed to keep from leaving tracks. 
 
Avoiding all sounds of gunfire and sounds of vehicles, I kept heading west as much as possible. On the 27th, as I was going up a hill I suddenly saw an old lady with a dog coming down the hill toward me. We saw each other at about the same time. Knowing that the Belgian people were mostly friendly, I waved to her with my right hand. She immediately dropped the dog's leach and ran back up the hill and out of sight. I later learned that she had thought I gave a Nazi salute and that I was a German paratrooper. 
 
A short time later, I saw four soldiers coming over the hill toward me.  Assuming they were Germans, I crawled into a brush pile that was lying in the ravine I had been staying close to.  I could hear their voices as they approached but could not understand what they were saying until they were very near to me.  One of them said, "I wonder where that S.O.B. went to?"
 
Upon hearing those words in plain GI language, my first impulse was to jump up and exclaim, "Here I am!" 
 
However with four guns waving around, I thought better of that and I pulled my handkerchief from my pocket, tied it to a stick and poked it up through the brush, spotted it and immediately four of the largest guns barrels I had ever seen pointed right at me. 
 
After I had finally convinced them that I was American and not a German paratrooper, they began to take care of me.  Luckily for me, they were not trigger-happy like many of our troops were at that time because of the way the enemy were doing at this time – infiltrating and causing confusion all around. 
 
The Rangers arranged transport for me to an aid station where I was given some first aid.  They had no X-rays or any other equipment, so about all they could do was try to make me as comfortable as possible, which they did by administering generous quantities of cognac.  It wasn't long until I was sleeping like a baby – I will never forget these fine people.  The aid station was set up in an old inn located on the main street of the town of Aywaille, and the people there were very much afraid that the Germans were going to move in.  The owner of the inn and his small daughter were very friendly, especially when they learned I was one of a bomber crew that had killed many "Boche". 
 
I spent the night there thinking that the next day, we may all be prisoners of war.  The Germans were that close. 
 
Next morning, I was taken by ambulance to Verviers, Belgium.  From there I was put aboard a train to Paris, where I spent the night and was then taken to Cherbourg, ship to cross the English Channel.  This was New Year's Eve and there was a party atmosphere on board, so a few drinks were had by all.  Just before I was taken aboard, an English soldier or medic came to me and asked if I needed anything.  Jokingly, I said, "bring me a beer". 
 
He disappeared for a while and when he returned, sure enough he had two quart bottles of beer and placed them alongside of me on the stretcher I was on.  I was very grateful to him and we drank a toast to him at midnight to celebrate the New Year. 
 
I was taken to a US hospital somewhere in Lincolnshire where I began to receive treatment for my injuries and from there, to a rehabilitation hospital near Coventry.  It was here that I got to meet some of the English people, learn their customs and get a feeling of what their life had been like during the last few years.  Their patience and courage were remarkable – they had gone through hell, and were still pleasant and courteous.  It gave me an entirely new outlook on life and why we were over there.  Up to that time, I had only thought of the Nazi threat to the USA and it had never dawned on me that we needed anyone else to win this war.  About April 22 or 23rd, I was declared fit for duty and returned to my bomb group but by this time the war was over for the heavy bombers, so I never flew another combat mission.  It was just a matter of waiting until things were wrapped up and we could return home.  We flew back to the USA in July, 1945, and with the war in the Pacific over, I was discharged from military service on October 12, 1945. 
 
This is how it was for me, as best I can remember.  I hope it is of interest to someone and if it would deter anyone from wanting to go to war, it will have been worth it. 
 
Sgt Charles W. HASKETT

838th Bomb Squadron

487th Bomb Group

8th Air Force