VIDEO: WWII pilot flies into family history
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Harry Generaux says his stint as a bomber pilot over Europe was no different than what other American pilots did during World War II.
As Generaux sees it, he was just lucky enough to get back alive.
On his 19th mission, luck came in the form of a couple of providential flashing lights, but Generaux did his part with some seat-of-the-pants flying in a damaged B-17.
Almost 70 years later, that account became a Christmas present for Generaux's family.
The four-page publication looks at one of the 35 bombing missions the Vancouver resident flew with the 8th Air Force between September 1944 and January 1945.
It tells how Generaux overcame a series of challenges that put the crew on the missing-in-action list for almost three weeks. But the mission also featured an agonizing home-front challenge for two Clark County families.
It started as a class project for Kathy Ramsey, a Portland writer whose mother is Harry Generaux's cousin. Ramsey was taking a history class at Warner Pacific College in Portland and was looking to interview a WWII veteran.
"My mom said, 'Why not interview my cousin Harry?'" Ramsey recalled. Generaux, 89, became the subject of her project.
"Word got out," she said, and some family members asked her to share the story. She printed about 20 copies and gave them to relatives for Christmas.
Generaux recapped the story recently in the home he shares with wife Margaret, his high school sweetheart.
The Ridgefield High School graduate was a riveter in a Boeing aircraft plant in Seattle in 1942 when he enlisted. He figured his Boeing job gave him a good background as an Air Corps mechanic. It sounded more appealing than ground combat, and the Air Corps did need mechanics.
"We didn't take time for boot camp. They put us on the flight line," he said.
Then came an unexpected opportunity: a chance to apply for flight training.
"It used to be for the college-educated only," Generaux said. "But we were losing so many pilots."
The risk didn't bother Generaux, who didn't believe he'd really become a pilot.
"I won't make it," he told himself. "But I'll get some flying time" before returning to work as a mechanic.
He made it.
Generaux wound up with the 398th Bombardment Group, flying out of Nuthampstead, England.
On Nov. 10, 1944, he got up early to prepare for a raid over Cologne, Germany.
Start with a shave
First, he shaved. "That's so your whiskers don't itch while you're wearing an oxygen mask," he explained.
At a briefing, a weatherman advised them of strong winds from the north over the target. They were assigned spots in the 36-plane formation, and Generaux learned that he'd be breaking in a green crew.
Over the target, an anti-aircraft burst hit their B-17. Some of the flak pierced an oxygen tank, and "It went off like a shotgun.
"At the same time, my right rudder pedal went limp on me," Generaux said. "I pulled on the stick, and it felt like the tail was gone."
As he struggled to regain control, he heard crewmen hollering. Smoke was coming from the ball turret, the Plexiglas bubble where a machine-gunner protected the plane's belly. The gunner was burning out his turret motor. If he rotated fast enough, the gunner figured, the German flak would bounce off his turret.
The navigator wanted to bail out, and about then, another rookie crewman checked in.
"The bombardier asked, 'Shall I drop the bombs?'"
Although their target was a distant memory, they dropped the bombs.
By the time Generaux figured out how to nudge his plane where he wanted it to go, their squadron was out of sight. The navigator was no help, so Generaux headed west.
"You can't miss England," he figured. "It's 600 miles long.
"I'd forgotten about the wind," he said. When he reconsidered his position, he knew their course would take them south of England. But there wasn't enough fuel to cover the additional distance.
Rather than run out of fuel over the water, he turned back and started looking for a place to land, which led to another challenge: "I didn't know where the enemy lines were."
Last chance to land
Late in the day, Generaux saw a sudden green flash to his left. He decided it must have been a "biscuit gun" -- a light with a pistol grip used to signal pilots.
"It flashed again. 'I hope it's our Army,'" he told himself.
Generaux realized he was flying over an airfield -- likely the last one he'd find. With little choice, he landed, and the crew was greeted by a crowd of Frenchmen. Generaux had landed near Bordeaux.
"The Germans had just left there three days before," he said. "They'd made a deal: If they retreated, the French wouldn't attack them."
But the Germans hadn't gone far. "If I'd have kept going east another four or five minutes, I'd have been right over enemy lines. They would have got me on the first shot," he said.
"I asked those guys which one of them had flashed the light at me. They looked around, all puzzled," he said. "I give God credit for that."
It took two weeks for their hosts to round up enough fuel to get the B-17 back in the air. The crew also repaired the plane, which — fortunately — just meant reconnecting some severed control cables.
When they were back in the air, Generaux had to make another refueling stop at a U.S. airfield in France.
They were invited into the mess hall. "Can you believe this? It was Thanksgiving dinner," Generaux said. "How lucky can you get?"
Finally, Generaux and his crew were approaching their home field and he requested permission to land.
Back so soon?
The air controller assumed Generaux's B-17 had been part of that day's bombing mission and asked: "What are you doing coming back?"
Generaux replied: "What do you mean? We've been gone for two weeks."
While Generaux had to overcome some extraordinary challenges on the way home, it was not unusual for crews to run low on fuel, an air-war historian said.
"Sometimes the planes would be forced to land in France or Belgium," said Lee Anne Bradley, vice president and historian of the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association. "If they were lucky, they would find an Allied base, fuel up, and take off for England.
"However, if they were stuck landing at some remote base with little fuel on hand, they would have to rely on the local people for help," she said.
The fact that bomber crews occasionally got temporarily stranded was little consolation to families who'd just been told that their airmen were missing.
"Harry's parents were notified that he was missing in action," Margaret said. "They notified my family."
Margaret was in Corvallis, Ore., at the time, attending what was then called Oregon State College.
Their parents decided not to tell Margaret that her sweetheart was missing.
"By the time I found out," she said, "he was back."