Free-Falling Above a Burning B-24

Bailing out over Occupied France in 1944.

Some 18,482 Consolidated B-24 Liberators were built, making it the most produced bomber of World War II.

Sometimes you run across a passage that is so wonderfully written, so vivid, that you have to share it. The following excerpt fits the bill. It was written by Beirne Lay Jr., in his 1945 book I’ve Had It: The Survival of a Bomb Group Commander. Lay, the commander of the 487th Bomb Group, was flying his second mission as group commander on May 11, 1944, when his B-24 was shot down over France. Lay would eventually become a Hollywood screenwriter, working on such films as Twelve O’Clock High, Flying Leathernecks, and Strategic Air Command. In this excerpt, Lay and his crew are just bailing out of their aircraft:

Panting hard, I wormed closer to the daylight showing through the hatch. And then a giant suction whisked me through the opening like a cigarette out the window slit of a speeding car, and I yanked the ripcord hard as I went. The ground looked as close as the floor to a man rolling off a bed.

The white canopy of another parachute dangled a hundred feet below me. I saw that I was gaining on it. Downward. I looked up at my own canopy. A complete panel was missing due to the speed of the drive when the chute opened—one slice out of a pie. In a few moments more I overtook the other chute and passed it at what seemed to be an alarming speed differential and close enough so that I recognized Lieutenant Walter Duer, the co-pilot who had been back in the tail-turret.

“What’s cooking?” I called to him, but he didn’t hear me. Maybe he was too engrossed with a situation that seized my attention when I looked down and saw that in the absence of wind we were both descending directly into the blazing furnace of the B-24. The sequence of recent events had been so rapid that there was an appreciable pause in my mind before I recalled that the five 1,000 lb. G.P. [general-purpose] bombs, which we had been unable to jettison because of the shot-up emergency release system, and which had not gone off on impact because they were unarmed, would be warming up in that fire and would blow as soon as they got hot enough to detonate. Already I could feel the warm breath of the flames, mixed with cinders and sparks, rising past me. All I needed was to have the canopy of the chute ignite, burn in an instant and drop me into the fire to round out the job.

Four or five hundred feet from the ground, a blessed cross-wind took gently hold and began to drift me clear. I judged I’d miss the burning crash by two hundred yards.

Fifty feet to go. A plowed field right under me. I tensed every muscle steel-tight, with my knees slightly bent. Almost simultaneously my heels, butt and back of the head slammed into the ground. I was on the ground. And alive.

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