My Grandad has a booming voice and a sparkle to his eyes. He is the only grandparent I have left at age 89, and he lives across the country from me, in Rhode Island, where he's lived for most of his life.
When my brother and I were little, Grandad would tell us his war stories. I could never remember the details, so 8 years ago I recorded him telling a story at my aunt's dining room table.*
Here's the story of when he was captured....
George Chaplin was a waist gunner during World War II on a B24H that was shot down on June 23, 1944. The crew was on its 16th mission (although they would later be given double credit for many of those missions, so I'm not sure of the final count). They set out from Venosa, Italy to bomb an oil rig in Romania. They were flying at 25,000 ft and had just dropped their bombs at 9:20 when they were hit with an 88 mm shell (Grandad was taking photos of drop so he knew the time). By 9:30 they were on the ground.
When they were hit, the plane caught fire and my grandfather was burned on his neck, eyebrows and eyes. Before jumping, he noticed the ball gunner was stuck in his position. He attempted to get him out but he couldn't release the clutches on the ball gun and he had to go. (The ball gunner managed to do it on his own.)
Grandad jumped over the 50 caliber machine gun in his waist window and into the air. He had a "panicky" few seconds when he realized that his parachute was on upside down but was able to find and successfully pull the cord.
As he parachuted to the ground, he saw one of his crew members burning in his own parachute. They landed within 50 feet of each other on the south side of the Danube River in the Bulgarian town of Ruse. Grandad didn't recognize the other man as the radio operator at first because his face was badly burned. He'd later find out that the radio operator had actually fallen out of the plane when they were hit, but was fortunate (or smart) enough to have his chute on.
|This is a B24...(but not his).|
Two other men from his crew were already in the truck-- both had been struck by flak. One had a broken wrist.** Grandad communicated to the driver that he wanted to give the radio operator morphine from his first aid box. They had no common language, but eventually it worked out. One of his other crew members was a veterinarian and instructed my grandfather on how to inject the morphine into the radio operator's arm.
They were taken to a garrison prison where they stayed for 3 months. There were soldiers there from the Bulgarian army and navy and one Jew. Seventeen of them shared a cell and they lay on wooden shelves to sleep and left the cell only to go to the latrine. He was interrogated quite a few times by an officer who spoke Oxford type English fluently, they asked him 'every question under the sun' including personal questions about his family. He made up lies to all of them.
During one of the several bomb raids while they were there, my grandad was in solitary confinement and they wouldn't let him out. Guards were left there with him and they were as scared as he was with only a wooden shack protecting them.
When Stalin's armies caused the capitulation of Bulgaria 3 months later, my grandfather was 'repatriated' through Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt and then back to Venosa in Italy. It was there in Italy where he told his corporal that he was 'just burned' not wounded. It was because the corporal wrote 'no wounds' that he wasn't eligible for the purple heart. (Even though he should have been). In his words, "It was one of those medals that I believe that I earned, however I don't have. Makes no difference, I'm alive and well."
My grandfather was almost home and in Rhode Island on October 23, 1944 "the very day that my oldest daughter was born". My Grandmother, Dorothy "Dottie" Harlow Chaplin, knew nothing about his whereabouts or if he were alive until that day.
Incredible isn't it? The stories our grandparents have... I know that there are countless stories of other veterans, stories that I can't imagine living through and not being completely insane because of PTSD. And of course, there is so much more to my grandfather that I haven't told in this post, but I just wanted to share a bit to honor him for Veteran's Day.
*I was hoping to submit the recording to the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project, but it has a lot of extra 'noise'. I may have to re-record. I feel like it is so important to record the stories of our elders. I loved hearing his voice as I listened to the recording today and was wishing that I had recorded my mom's stories. I can still hear her voice, but I get scared that someday I won't be able to.
**4 of the crew members were in the Bulgarian prison, 4 in Romanian prison and 2 disappeared. Two of the guys who ended up in Romania first landed on an island in the Danube. They killed and buried a guard there and were later captured. One of them (a real 'backwoods boy') tried to escape three times. He was beaten and put in solitary confinement. On the third escape he found horses and was about to steal one when the owner of the horse stuck a gun up to his head and took him back to camp. When he got there he found out they had capitulated and he was free.