Thursday, October 11, 2007

A World War II pilot's tale reveals tough choice

by Mo Palmer

A year ago to the day — the second Thursday of October 2006 — we ran a story about Frank and Ann King, a young couple who lived in University of New Mexico housing when it was in barracks on Kirtland Air Force Base.

A year has come and gone, and Frank King went with it. He died in September.

While we were chatting about our town's olden days, King told me about his World War II experience in Germany. This is probably the most important interview I've ever conducted, and it's a long way from being light local history.

The war was still rocking the planet. King and his crew of nine were in a B-17 bomber, a plane known as the Flying Fortress.

The B-17 had four huge engines and a wingspan slightly more than 103 feet. King and his crew were flying one on a bombing mission over Germany.

They were hit and all hell broke loose. King ordered the crew to jump out and prepared to bail, too. But his radio operator was injured and couldn't escape. So King kept flying. First, he had to determine altitude, which was no easy task as the onboard oxygen system was on fire and the cockpit windows had turned to frosted glass from the flames.

He wasn't about to leave his crewman to die alone, so he peeled back the window and saw he was at about 2,000 feet. Messerschmidts, small German fighter planes, were circling menacingly.

King started looking for a place to land, but every open field had a house smack in the middle.

"I thought I was dead," he recalled, "but there was a guy in the back end of the plane, so I leveled off and headed for the trees." By the time he got over the woods, he had opened all the necessary doors to prepare the craft for landing. King said he was calmer at that moment than at any other time in his life.

When the plane hit the trees, it broke in half. King, four engines and the wings went one way. The radio operator and the tail section went another.

King crawled through the soft mud, feeling his broken leg, until he was confronted with four sets of feet. They belonged to Hitler Youth, who had their guns pointed right at him. One said, in English, "For you, the war is over."

They hoisted him up and hauled him to a Ford flatbed with side rails, past a frightened-looking woman whose front yard was now full of B-17 pieces. They took him inside the prison camp, the gates of which King had landed right outside.

He was taken to the prison's medical unit. As they walked by, an English patient hollered to King: "Hey, Yank. When is the invasion going to start?" With every bit of seriousness King could muster, he replied: "In one month." Of course, it began June 6, but who knew?

King's co-pilot — who had been captured after he bailed out of the plane — soon appeared and announced: "I've got good news, and I've got bad news. They can save your leg, but you'll have a stiffened knee for the rest of your life.

"And they are concerned about gangrene. Or they can take your leg and forget about gangrene."

King told them to cut it off. They amputated that day.

When he woke up, he was in a bed; four English "sanitators," or orderlies, were in charge of his care. The doctor and his medical assistant came in, stood at the foot of the bed, snapped to attention, saluted and requested permission to change the dressing. These medical necessities were agonizing, and every time the ache subsided, the sanitators reappeared with their formal procedures and pain.

There's more to combat than stories such as this. War is fought by people, not just weapons. I'll give you two examples. While King was lying on a stretcher, outside of a train depot, waiting to go to the interrogation unit, two Germans approached and asked him if he was American. He ignored them, until they spit in his face. The sergeant in charge ran them off and apologized. "Some of our people are angry," he said.

King looked around and saw total devastation. Not a single tall building was standing. They were all reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. He knew our soldiers had done a good job, but he said he understood the civilians' point of view.

In the hospital, two Russian prisoners — a father and son — in full tattered regalia came into King's room, kissed his hands and told him, "Roosevelt our hero; you our hero."

They had sneaked out of their quarters just to meet the American officer and thank him. As they stealthily returned to their area, they were shot dead by guards. War is hell, as they say, for everyone.

The camp was multicultural. There were Italian, American, English, French and Belgian soldiers. King's doctor was a captured Serbian. It truly was a world war.

Eventually King was sent home and met Ann. The radio operator was saved, as well, and he and King communicated with each other until King's death. Last time they talked, the radio operator was piloting a B-17 - on his computer.

Lt. Frank Lynn King was buried with full military honors in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. His heroism was appropriately recognized.

But you cannot get these intimate glimpses of battle, bravery and sacrifice from a tombstone, an obituary or a memorial story. It is an honor to be the keeper of these stories and to share with you the memories of a real American hero. Such quiet heroes surround us from all of our wars, including today's. Take time to listen. You will never be the same.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, October 11, 2007.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photos:
(Courtesy of the Frank King family)

First Lt. Frank King Jr. (front left) and the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress. This photo was taken in 1944. Their B-17 was hit by enemy fire. Most of the crew bailed and were captured. King landed the plane in order to save the life of his injured radio operator who couldn't jump.

(Courtesy of the Frank King family)

This is a young Frank King, who during World War II, saved the life of one of his crew members by landing the B-17 they flew. King refused to bail from the plane when it was hit by enemy fire, because his injured crew mate couldn't jump. The crew member and King remained friends until King died in September.