Verne Woods completed his first mission as a pilot in September of 1943 for the 91st Bomber Division. Before his tour was up, he would be shot down over France and survive a turn in a POW camp. Read selections from Verne’s interview with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE below and browse his personal photos in the Photo Gallery.
On combat training
I went through a single-engines school. And we were trained in fighters, B-51s, 47s, 38s. On the very day of our graduation — there was a big party, a big dance that night. My wife was there. And everyone was told that they were going to go to heavy bombers, to become copilots. So we were a quite unhappy group for that graduation party from single-engine school. However, once I was in the B-17s, I come to love that plane, and I would have had it no other way.
I was anxious to get into combat. The first two or three weeks, we didn’t fly combat but we went to ground school, primarily to learn the British navigation system. We had affection for the British, but I didn’t think of it then, and I really don’t think of it now, as helping the British, per se. It’s very difficult for a person to understand that you were there, you had a sense of duty, and you had to be there. You weren’t heroes of any kind. And now you look at people and they praise the air crew members, but at that time, I didn’t think we were deserving of any particular praise.
.... But you talked with the British pilots. They thought we were crazy, bombing in the daytime, because at night they were safe from fighters. But we didn’t envy them at all, because we felt they were the ones who had it rougher, simply because you had all these British planes in the air. You don’t know where they are. You know they’re near. One of them could be above you, dropping its bombs on you. And so we didn’t envy them at all. And they didn’t envy us, so we both had a different opinion of the other.
On flight training
You had a beacon that the group or the wing formed around. And so the radio operator would tune into that beacon, and all the planes would be in the vicinity and you’d see one of your planes in your group, and you knew the position that you were to be in, because at the briefing you were assigned a position. There were 18 planes in the group when I was flying.
And so you’d circle around until you saw the plane that you were to be next to, and then you’d continue until everybody was in the group, and then you would have three groups making a wing.
But sometimes you’d have extreme cloud cover, say, from almost the ground level to 20,000 feet, as we did on several missions—it was rather interesting to see the white layer of clouds and the hundreds, thousands of planes trying to find their group.
The one time that we got into trouble — [crew leader Stuart] Mendelsohn and I — we never did find our group. The beacon was malfunctioning or some problem. But in any event, we decided: Well, there’s a group over here and it’s missing a plane. Let’s attach ourselves to that group — which we did, and we got almost to the German coast when the entire mission was called off. We got back to the base. All the rest of the 91st had landed, had returned two hours before. We were called into the squadron commander’s office and put in a rigid brace while he reamed us out for going with that other group. However, I think he rather admired Mendelsohn, and maybe myself as well, for attempting to go on the mission, even though it was ultimately aborted.
On the Most Dangerous Parts of the Job
There’s a friend of mine from Memphis who was a pilot, and I learned that he was assigned to the 91st Bomb Group, and that he arrived a week or so before I did, maybe about a month before I did. And I was anxious to talk to him. But I got to the 91st, asked about him. He had been shot down on his first mission. So this gives you something to think about. But in general, everyone felt they were invulnerable. By the time I was halfway through my missions, I said, “Well, gee, I might just sign up for another tour.” And it wasn’t — I don’t know what you call it. But I was planning to do that. And as a matter of fact, my navigator, who became the group navigator — and this meant that he led the wing every time the 91st was in charge — went on for 36 missions. So he greatly exceeded the 25 that you’re allotted.
My first mission was the latter part of September of ’43…. The biggest fright to me was takeoffs on a bombing mission, because of the weight. If it was a long mission, you had a large gas load and fewer bombs. On a shorter mission, you had more bombs and a lesser gas load, but the weight was the same in any event. And I recall, every time we’d take off, you’d sit at the end of the runway waiting to take off, both you and the pilot, and the pilot’s feet were on the pedals, holding the brakes, and you’d ease the throttle all the way to full throttle, then you’d release the brakes, and the plane, you’d think it would leap forward. It just edged … and it seems that it was forever before it would take off. And there were trees at the end of the runway, and it seems that we barely cleared those trees on every mission. So that was one of the frightening aspects of the mission.
And during the mission itself, I think you weren’t — I don’t know whether you’re afraid or not. I really don’t. You’d see puffs…. You’d enter a flak field. But you’d see the flak way up ahead, before you got there, and you knew that pretty soon you’d be going through that flak. And I think that I was less concerned because Mendelsohn didn’t like flying formation, and so I was usually the one flying it. And I was so busy keeping in formation that it took my mind off the flak when we finally entered it.
A flak battery consists of four guns. And you’ll have four bursts in a vicinity. There’ll be a burst here, burst there, burst up there, burst down here. The worst thing is when the first burst is close to you. You know that the others are going to be close too, and so you sweat out the other one. And it’s about a second apart: bing-bing-bing-bing. And the flaks have shrapnel, and often you can hear the shrapnel against the plane, like rocks on a tin roof. And most of the injuries while in flight came from flak shrapnel.
Fortunately, no one in my crew was ever injured by flak. There’s one little casualty that I had. We had our names of our girlfriends, our mothers or whoever, near our position in the plane. And as the copilot, right outside the copilot’s window I had my wife’s name, Oney. And when I got back after a mission, a piece of flak had hit in the middle of Oney’s name. Obliterated it. And I never did replace it before I was shot down.
And I would wear the jacket, well, most of the time. Usually I just wore an A2 jacket, but I had sweaters underneath. Because it would get extremely cold as you know what, 20 or 30 below zero at 25- to 28,000 feet.
And the one concern that you have is the oxygen mask freezing up, because they can become blocked. And many airmen simply had this happen, passed out, and never recovered. So there were lots of deaths due to the oxygen mask freezing up. It was the responsibility of the navigator periodically to check each member of the crew to make sure that his oxygen mask was operating properly.
On Bombings and the 'Flying Fortress’ Plane
Well, it was an extremely rugged plane…. We targeted the submarine pens in Normandy. And also the one rocket-launching sites in France. It wasn’t very precise, although we liked to believe it was, and often our briefing officer would tell us that we had hit the target perfectly, and we had no reason not to believe him. But later on, we realized that the bombing wasn’t all that accurate.
You read accounts of the bombings of Hamburg and of Dresden, and you’re appalled that there was this amount of destruction, particularly in Dresden, when the war was essentially over. And here was one of the cultural icons of the West, Dresden, Germany. And you said, “How-how could we do that?”
But at the time, we had no feelings whatsoever for the women and children and the destruction that we — it was our duty. We couldn’t do otherwise. We were governed by a set of mores that often you can’t understand in the present day. And it sounds pretentious to say things like honor and so forth. But I don’t know of a single instance of a person giving up and saying, “Well, I’m not going to do this anymore,” or “We shouldn’t be doing this.” We all felt that we were doing the right thing.
But as I said, now you’re appalled that this happened. Somebody made the expression that “Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” And that is quite true, because we did things differently from what we would do now.
On His Last Mission
Well, it was New Year’s Eve. Yes. The mission was to the south of France. It was a very, very long mission, one of the longest missions we had. But at our briefings, we were told that it would be a relatively easy milk run. And it was, in a way, but we did lose two planes, my own and another plane.
You fly across the Brest peninsula, then over the Bay of Biscay. And then in the Bordeaux area in the south of France, you turn inland. And almost as soon as we crossed the coast, there was a flak burst — exceedingly accurate. And there’s one burst that hit right above the number three engine. Huge explosion, that you heard loudly, and orange, a big orange center, a black cloud that we immediately passed through. And almost at the same time, the number 3 engine went out. And we tried to feather the prop but we couldn’t. And this meant you’d have a drag. And then we had lost manifold pressure on the number 4 engine, and I assumed that the turbo charger had gone out. So we essentially had 2½ engines, and so we had to leave formation. We saw the rest of the formation leaving. And we were losing altitude. We couldn’t keep altitude.
So we turned back over the Bay of Biscay, dropped our bombs there, and we had a headwind, which retarded our trip back. And we were over the Bay of Biscay for about two hours, heading north. But our navigator told us that we would never make it back to England because we were low on gas. It turns out that 2½ engines use, at full throttle, much more gas than the four engines. Furthermore, we had that drag, and we had our yawing to the right because of the unfeathered prop.
So we had the option. And Stuart and I shared opinions. We wondered whether we should — since we couldn’t make it back to England (so our navigator told us), maybe we should turn back over France, where we could bail out. Well, that didn’t seem like a very good option. You didn’t want to give up. So we decided to proceed.
Then you had another big decision, and that was to fly over the Brest peninsula, which we were approaching at ground level, essentially. Well, we decided against that because once we lost a little bit of altitude, we couldn’t regain it. And we said, “Well, we’ve got to have some altitude if we bail out over the Brest peninsula. So we decided to stay at our altitude. And it was a decision that I have agonized over since.
We finally reached the Brest peninsula, and immediately we were attacked by two FW-190s. We didn’t see them until they were almost atop of us. As a matter of fact, my first indication was little puffs of 20-millimeter shells exploding in front of us. And almost immediately we saw the plane, who came in and did a split-S in front of us. You could see the cross on the wing tip. And so they dived down and then the crew members kept telling us, well, they’re coming back out of range on the right. And they made another attack, and again they had fired their guns much too early, because you could see the puffs exploding in front of you.
Stuart and I decided that these were amateurs, because in Germany the fighters would hold their fire until they were almost on top of you and they couldn’t miss. So we were a little encouraged. But on the third pass, that lead plane held its fire until the very last minute, and I knew we were going to get it, and we did. And several 20-millimeter shells exploded in the cockpit. It blew the whole right side of the cockpit away. It killed Mendelsohn, who was in the copilot seat. And instantly it had blood spattered on my gloves and so I thought I was hit too. The biggest reaction was the incredible wind noise, but the engines seemed to be okay, and I thought I could right the plane.
We were hit at about 10,000 feet, and I tooled around there till we were about 3,000 feet, and then I decided I better get the hell out. When you bail out… you can do it by interphone, but you have a panic button, a big red button that sits right up in the cockpit. And so I must have either pushed the button or told them [the team] to get out, because they were gone by the time I left [except for] the top turret gunner sitting on the pedestal of the rotating top turret gun. And I opened a parachute. We had a harness that snapped on. We wore the harness, and you snapped this parachute pack on. And I reached and got his and handed it to him, and he didn’t acknowledge anything that I did. And I motioned for him to leave– There’s an escape hatch that the bombardier and navigator had pulled. You pull it and it just flies off. And I motioned for him to, and he did nothing. So finally I decided I better get the hell out. So I snapped that same parachute that I’d offered him on, and I dived through there. And I pulled the rip cord, and the next thing I knew, I saw the ground on my knees. I don’t remember a second of free fall.
This happened, landed at the base of a hill, and there’s a French farmhouse on top of the hill, and there was a French family looking down at that whole scene, because my plane, the Black Swan, had landed quite close by, and smoke was beginning to come from where it had landed. But there’s a little girl about 10 or 12 years old, came running down the hill. We were told to hide our parachute, because it was from that point of a parachute that search would begin by the Germans. And so I was folding up my parachute, and this little girl came running down the hill, and I told her she could have it. I gave it to her. And so I started running across the fields. We were told to stay off roads. That little girl that came running down the hill visited my wife and I about ten years ago, incidentally. And she had learned from someone in France where we lived.
So you run across fields till dark. It was about three in the afternoon when we were shot down. And so it got dark, so I found a French barn, slept in it. Next day was New Year’s Day then, the next day. Started walking across the fields, as we were told to do, but [by] that time you were cold, hungry. You really didn’t much care what happened to you. So I came to a road and decided to walk along the road. And I came to a little town, and this French fellow came out and asked if I was a British airman. I said, “No, I’m an American.” He said, “Well, come with me because there’s Germans in this area.” So he took me to his house, gave me a meal, and I exchanged my flight jacket and my flight boots, and he gave me a beret and a jacket and pants and some food to take. So I took off. That French fellow– I gave him my wife’s address. And when France was liberated, he wrote to my wife, and they corresponded while I was in POW camp.
That night I slept in a barn again. But the next day I was the same, hungry again, and miserable, and so came to this little French town, and there were these bicycles stacked on a rack, and I simply stole one and started riding. And I rode for the next ten days from the Brest peninsula to within 50 miles of the Spanish border. Each night I would go to a French farmhouse, identify myself as an American aviator, and ask for a place to sleep and for food. I was never refused by a single French farmer. I’d stay at French farmers’ because I figured that they wouldn’t — didn’t have the means to notify authorities of my presence. And often they’d give me a bottle of wine for the trip next day. So it wasn’t an unpleasant trip from the north of France to the south of France.
But I was looking for them to put me in the hands of the underground. We were told not to attempt to cross the Pyrenees during the winter without guides. But none of the farmers had ever indicated that I should be in the hands of the underground. So I came to this little town. It was south of Lautrec, France. And I had — we have an escape packet with $50 in French francs. And so I hadn’t spent any of that escape money. And so I went to a little inn, and here again I told the proprietors who I was, and she says, “Well, come to the kitchen and I’ll fix you a meal. You can stay here.” But the proprietress introduced me to several of her guests at the hotel, and while I was still sitting at the table, three gens d’armes came up, arrested me, and the next day turned me over to the German Luftwaffe. And I was taken to Limoges, at France, and turned over to the SS, the Gestapo. And this is an almost unbelievable story.
I was turned over to the Gestapo. I was in civilian clothes, although I had my military uniform underneath. I had dog tags and the regular officer’s shirt and pants. But I did have the pants and the jacket and the beret, so I was in civilian clothes. So that’s why I was turned over to the Gestapo. Was turned over to a Captain Blum. You gave your name, rank, and serial number, that’s all, only in the interrogation. But he really wasn’t interested. He said he was from Essen, and had I bombed Essen. It turns out that that was one of my missions. But I said no. He wanted to know how London was bombed, and I couldn’t tell him that. In any event, he said, “Well, tomorrow,” he called me Lt. Woods. “Tomorrow I’m driving to Paris. If you give me your word as an officer that you won’t escape, I’ll drive you to Paris and turn you over to the Luftwaffe.” And I said, “All right.”
So we drove from Limoges to Paris. We stopped for one of the most delicious meals I ever had in Orleans, France. Once he stopped to make a phone call, went inside, leaving me in the car, almost inviting me to escape. But at that time, you had given your word and you wouldn’t violate that word. It was very important that you didn’t. But we got to Paris. He says, “Have you seen Paris?” Never seen Paris. Drove around Paris for an hour, pointing out the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, everything. But then he took me to a prison, Fresnes Prison, which is still operating in France. He turned me over to the authorities there. The Fresnes Prison was run by the German Gestapo at that time. And that was the end of my friendly encounter with the Gestapo, because I was immediately told to go to the end of the hall, face the wall, not to move. And for the next 5 or 6 hours, I stood there. So that was my introduction.
So for a month, I was in Fresnes Prison, underwent several interrogations. But they were interested not in military information but who had helped me in France, they had assumed that someone had given me the bicycle. I wouldn’t dare tell them I’d stolen it, because that would get me in further trouble. The interrogations were typically good cop, bad cop. The good cop would say, “How do we know that you’re not a spy, when you don’t tell us where you were shot down and when, so we can check?” And the other bad cop, never any serious thing, but if you’re sitting in a chair and someone’s standing over you, slapping your face, there’s nothing more humiliating than that. So you went through several of those interrogations.
Finally, after about the fifth or sixth interrogation over the period of this month that I was in solitary confinement — Incidentally, solitary confinement is the worst type of imprisonment, particularly when you have small meal a day, and you’re looking forward all day to that one meal. There’s a dozen games that you play with yourself to pass the time. But in any event, the next to the last interrogation, I’d said, “Well, I was shot down on December 31st, 1943, near Lorient, France.” And so couple of days later, I was called for an interrogation and this one said, “Well, Lt. Woods, we know all about you. You’re in the 91st Bomb Group, and your squadron commander’s name is so-and-so. Your mother’s name is Eunice. And you’re from Memphis, Tennessee.” And so I said, “How does he know all that?” And two days later, I was turned over to the Luftwaffe — I felt that I was in friendly hands again — and taken to the interrogation center in Frankfurt, Germany. It turns out that this is where all the air prisoners are taken for interrogation. All of them had similar stories. The Germans had dossiers on every one, and they could tell you in detail your background. There’s a book by one of these German interrogators that I have bought, telling the techniques. And it was very interesting. Naturally, they got most of the information from local newspapers in this country, because it tells when somebody was shot down and your family. And so that is the primary source. But they had many ingenious ways of getting information from people.
On Liberation Day
.... We’re talking about the liberation from the POW camp, which is April 30th, 1945. Okay?
And it was a wild melee. The Germans had left. The Russians had just arriving. The prisoners took off out the countryside, looking for booze or women or whatever. And I know that I was with my POWroommates. I was with one of them, and we were watching this Russian army come through this little town of Barth in an endless wagon train coming through with Russian soldiers, most of whom were Mongolian. And actually every German house had a white flag in the window, so forth. Well, my roommate and I were coming back, and there’s a German woman came out to tell us that the Russians were in her house and her children was in the house; could we please go in and rescue them? And we refused. And my roommate and I afterward just regretted that we didn’t have the courage; we didn’t help that woman. There’s one thing about that POW camp that I haven’t read anything about, that liberation. The camp itself was surrounded. Women from all over the area had come to the camp and camped outside our POW camp, because of the concern with being raped by the Russians.
[On] VE Day, we weren’t immediately rescued. We were there after the Russians came for five days. At that time we had full access to the news. We had speakers in our barracks. One of the first things that we did on liberation was to go to the German headquarters, turned on the radio, and you had the news. And I remember one of the first things that we had was the Hit Parade on radio. And this was on, I guess, the 29th of April of ’45. And we were listening to the Hit Parade, and then news came in that Hitler was dead. And so we all said, “Well, let’s go back to the Hit Parade.”
Any rate, we were there. Our camp commander, because of that wild first day in which several of the prisoners were killed either by the Russians or by the Germans, our camp commander forbid any of us to leave. He even put guards in the tower, our own guards, because we had access to the German armory there, and we had rifles. So we couldn’t leave. And we had access to the news, and at that time no one remembers the Polish question, but the UN was being formed, and there’s a question of what government would recognize Poland. And the Russians had their own government. There’s a Polish government in exile in England. And we said, “Gee, we’re going to be at war with the Russians immediately over this Polish question. So we’ll just be from one POW guardian to the next.”
At any rate, after about five days, in our room one night about 9:00, it’s dark because we didn’t have the lights. We said, “Well, we should just leave.” We decided that Gee, our guards aren’t going to shoot us. I mean, they’re not going to shoot their own people. Furthermore, it’s dark outside. And we’d torn down many of the fence posts, so you could leave crossing the barbed-wire fence. So we had this meeting and we decided we’d leave. And I raised my hand and I said, “Well, when?” Somebody said, “Well, when will we leave?” And I raised my hand and I said, “Well, let’s go right now.” Silence. The one roommate that I wasn’t really all that friendly with, said, “Well, I’m ready to go.” I said, “Okay, let’s go.” So I thought that if we started packing, others would join us. But they didn’t. It turns out we had lots of food because Red Cross parcels, all the remaining parcels had been distributed to us, and so we packed up. And we essentially joined a stream of refugees, pushing carts, wagons, going toward the British lines about 80 or 100 miles away. And we arrived at the British lines on VE Day. And the British put us up in a German military base, which had been a German military base until the previous week. And so they put my roommate and myself up in an apartment that was occupied by a German officer and his wife, I guess.
And the interesting thing that night was that, well, we had this apartment so we go out and explore this base. It was VE Day. We came to the officers’ club. You remember, the British had just occupied this a week or so ago. And here we were, still in our kriegy uniforms, that is, our raunchy POW dress. We walked into this big ballroom, and here were Britishers in their British dress uniforms. And you had these women in gowns, and an orchestra. They’re celebrating VE Day. And so unbelievable! How they organized this, how they got their — women in dresses — well, I don’t know where they got them. But there were British WAAFs or British nurses or stuff. But this one officer saw us and said, “Well, what are you chaps doing here?” And we told him we were POWs and that we just got here on that day. So he said, “Well, you fellows are out of line. But why don’t you go over to the bar?” And he took us over to the bar, and asked the bartenders to give us two bottles of Scotch, Black Label. Johnny Walker, Black Label. And so we took it back to our room, and the next day we were flown to Britain.
And we were living it up in London for more than a week before the Air Force finally evacuated the camp. And the reason that there was such a delay is that the Russians were holding those prisoners hostage until Roosevelt and Churchill made good on their promise to send all Russian nationalists in the West back. And they wanted to make sure that this promise was being carried out. Because the Russians had said, “We’re going to evacuate them, but we’re going to march them to Odessa, and they’ll be evacuated by the Black Sea.”
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