Leap of Fate
With his B-25 bomber on fire and going down over Italy, Cecil Claflin will always remember Feb. 13, 1945, as his unlucky day.
On that clear morning, he was flying with a crew he had never met, on bomber 6Y, the "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The luck of the draw had put his life in danger.
"The day we were shot down, I was taking the place of a guy who was having his teeth worked on," said Claflin.
A flight engineer-turret gunner, working in the top bubble of a "Mitchell" bomber, Claflin wasn't assigned to a regular flight crew and filled in wherever needed.
Their target was the Brenner Pass in northern Italy. Because trains between Germany and Italy passed through its miles of tunnels and narrow canyons, it was a critical strategic location.
"We were trying something new, said Claflin. "Hit the canyon walls and have a landslide of rock and debris cover the tracks. But we missed."
With bombs away, and before the pilot could turn the plane toward home, German anti-aircraft scored a direct hit on the plane's left engine.
"We were flying in what was called 'tail-end Charlie,' the last plane of six," Claflin said. "So, they had a pretty good bead on us."
He remembers watching the propeller flying away.
"It's funny," he said, "I was thinking, 'I sure hope it hits a German.' "
The crew watched as the other bombers left them behind. Then the pilot ordered everyone to bail out.
Just before Claflin jumped, he looked through the tunnel that led to the tail of the plane and realized the rear gunners hadn't heard the pilot's order. He shouted at them to get out.
Claflin and tailgunner Jim Davidson had been strangers, but from that moment on, they became lifelong friends.
Davidson later wrote a letter to Claflin's family. "If Cecil hadn't thought of his crewmates and went the extra mile, I might still be in Italy under a white cross. "¦ He is my hero."
Claflin prepared himself for his first and last jump.
"I'd jumped off a few towers," he said, "but never out of an aircraft at 8- or 10,000 feet up. My training kicked in, and it wasn't too bad."
Below, he could see what turned out to be Italian civilians, running around and trying to figure out where he would land.
After guiding his parachute away from a river, Claflin hit the ground and rolled across the soft dirt of a vineyard.
"In just a few seconds, this 14 or 15-year old kid was pointing a rifle at me," he said, pausing a moment, looking far away, and then adding, "He really scared me."
An old man pushed "the biggest pistol" Claflin had ever seen into his back.
"My hands went up so high I think my feet left the ground," he said.
Then, a woman scooped up his silk parachute and ran away.
"There's probably some kids in Italy still wearing some of my chute," said Claflin with a laugh.
The crew was captured and immediately turned over to the Germans. After a few cold nights; hungry, sleepy and exhausted from never-ending interrogations by "a typically arrogant Nazi," the men were put aboard a northbound train.
"That's when we realized our bombs had missed," said Claflin. "We rode right through our target area."
"It was a long and cold trip," he said. "They took us through the snowy Alps on to Nuremberg and I remember walking by that big coliseum-like place where Hitler had those rallies."
A two-mile march brought them to the barbed wire gates of Stalag XIII-D, home to nearly 20,000 Allied prisoners.
"I never had a bunk. There just wasn't room," said Claflin. "I slept on a table."
He said the men spent each day milling around with nothing to do except stay out of the rain and think about food.
"When we did eat, it was thin soup and sometimes some heavy German black bread. We found out later it really was made from a combination of flour and sawdust."
There was no friendly Sgt. Schultz-type from "Hogan's Heroes" in camp, but Claflin does remember a sincere warning from a high-ranking German officer who, of all things, had graduated from the University of California.
He said, "You and I know this war is going to be over soon, but don't try to escape, because if you do, I'll have to tell my guards to shoot you."
After two months in Nuremberg, the men were forced on an eight-day march to a new camp in Moosburg, 75 miles south through the mud and snow. The Germans were consolidating their prisons.
"We weren't there long before Patton came rolling through with his helmet and those two sidearms, just like his pictures," said Claflin, "and we were liberated."
Germany surrendered and within a few weeks, Claflin was on a troop ship headed home for rehabilitation and a 60-day furlough.
Passing through The Dalles on a train, he learned that 15 days after the Yankee Doodle Dandy was shot down, his older brother Lynn, a Marine, had been killed on Iwo Jima.
When Claflin reached his parents' home in Phoenix, he went to the mailbox and found a letter he had written home, four days after becoming a POW.
"My parents only knew I was missing in action," he said, "My letter told them not to worry about me, but they had never seen it."
Before his furlough and rehabilitation were over, Japan surrendered and Claflin eagerly returned to civilian life.
A few years later, he stole Dorothy Keene's heart away from her boyfriend.
"He was a rambling man and I caught him before he took off for South America," said a laughing Dorothy Claflin. "I knew right away, he was the man I wanted to spend my life with."
Fifty-nine years later, she still does.
"The whole war thing didn't bother me as much as it did some," said Claflin.
"Because you think nothing can hurt you when you're 20 years old," said his wife.
"Well," said Claflin, "there's nothing much you could do about it. You just have to find a way to get through it all."
Bill Miller is a freelance writer living in Shady Cove. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.