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Shot Down Over Belgium, This American Pilot Joined the European Resistance Against the Nazis

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
June 15, 2023 3:03 am

Shot Down Over Belgium, This American Pilot Joined the European Resistance Against the Nazis

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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June 15, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, being in the Army Air Corps in WWII was dangerous but necessary work, and Steve Snyder's father Howard faced the full consequences of that when his plane, the Susan Ruth, was shot down over Belgium. Steve tells the story of his survival behind enemy lines.

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That's slash iHeart. And we return to our American stories. Up next, a story from Steve Snyder, author of a fantastic book, Jot Down, the true story of pilot Howard Snyder and the crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth. Today, Steve shares with us a story of survival, determination, and America's efforts to beat back Nazi Germany from the skies. Let's get into the story.

Here's Steve. Being a combat crewman in the 8th Air Force was the most hazardous, dangerous duty assignment in the United States military during World War II. 26,000 men were killed.

That's more than the entire Marine Corps fighting in the Pacific. And another 28,000 men became prisoners of war after their bombers were knocked out of the sky by either German fighters or anti-aircraft fire. And it was dangerous from the time they took off to the time they landed. Back then, there was no air traffic control.

There was no radar. Usually the weather was socked in and it was all based on visual sights, so you couldn't see anything until you got above the cloud layer. So mid-air collisions were not uncommon on trying to form up. And then they had to face the elements. These planes weren't pressurized back then.

So above 10,000 feet, you'd have to go on oxygen or else you'd pass out in a couple of minutes and could die. Plus, it was so cold at the altitudes they were flying. It was minus 40 to 60 degrees below zero, so frostbite was a huge problem. And when they got close to the target, they would run into anti-aircraft fire, or flak.

Flak was the German abbreviation for the German word for aircraft defense cannon. And even when they made it back to England, they faced many dangers. Again, the weather could be lousy and overcast and socked in and they couldn't even find their bases. You could have planes that had crewmen that had been killed or seriously injured men who needed immediate medical attention. These bombers could be running out of gas. They could have suffered a lot of battle damage.

Engines out, landing gear that wouldn't come down. So it was especially bad in the early years of the war in 1942 and 1943, even though they implemented a mission limit of 25. In the spring of 1943, it was statistically impossible to complete 25 missions in 1943. The average number of missions flown was only six before being shot down.

It actually culminated in the fall of 1940 in what's referred to as Black Week. They lost 140 planes. That's almost 1,500 men and four missions. The worst day was Black Thursday, the second Swineford mission on October 14th. 291 B-17s were sent and 60 of them were sent, shot down.

And it wasn't until the P-47 Thunderbolts were added that these bomber formations finally had fighter planes that could escort them all the way to the target and back again. My dad, like most World War II veterans, he was a pretty humble guy about it. He didn't talk a lot about it. So I don't think most people, except for the immediate family and friends, members of his church, really knew that he was in the 8th Air Force or he was a B-17 pilot or he was shot down. Well, my dad and I had a great relationship. He was a very loving father and dedicated father. He was a tough guy.

My two sisters and I, we always kind of compared him to John Wayne. He was that kind of guy. He was 6 foot 3. He was a big guy. He was no-nonsense guy. He was a disciplinarian. You know, there was black or white.

There was no gray areas. He was a devout Christian, had very strong morals. But he didn't talk a lot about the war.

I knew the basics when I was growing up. I knew he was a B-17 pilot. He was stationed in Europe with the 8th Air Force. His plane was named the Susan Ruth after my oldest sister, who was one year old at the time that he went overseas. And then he was shot down over Belgium and he was missing in action for seven months. But it wasn't until 1989 that my dad finally started talking a lot about the war. In 1989, in August, the Belgium American Foundation in Belgium erected a memorial to my dad and his crew. And my dad and the three other crew members that were still living at the time went over for the dedication. And there he was reunited with all these Belgian people that hid him during the war, revisited these places where he was hidden, and that brought it all back.

And after that, he started talking a lot about it. Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The U.S., most of the people in the U.S. were against getting into a war that was brewing in Europe. They didn't want to get dragged into another conflict involving the European nations like they did in World War I.

So there was strong sentiment about staying out of the conflict after Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939. Back then, the U.S. was very provincial. There was no TV, things by radio. You didn't get much news about things that were happening in other parts of the world. So that was a huge shock when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. I mean, the general public had just no feeling or belief that that could happen. And the country was in total shock when it did happen. My mother at the time, she was really scared.

My dad was up in, he was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington at the time. And my mother decided to go up and visit him over Christmas that year after the bombing because the future was very uncertain. And then that's when she got pregnant.

Nine months later, Susan Ruth was born. The only reason that he went into the Air Force is because, you know, he had a new bride, baby on the way, and he didn't think he could support him very well on a private's pay in the Army. So that's why he volunteered to join the Air Force where he could make more money, especially if he could make it through pilot training and become an officer. So that's the only reason he really went into the Air Force rather than just staying in the Army.

But it was a good decision. And pilot training was really rough. Forty percent of the cadets that entered pilot training washed out.

It was rigorous. During primary training, he was really unhappy just being a newlywed and away from his bride and away from his little baby daughter. He was really lonely. You know, he didn't care about training really or the war.

All he could think about is being away from my mother. But gradually, you know, that passed. And then it kind of became exciting, you know, flying airplanes and getting ready to gear up to fight in the war. So it became an adventure. When they were assigned overseas to the European Theater of Operations, my dad and his crew, after Dalhart, Texas, they went to Scott Field in Illinois where they were given a brand new B-17 to fly over to England. B-17 had a 10-man crew of four officers, the first pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and bombardier. But there were only three of the crew who were married at the time. But then my dad was the only crew member to have a child. And so the crew came together, the four officers and the six enlisted men. That would be a good name for the plane after the pilot's little daughter.

So that's how it became the Susan Ruth. And you've been listening to Steve Snyder tell the story of the 8th Air Force in which his father served. 26,000 men were killed in the 8th Air Force, more than all of the U.S. Marines killed in the Pacific.

This was hazardous duty. When we come back, more of Steve Snyder telling the story of his dad and more. Shot down is his book. We continue with it here on Our American Story. Week after week, Xfinity Flex unlocks access to premium networks and apps so you can try fresh entertainment for free each and every week. Catch the season premiere of Outlander from Starz. Journey through the sounds of Black Music Month with pics from Lifetime Movie Club and Revolt. Celebrate Pride Month with stories from OutTV and HearTV. Then kick back with nature scenes from Music Choice Relax and jam all June with iHeart Radio's Songs of the Summer radio. Discover new shows and movies for free, no strings attached. Say free this week into your Xfinity voice remote.

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Brought to you by Nissan, designed to thrill. And we return to Our American Stories and our story with Steve Snyder, author of Shot Down. Let's pick up where we last left off. It was a mission on February 8th of 1944, Frankfurt, Germany. The night before, the crew, my dad, the copilot, navigator and bombardier, spent the night at the Falcon Pub and they really tied one on. They said they had hangovers the next morning, but getting up to 10,000 feet and going on that pure oxygen sobered them right up. But it was a beautiful day to fly.

My dad said it was clear, blue sky, visibility was great. And they went through their bomb run and they dropped their bombs successfully. But during the bomb run, their bomb bay doors were hit by flak and they couldn't get them back up. As a result, they caused a drag on the plane. They lost airspeed and they fell behind the bomber formation, heading back to the bases in England. And they were singled out by two German Focke-Wulf 190 fighters.

Like lions or wolves coming down on prey, they swooped in and attacked the Susan Ruth. All of a sudden, everything just blows up, oxygen tanks in the cockpit catch fire. My dad actually was knocked out for a brief period of time, came to. You know, he's frightened. He looks over at George Ike, his copilot. He's in shock. He's motionless. He's frozen.

He's so scared. The six enlisted men were all behind the bomb bay, so he doesn't know what's going on there. So he has the other guys bail out, being the commander of the crew. He's the last one to bail out of the plane.

And they have to remember that none of these guys had bailed out of a plane before. But my dad's coming down and he could make out objects on the ground, trees and buildings. So he pulls his ripcord and he comes down into some trees. And his parachute got hung up on some branches and he's dangling 20 feet off the ground and couldn't get down. But fortunately for him, a couple of young Belgian men, Henri Franken and Raymond Dervan, came to his rescue before the Germans got there. They saw his plight, went back to the farmhouse, got a ladder and a rope and helped him down a tree. This occurred early afternoon, so they told him to stay put and hide till nighttime, because they thought it was too dangerous to try to move him in daylight with German patrols combing the area. That night they came back and got him, took him to the Dervan farmhouse. He had some minor shrapnel wounds in his left leg.

The woman of the house, Raymond's mother, treated his wounds and he only stayed there one night, because again they thought it was too dangerous for him to stay there any longer than that with those German patrols still in the area. So the second night, Belgian customs officer Paul Tilcan came on a tandem bicycle to take my dad to a safer location. The Belgian people who hid my dad and other members of his crew, and any down Dervan for that matter, were unbelievably brave people. They risked not only their lives, but the lives of their family and friends. Because of the Belgian secret police that Gestapo found out about it, they'd be arrested, tortured and either sent to a concentration camp or shot.

They were unbelievably strong people. From there he was moved from place to place to place. How long he stayed in any given location depended on how brave the people who lived there and how dangerous the Belgian underground thought it was for him to stay there.

He might spend one night, he might spend six weeks. Finally my dad got tired of hiding, but word came that the Allies had landed at Normandy on D-Day, June 6th, and he decided to get back in the fight, and he decided to join the French resistance. He felt there were U.S. men out there dying, fighting and dying to win the war, and he felt it was his duty to get back into the fight. His Belgian helpers tried to talk him out of it because it was so dangerous. He could be killed fighting against the Germans, or if the Germans captured him he would have been shot on the spot as a terrorist.

But he said, well that, you know, fine if you won't help me I'll just go by myself. But another one of his helpers, Amy Cooles, escorted him. They rode bicycles over the Belgian border into France to hook up with a unit of the French resistance. The French resistance was called the Maquis, and they were made up of small independent ragtag guerrilla groups all across France. Their job was to, their mission was to harass the Germans.

They would sabotage railroad lines, disrupt communications, assassinate German officers, attack convoys. The Maquis group my dad joined with was led by a French lieutenant who had escaped from a German prisoner of war camp, and they stayed in a farmhouse in Waller-Zenfonia, France, just across the border. Seven months after being shot down, word came that there were U.S. troops in the nearby village of Trelawne, France.

So on September 2, 1944, my dad walked into town in the town square, walked up to an army major, actually it was an element of Patton's Third Army, identified himself, they interrogated him to make sure he was who he said he was, and then he caught a ride on a convoy taking German prisoners to Paris, and then hopped on a transport from Paris back to England and went back to his base, where he sent a telegram to my mother, a Western Union telegram, saying, fit as a fiddle, honey, bank the money, because he had all that back pay coming. Well, five of the crew made it home, five of them did not. Two of the crew were killed in the plane. Three of the crew, Joe Musial, Wason Gunner, Richard Daniels, Bombardier, and Roy Holbert, the flight engineer, were picked up immediately after they bailed out.

Richard Daniels and Joe Musial had extremely serious injuries. They all three became prisoners of war, but Joe Musial and Richard Daniels were repatriated back to the U.S. before the war ended because of the seriousness of their wounds. One other crewman, the tail gunner, Bill Schlinker, he was also hidden and missing in action for seven months and invaded capture.

But unlike my dad, who was moved from place to place to place and then ended up joining the French resistance, Bill Schlinker stayed with one place the entire time. The other three members of the crew, George Ike, the co-pilot, Robert Benninger, the navigator, and John Pendrock, another waist gunner, they evaded capture for a couple months, and they were hiding in a makeshift hut in the woods just outside of Chemin. And a Belgium collaborator ratted them out to the Germans.

They took them into the Chemin schoolhouse, which is still there today, interrogated them and drove them back out in the woods and murdered all eight of them. So there's tragedy and triumph in the story involving the Belgium people of the underground and members of my dad's crew and other eight Air Force B-17 crews. Of all the people that are involved in the shot down story, the only person who's still alive is Hans Berger, the Luftwaffe pilot that shot down my dad's plane.

That was a thrill finding Hans, I can tell you. During my research, my wife Glenda said, well, why don't you try to find the German pilot that shot him down? And I'm thinking, oh, she's naive. She has no idea what she's talking about.

It's a ridiculous idea. But like a good husband, I did what she told me to do, and I found Hans Berger. And the man, Michael Mombik is his name in Belgium, who had contacted me was a Luftwaffe historian and had written a number of books about the Luftwaffe and knew Hans.

And he asked Hans if I could contact him to talk to him, which Hans said okay. But unfortunately, my dad died in 2007. So no, my dad never met him. World War II was the defining moment in my dad's life. And at one point in time, Hans' path and my dad's path crossed. And so Hans is a part of my dad's life, a part of his story. And in 1988, the Belgium American Foundation built a memorial in the village of Mansou Embershees to ask him if he would come to the dedication ceremonies for this memorial. And my dad and my mom were talking about it and goes, you know, I don't know.

I don't even know this guy. Just get a letter from out of the blue. And they were debating whether or not going or not. Then Paul Delahaye sent him a second letter. And in this one, it had the program for the event, which listed my dad as the keynote speaker.

So my dad says to my mother, I goes, well, I guess we got to go now. I probably wouldn't have written the book if it wasn't for two Belgium gentlemen, Dr. Paul Delahaye and Jacques Lalo. During the war, they were young boys and greatly affected by it. They saw firsthand atrocities committed by the Nazis against their family and their friends. And later in life, they became local historians. And they interviewed all these Belgium people and members of the Belgium underground about events that took place involving my dad and his crew. And they documented their testimony. And they gave me unbelievably detailed information about events that took place involving my dad and his crew that would have been lost forever without their dedicated research. So I owe them a huge debt.

And we owe him a huge debt as well. A special thanks to Monty Montgomery and to Jim Watkins for putting this story together. And also for Steve Snyder for writing this book about his father. The book is shot down, the true story of pilot Howard Snyder and the crew of the B-17 Susan Ruth. The story of Steve Snyder's dad, a love story between father and son, between troops and pilots and aviators. In the end, the love story of our American GIs, many of them paying the ultimate price to defend freedom against the Nazi menace. This story here on Our American Stories. I suggest you sit back, keep your tray table upright and start getting lucky.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-15 04:50:40 / 2023-06-15 04:59:30 / 9

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