My grandfather, Samuel Percy Maxwell, was born in 1919 and died in January 2005. Several months before he died, I sat down with him one weekend and got about 8 hours of videotaped interviews with him. I have no idea why it took me so long to transcribe his interview--but lately, I've felt a real urgency to preserve his words and get them out into the internet, where hopefully they will live on forever, and be there for my boys regardless of what might happen to the hard copies between now and then. With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on us today, I thought this might be a good project to keep me busy.
Some of this interview probably won't be interesting to anyone outside of my family. But some of it (the part near the end) has real historic significance, since he was a right waist gunner on a B-17 during WW2. He belonged to the 303rd bomb group, stationed in Molesworth, England, and as one of the first B-17 crew members, he has some amazing stories to tell. As you read through the interview, you'll notice I interrupt him to ask of lot of questions that might seem pretty stupid or self-explanatory. But I did it with thoughts toward the future, when what might seem commonplace or self-explanatory to us now fails to make sense anymore. And sometimes I just truly had no idea what he was talking about, and I figured I couldn't be the only one. :-)
For simplicity's sake, when I'm talking I will write B. When he is talking, I will write S. Since my grandfather was born and raised in Western NC, I also left his natural speech mannerisms intact and quoted him verbatim.
B: Well, first of all, tell me all about growing up, and your name, and who you were named after, and all that stuff.
S: I was named after my father, Samuel David, and a World War 1 buddy of Uncle Jack Wall's...
B: And that was the Percy?
S: That's where the Percy come in. Bert Percy was his name. And I grew up in Hendersonville. Gerton. Asheville. Went in the service March 1942.
B: What did you do before you went in the service?
S: I was a carpenter. Worked at Fort Bragg building army barracks for soldiers. I worked for my uncles, W.R. Floyd Wall. They were contractors. And I was a carpenter for them.
B: What sort of things did you build?
S: Built houses.
B: Are any of them still up?
S: I imagine they are. They were pretty good houses.
B: And who were some of the people that bought those houses?
S: Well, I don't know. But you could build a nice house for $4-5,000 then.
B: And what is your definition of a nice house?
S: Well, brick, and 5, 6 rooms 2 baths. I went away to work on defense work when the war started and I worked there until the draft come pretty close to me. So I volunteered and went into the Air Force.
B: Why'd you decide to go into the Air Force?
S: Well, I liked the Air Force because it was clean, and I didn't want to work in the infantry so... I wanted to fly... so I volunteered. And I got to go in the air force. I spent 3 years, 5 months, 19 days in there. Completed 25 missions over Germany. And got to come home in May of 19, no I finished combat in May of '43 and I got to come home in Sept of '43. Made an instructor.
B: Let's back up a little bit. What happened when you left NC? Where did you travel to? Where was basic training?
S: I went to Fort Bragg. From there I went to Shepherd Field.
B: And where's that?
S: In Texas. From Shepherd Field Texas I went to Harligen Texas to gunnery school. And when I finished gunnery school, I went to Boise Idaho and joined the 303rd Bomb Group.
B: And what was your training? What did that consist of?
S: Well, we had 11 hours of training inan AT6.
B: What's that?
S: A training plane that was shooting at tow targets. And we shot at...
B: What are tow targets?
S: It was a big sleeve pulled by another plane. And it made passes and we would shoot at it as it went by.
B: How'd you keep from hitting the plane?
S: Well, it had a long cable 2-300 yds with rope.
B: Oh, okay.
S: It flew out back of the plane and you shot at it.
B: Well, tell me about your crew, 'cause you met them there, right?
S: Well, there was 10 men on a crew.
B: And tell me your first impression of these people.
S: We had a real good pilot. Name's Oxrider.
B: Where was he from?
S: He was from Dayton, Ohio. I think he was a medical student. And he was a good pilot. After 20 missions, they made him a squadrom commander and sent him back to the states. And he brought another group over and got killed. I don't know the date, but then we got a new pilot.
B: Well, what kind of personality did he have?
S: I don't know. He was a pretty likeable person. He was a big fellow. 6'6 I think. Pretty heavyset. But we had a co-pilot named Hurlbert. He got killed in... He made his missions but got killed in Florida in a plane crash on take off.
B: And what kind of personality did he have?
S: He was a real quiet person. I didn't get to know him too well. We didn't sleep in the same barracks. Didn't have much to do with them-only when we were flying.
B: Because they were officers?
S: Yeah. We wasn't around them much. See, they lived in different parts of the base. And the only time we saw them was when we flew.
B: What about the other guys?\
S: Well, we had siz enlisted men on the crew. One that I was real fond of was Everett Dasher. He slept beside me through the war. We kept in touch all up until he passed away just this past year.
B: What was his position?
S: He was the radio operator.
B: What was his personality like?
S: He was real quiet. Real good fellow. We called him Mother. He looked after us. He was real religious. In fact, he became a lutheran minister after we got out of service. And then they was Heaps. Waist gunner. He was a drunkard. He stayed drunk about half the time. Ziemer was the top turret gunner. He was a teetotaler. He didn't drink. I didn't drink.
B: At all? Ever?
S: No. We didn't drink.There was Sadler, the tail gunner. He didn't drink.
B: The ball turret?
S: The ball turret was Smitty. He was a little fellow. It took a small man about 5'5 or less to get in the ball turret.
B: What kind of personality did he have?
S: He was a real jolly little boy. I didn't know a great deal about his background or anything but we all got along good together. We went on liberty together.
B: What was it like being with all these guys on these missions?
S: Well, we all stuck together. We had a good crew.
B: And do you think having a good crew made any difference?
S: Oh yes. We trained together and I think it made a big difference in combat. Corresponded with each other by intercom. We made all our missions together. We all got through.
B: Can you think of any examples of crews that did not get along well with each other that led to their downfall?
S: Well, I don't know. I think most crews got along good together. Some of the pilots were better than others. We were just fortunate. We had a good pilot. Just like a driver in a car you could tell a good driver or a good pilot.
B: What made a good pilot?
S: One that could fly good formation and one that made good easy landings. I don't know. You could just tell.
B: What difference would your pilot make in a lot of flak or during bombs or fire?
S: The pilot - a good pilot - could take evasive actions. Stuff where he kind of dodged the flak. But we had to stay in pretty close formation there.
B: Could you communicate - like backseat drivers and tell the pilot that, you know, there's somebody back there. Watch out.
S: Oh yeah. We talked to... we was on intercom and we looked out for fighters and we could see fighters coming and we'd say fighters at 3 o'clock high or 12 o'clock high or 6 o'clock low or something. We corresponded. Everybody was looking for fighters.
B: Could you help other planes too?
S: Oh yeah. We flew in formation.
B: Right. But was there anything you could do with your gigantic plane to help the other planes if...
S: No. Just by flying in close formation. The guns of one plane could protect the other ones and we could... We used to fly in a V formation...
B: Like geese?
S: And that way the guns couldn't come to bear. So we started flying in a box formation. One plane above the other and then the guns from one plane could protect the others. That turned out to be a good formation and we used that during most the war.
B: What would happen in, like, Memphis Belle (the movie) when one plane was shot down and it would crash into the plane beneath it? Could your pilot evade something like that?
S: We had an incident similar to that. We flew into a cloud bank and it was real dark and one of the pilots up in the front lost his nerve and broke formation and come right over the top of my plane and cut the plane in two on my left wing. Seventeen men were killed. And three men found thereselves floating in midair and pulled their ripcords and were saved. They fell out of the plane when it was cut in two.
B: What happened to them?
S: Well, 17 of them died.
B: But the 3 that survived. Where did this happen?
S: It happened over England. I reckon... I don't know what happened to them. They survived. I know they buried all the 17 in a mass grave. Other than that, the only incident that I ever seen where, other than when we were shot, was when we were climbing to altitude, circling the game to get altitude before our bombing mission and the plane that was cut in two was called Twin Beauts. It was the first mission it had been on. A new plane. But I don't know what the plane was that hit it. But I know it just missed us. Come right over the top of our plane, hit the plane on my left wing.
B: And you saw it happen?
S: I was looking right at it. Saw the B-17 that was cut in two went straight up. 100 ft just climbing up and then it fell back. Our pilot dived down a little bit. Got out of the clouds and I could see the two planes on the ground burning.
B: How do you get over something like that?
S: Well, you kind of learn to live with stuff like that. You saw a lot of your buddies get killed. You saw a lot of planes go down. But you, you just kind of figured, well, they'll get me tomorrow. You just live with it.
B: Did you ever see a plane crash that you didn't think anyone could survive and find out later there were lots of survivors?
S: Well, I saw them crack up on the ground and some of them survive. The main thing I saw was them get shot in the air and see nobody get out and find out that somebody did survive.
B: What about your buddy that bailed out over France? Didn't he hit the subway or the train station or something?
S: Oh yes. He fell 20,000 feet without a parachute. Went through the skylight of the railroad station in St. Lazare and lived. His name was Allen McGee, but he died this past December. He lived out in New Mexico.
B: And what happened to him? I mean, did he have many broken bones?
S: He was the ball turret gunner. And his plane blew up. He couldn't get to his parachute. There wasn't room in a ball turret to wear your parachute and he got out of the thing but the the plane blew up or something but he didn't get his parachute. He just fell through space. And all he suffered was a broken arm and some lacerations. Went through the glass dome of the railroad station and it broke his fall and he survived.
B: What about your big plane crash in England? What happened that day?
S: Well, we were shot down. We had 3 engines shot out. We'd been to Lorient, France and flak knocked out one of our engines, so we couldn't stay in formation. German fighters jumped us, shot out a couple more engines. We finally made it back to England and had fallen about...
B: Well, what happened though? There was more to it than that.
S: Well, we lost 3 engines and we were falling and we throwed our guns overboard, throwed everything that was lose. So we corssed the English Channel, well we started jumping.
B: Why was it so important to get across the channel?
S: Well, you didn't want to be a prisoner of war.
B: And what would happen if you were captured?
S: Well, you'd be a prisoner of war for the rest of the war.
B: And what sort of things had you heard about what that was like?
S: Well, I hadn't heard a great deal about it, but I just figured, you know, you'd be in confinement, no food, no warm place to sleep, or something like that. Just wasn't a good idea to be a prisoner. So we jumped over England and the pilot landed the plane in a cabbage patch.
B: Well, what did he have to do that?
S: He didn't have a parachute.
B: What had happened to his parachute?
S: Well they said in the commotion it got kicked out or throwed out or something. Anyhow, he didn't have one. So he landed the plane.
B: What happened when he tried to land? The first time?
S: Well, he was going to land in a soccer field, children come running out of the school and stuff and he raised the plane up and set it down in a cabbage patch. Stopped rolling about 30 ft from a row of trees. The Army engineers said if the Air Force can get it in there, we'll get in out. So they built a 2500 foot runway and put 4 new engines on the plane abd a new right wing tip and flew it out. And then it became a training plane. And we got back to the base about 3 days later and they give us a new plane and we named it Yankee Doddle Dandy. (* You can read a more comprehensive account of this story here http://www.303rdbg.com/c-358-oxrider.html )
B: And what was the first one called?
B: And what happened to all of you who bailed out?
S: Everybody made it. I think the navigator got some broke ribs. But all I done was lost my shoes.
B: Why'd you lose them?
S: When my shoot opened it snapped them off my feet. That was in January and it was cold.
B: Who found you?
S: I walked into this little town and on the way I was met by 3 home guards.
B: And what were they like?
S: They were just 3 old men, that were coming to look. Thought we was German paratroopers landing. One of them had a, only one of them I think had a gun - had a shot gun. I told them I was an American and I needed help. Took me into this little town called Newton Abbott. My hands were burned, I didn't have any shoes, my feet were froze, cold. So they took me to the doctor. Doctored my hands, soaked my feet in water, massaged my feet, give me a pair of #6 tennis shoes. It was all they had.
B: And you wear what? An 11?
S: I wear a 10 or 11. And I stretched them on over my feet. Continued on and I met up with my tail gunner. He had on two pair of shoes. Had on what they call a... these big old leather sheepskin lined boots that you put on overtop of your boots. He give me those and I put them on. My feet flopped around in those. I had on an electrically heated suit. It was so hot I couldn't hardly walk, so I, we found the navigator and he had on two pair of britches. He had on a pair of coveralls and a pair of GI pants, so he give me his coveralls, and I put those on, til finaly we got to a British fighter base. We spent the night there and a day or two later we got arrangements to get back to base and they put us on a train and we got back to Molesworth.
B: Were they excited to see you?
S: Aw, yeah. All our clothes had been confiscated and all our personal belongings. But as soon as we got back they started returning. (laughs) Whenever a crew would go down, they'd come in and strip the beds and take all their personal belongings to the supply room. We would generally go through their stuff before they got there and if there was anything we wanted, we would take it.
B: And what if there was anything in there that would have been embarrassing if it got sent home?
S: Well, I don't know about that. I know that the boys that got killed in that plane crash, one of the boys got drunk on the liquor some of them had left in their things and fell in the grave when they... He was a flag bearer. He fell in in the grave and they had to get him out before they put the caskets in there. He said he wasn't drunk, but he was. He's quite a character. (laughs)