Wednesday, May 26, 2010

WWII Account - North Africa

I'm cleaning out the office today and need a break. Plus, I have a story to tell you.

It's not my story, or even my telling, but that of my dad's father: Samuel R. Dorrance. This is the account of when his plane was shot down over Tunisia in Northern Africa during WWII. 

[I was going to wait to Veteran's day to publish this but figured that since Memorial Day is right around the corner that this is a fine time.]

His account was published in this volume:

Through the Eye of the Needle
68 First-Person Accounts of Combat, Evasion and Capture by World War II Airmen
Edited by Joe Consolmagno


One Day Short

By Samuel R. Dorrance


Cape Bon, Tunisia - 26 April 1943


We were part of a daylight flight of eighteen B-52s from the 340th Group in Tunisia, ordered to bomb a German airfield on Cape Bon, Tunisia. The bombing mission was accomplished without too much trouble, but on the way back to our airstrip behind the British Eighth Army lines we encountered heavy flak at 10,000 feet.

As navigator-bombardier, I was in the plexiglass nose of the aircraft, when suddenly the glass was shattered. More importantly, both engines ceased to function. I crawled back through the tunnel to the center of the aircraft, aft of the pilot's compartment. A hurried conference of all aboard resulted in a decision to try and crash landing rather than take to the parachutes.

The pilot, Joe Davis, immediately put the plane into a steep dive to gain airspeed. Unlike the others, I had no safety strap. With the landing gear up, Davis headed for the beach north of Sfax, hoping to make it to the British lines. We were short of that by five miles. I remember the last second before we hit the beach, but was instantly knocked out on impact.



When I woke up we were in the desert, surrounded by Afrika Korps men. I had a deep gash next to my right eye from hitting something in the aircraft. The rest of our crew was unscratched. Because of my injury I was separated from the others and then to a field hospital near Hammamet. After three days there - the only enemy patient - I was moved to a hospital in Tunis for a day or two where I found an American fighter pilot named Dick Peebles and a British Army reconnaissance pilot named Peter Macklin. Peebles had a bad leg from his own experiences. The room in which were were confined had diagonal stripes on the walls. The house was said to have once belonged to the Bey of Tunis and have been occupied by his female companions.

I'm not sure just how long the three of us were kept there, not more than two or three days, before we were taken to the Tunis Airport, from which were were to be flown out of North Africa. We arrived at the field in daylight, but there was a long delay extending well into the evening while we sat with three guards and wondered how to get away.

At last the JU-53 was ready for us, and we were bundled into the plane along with a crowd of German soldiers. We glumly listened to the roar of the engines as they were revved up at the end of the runway; then the aircraft began its take-off. Unbelievably, the aircraft, after beginning to accelerate, slowed down and stopped. All was not well with the engines. The passengers were off-loaded and we were taken back to Tunis.

We knew, of course, that the delay was temporary. Peter Macklin and I decided that the next time, come what might, we would seize the slightest opportunity to escape. Both of us felt that something should have been tried during the long wait at the airport. Dick Peebles was of the same mind, but severely handicapped by his injured leg.

Once more we were driven to Tunis Airport, arriving in late afternoon. This time a JU-52 was already standing there. A large group of German soldier waited to board. There were two guards for the three of us. Darkness was falling as the aircraft's engines were started. The German soldiers approached the airplane and began to board.

When they had all vanished inside, one of our guards shepherded Dick Peebles up the steps. The other guard then put one foot on the first step and motioned Macklin and myself to come. Instead of obeying, we ran around the tail while the guard tugged at the pistol in his holster and shouted vainly to us to halt and to the world in general for help, his voice utterly overwhelmed by the noise of the engines.

By now it was dark. We ran to the end of the field, where there was an aircraft graveyard of miscellaneous wings, fuselages, tail fins, and the like, and hid there. But not together. Peter Macklin was in far better shape than I. Running down the field he outdistanced me, and although I knew he must be close by in hiding, neither of us risked calling out to the other. I never say him again, but was told much later by a fellow POW in camp that a British officer at shown up at our group asking for me, so I think he must have made it back to Allied territory.

As for my own sequence of events, I stayed put until I was sure that no one was searching the area, and then set forth, hoping somehow to reach the Americans near Bizerta on the coast. At one point I became aware that two Italian soldiers were shouting back and forth at a considerable distance from each other on either side of me, and were advancing to meet each other. The terrain was open. All I could do was lie flat on the ground and hope my khaki uniform would blend with the sandy soil. I was lucky. The two soldiers came together nor more than twenty feet away, conversed, and went away in opposite directions, oblivious to my reluctant presence.

I continued to walk all night, steering by the stars, crossing a couple of roads with great care. Afterwards I found a compass and map in a flight jacket I had borrowed from Dick Peebles - I had no idea they were there.

The sky began to lighten. On looking around for shelter I found myself near an orchard in which several large holes had been dug, either for planting trees or removing them. It was possible to stand in one of these without showing my head above ground. I spent a long, hot, thirsty day there while Arab laborers worked in the vicinity. None approached my hiding place. When the sun eventually went down and the Arabs had more or less silently stolen away, I resumed my journey for another night.

Dawn came along again. I was on a dirt track skirting the edge of a vast marsh on the coast. By this time hunger and thirst were winning over caution. I knew that things were going badly for the Germans in Tunisia and that the Americans from the west and the British from the east were steadily advancing on Tunis. Perhaps the local population knew this, too, and would not necessarily be hostile to an American. So, seeing ahead an Arab farm or compound, I decided to try for something to eat or drink.

A robed Arab appeared in answer to my knock on the door of a hut near the road. We communicated, after a fashion, in bad French. Making known my need for food and drink, I was ushered inside the hut. Milk and bread were supplied. During the consumption of these welcome provision three or four more Arabs entered the hut, effectively surrounding me. Moreover, in remarkably short time a German soldier with a rifle joined the group and declared that I was his prisoner.


This ended my private tour of Tunisia.

In an hour or so I found myself back in the house with the diagonal stripes on the walls. One other American airman had shown up. Once again we were taken to Tunis Airport, about 3:00 am. Sporadic bomb bursts were striking the field. A JU-52 full of Germans was waiting. We were immediately shoved aboard and the aircraft took off. This was the early morning of May 7, 1943, the day, as I learned later, that Tunis fell to the Allied forces.

It would have been wise to remain at large one more day.

We were flown to Naples practically at water level all the way. Having heard numerous reports of the havoc that Beaufighters and P-40s were causing JU-52s, we were devoutly thankful for our safe arrival. From Naples we traveled by truck to Rome, where a night was spent in a barracks.

Next morning at the railway station, a small character in a German uniform, with a pistol in holster on each side, came along the platform and said to me, in a strong American southern accent, "You'd better behave yourself, buddy - These things are might easy in the holster!"

This character was an extra guard assigned to me because of my abortive escape attempt. He sat beside me all the way to Frankfurt am Main. His story was that he had lived in Palatka, Florida, had taken his family on a trip to Germany, and been caught by the war. He also mentioned that he had been 'persecuted' by the Episcopal minister in Palatka. He told me his name. By sheer chance I happened to know slightly a family in Palatka, with whom I checked after the war. They remembered this character well as a rabid Nazi enthusiast who had been run out of town.

At Dulag Luft I had the usual solitary cell, complete with visits from a fake Red Cross official. Tiring of my name-rank-serial-number routine, he escorted me down the hall to a room where walls were adorned with charts of what looked like the entire American Air Force. He told me it was silly to withhold information because they already knew all about me. He named a group that came to Africa well ahead of our 340th, and gloated over his precise knowledge of my military origins. It was best to keep silent and let him think he was right. Clearly he had never heard of the 340th Group.

My stint in solitary lasted only two or three days. After that I was simply one of the thousands who underwent the Sagan and Moosburg experiences.


And that is the end of Grandpa Sam's narrative. But not the end of the story. From there, my understanding of the sequence of events is fuzzy and I know only that it involves long years in a POW camp, marches through the bitter cold of winter, and, finally, a homecoming. 

Photo credit: Sarah Doster Hassinger

4 comments:

  1. I got to know Sam Dorrance quite well as I lived with his step-daughter for twenty years. Although everyone around him knew of his service in WWII, few knew that he spent so much time in a POW camp.

    I only heard him talk about the experience in the Stalag once and he was quite moving (and moved) when talking about those who died there.

    Thank you for publishing this on your blog as I hadn't seen it before.

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  2. Thanks Ian! I never heard Grandpa Sam talk about the war and my father Tom said it was rarely mentioned when he was growing up. Oh the questions I would have liked to asked of him. With which of Sam's stepdaughters did you live with? I'm afraid that growing up on the west coast has left me poorly acquainted with "the girls", as my father fondly refers to them.

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  3. Samuel R Dorrance10:11 AM

    Hi Sonja,

    Meant to thank you ages ago for posting Dad's account of his WW II experiences, all recounted with characteristic understatement. I learned only after Dad's death that he crawled back from his navigator's position in the plane to the bomb bay and managed to dislodge the remaining bomb before the plane crashed. Had he not done so, all on board would have perished, and we would not be here! I have Dad's POW diary from his time in prison camp; slowly transcribing it so it is preserved, and readable! If you ever saw Dad's handwriting, you can appreciate the challenge!

    Best, Sam Dorrance

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    Replies
    1. Hi Uncle Sam,

      Thank you so much for adding to the story. I spent so little time with him as a child that it's really been enjoyable to learn bits and pieces about his life. The part about him releasing the remaining bomb is extraordinary. In the book "Unbroken", by Laura Hillenbrand, I kept thinking of Grandpa while reading about the crash that occurs in that story. My Papa concurs that Grandpa's handwriting was almost illegible; best of luck and perseverance with the POW diary. We'd love to see it upon completion. -Sonja

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