The internment of Lee Ellis
Grottaglia, Italy with the 15th AF, 449th BG, 718th BS. Our facility was primitive, dirt runways, tent city, lister bags, no refrigeration except in winter. Upon arrival we witnessed a returning squadron; one was forced to pull up for a go-around. The engines sputtered and quit and the ship crashed just beyond a tented area. I never forgot and was chided for being “chicken.” A couple times we landed at another base farther North and refueled. We never ran out of fuel.
April ’45 the throttles of the B-24 were moved forward, down the runway we rolled – rotate and shortly we were off. We eased into the “slot” in the squadron. Half of the crew were new and the remainder were my crew. The other half of my crew was in another B-24. At 10,000 feet oxygen masks were donned and guns test fired. We climbed to 27,500 feet, the highest we ever flew.
Our target was the Brenner Pass railroad for the third straight day. The sky was filled with aircraft. At briefing – light flak – 6 to 10 AA batteries.
On the bomb run the Squadron Leader called, “We are pulling onto the bomb run, tighten up and steady it.” The red-orange bursts that instantly became a black puff tracked from the rear progressing forward. Another series followed and another – “Bombs Away.” The ship lurched up, relieved of its load, a huge explosion. The two port engines were out, we feathered them. The bomb bay doors were locked open, hydraulics were gone. We were losing altitude rapidly.
I radioed the Squadron Leader and advised of our problem and asked if we should try to Switzerland. He agreed and said, “Good luck, you are on your own.”
We jettisoned everything possible. We were now in a valley between two rows of mountains. The Navigator was relatively certain we were over Switzerland. The altimeter read 7,000 feet. The engineer fired two green flares. Shortly thereafter, flak appeared very close and the plane pitched and bounced with each burst. “Bail out,” I ordered.
The crew evacuated except for the engineer and I. He suggested we take her in. “Jump,” I replied and gave him a shove out. “God I hope his chute opens.” I somersaulted out into space, counted five and pulled the tip chord. With a wrenching jerk it opened. I saw no other chutes. Then a Swiss fighter circled me so close I feared his prop wash would spill my chute. He was so close I could see his facial features. I prayed he was not going to use me for target practice.
Looking down I realized I was descending fast. When I distinguished leaves- a blur of green and I was on the ground. I spilled my chute, unfastened the harness and looked up into two drawn guns held by two Swiss soldiers. I was marched to a 1941 Chevy and taken to a brick schoolhouse and held there overnight.
The next morning, a Swiss officer interrogated me. He was most perturbed that the gunners were unable to score a direct hit as we were at 5,000 feet. He was upset that we did not land. He indicated he would have gained recognition if a direct hit had been made or if we landed. The ship crashed in Austria. I was concerned about the crew, did they land OK – the hell with the airplane. All were OK except the waist gunner whose chute swung him into the side of a lumberyard, fracturing two of his ribs.
We were taken to Bern and walked to the train station. I was amazed at the cleanliness and well-stocked stores. Onto a spotless electric train teeming with vacationers of all ages loaded down with skis, snow shoes, mountain climbing equipment, fishing tackle, all heading for a weekend in the mountains.
We were taken to Spiez and Fruitigen and onto Adelboden in a charcoal burning bus. Adelboden is a quaint, rustic alpine village; its street (Dorfstrasse) was lined with shops. It had been a popular British resort town. It appeared immaculate and well groomed. We were taken to the Nevada Palace, a far cry from tent city in Southern Italy. We were quarantined the first two weeks. We spent hours looking across the valley to a distant falls (5 miles away- Engstigenalp) and the meandering stream flowing along the valley floor.
We were told by our CO that we were not to try to escape as ordered by the Military Attache as the war would be over soon. There was only one road ingress and egress making escape difficult.
The people were friendly. The street was cleaned daily. Even when a herd of cows enroute to summer pasture would pass the same courtesy was extended.
The photo store was amply supplied with cameras, film and awas owned by a renowned photographer (Klop Fensteins). A wood camera shop with fascinating items from Black Forest and Brienz. A great sporting goods store (Osters). A favorite tavern for many (Sterner Bar). Also a well supplied jewelry and watch store (Oesterle). The Volunteer Fire Department drills were unique. Four men running down the street pulling a wooden wheeled hose cart. They were preceded by a policeman blowing a horn.