Understanding sacrifice: Ellsworth Airman's grandfather part of post-Normandy air campaign

  • Published
  • By Steven J. Merrill
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
D-Day. The mere mention of the epic invasion can evoke a barrage of images in people's minds spanning the spectrum between horror and glory.

For Master Sgt. Matthew Carey, 28th Bomb Wing Treaty Compliance Office superintendent, it conjures thoughts of a man he barely knew and whose grandest adventures began the day after nearly 160,000 troops crossed the English Channel as part of the largest seaborne invasion in history.

"I'm still a little stunned by it," said Carey, upon learning his grandfather, Staff Sgt. James "Rae" Carey, arrived on the shores of England the day after the assault on Normandy. "I had never really placed him in the area around D-Day until just recently."

Carey's family had mentioned Rae was a tail gunner and was taken prisoner, but he was never certain until he found a combat diary of his grandfather's squadron that provided info about every mission by date. One of the first entries lists Rae signing in for duty at Thurleigh Airfield near Bedfordshire, England on June 7, 1944.

Carey discovered his grandfather was among the Eighth Air Force B-17 and B-25 aircrews participating in the post-Normandy air campaign focused on battlefield interdiction and close air support intended to decimate Nazi Germany's war machine.

"He enlisted in 1942 and began his military career driving a fuel truck refueling aircraft," said Carey, who learned most of the details of his grandfather's life through notes taken by his aunt, Linda. For years she would sit by Rae's bedside in a small nursing home in Ontario, Ore., talking with him about his life and jotting down notes until his death four years ago. "He said that one day an officer asked if anyone wanted to be a tail gunner and he raised his hand. Eventually he ended up flying bombing missions over Germany."

In less than three months in England, Rae had flown 26 combat missions.

"He would talk about missions they flew with targets like bearing factories and rail yards," Carey said. "My aunt said he would describe the missions with vivid detail and make you feel like you were right there in the aircraft. The stories ranged from antics on long flights with periods of what seemed like endless boredom to the sheer terror of being hit by German gunfire and limping home on two engines and a broken wing."

During one talk with Linda, Rae recalled watching German fighters pounce on a group of B-17s.

"We were on the way out from our target and there was a group of enemy fighters flying close to the contrails that we made going to the target - about a mile from us positioned about 4 o'clock and level with us - so I had a very good view of them. We were about halfway out of Germany when I saw these planes come out of the contrail. It looked like they were flashing landing lights, but it was their 20 millimeter cannons - one in each wing. They were four abreast and coming right at the B-17s. In less than 30 seconds there were five planes out of a group of 12 falling out of the sky. We all expected this to happen sooner or later, but to see it was just unreal ..."

Rae's 27th mission was his last. Aug. 26, 1944 during a bombing mission to Gelsenkirchen, Germany the B-17 Hard to Get was gotten.

According to his grandfather and other crewmember accounts, the bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire. The first burst hit the left wing tip, destroying the wing inboard to the engine and causing the wing to flip up to the left.

"He said that while the bomber was tipped up, a second round hit the bomb bay and a third burst tore the rudder off," Carey said. "The plane turned completely over, then upright, and went into a flat spin. I can't even imagine the chaos and fear."

Amid the smoke, fire and confusion, his grandfather - reeling from the explosions and bucking of the crippled aircraft - made his way to one of the plane's escape hatches when he saw the B-17's copilot, 1st Lt. Charles Rapp Jr., preparing to get out as well.

"... he came through, smiled and gave me the high sign and then headed back to the front of the plane. I never saw him after that. I was told that when the plane broke up it took one of his legs off and there was too much time lost on the way to the ground and he bled to death. Charles was an amazing crewmember. I would have gladly traded places with him then. He was as good as you get," Carey's grandfather recalled about that fateful day.

Stunned coming out of the disintegrating bomber, Rae said he awoke to the sound of his pants flapping in the wind as he fell to Earth under a scorched parachute riddled with burn holes. He hit the ground, happy to be alive. However, he and four of the aircrew were soon captured - out of the frying plane and into the fire.

"He landed in the back yard of an SS officer's home," Carey said. "The townspeople converged on him, but the SS officer kept them at bay. He credited the officer for saving his life."

Rae sprained his knee upon landing, which resulted in a limp he would have the duration of his time as a POW.

Carey's grandfather was taken prisoner along with the pilot, 1st Lt. Dean Allen, navigator, 2nd Lt. Charles Evans Jr., top turret gunner, Tech. Sgt. Harvey Purkey Jr., and right waist gunner, Staff Sgt. Richard Huebotter.

Once captured, German soldiers stripped them of their belongings and loaded them into a shabby railcar destined for the Stalag Luft IV POW camp. All five were in the rail car, however, only three would make the trip.

The night of Aug. 27, 1944 the five were being transported south from Cologne following the Rhine River. During the trip, the train stopped in the middle of the night near a small town. Evans and Purkey saw their opportunity to escape and jumped from the train when the Nazi guards had fallen asleep. A short while later the alarm sounded.

Rae said the townspeople and SS forces ran the pair down and beat them severely. The three aboard the train never saw their fellow Airmen again. According to reports after the war ended, the town's mayor, police chief and three others were tried, convicted and executed for the beating deaths of two American Airmen. Records indicate those killed were Rae's fellow B-17 aircrew.

"After the war, my grandpa visited the family of one of those killed to pay his respects, but he never told them any of the exact details how their loved one died," Carey said.

His grandfather would remain a POW and endure the harsh conditions of the camp that only those who have survived similar experiences can comprehend. Rae remarked that life in the camp was bad, but nothing compared to what he and his fellow prisoners endured as part of the Stalag Luft IV death march - the next chapter in his life.

Historians have noted that by early 1945, Germany was struggling and the Allied forces were preparing to make the final push to topple Germany. During this time the Germans made plans to move prisoners in select POW camps - including Rae's - away from the advancing forces.

In late January 1945, Rae noted he and others could see flashes and hear explosions in the distance. In early February 1945, he and thousands of others were formed up and forced to leave the camp on foot under the watchful eye of armed guards.

Accounts of the march state that after the Germans told everyone it would be only a trek of a few days, the prisoners were divided into groups of 250 to 300 and forced to march four or five abreast. At night, their captors would force them to sleep in barns, open fields or in the woods.

After nearly 80 days and enduring approximately 600 miles on a march plagued with hunger, thirst, illness, bad weather and wondering if each day would be his last, Rae said he found freedom. Allied forces had closed in. Gen. George Patton negotiated a 24-hour truce with German forces to allow time for POWs to cross enemy lines and be returned. Rae was released April 26, 1945.

"He joked about beating General Patton across the Rhine, but would quickly counter that it was only fair that Patton got them back out," Carey said of his grandfather.

"After our release, we were deloused, given a bath, then some new clothes and food," Carey's grandfather noted. "Food was our primary thought at the time ... even K rations were rated as high as a turkey dinner is now. Then we were loaded on an ol' DC-3 and hauled to Camp Lucky Strike up on the north coast of France to wait for a boat back to the U.S. It was sure nice to ride a in a boat without worrying about torpedoes and unfriendly aircraft."

Back in the states, Rae served at a few Army posts prior to leaving the military. After the military, he moved from town to town working as a truck driver - one of his trades while in the military. He eventually ended up in Vale and Ontario, Ore., where he lived out the rest of his life.

"Knowing now what he endured helps me understand why he remained distant from me and others for most of my life," Carey said.

While he and other family members never really got to know his grandfather, a year into his enlistment in the Air Force, Carey and a coworker, Clint Webb, had lunch with his grandfather at a small diner in Vale.

"It was mostly casual conversation, but grandpa was at the top of his game - flirting with the waitress and introducing us as Air Force pilots," Carey said of his grandfather who many considered to be a ladies man. "He was quite the character."

Now, nearly 18 years into his military career that has included stints as a munitions specialist at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, and Ellsworth, Carey wishes he had been able to share more time with his grandfather.

"I think about him every day," Carey said. "The artwork (of a B-17 mission ) right outside my office door evokes a lot of that. I wonder what it must have been like to be part of those missions - being in the tail of the bomber with the engines droning on, constantly scanning the skies for enemy aircraft intent on killing you. And knowing what he dealt with as a POW is just ... humbling."

With historic ties to World War II airpower, Ellsworth is home of the 34th Bomb Squadron "Thunderbirds," 37th Bomb Squadron "Tigers," and 432nd Attack Squadron, three of the original squadrons to participate in the Doolittle Raid on Japan April 18, 1942. Carey said knowing what those Airmen, and countless others like his grandfather, endured and did for our country compels him to never forget the past sacrifices made by America's greatest generation.

"The men on those great planes in the world wars were truly amazing people," he said. "Being here reminds me that we are part of something bigger than just what we did yesterday and in the past few years."

As the mission of our nation's bomber force continues to evolve into a more lethal, precise force, Carey noted that a lot of the validation of airpower - especially a strong bomber force - was done in the skies over Europe and the Pacific by people like his grandfather. This is something that Carey said he tries to impress upon his children, especially his 9-year-old son, James, his grandfather's namesake.

(Editor's note: Information for this article was provided by the Carey family to include segments from the 306th Bomb Group's official newsletter and an article originally printed in VFW Magazine.)