Jose M. Salas
I was the Tail Gunner of Steve Sklanky's Crew. On the afternoon of July 23, 1944 we arrived at our base in Italy. They had a big fire there and we could not get any quarters right away. The next day, July 24th the enlisted men of our crew were issued a tent with three cots, the other three had to sleep on the ground. Very early on the morning of the 25th of July we were awakened and told that my name, Jose Salas, Tail Gunner and the names of Donald Robinson, Radio Operator and John Kennedy, Nose Gunner were posted on the flying schedule for that day. We got up, saw our names on the schedule to fly and had a little breakfast. A truck was waiting to take us straight to the airplanes that were waiting. No briefing, no nothing. We did not know where we were going nor did we know the crew we were flying with. It turned out that I was flying with one crew while Robinson and Kennedy were with another crew.
While flying over Yugoslavia, we saw a few of our fighters and little flak. The top turret gunner was very happy and singing because this was his last mission and he was going home to his wife and children. He kept on singing until the Pilot put a stop to it. I do not recall anything else until we were in the middle of the biggest turmoil in my life. Flak all around us and then the intercom hollering "Fighters at 3 o'clock". I had three ME-109's and two FW-190's firing at our airplane and me firing back at them at 5 o'clock. When they passed, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned my turret and saw the flashes of an FW-190's cannons which were a direct hit on the safety glass of my turret. I was wounded very badly and passed out for a moment. When I woke I saw fire all over behind my turret. I climbed out of my turret and crawled to the waist where Willie Gibson, waist gunner was going around in circles. I grabbed him by the cuff of his pants. When he looked down, I pointed for him to give me oxygen but the oxygen hoses were all shot to pieces. Then I pointed to the tail and he grabbed a fire extinguisher, went back and put the fire out. While he was there I tried calling the pilot but the intercom was out. When Willie came back, I pointed for him to put a parachute on me. He put my parachute on upside down with the ripcord to the left instead of to the right. He opened the escape hatch and walked to the bomb bay. He walked over the body of the ball turret gunner, apparently he did not see him. I couldn't crawl to him because the escape hatch was open and I couldn't stand up due to my wounds. When Willie got to the bomb bay he looked back at me and waived his hand. I sat up dangling my legs out the escape hatch and pushed myself out. When I pulled the rip‑cord my chute did not come out, just puffed up. I pulled it out with my hands. When the parachute pulled me up I gave a sigh of relief and passed out. I vaguely remember going through clouds nothing else. I woke up about 100 feet up and going straight at some trees. I pulled the strings of my chute and missed the tree by about 15 feet. Before I hit the ground I tried to hit it with my good leg but it buckled up and I hit it with my wounded leg and the bones popped out of the skin due to a compound fracture. There was a house about 500 yards from where I landed and people looking towards me from their opened door. I motioned to them and they went in the house and closed the door. > I unbuckled the harness of the parachute and started crawling towards the house. I remembered my escape kit and was digging a hole to bury it when I heard voices hollering "Pistole, Pistole". Two very young soldiers were pointing their rifles at me. They called to the house and some people brought a ladder. They put my parachute and me on the ladder and took me to an upstairs room in the house. I passed out and when I woke up there was a big red headed man, probably from the Gestapo, standing over me with his big fists very close to my nose asking questions in perfect English ‑ Where is your base located? What kind of airplanes were you flying? What instruments did you have in your airplane? Etc. Etc. I just gave him my name, rank and serial number. I would pass out for a moment and when I woke up, he was still there more furious. I thought he was going to strike me with his fists. Finally he asked what country I came from. I told him the United States of America, the state of New Mexico. "What?", he said, "We are not at war with Mexico." I tried to explain to him the difference between New Mexico and Mexico but he wouldn't listen so I let it go at that. I do not know how much time had elapsed, I was very hungry and asked this man for food and I was brought a boiled potato. I took the first bite and my appetite disappeared. I could not eat anything. After a while they put me in a stretcher and loaded me in a one horse buggy. When I woke up we were parked near a wooden windmill. I motioned the driver to move to the shade of the windmill. We were close to a river, probably the Danube River. There were some workers working at the river's edge. They came close to the buggy and were saying Kriegsgefangenen. I didn't know what they meant until later. I asked them for water and they brought me a bowl full of water. At that time a German Officer arrived and they all went back to their jobs. I drank the water and gave the empty bowl to the Officer. He looked at me and was reluctant to take the bowl. Finally he took it. A whole bunch of airmen were marched in. A Lieutenant came to me, introduced himself and told me he was Richard Freeman's Navigator. He asked me what type of blood I had. I told him Type O. He said he had Type A but he would get somebody with Type O to give me some blood. He also told me that the top turret gunner had been decapitated by the enemy fighters. Two of the crew were KIA. I passed out again and when I woke up we were traveling in a boxcar. Somebody gave me a cigarette. I don't know what happened to the cigarette, when I woke up again it was dark and we were traveling in a truck. I needed to empty my bladder. Somebody gave me my flying boot and after emptying my bladder he threw the boot away. The truck stopped right away and stayed there until they found the boot. When I woke up again I was on an operating table where they gave me three shots in my chest. Probably a tetanus and some other drug. When I woke up again somebody was telling me in Spanish "don't drink so much water." I opened my eyes and asked him how he knew I spoke Spanish and he said I was cussing him up and down in Spanish. I apologized and he said not to worry, the drug they had given me made everybody speak that way when they were coming out of it. He was a Frenchman in his late fifties who was taken prisoner by the Germans to do forced labor. I do not know how many days had gone by, if any. That day when I woke up in the hospital room a German doctor came and operated on my leg. He sawed off a part of my bones and put me in traction. I stayed in traction for 22 days.
While I was in traction, Willie Gibson, walked in the door. He was greatly surprised and asked me, "Are you still alive? I thought I had taken your dead body with both legs cut off out of the tail turret of our plane." I told him all that had happened up in the airplane. Actually Willie Gibson saved my life and I saved his. We exchanged home addresses and had a good talk until the guard took him away. I never saw Willie Gibson again. After the war we kept in touch with each other by mail for a while. The reason Willie Gibson was in the Linz Hospital that day was because they had taken him for X‑Rays and while there he told the X‑Ray technician, she could speak very good English, what he had done for me up in the airplane, taking me out of the tail turret dead and both legs cut off. When he described me she told him there was someone fitting that description in a room upstairs and took him to my room.
I heard that Willie Gibson was very active in the 461st BG and that he used to help out with reunions. May he rest in peace.
Since I was in the Base in Italy for only two nights and one day, I never did know what Bomb Group or Bomb Squadron I was in, only the Fifteenth Air Force Heavy Bombardment and that's what my discharge papers say. In 1986 I received a letter from Milton Rodovsky, (Rest in peace). He sent me a list of Richard Freeman's crew. That's the first time I heard about the 461st BG and the 764th BS and which crew I was flying with when we were shot down. Milton asked me about my experiences on the mission to Linz, Austria, July 25, 1944. He said he wanted to write a book about that mission. I wrote to Milton telling of my experiences and asking him if he knew anything about Steve Sklansky's crew. Milton wrote back and told me that Robinson and Kennedy had been KIA and gave me the addresses of the others. I wrote them Christmas Cards and they were very surprised to hear from me since they thought I had been KIA. The only 461st BG reunion I have been able to attend was the one in Tucson, AZ. My wife and I had a ball there and met a lot of very good people. And, for the first time we met Richard and Virginia Freeman, two very wonderful people. Also, for the first time since July 1944, I saw Ray Grew, Navigator in Sklansky's crew. We were very happy to see each other and spent the whole reunion together.
Jose M. Salas
764th Bomb Squadron