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2014, Aaron Elson








It Could Happen to You

Hal Mapes, 401st Bomb Group, ex-prisoner of war

2014 Aaron Elson

    Hal Mapes of Glen Rock, N.J., was one of only two survivors among the crews of a pair of B-17s that crashed into each other during a bombing raid over Chartres, France. Despite having taken part in an infamous 88-day forced march across Germany by thousands of prisoners of war, Mapes, who recently turned 76, says he's led a charmed life. This story is drawn from an interview that took place on May 3, 2000. (Hal Mapes passed away on Sept. 21, 2000)

    We were supposed to bomb Berlin on August 1, 1944, but the weather was bad, so we went to Chartres, and they said it was going to be a milk run. There was going to be a graduation presentation for German fighter pilots. They had a field there. So we took off, went over the Channel, and then – It was maybe 1 or 2 in the afternoon, we were getting ready to go over the target, and the lead bombardier made a mistake. He turned the wrong way. So he said we had to do a 360 and go back over it. When you go back over it, the artillery is ready for you, they shoot you down like ducks. So all of a sudden, I’m standing there in the plane – the German fighter planes wouldn’t come over there when you’re over the target, because they’d get shot down themselves, and the American fighter pilots would leave, too, so going over the target, there’s nobody there except you. And we’re going over the target, we’re flying tight formation, and flak is coming up like crazy. The flak was almost like a highway after a while they put so much up; you could almost put the wheels down and ride on it. And all of a sudden, "Wham!" The plane started vibrating. We had hit the wing of another plane, and it started to flip over. And we started to go in a circle. We were at about 24,000 feet, and we hadn’t dropped our bombs.

    The first thing that happened, my oxygen mask froze up, so I had to squeeze it and get the ice off so I could breathe. And with the centrifugal force, it’s like being in an elevator going down and you’re trying to go up.

    I never wore a parachute; no one ever wore them, we just put them on the floor. Now the plane’s going in circles, and the first sensation I had was that I had to get out of the plane. I would have gone without a chute, I just want to get out of there. Then I said, "Wait a second, you’ve got to get a chute." It was just an act of God or something, the chute slid down and hit me in the back and I grabbed it and pulled it around; there are two hooks on a chute, and I managed to get one strap hooked on.

    The day before, we had a class on parachute jumping, and the instructor said, "If you weigh 175 pounds, one strap will hold you."

    I weighed 198.

    I said, "Oh, Geez." Then, I thought, I have to pray, quick. I thought about all the things I had done wrong in life. I said, well, I didn’t do too many things wrong so it won’t take me a long prayer, I did a little quick one. And next, I said, I’ve got to try to get out of there. But I couldn’t get out because a piece of metal was wrapped around my leg. And I could see the sky, and then the ground, the sky and the ground, and there was this terrible whirling, whistling sound.

    I said, "I’ve got to get out of here. I’ve got to do one of two things. If I pull the ripcord, maybe it will pull me out. And if it pulls me out, I might lose my leg." It’s one or the other, either that or die. So I said I’ll try it. I got near this little hole, and I pulled the ripcord, and as luck would have it it pulled me right out of the plane. And when I got out there, I looked down to see if my leg was there, and there it was, swinging; what happened was it had pulled my foot out of the flying boot. The boot stayed in the plane but my foot came out.

    The next thing you know, I look and all the planes are going back home and leaving me up there, and I’m thinking, gee, I know how a bird feels. It’s the most peaceful experience in the world, to be up there coming down on a parachute.

    Then I start spinning, like a pencil on a string, this way, then that way, and I couldn’t get that other half of the chute strapped on to save my life. I was afraid every time I reached up I’d pull the air out of the chute. And then the dopey Germans started shooting at me. They put holes in the top of the chute, and I said, "I’m dead," like that. I think they thought I was dead. And as I’m getting closer to the ground, I said if I ever get on the ground I’ll never fly again.

    I was going to land in a farm, and on both sides I could see people lining up against barns, and I thought, geez, if I could just get there, I’ll get in the French underground, I’ll be okay. And as luck would have it, I landed on a small haystack, and having played football I knew how to roll, and I hit the ground pretty hard but there was no problem.

    Then these two German guys came up, and they were younger than I was. They must have been 18. They’ve got machine guns in my face, and they’re calling me a Luftgangster. That was the first time anybody ever called me a gangster. I never had anybody put a machine gun in my face before, either. And I said, "No, no, I’m your friend." I said "Friends!" Finally, they took me to the road. There was a road maybe 50 yards away and I’m dragging this chute, and I’m sitting on the curb, and here comes this German guy up on a jeep. I found out later he was a major. And he bawled these two guys out because they gave me a drink out of a canteen. Figure I’d been going since maybe the night before, you start getting ready for a mission at 3 o’clock in the morning, and I was dragging out there, I had one fly boot off and the flying jacket half torn off me, and I got in the jeep, in the back. There was a guy with a machine gun sticking in my back, and we’re going down the road, and evidently a bomb had gone astray and hit a house, and this beautiful girl was standing there with a red blouse and a pair of red shoes, and she was crying, because I guess some family members were in it. She said something to me in French about how she felt sorry for me, and I said, "Well listen, I feel sorry for you because you’re worse off than I am." So this major stops the jeep, and he walks over and puts his arm around her waist, and he comes back to the jeep and she sits in the front seat and he stands on the running board. Then it dawns on him that I’m sitting in the back seat. So he kicks me out. And we go up this dirt road to this little country town.

    Now I’m half-scared and half-not; I’ve got to act brave even if I’m not. So this old lady, she’s about 80, she goes over to this guard and spits in his face. And I thought, oh, gee, we’re all gonna get killed now. The guard points a gun at her, and he swears at her. But he didn’t do anything to her. So we just keep on walking up to the little town, and I said, if that lady has that much courage, I have to act brave, so I start waving to the people, like we’re at a football game, I said, "The boys are coming!" And in the background you could hear the guns from Paris, and I’m starting to wave to the people, I’m getting real brave.

    Then they took me up to a little store on a corner, it had mirrors all over it, and a guy says to me in perfect English, "For you the war is over."

    And I said, "Then how about sending me home?"

    He said, "We can’t do that."

    Well, that’s my first experience with solitary confinement. They asked me a few questions, and I was so brave after meeting that woman that I got to be a smartass. He asked me, How many engines does your plane have? We know where you came from," and this and that. "And what was the letter on the tail?"

    And I said, "I don’t have to give you that stuff. You know the Geneva Convention says I just have to give you my name, rank and serial number. But the plane had six engines."

    He got mad, because he knew that we didn’t have any six-engine planes.

    Next thing, he said, "I’m going to stick you in this room."

    He stuck me in that room, and they took off and left me there during an air raid. It scared the living daylights out of me.

    I stayed there for about four days, and that’s when they took me to Paris. They took me there in a Mercedes-Benz, at about 4 o’clock in the morning with these little parking lights. And I felt like a big shot. Except they drove up to this gate at a little church, and all I could see was bullet holes on the wall. I said, oh, geez, they’re gonna put me in front of a firing squad. I said, "I’m a little old sergeant. What do they do to guys that are very up there?" I thought, this is crazy.

    So I walked into the room and another guy said to me, "For you the war is over."

    I said the same thing to him. "In that case, send me home."

    He couldn’t send me home, either. So he gave me a bowl and a piece of bread, and sent me down to this little church, and when I got into the church, here’s a bunch of Americans, maybe 20 of them. They all had been pilots, gunners and bombardiers, navigators and everything, they’d all been shot down, I mean, they used to shoot them down like flies. So they said, "Welcome home!"

    I said, "Say that again!"

    Then the first thing, they asked me, How are the Yankees doing, and the Giants and the Dodgers? Got any cigarettes? These guys would rather smoke than eat. And there was one guy, his name was Lieutenant Roberts, he was sitting at a table playing solitaire; one of his hands was almost off and he was playing with one hand. He had been a P-47 pilot and he dove into a flak emplacement, and he went right through it, but he survived.

    Then the air raid was coming over again and everybody’s running to hide, and he’s still sitting up there playing cards. He said, "What are you hiding for? You can’t do anything?"

    So he gave us a lot of courage.

    And in this little church, they had taken down all the pictures of Christ, and they had Hitler, Goering and all those guys’ pictures up instead.

    We went back to Paris in April [of 1999], and I saw this place, it’s now a museum. It was a funny experience when I went back there because it felt like I won the war myself. Some guy contacted me there and he said that on the radio they had told some of my story and they said that this American claims there was a lady, a beautiful gal in a red dress, red shoes, back in 1944, and he wanted to know if she was around.

    And he said, "You know what? We got four replies. But you don’t want to see them because they’re not beautiful anymore. They don’t have any teeth, they don’t have anything else."

    That was funny. I said, "Well, neither do I!"

- - - -

    I was adopted when I was four years old. I have no memory of anything before I was four. My kids get after me to find out who my natural parents were, but I have no interest in even looking. I’m not interested in that stuff. I’m afraid I might find I’ve got an old brother or some mother who’s 100 years old and needs some help. But I just felt so blessed. There was no need for me to find out anybody else. These people were so good to me, that it was just a miracle.

    My parents never knew I found out I was adopted. I think my grandmother made a comment one day that "You should go back where you came from," and I put two and two together and figured it out. I was about eight years old. It was around Christmastime, and I used to think Santy Claus would come down the chimney. I don’t know what it was, but I must have done something to upset her. But I can remember on Friday nights I used to go up in her room. She had a room upstairs in our house, and she was a very stately lady. She used to be a teacher, she wore a choker, and she had a cane. And we’d have tea parties. To this day I can remember I listened to the program with Don Ameche, "The Little Theater off Times Square." I used to listen with her and we’d have a cup of tea and a cracker or something like that. But we were pretty fast friends, too. All in all I had such a good – ah, you can’t say you have a perfect life but I’m pretty close to it. And my dad used to have electric trains, he put the tracks on boards, we had a good time.

    I grew up in Brooklyn, and stayed in Brooklyn for 12 or 13 years. My father died when I was 14. My mother remarried when I was 16 and I finished my last two years of high school in Norfolk, Virginia, because he worked at the Navy Yard, and I used to work there too, because I wanted to get in good shape for football. We’d get on the beach and the coach used to live on the beach so all the guys used to run up and down the sand. Geez, we had some team. Everybody on the team got a college scholarship anyplace all over the country. And we used to outdraw some of the college teams because of the Navy. There were a lot of Navy personnel there, and we were 50 miles from the College of William & Mary and they used to ask us to change the date of the game because we used to outdraw them. All the Navy was at the game.

    When we moved to Norfolk, it was in the summertime, and my mother went to speak to the football coach. I was out on the beach and I said, "Where did you go?"

    She said, "I just went down to talk to the coach."

    I said, "What are you doing, talking to the coach?"

    She said, "I had to tell him that you’re a good football player."

    "Mom, you’re not supposed to do stuff like that."

    It didn’t bother her. Nothing was too good for her son. The first practice we had I made a touchdown, so that kind of backed it up.

    Another funny thing was when I went to get my football equipment. Down South they have that y’all stuff, and up North we talk quick. In fact, recently I had a funny experience. I was going down to North Carolina. I went to get some gasoline and the gal behind the counter said to me, "Have a good tree up."

    I said to Nancy, "What’s she talking about? I didn’t put the tree up. It’s summertime."

    I said, "You mean trip."

    She said, "Oh, yes. Have a good tree up."

    So I went in there and asked the guy for a jersey, and the guy said, "Listen to this." The guy said to the other fellows who were all Southern guys, "This guy, he wants a joisey."

    But I thought everybody else spoke differently down there. I guess I was the one that was talking a different lingo.

    I scored a touchdown in my first game as well, and my mother was in the stands jumping up and down shouting that her son had hit a home run. Oh, I thought, she really should stay home. Fortunately she did, until the last game I played. She came to that. She was a great backer, she just backed me up 100 percent, which was really great. I never realized it at the time but I guess when my dad died, she kind of filled in. I think one of the toughest times in my life – I’ve never had a tough time in my life, really, but one that I never forgot was being on relief. She didn’t have a job at first, and I had to go pick up some flour and sugar and stuff like that and it felt really kind of humble, and I said, "Geez, I don’t want to do this stuff." So she got a job pretty quick and became an office manager, and then she remarried. And the guy she married was just as nice as my real father, so I’ve been so fortunate always through life. I’m one of the few guys that can say that I’ve almost done, accomplished everything I wanted in life. It’s kind of crazy, but I really feel that way. I’ve been very fortunate all the way.

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