Lone Survivor to German POW: Excerpts from Melvin Johnson’s Story

This article is third of a five-part series published in conjunction with National POW/MIA Recognition Day 2018. Information in this article is provided courtesy of the Joseph A. Moller Library.

Melvin Johnson’s target for the January 14, 1945 mission was an oil dump near Derben, German. Johnson was the navigator:

“The clear, sunny weather made that job easy, but it also was bad as it provided no cloud cover for our planes. We encountered some light flak at the coast, but everything went fairly well until noon. As we were approaching the IP about 100 FW190 and ME109 German fighters hit us. All eight aircraft remaining in the C Squadron and one from A Squadron were shot down.”

A Botched Bailout?

Johnson recalled:

“We were shot down on the first pass. The 20mm shells were exploding in front of the plane and when they hit us we were really knocked around. The plane started spinning and Ross Hanneke called on the intercom: “Bail out! I can’t hold her!”

I was wearing my flak vest over my parachute harness so I pulled the quick release on the flak vest. The release worked, but the front half of the vest was hanging from my oxygen mask as I had clipped the oxygen hose to it. I pulled off the oxygen mask and grabbed for the chest chute pack laying by my feet. Instead of the carrying handle I got the rip cord handle and opened the chute in the plane!! With no choice, I gathered the chute up and managed to snap it to the harness. Fred Getz, the bombardier, was near me, chute on and ready to bail out.

Survival, and Capture

“The next thing I remember, I was on the snow-covered ground. I had a bloody nose, a contusion of my right knee, no gloves, no flying boots or head inserts and most of the wires were pulled out of the right leg of my heated suit. There was airplane wreckage in the field about ¼ mile from me, large chunks of aluminum but no definite part I could recognize. The German Home Guards, wearing arm bands and carrying shotguns, were approaching.

I believe the plane had exploded and I had been knocked unconscious. The open parachute must have pulled me out of the nose section at some fairly low altitude, as I did not have frozen fingers or toes. The temperature was about minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit at the 29,000 ft altitude where we encountered the fighters, and well below freezing at ground level.

When hit we still had our bomb load and a large amount of gas. I know we were hit many times on the initial pass and I assume the German fighters continued to attack until something drastic happened. It’s hard to believe no one else survived of our 10-man crew unless the plane had exploded.”

Shown above: Johnson’s plane was shot down by fighters and crashed at Bartshendorf. He was the lone survivor of his crew.

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