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Bailing out over Schweinfurt

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Evading capture from the Germans

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Gatewood was born in Decatur, Nebraska in 1921. He lived there until he went into the service. He was in his first semester of college when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. He knew he was going to be drafted so he decided to enlist for the Air Corps. He passed the test even though he only had 1 semester of college instead of 2 years as required. After passing the physical he was sent to Santa Anna, California. The test he had to take was math based which he liked and found simple. Gatewood had never been in an airplane before in his life but he figured it would be the best place to be. The first few months at Santa Anna they did a lot of book work. Based off of the book work they would figure out whether to send the candidate to bombardier school, navigational school, or pilot school. Gatewood was selected for pilot training. He went to Hemet, California. His first flight was instructional. The flight instructor flew the plane and got everyone used to all of the stations. One usually had to get about 7 hours of flight time before he got to fly solo. After only 5 hours of flight training, Gatewood was offered to fly solo and he did it successfully. After that he did a lot of solo time. Overall the training was great and he got along well. Out of the 8 people that were staying with him at Hemet, he was the only one to make it through the flying school. There was about a 78 percent washout rate [Annotator's Note: failure] in the flying classes, primarily due to the fact that people had to be pushed through fast and couldn't pick it up that quickly. Gatewood got 70 flight hours in at Hemet. From there he went to Bakersfield, California. At Bakersfield they learned how to do instrument flying and how to fly in formation. They went on cross country flights as well. After another 70 or 80 flight hours at Bakersfield he was sent to Douglas, Arizona to learn how to fly twin engine planes. Before Gatewood left Bakersfield a B-17 landed on the field and he instantly fell in love. He knew he had to fly that plane. After he graduated he was recommended for the B-17 and trained at Walla Walla, Washington. A pilot was supposed to have 200 hours on the B-17 before he became first pilot. Gatewood got his own crew after only 60 hours. He had excellent instructors and received excellent training on the B-17, especially on instruments. After training he received a 6 day leave. Gatewood spent his leave in Omaha, Nebraska. When he got back he received orders that he would be going overseas. When he was about to leave he was told that his navigator went AWOL and that he would have to wait until he got another navigator. Gatewood convinced the Commanding Officer to let the Navigator go free so that he could go overseas with them. They left Grand Island, Nebraska with a new B-17.

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From Nebraska they flew to Bangor, Maine. There were 36 planes that flew out of Maine to go overseas. They were assigned to fly at seperate altitudes. Gatewood was assigned to fly at 9000 feet and was in the weather the entire time. He remembers looking down and seeing icebergs and that was the last he saw otherwise it was all instrument flying. Flying overseas was good practice for his crew because of the weather conditions. They did not use any radio contact at all until 2 hours shy of England. They landed in Preswick, Scotland. Landing was chaotic. The last time he saw his plane was in Scotland. Gatewood's crew was sent by train to Bassingbourn, England. From there they went on bombing missions. Before they flew however they had a lot of classwork to do for their missions. The pilots had to get experience with other crews. Gatewood's first mission was with a different crew. They almost did not make it because the pilot panicked and over shot the runway. They finally landed in a field knocking 1 engine off. Their first mission was to Frankfurt. Gatewood was allowed to fly with his own crew from then on. He was shot down on his fifth mission.

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Gatewood led his squadron on his fourth mission. At 1 point during the raid he was all by himself and had to pull up to another group because the planes immediately surrounding him were shot down. During the raid his plane lost oxygen in the waist. It was over 65 degrees below 0. Gatewood sent the navigator back there to distribute oxygen bottles. He dropped his bombs and decided to bring the plane down. He dropped below cloud level and when the fighters came in he would go up in the clouds again. They ran out of clouds and went down to treetop level so that the fighters could not come from underneath. They got hit several times and had lost the 5 planes that were following him. Gatewood was able to get the plane back into England. They gave him a straight in approach and had ambulances waiting for the wounded aboard. 1 of the mens faces was swollen twice its normal size from being frozen. They ended up losing 1 of the men because he was frozen solid. That was the last mission for the men suffering from the cold. Gatewood was offered a 48 hour pass and after talking it over with the crew he denied it and went on the Schweinfurt Raid. The hydraulic system was knocked out on the left wing. Gatewood's copilot attempted to hook up the automatic pilot system. At that point a shell exploded that killed his copilot and the engineer. Gatewood did not have any control of the plane and it began to go into a spin. He gave orders for everyone to get out of the plane. Gatewood jumped out of the trapdoor of the plane. He remembers thinking that this was the last thing he would do. He snapped on his parachute and jumped out. His bombardier jumped out and pulled his chute right away. Gatewood and his navigator waited a little bit before they pulled the cord. A fighter came down and shot a few rounds at the parachutes. He was caught in a tree and his plane had just landed about 100 feet from him. He tried to hide from the exploding ammunition. The last thing he remembers was being blown out of the tree by an exploding bomb. Gatewood's navigator landed near him and informed him that they should leave the area quickly. They got to a stream of water and washed off the blood that was on them. They went into a wooded area and stopped there for the night.

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Off in the distance they could hear dogs barking. They knew that they were being searched for. They were sitting around a tree in the middle of the night on the first night and heard something. It turned out to be a deer. They waited until morning and tried to avoid highways and roads. They came to a Y in the road and picked the left because they heard people down the right side. It was dusk and they ended up running past some people. They were attempting to get to the Rhine river. There was a big fence that kept them from the river. They made it over the fence and ran down to the river. As they were going along the river that night they came to a boat that was tied up. It had one oar in it. There were several close calls along the Rhine. One other time they had walked into a town and people were sitting outside. It was dark enough that the people could not see they had their flight jackets on. That was a close call. Another time when daylight was breaking they decided to look for a place to hide. They had not realized that it was Sunday and the place they were hiding was near a church. After church a young boy came and saw Gatewood and his navigator and ran away. There was an alfalfa field on the other side of the church. They ran into the field. They were always looking for food because all they had was water. 1 of the hardest parts about escaping Germany was dealing with all of the farms and the people working on the farms. During 1 of their attempts to cross a field a girl spotted them and ran off. They decided to hide out in a patch of trees and this was where they were surrounded by the Germans. There were civilians involved in their capture and they had pitchforks and axes and the like. The girl who ran and turned them in gave them an apple. They were taken to a jail in a town 4 or 5 miles away. They were then taken to Frankfurt, Germany where they were interrogated.

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They were interrogated in Frankfurt. They were only supposed to tell them name, rank, and serial number. A German officer came in and told Gatewood that he knew more then that. Gatewood apologized and told him that was all he could say. The German told him things that he could not believe the German knew. He accurately told him where he trained, what position he was in on the gun, and things of that nature. He had his crew members listed. After the interrogation they took them to the camp at Sagan, Poland [Annotator's Note: Stalag Luft III] where he would spend the next 21 months of his life. Gatewood was shot down on 17 August 1943. He was captured on 27 August 1943. They took the American POWs to Sagan in a boxcar. They went into an officer's camp. There was an English camp and an American camp. In each camp there was roughly 2000 men. There was no heat in the barracks. There was a small stove for cooking. It was very cold and their clothing situation was lacking. They would get into their wood shaving bed together and cover up with everything they had. The food was terrible except when they got a Red Cross parcel. Without those parcels they would starve. Gatewood notes that it is difficult to tell stories about being a POW because people are quick to disbelieve it or write it off. He never even told his own family about his experiences. Stalag Luft III was a big camp with 8 to 10 to each combine. There was a big sand area for exercise. They received a baseball bat and some softballs from the Red Cross. They played softball to pass the time. They also had their own shows that they put on. There was a hypnotist among the men at the camp. They would pass a lot of the time watching the hypnotist go to work on guys. He would hypnotise guys and order them to do comical things like lay stiff as a board or put a cat out or fly a plane.

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Gatewood's area was comprised of American POWs. They maintained their ranks and their discipline. Gatewood remembers a lot of officers being in the camp with him. After Schweinfurt they finally figured out that the B-17s needed fighter escorts. It was after his time however when the B-17s got fighter escorts. The guards were not bad except for when the Gestapo came through. The Gestapo were very violent and mean. Gatewood never tried to trade for extra food. The guards were decent enough to them but they had to protect themselves too. There were several escape attempts. Men would dig tunnels. They had a system to get rid of the dirt that was left over from digging. They dug a legitimate tunnel however a few nights before the guards discovered the tunnel. 1 of the German guards came over and startled Gatewood while he was trying to escape by snipping wire on a fence. The guard spoke good English and was intelligent and knew that the war was going to be over.The day they were liberated they could look off in the distance and see tanks coming. The tanks came through the camp and busted the doors open. Some of the men had bread and gave it to the airmen. Patton came through the camp with his men as well. They were told that they would be out of the camp within 24 to 48 hours. They sat in the camp for 5 days. Gatewood and his buddy decided they were going to leave the camp and go to Paris. They got to an Army base and got new uniforms. Then they caught rides however they could to Paris.

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They would constantly catch rides until they got to Paris. The third day of travel they ended up in Paris. They ate like kings when they were in Paris. They had a good place to sleep as well. It took Gatewood about 9 days to get back to the United States by ship. They were always being fed good food because of their POW status. He caught a train to Omaha, Nebraska. He lost his mother when he was 13 and his father when he was 18. His brothers and sisters met him at the train station and he ended up having a nice party back at his house to celebrate being home. He had a 60 day pass. Gatewood decided to go back to school after the war. Right before he went back to school he got married. He was constantly working out so he could be ready for football season. He played safety and quarterback. He was a solid mass of bruises after his first college game. After college he worked for a company that was hauling meat around the country. Gatewood worked for a truck stop outfit. He was a night foreman and eventually became night manager of the store. It was a good job for him and he retired from that.Gatewood's brother was the 1 who received word that he had been shot down. He relayed the message to the rest of the family and tried to offer reassuring words. One of Gatewood's brothers enlisted in the Marines, but the war ended before he was sent overseas. It took awhile for Gatewood to open up and talk about his experiences as a POW.

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Gatewood did not disclose his experiences with his family. He kept up correspondence with his bombardier and navigator. He always made sure to keep in touch with those men. There were a lot of things that Gatewood and other men he served with never talked about. The stories are unbelievable so that is partially why they did not talk about the prisoner experience. Gatewood still has bad dreams and struggles with PTSD [Annotators Note: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. He received the Silver Star for his actions in landing his plane after a few of his men had frozen and then the Purple Heart as well. Gatewood has given speeches to school groups. He enjoys it. He has also given speeches to his church congregation. He believes that it is important to continue to study World War 2. He also believes that people should be studying other wars such as Vietnam. To Gatewood his generation was the greatest generation. He believes it is important that there are museums such as The National World War II Museum. He plans on visiting the museum with his son.

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