She was a Flying Fortress or Reich Wrecker no more. The giant B-17 bomber, proudly adorned with 8th U.S. Army Air Force regalia exploded, broke in half, tipped into a dive and pinwheeled through the clouds — relegated to a wreckage of severed wings, flaming parts, and people plummeting — resonating the unmistakable shrill of a doomed plane spiraling assuredly and relentlessly back to earth.
Under clear skies, six B-17s from the 369th Bomb Squadron, laden with 5,000 lbs of bombs, ascended from their base in Thurleigh, England at 1300 13 January 1943* Their target was the Nazi steel and engineering works in occupied Lille, France. Sgt. Tom McMahon, the 17-year-old** Tail-gunner from New York City, had eight missions remaining.
The bomber was not pressurized or heated. Conditions were miserable, at altitude, the crew breathed through oxygen masks which often clogged with ice. It was minus 37° where McMahon knelt with his guns. Exposed skin could freeze in minutes.
The Flying Fortress was tough, able to fly with two or more engines out, they regularly returned to England peppered with holes and sometimes with whole chunks shot away.
Though the B-17 bristled with five .50-caliber machine guns from nose to tail, proponents of unescorted daylight bombing overestimated the plane’s ability to defend against the German fighters, which darted through formations and tore into the bombers.
Then there was the reality of statistics: On a mission, just months ago, to destroy several ball-bearing plants in Germany 60 B-17s were shot down, which left 564 empty bunks that night at air bases across England.
During the air war over Europe, McMahon’s unit, the 8th Air Force, would suffer more than 26,000 men killed in action — more than all the Marines killed in the South Pacific.
McMahon was on station in the tail section as they cruised at 180 knots, at 2,800 feet in their usual squadron box formation; As they neared their objective, the big bomber shook as the skies filled with flack. They had a visual on the target just ahead.
The Bombardier activated and finessed the Top Secret Nordon Bombsight, temporarily controlling the B-17E. Seconds later, ten 500 lb. bombs were released from their shackles with a click, click, click falling a millisecond apart to prevent them from colliding. As the tail finned bombs plummeted, a fading whistle howled as they gained a speed of about 130 knots. In just over two minutes, they saw billowing white smoke behind them, emanating from the steel works. A sigh of relief fell over the 17-year-old McMahon but always alert with his guns, he never relaxed. The tips of his fingers were stinging cold, and he felt tingling like needles in his toes.
The pilot split left, turning in their usual formation, headed back to England when McMahon spotted a Messerschmitt Me-109 strafing his starboard wingman with 20-mm cannons.
He did not have a clear shot. McMahon needed to coordinate with his waist gunner, and the instant he activated his throat mic — a thundering explosion struck like lightening — McMahon was slammed into his guns and all around his cocoon. The two giants had collided. McMahon was alive but knocked unconscious. The impact severed the tail section from the fuselage. When he regained his senses, McMahon was in eerily dead silence, completely alone, no pilot; no plane; no radio; no food; no water. He was at the mercy of the wind, gravity, and aerodynamics and likely gliding over enemy territory they had just bombed.
Now McMahon needed to get through the tiny opening that led to the escape hatch. After several contorted attempts, finally, he made it but ripped his parachute in the process.
McMahon was not sure how long he had been sailing in the B-17’s tail, where he was or what would greet him below except the hard earth, and it was approaching quickly. McMahon leaned out of his hatch, scanned the skies, took a breath, and leaped. Within seconds, he was plunging to the earth at 130 knots. He pulled the red rectangular-ring to activate his chute. A sudden jolt restrained his body with four times the force of gravity and slowed his descent by about 80 percent. McMahon realized at about 200 feet altitude that his damaged parachute was not slowing him enough; he hit the ground with a thud, at about 25 miles-per-hour — injuring both knees.
McMahon retrieved his survival knife, freed himself, and gathered up the white silk that had saved his life. As he was hiding it, he saw a figure in the distance headed toward him. He unholstered his .45.
McMahon got lucky. The person who approached him was a member of the French and Belgium resistance. McMahon was still in France, and he joined them in their movement against the Nazis for four and one-half months.
McMahon thought he might have been dead months ago, but now he was feeling relatively safe and thought he was on his way to freedom in England. His trip got off to a bad start when he was forced to surrender his AAF issued .45 and survival knife. Now in the back seat of a car between two strangers, and in the front the captain he’d been working with in the resistance, whom he suspected was a double agent. Within a quarter-mile, the car stopped near a group of men.
There McMahon was grabbed by his collar and slammed into the side of the car. As he turned slightly to get a better look at his captors—a deafening boom echoed just behind his head. In that split second, McMahon thought this was the one. His parents would get the dreaded Telegram: “With Deep Regret.” By now, The War Department had already notified his parents that he was MIA.
The boom was from a pistol fired by the German Secret Police (GSP). Although his wound was not life-threatening, McMahon was rendered unconscious for six days. He awoke on the fourth floor of Belgium’s St. Gilles prison, where he would turn 18. McMahon was now a prisoner of the GSP who thought he was a spy. They wasted no time interrogating and torturing him and throwing him into solitary confinement; the fourth floor was the execution ward. Sure enough, McMahon was tried and convicted of espionage at St. Gilles and sentenced to death by hanging; 25 June 1943.
Finally able to convince the Nazis he was not a spy, but an American Airman, McMahon was sent to Frankfurt’s Dulag Luft where he was interrogated and then thrown in the solitary.
In August of 1943, six months after his crazy ride in the 30-foot tail of his B-17, McMahon was moved to Stalag 7-A POW Camp in Molpseberg, Germany. There he saw U.S. and Allied prisoners succumb to the hunger, boredom, and delirium. If he became one of them, McMahon knew it would be over for him. What he had to do was escape. That is just what McMahon did.
Every time POWs were moved to a different location, it gave McMahon a better opportunity to escape. When British officers were being relocated, he donned one of their uniforms and moved with them to a train. He and a fellow POW remarkably tore pieces from the boxcar and jumped from the moving train.
They were recaptured 26 days later by German civilians and assigned to a work camp in Stuttgart. He was forced to sleep on the cobblestone floor of a horse barn without any bedding. “A German officer, who was convinced I was a Jew, hit me over the head with his pistol and insanely shot at me several times until a ricocheting bullet struck me in my right ankle. A French medic from the work hospital treated me; when I was well enough, I was returned to Stalag 7-A, beaten and again put in solitary,” McMahon recalled.
In his short 18 years of life, nothing could have prepared McMahon for the cruelty of war, but somehow he refused to break and continued to plan and make escapes amongst the hunger, boredom, and beatings. “I dealt with the boredom by continually planning, 24 hours a day, how to escape. I’d rather be dead than be confined,” McMahon remembered.
Then in September 1943, during relocation to Stalag 17-B in Austria, McMahon, although still in poor condition, jumped from the window of a moving train. Recaptured the next day, McMahon was beaten and again placed in solitary.
“I began to wonder if it was worth it, you know the perils of escaping, but that’s what a POW is supposed to do, according to the military code of honor,” said McMahon. He saw the trend; when a POW was recaptured, he’s beaten and thrown into solitary. As a matter of record, very few POWs escaped, perhaps six out of 5,000 successfully escaped from the camps where McMahon was held.
Unsurprisingly, escapees were singled out for extra punishment. “I was made to stand at attention against the prison courtyard wall, blindfolded with my hands tied behind my back, and told I was going to be shot. I stood there waiting for bullets to rip into me like shooting a watermelon.
Then the order was given, “Ready, Aim,” and I stood there for 20-30 minutes more and then: “Fire.” Incredibly, my body was intact; there was no shot; the volley never came. Instead, I was dragged back to my cell and chained hand and foot. This was an ordeal I can’t forget,” said McMahon.
“Another favorite of the guards was forcing me to stand on the prison scaffold, blindfolded with a hangman’s noose around my neck. I stood in that position for an endless time. I cried for the first time in captivity, not out of fear, but rather out of the deep hatred for my persecutors. My only desire was to kill them,” McMahon recalled.
“My worst day in captivity was actually three days. Two POWs, who were new arrivals, tried escaping almost as soon they were processed. An escape attempt is one thing, but suicide by Nazi? They penetrated the initial fence and tried to make it to the perimeter by crawling on their hands and knees. They were mowed down with an overkill of gunfire. For three days, their bodies were left where they lay to stiffen and rot, to teach us a lesson,” McMahon said with eyes unfocused in a thousand-yard stare. That look is unmistakable, sadly, the phrase has been desensitized.
Despite it all, McMahon would not break, and somehow the sergeant continued to defy and defile the Nazis. On 24 August 1944, he boarded an empty bread truck during an air raid and was recaptured the same day. McMahon was again beaten and thrown in solitary.
“By the spring of 1945, the Russian advance had turned our camp into chaos, and Stalag 17-B was being evacuated except those who were hospitalized or couldn’t walk. But where were the prisoners headed,” McMahon wondered? Being marched to freedom the Nazis said; sure he thought, and the incipient 19-year-old airman, whose knees were already in sorry shape, made them worse by wrapping them with salt-filled stockings and beating them. McMahon’s painful ploy paid off; the Drs. agreed that he was unable to make the march.
It turned out to be a smart move because about ten days before the Hospital was liberated, McMahon, who knew a thing or two about breaking out, penetrated a fence making his final and permanent escape — never to be a POW again! McMahon had made it. He was free!
During his captivity, he had escaped an incredible seven times remaining free from one to 26 days! McMahon had been a prisoner of the Nazis for more than two years, including 226 days in solitary confinement!
His parents were informed in April 1945, not with the good news. Instead, they received the following telegram:
While recovering in a hospital in England, in June of 1945, his parents finally got the incredible news that he was not only alive; he was on his way home! McMahon disembarked from Queen Elizabeth in the U.S.A. July 4, 1945, and was hospitalized for four more months stateside. Upon discharge, McMahon was awarded multiple Purple Hearts and numerous Medals for Valor.
With his stomach and colon acutely scared from malnutrition during his confinement; he subsisted on Gerber® baby food for two-and-one-half years after his discharge.
Readjustment did not come easily for McMahon. He struggled for years with alcoholism and emotional issues.
In time, he began to realize that only he could pacify his pain and restore his life, and that is exactly what McMahon did. He eventually found a rewarding career as a firefighter, married, and started a family now with 18 grandchildren and 38 (yes 38!) great-grandchildren. McMahon lived with his wife Katie in Northern California in a house overlooking the Pacific. The man who survived the unimaginable, then reclaimed his life, lived to be 95.
The 25-ton four-engine giant packing 4,500lbs. of bombs and five defensive machine guns, is on the runway revved and readied. Ten souls aboard all-hands-on-deck, it’s the best America has to offer including full support back home. Sgt. Thomas D. McMahon, Shamrock 13, age 17, is on-station in the tail of his B-17E Flying Fortress looking at clear skies and double-checking his twin .50s.*** There is no place he’d rather be.
*Military times and dates used in chronicle for authenticity. **He forged his parent’s signatures and joined at 17. ***.50 caliber machine guns.