Defying the Flying Coffin: The Combat and POW Experiences of B-24 Navigator Harry Fornalczyk

by Gary Fullmer, Pioneer Flight

Harry was born in Erie, Pennsylvania on September 9, 1923.  As a typical young boy of that period, Harry managed to stay out of serious trouble but was very active in several unexplained happenings around his neighborhood. In his high school years, Harry excelled in math and technical subjects.  He also played both defensive linebacker and offensive blocking fullback on the football team.  Most importantly, at this time in his life, he met and started dating Laura Nicholas, who later became his love and future wife.

After graduation from high school, Harry decided to join the war effort and enlisted in the Army Air Corps (AAC) on June 16, 1943.  He was sent to Greensboro, North Carolina for nine weeks of basic training in preparation to become an officer in the Army Air Corps. 

After completing basic training, he was re-assigned to the AAC Classification Center in Nashville, Tennessee.  During this eight-week assignment in Nashville, he was under the ”watchful” eye of a drill sergeant named Sgt. Allred.  The main objective of this center was to weed out those aviation candidates who were not suitable for flight duty, and for those selected for flight duty, determine what flight assignment would be best for each candidate.  The candidates would be considered for either the fighter command (pilots only) or bomber command.

Harry was selected to join the bomber command and was eligible for one of four assignments.  The assignments for bomber command at the time were pilot, co-pilot, navigator, and finally bombardier.  Based on his academic record in high school and the results of several one on one interviews with psychologists, he was assigned to become a navigator on the B-24 Liberator bomber.

The next stop on his AAC assignment was to Kutztown State College, in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, for twelve weeks of very basic navigator training and flight orientation.  There was a lot of bookwork covering vectoring and basic navigation using a compass.  The flight orientation involved getting rides in old airplanes with experienced pilots whose main objective was to see how many aviation candidates they could make airsick during a single flight.

After completion of the navigation course work and flight orientation, Harry was sent to Maxwell AAC field in Alabama for about twelve weeks.  Here he was taught more advanced navigation skills which included reading maps and constellations.  This was all ground-based instruction, but became very necessary skills for future assignments.

From Maxwell Field, Harry was sent to Tyndall, Florida to attend basic gunnery school.  As a navigator on a bomber, Harry would be expected to man and maintain a 50-caliber machine gun.  Harry reports that he enjoyed his time at Tyndall as he was a pretty good shot and did qualify for his sharp shooter and marksman badges.

The training at Tyndall spanned thirteen weeks and first included a gunnery orientation shooting at a skeet range to learn how to “lead” the target rather than shooting directly at the moving target.  Next, he was placed into a ball gunnery turret on a B-17 and trained to shoot at a moving target towed by another airplane.  He used tracer rounds and his results were filmed for later evaluation by the gunnery instructors.  As part of his training with the 50-caliber machine gun, he was expected to disassemble and reassemble the gun completely blindfolded.  At times, the instructors would sneak in a broken part as part of the reassembly test. 

His final assignment before he received his commission and navigator wings was at San Marcos, Texas.  This was where the navigation school taught the final advanced navigator training skills and included actual navigation challenges in flight. 

The in-flight training at first consisted of one hundred mile legs out and back.  The flight crew consisted of two student navigators and one pilot.  The main technique in use at this time was “dead reckoning” which relied largely on map reading.  This was the skill set that Harry would have to use once he was on actual bombing missions in Europe.

There were also some very primitive radio and light beacons to help guide the way.   As training progressed and the student became more proficient, the test flight legs became longer and included some night training.

Upon successful completion of the final training school at San Marcos, Harry was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. 

Since he was now an official commissioned officer in the AAC, it was time to finally marry his longtime girlfriend, Laura Nicholas. They were married on October 2, 1944.

Harry’s next assignment sent him to Davis-Monthan Air Field near Tucson, Arizona. His new wife Laura accompanied him.  Here, final crew assignments were made prior to being assigned to the combat commands in the Pacific or European theaters.  Harry was assigned to a B-24 crew which consisted of ten crew members.  Four of the crew were officers – pilot, co-pilot, navigator (Harry) and bombardier.  The remaining six enlisted crew members were a flight engineer and five gunners.

The main objective of assigning the ten crew members was to ensure all the crew could function efficiently and work together prior to going into combat.  Another important part of this crew assignment was to have the crew learn about the flight characteristics of the B-24.

The B-24 bomber one of the most difficult planes to fly during WWII.  It was unpressurized, underpowered and prone to explode on takeoff.  Unlike the B-17, the B-24 could not maintain altitude if one engine was lost.  If two engines were lost, the plane would drop pretty much like a rock.

It was also very thin skinned which allowed flack to penetrate the fuselage rather easily.  Aside from the physical challenges, it was almost impossible to make a survivable crash landing as the nose of the plane would collapse and roll backward while breaking the fuselage in half.  During Harry’s two months at Davis-Monthan in Arizona, five B-24 planes and complete crews were lost during takeoff and landing practice. The B-24 nickname was justly earned as the so called “flying coffin” by the crews who flew it.

B-24 Liberator

Harry and his crew were shipped to Europe in late December 1944.  Since there was no available B-24 to fly to Europe at this time, the crew was assigned to a liberty ship which just happened to be fully loaded with ammunition and bombs.  The trip across the Atlantic took seventeen stressful days and finally landed in France.  Harry’s crew was loaded on a train and sent to Castelluccio, Italy.  Here, Harry’s crew was assigned to the 15th Air Force, 451st Bomb Group and the 725th Bomber Group.  Each Bomber Group had fouteen planes and crews assigned.

Upon arrival in Italy, Harry’s crew was immediately broken up and used as replacements in other crews within the 725th Bomber Group.  As a result, the original crew who trained together did not fly together until Harry’s thirteenth combat mission.

The first thing the new crews were instructed to do was to always check the crew assignment boards for the next day’s missions.  Much to Harry’s surprise, his name appeared and he was assigned to a combat mission the very next day flying with a crew he had never trained with.  He had no idea what to do, what to take on the mission and what procedure to follow.  On his first few missions he did receive some help from the more experienced navigators in the bomber group, but was expected to carry his own weight very quickly. 

The typical routine at this time was for a crew to get two to three days of rest between missions.  Mission briefings for the combat crews started at 3:00 AM in the morning.  The pilot, co-pilot, navigator and the bombardier were expected to attend these briefings.  The enlisted crew members were expected to pre-flight the B-24 and ensure their guns were ready for action before takeoff.

During Harry’s first twelve missions, typical targets were located in Austria where German fighters and flack were always present.  However, air support and protection were provided by American P-51 fighters from the highly respected Red Tails fighter squadron. The pilots flying these P-51s were among the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

After Harry’s twelfth mission, the original crew Harry trained with was assembled and assigned a combat mission.  Their assigned primary target for this mission was the rail yards at Vienna, Austria with the secondary target being the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, Germany.

By this time, Harry had completed far more missions than any other members of his original crew. The date of this final mission was March 26, 1945.  The crew was able to complete the bombing run over Vienna, but upon turn out and setting a course back to the base, they encountered flak and lost the number three engine.  On the B-24, the number three engine provides hydraulic pressure for the landing gear and landing flaps in addition to other flight systems.

Since the B-24 cannot maintain altitude with only three operational engines, Harry’s plane had to drop out of the bomber formation making it a prime target for German fighters and flack.  Fortunately, as they began to fall behind and lose altitude, a Red-Tailed P-51 joined up with the stricken bomber and provided protection from the German fighter planes. 

With only three engines operational, the B-24 bomber was losing altitude at about one hundred feet per minute.  As the navigator, Harry was expected to calculate how far the plane could fly given the altitude loss and fuel remaining.  Based on his calculations, Harry figured the plane would be able to reach an alternate runway under so called “friendly” control.  The crew “dumped’ everything out of the airplane at this time to try and maintain altitude for as long as possible.

Since the B-24 did not fly well on three engines, the pilot was required to push up the remaining three engines to their maximum operational limits.  After two hundred miles of flying on only three engines, the number one engine coughed and shut down, leaving only two engines remaining.  The B-24 bomber began to rapidly lose altitude. 

The pilot announced that the plane could not make it to a safe landing site and they would have to attempt a crash landing.  He also informed the crew that they could bailout as B-24 crash landings were not often very successful.  The entire crew decided to stay with the airplane and hoped to survive a cash landing. 

The pilot selected a farmer’s pasture for the attempted landing site.  As the plane came down, the crew were directed to manually crank down the landing gear since there was no longer hydraulic pressure available with the loss of the number three engine.  During the excitement, the crew forgot to crank down the nose landing gear, which meant only the two main landing gears were down and locked at landing.

They crashed near Zagreb, Yugoslavia which was located about 250 miles behind German lines at the time.  Fortunately, the field they landed in was very soft and grass covered.  It was filled with cows, and luckily for the crew, no cows were harmed during the crash or the farmer might have taken some deadly action toward the crew as civilians were prone to do during this time of war.  The escorting Red-Tailed P-51 made several passes over the downed airplane and departed with a wag of his wings saying good-by to the crew.  Harry credits that P-51 pilot for saving the B-24 and enabling the crew to land without further harm.

During the crash, the tail of the plane actually rose up and the nose of the plane dug a deep trench in the soft earth.  This was a result of the nose landing gear not being down and most likely prevented the plane from breaking apart and killing most of the crew.  The crew was shaken up, but no one sustained any serious injuries.

The crew had about thirty minutes on the ground before anyone reached them to either save them or take them prisoner.  During this time, they were looking for a direction to escape or someplace to hide.  They thought the area they crashed in was probably 75% safe, and if they could make contact with the correct local patrician group, they would have a good chance of escaping from the Germans.  The problem was there were four separate patrician groups, two of which would help them escape and two who would turn them over to the Germans. 

During this time, they realized one of the gunners was Jewish and would certainly be killed if captured by the Germans.  Since this man had red hair and freckles, the crew buried his dog tags and assigned him an Irish last name, thereby saving his life.

After thirty minutes, a gun fight started with the crew caught in the middle.  Had the crew known exactly who was engaged in the gun fire, they may have had a chance to escape.  Since they were not sure which way to go, the crew stayed near the crash site  and were finally captured by the Germans.

After being captured, the crew was taken to an old school house for initial interrogation.  They did receive some welcome food since they had nothing to eat since the pre-mission briefing at 3:00 am. They were given a can of braunschweiger and a loaf of German dark bread – not exactly favorites of Harry, but it was food.

The crew did receive some harassment as well as physical and mental abuse from the Germans.  The initial interrogation was performed by a regular German officer.  Shortly after the interrogation began, a German SS officer entered the room and began a rather headed argument with the other officer in charge of the prisoners in German.  The SS officer left and returned in about an hour and continued to argue with the other German officer.  As the argument continued, the SS officer became visibly more angered.  Finally, the SS officer pointed to one of the crew and told him to go outside. 

The crew member and the SS officer disappeared and shortly after that the remaining crew heard a rifle shot.  The SS officer returned and pointed to another crew member to follow him outside followed by a rifle shot.  The remaining crew were convinced they would all be killed one at a time.  Harry was selected to the be the fourth or fifth one out the door. By this time, Harry was sure it was the end for him.

In Harry’s words: “When I got outside, there was a single rifle shot in the air and all the German bastards were laughing.  It was just a mind-boggling scheme on their part to have fun.  It wasn’t funny at all”.

After capture, the crew were taken to a holding compound and separated.  Each crew member was individually interrogated by a German Officer.  The first of four German officers to interrogate Harry spoke excellent English and was actually a graduate from the University of Chicago.  By this time the Germans had all of Harry’s personal information available which included his family history, address and the fact he was married.  As a  Prisoner of War (POW) held by the Germans, Harry believes he was treated “OK” by the German soldiers.

After about a week, the crew were loaded on a German truck and transported to Nuremberg, Germany.  Here the crew was again separated and placed in solitary confinement.  The interrogations continued at this camp and the population of POWs at this camp were only POWs from the USA and Great Britain.

Thankfully, the allied advances forced the entire camp to be evacuated and the all the POWs were moved to Stalag 7A, located in Moosburg, Germany.  Here there were many more POWs and a formal command POW structure was set up and permitted by the German camp officials. 

During the move from Nuremberg to Moosburg, they were under guard by German soldiers. Sometimes the soldiers and crew were able to catch a ride on a truck, but the crew were forced to march most of the distance from Nuremberg to Moosburg.

At night the crew were forced to sleep in barns or railcars.  During one stop over while the crew was locked in a boxcar, they endured an allied bombing raid on the rail yard where they were located.  Luckily, the bombs were not close to their box car to do any significant damage, but it was struck by bomb fragments during the bombing raid.

When walking through Munich, Germany the POWs were subjected to very angry civilian crowds who pelted the POWs with rocks and bricks.  One of the really negative experiences Harry had at this time occurred with one German guard who was very “tough’ on the crew.  As it turned out, this particular guard had lost his entire family in an Allied air raid.  As Harry explained, he found it hard to hold a grudge or any anger toward this particular German.

This move forced the crew to walk about ninety-five miles during late winter conditions.  Most of their flying coats were long gone by now, so they completed this march wearing only the light flying suits they had left.  Food was also always an issue.  The crew and other POWs would have to forage and steal whatever food they could find.  At this time the local farmers had started the harvest of sugar beets and would pile them up along the road side.  So, sugar beets became the main source of food and hydration for most of the POWs during this winter march.

Once the crew reached Stalag 7A, they were met by the POW commander, a British General named Summerfield.  His staff assigned each POW to a particular barrack according to rank and skill sets.

The barracks were “OK” and each POW was provided with a mattress made out of burlap and straw.  Bed bugs were a problem with each mattress.  The barracks were cold and food was very scarce.  The POWs largely survived on American and Canadian Red Cross food parcels which were distributed by the Germans.  Each food parcel was designed to feed one man for one week, but each parcel had to be split among seven POWs.  Aside from the limited food parcels, the German would provide some sort of dark bread which contained all sorts of interesting things.  The POWs could sometimes find potatoes and would add them to their diet whenever available.

The Moosburg camp was a gathering point for the POWs in Germany prior to the end of the war.  By this time, German guards knew the war was almost over and that Germany was definitely losing the war.  The German guards began to treat the 6,000 – 7,000 POWs in camp with more respect and provided better conditions and food as much as possible.  The individual German guards also began approaching the POWs to remind them that they, the Germans, had treated the POWs well in hopes of gaining some advanced and safe passage from the Allies at the end of the war.

As the American Army approached Mooseburg to liberate POWs in Stalag7A, Harry noted that there were several POWs who were so severely burned they preferred to stay in Germany rather than return home.  Most of these men were all pilots, and they had been so severely injured and disfigured and they thought they would not be recognized by their families upon their return.

The camp was finally liberated by the American Army under the command of General Patton on April 29, 1945.  Since there were so many POWs in Stalag 7A, the American Army left the Germans in charge with orders to administer the camp and retain order.  Of course, this did not work too well, and shortly after liberation the POWs began to “raid” the nearby German towns for additional food and provisions. 

Harry finally left Stalag 7A at the end of May, 1945.  As part of the liberation, all POWs were first stripped of their clothing and headed through a structure resembling a cattle chute where they were sprayed with a DDT solution to be deloused.

Harry remembered he had been issued an “escape kit” which contained cigarettes, candy and some American currency to help buy his way to freedom.  Harry had added a $100 dollar bill to his kit.  Unfortunately, he had forgot to remove the $100 dollar bill from his clothes prior to the delousing process.  He still misses that $100 dollar bill.

Harry was flown to Reims, France for physical and nutritional evaluation.  Since he had not had any food of real nutritional value for several months, the first meal he got was creamed asparagus.  Of course, this did not go over too well with Harry since he was really expecting a great big steak with all the trimmings.

After a week at Reims, he was sent to camp Lucky Strike for processing and return to the United States.  Harry was shipped back to the states on a very crowed troop ship and landed in Virginia and then shipped to Miami Beach, Florida for out processing and arrangements for the trip back to Erie.  Harry weighed about 175 pounds when he was shipped to Italy. Upon his return to the United States, he weighed only 140 pounds.

He arrived in Pennsylvania sometime between September and October 1945.  Since he was a returned POW, he was admitted to a VA hospital in Cleveland, Ohio for further evaluation and treatment of a rash.  Harry had other ideas. Getting a bit creative and taking advantage of the VA doctor’s schedule, he managed to check himself out of the hospital and went back home to Erie and his wife, Laura.

On the home front, Laura had only received a letter dated April 15, 1945, notifying her that Harry was missing in action.  She had no knowledge that Harry had survived and made it back safely to the United States.   

Harry arrived in Erie very early in the morning. He did not want to unnecessarily wake up anyone in the house, so he sat on the front porch until he was certain someone was awake in the house. 

Finally, Harry knocked on the door, and it was Laura who opened the door to see Harry standing there, and she then promptly fainted from the surprise. 

On October 2, 2019, Harry and Laura celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.