First Lt. Ervin E. Williams never became famous, but he does have a rather interesting story. An experienced cargo pilot, Lieutenant Williams was flying a routine re-supply mission one day, when poor visibility forced him to fly in below 200 feet. He was not concerned because the territory should have been safe.
Surprisingly, his aircraft was struck by 20 mm gunfire and flak. Already on fire, the plane was hit with a second burst that cut the engines’ fuel lines. On fire, with no engine power, carrying 600 gallons of fuel; Lieutenant Williams chose to attempt an emergency landing. He turned into the wind and headed for a small farmer’s field. Keeping the landing gear retracted to avoid tipping over on the rough ground, he went in for the belly landing. (Particularly stressful considering a member of his unit was recently killed trying the same type of landing.) By the time it came to a stop, the plane was glowing white-hot. He and his three crewmembers evacuated safely and ran for a nearby rhubarb patch to hide. Despite their efforts, the enemy was able to flush them all out. Taken prisoner, they were forced to join hundreds of other prisoners on a 125-mile march. Not a good day.
Ten days after being taken prisoner, their difficult ordeal came to an abrupt conclusion. The U.S. Army’s 78th Infantry “Lightning” Division stormed the captors’ position liberating the prisoners. Initially it was hard for Lieutenant Williams and his crew to believe they were free again. In an interview they later said the next night’s big chicken dinner proved pretty convincing. As Lieutenant Williams put it, after days living on black bread, “even the cold K-Rations tasted good to us.”
WWII-era K-Rations? Yes. Lieutenant Williams (three-time Air Medal recipient) was a U.S. Army Air Force C-47 Skytrain pilot for the 435th Troop Carrier Group. He and his crew were shot down near Cologne and taken prisoner on April 4, 1945. This attack was such a surprise because Cologne had already been in U.S. hands for over a month and allied forces had already crossed the Rhein. This should have been a safe routine mission, but such pockets of resistance kept the war in Germany going for another month.
The 435th ABW’s history from this period referred to Lieutenant Williams’ ordeal as a tongue-in-cheek “two-week furlough.” Kidding aside though, the lieutenant (still in his early 20s) was having a pretty intense overseas tour. In just 18 months, he had already flown with the 435th on D-Day, on Operation Dragoon (attack on France), on Operation Market-Garden (attack on Holland), on re-supply missions countering the Battle of the Bulge (Bastogne, Belgium), and on Operation Varsity (attack over the Rhein). Capped off with two-weeks as a POW and Lieutenant Williams probably had more experiences than he would have wanted in a lifetime.
While somewhat unusual, his is just one of many such stories of the 16.1 million U.S. WWII Vets, the generation that stopped tyranny in its tracks so many years ago. We owe them all an unrepayable debt. As President Truman said on May 8, 1945 (V-E Day), “…By their sacrifices, skill and courage they have saved and exalted the cause of freedom throughout the world.” Sixty years later the world still thanks them.