Bailing out over Yugoslavia ... twice

This photo is of Henry Gates of Lynden, an aerial engineer with the 451st Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, who was shot down twice and saved both times by the Yugoslav underground.
This photo is of Henry Gates of Lynden, an aerial engineer with the 451st Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, who was shot down twice and saved both times by the Yugoslav underground. FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

On March 18, 1943, I enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in Portland, Ore.

I was assigned to a B-24 Liberator bomber. My airplane was known as "Bugs Bunny."

My duties as an aerial engineer were to supervise the refueling of the ship, and check the ship's load for proper equipment before flight, such as parachutes, ammunition, clothing, and oxygen equipment.

In flight, I assisted the pilot in operating the ship, relieved the pilot or co-pilot in case of injuries, and supervised all crew members. The flight engineer was in complete command while airborne.

We were assigned to the 451st Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, in Foggia, Italy. Some missions were deep into Germany, guarded by cordons of antiaircraft batteries that could lay a carpet of flak thick enough to walk on.

Our first mission was to northern Italy, with no flak or enemy airplanes. It was a milk run. The second mission was to Bologna, Italy. We encountered Germany ME-109s and shot down four.

Our third mission was to Black Hammer, Germany. The biggest concern would be flak, with an estimated 223 antiaircraft batteries. We could count on flak being "intense, accurate, and heavy," or simply "IAH," as noted in the mission summaries.

We dropped our four 500-pound bombs. Our No. 3 engine was hit. With one engine out of commission, we could not keep up with the formation. We contacted the lead plane and reported our damage, then we headed for cloud cover to keep away from the German fighters.

We were down low and just crossing the Yugoslavian border when our No. 3 engine began to burn. I gave the order to bail out.

The flight engineer and pilot are the last to leave the airplane. As I cleared the plane, I looked up to see if the pilot cleared. I could see the pilot was all right; all crew members had cleared.

We landed about 15 miles from Banja Luka, Yugoslavia. The underground picked us up and we headed for Marshal Tito's headquarters. The reason the underground was so interested in the American fliers was that they received $2,000 in supplies for each American flier brought out alive.

The underground smuggled us through the German lines, then by sailboat to the Island of Vis. From there, we boarded an airplane and flew back to Foggia, where we were briefed and shipped to the Island of Capri for a 15-day rest.

My fourth mission was back to Black Hammer. We were over the target when our plane was hit by antiaircraft shells; again we made it back to Yugoslavia. We bailed out. As I left the plane, I noticed blood on my helmet. I had been hit with a piece of flak.

When I pulled my rip cord, the parachute did not open. I was so scared, I pulled the pilot chute out by hand. As soon as the wind caught the pilot chute, the main chute came out.

I was unconscious when I landed. When I awoke, the underground had given me first aid.

I could not speak Yugoslavian, and the underground could not speak English. We carried a United States Army Air Corps identification card.

On this card was printed, "I am an American. Please take me to the nearest American or British mission, or to the nearest Russian Military Authority. Thank you." This was printed in Russian, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Hungarian, Austrian, and German.

We stayed in an old farmhouse that had been shot up due to the war, until I was able to travel. Draja Mikhailovich was in charge of the Chetniks, a partisan group operating within Yugoslavia.

It took us 45 days to reach the Chetnik headquarters. I had lost 65 pounds; our food consisted of one helping of goat soup per day.

We walked 150 miles through the mountains, back and forth through the German lines. We watched the underground blow up a German troop train. We were stopped several times by the Gestapo, but always managed to get by without being captured.

By the time we got to the Chetnik headquarters, they had contacted the American intelligence and had cleared a field of rocks so the rescue ship could land. While taking off, the Germans had shot down two of our P-38 airplanes that we used for coverage.

We landed in Foggia, were briefed and sent back to the Island of Capri for another 15-day rest.

After Germany surrendered, we got news that some of the underground who had helped us out of Yugoslavia had been executed. Among them was Draja Mikhailovich.