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Anton Newspapers Military Heroes Essay Contest: Sy Buckner Among B-17 Flight Guests

The following is the first half of the essay submitted by Janice Buckner, writing about her father, Sy Buckner of Roslyn Heights. This is the second essay to be printed in the series of essays, which were submitted by our readership for the Anton Newspapers Military Heroes Essay Contest with the American Airpower Museum of East Farmingdale and The Collings Foundation. Essay winners flew in historic aircraft stationed at the American Airpower Museum over the Labor Day weekend.

In the year 1943 my dad was 17 years old and attending the University of Pennsylvania. As soon as he was eligible to serve in the war, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserve. Before being sent overseas he trained as a ball turret gunner down south and was on the lead plane in the last training assignment on Friday, Oct. 13, 1944 when his plane was hit by another fighter plane and both planes went down. 

The story of the incident was published on the first page of The Commercial Appeal Newspaper on Oct. 14, 1944. It describes how a fighter plane also participating on this training maneuver accidentally hit his plane, and how he and the other crewmen had to parachute out to safety.

Three men died in the crash. Of particular note is how my father and another crewman saved the life of one of the men, whose parachute harness caught on the emergency exit door when he went to jump.  

What makes this story interesting from my dad’s perspective is that he was always assigned to the ball turret, which was suspended from the belly of the plane and located between the wheels. The area was so small it could accommodate only one crewman. It was equipped with two 50-caliber machine guns and a Sperry sight unit that allowed for exceptional accuracy and protected the plane from enemy fighter planes.

Because the turret area was so small and suspended from the bottom of the plane, it was necessary to wear an electrically heated suit and cloth slippers as the standard leather jacket and uniform were too bulky. However, on the day of the flight, my father’s heated suit did not work properly and at 18,000 feet it was too cold to be in the turret without it. My father was told to stay in the radio room rather than the ball turret, which he did. Had he been in the ball turret during that fateful occurrence there would have been four casualties, instead of three.

Here is the inside story of the accident in my father’s own words, literally from the “inside” of the B-17:

“Because of the faulty heated suit, I was in the radio room instead of the ball turret when I heard an explosion and felt a shuttering of the airplane.  Suddenly there was dead silence as the engines had stopped.  

“My first thoughts were based on the training lectures we heard that it was important to get out of a damaged plane quickly before it goes into a dive, for once the dive commences you cannot move.

“I rushed back to the emergency exit at the rear of the plane and discovered the door had not dislodged from the plane and as it should have been and waste gunner was hanging by his hands from the opening of the door. His parachute harness had caught on the handle. I called out to him and asked if he wanted to be hauled back into the plane.  He shouted, ‘No no, throw me out!’

“At that point the tail gunner also crawled to the rear where I was standing and together we lifted waste gunner up, and did as he told.  We picked him up and literally threw him out.

“The door was still hanging ajar with the plane now rapidly descending out of control. I knew we had to get out in a hurry.  The tail gunner decided to crawl back to the emergency exit further back to the rear as he did not want to chance getting caught on the door as the waste gunner had.  I found out later that he successfully exited from the rear, although at the time I did not know this.

“I chose to exit from the door that was still hanging from the side, and I luckily avoided my harness getting caught on the handle and felt myself free falling from the plane. In the training programs I had heard of crew members that had bailed out of planes and their parachutes did not work. Their bodies were found later on with their fingers stripped to the bone trying to claw open the chest parachutes.

“Having remembered this, I took out my pen knife which I always carried and opened it up in preparation for this emergency. Once clearing the door, I felt myself falling, and the sensation was like sitting in a chair, although in reality I must have been spinning around. I knew the accident happened at 18,000 and it was important to wait before opening the ‘chute.  

“I think I waited about three seconds before deciding it was enough! I was anxious to see if the parachute worked.  I pulled the handle and it came off in my hand. I said, ‘Oh my God – first the door didn’t work and now the parachute handle has fallen off!’ I was ready to use my knife when a small sized cloth emerged over my head and stayed there like an umbrella. I thought, ‘My God, they call this a parachute?’

“I was about to use my knife again on the canvas structure, when suddenly sheets of cloth came billowing out. Yards of it spewed out past my face and then finally it began to take shape, and an immense parachute blossomed over my head. I felt a tremendous jerk as it caught the wind, and then I began to descend down slowly. I felt an immediate sense of relief.  

“Then I realized what would have happened if I had been in the ball turret of the plane. There would not have been enough time to crawl out of the cramped compartment. Along with relief, I felt a deep sense of gratitude.

“At this height, I knew it would take a long time to get down – at least a half hour.  

Thoughts of my grandfather were prominent as he had a very large influence on my life.  

“Then I began to notice the sights below.  I could see fields and forests and a number of vehicles and ambulances converging in one area.  I remembered from the training lectures that we could pull down on one side to steer the parachute.  I tried it, but what I didn’t know was that when you pulled, it caused the parachute to buckle. I decided to take my chances and land anywhere safely rather than attempt to steer. I hoped I would reach the open areas of farmland rather than the forest of trees.

“The parachute moved towards the farm area and I could see one or two people in the immediate area. The ground was rapidly approaching. I remembered from the lectures that the impact of landing would be similar to jumping off a 10-foot wall. There was bound to be an impact. I recalled seeing pictures of paratroopers tumbling as they landed, but I was aware of my limited gymnastic abilities.  So I decided to take my chances on my feet. I wished I had on regular shoes rather than the cloth ball turret slippers I was still wearing. When I hit the ground, I landed feet first and was in the farmland fields.

“I managed to get up and could see in the distance a man approaching. I began to think it was important to have something proper to say to him as the man seemed quite frightened after having observed this unusual scene of a man falling from the sky. I wanted to put him at ease so I said, ‘How are your crops?’

“To my surprise, he went into explicit detail about his crops and his farm. Then we saw ambulances headed towards us and they transported me to the hospital in Memphis where the doctors determined I had a knee injury and a broken ankle.   

“While in the hospital, it was important to notify my parents I was no longer at the base. I told them a bit about the accident and that I was doing fine. About a week later, while still recuperating, I saw my father walking towards me down the long hospital corridor. He had traveled by train from Jamaica, Queens, New York, taking over a week to do so. He knew it would be a long journey—the passenger trains during the war were often sidetracked by the military cargo trains.

“To pass the long days during the hospital stay, I began reading Charles Lindbergh’s book entitled We, which recaptured his piloting experiences in his plane the Spirit of St. Louis. He wrote of his flight from America to Paris in 1925 and of many perilous experiences while being a mail pilot.  

“In the book, Lindbergh’s own accounting of the event was in the chapter called, ‘I joined the Caterpillar Club’ goes on to say his engine failed and he was forced to bail out.  This was a club for people who had parachuted out of planes under emergency situations. So from my hospital bed, I researched the club’s headquarters and learned it was located in Waco, Texas and that I qualified for membership. I wrote to them and learned I qualified, and, like my hero Charles Lindbergh, I became a member of the Caterpillar Club.”  

So that’s my dad’s story. After this experience, he was assigned to the Pacific Theater (as that area was called during the war).

After hearing all these wonderful stories, I asked my dad to show me his discharge papers. As he is quite modest, he had these hidden the Honorable Discharge papers on the top shelf of his office closet. I was surprised to see listed numerous awards that he never spoke about. It showed that he received the American Service Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Service Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Philippines Liberation Ribbon, and the World War II Victory Medal.   

He was 19 when the plane crash incident happened and he turned 86 this Labor Day weekend. Just as Charles Lindbergh was a hero to my dad, my father has always been the hero for me.