|Posted by Anne Siren on February 10, 2013 at 4:50 PM|
By Anne Siren
March 20, 1944, Reims, France – It was a bad beginning. A blanket of heavy fog covered the airfield. Two planes which took off in the fog crashed, killing all on board.
This mission had called for 500 planes to destroy a air craft engine factory in Frankfurt, Germany. Only one plane, the B-17 Man O’ War, reached this target and destroyed 90 percent of the factory.
Getting to the target was one story; getting away was another.
John Katsaros was a 20-year-old waist gunner on the Man O’ War. Now at 89, he continues to talk about his experiences that day.
“We had six German planes firing at us,” he said. “We didn’t want to bail out over Germany. It was 60 degrees below zero at our altitude. I had been shot in the arm and leg. The pilot had been shot in the throat. The two gunners had been shot. The pilot had set the alarm to abandon ship. We threw the navigator out first. His parachute never opened.”
In a matter of minutes, the crew, aware that the plane was on fire, worked to assist each other to jump.
In particular, the bombardier had a broken leg had to helped to jump. Katsaros could not put on his own parachute because of his wounded right arm. He was assisted by the other remaining crewmember, the radio man, and jumped out at 27,000 feet over France.
The plane exploded within seconds after the radio man jumped.
“We knew we would pass out for lack of oxygen,” Katsaros said. “But we hoped by the time we hit 10,000 feet, we’d be conscious.”
Katsaros was at 5,000 feet when he opened his eyes and pushed the button to open his parachute. He was lucky that day because he was wearing an English parachute that provided a button-operated mechanism as opposed to the American style that required him to pull a D-shaped ring. He would not have been able to pull the ring with his wounded arm.
“Before I jumped, I recited The Lord’s Prayer in Greek and crossed myself. I landed on an old WW1 airstrip. German planes flew by. I could see the pilots. They saluted me. I saluted back. Within 15 minutes the Gestapo trucks came to pick us up. I was taken to a farmhouse. My ankles were broken, my ribs cracked and my head was bleeding.”
For six days, Katsaros was interrogated. He had neither food nor water during that time.
Katsaros was rescued by members of the French Resistance and taken to a clinic near Reims Cathedral where nearby Dr. Levy, a French Jew, was hiding from the Gestapo in the cellar.
The complete account of Katsaros’s service and survival during World War II, is chronicled in his book, Code Burgundy: The Long Escape, available at Katsaros3@comcast.net.
Originally from Massachusettes, Katsaros spends his winters in Ocean Ridge, Florida.
Katsaros and The Pelican met up at Pompano Air Park’s Collings Foundation exhibit of its refurbished B-17 and B-24 planes. Katsaros was there to tell of his experiences beside a B-17 similar to the Man ‘O War. As a World War II Veteran, he answers questions regarding this experience.
Katsaros will be on hand today through Sunday at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport near Hangar No. 63 to answer questions from visitors. Entrance fee to the “walk-through” of the planes is $12. Visitors can also reserve passage for flights on both planes. Flight costs are $425. Reservations are suggested for flights. Call 978-562-9182 for reservations or information.