When Robert D. Davis wrote a memoir of his harrowing missions in a B-24 bomber, being shot out the sky, then surviving half-starved a brutal march through war-torn Germany in the winter and spring of 1945, his focus audience was his family.
But after making a four-month page-by-page trip through “Before I Forget” with the Springfield High School graduate, Joshua Mills, founder and a producer and director of Desert Wind films has much bigger plans.
“We’re going to do a three-part documentary,” said Mills, then use the documentary as a launching pad for a dramatic series he envisions as “kind of like ‘Band of Brothers,’ but in the air.”
“Considering he’s not a professional writer,” said Mills, “it’s a page-turner.”
Davis said the book is largely the result of the same kind of good fortune that allowed him to survive the war.
“When I was shot down, they sent my flight records home to my folks,” he said said from his current home in Costa Mesa, Calif. That saved the records from being at the St. Louis Depository when it was destroyed by fire.
With those records in hand, Davis was able to review records of his 8th Air Force bomber group that flew out of East Anglia, England.
“Then I’d say ‘Oh, yeah,’ and I’d write about what happened to us,” he said.
His POW records also defied the odds by surviving the war. Not only had Davis snatched up a YMCA log book sent by Stalag Luft IV, he continued to make notes in it and carry it through the months of a forced prisoner march that nearly claimed his life.
Ruled ineligible for pilot training due to color blindness, the Springfield 1942 high school graduate managed to dodge Army Air Force regulations against color-blind crew members and trained as a B-24 radio operator and gunner.
His stateside training stories are rich. He recounts being saved from a Windy City winter by a hot bowl of minestrone from a kitchen crew that unlocked the restaurant doors to let him in. He also reminds us that Fort Myers, Fla., shop owners removed their “No Soldiers, Sailors or Dogs” signs just before he arrived there. He also fondly remembers a two-day marathon spent sweet-talking to Georgia beauty on a cross country train.
Davis’ gunnery training began with skeet and trap shooting, progressed to a cage mounted gun fired from a moving truck and culminated with a .30-caliber machine gun mounted in a plane targeting a sleeve being towed by another plane over the Gulf of Mexico.
He recalls freezing days at a camp near Casper, Wyo., where most of the G.I.s dashed to the nearby showers wearing only shoes and a towel, noting that some of the “really fast runners” went without towels.
And he describes the awkward call home from a pay phone when training had come to an end.
He listened to his mother crying, had a few words with his dad “and that was it,” he said, before flying overseas.
Davis includes pleasurable moments, including three hours of idyllic flying over the peaceful Caribbean. But the testing moments are more plentiful, including landing in North Africa on metal mats that made him feel the bottom was dropping out of his plane, and finding his fingers so frigid as the approached England that he was forced to use his elbow “to send the dits and of the recognition signal” so they wouldn’t be shot out of the air as an enemy aircraft.
Davis got his close brush with death on solid land when he and his crew were returning from a visit to Cambridge and hoping for good Yankee companionship.
The group “stopped by Charlie and Dale’s hut to tell some big tales,” Davis writes. “They weren’t there. Mattresses rolled up and their stuff gone. In answer to our unasked questions, a guy in the hut said, ‘They’ve had it. No chutes.”
“Their first mission,” Davis writes, “Gone. Just like that.”
His descriptions of B-24 service over Germany in April and May of 1944 are as riveting.
With his hand on the bomb bay catwalk, “I saw a plane in the formation ahead and below us start to drift under the group above it (and) a fragmentation bomb go right through the top turret of this ship. The plane seemed to swell up, and then the four engines blew straight out from the leading edges of the wings. The plane then rolled and started to spin down towards the ground. No chutes.”
The same might have been the case for his crew the day the wings iced up and his pilot found himself unable to pull back it out of a dive because the chest chute the co-pilot had donned prevented it.
“I just reached over the back of his seat, grabbed his parachute strips, and lifted him up and out of the way,” Davis recalls. “One hundred seventy five or so pounds, straight up …. Pure adrenaline, I guess.”
He also provides striking word pictures of air combat when he describes anti-aircraft rounds going off “like a string of lady finger firecrackers in a wall moving through the formation” of B-24s and tells of German fighters “popping out of the lower cloud deck” and heading for them “like a swarm of bees.”
His description of his crew’s final flight begins with what seems a bad omen: “The clergyman, whether a priest, pastor or rabbi, was always welcome, at least to me, when he would pull up in front of the ship in his jeep to give his blessing before you taxied out for take-off. Somehow, for the first time … he didn’t quite manage to get to us … Only time for a wave.”
His first parachute jump that day was followed by his arrest by gun-toting German farmers, outrunning an enraged frau chasing him with a butcher knife, and, a few days later, a night spent locked in a train car in the Berlin marshaling yards listening to the moan of air raid sirens that “made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.”
“We, of all people, didn’t need to be told that marshaling yards were right up there on the (bomber) target lists.”
The book tells of an unexpected meeting with a fellow Springfielder the day Gene Shay was marched into Stalag IV, filthy and “with his pants torn where he had been bayoneted.”
“It turned out he lived just up Mulberry Street from me in Springfield — imagine the odds.”
Those seem nearly as long as the ones that allowed Davis and Shay to survive the 550-mile, three-month prisoner march Davis details — a march that ended on the Elbe River, where, on May 5, 1945, they were freed by advancing American forces.
Their dire condition didn’t strike the prisoners until they began to receive treatment.
“A medic took my arm,” Davis writes, “and as I am watching him, he starts crying. He says, to no one in particular, ‘There’s no place to stick the needle.’ ”
“For the first time, I start looking at the other guys and myself, and we looked like skeletons. Soon everybody in the room was crying. Medics, us, nurses, doctors …. On their scales, I weighed 85 pounds.”
Davis said he likely made it that far because one day in Stalag Luft IV, someone offered to trade a pair of G.I. shoes that fit him properly.
“I believe those shoes saved my life,” writes Davis.
At book’s end, the reader feels they saved a good soul.
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