They were supposed to fly their final bombing mission, their 35th, over Cologne, Germany on Friday 13th, 1944. They didn’t do it. That was a big mistake.
Charles McLaughlin of North Port, Fla., an upper turret gunner and flight engineer, aboard “Babe in Arms,” a B-17 “Flying Fortress,” was on his last bombing run during World War II when disaster struck.
“Our company commander wasn’t going to make us fly on Friday the 13th because it was our last mission,” he recalled almost 57 years later. “We flew our final mission on the 15th and we were shot down by flak from a German 88 (artillery shell).”
He was one of the lucky ones in the nine-member crew. He survived. Two crew members—the tail gunner and co-pilot—were killed.
McLaughlin spent the next six weeks in a German hospital recovering from his injuries and then as a “guest of the Fuhrer” in several POW camps. He was liberated by Gen. George Patton and his 3rd Army on April 29, 1945, at a camp near Moosburg, Germany along the Swiss border.
“We dropped our bombs on the railroad marshaling yard in Cologne at 29,000 feet. As we turned to head home, we were hit by flak. Both the engines on the right wing burst into flames.
“Our tail gunner was killed by the flak. I had a big gash in my head from a piece of flak that took 18 stitches to close, McLaughlin recalled. “It was my job to try and put the fire out with extinguishers built into the engines, but the flames wouldn’t go out.”
He told Lt. Doug Johnson, pilot of the B-17, the bad news. The aircraft commander immediately put the four engine bomber into a steep dive in the hopes of extinguishing the flames. That didn’t work either.
He gave the evacuation order. Everyone except Sgt. Charles Priest, the dead tail gunner, bailed out of the crippled plane.
McLaughlin had a small escape parachute. It was too small for his 180-pound frame. He hit the ground hard and blacked out. He badly injured both knees and his back when he parachuted into a farmer’s field near Lindlar, Germany.
“When I came to there was an old guy sitting on my chest holding a gun to my head. A doctor pulled up near me in his car and ordered the guy with the gun and several other people who were there to put me in the back seat. He drove me to a Catholic hospital about 15 minutes from where I landed,” McLaughlin said.
He was bleeding badly from his head wound and couldn’t walk because of his injured knees. They admitted him to the hospital. For the next six weeks he received excellent treatment from the hospital’s staff.
Egbert Buchbender, the 14-year-old nephew of the doctor who rescued McLaughlin from the farmer’s field, became his best friend while in enemy hands. The teenager, who spoke English, would bring him an apple a day and spend hours talking with him about America.
One day the boy gave him a pewter cross on a chain. The back of the cross opens and inside a holy relic is wrapped in a tiny white satin band embroidered with the Latin words, “Almighty God.”
“Egbert wanted me to have it because he thought it might keep me safe,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve kept it all these years.
“I learned his father was a German officer station at Brest, France at the time. Before the war his dad had been a school teacher. I was too ashamed to tell the boy I had bombed Brest and probably killed his father,” McLaughlin said.
“One day two storm troopers showed up at the hospital and took me away at gunpoint. Egbert cried when they marched me to the railroad station,” he said.
He was initially sent to a nearby POW camp for injured allied prisoners. A few days later his teenage German friend showed up with McLaughlin’s fleece-lined flight boots he left behind at the hospital when the German soldiers unexpectedly marched him off.
The POW camp was awful. They had no medical equipment or supplies.
“We had Polish doctors operating on soldiers using a carpenter’s saw to cut bones. You wouldn’t believe the thing they did,” he said as he closed his eyes and shook his head.
McLaughlin didn’t stay long at the camp. A few days later he was transferred to Frankfurt, Germany to be interrogated.
“When I arrived, my interrogator said he didn’t need to talk to me because he already knew everything about my B-17 and its crew. He even knew the name of our company commander back in England. His English was so good it sounded like a graduate from Oxford,” he recalled.
Because McLaughlin didn’t give the Germans his name, rank and serial number when he was captured, it would be months before his wife learned he survived the crash. He told his captors he couldn’t remember anything because of his head injures. In retrospect, that was a bad move, he said.
A few days later he was moved again. This time he became one of thousands of allied prisoners confined to a gigantic POW camp near Nuremberg, Germany. He was there for about a month when their guards marched everyone out of the camp and onto a road leading toward the Swiss border.
Allied forces were closing in on Germany. It was early 1945 and the final curtain was about to come down on the Third Reich.
By this time McLaughlin’s medical condition had improved. His head wound was healed and his knees and back were doing much better. He could walk again.
The sergeant and some 12,000 American, English, French and Russian POWs spent the next month or so on the road marching toward Switzerland, trying to say alive and out of the clutches of German civilians who would have killed them.
With a single guard for more than 100 prisoners, they stumbled along the highway toward their unknown destination. On April 10, 1945 the haggard masses finally reached Moosburg, along the Swiss border. Again they were put in a barbed wire enclosure, but not for long.
“First we heard all kinds of small arms fire around our camp,” McLaughlin said. “Our guards stacked their arms and fled. They weren’t gonna fight the Americans.”
He and the other POWs had been there fewer than three weeks when elements of Patton’s 3rd Army arrived.
“Patton showed up at the front gate of our camp with his pearl handled revolvers on his hips,” McLaughlin said with a smile. “I ran like hell for the gate and I think I was the second person to greet him. I shook his hand and the POWs in the camp went nuts,”
McLaughlin and some of his buddies were first flown to Belgium on a C-47 transport plane. From there they were taken to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Harve, France where they waited to be sent home.
A troop ship took him back to the states. He was reunited with his wife, Catherine, when he showed up at their front door in Westwood, N.J. in June 1945.
“I had only been gone a year, but it was one hell of a year,” McLaughlin said.
From Germany with love
Egbert Buckbender, the 14-year-old German youth who befriended Sgt. Charles McLaughlin, became a doctor.
His uncle, the doctor who also came to the airman’s rescue during World War II, lived into his 80’s.
Shortly after the Second World War, a letter arrived at McLaughlin’s home from the mother of the German teenager. She was lamenting that food was scarce and they didn’t have enough to eat.
“I had told my mother about the wonderful treatment I received in the Catholic hospital in Germany and about my friend Egbert,” McLaughlin said. “She and my wife began sending his family food packages. This went on for about two years, until they said they could make in on their own,” he said.
For decades McLaughlin and Egbert, his German friend, have corresponded.
In his last letter to McLaughlin, Egbert wrote,
“The reason our friendship lasted such a long time is because you have such a great admiration for me. I have thankfulness for you because you sent me so many care parcels during the bad time after the war.
“On the other side, I ‘m happy you understand not all Germans were Nazis.
“To you and your family I wish all the best.
Name: Charles McLaughlin
D.O.B.: 17 March 1913
Death: 22 December 2008
Hometown: Westwood, N.J.
Current: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: March 1943
Discharged: August 1945
Unit: 569th Squadron, 290th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force
Commendations: Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal, POW Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African Medal, World War II Victory Medal.
Children: Joyce Chatfield
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on XX and is republished with permission.
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A hero shall lead them – Parade’s grand marshal cheated death in WWII
Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL) – Friday, July 1, 2005
When North Port announced “Celebrate our Heroes” as the theme for Monday’s Freedom Parade, there was no doubt in the minds of Charles McLaughlin ‘s friends that he should be the grand marshal.
McLaughlin , 92, is not only one of a dwindling number of World War II veterans still living, his experiences are the stuff of a Hollywood drama.
As an Army Air Forces top turret gunner flying over Cologne, Germany, on what was supposed to be his last mission, McLaughlin ‘s B-17 Flying Fortress was hit by German fire and went down in flames. McLaughlin injured his head as he parachuted from the plane and was unconscious when he hit the ground. Two of the other nine crew members died.
“I woke up to a guy sitting on my chest with a gun to my head,” said McLaughlin , now the only living member of his division of the 8th Air Force.
A German doctor pulled McLaughlin from the enemy soldier’s clutches and brought him to a small Catholic hospital where there had never been an American soldier.
At that point, in October of 1944, the tide of the war had turned, and McLaughlin theorized that the doctor came to his rescue to boost his reputation with the allies as Germany’s defeat looked possible.
During his six-week hospital stay, McLaughlin befriended the doctor’s 14-year old nephew, who brought McLaughlin apples every day and spoke to him in English. The boy, Egbert Buckbender, gave McLaughlin a pewter cross to keep him safe and would later travel three hours to a POW camp to bring McLaughlin his fleece-lined boots that had somehow disappeared in the hospital.
When Buckbender showed up with the boots, the guards wouldn’t let him in the prison, and the other Americans accused McLaughlin of being a spy because he appeared to be getting special treatment.
“I could see the boy through the fence,” McLaughlin said. “It was a wonderful feeling to see him, but more important to me to have my boots.”
McLaughlin was eventually moved to Nuremberg, where he was held in Stalag 13 with 12,000 Allied soldiers. As the Americans and Russians converged on Germany in the war’s final days, McLaughlin and the other prisoners were forced to march for a month through the woods to a camp in Mooseburg, where they were eventually liberated by Gen. George Patton’s troops.
“He was standing up in a jeep and I was the second guy to greet him,” said McLaughlin . “I told him ‘Thank you for coming.’ What else can you say?”
In 1945, from Le Havre, France, McLaughlin took a troop ship back home to Westwood, N.J. There were no parades to greet him, and McLaughlin went home unceremoniously and rang the doorbell to his house. McLaughlin ‘s wife, Catherine, who only knew McLaughlin was a POW, didn’t know he was coming home.
McLaughlin didn’t get the welcome he expected, however.
“The dog nearly took my arm off,” McLaughlin said. “I had a heck of a time trying to hold my wife.”
He returned to his mechanic’s job at the Ford Motor plant and eventually became a supervisor, but he never forgot about his young German friend, Buckbender. McLaughlin ‘s family started sending food packages to Buckbender, whose family was near starvation in postwar Germany. And Buckbender wrote back, beginning a 60-year correspondence.
“My friendship with the boy, that was the most important thing that happened to me in the war,” said McLaughlin , now widowed and living with his dog, Buddy.
McLaughlin still talks to Buckbender twice a year, and they always exchange cards at Christmas.
“We are now knowing ourselves more than 60 years,” Buckbender, now a 75-year-old retired doctor, wrote last Christmas. “My warm feeling for you is as heart felt as ever. The world has not got much better.”
Charles McLaughlin, 95, of North Port, Fla., died Monday, Dec. 22, 2008, at Deep Creek Rehab & Nursing Center.
He was born March 27, 1913, in New York, N.Y.
Charles served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was a technical sergeant with the 569th Bomb Squadron 390th Bomb Group. During his tour of duty, Charles received the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart. A resident of North Port for 31 years coming from West Milford, N.J., he was a member of VFW Post 8203 of North Port, and the American Ex-Prisoners of War. Charles worked for Ford Motor Company in Mahwah, N.J., for 33 years, prior to his retirement in 1969.
Survivors include his daughter, Joyce (Larry) Chatfield of North Port; sister, Cecilia Emanuel of Sussex, N.J.; grandson, Russell (Rachelle) Miller of Bluffton, S.C.; granddaughter, Alicia Chatfield of North Port; great-granddaughter, Kaylee Marie Miller; nephew, Jonathan (Jan) Statt of Liberty, N.Y.; and great-niece, Denise Wejnert of Westwood, N.J. He was preceded in death by his wife, Catherine, in 2001.
A graveside service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 26, 2008, at Venice Memorial Gardens Cemetery, with the Rev. Ben Jennings of Sonshine Baptist Church officiating. Military honors will follow.
Memorial contributions may be made to Sonshine Baptist Church Missions, 23105 Veterans Blvd., Port Charlotte, FL 33954, in memory of Charles McLaughlin . You may express condolences at http://www.englewoodfh.com.
Arrangements are by Englewood Community Funeral Home & Cremation Services.