It was supposed to be a “milk run.” The crew of “Angel in Di-Skies,” a B-17 flying as part of the 8th Air Force from a base in Framlington, England, during World War II, was sent on a low-level mission to knock out a railroad bridge near Jussy, France.
Former Staff Sgt. Leon Peragallo of Venice, Fla., a ball turret gunner in the belly of the four-engine bomber, remembers the Aug. 2, 1944, mission. It was the crew’s 16th combat flight over German-occupied Europe.
“As we approached the target, one engine went out. We took a hit from flak and another engine went out,” the 84-year-old local man recalled. “We dropped our bombs and made a direct hit on the bridge.”
Problem was, their bomber was losing altitude fast, even though the 10-man crew jettisoned everything to lighten the plane. Lt. Clay Perry, flying the doomed B-17, had no alternative but to ditch it in the sea.
“At that point I remember thinking; ‘This is it, the end for me.’ We hit the water and were immediately up to our armpits in water,” Peragallo said.
The crew scrambled into two life rafts and spent the next 24 hours bobbing around in the North Sea before a couple of Dutch fishing boats came to their rescue. Unfortunately a German patrol boat stopped the fishermen and forced the bomber crew to come with them.
After being interrogated and threatened by German guards, Peragallo and the rest of the enlisted men aboard the plane wound up in Stalag Luft IV near Gross Tychow, Poland. For the next 10 months he survived in a Luftwaffe POW camp.
With Russian forces closing in from the east, the Germans decided to go on the road with the prisoners. Thus began a 500-mile, 52-day odyssey, the prisoners fighting starvation and cold as they walked through Poland and Germany during the final months of World War II.
“A few days later the British 3rd Army was approaching Lubec, Germany. We could hear their guns,” Peragallo said. “British tanks came charging through the streets. A German guard gave me his pistol and bayonet as the British took over.”
A week later the ex-sergeant and a group of former POWs were taken to a British air base near Hamburg, Germany. They took a flight on a bomber back to England.
“Royal Air Force girls greeted each of us as they escorted us off the plane. I hadn’t seen such pretty women in years,” Peragallo said.
“I was taken to a hospital in Manchester, England.”
Two weeks later he had recuperated sufficiently to be released from the hospital. He was sent on to Glasgow, Scotland, to board the Queen Mary for the voyage home.
“There were thousands of GIs aboard. Chow lines and eating was continued around the clock. Five days later we arrived in New York City with the Statue of Liberty in sight and thousands of GIs happy and yelling.
Surely a great event — happiness and victory. Hard to believe we were finally back in the good old U.S.A.!”
Peragallo and his wife, Frances, retired to Venice in 1995.
Name: Leon Peragallo
D.O.B: 11 October 1924
Hometown: Glastonbury, Conn.
Current: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 1943
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Unit: 390 Bomb Group, 8th Air Force
Commendations: Air Medal, WWII Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: European Theatre
Children: Jim, Thomas and Joan
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Friday, April 23, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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