“Leading a formation of Havocs–A-20, twin-engine attack bombers–that dropped their bombs on a Nazi command headquarters in France and were on their way back to base when the German guns below got their range,” the five-page letter from Ninth Air Force Headquarters to Sgt. Ken Dvorak’s parents in Cleveland, Ohio explained.
The 83-year-old Punta Gorda, Fla. resident said he was the belly gunner on a plane dubbed “Sox Box” piloted by Lt. Col. Lewis W. Stocking of Atlanta, Ga., commander of the 642nd Squadron, 403rd Bomb Group, 9th Air Force in Europe during World War II. It was July 5, 1944, and the young gunner was about to take a swim in the English Channel.
“A fire started in the bomb bay, both engines were taking turns cutting in and out and the bomber’s intercom was out. We couldn’t talk to the pilot,” Dvorak said. “We were badly damaged by shrapnel from German anti-aircraft guns.”
“One shell burst fiercely under our ship,” Lt. Col. Stocking explained in the letter to Dvorak’s parents. “Almost immediately, the cockpit was filled with smoke and my left engine cut out. I dropped out of the lead and we fell behind the formation, with the flak following right after us all the way to the coast.
“By the time we reached the middle of the channel, the entire back of the bomber had been engulfed in flames, including our two gun turrets on the top and bottom of the plane,” Dvorak said. “We tried to battle the flames in the bomb bay but couldn’t reach the fire extinguishers on a bulkhead because of the flames.
“I tried to call the pilot on the inter-phone, but it was dead. The upper turret gunner yelled at me to get on my chute and jump. Then he pushed me out the escape hatch in the belly of the plane,” Dvorak recalled. “On the way down I saw him come out and his chute opened. I never saw him again.”
It was just about sundown, the weather was perfect and the channel calm.
“They told us to unbuckle our chutes just before we hit the water so we could get away from them and not get tangled in the shrouds,” Dvorak said. “But I couldn’t get out of my chute because the release didn’t open. And I got a mouth full of sea water instead of air when I hit.”
The moment he plunged into the channel things got dicey for him. He was dragged beneath the surface in his fleece-lined flying suit. One boot was tangled in his parachute shrouds and he was going deeper and deeper, even though his Mae West life jacket was inflated.
“I finally got rid of the chute and got my dinghy inflated. It was a tough job to crawl into it in my water-logged leather flying suit, I laid there in the raft. There was nothing more I could do. I sure was scared.
I had a little compass, so I knew which way I wanted to go. I was drifting toward the French coast. I didn’t need a compass to tell me that. There was a terrific amount of firing going on over there, so I dropped the sea anchor and just lay here hoping.”
While floating in the channel under a bright full moon, German V-1 rockets were flying overhead on their way to London. An engine on one of the “buzz bombs” quit and exploded in the channel a short distance from his raft.
“I was lucky because the moon came up and threw a beam of light right across the water toward me,” he said. “I guess the moon does that whenever you’re on the water, but it sure was comforting to feel that beam was right on me.”
Shortly before 1 a.m. after six hours in the raft, Dvorak heard a boat engine nearby. English or German he wondered. He decided whomever it was he stood a better chance of survival on dry land. He began yelling his head off.
He was lucky. It was an English torpedo boat on patrol off the coast. They got him aboard and provided him with dry clothes. Several hours later he and the torpedo boat crew returned to Dover and the white clifts where he was taken by ambulance to a hospital and later released after being checked out.
The next day he was back in a Havoc flying another combat mission over Nazi occupied France.
Lt. Col. Stocking managed to keep “Sox Box” in the air long enough to reach the English coast. On fire, billowing smoke with only one engine partially running, its hydraulic system out and neither the flaps nor the landing gear were operating. The bomber was a flying miracle.
Lt. Edmund A. Clement Jr., the bombardier-navigator from Dallas, Texas was sitting in the nose of the plane, its plexiglass shattered by shrapnel. That was fortunate because it created an air stream through the disabled bomber that kept flames away and cleared the cockpit of smoke.
“We headed for the nearest emergency landing strip. It was a grass strip for fighters with only 3,000 feet to land in,” the pilot said. “I took one look and asked Clem for a heading for another field a little farther on where I knew the runways were longer. At that moment my one good engine cut out.”
It was now or never. He had to come in high because of a farmhouse and wires near the emergency runway.
“My air speed indicator was out so I could only guess at my speed,” he wrote in his report. “We cleared the house and the wires and then I tried my flaps. Only one worked. I tried my brake, but they were out, too.”
Lt. Clements picks up the story from there. He had a bird’s-eye view sitting in the shattered nose of the Havoc bomber as it approached the field.
“We were still rolling when we came to the end of the strip. I saw a couple of barbed wire entanglements loom up. We went right through them and then plunged right over a ditch,” he said. “The plane skidded down the hill on its belly, dirt flying up all over and finally crashed into a couple of trees on the edge of a drop into a farmyard.”
Stocking and Clements scrambled out of the demolished bomber unscathed. Moments later “Sox Box” was consumed by flames.
“The Bits came streaming up to congratulate us on a ‘Good Show,'” the pilot recalled. “They had some gin and wine ready for us.”
Everyone toasted their good fortune.
Name: Kenneth Dvorak
D.o.B.: 16 Jan. 1921 – 83 at time of interview
D.o.D.: 28 Oct. 2012
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla. at time of interview
Entered Service: 1943
Discharged: September 1945
Commendations: On Sgt. Ken Dvorak’s European Theater of Operation Ribbon are five bronze battle starts representing five major engagements in which he participated: Normandy, Northern France, The Rhineland, Central Europe and The Ardennes. He was also awarded two Air Medals and a tiny golden caterpillar with ruby eyes for parachuting from an airplane in combat.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Kenneth R. Dvorak, 91, of Punta Gorda, Fla., formerly of Danville, passed away Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012. He was born Jan. 16, 1921, in Cleveland.
Ken served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. In 1948, he moved his family to Danville, where he built, by hand, the house that they lived in for the next 30 years. In 1952, he opened the Howard Street Garage & Body Shop, which he ran for 25 years. Then, in 1972, he was the managing partner in the building and early operation of Country Court Extended Care Nursing Facility. He retired and moved to Punta Gorda in 1977 with his wife, Dorothy. There he enjoyed tennis and boating, and was also proud to be a part of Goodtime Singers and Show Time at the Isles Yacht Club.
Ken is survived by is wife of 65 years, Dorothy, of Punta Gorda; daughter, Dale Hoch of Clearwater, Fla.; son, F. Thomas Dvorak of Mount Vernon; grandchildren, Anne Marie Howell (Chris) of Lawrenceburg, Ky.; Jennifer Sparks (Ed) of Jacksonville, Fla., and Rachel Hoch of Clearwater; great-grandchildren, Jeremy Howell and Jill Howell Berry (Josh) and Danny and Matt Sparks; and great-great-grandchild, Walter Killian Berry.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Ken’s name to Tidewell Hospice Inc., 5955 Rand Blvd., Sarasota, FL 43238.
Arrangements are by National Cremation Society of Port Charlotte, Fla.
Submitted by F. Thomas Dvorak.
Read more: Kenneth R. Dvorak http://www.mountvernonnews.com/obituary/12/11/20/obit.php?id=2#ixzz3YHt7fa7x
Printed in the Mount Vernon News, Mount Vernon, Ohio.