MY LAST COMBAT MISSIONLt. Ruben G. "Chip" Bork
When the breakout of Normandy began with a massive air attack on July 25 near St Lo, our Group was assigned to support General Patton's Third Army. On July 27 we got an urgent request for fighter bomber support from Third Army. During the briefing we were informed that our targets were going to be German Tiger Tanks, stray gun emplacements, and we were to strafe anything that was moving on this particular road, and to search out the hedge-rows for hidden vehicles, and any other enemy armor we might see. As I recall, we took off with eight planes around mid afternoon with Col. Haesler as our leader.
We soon got to the target area and spotted a group of tanks, trucks and other vehicles, most were moving down the road, while others appeared to be scrambling for cover. We started our bomb run. I was probably at 1,000 feet altitude when I released my bombs aiming at a tank right in the middle of the road. I did not get a direct hit on the tank, but as I pulled out of my dive and was climbing for altitude, I looked back and could see that my bombs had hit directly in front of the tank, and had left a huge crater in the road. The tank did not appear to be moving. I pulled up and circled around to come back in to strafe the tanks with my eight .50 caliber machine guns.
By this time I was probably at 2,500 to 3,000 feet altitude, when all hell broke loose! I was hit by either a 40 millimeter or 88 millimeter shell. Whatever it was, it came up through the gas tank, blew my left arm off just below the elbow, completely severing it -- I looked down and saw it lying on the floor of the cockpit. The cockpit was full of fire, and the control stick was limp in my hand. I had no control of the plane, so I knew it was time to try to bail out. I used to think about bailing out while in pilot training as a cadet, and on previous combat missions. I wondered if I would be scared or would have the courage to bail out. Well, being afraid or lacking courage never crossed my mind when I got hit. I knew I had to get out of that plane, and quite obviously I did.
The only thing about it was that apparently I was unconscious or in a sub-conscious state, and don't remember doing all of the things necessary to get out of the cockpit and away from the plane. I do remember reaching up to unlatch the canopy, and pulling it back. I do not remember unfastening the safety belt, leaving the plane or pulling the rip-cord to open my chute. I do remember one hell of a roar from the plane's engine (I can still hear that roar), as if it were in a steep power dive. I vividly recall saying to myself "Well, Bork, this is it," meaning that I would be dead in a moment or two from the crash. At the moment I thought that I was still in the plane. Then at about the same time, or so it seemed, I heard a loud pop. I was regaining consciousness, and looking up I saw that the chute was open, and I was as free as a bird floating down in the breeze -- with a tight grip on my upper left arm like a tourniquet to keep from bleeding to death.
I do not know if I had gotten out of the plane while still climbing, or just what the attitude of the plane was. It was reported by someone on the mission who had witnessed me being hit that the plane was upside down, I had fallen out and the chute opened, so from that they assumed that I was alright, not realizing that my left arm was shot off. (I sure hated losing that Government Issue navigation wrist watch!) I tend to believe that report, because it does relate to exiting the cockpit in an emergency. I was taught while in pilot training that if it ever became necessary to bail out to first open the canopy, roll the plane upside down, unfasten the safety belt, and on exiting, push the stick forward in order to clear the tail section. If I did all of those things, I did so unconsciously or sub-consciously. I have no recollection of it whatsoever. The engine roar, which I distinctly remember, must have occurred after I bailed out and my chute was open, and the plane passed me in a steep power-dive.
Quentin, perhaps you and I and many others of us during our cadet training found many things to bitch about. I know that I would quarrel about doing certain things over and over, things that I felt I already knew how to do, but my instructor insisted that I do them again just to make sure that I understood and got it right. I have often though back to the day when I was shot down over St. Lo, and the sub-conscious actions I took to save my life in that emergency situation. I must give credit to heroes of mine, those very foresighted Pilot Training Instructors, for the grueling and repetitive training they put me through. I shall never forget them.
There is one other element which I feel certainly had something to do with saving my life on that last combat mission. Just before I left to go overseas, my father gave me a pocket size Lutheran Catechism and Prayer Book, which I carried with me in combat. It was lost on that mission, but I shall always believe that I would not be here today if I hadn't had it.
Now back to my story, when my chute opened, and I was floating down to earth. The weather was good and I could see clearly. There was a large field to the left of my direction, sloping downward to a large forested and swampy area on my right. I tried to maneuver the parachute in order to get closer to the trees, but my right hand was so badly burned that I could not grip the shroud lines to change my directions. My fingernails had melted off to little lumps on the ends of my fingers, and all the veins on the inside of my wrist were exposed.
I was now beginning to feel some pain. Also, I had a burned band around each leg just above my shoe tops. I had severe burns around my eyes because my goggles were up on my helmet, leaving my eyes exposed to the fire. Luckily, my oxygen mask was down over my nose and mouth, so I was not burned over that portion of my face. To this day, I still have numerous pieces of shrapnel in my left leg, the stump of my left arm, and one BB size pellet in my right thigh. They don't bother me so, that being the case, the doctors said to leave them alone, that they were sterilized from the heat when they entered my body.
Since I could not manoeuver the parachute, I just had to let nature take its course and land wherever the wind took me. As it turned out, I landed right where the field started to slope off into that swampy forested area. It was amazing to me that when I finally hit the ground, it felt as though I had landed on a feather-bed. It really was a soft landing, or so it seemed. It may have been that I was in some shock, and my body somewhat numbed, so I did not feel the real impact of hitting the ground.
After landing I had more problems. In attempting to get out of my parachute harness, I had to grab that big galvanized buckle on the front, and when I did, the rest of the skin on my hand stuck to it, not unlike grabbing a cold outdoor waterpump handle in the wintertime when the temperature is 50 degrees below zero in Northern Wisconsin.
I finally got out of the harness, but then I had another problem. I was now having quite a bit more pain, so I thought of opening that first aid packet which was attached to the chute harness. I knew that this packet contained morphine, so I intended to give myself a shot. Well, let me tell you, that first aid packet was sewed, glued, had a zipper on it, and on top of all that, it was waterproofed with some sort of heavy shellac (All necessary of course). After clawing at it, chewing at it with my teeth, and rubbing it on the ground with my feet, I never did get it open.
I felt myself getting weaker, so I had to do something. I got to my feet and managed to walk up the slight incline to higher ground. From there I noticed a house/building on the other side of the field, and three soldiers who were coming toward me with their rifles aimed right at me. When I saw them coming, I just sat down and waited. When they got close to me, and saw the condition I was in, they put their rifles down on the ground. They cut the straps off my Mae-West and made a tourniquet for my arm. As they were doing this, I asked if they were English, in the German language, because to me they looked British, even though I knew that this was German occupied France. I didn't see any sort of insignia, and their uniforms appeared to be British. They replied "No" in the German language. At that time I was fairly fluent in the German language, having learned it from my parents. My grandparents came from Germany, so that is my heritage. In addition to learning the language from my parents and grandparents, our Lutheran Church held one Sunday service of each month in the German language. So now I proceeded to talk to the soldiers in German. I told them I needed a doctor and needed one quickly. Well, to my surprise these soldiers got me to my feet and took me all the way across that field and into that empty old house. They put me to rest on a cot or bed, cut up some pillow cases or sheets, and made bandages for my arm. After making me somewhat more comfortable, they gave me a somewhat sympathetic but friendly look, and then went to the door, picked up their rifles and were leaving.
I knew that if I were left alone without medical help, I would probably die within an hour or so. I called out for them to come back, and said again in German that I needed a doctor and needed one quickly. One of them came back in and asked in German if I was afraid or scared of all the gunfire and bombing that was going on all around us, and I quickly replied in English, "Hell No Let's Go!" They got me out of that bed and into the open canvas top cab of a truck. I was on the right hand passenger side with my right arm resting on the door and my head resting on my arm. One soldier was driving and the other two were up on top of the truck bed holding a spread out white sheet. In a little while we were on the highway heading somewhere to a hospital.
As we were going down this highway, I would raise my head up every once in awhile to see where we were and what was going on. I'm telling you, Quentin, I never saw so much destruction in my whole life – burning tanks, cars, trucks, and the smell of all that burning fuel oil and rubber – and then there was the spell of my own burned flesh. This scene will be with me forever.
As we were going down this highway, I suddenly heard the sound of a P-47 coming up from behind us. The first thought that came to my mind was that we were told during the briefing for this mission that anything found moving on this particular highway was an enemy target. Well, now I was really scared. The truck came to an abrupt stop, the three soldiers jumped out and headed for the ditches. I was left alone in the cab. I had many thoughts at that moment. I didn't get killed when I got shot down, but now I was about to be killed by a P-47 pilot from my own outfit! I could feel the hair on the back of my head standing straight up. Well, that P-47 roared over the top of me sitting in that truck and never fired a shot. The only thing that I can come up with is that he knew that one of us was shot down, and the white sheet on top of that truck kept him from pulling the trigger. I guess it just wasn't my time to leave this world.
After the P-47 flew by, the three soldiers got back into the truck and we drove on. Over the next several hours we stopped at a couple of German field medical units, where I received additional treatment. Late in the afternoon of 28 July 1944, we arrived at a big hospital in Paris – I believe it was named the Hospital DeLaPitie. I was placed on a gurney when I arrived, and was met at the door by three doctors or medics in white uniforms. They all seemed to be so eager and in a hurry. I was wheeled into a small room where they were preparing to work on the stump of my left arm, and the burns on my face. They gave me an anesthetic and I don't remember a thing from that time on, until about 10:00 o'clock that night, when I came out from under the anesthesia. The first thing I noticed was that my left stump was bandaged and taped to a long board, and the board was strapped to my left leg. Then I heard accordion music and laughter. I thought for a moment or two that I was back home in Wisconsin, because my dad played a concertina for many ears, so I was hearing familiar music that had me a bit confused. I listened for awhile, and then I noticed a door ajar to another room. I struggled a bit, and finally raised up on my right elbow. Then I saw people dancing, and could see there was a party going on in that room. My mind was now starting to clear up, and I realized where I was.
There is much more to the story, and the aftermath of these events, but that remains for another time. On August 26, 1944 the American and Allied scouting teams found us. The German hospital personnel and the less wounded prisoners had been evacuated from Paris shortly before we were liberated.
As I look back on those sudden, violent moments on 27 July 1944, when that German flak shell tore through my plane, severing my left arm and setting the cockpit on fire, and my bailing out successfully under impossible circumstances, I consider it a miracle that I survived. I can still visualize seeing my left arm on the floor of the cockpit, and remember the thought flashing through my mind that I wanted to take it with me when I bailed out. These were moments in my life that I will never forget – they will be a part of me for as long as I live.
picture was taken in Normandy around mid-July 1944. I was shot down
about two weeks later. This is the last photo ever taken of my left
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