From Bemidji to a B-17: Boyd Shadiow remembers his World World II experience
BEMIDJI —It was 1943, and the question of whether or not the Allies would win World War II was still debatable. The German Luftwaffe, or Air Force, prevented the Allies from making an attempt to liberate occupied France.
It was up to 21-year-old Boyd Shadiow and the rest of the airmen in the U.S. Eighth Air Force to try and take control of the skies by pummeling German airfields, fuel stations and factories with bombs.
The Bemidji native flew 27 missions over Europe as a crew member on a B-17 bomber. He faced death 27 times.
He flew in the 333rd Squadron, 94th Bomber Group, from a base the RAF had built at Rougham/Bury St. Edmunds, east of Cambridge.
Shadiow’s job was twofold: assist the radio operator, and fend off German fighter planes such as the Focke-Wulf 190 and the Messerschmitt 109. As a ball turret gunner, Shadiow was underneath the bomber in a clear plexi-glass bubble with twin machine guns tens of thousands of feet above enemy territory.
"The Focke-Wulfs weren’t very generous to you," he said.
Shadiow said although he shot at plenty of German fighters, he never officially logged a kill because of superstition. He feared if he did report a downed enemy plane, a German pilot would be logging his plane as a kill before too long.
"If I get one of them, they’re going to get me," he said. "I just figured, it’s a war. (Don’t) run around bragging about what you do."
Along with enemy planes, Shadiow and the rest of "Esky," their B-17 bomber, had to worry about flak, or ground fire from German cannons with shells designed to explode into shrapnel at a certain altitude. Shadiow described the shell bursts as looking like black smoke.
Shadiow said the flak typically started as soon as they flew over the border into occupied France. When they flew over Germany, Shadiow said, "it was black all the way".
"They don’t have to hit you (directly)" he said. "One piece of flak can hit an engine, take it out."
When the bombers were on approach to a target, they couldn’t take evasive action to fly around flak.
"Otherwise you collide into one another," Shadiow said. "You’re flying practically wing tip to wing tip, really close."
The crew of Esky did have a morbid sense of humor about it, though. When they adopted a dog as barracks pet, it didn’t take long for them to come up with a name.
"We picked her up as a puppy," he said. "We all looked at each other, (saying) ‘What are we going to name her?’ ‘Let’s name her Flak!’"
Facing death became a routine, Shadiow said.
"You get so damned used to this stuff," he said. "The first mission or so is… tense, but after you fly about two or three of them, it’s like going to work today."
The B-17 bomber cabin wasn’t pressurized, so the air inside was frigid as the plane flew 30,000 feet above the ground. To fight the cold, the crew was supposed to be equipped with electric-heated flight suits, but Shadiow said these only worked sporadically.
"You’d take it in and complain about it, and they’d say ‘Well, it’s fixed’, but you wouldn’t know if it was fixed until you got up in the airplane," he said.
However, the cold didn’t really matter to the adrenaline-filled airmen during combat.
"You’re so hepped up," he said.
Esky was returning from a bombing run Dec. 5 when its engines failed, forcing the pilots to crash land the plane in the icy cold English Channel. Shadiow remembers the interior filling up with water as the bomber sank.
After floating for hours in two life rafts, the 10-member crew was picked up by a British naval patrol. The Brits gave the Yanks food, dry clothes and all the liquor they wanted, Shadiow remembered.
"Real friendly," he said of his hosts.
Not only did the crew miraculously make it out of the crash, they made it through the entire 27 missions relatively unscathed. One man was shot down after being transferred to another plane. Another was later hit in the back by shrapnel that went underneath his "flak jacket"— body armor— but survived.
"It was only a while (until) he was right back with us," Shadiow said.
Shadiow said he didn’t let himself worry too much about the threat of dying while he was in Europe.
"When I went to war, I made up my mind: either I was going to make it, or I wasn’t going to make it," he said. "I wasn’t going to worry about it, because there was nothing I could do… I went through the whole thing that way."
In September of 1944, Shadiow returned to the United States on the S.S. Queen Mary. He married his sweetheart, Juanita, and raised a family. Shadiow’s son Larry served in the Army during Vietnam repairing cryptography machines, and his grandson Mat served in the Air Force working with X-rays.
Shadiow said he doesn’t think much about the war nowadays.
"Not anymore," he said.