'Accepting my death'.
Dave Rowland, a B-17 pilot and instructor who flew 30 missions in Europe, knew the thought of it could prevent a man from doing his job.
"I'd tell the men, go ahead, pretend you're dead," he says. "It's over. Now, do your duty."
It's a lesson he learned in 1943 after he was involved in a training exercise in Nebraska that went horribly wrong. After two formation training flights, crews were ordered to do a third, even though it meant landing in the dark, which added to the danger.
A plane in the formation ascended, the pilot not realizing another B-17 was above him. "We saw a plane come straight up, so close to us you could touch him," says Rowland, a West Point graduate. "We were looking right into his radio room. Why? The plane had broken in half."
Debris tattered the plane Rowland was flying, damaging it. His plane dropped like a rock, shaking violently. "We're on fire!" someone shouted.
Rowland ordered the three-man crew to bail out, which they did, then he fought the wheel to steady the listing plane. He picked the darkest spot on the ground, assuming that would be a farmer's field, and managed to land it.
The key to his survival? "Telling myself there is nothing I can do about it, so don't get upset or tense. That will kill you. It began by my accepting my death. That was calming."
He remembers that wives and girlfriends of the two doomed crews had gathered for a party at the Officers' Club that Saturday night. They saw the flames roil in the darkness. His plane, it turned out, wasn't on fire; whoever yelled was reacting to a reflection of the other planes on fire.
Fourteen men died in the incident, a stark reminder that not all war deaths happen in combat. Indeed, 35,946 men in the Army Air Forces died in nonhostile incidents, only about 10,000 less than those who died in battle.
In his 30 missions, Rowland lost but one man, though he tears up talking about it: a bombardier who, just before takeoff in England, was showing the crew photos of a newborn son. An hour later, once they were in flight, a German artillery shell exploded in the plane's nose, killing the man.
"I thought of writing a letter to his wife - it wasn't my duty - but what can you say that would console her?"
Epilogue: Rowland, 90, spent much of his life as an engineer working contracts for the government. He only recently moved back to Eugene to live near a son.
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|Title Annotation:||Local News|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Dec 6, 2011|
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