(This is part three of a four-part story on World War II veteran Lewis Cockerill.)
As the crippled B-24 Liberator continued to lose altitude, the 10-man crew hurriedly prepared to bail out of the doomed aircraft. The bomber had lost two of its four engines and there was little hope of staying airborne much longer.
Waist gunner Lewis Cockerill had the option of jumping out of the bomb bay doors or a hatch in the back of the plane. Opting for the hatch, he moved toward the tail and checked his parachute harness one last time.
That’s when he heard a most surprising noise.
Tail gunner Bruce Bean accidentally deployed his parachute inside the plane just minutes before they were supposed to jump.
Both Bean and Cockerill were dumbfounded.
“I was standing there next to him,” said Cockerill. “I’m really not sure what happened.”
Bean spotted an old parachute lying nearby and told Cockerill he would use it for the jump.
Knowing the plane had just come off the repair line, Cockerill worried about the condition of the parachute. He believed Bean was better off taking his chances with the deployed chute.
As Bean reached for the old parachute, Cockerill urged him to think twice.
“I told him, ‘Bruce, don’t do it,’” said Cockerill. “Now, here I am a 20 year old making these kinds of (decisions). He said, ‘Well, what am I going to do?’ I said, ‘Gather your parachute up in your arms, fold it up like an accordion.’ So, he got his hands down underneath it and pulled it up to his chest.”
Then two men then waited in silence for the pilot to give the order to bail out.
When the dreaded order finally came, Bean and Cockerill waited for the ball turret gunner and second waist gunner to jump ahead of them.
Cockerill then told Bean to jump before him in case his chute became tangled on the plane. His biggest fear was that the powerful slipstream would tear the chute from Bean’s hands and cause it to reopen inside the tail section.
“He would have been in terrible trouble,” said Cockerill. “So, I was going to see that he got out first and he did. He cleared the plane. I bailed out last.”
Cockerill’s jump went perfectly and his thoughts were with Bean the whole way down. He felt partially responsible for Bean’s fate since he talked him out of using the old parachute.
But what if Cockerill was wrong? What if that old chute was fine and his idea of using the deployed chute didn’t work? How could he ever live with that guilt?
Fortunately, Cockerill didn’t have to wait long for an answer. The first crewman he saw on the ground was a very healthy and very relieved Bean.
“I was banking on (the chute working),” said Cockerill with a laugh. “I wouldn’t have told him to jump that way if I didn’t think he would make it. You know, when you are in combat things just happen. I was just glad to see him.”
This isn’t Holland
In the minutes before the crew bailed out, the navigator and pilot were still trying to figure out their proximate location.
They hoped the bomber was somewhere over Holland or maybe even Belgium. If so, they would have a good chance of finding some friendly faces on the ground.
But as the men jumped from the plane they all realized an inarguable fact – none of them really knew what waited below.
Cockerill landed in a wheat field and spotted a young boy about 12 years old standing in a country road.
“I went over to him and said ‘American’ and he just shook his head and said, ‘Nein, nein.’”
Once he heard the boy speak German, Cockerill knew they were in big trouble.
“We were still over Germany when we bailed out,” said Cockerill.
As bad as the predicament seemed, Cockerill would eventually discover that their fate could have been much worse.
“The interesting thing is that we were on our way to the North Sea,” said Cockerill. “If we had not bailed out when we did we would have gone into the sea where the survival rate is about 15 minutes. It is cold and very rough water. So we were fortunate enough to bail out when we did.”
Still, it was difficult for any of the men to feel very lucky on this day.
As Cockerill started searching for other members of the crew a farmer holding a gun emerged from a nearby house.
“He started waving me to come toward him so I did,” said Cockerill. “It wasn’t long before a car with Gestapo members came up the road. So the farmer turned me over to them.”
His buddy Bean had already been captured. The Gestapo stood the two crewmen next to the car and searched them for weapons.
“We all had .45s (handguns) issued to us but we had been told before we left England that it was best not to carry your personal weapon with you,” said Cockerill. “The chances are you will never get to use them and live. So, rather than give another weapon to the enemy it was best to not even take it.”
Although the Germans didn’t find any weapons on Cockerill they did find his most prized possession and biggest source of strength.
“I had a New Testament in my pocket,” said Cockerill. “We were very much a church family and devout people. One of the (German) officers took it and (Bean) approached him and said, ‘You shouldn’t take a man’s Bible.’ After some exchange, they gave it back to me. I still have it.”
Welcome to Germany
Other than one slight ankle sprain, all 10 crewmen safely parachuted into the enemy’s homeland. They were rounded up and placed on a train that would transport them to an interrogation camp near Frankfurt.
While aboard the train, the men began telling each other how hungry they were.
What happened next is an incident that had a powerful effect on the devout Christian.
“There was a young man, not in uniform, who was holding a bag of bread,” said Cockerill. “This young man evidently heard us and he tore off a large chunk and gave it to us. I don’t know who he was or why he was carrying bread with him.
“In recent years, when I’ve made church talks, it dawned on me that it was a perfect example of Christ’s scripture when he says, ‘Love your enemy.’ We were this man’s enemy but he befriended us.”
Once they reached the camp, each of the crewmen were photographed and interrogated.
Cockerill refused to provide the Germans with anything but basic information.
“We were told in England that we don’t have to give anything but name, rank and serial number,” said Cockerill. “But then (the Germans) give you a Red Cross form and tell you that you have to fill it out. I wrote my name, rank and serial number. The next question asked if I was a member of the RAF or USAF and I drew a line through it. I drew lines through all of the questions and then signed it. I handed it (to the interrogator) and he said, ‘Well, if you won’t give us this information we’ll have to put you in solitary confinement.’ I said, ‘Okay.’”
Guards took Cockerill to a tiny room that had only a crude wooden frame bed inside.
“I hadn’t slept since the day before so I figured if I was going to be in there I might as well get some sleep,” said Cockerill. “When I woke up there was some noise and a bowl of watery soup was shoved under the door. I ate it and went back to sleep.”
By mid-July of 1944, Cockerill was placed with a large group of Allied prisoners and taken to Stalag Luft 4 close to the Baltic Sea in Poland. He and the other non-officers from the crew were kept in Compound B.
That camp would serve as home until the advancing Russian army would force the Germans to evacuate the area in early February of 1945.
The living conditions were less than ideal, especially during the brutal winter weather.
“The barracks were crude lumber with one light bulb in each room,” said Cockerill. “There were 16 bunks in each room, double deckers. There were two windows, two small tables and one little coal-burning stove to heat the room. We were issued one brickette a day.
“It gets cold in that part of the world in the wintertime. There was a lot of snow and ice. We only had one blanket so we slept in our coats.”
The food was barely edible.
“Breakfast in camp was hot water and piece of moldy bread that was filled with sawdust,” said Cockerill. “They used it as filler. Lunch was a bowl of cabbage soup. Supper was raw potatoes.
“Now, occasionally we would get something else. We had something with pork in it. Having come off a farm and having butchered pigs, I knew what that smell was – it was spoiled meat.”
Life at the prison camp was certainly bad. But what the Germans had in store for the prisoners in early 1945 was even worse.
(The conclusion of this story will appear in next week’s edition.)