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RAF Load Ammunition
Royal Air Force workers loading ammunition
Photograph from Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis



ON THE WINGS OF EAGLES
 

Bill Geiger’s Eagle Squadron was escorting RAF bombers back from a raid over Germany when, off the Cliffs of Dover, three German Messerschmitt Bf 109s got on his tail.

“They just hit the daylights out of me, and I lost control of the airplane,” he recalls. “I decided that I was going to have to get out. And I couldn’t get the canopy off. We had a quick release that you pulled, and you’re supposed to let it fly off, and it didn’t come off. I remember thinking, very clearly, I’m going to go in with the airplane. It won’t hurt. And then I split into two people. And the chap on the other side of this problem told me, ‘Look at the corners of your canopy,’ and I did, and one corner was sticking out a little bit, and I pushed on it, and the canopy went out.

“I remember I was dangling at the end of that parachute, looking down at that water, and I thought, Geiger, how on Earth have you managed to get yourself here?” A German patrol boat plucked him out of the English Channel and he became a prisoner of war. “I escaped a couple of times,” he says casually, “but permanently got out when [Gen. George] Patton’s Fourth Armored Division ran a tank through the front gates of the POW camp and said, That’s it, gentlemen, you’re all going home.” Geiger had been a POW for three and a half years.

Another Eagle veteran remembers those days of risk and courage: James Gray was in college and taking a civilian pilot training course when the European war began. “I tried for the U.S. Army Air Corps and couldn’t pass the physical,” he says. “I heard that the British were recruiting pilots for the Royal Air Force. I wanted to fly a fast fighter.”

Like many prospective Eagle Squadron pilots, Gray went to a special school in the United States and learned flying from former U.S. Army Air Corps pilots. He then shipped off to England and joined Eagle Squadron 71 around Christmas in 1941.

“The first missions were out patrolling the convoys,” he says, “going up and down the British east coast, and so that was a way to break in. It wasn’t until about March or April, when the weather improved, that we started escorting the bombers across the Channel. I lost two roommates within two months during the summer of 1942. I thought I might die. But I made it through.”

Later, when he became part of the U.S. Army Air Forces, Gray flew in the Mediterranean theater and was shot down over Italy. He became a prisoner of war for four months there.

After the war, and ever since, Gray and his wife have kept a calendar--“as a matter of remembrance”--marking the days that buddies went down. “And so when that day comes around, we usually take out a bottle of sherry and have a small drink to them and think about them. I’m sure many of the other Eagles do the same.”

 

 
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BATTLE OF BRITAIN | DOOLITTLE RAID
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