February 2, 2011 Leave a Comment
Sgt. Russell Boyko thought the smoke over Berlin was from anti-aircraft shells at first. It was his 17th mission and would have been his seventh over the burning Nazi capital. At 30,000 feet the smoke was near the ceiling of his B-17.
Boyko, who now lives in Upper Darby and attends Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Clifton Heights, was a waist gunner manning a .50-caliber machine gun. His B-17 plane was at the front of the formation. As they neared the city, the B-17 aircraft began to shake.
Water had mixed with the anti-freeze causing an engine to lock up. With just three engines left his pilot chose to forgo the bombing run, break formation and return to Great Ashfield, England, the ETO base of the 548th Squadron of the 385th Bomber Group.
A lone B-17 was extremely vulnerable to enemy fighters. Bomber formations were organized in a way to allow guns from many planes to be concentrated on an attacker. American fighter escorts, of course, would stick with the formation for as long as the gas in their tanks allowed.
“We came close to Bremen. I remember seeing a body of water. I don’t know if it was the North Sea or the Channel. I remember starting to have hope.”
He then saw a German plane with two engines in the distance. It would not have been a front-line fighter and did not attack. It did apparently report the bomber’s position. Nazi fighters soon arrived.
The pilot – had given a pre-flight order to bail if such an event should happen, which the crew did. The other waist-gunner, Carter, was hesitating at the escape hatch. Boyko gave him a nudge and then followed him out at about 20,000 feet.
Boyko said the directions they were given for a bailout were that a count of three before pulling the ripcord would allow them to clear the plane while a count of 10 would make it harder for the enemy to follow his path to the ground to capture him.
He said both he and the other gunner counted to 10 albeit it made little difference. About a half-dozen German militia and civilians managed to get a bearing on them. Boyko said his chute was blossomed on the ground and he had trouble unstrapping it. He heard a gunshot and heard a bullet whistle past his ear. There was a bit of woods a few yards away and he ran into it.
“The Germans kept the woods nice and clean,” he said.
He said a small girl saw him and started screaming. He found himself surrounded and surrendered. He didn’t have a gun and had no intention of resisting. It was May 8, 1944. The Germans fed them after surrendering.
“They gave us pea soup,” he said. “It was delicious. The lady was polite. I guess she worked for the Luftwaffe. I looked in her eyes. They were green like pea soup.”
Boyko’s next stop was a prison camp.
He said the camp had four “lagers,” or sections, with 10 barracks to a lager and 300 men to a barracks.
He isn’t sure where the camp was although it was near the North Sea.
“I remember the North Sea during a thunder storm. The lighting would come straight down. It wouldn’t fork like we are used to.”
Camp life was not like Hogan’s Heroes. Each barracks had only two doors at the front and the back. To get to roll call, men would try to beat the crowd by climbing out the large windows. The Nazis gave an order forbidding this. “One or two” who ignored it were shot, he said.
After six months, they heard Russian artillery. The Germans piled the prisoners into boxcars and sent them west. After a few weeks they heard the artillery again. This time the Germans didn’t use boxcars but had them walk. During one meal break he saw a familiar face. It was Albert Goodman with whom he attended Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia.
“He was in the chow line ahead of me,” Boyko said. The meal was chicken. “He came back in the line. I said ‘Albert you are looking good’ and he was. He was in the ground forces not the air forces.”
Goodman was Jewish. Boyko asked if he said any prayers like the Our Father. Boyko said Goodman told him he said something like it.
Boyko said that during the walk he saw a large group of young girls in Ukrainian costumes but didn’t get a chance to talk to them. He said a few prisoners stole chickens for food. He said in April 1945 they were told President Franklin Roosevelt had died. The prisoners went to attention out of respect.
Boyko was freed on May 8. He was promoted to staff sergeant during his time in the camp. He lived in Southwest Philadelphia for 50 years attending Protector BVM, a church his mother was instrumental in starting, before it was combined with Saints Peter and Paul.
He would eventually work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard from which he would retire.