Thursday, April 19, 2012

MAYDAY! MAYDAY! Lost Behind Enemy Lines (Thriller Thursday)

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Otho Masterson was at his cousin's home celebrating his 19th birthday when they heard the news on the radio: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.  He was working as a night watchman at the time, but due to a work reduction he was laid off in February 1942. As it so happened, the December 1941 issue of Otho's favorite magazine, Popular Mechanics, had published an article about the Boeing B-17 bombers and described all the positions of pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer, radio operator, and turret gunners in back. He decided right then that he wanted to be an engineer on a B-17 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps on March 19, 1942. The 384th Bomb Group was activated on December 1, 1942 with a 10-man crew; Staff Sergeant Otho Masterson was the Flight Engineer.
Otho Masterson home on leave before leaving for Europe. May 1943.

The flight engineer on a B-17 was the mechanic. He would sit in the cockpit between the pilot and co-pilot right behind the controls. But he also pulled double-duty as the top turret gunner during combat.
The 384th established its home base in Grafton-Underwood, England. Otho's crew flew its first mission on June 22, 1943 targeting a General Motors Truck Factory in Antwerp, Belgium. The Picadilly Commando, as they affectionately named their aircraft, was damaged on this mission. They flew their second mission four days later, heading for Villacoublay Airfield in Paris where a German Air Depot was located. Five planes were lost on this mission, among them the plane being flown by Otho and his crew.
B-17F Bomber. Photo: WW-II Heroes

They reached the target about 6 p.m. but did not release the bombs due to heavy clouds. Suddenly, the number one engine was hit by enemy fighters, then the number three engine was hit and they both were on fire.  The pilot gave the order to bail out at approximately 11,000 feet. The aircraft crews were told that as the Allies parachuted out of their planes, the German fighters would circle them and radio to the army guns on the ground their locations so that they would be captured almost immediately upon landing on the ground. As Otho jumped out of his plane, he was determined that he would not be spotted and decided to wait until he reached the clouds at about 2,000 feet. His free-fall was the most amazing experience he experienced in his life. He was on his back at about a 45 degree angle with his head down and slowly circling. When he turned his head to look around, he would start to spin like a top. Otho pulled his rip-chord as he went through the clouds. He had a moment of panic when the chute did not open immediately. He must have blacked out for a few seconds because the next thing he knew he was sitting in the parachute looking at the ground.

Otho landed on the edge of the Remboulay Forest on the south side of Paris. He got out of his parachute and ran across the stretch of land to a gully where he was able to hide under some bushes. A Frenchman had seen him coming down and ran to where he left the parachute to hide it from the Germans. Very soon after, he heard German troops searching for him, but they did not find him.

Otho lie in that gully from Saturday evening to early Monday morning when he finally got up and walked to the edge of the woods. There he met a Frenchman that spoke a little English. This man told him to give him his uniform and he gave Otho some civilian cloths, a map, and some food and drink. Standing orders for all downed airmen was to find their way to Spain, turn themselves in to a policeman and get thrown in jail. Every two weeks the American consul made his rounds of all the jails in Spain, rescued the soldiers and returned them to England. Otho followed the map given to him by the Frenchman by walking only at night. Occupied France was overrun with Germans everywhere. There were only about four hours of darkness in which he could make progress towards his destination.  The food and drink lasted a few days. When it ran out, he would make himself known at the farmhouse after stopping for the day, get something to eat, and go on. He walked for almost two weeks and made it about halfway to Spain. On July 10, 1943, he stopped at the wrong farmhouse--the farmer gave him something to eat and by the time he was through eating the German soldiers were there. The Gestapo paid $400 for turning in American soldiers.

Otho was taken to Frenz Prison in Paris and charged as a spy. He was placed in solitary confinement and was fed a half a loaf of bread and a little bowl of soup a day.  The Gestapo regularly interrogated him about who helped him, gave him clothes, food, water. Every morning a minimum of 20 Frenchmen were taken before a firing squad while he was there. After enduring this for nine weeks, they placed him in the regular POW system in Germany. He weighed about 80 pounds by the time he was transferred.

It was now mid-September 1943; Otho had been shot down and reported as MIA on June 26th. His family back home still did not know if he was alive or dead. *Otho's story will be continued next week.

Seventeen year old Otho and his family are listed on the 1940 Census (see my posts I'm Making History!!! And You Can, Too! and It's 1940...Do You Know Where Your Parents Are?). You can help others find their relatives in the census by joining the 1940 U.S. Census Community Project and volunteering to index.

Thanks for dropping by.

  Thriller Thursday is a daily blogging prompt from GeneaBloggers.

Disclosure:  As part of ambassador program this blog post enters me into a drawing for a $100 Visa gift card.

*Update 12 August 2014: I had originally intended to tell this story on my blog in two or three parts. But once I really got started, it became much too complicated to publish here with my limited knowledge of formatting, etc. in this venue. Consequently, my promise to continue his story "next week" never came to pass.  


  1. I loved it Sherri! I didn't know any of this. How did you find out what happened to Uncle Otho while he fought in WWII?

    1. He told me! I spent a day with him in 2002 getting his life story out of him and have it on tape. I thought I sent you the transcription, but guess not. I'll send it now.

  2. I love this story Sherri! I have done much research on my Grandfather's time in WWII (he was a gunner on a B-17) Wonderful read! Thanks for sharing and I can't wait to see what happens!