John Young was only 20 when he was almost killed during an Allied bombing run targeting Berlin in February 1945.
Young, a Louisiana native who is now 90 years old, was a turret gunner with the 384th Bomb Group when his plane, on the return trip to England, was struck by bullets from the ground below. The nine-person crew made an emergency landing into 3 feet of snow in the city of Torun, Poland — and to the crew’s relief, Russians had captured the city from German forces just hours before.
Those memories still were with Young on Wednesday when he signed a piece of history at his home in Baton Rouge to commemorate his service: a 45-pound wing panel from a plane similar to the one on which he served, a B-17 bomber nicknamed “Stardust.”
“It’s about time,” the bedridden Young laughed as he struggled to sign the panel. “I’m damned lucky to be here this long.”
Keith Ellefson, 71, an Alabama resident whose uncle once served in the same group, since January has driven to 11 states to collect signatures from veterans. Young’s signature was the wing panel’s 105th since 2010, when a restorer of old planes in Chino, California, donated the B-17 panel to commemorators of the bomb group. Ellefson, his friend Mike Jerrell, and others have driven across the country with the 45-pound panel, which measures about 8 feet long by 3 feet wide, in an effort to find as many 384th veterans as possible and ask for their signatures before placing the name-covered panel in a museum at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
Of the 4,300 or so combat crew who served in the 384th Bomb Group, only a few hundred are probably still alive.
“Time is not on our side,” Ellefson acknowledged. There are just over 1 million American veterans of World War II still living, according to the website for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and more than 500 die every day.
Young is one of two still-living members of his original crew, which carried out about 25 bombing runs throughout Europe until the war’s end. In the close-call landing in Poland, Young and the crew members waited more than a month to repair their plane from the parts of a different Allied plane that had landed about 60 miles away, said John Young’s son, also named John Young, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. Though the Russian forces initially celebrated their arrival, they also wanted bombers for themselves — and so Young and the crew had to trick them into thinking they were just testing the plane when they took off for good, Young’s son said.
The older Young, a native of Jackson Parish, returned to the U.S., moved to Baton Rouge by 1970 and eventually became a regional sales representative for a tire company, while also serving as treasurer for the Republican Party in Louisiana in the late 1970s.
“It’s fulfilling to be able to meet these men and … help commemorate their service,” Ellefson said. He feels a personal connection to the bombing group — when his uncle served in the 384th, his plane also was damaged by gunfire. They crash-landed in the woods in France and were quickly rescued by advancing Allied forces. Ellefson also served in the Army for close to three decades, as an air traffic controller and on planes in Vietnam.
But his uncle’s experience was not isolated, since no mission for the 384th Bomb Group was an easy ride. More than a third of the crew’s 4,300 combat members were either killed, injured or captured by the war’s end, according to historical data provided by Ellefson. And more than half of the group’s planes were damaged or destroyed.
“It was not like a commuter flight to Atlanta and back,” Ellefson said.
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter, @_dbethencourt.