I sat beside Ralph Anderson at a few of Eggleston Elementary School’s Christmas parties. Both of our wives taught there and we were dragged along to make merry.
Ralph, who died in 2012 at the age of 86, was soft-spoken and a gentleman. I liked him. I would never have guessed the terror and trauma he went through during World War II until someone mentioned that I should do a Tribune story on his service. After a few second thoughts, he decided it was maybe time to talk about it.
So he took me back to Sept. 11, 1944.
“We were bombing synthetic oil factories near Merseburg, Germany that day,” he told me during our interview in 2002. “Another bomb group had somehow gotten in front of us and we had to do a 360-degree turn to wait for our turn.”
Ralph could see it all. He was the bombardier on a B-17 in the 92nd Bomb Group and was positioned in the nose of the plane — with a picture-window view of Germany from more than 20,000 feet up.
“After we finally bombed our target, some of the flak was close enough to us that I could actually see their flames,” he said.
And then the enemy fighters swooped down from above. Ralph could see one coming right at him.
“I heard one of our wings get hit,” he continued. “Suddenly, it was on fire.”
Ralph turned to see that his escape hatch was blocked by fire and reached for a small extinguisher. He also had the presence of mind to snap on his parachute.
“No sooner than that, the B-17 went into a spin. The next thing I knew, I was free of the plane, the air stinging my face where I had been burned. Apparently, the plastic glass in the nose had popped out and I fell out of the plane.”
On his way down, a man without a parachute passed him. He recognized that it was the plane’s navigator.
“I saw his body when I got to the ground,” Ralph said. “None of the other crew members made it out of the plane before it crashed. I didn’t know it for certain at the time, but I was the only survivor.”
Although his face was burned and he had suffered a sprained ankle form his landing, Ralph knew he had escaped almost certain death. Germans quickly captured him and rounded up about 20 other survivors of planes that had been shot down that day.
They were put on a prison train to Barth on the Baltic Sea.
“I was up high in what would be the baggage compartment and I could see out a little window. We actually went by some of the factories in Merseburg and I could see the twisted steel and some of the other damage our bombs had done.”
He was a prisoner of war for seven months before the Russians finally freed him. “What helped keep a lot of us going was that we knew we were going to win the war,” Ralph added.
When he returned to the United States, he met his future wife Fay while both were students at Hiram College in Ohio. They moved to South Bend in 1952 and had three children. Ralph worked for Associates.
Life, so good for so many years, seemed to fly by for Ralph. But it always slowed down just a little in September when he would again remember how he had escaped a burning B-17 while the rest of his crew was lost.
“I never tried to dwell on it or get too emotional, but it’s difficult to forget something like that,” he admitted.
He always considered himself lucky, maybe blessed, for surviving that day all those years ago. But after he lost Fay in 1999 after 50 years of marriage, Sept. 11 no longer seemed quite as significant.
Then two years later on Sept. 11. 2001, that date crushed Ralph Anderson — along with the rest of us — once more.
“Such a sad day,” he said to me.
One that already had been forever etched in his mind.
Contact Bill at [email protected]