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MY HERO — Shot Down Twice, Airman Brought Parachute Home to Become His Bride’s Wedding Dress

American pilot volunteered to stay behind enemy lines and faced epic trek to freedom


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Source: Charles Stanley

As I grew up, my father — Charles E. Stanley Sr. — lived a quiet life working as an accountant for a utility company. I knew he had been a bomber pilot during World War II, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Nearly every kid’s father was a veteran of the war — mine seemed no different.

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But he was.

My father had been shot down twice, first over Romania, then over Yugoslavia. When he returned from the war and married my mother, she wore a wedding gown made from the parachute he had used the second time he bailed out. He carried that parachute for about 130 miles as he trudged from what is now Bosnia into modern-day Croatia.

I didn’t begin to look into his story until 1999, when he was 77. It turned out that he, like many ordinary men from the greatest generation, had participated in some truly extraordinary events.

On Oct. 13, 1944, my father’s B-24 bomber was critically damaged over Blechhammer, a key German synthetic fuel plant. With two of his four engines knocked out, he realized he could not return to his base in Italy. The conventional move would have been to try to reach the nearby Russian lines in Poland. 

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My father knew, however, that drunken Russian pilots often attacked U.S. bombers that ventured into their airspace. He also knew an American delegation was stationed in Bucharest. Although Romania was three times farther than Poland, he opted to fly there over the strenuous objections of his copilot. In my extensive research, I have found no other pilot who did so.

His gamble paid off, but just barely. His remaining engines failed just after he passed the German lines, and he bailed out from an altitude so low the jump should have killed him.

That was a terrific story, but it was only when I researched my father’s second bailout — the one over Yugoslavia — that I realized he had participated in historic, yet previously unexplored, events. No one, I discovered, had written about the 2,000 Allied airmen sheltered by Marshal Tito’s Partisans during the war.

This untold story, I decided, had to be told.

When my father returned to combat after his first bailout, his plane again took flak hits over Blechhammer. This time, he flew toward a zone held by Partisans in modern-day Bosnia. He and his crew bailed out safely and linked up with the underground, but they became trapped behind enemy lines. Eventually, 84 downed airmen gathered in Sanski Most, the town that gave them shelter.

Bad weather and the nearby German army prevented an evacuation for more than a month. The war-torn area lacked the resources to support the stranded airmen. Relations with their Partisan hosts strained to the breaking point. Several efforts to retrieve them by air failed. 

At last, British secret agents called in three C-47 transport planes for a rescue. The transports could only carry 66 of the airmen, so 18 had to remain behind. As was typical of my father, he volunteered to be one of those who stayed. The major in charge of the planes promised to return for them the next day, but never did.

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As a result, my father and the others were forced to traverse the Dinaric Alps in January 1945, the most severe winter of the century. Blizzards dropped 6 feet of snow along their path. Two of their Partisan guides froze to death, but the airmen all survived their journey and reached the safety of Sinj, where they were able to board a train.

During my research, I discovered that my father’s copilot from the first bailout — the one who had objected to flying to Romania — had taken credit for the feat in my father’s absence and had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. My father did not care about the medal. The only thing that mattered to him was that his crew returned safely from both bailouts.

My book about his and the other airmen’s adventures was published last year. My father did not live to see his story told, though he knew it was in the works. He died in 2004, the day after he returned from witnessing the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington. It seemed he had been allowed to live just long enough to receive the thanks of his country.

I’m not really one for hero worship. Heroes have a way of falling off their pedestals. Yet the more I learned about my father, the more my respect for his capabilities and his strength of character grew. He and his fellow airmen are my heroes.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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