Luck of the Draw: My Story of the Air War in Europe
“Murphy is plain-spoken, a man of faith and modesty, and the ideal person to write this World War II memoir. One hopes the television series will be half as good.”
Luck of the Draw, Frank Murphy’s I-was-there memoir of the air war over Europe in 1943, was originally published in 2001 when the author was still alive. It is being brought out again in conjunction with Masters of the Air, an Apple+ series about the 100th Bomb Group (“The Bloody Hundredth”) that included Murphy and many other brave crew members.
These were very young men, aged between 20 and 25, flying B-17 bombers that carried crews of 10. Though the planes were equipped with gunners, they had few defenses against the Luftwaffe. The fliers were well aware of the dangers they faced—the 100th lost 45 aircraft and their crews in less than four months of combat. And yet, as Murphy points out, the pilots, bombardiers and navigators climbed into their planes day after day, without complaint, with zero shirking, and set out across Europe. If they completed 25 missions they could go home, but no one ever reached that milestone.
When the planes were shot down by fighters or flak, most of the time some crew members were killed, others captured (as Murphy was) and a few made it back to friendly lines and ultimately to home base in England.
We should be grateful to have this book again, with or without a TV tie-in. A lot of cliches have been spilled about the Greatest Generation, but without ever being the least bit boastful Frank Murphy embodies it. And like many other World War II veterans he put his accomplishments aside in the postwar world, rarely even thinking about what happened until a return trip to England in 1968 brought memories flooding back. Ultimately, Murphy remembered just about everything, augmented by excellent research.
Twenty B-17s, each powered by four wing-mounted 1,200-horsepower Wright Cyclone engines, took part in the October 10, 1943 raid on the rail lines at Münster, Germany, flying east over Holland and then to the top of the Ruhr Valley. Murphy’s Crew No. 31, some of them men he’d been with from the beginning, took off fourth in order, in “Aw-R-Go,” B-17F 42-30725. Inside the cabin, it was freezing cold, extremely cramped, and deafening. By the time the convoy reached landfall in Holland, it was down to 13 aircraft.
Aw-R-Go (Murphy never did figure out what the name meant) was midway through its bomb run when, the author writes, “a horrendous fiery explosion erupted about 25 to 30 feet directly under [another convoy plane] M’lle Zig Zag. In our previous 20 missions, we experienced a few close hits from flak. The concussion from an 88 mm or 105 mm shell exploding was one thing; the concussion from this explosion was two, maybe even three times more intense, and it struck us so violently that it felt as though we had stopped in midair for a moment or two, as if having hit a brick wall.” The continuous shrapnel sounded like “a handful of pebbles striking a metal bucket.”
Despite this, the bombing run concluded, and shortly after “as I was firing the left nose gun at the attacking German fighters, a violent explosion just behind me and to my left sent me crashing to the floor. I immediately felt a burning sensation in my left arm and shoulder as they began to ache and go numb. I knew I had been hit.”
The wounded Murphy parachuted out of his burning plane (which later broke apart in mid-air), and luckily a Messerschmitt Me-109 “flying straight at me” held its fire. “I continued my fall into I knew not what.” As often happened, two crew members died in the plane (airmen Charles A. Clark and Orlando E. Vincenti), but eight, Murphy among them, landed in Holzhausen, a farming community northeast of Munich. A German woman told him, in perfect English, “For you, the war is over.” Hundreds of other captured airmen reported hearing the same phrase.
On the ground, a teenage member of a Luftwaffe flak battery, Heinz Hessling, saw the plane go down. He and Murphy later met on several trips to Germany, and Hessling presented Murphy with a painting of the plane on its last mission. They became friends, and a version of that painting is on the book’s cover.
The latter part of the narrative details Murphy’s experiences in Stalag Luft III, which he reached on October 22. The camp held mostly captured airmen, and although it had many privations—no hot water and limited food among them—it was humane compared to other German prison camps. The men had a camp newspaper and even built a theater. Liberation came (after a horrendous march to a second camp) on April 29, 1945. Murphy went home, got married to Ann Parks, worked for Lockheed in the insurance division, and had four children.
Murphy is plain-spoken, a man of faith and modesty, and the ideal person to write this World War II memoir. One hopes the television series will be half as good.