In late 1943, one of the most heavily defended areas of Germany was the huge industrial complex in the Ruhr Valley. On Nov. 5 of that year, the 388th Bombardment Group, based at Knettishall in the UK, sent 12 B-17s of its 560th Squadron against factories at Gelsenkirchen. As always, the crews were reminded that if captured they were duty-bound to make every effort to escape, but they must not use force against their captors. If unsuccessful, that would be tantamount to a death sentence. The crew of Pistol Packin’ Momma, on its second mission, had the dubious honor of flying the Purple Heart Corner. As the formation reached its initial point, swarms of Luftwaffe fighters were reinforced by a continuous barrage of flak.
During the bomb run, Momma took hits that did extensive structural damage, knocked out two engines, and killed two crewmen. Despite these drastic distractions, bombardier 2d Lt. Donald Naughton put his bombs on target as the doomed B-17 fell out of formation. Over Holland, pilot 2d Lt. Roy Walker ordered the crew to bail out at minimum altitude. He crash-landed the bomber with no injury to himself, but two gunners still aboard were injured in the crash. The crew was rounded up by the Germans within hours.
On Nov. 7, the six uninjured crew members–four officers and two enlisted men–were put aboard a train bound for Amsterdam, under the custody of four armed German guards. It soon was apparent that the guards understood no English. Lieutenant Naughton then proposed an escape plan that the others agreed to, though the odds on success were questionable and the penalty for failure terminal.
The plan was simple but daring. At dusk, on an agreed signal, the four officers would take the guards by surprise, disarming or disabling them. The enlisted men would leap from the moving train, followed by the officers. Lieutenant Naughton, who had been a Golden Gloves boxer, was confident that he could take care of his guard with one punch and the others could handle the remaining Germans.
As dusk fell, the guards stowed their machine pistols and steel helmets and broke out their evening meal. Lieutenant Naughton gave the signal, and the attack was on.
A small table between him and his guard prevented the bombardier from landing a solid blow to the guard’s jaw. Naughton grabbed a grenade from the guard’s belt and bludgeoned him into submission. The other five Americans went out the door into the darkness, but one of the guards revived enough to strike Lieutenant Naughton a stunning blow on the head with his pistol.
Most of the others fared little better. Navigator 2d Lt. Ken Haines was recaptured almost immediately. The Dutch and French underground got TSgt. Kenneth Shaver safely to Spain and the remaining three to Paris, where they were seized by the Gestapo.
Lieutenant Naughton was taken to Amsterdam, where he was identified as leader of the attempted escape. He was severely beaten and informed that he was to be executed.
After being moved from Amsterdam to three POW camps in succession, Lieutenants Naughton and Haines were tried by a German court-martial. The prescribed penalty for attacking the guards was death. After a brilliant defense by an American POW, Maj. John Fischer, the court sentenced both men to 18 months’ solitary confinement as “war criminals,” to be served in a fortress prison at Graudenz, Poland.
On Jan. 18, 1945, Graudenz prisoners were evacuated to the west in the face of Russia’s advance through Poland. Undernourished, thinly clad, and inadequately shod, the POWs were on the road for eight days in subzero weather. Some died or were executed as stragglers. Of those who survived to reach Stalag II-B at Hammerstein, Germany, many had such severely frostbitten extremities that amputation by prison doctors was necessary.
Following a month’s recuperation, Lieutenant Naughton was sent to another POW camp further west in Germany. The prisoners at that camp were evacuated on March 9, 1945. During the march, Naughton and a Marine Corps major escaped. Ten days later, they contacted a British patrol and were sent home to the States.
Don Naughton returned to civilian life briefly, then completed pilot training and flew combat in Korea. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1965. Since he had not rejoined the 388th Bomb Group when freed in 1945, no recommendation for an award was made at the time. The Board for Correction of Military Records subsequently reviewed Naughton’s World War II records and awarded him the Silver Star for his leadership of the attempted escape in November 1943. Due to Naughton’s efforts, Kenneth Haines also was awarded the same decoration for his participation in the escape. Recognition was long in coming, but valor will out.
Published September 1992. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.