Highly decorated World War II pilot John Furrer of Manteca’s Del Webb community is among 100 veterans departing Friday on a Northern California Honor Flight to Washington, D.C, to visit the memorials at the nation’s capital.
Furrer was drafted into the Army Air Corps as a buck private in World War II just one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor and reached the rank of Lt. Colonel in the Korean Campaign. He had worked as a welder at the shipyards right out of Fremont High School until he got his draft notice.
Furrer said when the Army was putting him through a potential classification selection screening he voiced his interest in flying and said he thought he would like to be a paratrooper. He was given a test for pilot training instead and the rest is history.
After his initial ground school, he experienced his first flight training in a PT-17 trainer. It was a bi-plane with him taking the front seat and the pilot in the rear. Furrer flew solo after just four and a half hours in the air.
Of the 100 veterans leaving on a flight out of San Francisco this Friday, 50 are from Northern California, Furrer said. He noted that he has visited Washington previous times but this will give him a rare opportunity to take time with the memorials.
The longtime military pilot was assigned to the 349th Squadron of the 100th Bomb Group. He had flown 29 bombing missions over Germany as a 20-year-old commander of his Flying Fortress before being hit by heavy ground fire over Frankfurt-on-Main.
Orders crew to bail when his flak suit got stuck after being hit
He had ordered his crew to bail out with two engines on fire as he found his flak suit caught in his cockpit seat and he couldn’t free himself. By the time crew members had freed him the B-17 went into a vertical dive and plummeted some 14,000 feet. He was able to regain control and keep it from crashing. He had feathered the two engines and the dive was so extreme that it extinguished the fire, he added.
Back in level flight he realized that the anti-aircraft flak had damaged his navigational equipment and he was lost with gunners still in the waist of the ship and the tail turret. It was at a time in the war when P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft had recently been assigned to fly protective cover to the bombers on their missions. Prior to that, the bomb crews were their own protection.
Furrer and four gunners still aboard were wandering aimlessly above a solid overcast. The forward crew members had followed orders and jumped over the target area, with the remaining crew not knowing their exact location or direction of flight. The others had opted to stay with the shot-up plane .
Lost but not forgotten a single Mustang, piloted by Lt. John Evans, of Long Beach, climbed through the overcast and intercepted Furrer’s B-17 finding it limping along on two engines. With no radio contact the fighter pilot used hand signals to communicate with the waist gunner S/Sgt Paul Miller.
All of the loose equipment including maps and coordinates had been quickly dropped overboard to lessen the cargo weight in an effort to use up less fuel.
Lt. Evans led the four engine bomber back toward London where Furrer was able to land his plane safely. The few crew members – all gunners – who had made it back with Furrer met Evans on the landing strip at Thorpe Abbotts air base showing their appreciation to the fighter jockey responsible for saving their lives.
Evans had later confirmed he pulled up alongside the B-17 and used sign language to get Furrer to turn the plane around 180 degrees and follow him – they had unknowingly been flying back toward Germany.
At first the airmen believed the fighter pilot was possibly a German aviator who was trying to trick them into navigating in the wrong direction and not back toward London.
Went on to serve as pilot for Holiday Airlines
Furrer, who later became a commercial pilot for Holiday Airlines, will never forget the scenario he faced on his last bomb run on December 29, 1944. It was his final mission out of a possible 30 and he was ordered back home after it was over due to stress at the young age of 20.
He wrote in his report on that mission that as they entered the bomb run he and his crew had encountered extreme headwinds with his navigator reporting a ground speed of less than 100 miles per hour.
“Needless to say, the enemy flak that we were experiencing was heavy and persistent. Immediately after releasing our bombs from aircraft ‘Lassie Come Home,’ the plane took a direct flak hit. The flak struck the left wing area and immediately flames engulfed the wing and the number one and two engines. The flames extended well beyond the aircraft tail section,” Furrer recalled.
He said the force of the impact blew the aircraft upwards and to the right causing it to be totally out of control. “How we avoided hitting other aircraft in the formation can only be attributed to good luck.”
Furrer said he gave the bailout order because he feared an explosion, explaining that the crewmen in the forward section of the aircraft complied while other gunners decided to stay with their aircraft.
“It was then that I realized my flak suit was entangled with my seat and, if I was going to execute a successful evacuation, I had to regain control of the aircraft,” he said.
Of the crew members that had bailed out, three officers were interred as prisoners of war in Germany and a sergeant was killed in action.
Met President Roosevelt
One of Furrer’s special memories was being able to meet President Franklin D. Roosevelt at an event with Lord Halifax. Furrer said the President stopped right in front of him and he got to speak to Roosevelt.
The Mantecan flew for Holiday Airlines as a captain for seven years, taking Hollywood stars from the Los Angeles airport to Lake Tahoe for their engagements on stage. He had gotten out of the service in 1968 before flying the notables and later piloting Air Canada for Holiday shuttling workers to the Yellow Knife area oil fields.
One experience he describes as being a near death flight was when he was flying to the far north and was told he had clear weather with 25 miles visibility – not so when he got into the approach.
“It was zero-zero with a minimum altitude of 250 feet,” he remembers, saying he just followed his altimeter reading. When it got down to 25 feet, he caught sight of the runway as he came out of the clouds.
Questioning the Yellow Knife airport official who had given him the weather report, he asked why he was given the wrong weather conditions. He said he was told they needed the replacement personnel and equipment. They knew if they had told him the truth, the crew wouldn’t have attempted the trip, he added.