BELLE GLADE — Born in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1924, Veteran Vernon Dexter enlisted in the Army Air Corps because he was a member of ROTC in high school, and he was determined he was not going to be drafted and walk in the Army. When the war started, he said his draft number was very low, and he knew he would not be happy doing a bunch of walking, and he had always loved flying, so several of the guys at school talked it over, and three or four of them decided to join the Air Corps. He took his examination while he was still in high school, and though he passed with a high score, there were no openings at that time, and he had to wait. Six months later, they called him. He felt he had dodged a bullet because “I knew I wasn’t a good aimer, so I better fly.”
Mr. Dexter was sent to California for basic training and then spent a little over a year learning as much as possible about flying an airplane. As his wife Jeannette said, “It was not nearly enough time to go from being a high school boy to flying B-17s, but that’s all the time they had.”
He and his crew began to learn how to fly in formation, take off and land and more advanced work including working with instruments. They also had to learn the mechanics of their plane. While they flew in the states, they flew in formations of three planes, but once overseas, the standard formation was what they called a box of seven, although sometimes they did not have the seventh plane, he said. In the box, they had a V, and then under that, they had a second V, and then they had tail-end Charlie. He flew under the lead ship in the formation. This is different than you see in the movies, he explained. That’s because the movies show what was done in the 8th Air Force in England. They had nine in their box. Their formation was approximately ten-miles wide. When they dropped their bombs all at once, they were bombing a wide swath. The 15th Air Force didn’t like that idea, he said. They wanted a narrow concentration on the exact target.
“We flew so close our wings were only ten feet apart, and B-17s are huge, so you can imagine what that was like,” he said. They flew in formation because they could get more accuracy when the bombs were dropped. They were carrying 1,000 pounders and would only have four or five, he said, so that means you want that pattern to be concentrated on the target area. Flying in formation also gave them maximum firepower for defense. The B-17 had 13 guns on it. With all 13 guns firing in different directions, there was better protection. The way the other army flew, they were scattered out so they could be shot down more easily.
When they arrived in Italy, he flew five missions with an experienced crew before he was allowed to fly with his own crew, but finally they had their first successful mission on their own.
The day they were shot down, they were going on what they called a “milk run” which meant it should have been fairly simple, with minimal resistance from the enemy, but things did not turn out as expected. The target was a railroad bridge going from Italy in toward Vienna. The plan was to close a tunnel so the Germans couldn’t use it. It was a stupid thing to do, he said, but they did it anyway.
As they approached the target area, they were 20 minutes too early so they had to do a 360 degree turn, and they were originally at 38,000 feet but dropped down to 24,000 feet after making the turn to get into position to make the run on the target. Well, the squadron commander had to get on the telephone and tell everyone he was making the turn and changing altitude and to tell their bombardiers. They all did that, but the problem was, as soon as they did, they were telling the Germans too, and the Germans got their flak guns all set up so when they approached, they started shooting.
“I took one shot just below the number three engine. It didn’t hit the engine but hit just below which put a few holes in my airplane,” said Mr. Dexter. “It blew out engines three and four so they quit immediately.”
Before he could get to the target area, his plane dropped off to the right and started losing altitude. It took a while to get it back up. He still had engines working on the left side, but they decided there was no way they could make it to the target because they couldn’t climb without all four engines. He turned around and started back on what he thought would be a trip home. He headed toward the Po River Valley and flew east planning to go out into the Adriatic Sea if push came to shove and they needed to get the life crafts out of the airplane.
As he was headed that way, he saw a big oil refinery and a relatively large town. He knew he couldn’t fly over that oil refinery, he said, so he turned and went back south. As he began to turn, both of his remaining engines gave out and they were left with no power at all.
“So, what do I do? I’m at 7,000 feet. I said, ‘well, I’m gonna land it.’ I told the boys I was gonna land in a wheat field and they could stay or bail out. They asked me if I could do that, and I told them I was gonna try. They decided to stay with me. They should have bailed out! Not really though, because that late in the war, if ground crews parachuted out by themselves, they were killed because there was no sense trying to get them to a prison. They’d just shoot you there. It was better to go in numbers because chances were, they would trek us on to a prison. So, that’s what we did.”
Remember, this was a B-17 going 125 mph, and he was landing in a wheat field with no controls of any kind. “It was a good wheat field though,” he said, “close to a mile long, and if you’ve ever been to Italy, you know that’s unusual.” The plane just would not sit down on that wheat though. It rode along on top on a bag of air. So, when he knew he was about to run out of field, he finally had to push forward on the stick, and the nose of the plane dug in, causing the plane to rise up on its nose, come back down and then break in half, making the plane unflyable.
At the end of that field was a farmhouse, and unbeknownst to them, that farmhouse was being used as a German command post for the artillery units on the front lines. When his plane landed in that wheat field, he said it looked like ants came swarming out of that house. Germans were everywhere, and they came out shooting.
“They shot the airplane up something good,” he said. Meanwhile, Mr. Dexter was busy trying to set the plane on fire so the Germans wouldn’t be able to use it in any way, but he wasn’t having much luck because they had thrown pretty much everything out of the plane before the crash including the incendiary device.
He started to climb out of the small window of the cockpit, but because he was wearing his flight jacket, he wasn’t able to fit through the window. “Well, a German grabbed me by the head and yanked me right through the window,” he laughed. He and the navigator were separated from the rest of the crew and taken inside to be interrogated. The other men were marched to a nearby canal where they were going to be shot, but just as they were about to be killed, a German commanding officer arrived and ordered them to stop.
They took them all back to the town he had seen as they were flying, and once again, he and his navigator were separated from the other men. Those men were taken on to Verona while Mr. Dexter and the navigator were kept in solitary confinement for two weeks. The idea was that they would talk to each other through the walls, and the Germans would listen to what they said to each other, he said.
“When they asked us any questions, we just said, ‘Ich verstehe nicht.’ I don’t understand,” he said.
Eventually, they walked all the way to Moosburg, to Stalag Seven, down the road from Dachau Prison Camp. It took a couple weeks to make the trip. He was housed in a barracks in what was called the infirmary zone. It had a little shower room and a lavatory. No one was allowed in there but the pilots. “We were lucky, once every two weeks, we got a Red Cross parcel. One parcel was split between two men,” he said. The parcel had five cigarettes in it, and he did not smoke, so he was able to trade his two and a half cigarettes for just about anything. “You could trade them for $1,000,” he laughed, “If anyone had $1,000.”
Besides what they received in the Red Cross packages, they were fed twice a week. On Sundays, they cooked cabbage, and on Wednesdays, they brought it out and served it to the men. On Wednesdays, they cooked more cabbage, and then on Saturday, they brought that out and served it to the men. “With each coming out, you got a little slice of bread. I enjoyed that bread. It was good. It was rolled in sawdust to preserve it. Most people didn’t like it, but I did, so I got a lot of bread,” he said.
He was there for about two months before the war ended, and then had to wait about five days before finally some trucks arrived to take them home. When he eventually arrived at Fort Douglas, to be discharged, there was some confusion because they thought he was dead and of course, he had no identification, but they eventually got it all sorted out and he was reunited with his family.
He found out after his return from the dead that he had become a 1st Lieutenant while he was in the prison camp. This was because he had been a part of the Berlin Raid. Everyone else who participated in the raid received a citation, but because he was believed to be dead, he never received his. To this day, that has never been corrected. He was a member of the 483rd Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force.
After his discharge, he joined the Air Force reserves so he could continue flying. They had a squadron in Miami flying C-46s which was a jumbo type aircraft and carried 54 passengers. When the Korean War began, replacement for the overseas group was based on how long you had been in Europe. He had been in prison but had only been over there for six months so when they needed fill-ins, his group was sent. Part of the time he was there was spent flying CIA and FBI personnel in and out of the country. He was not allowed off of the plane and could not ask any questions. “We just shut off one engine and threw out a ladder so they could climb up or down,” he said. He served for about two years during the Korean War.
In 1995, 50 years after his time in the prison camp, Mr. Dexter and his wife traveled back to Italy to find the wheat field where he landed that plane. Then, they took a train, following the same route he and his crew walked to the prison camp. It took quite a while to find what was left of it. The only thing left at that time was the front office. There is a kindergarten where his barracks once stood. Mrs. Dexter said when they married, she vowed her husband would never have to eat cabbage again and he never has.