FT. MYERS, Fla.— At 94, Paul Herring, forever a man in red and black where blue and orange colors dominate, has very few memory lapses. Events in his life 70 years ago are as clear and vivid as they were when his B-17 was shot down over Belgium in March of 1944.
Herring was the pilot of an aircraft which was on a bombing raid in Berlin when his plane “developed some engine problems.” Unable to maintain speed, he had to leave the group formation. From that point forward, serendipity graced his life and left him with a remarkable story to tell. The rest of the story is that he survived the war and returned safely home to his family, but he never talked about his experiences, which is the way it was for most members of The Greatest Generation, who refused to call attention to themselves. They were simply doing a job.
Whenever I see young people showing off today — like a linebacker who makes a big play in a game and then struts about as if to say, “Look at me!” — I wish that they could have experienced the threat this country faced in World War II. I wish they could know men like Paul Herring, who was born in Tifton and was a near graduate of the University of Georgia.
Back to the story of his crippled aircraft. Leaving the bomber group and returning to base, the plane was attacked by German fighter aircraft whose fire damaged the plane, knocking out one engine and causing fire in the other. Unable to maintain safe air speed, the crew made the decision to abandon ship over Nazi-occupied Belgium. Here are Paul’s recollections:
“We placed the plane on automatic pilot in a slight decent and bailed out. It was about 1 p.m. I said a prayer as I left the plane, pulled the parachute ripcord, and looked up to see the chute blossom above me. It was a beautiful sight. I remember thinking how quiet it was as I drifted down through the clouds. It was snowing and the ground was very hard (perhaps frozen). I landed with a hard jolt. I did not stand but gathered my parachute and crawled over to a haystack. There were several in the field where I landed. The haystacks were large, and I had no problem concealing myself and the parachute. I remained hidden in the haystack until dusk and walked down a nearby road to a house, not more than a quarter-mile away. There was a barn close behind the house, and I went into the barn, climbed into the loft, made a bed of hay and spent the night. About daylight the next morning, I heard some voices and climbed down and walked to the door of the barn. There were two women in the yard doing some chores, and, I, of course, startled them. They were yelling and motioning for me to leave. An older man heard the commotion and came out of the house. Using mostly sign language, I told him I was an American flyer who landed nearby and needed help.”
Help would be his lifeline to freedom six months later. During this time, several Belgian families risked their lives to protect him. The Belgian resistance, Arme Blanche, with passionate contempt for the occupiers of their homeland, protected many downed fliers, fully aware that had they been caught they would have faced a firing squad. One of his hosts, Henri Lechiens, was caught hiding another American pilot and was shot. Fortunately, his wife Adriene escaped. “I think those people were the bravest I have ever met in my life. I owe my life to them,” Paul said.
Living in hiding from March until September 1944, Paul enjoyed not only protection, but also Belgian hospitality and selflessness. His freedom was limited, and he spent countless hours reminiscing about his days on the Georgia campus. His cover was that he was a deaf and dumb tailor.
The last family he lived with had a short-wave radio and listened to the BBC broadcasts in the mornings and evenings. That’s how they learned of the D-Day landings June 6, 1944, which led to rescue when a U.S.–armored column reached him in a place called Blaregnies.
He returned home and remembers completing all of his degree requirements at Georgia, except for one course. Sitting in his breakfast room in his modest house on Coconut Street, he smiled at his wife of 66 years, Mary Hale, and said, “I regret that very much. My time at the University of Georgia means so much to me.”
Loran Smith is co-host of “The Tailgate Show” and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.