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Jackson flew the "Wampus Cat" B-17 bomber in WWII

Ernest Britt Jackson, left standing, with crew in front of the Wampus Cat B-17.

Ernest Britt Jackson, left standing, with crew in front of the Wampus Cat B-17.

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Ernest Britt Jackson

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Wampus Cat B-17 Ernest Britt Jackson served on in 1943 crash landed in Holland after it was shot down by German fighters.

The late Newton County resident Britt Jackson spent 15 months as a prisoner of war in the infamous Stalag 17 during World War II. Known by many Americans as the setting for the hit TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes," Stalag 17 was certainly not a situation comedy to the airmen imprisoned there.

Jackson died in 2009, but his wife, Mary, heard all the stories.

"Britt told me the men almost froze to death. Food was scarce, usually a rutabaga per day. Britt hated rutabagas ever since."

Jackson enlisted in the Army Air Corps in September 1942. He attended airplane mechanics school and later training on B-17 Flying Fortresses.

After gunnery school, Jackson was sent to Thurleigh, England, with the 8th AF, 306th Bomb Group, 423rd Squadron and mostly flew on the B-17 "Wampus Cat". Jackson served as flight engineer and top turret gunner.

"We didn't know what was going on or what Britt was doing since our mail was heavily censored, but we knew the men on those B-17s over Europe had it pretty rough," said Mary, who was Jackson's hometown sweetheart and future wife.

Pretty rough meant a German fighter's 20mm shells ripping through the fuselage, blasting off a wing, or blowing off the nose canopy. B-17s receiving direct hits from flak (German anti-aircraft fire) would often explode into massive fireballs, taking a crew of nine or 10 down with them.

The notion of "strategic bombing" was tested over Europe with mixed results. The experiment was costly: 80,000 fly boys dead, wounded, or missing in action.

In his book, "First Over Germany," Russell Strong notes that on Feb. 24, 1944, T/Sgt Ernest Britt Jackson received a confirmed kill of a German fighter during a bombing mission on the heavily defended town of Schweinfurt, Germany. It would be one of four enemy aircraft credited to Jackson during the war.

Jackson was flying on his 24th mission when the "Wampus Cat" ran out of luck. The B-17 was over Brunswick when the bomb bay doors malfunctioned during the bomb run and possibly shorted out wiring on the back wall of the cockpit. Fire and smoke filled the cockpit as the plane fell out of formation. German fighters immediately pounced on the stricken prey.

Number 2 and 3 engines were shot out. The tail gunner was dead. Number 1 and 4 engines were leaking oil. A waist gunner was wounded in the leg. Then over Holland, number 4 engine finally seized, which left only number 1 engine working. "Wampus Cat" was going down.

"Bail out, bail out!" blared over the intercom.

"Britt threw out the dead tail gunner and pulled his ripcord, that way at least his body could be recovered," Jackson's wife recalled. "Then he gave morphine to the wounded waist gunner and they both bailed out."

A German soldier with a German shepherd was waiting for Jackson when he hit the ground.

"The dog kept barking, but Britt gently put out his hand and the dog licked it," Mary said. "The soldier got so mad he hit Britt with his rifle butt."

Jackson was interrogated by German officers in the Amsterdam city jail.

"To avoid giving information, Britt said he acted like a moron," his wife said. "His ploy worked because the Germans said he was the dumbest American they'd ever talked to."

Liberated by personnel from one of Gen. George Patton's armored divisions, Jackson came home on the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth. He was hungry and skinny from his Stalag 17 ordeal. Jackson volunteered for kitchen duty to have access to food. By the time the Queen Elizabeth made port in the U.S., Jackson had gained 20 pounds.

Britt and Mary married on the fourth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1945. He retired from the Ford Motor Company in 1978.

"We loved and laughed for 63 years with never a cross word," Mary said. "Britt had a wonderful sense of humor. Oh, would you like to see the book he published?"

"What I Liked Best at Stalag 17" by WWII POW and humorist Britt Jackson is a brilliantly thought-out piece of literature, all 450 blank pages of it.

Clarification, Jan. 12, 2012: The headline of this story was revised. The term "Wampus Cat" was the name given by the crew of Jackson's B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. At that time, it was customary for crew members to give their bombers unique monikers.

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen. Contact him at petemecca@gmail.com.