WINCHESTER – Near the end of the Roll of Honor for World War II (and now the new Wall of Honor), there is a name, Frederick B. Withington. It may mean little or nothing to townspeople now, but once residents knew it represented a young man doing a tough job in Europe. It represented a family’s hopes and fears as he flew missions over Europe and went missing in action, not once but twice.
Born in Winchester in 1922, Frederick Burnham “Ted” Withington grew up in Hawaii where his father was a pastor. The family was there when Pearl Harbor was attacked, though Ted was at Harvard. Following his father’s sudden death in 1943, his mother, also a Winchester native, returned to Winchester with his two younger brothers. He himself had already been called up.
Withington trained to become a pilot.
“I’ve never had a better time in my life,” he wrote to his family on April 5, 1943. “Beforehand I didn’t know whether I would be nervous or afraid, but all I had was a feeling of elation.”
He received his wings on Feb. 8, 1944, and visited Winchester on his first leave in three years. Then he was chosen to train as a pilot of a Liberator B-24 bomber. That August found him on board a ship in a convoy crossing the Atlantic, his ultimate destination being the 15th Air Force base in Pantanella, Italy.
On Sept. 17, after several practice missions, Withington flew his first real mission over Hungary. Later, he flew a mission over Munich. More missions followed.
Flying now evoked other emotions than elation.
“On Oct. 4 we flew the 6th sortie … to a railroad marshaling yard in Munich, Germany,” he wrote in his journal. “The flak was ‘intense and accurate’ (Rough!!) and we were hit some. A ship near us got a direct hit and blew up with a wing almost hitting us. We were in flak for over 5 minutes.”
“Oct. 13 Sortie # 9, our farthest target, Blechhammer South Oil Refinery in German Silesia where the Germans make oil out of coal. It lasted 8 hours and 30 minutes. My 13th mission on Friday the 13th with 13 ships from our squadron! This one was ROUGH!! Over 1,300 miles round trip. Hit flak over the target and out on the rally for about 7 minutes. Felt blasts shake ship. A few holes, one big one.”
On Nov. 17, 1944, he wrote to his brother Bill about flying over Vienna with young men “variously trying to solve the problem of ‘INTENSE, HEAVY, & ACCURATE’ flak by closing their eyes and trying to forget where they are…. Those who do have to watch what’s going on spend their time mentally trying to dodge those cute little black puffs, as you can see them slowly but surely hunting out your range.… Sometimes a near one will send a rattle of hail against the ship, and little jagged holes will appear in the wings – Gulp! About that time all you can see of me is a shriveled up ball inside a helmet (don’t I wish it). All of a sudden a crash just about makes me s--- in my pants. Softy, my co-pilot and I are about ready to think we have both been ‘scragged,’ but all that happened was the plexiglas window beside him getting blasted open. We look at each other & I know we are both laughing with relief, though goggles & mask cover his face.”
He saw planes in his group explode or go down. If one went down and out of sight, he hoped for the best.
“So many M.I.A.’s return and even some P.O.W.’s – the chances are pretty damn good of getting home if you are determined to,” he wrote to his brother, “and in this game M.I.A. only means Missing and nothing more serious, in more cases than not.”
Bill had more than one opportunity to hang onto those words.
On Dec. 2, ordered back to Blechhammer, “We flew across the Adriatic, over Yugoslavia, Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, to German Silesia…. We encountered no flak all the way down the bomb run until the ‘Bombs Away’ signal. Then it hit! ...
“The bursts that I had been feeling had hit us in a number of places.”
One engine was smoking; another started to vibrate. Some of the wing fuel tanks were punctured. They lost the trim tabs and auto pilot. After trying to stay with his group, he asked the navigator for a heading to Russian-held territory. His plane was seen to drop behind and lose altitude.
For almost three weeks, that was the last his command or family knew. He was MIA. In fact, Withington had set down on a field in Poland. Though the plane was in bad shape, all the men survived, despite being fired upon while landing by “the air defense of the field,” teenagers with small anti-aircraft guns “who had been told to shoot at any plane not stationed at that field.”
On Dec. 7, he began the journey back to the 15th AF base via the Ukraine, Teheran, Cairo, and Malta, finally arriving on Dec. 20. At last he was able to cable his mother, “We are all safe and happy.”
Three days later, he wrote to Bill, “For a while it was pretty rough and I thought I would never fly again and I thought I had lost my courage.… Now I’m back with the old gang in the squadron, I’m actually eager to start flying missions again. Naturally I’m just as scared of flak and fighters (probably more so), but I know now that no matter how bad things go, you can usually keep fighting and pull through with an average amount of luck.”
The missions continued and got worse.
On March 2, 1945, Withington wrote in his journal about Sortie #24. They headed for their target, the Maribor railroad yards in Yugoslavia.
“We got hit hard just after bombs away. Many instruments and controls were made useless.”
There were problems with all four engines.
“I was hit in the chest and wrist but my flak vest saved me. We turned for Partizan held territory, as we had been briefed…. I told the crew to bail out, because I figured we were over Partizan held mountains in the middle of Yugoslavia. I followed the rest of the crew out.
“It was an eerie experience as the windstream hit when I tumbled out of the bomb bay doors. I had no sensation of falling, except the wind rushing past my face. I remembered to pull the rip cord….
“I looked around and could see the plane circling back towards me. It came on, two engines still roaring and passed no more than 100 feet away before crashing into a field below…. Then I saw some flashes from the ground and realized that someone was shooting tracer bullets at me and the others in chutes. Fortunately their aim was not good, and I suddenly realized the ground was coming up very fast.”
All who jumped landed alive, though some were injured. Luckily they had landed in territory held by the Partisans in Croatia. But the Germans were sweeping the mountain area to try to clear them out. So the Americans had to leave.
According to the Squadron newsletter Flim Flam, “the crew underwent a series of harrowing experiences before reaching safety. Strafed by Jerry 109’s, surrounded by German forces on all sides, the men were taken from town to town, barely escaping with their lives”
At one point they hid under a bridge while a German armored car rumbled over it and stopped. But it soon left and they continued on.
On March 3, after walking all morning, they arrived at a Partisan hospital hidden from the Germans and left one of the men there. The rest continued on to the British Mission where they gave their news to send back. The next day two B-25s with a P-51 escort dropped supplies for them and the Mission.
On March 9, the men began moving again, walking or hitching rides on carts, always evading the Germans. They spent time with a “mobile hospital,” ox-drawn carts carrying the wounded, from village hideout to village hideout. On some days they saw 15th Air Force bombers overhead on their way to targets.
On March 12, they finally got on a Russian plane which took them to Belgrade. Back in Italy they were told they would no longer have to fly and would be sent back to the States. Withington went home decorated.
“I have two air medals, two battle stars and my theatre ribbon and the Presidential Citation,” he told Bill the previous December, “but so does everybody else around here.”
Later he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross and was cited for “displaying the highest order of professional skill, heroism, leadership and devotion to duty.”
After a 30-day leave with his family, which included V-E Day, he was stationed at bases in the South before being discharged in October.
“My good luck had held for three crucial years and I had passed through the most critical testing of my life. This is when we 20 year olds ‘became men.’”
In December 1944, Withington wrote to his brother about the laughs the men would get reading certain articles about the war.
“The biggest targets are these hero stories & ‘why I fight’ stuff. I’m sure some idealist would be in for a shock if they really knew what the guys that are in combat think when the going is rough. I may be wrong in a lot of cases, but I think that training and the Army system have a hell of a lot more in making a guy fight than any high ideals. Training and the feeling you can’t help having – something to do with Duty & doing a job you are assigned – keep you going more than anything. Personal pride in not backing out and the fact that you don’t have any choice have a lot to do with our actions too. In most cases you just can’t help yourself in doing the right thing.”
Wall of Honor
Withington’s name is not only on the Roll of Honor but his photograph is also part of a new Wall of Honor, a photo-documentation project in progress to collect images of WWII veterans.
It has been 75 years since the Roll of Honor was dedicated. To many it may appear simply a list of names, the individuals and their stories forgotten. One goal of Winchester’s WWII 75th Anniversary Committee has been to gather pictures and other documentation of individual veterans, to recall their stories.
This aim caught the attention of the Spirit of ’45, a national coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to preserving the legacy of the men and women of “the Greatest Generation,” so that “their example of personal courage, shared sacrifice, ‘can-do’ attitude and service to community can inspire Americans to come together to meet historic challenges of our era.”
Among the Spirit of ’45’s projects is a Wall of Honor formed from photos of the men and women who served in uniform during the war. A similar local photo-documentation project is underway for Winchester’s service men and women. To participate, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.