Unplanned Parachuting Into Berlin

Benjamin B. Ferencz

Please allow me to jump ahead of my story to tell you a story about jumping. In March 1948, while waiting for the Judges to decide one of the cases, myself, General Taylor, his Deputy James McHaney, and our wives, had a rather memorable experience. We all faced sudden death together. We were flying from Berlin back to Nuremberg on an old C-47 propeller aircraft with two engines. Army regulations prescribed that all passengers be strapped in a harness with two large rings in the front. That was where a parachute could be attached in an emergency. We were also required to sign a waiver of all possible claims. No one paid much attention to such bureaucratic nonsense; not even Mary Taylor, who was five months pregnant. When we assembled for the flight from Berlin to Nuremberg, the weather was miserable—it was cold and windy and raining hard. Visibility was poor. No civilian aircraft would have been allowed to fly. My dear wife, Gertrude, told me that she had dreamt of dead pigeons the night before. I jokingly warned the pilot, a cheerful young Lieutenant, Tom Squires of Texas, “Be careful, the life you save may be my own.”

With help from a crew member, we climbed into our harnesses. When my wife complained that the straps were too loose, I replied, in my usual jocular manner, that she probably wouldn’t fall out. I am sometimes noted for my bad jokes. We had been aloft for only a few minutes Taylor noticed that the right engine was spewing oil. Within moments, a stream of smoke poured along the fuselage and the engine began to backfire, rocking the plane with its explosions. The pilot immediately shut down the engine. The old workhorse was supposed to fly on one engine—it didn’t.

The drag from the dead engine (if I may use the term) was pulling us down. The aircraft dropped from about 6,500 feet to about 2,500 feet and was falling fast. There was danger of fire or explosion or that the second engine would stall. The navigator, Captain James Moore of New York, quickly hooked a parachute pack to the harness of each passenger. He reminded us to count to ten before pulling the ripcord to avoid being impaled on a wing. Suddenly the order came, “Everybody out!” Below us were the ruins of the city of Berlin.

Gertrude took her official army identification card from her purse and put it into her pocket so that her body could be identified. I grabbed her hand and we rushed to the rear. Crew members were struggling to get the door open. The door was supposed to drop off when a lever was pulled. It didn’t. The wind pressure kept pushing the door back. I managed to get my left knee outside. The rest of me was still inside. Suddenly the door opened wider and I fell out into the clouds. I could see the plane continuing downward out of sight. I had no idea when I would hit the ground, but I felt it might not be advisable for me to count too slowly. I preferred a hasty, “One, two, ten!” and yanked the ripcord.

A large billowing parachute exploded above me as I swayed wildly with the wind. My first reaction was of relief that I was out of the aircraft and not lying in pieces on the ground. Then came the realization that my wife and my friends were trapped in a plane that was about to explode or crash. It was such a horrible feeling of guilt that I felt like climbing back to join and be killed with the others. When I broke through the clouds I could see that I was dropping fast into the ruins below and I might not have many options. A survival instinct must have taken over. Suddenly, I slammed into the ground. I was in the middle of a soccer field. I was unhurt and promptly unhooked my parachute. During the war, I had applied for assignment as a paratrooper, but the army rejected me on the theory that I might go up instead of down. They never did recognize my talents.

As soon as I caught my breath, I called out to some astounded youngsters nearby to get me to a phone. They ran with me to a house where, after some difficulties I managed to contact the control tower at Tempelhof. After becoming exasperated by the routine questions, such as my name, rank, and serial number, I shouted that the General’s plane was crashing, damn it, and search parties and ambulances should be dispatched immediately. I gave them my location, which, I learned, was in the Soviet sector of Berlin. I was relieved when informed by the tower that the C-47, with one pilot and copilot had just been guided to an emergency landing at Gatow airport in the British sector. What happened to any others on board was unknown.

I phoned the local German police station which promptly sent a squad car to pick me up. No sooner had I arrived at the precinct than another squad car arrived and a policeman reported that an American woman had jumped off a roof nearby and was injured. I asked for a description. He replied that she was wearing a checkered jacket. “That’s my wife,” I screamed in German, “Let’s go!” We piled into the Police Volkswagen with its horns blaring and raced to a tall apartment house where a crowd was milling about. I galloped up two flights of stairs while tenants kept pointing the way. There, in a small apartment, I found Gertrude stretched out on an old couch. Her hair was disheveled, and her head and legs were wrapped in white rags. I was very relieved and happy to see her in any condition. When she saw me, she burst into hysterical crying. When she had witnessed my fall from the plane, she concluded that I would surely be killed. No one before had ever been so shocked and happy to see that I was still alive.

Gertrude, who had followed me out of the plane, later explained that she must have lost consciousness and forgot to pull the ripcord. Fortunately, the wind brought her back to her senses and she remembered that she had to pull the ring to which the cord was attached. She did so, and the little string came out in her hand. The army never told us that it was supposed to break off that way. Gertrude was convinced that the parachute, like the engine and the door, was also defective and that her end had come. In a moment, the main parachute flew open and she began to think she might be saved. She also felt that, if she survived, I too would probably be safe.

Her shoes had flown off on their own during Gertrude’s unscheduled flight outside the aircraft. The wind blew her to a five story building with a sloping tile roof, which she slid down slowly. There was still some air in the chute and she landed in the bushes on the ground below. En route, she floated past a window from which a frightened tenant was peering with a petrified gaze, as if the Russians were again about to attack. Gertrude didn’t much resemble a Russian paratrooper and she was picked up by a few kindly neighbors and taken in to the upstairs apartment. She had enough presence of mind to ask someone to call our Berlin Office and the airport. Gertrude’s thighs were bruised by the sudden jerk of the loose straps on the harness and her leg was cut on the tiles when she slid off the roof, but in her shocked condition, she was unable to judge the severity of her injuries. That’s when I rushed in for the cheerful and tearful reunion.

We were reminded by some of the German tenants that we were in the Soviet sector and it would be best for all concerned if we left as quickly as possible. Relations between the Soviets and its former allies had been cooling rapidly. We were on the verge of a cold war that might turn hot at any moment. Soon, a U.S. Army ambulance arrived on the scene. Two American medics rushed in and delivered first aid. No sooner were we ready to depart than we were surrounded by Jeeps filled with Russian soldiers. An interpreter made clear that we were to follow them. We were accompanied by one Soviet jeep in front and one in back—just to make sure that we didn’t get lost. Our first stop was at a Red Army hospital. Gertrude was taken in on a stretcher that was placed on the floor. They insisted that she stay. The others should get back in the ambulance. When I refused to leave my wife, some burly Red soldiers, each grabbing me under one arm, made plain that I had no choice. We could not resist Soviet hospitality.

I was back in the ambulance when the search convoy of American troops surrounded the Soviet Jeeps. The commander of the unit was an American Captain who served as a liaison officer. I explained to the commander that my frightened wife was injured and lying on the floor of a Soviet hospital where no one spoke anything but Russian. He promised to send the ambulance that was in his convoy to rescue her. Meanwhile, I was to proceed to the Kommandatura or Soviet Headquarters for interrogation. There, a fat Russian Major asked me a number of stupid questions and I replied in kind. I told him that we were Nuremberg prosecutors out to convict 24 leading Nazis of murdering over a million Soviet citizens. Did he really think my wife and I were planning an aerial attack on the Soviet Union? It didn’t take too long to convince him that it was in his best interest to let me go.

Sergeant Dudley, our crew chief, was also there for interrogation. He had dislocated his shoulder trying to keep the C-47 door open. From the Kommndatura, we were both taken to the American army hospital in Berlin, where all survivors of the jump were being assembled. General Taylor had suffered painful back injuries when he landed on a concrete intersection in the Russian sector. German civilians had whisked him away directly to the U.S. Army’s 279th General Hospital. As soon as I arrived at the American hospital I inquired about the others and hastened to the bedside of my Chief. The General was worried about the other passengers and crew, and particularly about his pregnant wife. I reported that she was safe and sound. She had also landed on a roof and fallen three stories to the street, in the French sector. She was taken to what was known as The Jewish Hospital, before being transported by taxi to the 279th. Aside from a few bruises and a black eye she seemed to be in excellent condition. A few months later she gave birth to a handsome baby boy named John.

Jim and Marilyn McHaney soon arrived from the French sector where they made their unscheduled landing. Marilyn was last seen on the plane with her head buried in her hands; she and Jimmy were refusing to jump. How they left the plane I cannot say since I was busy elsewhere at the time. Marilyn had landed on the banks of a stream and suffered only a sprained ankle. Jim had landed unhurt on a flat roof and descended by climbing through the skylight. Finally, Gertrude arrived in an American ambulance to report happily that she had been interrogated, but was treated well at the Russian Military Hospital.

The only serious injury was sustained by the radio operator, who had a compound skull fracture. He lay in a coma for several days before being tenderly restored to health by a German nurse. He later married the German girl who had brought him back from the brink of death. The day after our jump, I went back to the Kommandatura to retrieve my parachute which the Russians had taken from me. I explained that it was property of the U.S. Government and they had better hand it over. I safeguarded it for the government for many years, and it became a favored tent when we celebrated family parties in my garden back home. We returned to Nuremberg on the last train out of Berlin. All air traffic between Berlin and western Germany was blocked starting that day—the cold war was on.