Son travels to Norway to retrace steps of downed World War II crewman
The journey to neutral Sweden would have been a long walk without food or water through hostile territory in the midst of World War II.
When John Geegee asked about his chances, a retired sea captain pulled out an old oil cloth map, pointed out the distance and discouraged the Perry County native from even making the attempt.
Unknown to them, a search party of German soldiers had taken shelter for the night in a barn just 30 feet away from the lake side cottage. The enemy was rounding up survivors from a crippled B-17 bomber that crashed in the wilderness of southwestern Norway late in the afternoon of Nov. 16, 1943.
Seventy years later, David Geegee of Highspire had the chance to meet the captain’s grandson at the very same cottage where his father stayed for the night after bailing out of the plane and evading patrols. David was joined on the trip to Norway by Glenda Geegee, his cousin from Shiremanstown.
“Everybody was so friendly,” David said of his reception by local Norwegians, who, over the generations, passed down stories of the 10 American fliers who survived the parachute descent to a countryside of picturesque lakes, dense birch forests and rocky terrain.
“It surprised me it is part of their town history,” said David, adding how his father and the crewmen were thought of as special by the residents because they were the only Allied airmen to survive being shot down over that particular part of Norway during the war.
The local historical society published a book on the Americans, and the parts salvaged from the B-17 became family heirlooms and museum pieces. Two wedding dresses were made from parachute silk.
“They never forgot the crew,” Glenda said.
The cousins traveled to Norway in mid-November to attend a 70th anniversary commemoration where they met the descendents of the family that fed and kept John Geegee. They included Kristian Hoy, who was a 4-year-old boy in November 1943.
As the story goes, the visit by John Geegee was the first memory Hoy has of his boyhood.
“My uncle gave him his first stick of gum,” Glenda said. “His family wondered over the years if my uncle was an Italian because he was very handsome. He was 100 percent Italian.”
About 18 months ago, Glenda was contacted by the daughter of Joseph Thornton, the pilot of the B-17, who was doing research for a book. That contact led to the invitation to attend the memorial outside the village of Konsmo — a memorial that included other descendants of the bomber crew and of the Norwegians they encountered before being captured by the Germans.
From Thornton’s daughter, David learned more about the ill-fated mission that led to his father finishing out World War II as an inmate in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi-occupied Austria.
“They were told it was going to be a ‘milk run’ — an easy mission,” he said. “Some VIPs showed up at the airbase that day and took the plane the pilot and crew was used to. The plane they were stuck with was an old and worn-out model. They lost an engine on the way to the target. It just quit.”
The target was Knaben, Norway, where molybdenum was mined and later processed as an alloy to strengthen steel for the German war machine. The engine trouble caused his father’s plane to become separated from the main formation, making the bomber an easy target for enemy fighters that shot out another engine.
At first, the air crew tried to return the four-engine B-17 to England where the 8th Air Force was headquartered. A decision was made to reverse course to neutral Sweden which was closer, David said. “The pilot called the navigator three or four times, but he never answered. He sent my dad down to see what was wrong. The navigator had already bailed out.”
He explained there was reason to believe the navigator may have heard a garbled transmission by the pilot to prepare to bail out and interpreted that as an order to jump ship. After using a compass to chart a new course, the crew made for Sweden but was again intercepted by German fighters that disabled a third engine and prompted the pilot to order a bail out.
John Geegee landed in a birch tree and had to use a pocketknife to free himself from the parachute harness.
“Once he got on the ground, he could see the smoke from where the plane crashed,” David said.
His father made for the wreckage figuring there may be a blanket there for him to fend off the cold. Trouble was, the Germans also saw the plane crash and had already dispatched men to scour the countryside and salvage parts from the crash site. Local residents also made off with anything that could be useful.
“There were Germans everywhere,” David said. “My father could not get anywhere near the plane.” One time, he hid in a roadside ditch to avoid a truck. Another time, he curled himself into a ball on top of a boulder to evade detection from a motorcycle and staff car. By dusk, John Geegee arrived at the cottage and met the Hoy family, consisting of Kristian and the boy’s mother and grandparents.
When John awoke the next day, he looked out of the window and saw an enemy soldier on patrol with a rather large dog. Realizing that he was surrounded, John asked the grandfather to talk to the Germans and advise them that he was willing to surrender. Being a retired sea captain, the older man knew several languages.
Glenda attended a memorial at a clearing where the locals had set up 10 candles on the ground — one for each crewman. John Geegee served as both the flight engineer and top turret gunner of the heavily armed B-17.
“Hearing what they had to say about what happened, I kept getting choked up,” David said about the memorial and the villagers. “They are passing this on from generation to generation. They really liked the Americans.”
It was not the first time John Geegee had an eventful flight on a B-17. In early September 1943, his crew was returning from a mission over France when the plane’s engines began to stall.
“Apparently a cannon shell went through the gas tank and nobody saw it leaking out,” David said. “It just ran out of gas. They coasted and landed the plane in the English Channel.”
For more than 12 hours, the bomber crew survived the choppy Atlantic water by switching places every few hours in the only life raft that was not shot up by the Germans. Five men would sit in the raft while five men would cling to the side. All the while, they wondered if the Germans stationed along the French coast would use the opportunity as target practice.
Eventually, John Geegee and his colleagues were fished out of the channel by free French sailors manning a Navy destroyer that was allied with the United States and Great Britain. Their flight uniforms soaked through with brine, the men were photographed in civilian clothing given to them by the sailors.
After the war, John Geegee returned to the Harrisburg area and retired from Conrail as a machinist with 40 years of service. He died Feb. 2, 1993, at age 72, leaving behind a wife, three children and eight grandchildren.