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Gordonville man authors book about World War II exploits of his father-in-law

Terry Irwin holds up a copy of his book, “Sgt. Dinwiddie’s War.” Photo by Gregory Dullum

Writing a gripping account of a B-17 bomber crew in World War II was not hard for Terry Irwin of Gordonville. He’s an aviation enthusiast whose love of airplanes began as he grew up in the lowlands of Southeast Missouri watching the T-28 trainers flying out of the Malden Air base and crop dusters flying low over farmers’ fields.

Irwin learned to fly at age 17 in a 1946 Aeronca Champ. Years later, he bought that very plane, and he still flies it today.
A 1969 graduate of Oran High School, Irwin went on to earn a commercial pilot’s license and has been a flight instructor since 1973.

Irwin earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape and served as an educator for 34 years at the high school and college level.

“I taught English in high school when I started out,” Irwin said. “Every English teacher is a frustrated author. One of my former teachers said that — when I was a student in high school — and I remember that, and she was right.” When Irwin was teaching English, he had no way of knowing that he would someday become a published author.

It was while teaching an aerospace education workshop for teachers at SEMO that Irwin met Donna, a third-grade teacher in the Jackson R-2 School District. Donna shared with Irwin information about her father, Don Dinwiddie, who had been a radio operator on B-17s flying bombing missions over Germany in World War II.

Irwin found the information fascinating. As he and Donna began dating (and eventually married) Irwin and Donna’s father had conversations about Dinwiddie’s World War II exploits. Dinwiddie was reticent to talk about them at first, but he became more open as time passed and he grew to know Irwin better.

Irwin collected information about his father-in-law’s experiences from personal conversations with him (until Dinwiddie died in 2006) and from corresponding with Barney Rawlings, the copilot who flew with Dinwiddie. At the time that Irwin contacted him, Rawlings was a retired airline pilot. Irwin tracked him down through TWA. “I sent him an email and we corresponded quite a bit over thelast two years of his life,” Irwin recalled. “He told me more stories about what happened to them.”

Family members contributed information. Dinwid-die’s mother “saved every scrap of paper,” Irwin said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns of schools and businesses, Irwin decided to put the information he had gathered into book form to share with family members. He had 17 copies made at Staples and passed them out.

“I researched this book for 25 years, and I wrote it in about 10 days,” he said. “It was easy because I had learned so much. During the COVID quarantine, I just sat down and started working on it. I did it for the family, so everyone would know what their grandfather or great-grandfather did in the war.

“I had let a friend of mine read it. He’s also involved in aviation. His passion is World War I. He had written a couple of books on World War I. When he read my manuscript that I had written just for the family, he said, ‘You need to get this published.’

“I was approached by somebody about it — Doug Sikes from Acclaim Press — which is a local company. He was excited about it, wanted it, and so we published it. It came out in July this past summer.”

The book, “Sgt. Dinwid-die’s War,” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Acclaim Press (www.ac-claimpress.com) and from the author.

“I’ve sold several hundred copies already,” Irwin said. “What started out as a family project has turned into a real book.”
The hard-bound book is 240 pages, including two sections of photos and an index.

Irwin will hold a book-signing at Barnes & Noble at West Park Mall in Cape Girardeau this Friday, Dec. 23, from 2 to 6 p.m.

“There are so many facets to this story,” explained Irwin. “It’s not just about what happened to Grampa in the war. It’s more than that. It tells the story about how he joined the Army Air Corps, it tells about the training, it tells about how the crew was actually formed.”

Dinwiddie didn’t have to go to war. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, bringing the U.S. into the war, Dinwiddie worked as a machinist making rifles for the Remington Arms Co. in Kansas City. He was safe from the draft. But, like many other young men, he felt the need to serve his country in a more direct way and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

After training at several bases around the country — but before going off to war in Europe — Dinwiddie and his crew went through combat transitioning training at Dyersburg Field, in Dyersburg, TN. Dinwiddie had no way of knowing at the time that he was just about 60 air miles from Cape Girardeau, where he and his family would settle in October 1961.

Dinwiddie and his crew didn’t fly their B-17 to England. They sailed on the Queen Mary, which had been transformed from a luxury liner to a troop carrier. They arrived in Scotland on Nov. 9. 1943. From there, they took a train to RAF Molesworth, their base for the war.

Dinwiddie’s crew (which was called “the Fowler crew,” named after the pilot, Jim Fowler) went on its first combat mission Dec. 13, 1943 — 79 years ago last week. They bombed Bremen, Germany. The flak (burst of antiaircraft that sent projectiles through the aircraft, often killing or wounding the crew and disabling the plane) was heavy but inaccurate, and only five of the aircraft that participated in the mission received minor damage. The only U.S. casualty was a gunner on one of the other B-17s. He died when the oxygen system on his plane failed to operate correctly.

Dinwiddie’s eighth mission was a dangerous one to bomb Frankfurt, deep in Germany. The formation of 1,000 planes was 350 miles long. Bombs rained down for three hours as the B-17s flew over Frankfurt.

The Fowler crew never made it to Frankfurt. Their B-17, the “G.I. Sheets,” was a problem-laden plane, and true to form, she began losing power as she reached the end of her climb at 25,000 feet.

Her No. 2 engine was producing about half of its power potential. The two pilots determined that a supercharger in the engine had failed, and there was nothing they could do about it. It was something that had to be repaired by a ground crew.

The plane was just entering German air space. The pilots had to decide whether to continue or turn around. They put it to a vote of the crew, and all but one voted to continue with the mission. They still had three good engines, and aborting would not help them get closer to the magic number of 25 missions, when they were promised to be rotated out of active duty.

As they flew deeper into Germany, antiaircraft fire got heavier. A blast near them caused the No. 4 engine to lose oil, and it had to be shut down to prevent a fire.

The “G.I. Sheets” now had one good engine on the right wing and one-and-a-half good engines on the left wing. They were about 10 minutes from the target, but they could not hold their position in the formation.

Attacked by German ME-109 fighters, Fowler dove toward clouds 18,000 feet below him. He didn’t reach the clouds before the fighters had shot through the plexiglass nose, seriously wounding two crewmen stationed below the pilots. Navigator Alvin Taylor had taken a 20 mm round in the upper leg and Bombardier Joe Thompson had a bloody scalp wound.

During his steep dive, the propeller flew off the dead No. 4 engine, and fortunately, did not hit the plane. Often when this happens, there is damage to the wing or the fuselage — the spinning propeller rips through the wing or the side of the fuselage and kills or wounds crew members in the back of the plane.

When they reached the cloud cover, they flew inside the clouds toward England, not knowing where they were. When they suddenly emerged from the clouds into sunshine and blue skies, the crew looked down to see a German airfield. Two Focke Wulf FW-190s took off and pursued them. During the attack, the American pilots noticed that the No. 3 engine on the right wing was trailing oil and shut it down. Only the two engines on the left wing were operating, and one at half power. There was no doubt about it. “G.I. Sheets” was going down.

Fowler lowered his landing gear and prepared for an emergency landing in a muddy Belgian field. When the German fighter pilots saw the landing gear down, they broke off their attack.

As the B-17 neared the ground, Fowler raised the landing gear and opted for a belly landing. The landing gear would only stick in the mud and flip the plane. On a belly landing, the plane would slide in the mud.

One gunner died from his wounds, but eight of the crew members survived. They took a count and wondered what had happened to the 10th man. He was missing.

Before the plane had hit the ground, Fowler had announced to the crew that he would flash the bail-out light as a signal for the men to brace themselves for impact. The tail gunner did not receive the message because the intercom wires had been damaged during the air battle. When the tail gunner saw the bail-out light come on, he bailed out. The plane was too low for his parachute to fully open, and he was injured as he hit the ground, but he survived and showed up the next day.

The residents of a nearby Belgian village found the American flyers and split them up, passing them along to the underground to get them back to Britain. It was 42 years before members of the crew would get together again. Five of them, including Dinwiddie, attended a reunion of the 303rd Bombardment Group in Texas.

The copilot, Barney Rawlings, took off on his own and walked from the crash site in Belgium through France and Spain. With help from the underground, he eventually made it to British troops stationed at Gibralter.

When the “G.I. Sheets” did not return from the mission, the crew was listed as missing in action. Dinwiddie’s parents received the dreaded telegram letting them know their son was MIA. It was not until five months later, when Rawlings reached the British soldiers at Gibralter, that the Dinwiddies received word that their son was alive — at least he was at the time of the emergency landing.

The bombardier and navigator, who had been seriously wounded, were taken to a Belgian hospital where they were soon captured by the Germans.

Dinwiddie and the pilot, Fowler, were hidden in the attic of a local business until the middle of May. While being transported by the underground to France, the car was stopped by Germans and the two Americans were taken prisoner while the two underground operatives — a doctor and his wife — were released.

(To his dying day, Dinwid-die believed he had been double-crossed by that doctor. Through his research, Irwin learned that his father-in-law was not correct in his belief. The truth is revealed in the pages of his book.)

Dinwiddie and Fowler, upon their capture by the Germans, were sent to a prisoner of war camp in Poland. On this trip by train, Dinwiddie realized that the Allied bombing campaign was working. Devastation was everywhere.

When Irwin later asked his father-in-law to describe what it was like in the P.O.W. camp. Dinwiddie, who had been a P.O.W. from May 1944 until May 1945, replied, “I remember being bored and being hungry and being cold. I remember that. That’s about it. I was never mistreated. I never saw anybody mistreated.”

Conditions in his German P.O.W. camp were not as good as depicted in the 1960s TV show “Hogan’s Heroes,” but they were not as bad as the Americans expected it to be before they arrived.

Dinwiddie realized that not all Germans were Nazis. The war was being fought against the Nazis, not the German people. The average German soldier didn’t like the war any more than the American soldiers did, Dinwiddie told his son-in-law. The guards at the P.O.W. camp were either really young or really old because the military-aged men were seeing action elsewhere. His German guards were not bad, and sometimes they smuggled extra food to him.

In February 1945, the prisoners were told to get ready to move. Russian soldiers were moving closer to the site of the P.O.W. camp, and they would have a three-day walk westward to reach transportation that would take them closer to the heart of Germany.

Allied bombing had been so effective that there was no transportation waiting. The prisoners were marched westward from February until May, sleeping outside and suffering from hunger and cold. This became known as the Black March. It was the worst part of the war experience for Dinwiddie.

One morning in May, they awoke to find their guards were gone! It was a panicky situation. The American soldiers had no weapons and they were lost somewhere in the German woods. They decided to keep marching westward.

A group of German soldiers met them on the road and told them, “If you want to be liberated, just keep going down this road.”
They did. They met up with British forces and were liberated May 7. Germany surrendered May 8.

Irwin’s book reads like a novel, because he was able to collect so much information about Dinwiddie’s experiences. Irwin discovered which two German pilots shot down Dinwiddie’s plane; there is a photo of one of them in the book. (Neither one lived more than six months after they shot down Dinwiddie’s plane.)

Irwin went to Europe in 1988 and drove to the crash-landing site. He talked to people who hid the downed American flyers. With the help of a French historian, he was able to learn the whole story of how Dinwiddie was turned over to the Germans.

“Everything in there really happened,” Irwin said of his book. “Sgt. Dinwiddie’s War” is an amazing, engrossing true story. Irwin says his book is the story of just one bomber crew out of thousands, but it remains a rare story, because few B-17s were shot down to make an emergency landing from which the crew walked away. “Usually it was blown to smithereens or the crew bailed out,” Irwin said.

There is so much detail in Irwin’s book, it makes World War II come alive for the reader.

“The book has a little bit of everything in it,” Irwin said. “It has some humor in it; it’s got bad stuff in it; it’s got weird stuff in it. I have not had anybody who read it who didn’t like it. I wrote the book to tell his [Dinwiddie’s] story, but I also wrote it to try to educate people about the differences between what we think we know from watching old movies and what actually happened.”

For more information, email sgtdinwiddieswar@yahoo.com or call Irwin at 243-3326 or 450-3139.

Gregory Dullum has worked for The Cash-Book Journal for more than 25 years. Prior to becoming the editor in May 2017, he was production manager, circulation manager and reporter. Before moving to Cape Girardeau in 1988, he was editor of the Saint Louis Park Sailor, a weekly community newspaper in suburban Minneapolis, MN. A native of Minnesota, he returned there after graduating with distinction in 1978 from Ambassador College in Pasadena, CA, with a degree in mass communications. His wife, Marie, whom he met in college, is a native of Zalma, a small town in southeast Missouri. They have two grown daughters and five grandchildren. Gregory may be reached at cashbook@mvp.net.

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