Luck of the Draw – Throughout the Second World War, every branch of the Allied armed forces – whether they be on land, air or sea – faced their share of dangers in combat throughout their six-year bloody quest to stop the Axis Powers of Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy from aggressively conquering the world.
This was no exception when it came to the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF) as they flew over the skies of Nazi-occupied Europe in their bombers and fighter planes in their harrowing missions to destroy strategic Nazi targets. Their purpose was two-fold: successfully fulfilling their assigned missions, and successfully accomplishing 25 missions, which meant the crew(s) in question could go home.
However, the road to 25 successful missions was not an easy one, especially if you were part of a bomber crew. This meant flying in a B-24 or B-17 bomber plane whose conditions were cramped at best, and facing death to and from their England air bases thanks to attacks by German fighter planes and constant anti-aircraft fire from the ground. In turn that meant your plane could be shot down, and if you were lucky to bail out, you faced the prospect of being captured and spending the remainder of the war at a German prisoner of war (POW) camp.
The late Frank Murphy experienced all of the above. The native of Atlanta was part of Crew 31 of the USAAF’s 100th Bomb Group (BG). His B-17 Flying Fortress plane was shot down over Munster, Germany in October of 1943. Murphy successfully parachuted out of the burning plane and landed on the farm land of the Berdelmann family, was told by a local that “for you, the war is over”, captured and sent to a number of POW camps (including the notorious Stalag Luft III, where the Great Escape took place) until his liberation by the U.S. Army in April of 1945.
The story of these brave, reluctant heroes of the air war in Europe will soon come to life in the upcoming Apple TV series Masters of the Air, which is produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. One of the stories that is going to be recalled in the series is that of Frank Murphy’s, which in turn is based on his memoir Luck of the Draw, which has been recently reissued in paperback (and includes a new foreword by CNN correspondent Chloe Melas, who is Murphy’s granddaughter and Elizabeth Murphy, who is Murphy’s daughter).
Murphy’s story truly defines courage under fire, as he outlines his time with the USAAF in great detail, which is the main strength of this book. From the multitude of training courses he took in remote airbases, to the pre- and post-flight routines of his crew 31 comrades at their home base of Thorpe Abbotts, England, to every minute detail of every bomber group, bomber squad, air command and crews that he flew missions with over Germany (such as airplane nicknames, crew personnel, the mission flight orders and the fates of each crew), nothing is left out for the aviation buff to absorb from this book.
And that penchant for detail is especially striking when Murphy recounts what went on during a typical USAAF bombing mission, when each crew member were confined to cramped battle stations (I certainly don’t envy those crewmen who were assigned to the ball turret gun station at the bottom of the plane), bitter cold temperatures inside the fuselage, the hazards of air depressurization, turning around if a plane failed to drop their bombs on their assigned target to try again, and of course, literally staring death in the face, whether it be through dogfights with the Luftwaffe’s ME 109 fighter aircrafts or the constant barrage of German anti-aircraft fire.
The harrowing details are extended even further with Murphy’s description of the surviving members of his crew making a perilous escape from their burning aircraft as it made its plunging descent after being shot down over Munster. Although air force POWs were treated cordially by the majority of German civilians, their daily routine behind the barbed wire of a German POW camp practically echoes what was portrayed in Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17, where Red Cross packages were treated as a vital lifeline, ingenuity was the order of each mundane day, and escape was always on the mind of every POW.
However, Murphy touches upon one aspect of the POW experience that never got the Hollywood treatment. That was the arduous journey these POWs took from one prison camp to another during the bitterly cold winter of 1945, as the U.S., Britain and Russia were fighting their way to Germany during the war’s final months. As well, there was that desperate quest to survive this harsh nightmare, especially with the rumours of Hitler’s orders to execute every air force POW before the end of the war that was hanging over their heads like the perennial Sword of Damocles.
Luck of the Draw is quite an engrossing, thrilling, harrowing memoir of one of the most demanding, dangerous aspects of being a member of an air force bomber crew during World War II. It may erase the romantic vision of being a knight of the air, but it no less diminishes the heroic contributions of the USAAF, RCAF and the RAF towards the total Allied victory in their tough fight against tyranny tens of thousands of feet in the air over Nazi-occupied Europe. And for people like Frank Murphy, we are eternally grateful to them for their valiant service.