Vets honored Wednesday night at Kirkland's Heritage Hall served in different service branches and included former POWs and even one survivor of the December 7, 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Kirkland’s Joseph “Joe” Regan was the evening’s featured speaker.
In February, 1945, Regan, then 22, served as ball turret gunner in a Podington, England-based Boeing B-17 heavy bomber assigned to the 325th Squadron of the 92d Bomb Group, 8th Air force, USAAF. Regan’s crew came to England originally by ferrying a new B-17 from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Scotland via Newfoundland. The crewmen received their own plane at Podington and joined the daylight strategic bombing offensive against Nazi Germany.
With 14 harrowing previous missions already under his belt, by February 3, 1945, Regan was no stranger to grueling aerial combat. The magic number to earn a ticket back home was 35. As ball turret gunner, Regan’s position was the diminutive cast-aluminum, Plexiglas windowed bubble protruding from the plane’s belly. Cramped into the turret with Regan were two Browning M-2 .50-caliber machine guns, ammunition cans and the early, crude computerized gunsight which calculated airspeed, attack angle and other factors. The space was so tight that the 5-foot-8-inch Regan was the only crewman unable to wear his parachute, he stored it up in the plane, just outside the his 32-inch ball turret’s hatch. Though the US enjoyed relative air superiority in 1945, during an earlier mission Regan’s gun cameras recorded him and other gunners “putting lead” into a Nazi fighter that went down in flames.
With British allies, American P-51 “Mustang” and P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighters had eradicated most of the German air force, the Luftwaffe, by 1945. Though the notorious Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf 190 German fighters were mostly gone, US bomber crews still faced the horrifically deadly 88 millimeter “flack,” the deceptively peaceful appearing black puffs of smoke that were in fact lethal exploding AA (anti-aircraft) rounds that tore gaping holes in the aircraft and sent white-hot shrapnel shards through the planes’ aluminum skin, often with devastating effects on aircrews.
On February 3, Regan’s plane was at about 28,000 feet, on the crew’s 15th mission, en route to a target just east of Berlin. The flack started exploding in their formation, but Regan’s pilot kept their ship steady. Suddenly their plane rocked, number four outboard engine had been hit and was burning, fueled by 100 octane aviation gasoline. Regan’s pilot, Lt. Bernie Morrow, 23, a young man from Oklahoma, of half Irish-American, half-American Indian ancestry, reacted coolly in the face of impending disaster. Morrow cut the fuel to the burning engine and plunged the plane into a steep, rapid dive. This risky technique offered at least some hope of extinguishing the fire. Miraculously, Morrow managed to asphyxiate the flames and quickly leveled the plane off at an altitude of 15,000 about feet. The crew breathed a sigh of relief. Down to three engines and with fuel limitations, Morrow said they could not return to Podington. They would instead head east and the safety of the Russian lines. The plane was now at low altitude and separated from its squadron. Just what German flak crews hoped for.
The plane bucked and rocked again! Suddenly two 88 millimeter AA shells slammed into the left wing and parts and pieces of the airframe flew off the rugged, Seattle-built ‘Flying Fortress’--the German AA crews had the ship zeroed! Pilot Morrow hit the bail out alarm and told the navigator over the intercom: “Get Regan OUT of the ball turret!”
Regan heard Morrow’s order in his headset. He stood and quickly crawled out of his turret and into the twisting, diving plane’s fuselage. To his horror, his parachute had vanished! Severe g-forces generated by the spiraling, plunging aircraft caused Regan’s chute to slide away. As the alarm blared the intercom squawked chaotically with the chatter of the crew as the men scrambled to bail out. To stay conscious Regan strapped on a portable oxygen rig and moved quickly through the plane in search of his one hope for life. Finally, he spotted the treasured canvas bundle mid-fuselage. He quickly donned his chest-mounted 24-foot parachute and buckled the straps. With his chute in place Regan dashed to a nearby escape hatch and kicked it open. He stepped from the burning plane and into the sky. His chute opened when he pulled the ripcord and he drifted gently toward earth. As Regan floated toward the dense, dark forest below, he watched with relief as his tail gunner pal jump free of the careening wreckage--the last of the 15 crewmen had escaped the dying B-17! Dangling in his harness, Regan witnessed the plane that had been his world disintegrating, as more AA rounds slammed and blasted it apart mid-air. “It just sort of broke up into pieces,” Regan said.
The trees below rapidly loomed closer and suddenly Regan was tearing painfully through the dense forest canopy. His descent stopped with a snap, he was suspended from the trees in his parachute harness, dangling about 25-30 feet above the ground. He had two choices: wait for rescue and capture or hope for the best and drop. He opted for the latter and cut his straps and tumbled to the ground, jarring his back painfully on impact. Though injured, once on the ground, Regan made his way east, toward the Russian lines. By moving only after dark, he managed to evade German forces for five or six days. He had an emergency kit with some chocolate and water purification tablets, but he had to forage in German houses and barns for food. From the cellar of one occupied house he ‘liberated’ a can of peaches—he said peaches had never tasted so good, before of after—and another day he took a chicken from a coop. Famished and worried about a cook fire revealing his position, Regan killed the bird and ate a drumstick raw. Time blurred but on his fifth or sixth day, thinking he was behind Russian lines, Regan saw the welcome sight of a large Soviet soldier. The exhausted and famished Regan revealed himself only to discover his error: the big man was Wehrmacht, a German infantryman.
His captor quickly determined Regan was a US airman and not a Russian. Knowing the end of the war was near, many Germans knew the tables would soon be turned on them so their treatment of Americans was civil. Unlike the movies, there was not fistfight or shootout. Just a tired, hungry, injured kid who’d lived in Bremerton, Washington, and a big German lad who likely wished he’d never heard of Adolph Hitler. The drama of Regan’s capture was minimal, the German man simply gestured calmly to Regan with his large hand saying, “Kommen.” He turned and Regan followed him.
Regan was taken to several different locations, including an ominous-sounding “interrogation center” and was ultimately transferred to Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager, better known as Stalag VII A. With over 100,000 prisoners it was the war’s largest POW camp and located near Moosburg, in the Bavarian part of Germany. Thankfully, Regan did not have to spend too much time behind the barbed wire. On April 29, 1945, elements of the US 14th Armored Division liberated the camp on what Regan described as “a great day.” (Coincidentally, Regan points out on this same day the notorious death camp at Dachau was also liberated).The liberating unit was one of several divisions under the command of Gen. George Patton and Regan recalled clearly seeing Gen. Patton’s grand appearance, riding in the commander’s cupola of a Sherman tank, appearing “pretty happy” to have liberated so many allied personnel. Regan said Patton dismounted and wandered among them and that the flamboyant general stood out with his signature leather cavalry boots, distinct leather B-3 bomber jacket and trademark ivory-handled Colt .45 Peacemaker revolver. Regan also recounted later, at Le Harve, France, meeting the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe, General Dwight D.“Ike” Eisenhower, with whom Regan had a brief conversation. Eisenhower asked him about his time as a POW. When Regan told him he had “only” been held about two and a half months, Ike told him “One day is long enough.”
Joe Regan returned to Washington state after the war and has been married to his wife, Kay, for over 65 years. The Regans moved to the Finn Hill Neighborhood in 1950 and the couple raised a family of five children and an additional five foster kids. Before retiring after 35 years, he worked for Boeing in procurement. Regan also said his old friend and pilot, Bernie Morrow, settled near Tacoma after the war and the two remained in touch, though he says it has been a little while since he’s seen his old friend.
Joseph Earl Regan passed away peacefully in his home on Wednesday the 21st of March at one PM. His daughter Rebecca and sons Kevin and Phillip were with him at the time.