Valley Pike: ‘Dutch’ in the desert: Downed near Benghazi

Posted: April 9, 2014

On the morning of Nov. 15, 1942, Lt. Harry W. “Dutch” Ebert Jr. and his crew climbed into their B-24 Liberator and headed west from Egypt across North Africa. Their target: German installations near the Libyan city of Tripoli.

They would return. Their plane would not. It was the only time “Dutch,” Handley Class of ’34, recalls being “scared” — “reallyscared” — while serving as navigator/gunner aboard his workhorse B-24. He had good reason.

The weather was perfect during the five-hour flight ... until his squadron came within 40 miles of its destination. A rolling series of storms “socked us in,” he says.

One of the flight leaders — a West Point grad “Dutch” remembers as “a pain in the neck” — said the crews could ditch their bombs in the Mediterranean and head for home. All did but “Dutch’s,” which decided to strike a German supply dump near Benghazi.

His B-24 peeled off from the loose formation, delivered its payload, and turned for Egypt. He and his mates were 70 miles south of the Mediterranean when five fighters — ME-109s, Messerschmitts — burst from the clouds. “Dutch” had heard of the fabled German aircraft, but had never seen one — until those five had his lone-flying Liberator in their sights.

The first attack, he recalls, knocked out one of the B-24’s four engines and badly damaged the propeller on another. A second attack got another engine, and, with the plane gradually losing altitude, “Dutch” could sense “we were going down.” And he knew, simply knew, the Germans would circle around and attack a third time.

“One more attack would have finished us,” he says.

But whether due to a shortage of ammunition or of fuel, this third strike never came. The Liberator, though, was still in trouble — and losing altitude faster.

If not for their injured tail-gunner, wounded in the shoulder and neck, “Dutch” and his crew could have bailed out. But they wouldn’t leave their comrade to die. So they crash-landed the plane in the desert with its wheels up — on terrain resembling, “Dutch” says, that of Arizona or New Mexico. Enveloped in a cloud of dust, the plane, when viewed for a moment through the setting sun, “looked like it was on fire,” he adds.

Fortunately, a British fighter spotted them, and the pilot tipped his wings. Now it was a question of who would arrive first to the crash site — a British ground crew or a German patrol. It proved to be the former. The British picked up the crew the following morning and quickly initiated them into the Late Arrivals Club, whose motto was “Never Too Late to Come Back.”

For the record, the tail-gunner survived. Years later, “Dutch” looked him up in New York, but abandoned his search when the phone book boasted “93 people with the same name.”

Upon returning to their base, “Dutch” and his crew spent three days of “R&R” (rest and rehabilitation) in Tel Aviv, and then were called back into action — though not for long. They had completed their requisite 40 bombing missions, which earned them a ticket home — and, for “Dutch,” a new billet as a flight instructor.

He asked to be stationed east of the Mississippi, but in true military fashion, the Army sent him to Tucson. Fate, though, had intervened fortuitously. Not only was the weather fine, but while there he also met his future wife, Carol, a New York City girl who had gone west, to the University of Arizona, for her education and, she admits, a “good time.” They married in 1945.

Duly discharged, “Dutch” brought Carol back to Winchester, where he took over his dad’s Buick dealership on North Loudoun. He sold the business in 1973 and retired shortly thereafter.

From World War II, “Dutch,” now 96, still has his medals — a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross — and a pair of flying gloves, which look as good as new.