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Man Survived 22,000-Foot Fall Out of Bomber

By Paul Logan
Journal Staff Writer
    Alan Magee of Angel Fire ranked among the luckiest of those who served in the Army-Air Force during World War II.
    A B-17 ball turret gunner, Magee had no choice but to jump out of a disabled, spinning-out-of-control bomber from about 22,000 feet.
    A drop of more than four miles. Without a parachute. And Magee miraculously lived.
    His incredible story was featured in a 1981 Smithsonian Magazine on the 10 most amazing survivals during World War II.
    Magee seldom spoke of that death-defying drop.
    He died nearly 61 years later on Dec. 20 of complications from a stroke and kidney failure in San Angelo, Texas, said a niece, Jill Greene of Albuquerque. Magee was 84.
    "He didn't like to talk about it, and he wouldn't dwell on it," Greene said. "One of the guys who saw him come through the roof of the railroad station tracked Alan down (in 1978).
    Before that, Alan wasn't interested in discussing this."
    However, Greene recalled him saying, "God was certainly looking out (for me.)"
    Alan E. Magee, who retired to northern New Mexico in 1979, was born in Plainfield, N.J. The youngest of six children, he enlisted after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
    Greene described her uncle as "just a regular guy."
    He was 5-foot-7, barely small enough to fit in the B-17's ball turret— a cramped, donut-shaped plastic glass and metal turret on the bomber's underside. It was such a tight fit— a gunner's knees were practically against his chest— that Magee had to leave his chute on the deck of the four-engine Flying Fortress.
    The ball turret offered a panoramic view and also a precarious target for German fighter planes. B-17 gunners had a high casualty rate, said Don Jenkins of Albuquerque, Magee's friend of 38 years and a World War II Navy veteran.
    "He was very easy to get along with— very cheerful, very talkative and a very, very sweet guy," Jenkins said.
    But, he said, Magee only spoke to him three times about the events on Jan. 3, 1943.
    Sgt. Magee, 24, was one of the oldest of the 10-man crew who flew out of Molesworth, England, on a bomber nicknamed "Snap! Crackle! Pop!" The pilot was only 19.
    His seventh mission was a daylight bombing run on St. Nazaire, France, called "Flak City" because of the anti-aircraft guns defending the German submarine port.
    The 360th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group sent 85 B-17s with a fighter escort.
    Over the target area, flak damaged Magee's plane, and then German fighters shot off a section of the right wing.
    Magee, who was wounded, scrambled back into the cabin, but his parachute was ruined.
    "He saw a gap in the spinning plane and jumped out," said Jenkins, who explained that in the confusion Magee forgot he wasn't wearing a chute.
    "He remembered tumbling," Jenkins said. But at that altitude, Magee quickly lost consciousness.
    Eyewitnesses saw Magee crash through the Nazaire train station's glass skylight, breaking his fall. When he regained consciousness, Magee said to his captors:
    "Thank God I'm alive."
    Magee's injuries included 28 shrapnel wounds. A lung and kidney were hit. His nose and an eye were ripped open. His broken bones included his right leg and ankle. A right arm was nearly severed.
    Jenkins said the Germans decided that anyone who could miraculously survive deserved "real special attention."
    With the German doctors' help, Magee fully recovered.
    Jenkins said Magee later hiked and backpacked and "led a pretty good life."
    Two of his crewmen also survived. In all, 75 airmen died, seven U.S. planes were destroyed and 47 were damaged that day, he said.
    Magee was a prisoner of war until May 1945. He received the Air Medal for meritorious conduct and the Purple Heart.
    "Alan was never the type to look in the past," Greene said. "He always was looking forward, living for the moment."
    Despite the harrowing experience, Magee loved to fly. He qualified for a private pilot's license. His career included the air freight business and airline reservations.
    On Jan. 3, 1993, Magee and the other two crewmen were guests of the St. Nazaire townspeople. They hosted a banquet and erected a six-foot-tall memorial to salute the Snap! Crackle! Pop! crew.
    "He was very excited and honored," Jenkins said.
    Magee is survived by his wife, Helen; a sister, Adele; six nieces and three nephews. A celebration of his life will be held this spring.