MINT HILL – On Dec. 17, 1944, Thomas Easterling and 11 other P-47 fighter planes took off from a base in France for a railroad station near Mannheim, Germany. It was the day after the Battle of the Bulge began, and the station was full of trains and boxcars loaded with German troops, tanks, artillery and ammunition headed toward the fighting.
This would be Easterling’s 68th mission in western Europe. It would also be his last.
An earlier U.S. bombing mission had blocked the tracks north and south of the station, trapping the trains and its cargo.
“We had them pinned up in there,” 95-year-old Easterling said from his Mint Hill home on March 25.
Easterling’s plane had been damaged the day before, so he hopped in a new P-47 at around 2 p.m. Easterling was one of three groups of four planes that took off for the railroad station.
“We bombed in pairs, and we bombed from about 2,000 feet,” Easterling said. “Once you drop your bombs, or rockets, you come back around strafing. Everyone had done that and there were explosions going off everywhere. We worked it over pretty good.”
But Easterling was not done. He still had some 50-caliber ammunition left in his eight machine guns. He noticed an area that hadn’t been heavily damaged.
“I thought I would attack that, and it would be my last pass,” Easterling said.
It was his last pass.
“I fired just a short burst and I could see pieces of this car flying apart,” Easterling said. “Then, I opened up on it and it just exploded. It looked like the whole world exploded in front of me. I couldn’t get over it or to the sides of it.”
Easterling saw a small opening in the explosion that he hoped would be big enough to fly his fighter plane through to safety.
“But I got inside and the thermal effect was so great that it lifted my plane straight up into all this stuff, train wheels and everything that was coming down,” Easterling said. “My plane got busted to pieces. In front of me there was a disc about the size of a house and there was no way to get by it. I was traveling fast, and it was too. It cut off about four feet of my left wing just like a weed eater. This thing that got me was the top of a fuel storage tank. My engine was on fire. Oil was all over.”
Easterling parachuted from his burning plane. When he landed, Easterling had two broken legs, a head injury and several missing teeth.
“As soon as I landed, civilians were the first ones there, and they started stripping me of anything they wanted,” Easterling said. “I was wearing my class ring and by that time, both my hands were swollen up pretty big. Some guy wanted that ring, and he got it off, meat, flesh and all. SS troops came up and saved me, pushing the civilians off me.”
Easterling was then loaded into an ox cart and taken to a nearby town. The town square was full of people and the mayor was on a second-floor balcony giving a speech as Easterling laid on the ground in freezing weather while being surrounded by German SS troops.
It was then that Easterling felt the cold barrel of a German soldier’s pistol being pressed against his temple.
“He said he was going to shoot me, and I believed him,” Easterling said. “I just said a short prayer. I didn’t pray to save my life. What I prayed for is for God to accept me into heaven when that guy pulled the trigger. But like that, the mayor yelled something like an order, and the SS trooper put the gun in his holster.’’
Easterling was then ferried to several locations before finally being placed in a POW camp. Easterling received no real medical attention or adequate nourishment.
As signs of the Allied advance toward the camp increased, the German guards fled, followed by most of the POWs. Easterling and four other wounded POWs finally fled after commandeering a car from a nearby town.
“The five of us were finally the only ones there,” Easterling said. “There was no water or anything like that. We weaved our way through the lines, and we finally got back to some Americans.’’
When Easterling got back to England, he was put in a cast from the neck down. When he returned to the United States, Easterling was in traction for over a year and underwent five surgeries to help repair his wounds. Easterling was finally discharged from the Air Force in November 1947 after spending 30 months in different hospitals.
Easterling didn’t talk about his experiences until one of his grown children started “pestering” him about his service during the war.
“She knew I was a prisoner of war and that I was wounded but that is all she knew,” Easterling said. “She wanted me to write something.”
Easterling started writing about his experiences for his children, including son John who is married to singer/actress Olivia Newton-John. Those writings turned into the book “Ticket to Hell” by Frank Harwood.
“I wrote that for my children, and it took me about five years,” Easterling said. “Writing that down is what got me to be able to talk about it.”
A second book, “Furrow In The Clouds: The Story of Young Thomas Easterling, Farmboy, Fighter Pilot, Prisoner of War,” was written after Newton-John told her father-in-law’s story to a book publisher while on a flight.
“That’s the way this other one got published, it was through her,” he said.