ALBANY -- As his aircraft hurtled earthward, damaged beyond control by enemy flak while returning from a bombing run over Darmstadt, Germany, Capt. W.C. "Rip" Holman stood fast, making sure that all seven members of his crew managed to bail out before he made the fateful leap.
It was Sept. 19, 1944, and the infamous Battle of the Bulge was raging. Holman and his crew had dropped the payload from their B-17 bomber in support of ground troops in one of World War II's most bloody battles. They were heading back to base when enemy anti-aircraft fire did its damage.
"While I was floating down in my parachute, I saw my plane explode," Holman, who celebrated his 94th birthday Monday, said during a recent conversation. "It's ironic that all of my crew members who bailed out before me were captured and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp."
A little less than a month later, however, Holman was back in the air with a new crew, headed for the 20th mission of the 30 he would complete.
"A man who was out fishing saw me come down, and he came up to me and said 'Me no Bosch' -- I'm not German," Holman said as he and Carolyn, his wife of 65 years, relived his service during The Big War. "That man helped me get back to friendly territory, and after a few days of R&R, I was back in a new plane with a new crew."
Holman's nephew, Dr. Buddy Bethea, a successful internist in Virginia Beach, Va., who served as a flight surgeon and Navy pilot during the Arab-Israeli War of 1974, said the story of his uncle's daring escape is a little more dramatic than Holman lets on.
"A Belgian farmer found Uncle Rip and hid him in a bale of hay as he helped him get back to Allied territory," Bethea said. "Germans stopped the farmer and even stuck pitchforks down in the hay to see if anyone was hiding in it, but Uncle Rip somehow managed to get away and make it to safety.
"A few days later, he was back up in another plane. He eventually became a member of the 'Lucky Bastards' club, a group of pilots who were supposed to come home after flying 25 missions but had to actually fly 30 because the U.S. was losing so many pilots."
Holman was drafted into the Army in 1941, and he was serving in the
Panama Canal Zone when he read a post seeking persons interested in joining the Air Corps.
"I had done some flying in Albany, took some lessons in a little single-engine plane," Holman said. "I didn't join the Air Corps originally because I was too old, but when they raised the age limit, I went and asked my commanding officer if I could apply."
Holman was approved for flight training, and he trained extensively in Texas at bases in Waco and Fort Worth before flying a B-24 bomber from Texas to Iceland and on to England, where he joined the war effort.
It was while in Waco that he met displaced Georgia beauty Carolyn Braswell, whose family had moved west during the Depression. They were married in 1944, just before he flew off to captain his 30 missions.
Rip Holman made his first successful bombing run over Lisieux, France, on D-Day (June 6, 1944), and every few days after that he and his crew would head skyward on another mission. They bombed bridges and oil refineries, offered air support for ground troops, and dropped their ordnance on factories that made weapons in support of the German Army.
Holman piloted his plane over St. Lo, Le Havre and Paris, France; over Givet, Belgium; over Homburg, Frankfurt, Mannheim, Cologne and Saarbrucken, Germany.
He was awarded a number of medals, including a Distinguished Flying Cross for leading raids on Coulanges, France, on July 17, 1944, and on Hamelin, Germany, on New Year's Eve that same year.
"Uncle Rip and those pilots of World War II were some of the real heroes of the war," Bethea said with pride. "They were getting shot down in great numbers, yet they still made those daring runs. And these were guys who were 18 to 24 years old. What they did is unbelievable."
In addition to being shot down, Holman also survived a number of other close calls.
"My Commander, Col Whitlock, was shot down in the plane next to me during my first mission," Holman said. "And I landed after several missions in planes that were shot up; some of them were so damaged they weren't used again.
"But I was proud of what we did, proud to serve my country. It wasn't that big a deal then; we just did what we had to do."
Holman returned to Albany after the war and worked with his father in the family's horse and mule business. (The well-known Holman Mule Barn is a historic part of the city's downtown.) When that trade died out, he and his brother Bob teamed for a number of business ventures, including selling tractors and building houses.
Even at 94, Holman still goes to his downtown office every day.
"I've done my best to change him over the years, but I'm still working on him," Carolyn Holman laughs as she talks about her husband. "You have to have a sense of humor, and we've had a lot of laughs together."