As a second lieutenant, Charlie W. McCollester, who received a master of arts from Notre Dame in 1961, was a member of an Army Air Corps bunker crew flying out of England during WWII. One evening in February 1944, returning from a run on Berlin, which was fogged in, the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and seriously crippled as it flew over the Baltic Sea.
Charlie recalled hearing the pilot order all who could to bail out, but the last thing he remembered was the black box of navigation instruments floating slowly toward him. Then he lost consciousness.
He awoke to a sense of weightlessness, in a gray world with no apparent up or down to it. He thought he had died and gone to heaven, and he remained in that somewhat blissful state for some seconds. When memory returned, Charlie realized he was falling through clouds. He decided he must have been knocked unconscious by the instrument box and that he had somehow survived being blown out of the plane when it, apparently, exploded. Charlie automatically reached for the rip cord to his parachute. It wasn’t there.
He continued to fall but looked up and saw that his parachute had opened and he was genuinely attached to it. Perhaps, he would muse later, the rip cord caught on something in the plane when he was blown out of it or perhaps he had automatically pulled it while he was unconscious. Charlie then looked down to see if all the rest of him was there. It was, with one startling though minor exception. His combat boots were still laced up on his feet and ankles — but the soles were gone. Torn off or blown off; he never could figure it out.
Eventually Charlie floated out of the clouds. He could see fire consuming what he assumed was the wreckage of his plane almost directly below him. As he continued to fall, he became concerned that he might land right in the fire. Recalling how to maneuver his descent by “slipping” the parachute, he reached up to pull down the silk on one side. In his anxiety, he pulled down both sides more or less simultaneously, and collapsed his ’chute. Charlie fell 500 to 1,000 feet until, by some miraculous operation of natural causes, the chute opened softly again.
The rest of his descent, he would say, was uneventful. He landed softly about two miles from the wreckage of the plane and, despite the odds, actually found another survivor of the crew. They were in fact now in Denmark. The two men slept in a farmer’s barn that night and were picked up by Nazi police the next day. Incarceration at a POW camp on an island in the Baltic (somewhere near Peenemunde, where the V-1 and V-2 rockets were launched against Britain) followed, where the two spent the not inconsiderable time (15 months) remaining to the war. They were treated well, Charlie said, and when liberation came it was at the hands of what was euphemistically called a “mobile unit” of the Great Red Army of the USSR. The unit, Charlie noted, consisted of old men, mules and carts.
Much of Charlie’s control, steadfastness and belief came through in the telling of this story. It is not the clouds now, Charlie, it is the real thing. And it doesn’t even matter if your boots are without soles.
John Lyon taught in Notre Dame’s Program of Liberal Studies from 1967 to 1983 and frequently crossed paths with Charlie McCollester, who worked in the Dean of Administration office at ND. Mr. McCollester died in 1999 at age 78.