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'Our plane was on fire. We had to bail out'

WWII bomber pilot from Bethlehem remembers harrowing mission to Italy.

September 08, 2010|By David Venditta, OF THE MORNING CALL

Sam Shireman's plane dropped its bombs on a German airfield, veered away from Italy's coast and got hit by anti-aircraft fire. Another threat came up on its tail.  "My co-pilot saw sparks. It was a German airplane firing at us. It was chasing us," the 92-year-old World War II veteran said, recalling the night 67 years ago that he and the four other men on his twin-engine bomber almost didn't survive.


 Army Air Force Capt. Samuel F. Shireman of Bethlehem was flying one of six B-25 Mitchells that took off from Sicily at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 9, 1943. "Flew a new crew on their 1st mission," he wrote later in his war diary, noting it was his 39th mission.

The plan was to knock out German military installations in the Naples area. On the way, Shireman said, the bombers had to steer clear of U.S. Navy ships that mistook them for the enemy and fired at them.

Shireman's plane was one of two aircraft that failed to get back to Sicily by midnight. It would never return.

When the German fighter zeroed in, Shireman banked sharply left, dived and turned to evade it. "Night fighter attacked us twice," he wrote in his diary. The Mitchell bomber was hit. Its starboard engine blazed.

"Our plane was on fire," Shireman said at the Hanover Township, Northampton County, home he shares with longtime friend Ruth Steiner. "We had to bail out."

The 25-year-old pilot spotted the island of Ischia below and slowed down the bomber for the crew to jump. When the four others were out, he put the controls on autopilot and jumped, hitting the right side of his head against the aircraft's exterior. The jolt perforated his eardrum.

"So we lost our plane," he said. "It crashed into the sea. One of the boys saw it."

Shireman's parachute floated him 1,000 feet in the darkness to the Tyrrhenian Sea. From where he smacked into the warm water, he could make out the island in the distance and swam toward it doing the backstroke, buoyed by a life jacket.

"It took a while to get there," he said, maybe a couple of hours. "There were fishermen who picked up two of my men."

He was reunited with his unhurt co-pilot, navigator, gunner and radio operator on Ischia. After five days, the Navy took them by boat to the nearby resort island of Capri, where they stayed for another five days.

In Bethlehem, his wife got a telegram saying Shireman was missing in action.

Ultimately, he and his crew returned to their unit, the 486th Bomb Squadron of the 57th Bomb Wing, at Catania, Sicily. Shireman received a Purple Heart for the injury to his ear. He flew mission No. 40 on Oct. 8 — less than a month after his brush with death — and came home in 1944 after his 50th.

He had grown up in South Williamsport, Lycoming County, and studied at Lehigh University, where he was commissioned a second lieutenant of infantry from the ROTC in 1940. He went on to take pilot training and left for Europe in February 1943.


While at Lehigh, he waited on tables at a restaurant in south Bethlehem and met a waitress, Alice Foltz, who became his wife. They had five children. Alice died in 2004 at age 83.

Shireman went on to serve in the Air Force Reserve, going on active duty during the Korean War as an engineering officer in Japan. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.

In civilian life, he worked as a surveyor and had a stint in Bethlehem Steel's real estate department.

Besides his war diary, he still has the sword that was presented to him when he got his officer's commission at Lehigh. It is one emblem of his service to his country.

Another is his Air Force uniform. It still fits him, and he looks sharp in it.

 Follow-up to Capt. Sam Shireman Article

Before their voices are silent’

May 6, 2013 


















Pilot Samuel F. Shireman (center, standing) and his crew after they were rescued. Standing with Sam are co-pilot Joseph D. Powelson (left) of Evansville, Ind., and navigator Sidney Stein of Brooklyn, N.Y. Crouching are gunner Charles Szkiany (left) of Albion, N.Y., and radio operator Ralph L. Holman of Flora, La.

Another of my war story subjects died April 28 — Army Air Forces veteran Sam Shireman, who was 94 and had been living in Fellowship Manor, Whitehall.

I attended a calling time last week at the manor and met some of his family members and friends. My story on him, which ran in The Morning Call on Sept. 9, 2010, the 67th anniversary of the mission on which his B-25 Mitchell bomber was shot down, was displayed on an easel, along with photos that included one of Sam and me standing together as he held the plastic model of a B-25 I had built years ago. It was my gift to him.

Afterward at home, I went through my file on Sam. It includes that photo, as well as a copy of the Sept. 30, 1943, telegram to his wife, Alice, in Bethlehem reporting that “Capt. Samuel F. Shireman has been reported missing in action since nine September,” a copy of his wartime diary and other papers and emails.

Sam was on his 39th mission as a B-25 pilot, assigned to knock out German military installations in the Naples area. His plane would never return to the base on Sicily. After dropping its bombs that night, it veered away from Italy’s coast and got hit by anti-aircraft fire. Then a German fighter pounced on its tail, and Sam dived and turned to evade it. “Our plane was on fire,” he told me. “We had to bail out.”

Sam’s descent by parachute landed him in the warm Tyrrhenian Sea. He swam in the darkness to the island of Ischia, where he was reunited with his co-pilot, Joseph D. Powelson of Evansville, Ind.; navigator, Sidney Stein of Brooklyn, N.Y.; gunner, Charles Szklany of Albion, N.Y.; and radio operator, Ralph L. Holman of Flora, La. The Navy rescued them and took them to the nearby resort of Capri.

One of the papers in my file is a map Sam drew for me showing where his plane was hit, where he smacked into the sea and his path to Ischia and Capri.

Another item is an eloquent email I got from an acquaintance of Sam after the story ran. It sums up the importance of recording veterans’ stories for posterity. Here it is:

“Thank you for telling Sam Shireman’s story. I know Sam, but never knew about his service to America.

“Since he’s one of the many from the Greatest Generation who have their stories to tell, I think it’s important for those stories to be told before it is too late and their voices are silent.

“My own father was a tail gunner in the Pacific Theater during WWII and unfortunately his early death in 1984 prevented him from eventually opening up about many of his war experiences later on, as others like Sam have done.

“It’s difficult to believe that in 2011 it will be 70 years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War. That means that fewer and fewer of the generation who fought against tyranny and preserved freedom remain.

“Their lessons and stories about the history in which they participated need to be preserved. Thank you for adding to that roll call with your interview of Sam.”

The following articles were written by David Venditta for THE MORNING CALL.  David was kind enough to allow us to post the articles to our site


  486th Bomb Squadron

    340th Bomb Group

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