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Hartselle Enquirer
Photo by Zane Turner   Commander Corey Hurd, and Retired Commander Cale Stancil greet Benjamin Roberts, right, during a celebration this month in honor of his 100th birthday at Burningtree Country Club.  

New centenarian Roberts survived harrowing jump when plane shot down in World War II 

By Zane Turner  

For the Enquirer    

Benjamin Franklin Roberts of Priceville turned 100 this month and has seen a lot of history, from the Great Depression that began in 1929 to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

But he owes his long life to his miraculous survival after getting knocked unconscious 9,000 feet above the ground while evacuating a plummeting plane in World War II. He also endured two years as a prisoner of war. 

He turned 18 in 1941, the same year he enlisted in the U.S. Army, which ‌at that time included the Army Air Forces — predecessor of today’s Air Force. 

“If I knew what I knew now, I wouldn’t have gone in the Air Force because in the Air Force you were either dead or a prisoner and those two things don’t go together,” Roberts said. 

Roberts became a ball turret gunner on one of the famous Flying Fortresses, a B-17 bomber from the 305th Bomb Group, 8th U.S. Army Air Forces. 

During his military service, he went on five missions. His fifth and final mission was scheduled for Oct. 14, 1943, a day that would later to be known as Black Thursday. The mission was to target a set of ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt, Germany. 

The 16 planes of the 305th Bombardment Group were late forming up that day, missing the rest of the group. They had to embark on the mission alone as there were no escort aircraft that early in the war that could reach into Axis territory. 

Of the 16 planes in the 305th, 13 planes and 130 men would not make it back home that day. Of the 10 men that served in Roberts’ plane, only five would survive. He describes what happened that day as a miracle. 

Roberts said as soon as they entered enemy territory, the German Luftwaffe was on top of them. The first hits came to the wings, knocking out multiple engines and sending the plane he was on into a shallow dive. 

Roberts, who was in the ball turret, couldn’t exit until the aircraft’s waist gunner cranked the ball back up inside the aircraft.  

Once out of the turret, he put on his parachute and that’s when the B-17 encountered more trouble. 

“We got strafed and it took the wings and engines off that airplane, threw me toward the radio room and threw him to the tail,” said Roberts. “I’ve heard since then that when that plane strafed the topside of that airplane, he got a .30-caliber in the back and it killed him.” 

In a panic, Roberts jumped out of the falling plane only to collide with the tail of the out-of-control B-17, knocking him unconscious 9,000 feet in the air. After a few seconds of free fall, he woke up and was able to pull his parachute cord. 

“I came down and I looked 20 feet in front of me and there was the fuselage of my plane. I should have got out of there, but I wanted to see what happened to my waist gunner,” Roberts said. 

His care for his crew member almost cost him his life. There were German guards just down the road that captured him as he looked for his gunner. 

He said he was taken to Frankfurt, Germany, for interrogation, a time he described as “two weeks of high intensity, scary situations.”  

After that, he was transported to Austria and held in an internment camp for close to a year. Roberts said as the war progressed, they had to be moved. The Soviets were advancing from the east so they were forced to march west. Once they made it to Braunau am Inn, Austria, they entered a thick woods next to a river. That’s where the prisoners overpowered their guards and made their escape. 

“We could hear the Americans on the other side of the river and one of the guys in my camp wanted to swim it and talk to them. That was a big river too, about the size of the Tennessee. He went over there and it was a good thing too because they were going to shell those woods we were in,” Roberts said. “They came across in a big tank all buttoned down. We went over and talked to them and they unbuttoned that tank and what a celebration.” 

After the war, he came back home and re-entered a co-op program with Buick in his native Flint, Michigan. He became an engineer and was eventually moved to the Saginaw division. He was transferred to Decatur in 1974 to work at the Saginaw factory. 

After 40 years with General Motors, he retired and began a career selling machinery around the South. He finally ended his career with a two-year stint as the owner of his own company. 

He has stayed in the Decatur area. 

“I have had a real good life. People my age are either in assisted living or a nursing home,” he said from his residence in Priceville. 

World War II wasn’t the only time he endured adversity. He was only 6 years old when the stock market crashed on Oct. 28-29, 1929. 

“My folks bought a brand new house in 1929 and by 1932 they had to give it back to the bank because it was worth half what they bought it for,” Roberts said. 

His son Bill Roberts attributes his father’s resilience to his stubbornness. 

“He doesn’t ever do anything he doesn’t want to do. If you’ve got a mindset not to do anything stupid, it works,” said Bill Roberts. 

Benjamin Roberts’ family celebrated his centenarian status earlier this month with a party at Burningtree Country Club. His daughter Debra McKelvy choked up as she said, “I just love him so much and he’s my whole world, really. It makes me so happy to give back to him and help him now because he helped me over the years.” 

She called him “the greatest man in the world.” 

He is a living member of what’s known as The Greatest Generation.  

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