By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Longtime Addison County farmer and Vergennes American Legion Post 14 member J. Francis Angier and his wife of 61 years, Madeleine, are looking forward to Monday.
All five of their sons will be at the Panton home of one of those sons, Philip Angier, along with their eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild, for a Memorial Day picnic.
Of course, Francis and Madeleine will have to leave their Williston home a little early to make that lunch date. Angier, 84, a U.S. Army Air Corps veteran who piloted a B-17 bomber for 33 missions over Europe in World War II, first has a chore to perform: He is the marshal of the Vergennes Memorial Day parade, Vermont’s largest, which will begin at 11 a.m.
Post 14 information officer Henry Broughton said the Legion’s parade committee chose Angier because of his sterling record in World War II, which included a seven-month stint in two Nazi prison camps after Angier’s B-17 was shot down; his post-war service in the Vermont Air and Army National Guards; and his dedication to aviation, a passion that led him to write a 2004 book about his experience as a B-17 pilot: “Ready or Not: Into the Wild Blue.”
Angier wasn’t sure he deserved the recognition, but said he is happy to fulfill his duty.
“It was quite an honor. I’m just a hayseed farmer, you know,” Angier said. “I think he has to choose someone, and I’m glad he chose me, or the group with him did.”
It was back on the North Street, New Haven, farm on which Angier grew up that his interest in aviation was first sparked — all it took was one look upward.
“I saw my first airplane a few days before (Charles) Lindbergh made his flight … and I was hooked,” he said.
Angier began reading as much as possible about airplanes and current events. He sensed early on his fate might be tied to both.
“From the time I could read I studied aviation. I spoke to World War I veterans, even Civil War veterans,” he said. “When Hitler came to power, I was 10, and I could see what was going to happen.”
In 1942, Angier was a student at the Vermont State School of Agriculture when he became old enough to enlist. He naturally pursued pilot training, where his farming fitness and knowledge of aviation helped him advance as other would-be aviators dropped by the wayside.
He survived training in Alabama, Arkansas and then Indiana, where he was commissioned to fly twin-engine planes. Then he started to focus on the B-17.
“I’d always been interested in the B-17 from when they designed and built it in 1935,” Angier said.
Then he was sent to Illinois and Florida, where he received overseas training and his own crew, and finally Langley Field, Virginia, where he got a factory-fresh B-17 with a rare state-of-the-art radar system.
On his 21st birthday, June 11, 1944, he headed for England. A year later to the day, after many a close call during his successful bombing runs and then his capture, he would arrive back in a ship in New York City.
“When I left the States with a new airplane on my 21st birthday to England I had 800 hours in a B-17. It was money in the bank. I was very lucky,” Angier said. “I was very, very well prepared.”
By mid-June 1944, Angier and his B-17 were based in Peterborough, about 60 miles north of London. From there and about 100 other air bases, U.S. warplanes would take off for daring daylight raids over Germany, France, Poland, Norway and elsewhere in Europe.
Angier likened England to a “giant aircraft carrier” for the Allied war effort, and said coordinating the massive air attacks required careful coordination.
“It was almost like a ballet. You had to follow the plan precisely,” he said. “It was very intricate, and quite dangerous. You had collisions.”
Because his plane was so well equipped, Angier said he flew many bad weather missions, using radar to take off and identify targets for 500- and 1,000-pound bombs through heavy cloud cover.
“We could bomb through five miles of clouds quite accurately,” he said.
Nazi fighter planes and anti-aircraft batteries could also find the Allied bombers. Luftwaffe fighters would come in waves, he said: “They’d take out half of ours, and they’d lose half of theirs.”
As Allied troops pushed Nazi forces back into Germany, anti-aircraft fire became more and more dangerous.
“They had tremendous firepower concentrated around the German cities,” Angier said.
Eleven days before his B-17 was shot down, Angier took shrapnel in his upper arm in a bombing run near the city of Cologne, and his co-pilot helped him fly the plane back to Peterborough.
The day after he was cleared to fly again, Angier was ordered to attack the city of Hamburg. His plane and three of his nine crewmembers didn’t make it.
After the B-17 was hit, it started plummeting straight down, tail first. Angier ordered his crew to jump, but he couldn’t.
“I told them to bail out and leave the aircraft. Before I went out the thing exploded,” he said. “I couldn’t open my parachute because of all the debris around.”
Finally he got clear from the wreckage just in time to save his life, but not in time to prevent a major thumping.
“The chute worked perfectly, but it was about treetop level. That’s why I hurt today. I hit hard,” he said. “It was about five or six seconds, enough to keep me alive. It was very fortunate.”
He landed near a hospital where civilian burn victims from the bombing of Hamburg were being treated. Angier was nearly beaten to death by angry Germans, a fate he suspects befell his navigator, but finally he was rescued by soldiers.
“I got the hell beat out of me by civilians,” he said.
Angier was shipped to Stalag Luft III in Poland, the site of the mass breakout immortalized in the movie “The Great Escape.” When the Russians closed in, he spent four days in a boxcar being shipped to Stalag Luft VIIA outside of Munich.
It was not, he said, “a very pleasant place” for its 130,000 prisoners.
“You couldn’t move without touching someone … About half of them had dysentery,” he said.
Angier had to overcome two problems in his captivity. One, between the shrapnel and his rough landing, he was not in the best condition.
“If I hadn’t been injured it would have been fairly easy for me because I was in good shape,” he said.
Secondly, by then the war had created food shortages for the natives, never mind their Allied prisoners. When he was captured, Angier weighed 175 pounds. When he reached France after he was rescued, he tipped the scales at a little more than 100 pounds.
“I was not well-fed because they didn’t have food or any way to get it there,” he said.
Angier stayed in France for five weeks, getting three squares a day and regaining his strength. Then came a westward Atlantic passage, and the welcome sight of America early on his 22nd birthday.
“A ship with a Vermont captain brought us home,” Angier said.
AFTER THE WAR
Two or three days later he was back in Vermont. He bought a farm along Route 7 in New Haven before he left the service, and took it over in 1945. Two years later he bought the farm of his dreams, a large spread just north of Addison Four Corners, on which he built a barn and home and grew feed crops until he sold it in 1994.
Angier is as passionate about farming as he is about flying, and believes in small-scale, self-sustaining agriculture.
“For over 60 years I’ve been a proponent of family farms, organic farming, direct sales and diversification,” he said.
He soon joined the Vermont Air Guard and flew jets, and then piloted helicopters for the Vermont Army Guard. To do so, he needed a medical waiver every year until he retired in 1968 — the Pentagon never fully restored his medical clearance after his World War II injuries even as he signed up for seven tours of Guard duty, retiring as a Major.
He also still speaks in schools, and believes students are beginning to take more of an interest in World War II.
“I see a big response in young people today,” he said. “It’s something they should hear about.”
He has completed one more book, to be titled, “Tales of Woe and Other Preposterous Events,” in which he has drawn from a lifetime of stories from aviation, farming and other sources, and has two more in the works, one on rural life in the Champlain Valley in the early 20th century, and another on farming and marketing.
“I keep very, very busy,” he said.
Next on Angier’s agenda is Monday’s family picnic and parade, however.
“We always look forward to the parade down there,” Angier said. “It’s one of the best, I think.”