World War II POW Describes Being Shot Down over the English Channel

Pilot Bill Geiger survived being held prisoner by the Germans for 3 1/2 years during World War II.
Pilot Bill Geiger survived being held prisoner by the Germans for 3 1/2 years during World War II. (Photo courtesy of Bill Geiger)

World War II veteran Bill Geiger, whose pilot was a West Pointer, wanted to be a pilot all my life. This is excerpted from interviews taken for the National Geographic program, "Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack," on the National Geographic Channel.

I'd wanted to be a pilot all my life. My uncle was a West Pointer, and I think he was the second man in the United States military to be licensed as a pilot. And I always wanted to be one ... I thought if I'd go in the RAF [Royal Air Force], and ... the United States entered the war, I'll be one of the few that had combat experience, and that would give me a leg up. ... It was a chance to fly state-of-the-art airplanes. And I think that's why most of the Eagles joined; it was an opportunity to fly one of the best airplanes in the world.

Well we ... we went in, and we signed up. And this was in September of 1940. First week in December of 1940, we were sent to a school, at Glendale, California, to learn to fly formation, to get an instrument rating. We did a little night flying, and very little aerobatics, but some. And this school was a civilian school, but our instructors were all ex-Army Air Corps pilots. And we were there for several months. And then they sent us overseas.

Well, it was the beginning of an adventure. You were pretty pleased with yourself, and I think that we all thought, or at least I did, "Now there's a certain obligation on my part, to be a part of this. And I hope I can ... I hope I can do it."

We didn't feel that we were serving England, necessarily. We ... I think we were pretty well wrapped up in what we wanted out of it. We were going to fly some very fine airplanes. We started out on Hurricanes, ended up flying Spitfires. But it did not take too long; the British people have just amazing courage.

I mean, these were civilians that were being killed. The bombing was still going on. At night in London, people were still sleeping in the subways. And they'd get up in the middle of the night and go out and fight fires, and dig people out of the rubble, and then go to work during the day. And they were still under something of a threat of an invasion. And they were standing on the shores of that island with pitchforks, sickles, scythes, knives, whatever. And there was not a word of quit, anywhere around. And you got caught up in that kind of courage, and then pretty soon, you'd say, "Now, I want to be a part of this for a different reason."

I think one of the ... greatest morale-building things happened to me one morning; we flew on an early morning mission. And we hadn't had breakfast. And when we were coming back, we were passing over Manston [in England], and I was running very short of fuel. ... And I asked permission to land at the aerodrome where we were passing over. And I got permission ... I landed and taxied up to where they could refuel the airplane. A batman came out of the office ... he said, "Pilot Officer Geiger, we got a call from control; you'll have your breakfast before you ... return to your base."

And I, suddenly I felt about seven feet tall. I said, you know, they really care. And uh, they were very good at that. I was in London a few times when it was bombed at night. ... I don't think they [the people in England] were living in fear. I think they were aware of the danger, but there was no evidence of panic.

There was no grumbling, growling; there was no whimpering at all. ... It was quite inspirational, and it ... helped us a whole lot, because we had something now to fight for, rather than just our own curiosity, and our own sense of adventure.

... I must admit that the first mission you flew was pretty scary, because you didn't know whether you were going to be able to do it or not. This was where you were going to find out what you could do. Would you go? Would you do what you were supposed to do? Could you handle it? ... You got into your plane with your stomach churning around pretty good on that one. But when you got back, you felt like a million dollars, because you said, "I did it; I can do it. I'm part of it now." And so that fear went away.

You knew that you were able to fly the missions, and you felt pretty good about that. Sometimes you accept the fact that you may die. And that takes care of fear. If you're real lucky, you split into two people. One is in the hot seat. And the other one is outside looking in. And he's the one that talks to you, and he says, you know, pay attention, and I'll see if I can talk you out of this horrible mess you've got yourself into.

... And in the summer of 1941, we lost nine pilots. But we didn't lose somebody on every mission, but it was often enough to realize that what you were doing was not a piece of cake. I promised myself every time I crossed that English Channel, that if I ever got shot down, it would never, ever be here. And guess where I was shot down? In that water.

... The English Channel looked very, very ... unpleasant. And it was ... I remember, I was dangling at the end of that parachute, looking down at that water, and I thought, "Geiger, how on Earth have you managed to get yourself here?"

... Well, we were escorting 24 Blenheims, which was the biggest daylight raid of the war. And we had them in, and we had them out. And we were crossing over the Cliffs of Dover ... And I was sweeping across the back of the formation. And somebody behind me got in trouble, and I figured, well we've got the bombers home, I'll break a rule and go back, see if I can help him.

And there were people waiting for that kind of move on my part. Gussie Daymon called me and said, I don't know who you are, but you've got three 109s on your tail. And I got shot down ... They just hit the daylights out of me, and I lost control of the airplane. It wouldn't fly anymore.

So I decided that I was going to have to get out. And I couldn't get the canopy off. We had a quick release that you pulled, and you're supposed to let it fly off, and it didn't come off. I banged on it a little bit, and I remember thinking very clearly, "I'm going to go in with the airplane." But I thought, "it won't hurt." And that's the only thing that I thought.

And then, I split into two people. And, the chap on the other side of this problem told me, "Look at the corners of your canopy," and I did. And one corner was sticking out a little bit, and I pushed on it, and the canopy went out. And then, "You take your helmet off. You put it down beside your seat, make sure that the oxygen tubes and the RT cable don't get tangled around your feet as you jump ... "

[The water] ... was cold. Now I was in there almost five hours, and a German boat came out and picked me up. ... My total time as a prisoner of war was 3½ years.

Want to Know More About the Military?

Be sure to get the latest news about the U.S. military, as well as critical info about how to join and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues