New book tells local man’s World War II survival story

Jennifer Cohron
Posted 1/4/15

In April 1944, a B-17 bearing the insignia of the United States Army Air Force was shot down over Belgium while attempting to disrupt the railroad lines leading to the coast of France prior to the D-Day invasion.

The pilot, Winston County native …

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New book tells local man’s World War II survival story

Posted

In April 1944, a B-17 bearing the insignia of the United States Army Air Force was shot down over Belgium while attempting to disrupt the railroad lines leading to the coast of France prior to the D-Day invasion.

The pilot, Winston County native Lt. W.C. “Cornell” Shaddix, waited until the last second to pull the ripcord on his parachute, as he had been trained to do.

The other eight members of his crew acted too hastily and were spotted by enemy troops during the several minutes that it took to float to the ground. They were captured and would remain in prisoner-of-war camps in Germany for the rest of the war.

Shaddix, however, spent the next five months evading the Nazis. The story of his survival is the focus of “Fallen Fortress,” a new book by Tom Bartlett.

Bartlett, a former Air Force officer and retired technology coordinator of the Winston County School System, was introduced to Shaddix by his father, a friend and former classmate.

While Bartlett and Shaddix often talked about their mutual interest in antique cars, their conversations eventually turned to World War II.

Shaddix was a freshman at the University of Alabama when his National Guard unit was mobilized. Following a brief stint in the infantry, he became an Air Force pilot in the “Bloody Hundredth” Bomb Group.

He had survived 12 missions deep into Germany when the B-17 he was flying was shot down over Belgium on April 27, 1944.

A teenage boy discovered him and turned him over to the Belgian Underground.

“There was an underground railroad all across Belgium that funneled these flyers to the French border, and then the Frenchmen would pick them up and carry them across France,” Bartlett said.

A series of families put themselves at great risk by hiding Shaddix in their homes and providing him with clothes and a counterfeit ID.

The fake passport described him as a deaf mute to cover for the fact that he did not know the language during potential interrogations by Germans.

Shaddix had several close calls while in the protection of the underground leaders.

“One time, they rushed into this house looking for an airman. He was in the upstairs bedroom, and he stepped behind the door. Another time, he was on a streetcar, and a German soldier sat down beside him. Cornell froze hoping he wouldn’t say anything, and he didn’t,” Bartlett said.

Shaddix and another pilot eventually struck out on their own because shuttling soldiers along the underground network had become more difficult after railroad lines were destroyed in the D-Day invasion.

“He said, ‘It was the greatest mistake of my life.’ They left the Belgian Underground and tried to walk across France without food or a map,” Bartlett said.

They were picked up by elements of the French Underground, known locally as the Maquis. The two pilots fought with the Maquis until Patton’s 3rd Army overtook them in early September.

“He said, ‘We walked out one day and heard this wonderful sound.’ He had heard a Patton tank because he was in the infantry before he transferred to the Air Corps. He ran over to the top of this hill, and there was an American tank,” Bartlett said.

After the war ended, Shaddix accepted an opportunity to remain in the Air Force and served as a B-47 pilot in the Strategic Air Command.

He first retired near Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery but returned to his native Winston County in the 1970s with his wife, Esther.

Shaddix owned more than 600 acres near Double Springs because he had often sent his father money over the years and asked him to invest it in land close to his old home place.

One of the Belgian families who hid him during the war once stayed on the farm for a week as his special guests.

The eight crew members who were shot down with Shaddix all survived the prisoner-of-war camps where they were held and eventually returned safely to the United States.

Shaddix died in 2007 at the age of 87.

“Fallen Fortress” is available at Fine Yarns on Main in Double Springs as well as through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.