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‘Trials by fire’: How hero WW2 bomber survived hundreds of hours behind enemy lines and POW camp

After being held captive for nearly two years in a prisoner-of-war camp following ‘trials by fire on a scale unprecedented in aerial warfare’, Second World War bomber Frank Murphy couldn’t believe he lived to tell the tale. 

As a navigator on the US Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, the then-22-year-old was shot down while flying over Nazi Germany, where he was sent to the infamous Stalag Luft III – a prisoner of war camp depicted in the 1963 hit The Great Escape.  

For 22 months, Murphy battled freezing conditions, near-starvation and petrifying ordeals, before his eventual liberation on April 29, 1945. 

After returning home, he recalled his time behind enemy lines in a harrowing memoir, ‘Luck of the Draw’. 

Now, more than 77 years later, his granddaughter, CNN entertainment correspondent Chloe Melas, is retelling the story, as both a tribute to her heroic grandfather and a reminder of the terrible events endured by so many. 

‘He took ten years to write this book’ she told DailyMail.com. ‘And I know a good story when I see one.’ 

Frank Murphy, pictured, survived almost two years in a POW camp after his bomber aircraft was shot out of the sky in October 1943

Murphy flew 21 missions with his rag-tag bomber group during the war, earning their aircraft the nickname of 'The Bast**** Bungalow'

Murphy flew 21 missions with his rag-tag bomber group during the war, earning their aircraft the nickname of ‘The Bast**** Bungalow’

The WW2 hero's granddaughter, CNN entertainment correspondent Chloe Melas, has re-issued his memoir to tell the story of his time behind enemy lines

The WW2 hero’s granddaughter, CNN entertainment correspondent Chloe Melas, has re-issued his memoir to tell the story of his time behind enemy lines

‘My grandfather once told me he spent the rest of his life walking with ghosts but looking back with pride,’ she said, in the foreword co-written with her mother, Elizabeth Murphy, and with the support of her grandmother, Ann Murphy. 

Chloe added that she felt a sense of duty to her grandfather to re-issue the memoir, which was only written as a record for family and friends before she realized it was ‘a story worth telling’. 

‘Our family’s goal is to keep Frank’s memory and that of his fellow men alive and pass on the greatness to the next generation.’ 

Murphy was a member of the 100th Bomb Group, one of five B-17 bomb groups sent to England in the spring of 1943 to form the new 4th Bomber Wing. 

Originally from Atlanta, he landed in England in June, determined to stave off the advancing Nazi invasion that had already reached most of Europe and North Africa. 

By the time Murphy and the nine others crammed inside the tin-can bomber alongside him were shot down in October, he had witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting in military history.  

‘It lasted only four months – four months, however, in which were compressed many of the most exciting, and all of the most frightening and life-threatening, experiences I have known in my entire life,’ Murphy recalled. 

His story is set to be brought to life in the upcoming series ‘Masters of the Air’, where he will be the basis of a character played by Jonas Moore. 

Tom Hanks, who stars in the show, said: ‘In the pursuit of authenticity, of accurate history and undeniable courage, no words matter more than ‘I was there.’

The 100th Bomb Group earned the title of ‘The Bloody Hundredth’ after losing 45 aircrafts in a matter of months, culminating in Murphy’s own plane coming down during what became known as ‘black week’. 

The infamous episode, which lasted from October 8th to the 14th, saw 12 out of 13 aircrafts within the battalion shot out of the skies – what Murphy describes as ‘a staccato succession of trials by fire on a scale unprecedented in aerial warfare.’ 

His rag-tag group of fellow fliers flew their scrappy plane, The Bast**** Bungalow, for more than 125 hours before they were gunned down. 

‘There was no single reason why men who looked death in the face over Europe in 1943 went back into battle day after day,’ Murphy said of his comrades. 

‘The airmen of the Eighth were amateurs, not professional soldiers. We had no idea whether we were good soldiers or not, but we had not collapsed in the face of a difficult enemy. 

‘Duty, honor, country played their part, certainly, but not because these precepts were drilled into us by the Army. It was just the way we were. 

‘In my view, however, the single driving force that kept us going was the bond one felt with the men who stood steadfastly beside him when all their lives were at stake.’

‘No fighting men in military service anywhere, anytime, would be more deserving of respect.’

Murphy was a member of the 100th Bomb Group, one of five B-17 bomb groups sent to England in the spring of 1943

Murphy was a member of the 100th Bomb Group, one of five B-17 bomb groups sent to England in the spring of 1943

The young navigator is the basis of a character in the upcoming series 'Masters of the Air'

The young navigator is the basis of a character in the upcoming series ‘Masters of the Air’

The veteran later described his fellow soldiers as: 'No fighting men in military service anywhere, anytime, would be more deserving of respect.'

The veteran later described his fellow soldiers as: ‘No fighting men in military service anywhere, anytime, would be more deserving of respect.’

Born in September 1921, Murphy was just 21-years-old when he flew his first combat mission

Born in September 1921, Murphy was just 21-years-old when he flew his first combat mission

Compared to today’s high-tech military equipment, the B-17 bomber they flew was a death-trap.  

Murphy was a navigator, situated at the front of the plane alongside the pilot, co-pilot, and bombardier. The six sergeants in the rear were made up of aerial gunners and a radio technician. 

‘The risks they took were all out of proportion to their military ratings or pay,’ he said. ‘Their job was difficult mentally and physically, and fraught with the danger of injury or death, almost always deep in enemy territory. 

‘No fighting men in military service anywhere, anytime, would be more deserving of respect.’ 

Describing his own role, he wrote that he routinely ‘climbed aboard lugging a briefcase crammed with maps, Mercator charts, books, paper, pencils, drawing instruments, a hand-held calculator, and strange looking optical instruments.’ 

The navigator, in his words, ‘looked at his watch constantly, drew lines, and scribbled notes to himself on the papers, maps, and charts in front of him, much like Scrooge’s wretched drudge, Bob Cratchit, in Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol.’ 

As his granddaughter Chloe notes, his ‘self-deprecating style’ led him to neglect to mention that he was the reason the crew found their target and got home safely twenty times before they were finally shot down. 

After their aircraft was blown out of the sky in October 1943, Murphy and his surviving crew members were swiftly arrested by the German police. 

The torturous prison camp he was sent to, the Stalag Luft III, was later made famous by the 1963 blockbuster The Great Escape. Melas said her ‘cat with nine lives’ grandfather even attempted to tunnel out of the camp, just as they do in the film.  

After living through hell-on-earth under the shadow of the Nazi regime for almost two years, Murphy confided in his granddaughter he had a unique outlet to help him survive. 

‘He said music saved his life,’ she revealed.

‘He played in the POW prison band, which is amazing they let them do that. He played the saxophone and clarinet.’ 

Murphy had just four missions left to complete his tour before his plane was shot down

Murphy had just four missions left to complete his tour before his plane was shot down

Aged just 22 when he was sent to the front lines, Murphy fought for four months before spending nearly two years in a POW camp

Aged just 22 when he was sent to the front lines, Murphy fought for four months before spending nearly two years in a POW camp

Compared to today's high-tech military equipment, the B-17 bomber they flew was a death-trap

Compared to today’s high-tech military equipment, the B-17 bomber they flew was a death-trap 

Despite being one of the most feared forces in the skies, Murphy's aircraft was eventually shot down during 'black week'

Despite being one of the most feared forces in the skies, Murphy’s aircraft was eventually shot down during ‘black week’ 

Estimates place the number of US soldiers that participated in the Second World War at over 16 million, with just 180,000 are still alive today, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. 

And it is figures like these that motivated Chloe to tell her grandfather’s story. 

‘It is important for people to know,’ she said. ‘He deserves the posthumous praise, I have always been proud of him, but especially now. 

‘So many of us know someone that was in World War Two. But we’re losing veterans every day, and we need these stories. We need the past to see the future.

‘The coolest thing is there is now an entire generation of people to learn about this. People related to those in World War Two can relate, and it might ignite some patriotism in others.’ 

Murphy’s bravery during the war earned him a Purple Heart, Air Medal and the POW Medal, before he died in 2007 at age 85. 

All proceeds from ‘The Luck of the Draw’ will go to veterans’ charities. 

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Read more at DailyMail.co.uk



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