Skip to main content
Edit entry 

Vernon Gayle Alexander

Military

Gayle flew with the 493rd Bomb Group, based at Debach in Suffolk. A native of Kentucky, he flew both B-24 and B-17 bombers in combat. He and his crew named their B-24 ‘Kentucky Kloudhopper’. On his 19th mission, a raid against Merseberg, his B-17 was hit. ‘The whole plane disintegrated. The next thing I knew, I was falling head-first at 28,000 feet.’ Gayle was one of seven survivors. ‘The ‘mickey’ [radar] operator was killed in the explosion, the engineer got caught on a door handle going out of the back, one got stabbed to death with a pitchfork when he landed, and the Colonel didn’t get out of the airplane either. Four of them out of 11 died that day.’ He spent several months as a Prisoner of War. He nearly starved, and was forced to march many miles between camps. ‘It’s burned into my memory, I’ll never forget it,” he said.

Gayle was posted to the 493rd Bomb Group at Debach, Suffolk, where he flew B-24s and B-17s. On his 19th mission, his aircraft was shot down. He was wounded and became a Prisoner of War in Stalag Luft III. In January 1945, his camp was evacuated and he was forced to march hundreds of miles to Moosburg, Bavaria. ‘I weighed 113 lb when I got home,’ he remembered. ‘I was just pretty much skin and bone.’ After the war, he became a successful horse doctor in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky.

Gayle (as he preferred to be known) Alexander had a somewhat traumatic childhood being bitten by a dog at the age of four necessitating a course of anti-rabies shots - the first of several in his lifetime. His father, a pharmacist, had died of TB at much the same time and the family then moved to Lexington, Kentucky. Gayle was at the University of Kentucky and out on a date who told him that Pearl Harbour had been attacked, 'where the hell is Pearl Harbour?'

His older brother was already in the Air Corps and Gayle - unusually - was already in possession of a Private Pilot's Licence which he had acquired aged fifteen when he would rent a Piper Cub for three dollars an hour, the three dollars being donated by his grandmother. Having then been at college for two years and in possession of the right grades he did not have to take any further tests and accordingly enlisted as an Air Cadet on December 18th 1941. Pilot training was long and intensive and during one flight he got lost in a heavy storm and, low on gas, he landed in a field where he stayed overnight. He fully expected to be 'washed out' but got off with a reprimand.

Alexander got his wings on October 9th 1942 and the very next day was himself - a 21- year old 2nd Lieutenant - appointed as an instructor. One group of his students were graduates of West Point and of equal rank so it was something of an anomaly that they stood to attention when he entered the room...He was then posted to Tennessee to instruct on the B-24, a plane he had never himself flown. Eager to transfer to fighters he tried to pull strings with a Colonel at the base who it seemed had dated his grandmother in her youth. It didn't work but he did get out of instructing and was sent to Salt Lake City to pick up his bomber crew. Unfortunately there was a severe 'flu epidemic raging at the time 'we lost two boys the first night' and they were moved overnight to Tucson where his brother was director of flying. A happy coincidence and he was able to stay with his family for a month where, once again, his hopes for a move to fighters were thwarted at the last minute. He was literally at the station waiting for a train to take him to San Bernardino and a fighter group when orders arrived cancelling the posting. Instead he was assigned Flight Leader with the 493rd Bomber Group destined for overseas.

They flew to England in their B-24 Liberators via Goose Bay and Iceland in terrible weather eventually landing at Debach airfield in Norfolk on 4th May 1944. Their first mission was on D-Day itself when they made two trips back-to-back. It was on 1st November and the crew's 19th mission - Alexander leading the 34th BG, twelve hundred bombers and 500 fighters for top cover - that they were shot down. Four members of the crew did not survive; Alexander, shot in the leg, recalls passing out as he parachuted down into a field to be greeted by a group of farmers with shotguns. He is convinced that the arrival of an army truck with two soldiers saved his life. They stripped him of his flying suit and watch - but gave him back his toothbrush - and he was then marched for hours in stockinged feet and freezing weather until arriving at a train station.

He arrived with his escort at a small town following a harrowing train journey and was immediately put into solitary confinement -standard practice - for probably a week. He was then with five other airmen 'right out of my crew' sent on to another town for a further spell of solitary before being questioned. His interrogator, a major, offered him a drink and a cigarette both of which he declined and then recited Alexander's service record in full, even to details of his final raid. He was then given new clothes and sent on a further traumatic train journey, fortunately this time with his own co-pilot and navigator - no food or water for three days - to Stalag Luft III at Zagan.

Alexander does not say how long he was at the camp but it must have been only a few weeks because in January 1945 as the Russians advanced into Germany they were all marched out on a 550 mile trek westward having been given just thirty minutes notice. No food, no shelter and one morning when roused by the guards at 5 am two men - of the dozen or so who had been sheltering under a tree - were discovered to be frozen to death. They stayed in Nurnberg for a week en route getting some satisfaction from watching RAF Mosquitos coming in low and bombing at night. The march resumed and they crossed the Danube 'nothing beautiful about it, a little dirty old river with a 1000lb bomb sitting on the bridge'. Many men died on that march, falling asleep by the roadside and never waking up, Alexander got separated from his crew when he overslept and never caught them up.

Eventually they arrived at a town Mooseburg somewhere north of Munich and were thrilled by the sight of American tanks 'rolling right over that barbed wire...we were free and that was the end of it'. They ate white bread, bathed in hot water and even slept in a feather bed for the first time in months before being shipped out in trucks and flown to Le Havre in DC3s. At Le Havre, Gayle recalls two of the ex-POWs died while eating doughnuts; their digestive systems unable to cope with such riches. There they boarded a hospital ship which stopped at Dover to pick up an alarming number of men in strait jackets; the casualties of war. As a captain he was assigned a stateroom and 'lived the life of Riley' in spite of being severely seasick at times and vowing never to set foot on a boat again!

Back home he decided not to stay on in the Service after a total ninety days R &R leave, needing a different challenge. So he went back to college and, having always wanted to be a veterinary surgeon applied to Ohio State for further training funded by the government. He graduated in 1949, having married in his senior year, but gave up his practice when aged 55 and turned to farming.

Service

People

  • Howard Claydon

    Military | Technical Sergeant | Top Turret Gunner, Top Turret Gunner; Engineer | 493rd Bomb Group
    Shot down 2 November 1944 in AC #448246. Killed in Action (KIA). AM w/ 2 Oak Leaf Cluster/ PH

  • David First

    Military | Lieutenant | Navigator | 493rd Bomb Group
    Shot down 2 November 1944 in B-17 #448246. Prisoner of War (POW).

  • Harry Froese

    Military | Staff Sergeant | Right Waist Gunner, Waist Gunner | 493rd Bomb Group
    Shot down 2 November 1944 in B-17 #448246. Prisoner of War (POW).

  • Harry Graves

    Military | Lieutenant | Co-Pilot | 493rd Bomb Group
    Shot down 2 November 1944 in B-17 #448246. Prisoner of War (POW).

  • Charles Mills

    Military | Technical Sergeant | Radio Operator | 493rd Bomb Group
    Shot down 2 November 1944 in B-17 #44-8246. Prisoner of War (POW).

  • Joseph Saleski

    Military | Lieutenant | Bombardier | 493rd Bomb Group
    He was shot down by flak on 2 November 1944, whilst flying as bombardier aboard B-17 (44-8246) during a mission over Merseberg Oil Refinery. ...

  • Donald Schulman

    Military | Lieutenant | Navigator | 493rd Bomb Group
    Shot down 2 November 1944 in B-17 #448246. Prisoner of War (POW).

  • Salvatore Sciame

    Military | Staff Sergeant | Ball Turret Gunner | 493rd Bomb Group
    Shot down 2 November 1944 in B-17 #448246. Prisoner of War (POW).

  • Robert Waggoner

    Military | Second Lieutenant | Tail Gunner | 493rd Bomb Group
    Killed in Action (KIA) 2 November 1944 in B-17 #448246.

Show more

Units served with

  • 493rd Bomb Group

    493rd Bomb Group

    Group
    The 493rd Bomb Group were the last Eighth Air Force Group to become operational, flying their first combat mission from Debach, Suffolk, on D-Day, 6 June 1944. The Group was known as "the Fighting 493rd", named by their Commanding Officer Colonel...

  • 861st Bomb Squadron

Aircraft

  • 44-8246

    B-17 Flying Fortress
    Delivered Dallas 9/7/44; Hunter 22/7/44; Grenier 10/9/44; Assigned 861BS/493BG Debach 16/9/44; loaned 4BS/34BG Mendlesham, Missing in Action Merseburg 2/11/44 with Capt Vernon Alexander, Harry Graves, Dave First, Don Schuiman ex nav, Chas Mills,...

Missions

  • 698

    2 November 1944

Associated Place

  • Debach

    Military site : airfield
    Debach was one of the last Eighth Air Force heavy bomber bases to be completed. It was built by the 820th Engineer Battalion (Aviation) between late '43 and early '44. Pronounced locally as 'Deb-idge', the base was built to a class A standard with...

  • American Air Museum

    Other location

Events

Event Location Date
Born Lexington, Kentucky 6 October 1921
Enlisted Lexington, KY, USA 9 January 1942

Enlisted as an aviation cadet.

Shot Down Sömmerda, Germany 2 November 1944

Hit by flak on mission to Merseberg, 2 November 1944 in AC 44-8246. Parachuted out. Captured. Spent seven months as Prisoner of War (POW).

POW Zagan, Poland 2 November 1944 – 29 May 1945

Stalag Luft III was Sagan, Germany during the war.
Two months interned and 5 months of forced march from Sagan-Nurnberg-Moosburg. Liberated 9 May 1945.

Died Lexington, Kentucky 30 December 2018

Dr. V. Gayle, 97, passed away Sunday, December 30th. He was predeceased by his wife of 59 years, Betsy Radford Alexander, a son Thomas Gayle Alexander and an older brother Harry S. Alexander. He was a native of Lexington, graduating from Henry Clay High School and attended the University of Kentucky making many life long friends as an SAE. He enlisted in the Air Corps on Dec 12, 1941. After passing through pilot training, being assigned as a fighter pilot instructor and finally being called to fly heavy bombers for the Mighty Eighth, he lead the 493rd Bomb Group, and the 34th Bomb Squadron on 19 missions deep into France and Germany. As lead pilot he was also assigned the mickey ship or Pathfinder flying with the first radar used in wartime. He was shot down on his 19th mission over Merseberg, Germany, captured and held in a prison camp for three months before beginning the 550 mile march in one of Germany’s coldest winters. Stalag Luft III was liberated in late April ’45 by Patton’s tank brigade. As Captain he earned the Air Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, Distinguished Unit Badge, The Purple Heart, The European Service Medal, Irving Air Chute Caterpillar Club (bailing out of a burning bomber), the Prisoner of War Medal, French Knight of The Legion Of Honor and the Jubilee of Liberty Medal. Upon returning to the U.S. he attended Ohio State University graduating as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. He returned to Lexington and opened Blue Cross Small Animal Hospital on South Broadway where he practiced for 25 years before retiring to manage his own farm and cattle operation. He enjoyed fishing and boating on Herrington Lake, a good fall dove hunt and traveling with his wife throughout the world finally settling in Naples, Fl. for their winter retreat. He is survived by daughter Carolyn A. Gago (Lexington), son Cyrus (Dana) R. Alexander, four grandchildren, Thomas (Diana) Oakes (Chicago), Cyrus (Ashleigh) G. Alexander (Paris, Tn.), Wesley T. Alexander, Benjamin R. M. Alexander, two great grandchildren, Parker and Henry Oakes, and two nephews, Wayne and Steve Alexander (Foley, Al). Private graveside service will be held at The Lexington Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, memorials are suggested to Walnut Hill Church, 575 Walnut Hill Rd, Lexington, Ky., 40515 or the Hope Center, P.O. Box 6, Lexington, Ky., 40588.

Buried Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky, USA 4 January 2019

Revisions

Date Contributor Update
24 January 2019 23:31:23 466thHistorian Changes to events
Sources

https://milwardfuneral.com/obituaries/79-vernon-gayle-alexander?fbclid=I...

Date Contributor Update
09 January 2019 09:35:53 Emily Changes to events
Sources

Notification of Alexander's death was provided by Dr Nancy Toombs, a close friend of his, and member of the 8th Air Force Historical Society

Date Contributor Update
02 November 2018 11:34:25 Emily Changes to biography
Sources

Biography completed by historian Helen Millgate. Information sourced from correspondence files and articles held in an IWM research collection related to the acquisition of various items and ephemera belonging to Gayle Alexander

Date Contributor Update
14 August 2018 10:11:39 general ira snapsorter Changes to biography and events
Sources

American Air Museum text from displays.

Date Contributor Update
21 October 2015 15:33:01 general ira snapsorter Changes to biography and events
Sources

Merged with duplicate entry to include details from :
Chris Brassfield;
MACR 10169 / Paul Andrews, Project Bits and Pieces, 8th Air Force Roll of Honor database

Date Contributor Update
20 July 2015 20:26:53 466thHistorian Changes to events
Sources

Vernon Alexander

Date Contributor Update
20 July 2015 20:20:12 466thHistorian Changes to awards, events, person associations, place associations, aircraft associations and mission associations
Sources

Cyrus and Vernon Alexander

Date Contributor Update
27 September 2014 18:26:24 AAM AAM ingest
Sources

Drawn from the records of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force, Savannah, Georgia / http://493bgdebach.co.uk/roster_list.php / self, MACR 10169

Share