“Someone should make a movie about Vernon Jensen’s war experiences!” declares Denise Frost. Frost spent weeks researching not only the former B-17 radio operator and his escape from enemy territory but also the crew members who were shot down with him on March 18, 1944.
For two months, Jensen and a growing number of Allied servicemen dodged Nazi patrols across Yugoslavia in the company of local partisans before a daring rescue. In 1993, the retired U-M admissions officer wrote a gripping memoir of his war experiences after he traveled back to Eastern Europe, retracing his wartime route with the son of the B-17’s pilot. “We went there to thank the people who had helped us so generously, always at the risk of losing their own lives,” his memoir explains.
On a warm October night, Jensen drove himself to the home of Erin Regina and Clayton Smith. He shares dinner with their family twice a week. Frost was on hand to present him with a citation on behalf of the Sarah Caswell Angell chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Settling onto the porch swing, Jensen discussed his wartime experiences—“but I’ve forgotten some things!” Not surprising for a ninety-nine-year-old.
He was nineteen when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps—“I sure didn’t want to get drafted into the Army!”—in December 1942. He was trained as a gunner and radio operator and assigned to the 463rd Bombardment Group. His crew began training together in November 1943 and arrived in Italy in February 1944.
Nine days after Jensen’s twenty-first birthday, he climbed into Sad Sack, a B-17 on its eighty-first mission and his first: to bomb the city of Wiener Neustadt, near Vienna. Jensen wrote that they met “Heavy flak and fighters. A real baptism by fire.” But Sad Sack returned safely.
The following day, the target was a Nazi airfield near Udine, Italy. The plan was to draw out the Luftwaffe fighters, force them to their base to refuel, and then destroy the grounded planes. But Sad Sack was hit and set on fire. “Bail out!” the captain ordered as he released its bombs. Jensen barreled out of the bomb bay, not stopping for his .45 revolver and walking boots—“I would miss them greatly in the next few weeks,” he wrote in his memoir.
As he and eight others parachuted to the ground, three German fighters flashed by. Expecting to be killed, he wrote, “As a Christian, I prayed God would comfort my parents, family, and my fiancée.” But to his astonishment, the closest German pilot saluted him and flew past.
Deer scurried away as Jensen landed in snow outside the village of Martinjak, Slovenia. “There is no one to help me but God and my own resources,” he recalled. After walking through deep snow in his sheep-skin flying boots, he found his copilot. They hid in caves for days before making their way to a farmhouse.
When the owner appeared, they raised their hands over their heads, stood, and shouted “Amerikanski! Amerikanski!” He grinned and led them to an inn. Within minutes, word spread and people flooded in, bringing flowers, stew, bread, wine, and eggs. “I will never forget the generosity of those wonderful people,” he wrote.
The innkeeper contacted Yugoslav partisans in the area, who interrogated the two Americans, then introduced them to a captured English-speaking German fighter pilot. Jensen and the seventeen-year-old talked into the night—but the next morning he was told the pilot had been executed. “Vern always chokes up when he tells that story,” Regina whispers.
Through deep snow, up and down mountain peaks, across frozen lakes, the men trudged, often hidden in peasants’ homes at night. Food was scarce but shared willingly. A partisan officer arrived by motorcycle to show them machine guns, radio equipment, and ammunition scavenged from Sad Sack. He also gave them plans and drawings of a railroad bridge at Litija they needed bombed. “We took them, knowing that if we were captured with them, we would be considered spies,” Jensen wrote. (When they returned to Italy, they gave the documents to an intelligence officer, and the bridge was successfully bombed.)
The partisans also rescued their pilot and three other crew members. They learned that one had died in the plane and two had been captured by the Germans. As they moved on, their numbers swelled with the addition of British POWs rescued from Italian camps. Jensen learned that the partisans were awarded $1,000 in supplies and ammunition for every downed airman rescued and returned. (In comparison, the Germans paid a bounty of $13 per airman captured.)
During the next weeks, the troop had a “long and wandering journey,” seldom on roads, with armed partisan guards in more dangerous terrain. Luftwaffe attacks and firefights killed one airman, and another, critically wounded, had to be left behind. They saw villages that had been burned and their people massacred.
They had many near-misses, and often doubled back when civilians reported nearby German activity. “I owe a big debt of gratitude to some brave heroes,” his memoir says.
Eventually, about forty Allies and twenty partisans reached the Muslim town of Bosanski Petrovac—but the Germans knew they were there and dropped bombs daily as the men waited for rescue. After four anxious days and nights, five planes flying without lights landed on a meadow lit by fires, loaded them aboard, and took off quickly. The rescued men left behind anything the partisans could use: shoes, boots, jackets, money. “When we lifted off on the night of May 2, 1944 … we departed with our lives and freedom, but we left our hearts and love with the people,” Jensen wrote.
He had walked about 500 miles and lost considerable weight. Because he had been in enemy territory and not captured, he was classified as an “evadee,” which meant he couldn’t fly over enemy territory again. He returned to the U.S. on Mother’s Day 1944, and immediately called home. “My mother said it was the best telephone call she ever received.”
Ten days later, Jensen married his high school sweetheart, Bonnie Canning, in Muskegon. After the honeymoon, she returned to Wheaton College, and he attended an advanced radio operator school. He flew between Pacific combat zones on C-54 transport planes for six months, delivering materiel and evacuating the wounded. Before V-J Day, he flew to an outlying Japanese island to rescue newly liberated American POWs.
“Finally, someone in the military added up the points Vern had earned during the war and realized he was well over the number for discharge,” Clayton Smith explains. “He was one of the first sent home once the Japanese surrendered.” After his discharge in November 1945, he enrolled in Wheaton, where he earned a degree in history and education and went on to earn a master’s degree in educational administration. “That G.I. Bill helped me,” he says. For decades, he supervised athletes’ admissions to U-M—“You can thank me for admitting Tom Brady,” he says.
The 1993 trip to Slovenia and Croatia gave Jensen the chance to thank the surviving partisans who saved him and hold a memorial service at the Sad Sack crash site.
Bonnie and their daughter, Sara, both died in 2011. A deeply committed Christian, Jensen is found every Sunday at First Baptist services. Until Covid, he also washed dishes for all the weekly meals served to the homeless.
“I’ve lived a long time,” he says with a grin. “I guess I am very proud of what I did during the war—but afterward, too.”