By DAVID KRIER
Gene Moran cheated death at the tender age of 19 when the B-17 Flying Fortress he was serving as tail gunner in was shot down over Nazi Germany on Nov. 29, 1943. With the airplane split in half, Moran remained in the tail section as it plummeted 28,000 feet toward the ground. Miraculously, he survived, suffering a fractured skull and other injuries when the tail section hit a tree trunk before crashing to the ground.
Moran died March 23 at the age of 89, seven decades after that fateful day over Bremen, Germany. According to his obituary, the Soldiers Grove native, “lived life to the fullest and embraced as his life’s philosophy, ‘I’d rather wear out than rust out.’”
His war-time experience is the stuff movies are made of. According to the narrative in the Veterans Lifetime Achievement Award he received in 2007 from the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs, the first ever: “With severe gunshot wounds and a bullet riddled parachute, he rode the tail section down at the rate of 100 feet per second; and he survived the descent, but sustained a crushed skull when the tail section hit a tree trunk before crashing to the ground. His life was saved by a Serbian doctor, also a POW, who surgically repaired his severe head wounds after which he was a Prisoner of War for almost 18 months, being inhumanely incarcerated in POW camps in Germany, Prussia and Poland, and surviving solitary confinement, relocation on a “Hell Ship” on the Baltic Sea, and a 600-mile forced march from early February to late April 1945 during one of the harshest winters on record.”
Moran was liberated on April 26, 1945 at Bitterfelt, Germany. He was discharged on December 1, 1945 holding the rank of Staff Sergeant. Still in his teens, Moran returned to Crawford County, the recipient of two Purple Hearts, the Air Medal with Gold Leaf Cluster, the European Theater and other medals.
Moran worked as a rural mail carrier for over 30 years. A dedicated public servant, he was a life member of American Legion Post 220, was a charter member of the Soldiers Grove Rescue Squad and the village’s fire chief. He served on the Crawford County Board for 20 years and in 2008 the village dedicated a street in the village park and named it after him in his honor.
In a 2007 interview with Congressman Ron Kind in La Crosse for the Veterans History Project, Moran recalled why he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, his first and only choice: “Well, when I was a kid there on the farm (in Scott Township), on a nice bright day I would be lying there and looking up at the sky and see those planes, and I always said some day I’ll be in one of them, and I did.”
But he never expected what would happen once he got there. According to a Boscobel Dial story dated Oct. 5, 1944 and entitled, “Tail Gunner Lives to Tell Tale of Four Mile Tumble,” Moran escaped death as described by S/Sgt. George Fisher of Massachusetts, one of 218 wounded and ill American soldiers repatriated by the exchange ship Gripsholm.
“It happened last Nov. 29, Fisher said, after flak had cut off the plane tail, with Moran, the tail gunner caught inside. Moran couldn’t jump because his parachute had been shot full of holes, so he folded the chute around him and waited for the inevitable.
“As the tail dropped earthward, the damaged vertical fin and horizontal stabilizers fluttered and flapped, Fisher said, breaking the speed of the fall. Then, one of the stabilizers stabbed into the tree—and held.
“Fisher said he saw the plane tail fall and lodge in the tree as he floated to earth after bailing out of a plane which had been hit on a bombing mission over Bremen. Moran’s one request, Fisher said, was for backing when he returned to the United States with the almost unbelievable story. Fisher said he promised to vouch for Moran’s story.”