Thomas Wictor

What are the odds?

What are the odds?

One of my favorite stories is the survival of Flight Lieutenant Joseph B. Herman, Number 466 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force. On November 4, 1944, he was the beneficiary of a miracle. This is all true and documented. What are the odds? Was he just lucky? I don’t believe that outside forces intervene to save us, but…

On November 4, 1944, Joe Herman was piloting his Handley Page Halifax B.III bomber on a nighttime mission over the Ruhr Valley, Germany.


At 18,000 feet, the bomber was hit by antiaircraft fire. The Germans had cannons with a maximum range of 39,000 feet. Shells were timed to explode at a certain height and spray jagged shrapnel in all directions. Radar units on the ground determined how high the bombers flew and radioed the information to the antiaircraft gunners, who manually set the shells. They knew that it took a specific time to reach a certain height, so they set the fuses to three seconds, for example.

Herman’s bomber caught fire, so he ordered the crew to bail out. He himself had taken off his parachute because it was uncomfortable. As he crawled toward it, the bomber exploded. Herman found himself in midair, surrounded by wreckage. He never lost consciousness.

Though it was night, he could see clearly that his parachute was nowhere in the parts falling all around him, so he gave himself up for lost. There was was nothing to do but wait. He kicked and screamed a little, but he realized that was a waste of energy and wouldn’t change anything. He therefore just relaxed and dropped over 12,000 feet, gazing at the rivers and lakes that reflected the moonlight.

About 6000 feet above the ground, something crashed into him with tremendous force. He instinctively grabbed it and discovered that it was a pair of legs. The legs were those of Herman’s mid-upper gunner, Flying Officer John Vivash.

“Hello, is someone there?” Vivash asked.

“Just me, Joe,” said Herman.


They fell in silence. When they hit the ground, Vivash landed on Herman’s chest feet first, breaking two of Herman’s ribs. The men buried their parachute and avoided capture by the Germans for four days. Eventually, however, they were rounded up.

The Germans didn’t believe their story. Herman and Vivash took them to the single buried parachute, and the Germans were forced to admit that it had actually happened: A man fell out of an exploding bomber, grabbed the legs of another crew member in midair, and both survived.

It’s actually a lot more miraculous than it appears. For one thing, Herman and Vivish had to be dropping along the exact same vertical line. A foot to either side, and Herman would’ve missed.

Also, Vivash had just opened his parachute when Herman hit him. Vivash and Herman had both achieved terminal velocity and were traveling at just about the same speed, around 125 miles per hour. If Herman had collided with Vivash a fraction of a second earlier or later, their different velocities would’ve either killed them both or prevented Herman from grabbing on.

Finally, Vivash was in the process of swinging horizontally when Herman grabbed onto his legs. If Vivash had been hanging under his chute, Herman would’ve whooshed past him with no hope of getting a grip.

As I said, this is all documented. Apparently three other survivors from the bomber were murdered after they were captured. Herman was incalculably lucky this night.

Joe Herman spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He went on to fly commercial aircraft and crop dusters. I haven’t been able to find out when he died, but I hope he had a long and happy life. This is him on the left, when he was a sergeant.


I also hope he was incredibly grateful for every second of happiness he experienced after November 4, 1944.

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