Book Review: They Grey Ghost

Book Review: Coffin Corner Boys

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Coffin Corner Boysby Carole Avriett is a compelling read about a B-17 crew that escaped from Nazi-occupied France after their plane was shot down.  This book is a reminder of the Greatest Generation’s spirit, bravery, and patriotism. 

Those flying the B-17 suffered numerous casualties. Readers learn the harrowing dangers the crewmen faced from the time they jumped out of their burning plane to attempting to survive and avoid being captured.  They were assigned the vulnerable position of the mission’s configuration called the Coffin Corner.  Having to fly low squadron, low group, flying #6 in the bomber box formation they were exposed to hostile fire.

Avriett recounts how “on March 16th, 1944 the ten-member crew had to bail out of their plane after it was shot down. It was not a done deal that they would even land safely.  Think about it.  They were not trained to parachute out of planes, and never practiced it.  They had to jump out of it while it flew in excess of 250 mph into subzero temperatures.  One of the guys had his back cracked when the force of the chute shot upward after being opened.  The pilot, Captain George W. Starks, landed so hard his foot broke.  Then there were the German fighter pilots that tried to shoot them in mid-sky or maneuvered close so the parachute’s air would be sucked out, leaving the airman to plummet to his death.”

Each crewmember had to endure the severe cold, wetness, hunger, and exhaustion.  Irv Baum and Ted Badder had the misfortune of landing by two Frenchmen who turned them into the Nazis for two thousand francs.  Baum who was Jewish tried denying that he was “A Hebrew. I was told ‘you’re lying,’ and at the same moment was backhanded across the face hard enough to break open the corner of my left eye.  We were sent to a processing camp near Frankfurt where they questioned us about the names of our crew.  I kept saying it was a crew I didn’t usually fly with, so I didn’t know any of them.  About midnight, about five of us were taken outside.  Then six or seven guards came out with rifles, lined us up and the officer yelled ‘Ready. Aim. Fire.’ But nothing happened.  They put us back into our cells and I spent a sleepless night.”

Many people know of the Japanese Bataan Death March of Filipinos and American POWS, but the Germans also had one, the Black Death March. In February 1945 crew member Dick Morse told how the Germans starved the 6000 POWS and marched them in the cold winter weather.  Those lagging behind would be ‘gun-butted’ by the guards and sometimes a German would drop back and take one of them into the bushes or woods.  “We would hear a shot-then the guard would return alone.”  They were provided very little food and had to drink from streams that gave them dysentery. They suffered pneumonia, diphtheria, typhus, trench foot, tuberculosis, blisters, abscesses, and frostbite.  They were marched for three months, traveling six hundred miles until rescued on May 2nd, 1945 with only 20% surviving.  

Thankfully for some of the other crew members, they were never captured.  Many of the French civilians risked everything to help them.  Captain Starks told of how he was given “a share of whatever meager food they had. Anyone who helped me did so at terrible risk to themselves.  Any French civilian caught helping a downed Allied airman was summarily taken out of his house by the Germans and shot: man, woman, child, it made no difference.”

There were even some humanitarians among the German soldiers.  While Baum was being processed as a POW in March 1944 he had to fill out a form that included his religion.  A young German enlisted soldier took the pencil away from Baum and wrote “Protestant” on the form. 

This is an inspirational book that recounts how these men went on an adventure of bravery and courage and were able to come home thanks to their grit and the willingness of others to help.  As Avriett noted, “We are losing our WWII veterans every day.  These stories need to be told, heard, and preserved for prosperity.”