For more than seventy-two years, the ten-man crew of a particular World War II United States Army Air Forces B-17 has held a special place in the hearts of the citizens of Lomianki, Poland. The airmen named their Flying Fortress “I’ll Be Seeing You” after the song that was made so popular during the war by the renowned singer Bing Crosby that it became an anthem for American and British servicemen who were stationed away from their loved ones. Sgt. Marcus Shook, a young Mississippian affectionately nicknamed “Shooky” by his crewmates, was a member of the heroic crew that participated in a unique and dangerous mission to drop desperately needed supplies over Warsaw, Poland, to the Poles who had launched an uprising to recover their beloved city from the Germans.
Shook’s early life
Marcus Shook was born on July 30, 1920, in Belmont, a small, somewhat isolated community in Tishomingo County in the hills region of the northeast corner of Mississippi. Shook was an intelligent young man, a good student and someone who was generally shy and self-effacing. He also enjoyed outdoor activities, especially swimming with his friends in Bear Creek. By the time Shook graduated from high school, Adolf Hitler had broken the terms of the Versailles Treaty, which was imposed upon Germany following its defeat in World War I, by annexing Austria and the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia. In March of 1939, Hitler annexed the remainder of Czechoslovakia. His invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, resulted in World War II.
Training for “I’ll Be Seeing You”
Like thousands of young men his age, Shook wanted to serve his country in the armed forces. Following the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Shook enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and joined nine other young men, all in their twenties, at Drew Field, Florida, where they trained as a heavy bombardment unit. These men, who would ultimately comprise the ten-man crew of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” came from all over the country —California to Mississippi— and their backgrounds, religious beliefs, and levels of education were equally as varied. By the end of their training, however, they had forged a bond that transcended their differences. Garnett Akins, the wife of pilot Lt. Francis Akins, who had gotten to know Shook at Drew Field, described him as a tall, handsome man who enjoyed dancing, especially the popular jitterbug. She thought that he was a “gentle soul” and worried as to how he would cope with the sad and bitter memories of the war. Trained as a radio operator, Sgt. Shook was not only extremely competent but also had a sense of humor that his crewmates thoroughly appreciated.
Aid for the Warsaw Uprising of 1944
While training to drop bombs at Drew Field, neither Shook nor any of his crewmates could have imagined that one of their missions would involve dropping supplies instead of bombs. However, shortly after the young men arrived at an air base in Framlingham, England, to begin operations, the unimaginable did indeed happen. In mid-September of 1944, the crew of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and more than one hundred other B-17 crews were ordered to provide badly needed supplies to the Polish resistance, who had launched an uprising against the German forces that had occupied Poland since the beginning of the war. As the crew of “I’ll Be Seeing You” took off from a British airfield, not only did they begin an improbable military mission, but they also initiated an incredible story of bravery, heroism, and humanitarianism. Known as the Warsaw Uprising, the battle for the capital of Poland between the Polish Home Army and the Germans had begun on August 1, 1944. Although the Allies desperately wanted to help the Polish Home Army from the beginning of the struggle, the B-17s of the Army Air Forces needed to land on Soviet bases after a supply drop to the Poles. Distance and limited fuel prohibited a round-trip for the big birds to return to their bases in Great Britain. Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, refused repeated appeals by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill to allow the Army Air Forces to use Soviet bases because he suspected the pro-western democratic agenda of the Poles. After bringing relations with his allies almost to the breaking point, Stalin reluctantly allowed the American B-17s to use his bases. However, he agreed only after he was reasonably certain the air drops would be insufficient to turn the tide of battle in favor of the Poles.
September 18, 1944
On the morning of September 18, 1944, “I’ll Be Seeing You” joined other B-17s of the 390th, 95th, and 100th Bombardment Groups in a 110 plane mission to Warsaw. Three of the B-17s had to return to their bases for technical reasons. P-51 Mustang fighter planes provided long-range escort for the bombers. As the Flying Fortresses approached their drop zones, the Germans launched intensive artillery barrages and fighter attacks. The Luftwaffe attacked from all points of the clock. One of the American airmen later recalled, “Jerry threw everything he had at us. We had a rough time of it.”
Marcus Shook vividly remembered the horror of that day. The pilot of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Lt. Francis Akins, was the first casualty. When Akins was struck by bullets from a ME-109, he reflexively gripped the steering column, while his co-pilot, Lt. Forrest Shaw, tried to pry his hands loose in order to steady the plane. Shaw’s scream over the radio—- “the cockpit’s full of blood!”—-made it graphically clear how desperate the situation was. When Shook saw that one of the B-17’s engines was on fire, he and two other members of the crew quickly removed their flak suits and strapped on their parachutes. When the right wing of the plane suddenly dipped to a ninety degree angle, Shook lost his balance and was pinned to the main body of the aircraft. After the co-pilot regained control of the plane, Shook and two of his crewmates, Sgt. James Christy and Sgt. Paul Haney, managed to reach the exit and bailed out of the aircraft.
Shook’s parachute had barely opened when “I’ll Be Seeing You” exploded. He was so close to the plane that he temporarily lost consciousness. As Shook descended from the sky, German soldiers on the ground shot him in his left thigh and right leg. Sgt. Christy also reached the ground safely, apparently without wounds. Both men were captured by the Germans and became prisoners of war. Unfortunately, Sgt. Haney did not share their fate. Although Haney had waved a white handkerchief in a gesture of surrender while he was descending, he was shot and killed by a German soldier as he was nearing the ground in his parachute. A Polish witness to the downing of “I’ll Be Seeing You” later related, “I will never forget to the day I die the face of that young man, alive, so close to the ground, waving his handkerchief.”
The Germans sent Shook to a field hospital for immediate treatment. Polish physicians, who were also prisoners of war, cared for him. For Shook, his experiences with the Poles as a prisoner of war marked the beginning of a lifetime of affection and admiration for the Polish people. Shook said, “I found them to be kind, accommodating, generous to a fault, and intensely interested in the United States, which made me want to stick them in my pocket and bring them home with me.”
The remains of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which was the only B-17 downed by the Germans during this historic mission, crashed at Dziekanow Lesny near Lomianki, a small town located nine miles from Warsaw. In addition to the death of the eight crew members, two fighter pilots, whose planes crashed elsewhere, also perished. Only 288 of the 1,284 canisters of supplies dropped by the B-17s reached Polish hands due to the bombers having to fly too high to drop their cargo with greater accuracy. In addition, the Poles controlled only small portions of the city of Warsaw, which limited the number of drop areas. The Germans eventually crushed the Warsaw Uprising and, on Hitler’s orders, razed the city to the ground. When the Russians resumed their stalled offensive and entered Warsaw, they saw little more than piles of rubble eerily dusted with snow.
“This is your day, Marcus.”
The citizens of Lomianki, Poland, never forgot the enormous sacrifice of the crew of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” In the postwar years, they attempted to erect a monument to commemorate the courageous American flyers; however, the Polish Communist authorities delayed approval of the project. Finally, in 1986, the inhabitants of Lomianki erected a nine-foot granite monolith with the names of the ten crew members engraved on it in Kielpin Cemetery, where every year on September 18, a solemn ceremony remembers the heroic Americans.
After the war, Marcus Shook returned home, reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences. He graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in accounting and had a successful career as an auditor for a major insurance company. Little did Shook realize that more than forty years after the tragic event he had experienced, he would be the most important person in an official American delegation to Poland. He was driving his car to California when he was stopped by a state trooper. Expecting to receive a speeding ticket, Shook was instead told to call the White House. “Whatever the officer did to convince Shook to call the White House put him in Communist Poland on September 18, 1987, with Vice President George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush,” wrote Marcia Akins Evancheck, the daughter of Lt. Francis Akins, the pilot of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” As Shook and the Bushes slowly walked toward the impressive memorial to the crew of “I’ll Be Seeing You” in Kielpin Cemetery, Mrs. Bush gently urged Shook to walk ahead of her and her husband. She whispered, “This is your day, Marcus.” Indeed it was, for Marcus Shook was the last survivor of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” A final tribute to Marcus Shook came in 1994 when the city of Lomianki made him an honorary citizen. He died of cancer in 1995, enduring his last battle as a member of America’s “Greatest Generation” with the courage and dignity he had exhibited during his entire life. Marcus Shook is buried in a family plot located in his hometown of Belmont, Mississippi.
Richard C. Lukas, Ph.D., is a retired professor of history who taught European history at universities in Florida, Ohio, and Tennessee. He is the author of eight books as well as articles, reviews, and commentaries. Since his retirement, he has served as a freelance writer for a variety of publications. Dr. Lukas has a private collection containing original letters, reports, photographs and other memorabilia relating to the aircraft, crew, and family members of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” He is also a valuable resource for other primary source collections related to “I’ll Be Seeing You” as well as other topics.
Other Mississippi History Now articles about World War II:
Sources and suggested readings:
Conversino, Mark J. Fighting with the Soviets: The Failure of Operation Frantic, 1944-1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.
Davies, Norman. Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” Collection. Richard C. Lukas, Jensen Beach, Florida. An unpublished collection containing letters, reports, photographs, recollections, and other documents relating to the family and crew of “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Lukas, Richard C. Did the Children Cry? Hitler’s War Against Jewish and Polish Children, 1939-1945. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Lukas, Richard C. Eagles East: The Army Air Forces and the Soviet Union, 1944-1945. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1970.
Lukas, Richard C. The Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation, 1939-1944. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2012.