Experiences of Donald J. Lewis while a crewmember of a US Army Air Force B17 Bomber during WWII
This story is copyrighted by Donald J. Lewis and is used here with his permission. Publishers interested in using the material should contact him at 1685 Kenmare Drive, Dresher, PA 19025.
It all started when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He enlisted in the Army late in December 1941 and was assigned to the Army Air Corp. After finishing in the top five percent of his class at Aircraft Armament School, he became an instructor. After becoming bored of teaching, he volunteered for pilot training, glider pilot, and aerial gunnery, all at the same time. After graduating from gunnery school at Las Vegas Army Airfield in June 1943, he was assigned to a B17 Bomber crew (crew #104) at Pyote, Texas.
After completing twelve missions with the 15th Air Force from Tunisia to Italy, Austria, and Greece plus two aborted missions, they broke camp, packed everything, including their tents into their B17 and flew to an airfield in Italy near Foggia, due east of Naples on the Adriatic coast. Shot down on the 19th of December on a mission to bomb a Messerschmidt factory near Augsburg, Germany, he bailed out over the Tyrolean Alps and began his one year four months and 14 days as a prisoner of the Germans. That is the rest of his story.
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How it Started
It all started when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Most of the young fellows that I knew had already agreed that if the country went to war we would enlist in one of the armed services. (more)
My day of induction was January 5, 1942 and I went by train that day to New Cumberland Barracks near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for processing. Based on tests given there I was assigned to the Army Air Corps. (more)
After about six weeks of so-called basic training I went by train to Lowry Field near Denver, Colorado to attend Aircraft Armament School. The trip was an exciting experience for me as I had never been west of Pennsylvania (more)
This was easy duty with a class A pass that allowed me to leave the base anytime I didn't have a class. Now and then I got a few days off and with a friend went into the Rocky Mountains. (more)
The climate, people, food, mountains, and Denver were all great, but I got bored of teaching. I wanted something with more action so I volunteered for pilot training, glider pilot, and aerial gunnery, all at the same time. In just a few weeks I was on my way to Aerial Gunnery School at Las Vegas Army Airfield, now called Nelis Air Force Base. (more)
I went into Gunnery School a Corporal and graduated a Sergeant. From there in June 1943 I was assigned to a B-17 Bomber crew (crew #104) at Pyote, Texas. We trained at Pyote base for several weeks then transferred to Dalhart, Texas. (more)
The flight to North Africa involved a series of short legs to Jamaica, then a long leg over the Brazilian jungle to an airfield on the eastern shoulder of Brazil. From there a very long leg over the South Atlantic at Dakar, then fly over land to Tunisia, North Africa. (more)
The planes in service at Tunisia were old B 17E models that didn't have enough range to fly into Germany and return, thank goodness. So our targets were mostly in Italy, railroad marshalling yards, bridges, and viaducts for railroads. (more)
We arrived there on the 9th of December 1943 and for several days couldn't fly any missions because of cloud cover over Europe. But on the tenth day there, the 19th of December, we got up at 4:30 AM and were briefed on a mission to bomb a Messerschmidt factory near Augsburg, Germany. (more)
As our plane moved down the runway to takeoff I looked out the waist window and saw the British antiaircraft crew, assigned to guard our field, wave a hearty goodbye to us and in their waves I read that they didn't expect us to return. (more)
All at once I sensed that my turret had been hit. I couldn't hear it but something told me. I looked around and saw two machine gun bullet holes just to the right of my head. (more)
Now the plane went into a steep dive, almost vertical. There was a hole in the floor torn by FLAC about a foot in diameter with the shredded aluminum facing inward. I reached for the hole in a desperate bid to enlarge it with my bare hands enough to allow me and the waist gunner, Ed Fennessey, to get out. (more)
When we first started to fly missions the navigator promised to keep everyone informed as to where we were if our situation was such that we might have to bail out. The pilot had told us he would try to make Switzerland if our situation was desperate and we were in northern Italy, Austria or Southern Germany. (more)
Since no bailout order was ever received I thought everyone was in the plane when it exploded and that I was the only survivor. Anything I would now do would be strictly on my own. (more)
I was led into a white stucco building that looked as though it might be the town hall. There were no markings of any kind on it. When the door was opened and I saw four of the crew sitting on chairs I could hardly believe that they had survived the explosion, especially the ones that were in the forward part of the plane. (more)
The afternoon wore on and finally a truck arrived and Ed and I were loaded into the back cargo area. Already on the truck were the survivors of another B-17 Bomber crew. I think there were three, all officers. (more)
After laying in the lobby for what seemed like many hours, but was probably one or two hours I was carried up an open flight of stairs to a room on the second floor. It was now clear that this had been a hotel but was being used as a military hospital by the German Army to care for the wounded from the Italian front. (more)
I was put in a small room with a young soldier and a little later a bowl of soup was placed on the bedside table. It looked good and even smelled good but I couldn't get it down. For some reason I had completely lost my appetite. (more)
Finally the big day arrived when the cast was taken off and the leg was wrapped in layers of gauze brushed with a white rubber-like liquid. They called it a "Zinklimeforbande"; it served as a custom fitted support-stocking running from toes to well above the knee. (more)
About the 3rd of March 1944 on a beautiful, warm, sunny day I was released from the hospital in Merano, Italy and transported in the back of an open truck southward through beautiful mountainous countryside. Many of the houses by the road bore murals that filled the wall, painted on the white stucco. (more)
We were then packed into boxcars with no food and no water and no toilet facilities. The doors were closed and locked. We were in the boxcar for three days and nights, standing still on the tracks a good deal of the time. (more)
Drinking water was our main concern with food close behind. Every now and then while the train was standing the door would be opened so we could relieve ourselves. Only one at a time was allowed out so one could wait many hours to have an opportunity to be relieved. (more)
At long last the train arrived near Konigsburg, East Prussia, and we all walked to Stalag Luft VI. The location is just south of Lithuania and the same distance north as Moscow, Northern Ireland, or the north end of Newfoundland. (more)
We spent a good part of our time walking the perimeter of the compound and just laying around in the sun on the nicer days of summer. We all awaited the world news hoping to hear that the Allies had landed in Europe. (more)
But Russia was a threat. The major offensive they launched in May put them close enough that by July 1944 orders were received to evacuate the camp. All the prisoners were marched about five miles to the seaport of Konigsberg and loaded into the holds of two freighter ships. (more)
Looking down the track toward the front of the train I could see that several guards were gathered and getting a lecture from an officer who represented the camp we were to walk to. All the POW's were marched onto a road beside the tracks and then the Haupman (Captain) in charge took his pistol and fired four or five shots into the air to stir up the guards, which it did. We were told to run. (more)
We finally reached the new camp, Stalag Luft IV, in a lather and with nothing except the clothes on our backs. Some POW's estimated we had run 5 miles, others estimated 5 kilometers. I would guess that 5 kilometers (3 miles) as close to right. (more)
Late in January 1945 the camp commander announced that the camp would be evacuated in a week and we should be prepared to walk out of the camp and be on the road for several days. There wasn't much we could do to prepare except to save some food to take with us. (more)
Thank goodness I had two pairs of mother's hand knit socks that I alternated daily. The unused pair was carried under the pants belt inside the trousers to dry. They never wore out and I never had a blister.(more)
One day we walked from 7 in the morning to 10 at night in almost constant rain. Our wool overcoats absorbed the rainwater, especially in the shoulders and arms until they felt like they had gained 20 pounds. (more)
By this time many men had developed dysentery and in a few days they were too weak to walk. Bill and I were in that group. Somehow the guards rounded up some horse drawn wagons. A single badly emaciated horse drew the wagon we were in. (more)
The German government had betrayed their country by throwing it into a series of wars that made no sense and which they couldn't win. The cities, railroads, and factories were being bombed relentlessly by huge formations of allied bombers that we saw flying high overhead almost daily. (more)
Next we were loaded into boxcars and transported 50 or 60 miles westward. On the way the train passed through the heart of Hamburg and came to a stop on a section of track that was elevated about 50 feet above street level. We were allowed out to relieve ourselves. The sight before me was one I can never forget. (more)
The column moved east, toward the Russians, past Luneburg, looking down on the beautiful old town. About a mile and a half ahead was a column of British POW's that came into sight every now and then as we both moved through the hilly countryside. Two Hawker-Hurricane fighter/bombers made several passes at the road far ahead of us. (more)
Only a few days later we were reasonably comfortable in a large barnyard that had a small air raid shelter dug into the ground. Next to the barnyard were large fields. Close to us was a tall haystack that was much larger than any had seen before. (more)
My column had already crossed the Elbe from East to West and now we were crossing it again. Evidently the British were more of a threat than the Russians. We were on the eastern side of the Elbe moving only short distances each day. Up to this time we seldom saw an officer in charge of the guards. (more)
It was well into April now and some days were very warm. As we slogged along in woolen clothes carrying a pack, two blankets, and an overcoat it was difficult to believe that we would need all these clothes and blankets. Some men discarded an overcoat or blanket by the side of the road. (more)
Some of the guys were now returning from the village up the road with an assortment of food they had gotten from a warehouse that had opened to the public. So Bill and I left the cheese and walked quickly into the village. There was no problem finding the warehouse as it was the only building that had anyone around it. (more)
They shared their tea with us and we sat and talked while sipping it. The Captain in charge told us he couldn't stay with us since he had to continue pressing the retreating German forces. He told us to walk four miles down the road where we would find a reception area for liberated POWs. One of the British soldiers told us that his outfit was a Signal Company, a unit of the Royal 2nd Dragoons. (more)
We reached the reception area that was only a crossroads with a few British soldiers who were receiving individuals and small groups of surrendering Germans. The Germans put their guns in a pile and would gladly give us any insignia or metals we asked for. (more)
The next morning a small group of us assembled on the road and walked to a British encampment that had been setup to care for liberated POW's until they could be flown to England. Beside the camp was an airstrip where B17 Bombers were to land and act as transports. (more)
We passed out of Germany into Holland. Holland had been heavily damaged in the recent fighting and bodies must have still been buried in the rubble of destroyed buildings as the sickening odor of decay was ever present. (more)
After spending one night in the ancient barracks we joined a group and were driven to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Harve on the coast of France. Lucky Strike was a huge staging area for returning troops and liberated POW's. The food was great, no comparison to what my crew had been offered in North Africa. We all took seconds and put on noticeable weight. (more)
Finally a ship arrived and about 1500 returning men were loaded onto her. She was a Navy troop transport that had been an Italian luxury liner, the Contessa. It was in Philadelphia undergoing repairs when Italy declared war on the US. It was confiscated and turned over to the Navy. Bunks had been added in every conceivable place including the swimming pool. (more)
Then in August 1945 I was ordered to Miami Beach for rest and recuperation. A luxury air-conditioned train took me to Miami in late August. Passengers alighted from the train in an open area away from the terminal building. When I stepped out of the railcar I was nearly overcome by the heat. (more)
At the suggestion of my commanding officer I checked into the military hospital at Coral Gables, the old Coral Gables Hotel. I was there about ten days being examined, x-rayed, and had minor surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel from the left wrist. The surgeon didn't advise any attempt to remove the shrapnel from my left knee. He said leave well enough alone since I could walk on it. On October 5th, after enjoying a grand vacation in the Miami area, I was issued my discharge papers. I bought my first civilian outfit in nearly four years at a fine men's store in downtown Miami. The next day I changed into my new outfit and took a train home.
Fifty-three Years Later (more)
It all got started when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Most of the young fellows that I knew had already agreed that if the country went to war we would enlist in one of the armed services. So late in December 1941 I enlisted in the Army, and a little later Jack Richards in the Navy, Tiny Menne in the Marine Corps, and Dick La Vey in the Army. Dick Murray was crippled with bursitis of the knee. About a year later Tom Brown was drafted into the Army. So all my closest friends were in the armed services early in the war.
We were all good friends, having paled around together for several years. Jack was my best friend. We both attended Germantown High School at the same time but never had a class together. We met by a stroke of extraordinary good luck. I was walking home from the Mount Airy library reading a book on model airplanes as I walked when Jack approached from the opposite direction and saw what I was reading. He engaged me in conversation about model airplanes and it was obvious that we had a lot in common. I had only recently moved into the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia from Jarrettown, a rural area about ten miles north of the city and had yet to make many friends. We immediately had a strong attraction and became good friends spending most of our free time together. It was through Jack that I met all the others in the gang. Strangely none of us corresponded during the war. I wrote home, of course, and many times to a girl I was dating but she never replied. At first this upset me but when I got to Denver in March 1942 I soon all but forgot her. Tiny told me he had the same experience with his girlfriend but nonetheless he married her soon after the war.(back)
My day of induction was January 5,1942 and I went by train that day to New Cumberland Barracks near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for processing. Based on tests given there I was assigned to the Army Air Corps. From there to Jefferson Barracks, Missouri for basic training, which was a waste of time. More tests and a choice of technical schools were offered and I chose Aircraft Armorer over Aircraft Mechanic, Radio Operator, and Photography. Jefferson Barracks was next to the Mississippi River, cold and raw in January and February. We lived in tents and slept on a canvas cot with a thin mattress and two blankets. There were four men to a tent, which had a small wood-burning stove for heat. Without adding wood the fire would go out in about an hour, so when we woke up in the morning the tent was the same temperature as outside. It was a blessing to all of us in the tent that one of them was a coal miner from Scranton, Pennsylvania who liked to get up early and build a nice fire in the stove before we got up. In addition he was an exceptionally likeable guy. I canít remember his name but at the time I loved him dearly.(back)
After about six weeks of so-called basic training I went by train to Lowry Field near Denver, Colorado to attend Aircraft Armament School. The trip was an exciting experience for me as I had never been west of Pennsylvania. The train took its time, stopping or at least slowing down in nearly every town. I had never seen an unpaved street in a town but these towns had many unpaved streets; at least the ones I could see from the railroad car. It took 48 hours of train travel to reach Denver late at night. The next morning when I got up a friend called to me to come to the second floor door that faced west. There were the Rocky Mountains, so close it seemed you could almost touch them. What a glorious sight for someone who had never laid eyes on a mountain over 2000 feet. Since it was Sunday and we had the day off I suggested that we walk to the mountains after breakfast because they couldn't be more than three miles away. My friend told me they were actually 35 miles away, and he was right.
Lowery was an old base, as Air Corps bases went in those days, with well-established handsome brick building for classrooms. The armorer course of study had been 18 weeks, but was compressed to 12 week, which meant we were in classes eight hours a day, six days a week. I loved fighter airplanes and wanted to be an armorer in a fighter squadron overseas. To my disappointment I was selected to be an instructor since I graduated in the upper 5 percent of the class and instructors were needed to man a new school that was under construction called Buckley Field, also near Denver.
After eleven weeks of little to do the first class reached my field service week of instruction. In the meantime I had volunteered to drive trucks, claiming I had some experience, which I didnít. But they needed drivers and I passed the test in a two and half-ton 6x6 truck. That was almost the biggest truck in the Army inventory. So for a few weeks I was on call to drive any truck that was needed, and it was fun as well as good experience.
I was given a brief lesson plan, no instruction in teaching or handling a class, and my first class to teach hands-on fighter aircraft armament. It turned out to be easier than I had expected. Most of the students were receptive to the course. It was easy to tell which were drafted versus the volunteers. (back)
This was easy duty with a class A pass that allowed me to leave the base anytime I didnít have a class. Now and then I got a few days off and with a friend went into the Rocky Mountains. One such pass was for five days and my friend Jim and I managed to get as far as Grand Junction on the western slope of the mountains. We started on the trip with only five dollars between us. It was rare to get five days off so we took the chance that our money would stretch. For meals we bought sandwich makings in groceries and for lodging we slept in the homes of people we met on the way. A day was spent in Buena Vista, a town in a valley in the middle of the Rockies, where we were treated to an honest to goodness rodeo, a dance, and a home cooked diner. But no one invited us to sleep at their house so we went to the town park and curled up on a picnic table. Even though it was midsummer it was really too cold to sleep outside without a blanket. A friendly policeman offered us a bed at the town jail and we happily accepted. The next day we made it all the way back to the base, east of Denver. Even though there were very few cars on the road we had no difficulty hitch hiking to wherever we wanted to go. (back)
The climate, people, food, mountains, and Denver were all great, but I got bored of teaching. I wanted something with more action so I volunteered for pilot training, glider pilot, and aerial gunnery, all at the same time. In just a few weeks I was on my way to Aerial Gunnery School at Las Vegas Army Airfield, now called Nelis Air Force Base. This was a six-week course that had us in class eight hours a day and even some after dark training. It was lots of fun progressing from rifles to air powered BB machine guns to ground-fired caliber 30 and caliber 50 machine guns. Then a whole week of skeet shooting with 12 gauge shotguns including firing at skeet targets from the back of pickup trucks going 40 miles an hour around a dirt track course. Finally into an airplane to fire at towed targets. It was at Gunnery School that I met John Hedberg .We became very good friends sharing many milk shakes in the hot climate of Las Vegas. John as a Private was always broke but as a Corporal I had some money to treat us to the shakes and an occasional burger. In retrospect that money gave more pleasure dollar for dollar than any other money I have ever spent. I can still recall those delightful milkshakes savored in the desert heat. But we separated when we were assigned to different outfits for crew training and John went to England and I went to Tunisia.(back)
I went into Gunnery School a Corporal and graduated a Sergeant. From there in June 1943 I was assigned to a B17 Bomber crew (crew #104) at Pyote, Texas. We trained at the Pyote base for several weeks then transferred to Dalhart, Texas. After ten more weeks of training we went to Lincoln, Nebraska to receive a new B17 to fly to either Europe or North Africa and be part of a newly formed squadron. We were briefed on routes to both England and North Africa. Either they didnít know our destination or they didn't want it to be known. I wanted England and had set up a code with my parents to tell them in my first letter where I was stationed, if sent there. The routs were interesting but dangerous with very long flights over water. We learned later that some didnít make it. (back)
The flight to North Africa involved a series of short legs to Jamaica, then a long leg over the Brazilian jungle to an airfield on the eastern shoulder of Brazil. From there a very long leg over the South Atlantic at Dakar, then fly over land to Tunisia, North Africa. The northern route to England was via Maine, Labrador, Iceland, Greenland, and Ireland. Most of this route was over water. Even in midsummer the ocean water along that route is so cold that the crew of a ditched plane had little chance of survival
Each crewmember was issued a parachute, a survival kit, and a Colt 45 in a shoulder holster. The pilot signed for a new B17G and he, the copilot and flight engineer took it up for a test flight. The next day we had to give up our plane so it could be flown to England by a civilian ferry pilot to replace the heavy losses suffered in a raid on Schwinefurt, Germany.
Now we were told we would be replacement crews but whether it was North Africa or England was not known or told. Our morale was dashed to pieces. Our next move was by train to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia to await a ship to an unknown destination.
While waiting for weeks on end we all became bored stiff. The copilot and navigator got drunk one night at the Officerís Club. They came across a sentry on their way to their barracks. To have some fun they overpowered him from behind and took his rifle. During the night MPís searched all the officerís barracks and found the stolen rifle under the navigatorís bunk. At a hearing they told what had happed and as punishment they were removed from the crew and shipped somewhere else. After the war we learned that they both were shipped to India where they flew cargo planes over the ďHumpĒ(Himalayan mountains) into China. They both survived the war. The men who took their places on our crew were killed in action.
In the end we took a Liberty Ship freighter out of Newport News, Virginia due east for 22 days in a slow convoy. The trip across the South Atlantic was deadly boring with no recreation other than cards. Jim Redick, the tail gunner and I spent only the first night below in assigned bunks. The foul tobacco smoke, body odor, and puke drove us topside where we found a large life raft resting on top of a huge packing case. We put all our stuff into the raft and slept the next 21 nights in it, rain or shine. When it rained we put our raincoats over us and managed to keep dry. We
were in fresh air day and night only went below for rations, which were promptly carried topside to eat. The only thing that was exciting was the threat of being sunk by a submarineís torpedo and the navy escorts running circles around us day and night. But one pitch-black night while sound asleep in our life raft a great clanging sound woke us. I thought a dud torpedo had hit us but as my eyes became accustomed to the darkness I could make out a ship resting hard against our starboard side. The two ships had contacted in the dark but no damage was done. For security none of the ships used their navigation lights. On the 22nd day we woke up to find that our ship was all alone on a glass smooth sea. Our wake extended all the way to the horizon. A destroyer escort came alongside us about an hour later. Its mission was to escort us into port, which turned out to be Casablanca, Morocco. It was September when we arrived and pretty hot, so we were in summer cotton uniforms and nearly froze on the flight from Casablanca to Tunis, our assigned station. The transport plane was an old reliable DC3 transport. Military aircraft in those days had no heat.
The 22 days on the ship had been reasonably pleasant, if boring, but no provisions had been made for cooking meals for passengers. No fresh food of any kind had been loaded aboard.
We ate C rations, a sort of stew, heated in its own can in boiling water, for breakfast and dinner. There was no lunch. The food was horrible. Only the fact that we had no lunch could we eat more C rations for dinner. So when we arrived at our base near Tunis we expected better food but in fact it was little better, with green dried eggs for breakfast and C rations prepared in a few different ways and a slice of bread for dinner. It got to the point that I couldn't even stand the smell of the food in the mess tent, let alone eat it. We managed to steal some cans of concentrated tomato juice and diced fruit from the kitchen stores, which were stored simply stacked on the ground with a tarp for protection. We made hot soup from the tomato juice and survived mainly on it and the canned fruit.(back)
The planes in service at Tunisia were old B 17E models that didn't have enough range to fly into Germany and return, thank goodness. So our targets were mostly in Italy; railroad marshalling yards, bridges, and viaducts for railroads. Our very first mission was, however, to
Wiener Neustadt, Austria to bomb a Messerschmidt factory. Jim Redick was credited with shooting down a ME109 Fighter on that mission. Two B17s went down in a squadron beside us but we were spared any damage. The target was beyond our round trip range so we had to land in Sicily to refuel on the way home. At that time the countryside of Sicily was still in the middle ages. Transportation was either on foot or by donkey drawn two-wheeled cart. As we waited for our plane to be refueled a middle-aged native drove up in one of these carts. It was beautifully decorated with many colors of paint that appeared to have been done by a skilled artist. He offered to sell a helmet full of almond nuts for two cigarettes. Of course we accepted his offer.
While in Tunisia we flew missions, in addition to Wiener Neustadt, to: the railroad yards of Bolzano; a submarine base in Palu; a railroad stone viaduct just south of Genoa; an airfield at Athens Greece; return visits to Bolzano; and other railroad yards in Italy. After managing to complete twelve missions over Italy, Austria, and Greece plus two aborted missions, we broke camp, packed everything, including our tents into our B17 and flew to an airfield in Italy near Foggia, due east of Naples on the Adriatic coast.(back)
We arrived there on the 9th of December 1943, a day after my 21st birthday, and for several days couldn't fly any missions because of cloud cover over Europe. But on the tenth day there, the 19th of December, we got up at 4:30 AM and were briefed on a mission to bomb a Messerschmidt factory near Augsburg, Germany. We were told to expect strong fighter resistance and heavy FLAC. A heavy, somber mood settled over all the crews. There was no joking among ourselves and very little talk of any kind except that this would be our worst mission to date and we could expect to lose several planes. We flew B17F tail number 42-3065, a borrowed plane. It was old and tired but seemed fairly healthy that day.(back)
As our plane moved down the runway to takeoff I looked out the waist window and saw the British antiaircraft crew, assigned to guard our field, wave a hearty goodbye to us and in their waves I read that they didn't expect us to return. I felt a little ill at that point but then told myself that we had lived through 12 missions and two noncredit aborted ones, some pretty scary, so why couldn't we expect to live through this one and I really believed it.
It seemed to take forever to get all the planes into formation and headed northward. We had gotten up at 4:30 AM that morning and took off about 7 AM. The formation flew northward up the Adriatic, over northern Italy then across all of Austria. We continued north into Germany then approached Augsburg by flying west of the target and over check points Landfox, Biberach, Ulm,
and Gunzburg which is just north and west of Augsburg. When we were close to Augsburg a message was received from the P38 scout plane that had gone in ahead telling us that clouds covered the target so we must fly to the secondary target, Innsbruck, Austria. It was too late to change course so the formation flew over Augsburg, without dropping bombs. FLAC over Augsburg was moderate but there were no fighters. We encountered very heavy and accurate FLAC near Innsbruck. The antiaircraft gunners were using a new technique. It was called a Box Barrage; they fill a box in the sky with bursting rounds just ahead of the formation and just keep firing into it. As the formation flies into it many are badly damaged and forced out of formation where they are pounced on by fighters. We made up the rear, right corner of the formation that day which is known as "coffin corner" since it is so open to fighter attack. The attacking fighters were lined up so closely that when the first wave came at us I thought it was one plane but then as it fired at us and peeled off there was another where the first had been and another until six had fired at our plane. The attack pattern was well chosen as neither the top turret or the ball turret could get a good shot at them. The propellers were between our guns and the oncoming fighters. None of these machine guns would fire if aimed at a propeller. The only position that could get a shot at them was the nose manned by the bombardier and navigator. The bombardier was busy with the bombsight and releasing the bombs and neither officer had any gunnery training. A most serious omission on the part of our leadership ranks. The German Luftwaffe soon learned about this weakness in our defense and capitalized on it. In fact, the only shots I could make that mission were at fighters after they passed us at combined air speeds of 500 plus miles per hour. Since it was necessary to track a target for a full second to allow the mechanical computer in my sight to solve the lead and elevation needed and the caliber 50 machine guns maximum effective range was 600yards there was little or no chance of actually hitting a plane. In fact, I later calculated that the fighters were flying away from us at approximately 730 feet per second so that by the time the sight caught up there was only one second of effective firing time remaining before the plane passed out of range. Of course we continued to fire at them when they were out of range but that was not a wise thing to do because by then there was probably another fighter firing at you well within range. (back)
All at once I sensed that my turret had been hit. I couldn't hear it but something told me. I looked around and saw two machine gun bullet holes just to the right of my head.
The bullets must have passed out the bottom left area of the turret but I didn't take time to look for those holes. There were no fighters under us so we must have been attacked from above and behind as well as from one o'clock high. The black clouds of exploding FLAC were right on our altitude and getting closer and closer. One burst on or just forwards of our nose and caused the plane to shutter and lurch upward. Then the unthinkable happened, we were losing gasoline at a frightening rate from under the left wing. It was pouring out of a 2-inch diameter fuel drain fitting that had been cut off by FLAC. The gasoline was liquid for only a few feet and then went into vapor. Since every fifth round of ammunition for the machine guns was a tracer, not to mention the muzzle flash, I couldn't fire any more shots without exploding that cloud of vapor under the wing. If that wasn't enough I saw the left engine (number one) had been shut down and feathered and very soon after that the number two engine was dislodged from its mounting and hanging down at a strange angle. I called the pilot to tell him about the loss of gasoline. No communications were received for the crew to bail out while I was in the turret. I knew the plane couldn't stay up much longer and might catch fire any second so I got out of the turret into the plane. I was wearing a FLAC vest, the first mission to be issued one, and had to decide was it more important to have the protection of the vest or put on my parachute. Even though 20-millimeter rounds from fighters were bursting in midair all around the three of us in the waist, something told me the parachute was more important than the vest. So I released the vest, which weighed 30 pounds, and snapped the parachute canopy onto the harness which I was wearing. The Ball turret was too small to allow its gunner to wear the canopy, which was about the size of a 5 pound loaf of bread. No one could wear it and a FLAC vest too.
I moved toward the rear escape door and Earl Bengtson dropped to the floor beside me. I thought he may have fainted and tried to awake him by slapping his face but it was plain that he was dead with no sign of what had killed him. Earl was one of my favorites on the crew and his death hurt me deeply but this was no time to grieve. I signaled to the remaining waist gunner that we had to bail out right now. He agreed and I went to the door and pulled on the release handle but the plane was so badly damaged that the door was hopelessly jammed. I put both feet against the door jam and pulled with super human force but the pins that held the door would not move. The plane was now in a shallow dive, out of control, we were trapped unless we could get to the bomb bay. The radio room door was still closed, no one had given an order to bail out so I thought everyone forward must have been badly wounded or killed since the nose had taken two very close major hits. Before trying to open the escape door I threw empty brass cases from the floor at Jim in the tail. He was sitting at his position holding his guns but wasn't moving and even though several cases struck him in the back he didn't move. I concluded that he was dead. Another very close friend lost.(back)
Now the plane went into a steep dive, almost vertical. There was a hole in the floor torn by FLAC about a foot in diameter with the shredded aluminum facing inward. I reached for the hole in a desperate bid to enlarge it with my bare hands enough to allow me and the waist gunner, Ed Fennessey, to get out. I probably couldn't have succeeded even if the plane was parked on the ground but at the moment it was the only way out of a sure death situation. Before I could reach the hole the plane went into a spin. At first it pinned me against the side of the fuselage and then the spin rate became so strong that I could not move a muscle. I was trapped, this was the end. The next thing to happen to me I knew was that the plane would hit the ground in a minute or so and I would be torn to pieces as I rocketed from the tail end to the radio room wall. Knowing that there was nothing I could do to save myself, I suddenly accepted what was about to happen and a strange peace came over me. I relaxed and awaited the crash.
After only a few seconds there was a huge explosion and a great force that felt like high-pressure water struck me in the back. I closed my eyes tightly expecting to be torn apart. But the force was from the wrong direction to be caused by a crash. What could have happened? I opened my eyes to find I was in space outside the plane falling headfirst on my back. I could see the pieces of the exploded airplane a little above and behind me. A wing was separated from the fuselage, the fuselage was in three pieces and many smaller pieces were in the air. The tail section must have been broken up into pieces because I donít remember seeing a tail. I had been just forward of the tail. There were no parachutes. Remembering my bailout training which stressed not to open the parachute until reaching 10,000 feet, I delayed opening the chute and free fell what seemed like several minutes but was probably actually a lot less. I felt very calm and in control when suddenly a near panic swept over me. What if the ground is right under that mat of clouds? How could I know? How high was the plane when it exploded? An inner voice said, "Pull the ripcord, now!" and I did. But, it didn't release. I hadn't pulled hard enough. The next pull sent the ripcord handle into orbit and the chute opened. I was still falling on my back with head down so I crossed my legs before opening the chute. When it opened I was snapped into an upright position and brought to what seemed to be a violent stop. My head felt as though it weighed a ton and would surely break my neck with its compression. After the initial shock of opening, everything was very quiet and peaceful. I didnít know what quiet was until I came down in a parachute high over the Alps in the wintertime.
Immediately after opening the parachute, pieces of the plane fell around me, including the inflated, smoldering life raft, which passed very close to the canopy of the parachute. My good luck was holding. I could hear a single engine plane nearby but couldn't see it. It flew away and I drifted, what seemed, very, very slowly earthward. So slowly that I had plenty of time to look over myself for wounds and apply a compress to my left wrist. I was in no pain but could see my flight overalls were shredded at the left knee. Looking earthward there was that floor of clouds under me, almost flat. As the clouds came closer I realized how fast I really was falling and it seemed much too fast. There must be something wrong with the chute but looking up I could see no damage. This was ridiculous. I lived through being shot at and an exploding airplane only to die on hitting the ground. I passed quickly through the clouds and right under them were the tops of tall Tannin trees. My rate of decent was so fast I was sure I would break every bone in my body when I hit the ground. I fell down the side of a very tall Tannin, hitting every limb on the way. I relaxed, thinking I would surely be killed, and hit the ground gently, heels first in stocking feet and landed on my back with the canopy draped over the tree such that I just reached the ground with my back. The tree broke the fall so well that I didn't even get a bruise let alone a broken bone. My heated boots, which were closer to slippers, had either been blown off in the explosion or came off on opening the parachute. The bright white parachute caught up in a dark green Tannin was like a beacon for anyone looking for me, I tried to pull it down but it wouldnít budge. Then I released the harness and got away from there as fast as I could. There was snow on the ground but not much, in some places the ground was bare and others had a light cover. Here and there was a drift two or three feet deep. After putting some distance between the parachute and me I sat on a rock and pondered what to do.(back)
When we first started to fly missions the navigator promised to keep everyone informed as to where we were if our situation was such that we might have to bail out. The pilot had told us he would try to make Switzerland if our situation was desperate and we were in northern Italy, Austria or southern Germany. The navigator was never heard from after the plane took several hits that day. In all likelihood he was either killed or very badly wounded when a burst of FLAC exploded on or very near the nose. So I didn't know where I was except that it was probably about a half-hour flight south of Innsbruck. I had no way of knowing if we had continued south after the target or if the pilot had tried to make Switzerland, in which case we would have been heading more westward.
Every airman was issued an escape kit which was a small plastic box about 5 by 8 inches and an inch thick that was carried in a leg pocket of the flight coveralls. I opened the box and took out the map printed on silk. The map was a good size, about 15 by 18 inches, but it covered all of southern Europe. Even if I knew where I was it wouldn't have been of much use. There was a tiny compass in the box and with its help I figured the mountain range I was in ran east and west and the way to Switzerland was probably west, back in the direction I had landed. Then I remembered that it was best not to have a gun on you if captured in Germany or Austria .So I took off my Colt 45, shoulder harness and all and buried them in a snowdrift. Now my knee was letting me know that it was pretty badly hurt. It was getting stiff, painful and barely able to support my weight. The air temperature was comfortable, I would guess about 25 degrees F with no wind, but it was starting to get colder as the sun lowered even though no sun was getting through the cloud cover. Clouds were drifting over the mountain making a dense fog one minute and nearly clear the next. I knew that I probably couldn't survive a night on the mountain dressed the way I was. I was wearing winter underwear, a dress woolen shirt an electrically heated suit, and a lightweight wool flight coverall, and a fleece lined helmet, no boots, but heavy wool socks my mother had knitted for me. My gloves as well as my boots had been blown off when the plane exploded. If I could have gotten the parachute down from the tree I could have used it for warmth and probably survived the night, but it was hopelessly caught in the tree and I couldn't climb it with my bad knee. It probably had searchers around it by now so there was no chance for a second try to get it down.(back)
Since no bailout order was ever received I thought everyone was in the plane when it exploded and that I was the only survivor. Anything I would now do would be strictly on my own. For a time I considered walking westward along the mountain ridge toward Switzerland. But I had no boots or gloves. My knee would barely support me and I wasn't dressed for really cold weather. I concluded that the best thing to do was to go to the nearest house and ask for help. If they would help me escape, fine; if not at least I would not freeze to death that night and might live to see better days. So I started to walk, painfully, down the mountain using small trees for support now and then. The slope became so steep I was afraid I would tumble head over heels down the mountain. After making about 100 yards progress in dense fog, the fog lifted and 50 yards in front of me was a man with a rifle and a boy with a pitchfork. When they saw me they were stunned and froze in mid step. The man just stared in what looked like disbelief while the boy, who appeared to be about 8 years old, kept very close to the man. Slowly I raised my hands over my head and the man even more slowly raised his gun. Then he realized I posed no threat so he lowered the gun and beckoned to me to come to him. He took me under one arm and gently helped me down the mountain to a house built into the mountainside. The roof on the high side of the slope came within 5 feet of the ground and the whole structure looked as if it had grown out of the ground and had been there forever. Many years later I learned from the owners that it was built in 1686. The hay barn in 1490.The left side of the house was a stable for animals and the right side was living quarters. I was led inside where there were two women. The younger seemed to be the man's wife and the older her mother. They too looked a little stunned when they first saw me but immediately came to help me lay down on a built in settee. The younger woman poured a small glass of strong liquor and the man handed it to me. It felt warm going down but probably was doing more harm than good, according to my first aid courses. I took this offering as a sign of friendship and allowed myself to think maybe I am in friendly hands and they will help me escape. Then the man emptied my pockets that held only the escape kit. He carefully examined each item in the kit and was especially interested in the $300 worth of assorted currencies it contained, which was intended to pay for help to escape. Three hundred dollars was a lot of money in 1943 when a private in the Army was paid $50 a month.
After a short rest I was gotten up and helped down the mountain along a footpath to the valley floor where there was a tiny village with a white stucco building along an unpaved road. Where the footpath met the road lay the body of Earl with his open parachute beside him. It had been opened by the explosion. As I neared this building many villagers, women, old men, and a few children were gathered alongside the road. As I looked up I made eye contact with two middle-aged women and they broke into tears. In their faces they gave no sign of hatred, which I found hard to believe. Later I realized what a sight I must have been. My face was smudged with black from the explosion and dried blood streams ran down my cheeks. I was just 21 years old but looked a good bit younger at the time. My coveralls were badly ripped and I was hopping along on one leg, starting to feel very tired. These women had genuine compassion for me and I immediately felt something of a bond between us. I sensed that in addition to compassion, these women could see in me their own son in a similar situation.
During my encounter with this man and his family they didn't speak one word to me and that bothered me, as I understood that to mean they didn't want to be friendly for some reason. The few words they did speak to each other sounded like German to me so I reasoned I was either in the Austrian Alps or the Italian Tyrol which I thought had been ceded over to Italy by Austria as part of the peace treaty of WWI.(back)
I was led into a white stucco building that looked as though it might be the town hall. There were no markings of any kind on it. When the door was opened and I saw four of the crew sitting on chairs I could hardly believe that they could have survived the explosion, especially the ones that were in the forward part of the plane. This bordered on a miracle. But here was the Pilot, the Flight Engineer, the Radio Operator, and the Waist Gunner who had been beside me when the plane exploded. Putting all the available information together it was clear that the bombardier, navigator, copilot, a waist gunner, and the tail gunner had all been killed. They were Lt. Donald Parks, Lt. Paul Leland, Lt. Harry Ludwig, Staff Sergeant Earl Bengtson, and Staff Sergeant James Redick. Jim had married while home on leave just before leaving the States. Donald Parks had married soon after joining the service.
Ed Fennesscy told me that he had been unconscious before the plane went into a spin and came to with his parachute caught up in a tree and his feet off the ground. His call for help was heard by George Solsbery who lifted him out of his harness and down to earth. The Pilot, Radio Operator, and Flight Engineer got out without a scratch. They all bailed out through the bomb bay open doors before the plane went into a spin.
Ed Fennessey showed me his leg that must have had a 20-millimeter cannon round explode on his calf muscle. The whole muscle was hanging down attached only at the lower end. He asked me if I thought it could be saved and I thought it might but told him to be prepared to lose his leg. For some reason the crew considered me the nearest thing to a doctor on board the plane, based I guess on my First Aid class scores.
In an hour or so an elderly doctor came into the room. The temperature in the room was the same as outside so someone started a fire in a Dutch oven type heater but it gave off very little heat while we were there. The doctor looked at Ed's leg and bound it up. Judging by his face he
didn't think the leg could be saved. I was sitting on a small straight backed chair and felt fairly secure and relaxed when I realized I was starting to faint. So as not to fall on the floor I slid down in the chair and hooked the back of my head over the top of the chair just as I went unconscious. How long I was unconscious I didn't know, probably only a few minutes. When I woke up everybody was in their same positions, no one had made a move to check on me or attempt to stop me from falling off the chair. I had gone into shock; the killer of many wounded.
After examining Ed Fennessey, who was far and away the most seriously wounded, the doctor looked at my knee and wrist wounds but said nothing.(back)
The afternoon wore on and finally a truck arrived and Ed and I were loaded into the back cargo area. Already on the truck were the survivors of another B17 Bomber crew. I think there were three, all officers. There was a layer of straw on the floor of the truck for our comfort. By this time it was dark so I would guess it was about 4:30 to 5:00 o'clock or about five hours since the crash. None of us had had anything to eat or drink (except for my shot of schnapps) since six o'clock that morning. I wasn't hungry but I was painfully thirsty. The truck moved slowly along the unpaved roads and seemed to be heading south.
I fell asleep after an hour or so and many hours later woke up to find that we were in a city with lights on in the buildings. The truck stopped in front of a large building, a hospital in
Innsbruck, the same city who's railroad station we had bombed that afternoon. It was midnight. We had made our way through the Brenner Pass. Ed and I were carried into the hospital and told to sit on a bed and wait. After waiting about an hour it was decided they did not have space for me but would care for Ed. So I was taken back to the same truck and traveled all night with two other airmen back the way we came, through the Brenner Pass again. By this time my knee would not support me at all. Soon after first light we arrived in another town and I was carried on a litter into what looked like the lobby of a hotel and placed on the floor. Everyone left without saying a word and I was alone on the floor. Many wounded German soldiers were carried into the lobby and placed on the floor apart from me. I asked a person passing near me what time it was and was told it was seven o'clock in the morning. It was twenty-five hours now with no food or drink or toilet.(back)
After laying in the lobby for what seemed many hours, but was probably one or two hours I was carried up an open flight of stairs to a room on the second floor. It was now clear that this had been a hotel but was being used as a military hospital by the German Army to care for the wounded from the Italian front. There were very few if any empty beds in the hospital. A doctor x-rayed my knee and wrist and ordered a partial body cast that ran from my left foot toes to the thigh and hip across to the right hip and on up to just under the breasts. The doctor obviously didn't like me but treated me medically no different than the wounded German soldiers. I questioned the doctor at length about my knee and at first he had nothing to say, pretending not to speak English. Then he spoke to me in very good English telling me that he could not operate to remove the "steel splinters" lodged behind the kneecap without making me a cripple, that the best treatment was to let it heal on its own and keep it very still. He didn't say how long I would be in the cast. While I had been waiting for the doctor to look at me he was examining an American bomber crew officer who had been shot down and suffered a terrible eye wound. The doctor told him that he had lost his eye and that by German law he could not treat him because he was Jewish. I was dumbfounded, as the wound was almost certain to become infected without care and heaven knows what that would lead to.(back)
I was put in a small room with a young soldier and a little later a bowl of soup was placed on the bedside table. It looked good and even smelled good but I couldn't get it down. For some reason I had completely lost my appetite. The soldier beside me told me I must eat something to regain my strength, Neither of us spoke the otherís language but somehow we communicated. I could recognize a few German words and the rest was conveyed by pantomime. I forced myself to eat about half the bowl. When the girl came to take away the bowl, she was shocked to learn that I didn't want the remaining soup. She had never seen food returned, I guess. The next day I was moved to a slightly larger room that had three beds. One bed was empty and the other had a very young Paratrooper who had been shot in the shoulder by a caliber 45 and the bullet had run along the inside of his collarbone and out the middle of his back. His arm was in a mechanical support to hold it up and away from his body and the one and a half inch hole in his back wept constantly. He took it all in stride with a positive attitude that it would heal in time and he would be OK. The hole in his back looked terrible and I couldn't help but think, "What if that gets infected?Ē. Other soldiers that could walk came into our room to visit and talk and after many days I could actually understand a good bit of what was being said, with some English words thrown in now and then. There was an American airman in the next room whom an Italian farm family had hid for several months with another crewmember. They had been captured when they tried to cross through the German lines into the Allied lines. As he told the story they chose a pitch-black night and dressed as Italian civilians. All went well until they actually walked into a German soldier on patrol. He had learned to speak Italian and pretended to be just two civilians who lost their way. But the German didn't believe his story and held them. Of course they didn't have proper papers so the truth came out and they were taken prisoners. For some reason he was lucky to be taken to a hospital with some kind of illness, I think it was malaria, instead of being rushed off to a Stallag Luft camp.
I counted every day I was in that cast flat on my back. The knee became stiff and very painful from lack of motion and my back ached from lying in one position for so long. It was 43 days until the cast was removed. In the meantime I was clean and warm and reasonably well fed. The bill of fare consisted mainly of soups and bread with a treat now and then of apple butter spread and even an apple now and then. Everyone got a glass of hot bullion each evening and this was considered a treat by all. There were no overweight people in that place.
How I wished I had something to read and I asked a nice Italian young woman who worked as a nurses' aid if she knew of any English books I might borrow. She produced a hardbound copy of "Gone With the Wind" which I read each day until I fell asleep but after three or four days she had to have the book to give to someone else. That was the only reading material I had during my whole hospital stay.
While a patient in the hospital I made many friends among the German soldiers. We managed to communicate even though neither could speak much of the others language. It gave me a new insight into the enemy. They were nice guys and except for their language could be my friends back at the airbase. This war was utter nonsense.
A word about the staffing of the hospital might be in order. There was one doctor for two hotels full of patients. There was one nurse per floor and one "Sonny" to empty bed pans and so forth per floor. I would estimate there were 30 or more patients on a floor. Despite the extremely limited staffing everyone seemed to be well cared for. Of course you might have to wait a half-hour for a bedpan, but it did come. And all the staff was usually cheerful even though they must have worked 12-hour shifts.(back)
Finally the big day arrived when the cast was taken off and the leg was wrapped in layers of
gauze brushed with a white rubber-like liquid. They called it a "Zinklimeforbande"; it served as a custom fitted support-stocking running from toes to well above the knee. I was carried to and from the room where the support stocking was applied so that my first opportunity to stand was after I was returned to my bed. I sat up on the edge of the bed and the room began to spin so badly that I threw myself back down onto the bed until it settled down. I tried again but again had to lie down. Forty-three days on my back had deadened my balance system. It took an hour or more until I could sit up in some comfort. Then I tried standing and had to fight vertigo again.
By late afternoon I was taking a few careful steps. The left leg was so weak from being immobile that it would barely hold my weight. No one gave any advice on how to rehabilitate the knee and leg so I made my own rule, which was don't pamper the knee, use it as much as possible. At first the knee was almost rigid. In a few days it would flex about 5 degrees and so it went that in a few weeks the knee would flex about 30 degrees and I could walk without a cane.(back)
About the 3rd of March 1944 on a beautiful, warm, sunny day I was released from the hospital in Merano, Italy and transported in the back of an open truck southward through beautiful mountainous countryside. . Many of the houses by the road bore murals that filled a wall, painted on the white stucco. They were mainly scenes from the New Testament painted by a skilled artist. I enjoyed every minute and every mile of the trip but I knew the honeymoon was over and life would not be nearly so nice in a prison camp as it had been in the hospital. I had been in the hospital a total of 72 days. When the staff was getting me ready to leave the hospital they couldn't find any of my clothing so they put together an outfit consisting of an odd assortment of Italian, German, and French pants, jacket, shoes, underwear, socks, and an overcoat that almost reached the ground that had belonged to a WWI French soldier. The overcoat felt good in the open truck.
Our destination turned out to be Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet. We passed a grand medieval cathedral on our right in the city that had a dozen or so Italian men dressed in a black uniform with a cap that bore a large skull and crossed bones insignia. They looked foolish lounging around trying to impress someone with their silly looking uniforms. Further south in the same city off a narrow street the truck drove through a huge wooden gate in a wall. Straight ahead was a steep hill that had many terraces with lawn and gardens giving the impression of steps leading up to a palace on the top of the hillside. I was later told that this was the Palace of the Prince of Verona. The outside of the Prince's administration building was probably several hundred years old but the inside had been reworked into modern rooms.
There were a number of tiny prison cells, I would guess about eight, and an open area in the middle. I was led to a cell and locked up. This was solitary confinement and I started to panic. I would lose my mind if I were forced to stay in this place for long. In fact the thought of spending one night in it sent me into an internal panic. But I lived through the night and the next day I was taken out to be interrogated. The German soldier that interrogated me spoke good English, he had probably spent time in America. Early in the interview he realized that I had been shot down two and a half months ago and had already been interrogated in the hospital. The German enlisted man, a corporal that had interrogated me in the hospital had lived in Ohio for many years and returned to Germany when an invitation was issued by the German government then in power for German citizens to join the Hitler movement. He didn't ask for much information as he already knew a good deal about me. He did try very hard to get me to tell him the tail number of my plane. I didn't know it since it was a substitute for our regular plane that was awaiting a replacement engine that quit on the 12th mission. The Corporal in the hospital had offered to mail letters for me. Of course I had no money to pay for postage nor even paper to write on. The Corporal gave me a pencil, paper and envelopes. I later gave him two letters to mail wondering who would provide the postage. Months later I learned that both of these actually arrived home via Switzerland without any sort of postage. In fact the first to arrive at my parentís home three months later was the first word that they had that I was alive. So he was good to his word. This interview didnít last long and the next night I was escorted to the train station in Verona. From there the passenger train went to Munich where it was bitter colder. l stood on the train platform with a few other recently shot down airmen waiting for the train. One very young looking airman was so overwrought with his fate that he broke into tears. I think he was the only prisoner I saw in tears the balance of the war. Not that his situation didn't deserve tears. He must have had a clearer vision of what was ahead than I did. Finally the long awaited train arrived and it was packed. The guard with us assigned four of us a seat intended for two. The car was painfully overheated and we suffered in our all-wool outfits.
The train took us to a Dulag, which means "in transit," in Frankfurt. If all the camps had been managed as this one was life as a prisoner of war would not have been much of a hardship. Even the food was good. There was a mix of American and British airmen in the camp and the mood was happy and upbeat. But this lasted only a few days until a trainload of POW's was assembled to ship out.(back)
We were then packed into boxcars with no food and no water and no toilet facilities. The doors were closed and locked. We were in the boxcar for three days and nights, standing still on the tracks a good deal of the time. The train seemed to move mostly at night to minimize the likelihood of aerial attack in daylight. The men in the boxcar were from England, New Zealand, Canada and USA. The New Zealander's English was so beautiful I loved to hear him talk. Many stories of how they were shot down were exchanged in those three days. One American had parachuted over the high Alps and came to rest on a narrow ledge. He thought he would freeze to death it was so exposed and there was no way off the ledge except thousands of feet straight down. Observers in the valley saw him and a party of mountain climbers came to his rescue, lowering him down the rock face of the mountain. An English flying Sergeant told his story of how he bailed out of his fighter plane over the Alps. His parachute would not open even though he had time to try to claw it open. It must have been packed damp and bonded the folds together. He free fell for a couple of thousand feet onto a snow-covered glacier that sloped steeply downward and slid on his bottom and back a long way to a stop. He declared this to be true and we all believed him. His only injuries were friction burns on the parts of his body that contacted the snow and ice of the glacier. Of course some men had been badly injured when they hit the ground in their parachute. One Englishman has his arm in a sling with a steel pin coming out of his elbow. He had fallen on a frozen plowed field and had shattered his elbow and forearm when he fell backwards onto one of the frozen ridges formed by a plow. German doctors had pieced the bones together, drilled a hole through them and inserted the pin to hold it all together. The pin was to be removed after the bones knit together. You can see that many of us were given good medical care by the Germans and it's important to give them credit for this, even though their treatment of some groups was most inhuman. Months later I learned that Bill Huddleston, who would later become my best buddy, was in the very same boxcar with me, but at that time we didn't know each other.(back)
Drinking water was our main concern with food close behind. Every now and then while the train was standing the door would be opened so we could relieve ourselves. Only one at a time was allowed out so one could wait many hours to have an opportunity to be relieved. As I remember that trip I believe we were given a slice of bread twice each day: There was just enough room for everyone to sit on the floor. A position next to the wall was a prized one to get some back support. We slept in a seated position draped over each other, waking each other as we were shifted about by the trains movement. During the last day and a half of travel the doors were left open in daylight hours while the train was moving. As soon as the train stopped the guards were out with guns at the ready so there was no thought of escape. Some of the better-informed men on board recognized the territory we were passing through as that of East Prussia and Poland. Many Polish and Russian women were hard at work maintaining the tracks. They were shoveling rock ballast and pounding spikes just as men would do. No men were on the crews we saw. The profound and ugly changes the war had brought about were right here in front of us. Of course we were involved in the change but it was accepted as more normal than making slaves out of women. Later we learned that hundreds of thousands were working as slaves on farms, factories, roadwork, and railroad maintenance. Fifty three years later I learned from German friends that every able bodied man in Germany was drafted into the army and nearly 100 percent of the work force was slave labor and POWís, even in tank and airplane factories.(back)
At long last the train arrived near Konigsburg, East Prussia, and we all walked to Stalag Luft VI. The location is just south of Lithuania and the same distance north as Moscow, Northern Ireland, or the north end of Newfoundland. The season was spring and the weather was comfortable with bright, sunny days and low humidity.
The camp seemed fairly new and contained prisoners from Russia, the UK, and USA. They were separated by nationality with no contact between compounds allowed. They were especially hyper about us making any contact with the Russians. They were wearing quilted winter uniforms even though the weather was quite warm. They were not airmen, probably infantrymen noncommissioned officers.
There was nothing to do for the first several weeks and then Red Cross shipments of books started to arrive from England. All I managed to get a hold of was the Bible and several A. Conan Doyle's novels which after reading five or six all seemed to read the same. Then some sporting equipment arrived that included a few baseballs and gloves and a volleyball net and ball. We could play volleyball until 10 o'clock at night during the midsummer months. So life went on here without any really serious hardships except for having no idea what the future held for us. Uppermost in everyone's mind was the question of how long will I be a POW?. Food was of fair quality and sparse but enough together with the Red Cross parcels to almost sustain ones body weight. The first Red Cross parcels to reach us were a gift from New Zealand, a fact that I will never forget. Next parcels to arrive were from Canada and then a fairly steady flow of parcels from the United States. The New Zealand and Canadian parcels were the best but we more than appreciated anything we got. The Red Cross tried to deliver a parcel a week per prisoner but it averaged closer to one half parcel a week in Stalag Luft VI.
The barracks were built of wood and were about 25 by 70 feet. Two story bunks lined the long walls with about 3 feet between bunks. There were two windows, I believe, at each end of the building with none on the long walls so it was rather dark for reading unless you were near a window. At the end farthest from the entrance was a rather large Dutch oven type stove to heat the building and it was used in March and April. One of the guys in the barracks showed us how to make potato pancakes by mashing a potato and flattening it on the hot iron lid of the stove. By leaving it there until well browned the bland potato took on a delicious flavor. It would have been even better with salt and pepper but neither was available. As I remember it, even the Red Cross parcels didn't include much salt.
One of the men in my barracks built a complete Monopoly game set from memory. He drew the board on the underside of a table and he made all the pieces. His creation gave all of us many hours of enjoyment and went a long way toward preserving our mental health.(back)
We spent a good bit of our time walking the perimeter of the compound and just laying around in the sun on the nicer days of summer. We all awaited the world news hoping to hear that the Allies had landed in Europe. Each day at about the same time a man would come into the barracks and stand near the door. Two others would act as lookouts and they took their job seriously. When we got the right signal from the lookout he would read the news from a tiny slip of paper. Radio operators had managed to build a radio receiver from material at hand. Some had smuggled resistance wire from their heated suit into camp and wax paper and tin foil from food and cigarette packaging. They were used to make resistors and capacitors. How or where they got the other parts we had no idea and they wouldn't even talk about it. Maybe they bribed a guard to get a crystal and made a Cat's Whisker Crystal radio, which would be very simple for a radioman. In any event there was a radio receiver in the camp and it picked up BBC's broadcast beamed to Europe. Only a very few knew where it was and we understood that it was moved almost daily to foil detection. The guards every now and then almost tore the barracks apart looking for something but never seemed to find it. From the BBC new releases we knew fairly well how the war was going.
I often wondered why the Germans built a prisoner of war camp so close to Russia. A look at an old map shows the Russian border less than 200 miles from the camp. The German high command must have been assured that Russia was no threat, at least at that point in time.(back)
But Russia was a threat. The major offensive they launched in May put them close enough that by July 1944 orders were received to evacuate the camp. All the prisoners were marched about five miles to the seaport of Konigsberg and loaded into the holds of two freighter ships. It was in Konigsburg that I saw a pretty, well-dressed young woman on the street, the first I had seen since I left the hospital. On seeing her I realized how very much I missed the company of females. Just the sight of one was a thrill. When we were well fed the talk was about girls, the rest of the time it was about food. The ship had been used to carry coal as evidenced by remains on the floor of the hold. The ships hold had no provisions for passengers, no bunk, no water, no toilets. To get relief a prisoner had to ask permission to climb a very tall ladder that led to the deck where a hose washed away the waste deposited on the deck. We were not issued any food. We ate what we carried on board. There may have been drinking water on deck but I don't remember. The trip was only about one and a half days as I remember it. One of the British POW's told us that he knew the waters we were in had been mined by the British from the air. He said he personally had flown on several such missions. Of course the Germans knew this and must have swept a channel clear for shipping. In any event we didn't hit a mine, which was a very good thing because there was nothing between us and the sea except for about 3/4 inch of steel plate. Most of us would have drowned before we could get up the only ladder leading to deck. Men covered the entire floor of the cargo hold so that there was not enough room to lay out at full length. We slept in a half reclining, half sitting position. In fact that is the position we were in day and night.
For some reason I was sure the ship and its passengers would arrive at its destination, wherever that was, safely, and we did. When we got off the ship I looked around and realized we were in a major port as there was a fair sized warship nearby that I guessed was a cruiser or a pocket battleship. An Englishman told me that we were in Stettin. From there we were loaded into boxcars that had a temporary partition that ran from the back wall to one side of the door. The POWs were in the smaller space and the other, much larger space, was occupied by a very young Kriegsmarine (navy sailor) who told us the British had sunk the ship for which he had trained to be crew. All the guards were of this same category. Our guard could speak some English and one of the English airmen in the car could speak German and we had a friendly chat for the next few hours. All of the POW's grew to like the young man and agreed that he was a decent fellow. Before we got into the car we were hand cuffed together. In a short time we found how to pick the locks and wore them open.
A few hours later the train came to a stop and we were told to jump out of the box car and wait beside it. We locked the cuffs and were handcuffed together in pairs. It was a beautiful day in July and wild strawberries were growing along the tracks. We picked and ate all we could reach without upsetting the guard. Some of the city boys were reluctant or even refused to eat them for fear they were poisonous. These berries were the only fresh fruit I had eaten since leaving United States for North Africa, and none of us had a fresh vegetable from the time we left US until we returned.(back)
Looking down the track toward the front of the train I could see that several guards were gathered and getting a lecture from an officer who represented the camp we were to walk to. All the POW's were marched onto a road beside the tracks and then the Haupman (Captain) in charge took his pistol and fired four or five shots into the air to stir up the guards, which it did. We were told to run. We were all still handcuffed together in pairs. Bill Huddleston and I were cuffed together and managed to get in the middle of the column which was three pairs wide. All our belongings were in a large canvas bag on our shoulder with only one hand free to steady it. The guards who had been so civil a few minutes before were now acting like mad men. Each guard had a WWI issue rifle to which he had fastened an eighteen-inch long epee type bayonet. An epee is shaped like a three-corner needle. They used this to jab at the legs of
the men who were unlucky enough to be on an outside row and near a guard. Many were stabbed in the buttock and thigh, some receiving serious wounds, but they continued to run just the same as the others. To add to the excitement several guards had an attack dog on a lease. The dogs were about the size of a Doberman and tan colored. They were told to bite the running men and several men later showed ugly bite marks on their calf. A few even had pieces of the calf missing. Much later I learned the dogs were Alsace Hounds.
We continued to run as fast as we could. Then the road was bordered both sides by dark forest. We saw a German soldier crouched behind a machine gun near the edge of the woods. As we moved on we saw that manned machineguns were both sides of the road spaced about 100 yards apart. Bill and I agreed that these beasts might be planning to machine gun all of us which given the current hysterical condition of the officer in charge and the guards didn't seem out of order. But then it occurred to me that the guards would also be in danger of being shot. So the machine guns were probably there to prevent us from running off into the forest. None the less their presence was most disconcerting. We and all the men nearby agreed that if the guns started firing we would all dive for the nearest guard and take him with us one way or another. Bags started to appear on the road, discarded by men who could no longer carry them. All the men behind the person who dropped their bag had to leap over it to avoid falling and certain mauling by the dogs. Now many bags were in the road and it was something of a contest to see how gracefully we could leap over them handcuffed together, with our own bag still on our shoulder. We must have run close to a mile when Bill and I started to become exhausted. It was a warm summer day and we were in RAF woolen uniforms. At last Bill and I agreed we had to get rid of our bags if there was any hope of keeping up the forced pace. Bill said we should try to hit a guard with the bag. With one hand I threw my bag across the heads of the two men on my right toward the guard ahead of us. It fell behind him but all the guards behind him would have to leap over it or take a fall. Bill threw his to the left clearing the men on his side and nearly upset a guard. Without the bag on our shoulder we felt new strength and believed we could run as far and as fast as the guards. But all our worldly goods were in those bags and it was a painful decision to throw them away.(back)
We finally reached the new camp, Stalag Luft IV, in a lather and with nothing except the clothes on our backs. Some POW's estimated we had run 5 miles, others estimated 5 kilometers. I would guess that 5 kilometers (3 miles) as close to right. Few of us had any hope of ever seeing our bags again. They held food we had saved from Stalag Luft VI, some spare clothes and two blankets. Little could be done for the fellows that had been stabbed or bitten except to offer our concern and try to get medical aid. There were two captured military doctors in the camp but the problem would be to get medical supplies.
As we passed through the inner gate of the camp we were greeted by nearly a hundred POW's waiting in a semicircle to check out the new arrivals to see if any crew members or friends were among them. From 50 yards away I recognized John Hedburg, a real good buddy from aerial gunnery school. Even from that distance I could see that part of his right hand was missing. Ed Fennessey, the waist gunner on my crew, was there too. His terrible leg wound had healed and he could walk again. John told me he had been assigned to the 8th Air Force in England and had only recently been shot down. I asked to see his hand and saw that he was missing his thumb and index finger and part of the middle finger. A 20-millimeter projectile had exploded on his hand. John had been a budding artist in the US. I still have a drawing of myself in full flying gear that he did in aerial gunnery school that survived the war because I sent it home where it was carefully preserved by my mother. John took his loss with amazing good cheer and was a bright light in an otherwise dull gray world. He had many friends in camp and set about learning the Army serial number of all of them. John would ask me my serial number several times over a period of a few days, then each time he saw me he would recite the number for me to check. He did this until he had many eight-digit numbers etched in his mind. A few weeks later John was repatriated to the US via Sweden. He told the name, rank and serial number of all his friends to US Army Intelligence, I'm sure. Knowing John itís safe to say he told them a lot more than that.
The new arrivals were put up in nice new tents with a double roof to help keep them cool and a canvas floor laid over the ground. Even though it was July it was cool at night and we slept on the ground with only our clothes to keep us warm. Our blankets were in the bags that we had been forced to discard. At that point we didn't think we would ever see the bags again. But the next day a truckload of bags was dumped in a heap on the ground inside the compound. It was up to us to figure out which bag belonged to whom.
Wooden barracks were ready to move into in a few weeks. Whereas the barracks at Stalag Luft VI consisted of one big room, these contained several small rooms. Each room held six double deck bunks arranged around the walls and a small table with four chairs in the middle of the floor. The rooms were located each side of a hallway that ran the length of the building. There was an inside outhouse type toilet at one end of the building. This was locked during the day and could only be used after the barracks doors were locked each night. There was much less and poorer food at this camp and as the days ground on we saw that we were losing weight and strength, rapidly.
The International Red Cross had managed to get some athletic equipment to this camp. There were a few baseball and softball gloves, balls and bats, and a volleyball set. Volleyball was too hard on my knee but I did play some softball, but was seldom lucky enough to have a glove. The Red Cross distributed food parcels to us that came first from New Zealand then from Canada and finally United States. It was a joyous occasion to receive a parcel, even a partial one. The best were from New Zealand, next best from Canada. All parcels contained similar foods all in cans, of course, to prevent spoilage. The typical parcel had powdered milk, large biscuits, cheese, hard candy, fruit preserves, canned meat, six cigarettes, a little salt and pepper, and coffee. All packages came into German controlled Europe from Sweden and were warehoused at a port facility. The Swedish Red Cross provided all transportation including trucks and drivers to deliver the parcels to the numerous prisoner of war camps located throughout much of Europe. By late 1944 food was getting very scarce for the German Army and public so many parcels never reached the intended camp or were redirected from the camps. The plan was to have enough parcels on hand to allow the camps to issue one parcel to each POW each week. We never received anything near that amount. Once in a rare while we received a whole parcel but more often it was a half or third or even a quarter per man and not every week. But what we did receive made life a whole lot more pleasant and probably saved us from serious malnutrition. The mainstay for food issued by our captors was bread, a dark, dense, multigrain bread that everyone agreed was good and to me was delicious. If you had something to put on it was even better. A bowl of thin soup was issued each day in camp. This together with an occasional Red Cross parcel was what we lived on from July of 1944 until February of 1945.(back)
Late in January 1945 the camp commander announced that the camp would be evacuate in a week and we should be prepared to walk out of camp and be on the road for several days. There wasn't much we could do to prepare except to save some food to take with us. The only way to do this was to eat less in the meantime. We had some extra pairs of wool pants that were cut up to make knapsacks. The Red Cross provided the needle and thread used to do sewing. I cut out two strips of wool from the pants to uses as puttees. I wrapped them around the top of my shoes up the ankle and around the bottom of the pant leg. They were a great help in keeping my legs warm and reasonably dry. We were missing one important item. A closed container to carry water. We thought water would be handed out at least a few times each day and it would be no problem. How wrong we were. I suspect the British POW's had fashioned canteens out of food tins. Such a project was well within their ability as they had made several stills in camp and had made many portable blacksmith's forge type stoves out of scrap material. With a handful of twigs these stoves could boil a tin of water in less than a minute. Both these projects involve considerable cutting and soldering so they must have bribed a guard for solder and tools. The British had several men who spoke fluent German and conducted sharp deals with certain guards. There were a few things available to us that would bring a fat profit on the black market, especially soap and American or English cigarettes. Europe must have been cut off from tobacco because the German cigarettes were not made from tobacco. They really were not fit to smoke, if indeed any cigarette is.
The day came when the camp was to be evacuated. All the guys were excited at the prospect of getting out from behind barbed wire and into an open atmosphere, even if still under the control of armed guards. We all had as much food saved as we ever would and had made a pack for it and some spare clothing and had practiced rolling our blankets into as small a role as possible. Two blankets were to be carried over our shoulder and tied together where they met at hip level.
Each barracks was called out, fell into formation and awaited orders. It was early morning the 4th of February 1945 and we soon realized it was by far the coldest day we had experience since capture. The ground was covered with a light snowfall and was frozen so solid that it rang under foot when walked on. My guess is that the temperature was near zero F. We stood for some time and began to wonder if we had enough clothing to cope with these temperatures. Then we moved out in orderly columns, through the inner and outer gates into a different world. I was happy for the change even though I had no idea what would happen to me and Bill and the others in the next several days and weeks. We divided into groups of 50 or 60 men and walked until late afternoon the first day. My group reached the edge of a dense forest where we were to spend that night. It was a heaven sent blessing that the ground under the trees was covered with a thick layer of pine needles that served as insulation against the cold ground. In fact the forest was noticeably warmer than the adjoining field. Sleeping that night was painful but not as bad as I thought it would be. We all agreed that we couldn't take a steady diet of this and survive. Now apprehension set in, as we were fearful of what was in store for us the next day, especially where we would be required to sleep. If it was on the ground every night we wouldnít last long. The first several days on the road were much more pleasant than the confinement of the prison camp. Now there was a purpose in life if only to put distance between ourselves and the Russians. Personally I felt I could put up with a lot more hardship before it was as painful as confinement behind barbed wire. For lunch the second day a farmer provided enough soup to feed the 50 or so men in my group. It tasted good to me but many passed it up because they still had Red Cross parcel food saved from the camp. The guards made us eat it on the march so when the bowls were empty we simply place them on the side of the road hoping the farmer's good wife would recover them.
We continued to walk western everyday covering between 12 Km and 20 Km and sleeping in a barn. The barn was almost always reached before dark and we were up at seven the next morning. Breakfast consisted of hot fake coffee made from roasted acorns and a slice of black bread. At first the trip was through open farmland. This part of Germany contains big farms with up to 1,000 acres or more and ancient barns that must have been built when wood was plentiful. The framing beams were 12 to 14 inches square with mortised and pegged joints. Most had at least two walls of stone. They all had a hayloft with plenty of hay. That was where we slept. A problem with sleeping in a hayloft is if you take off any clothing, especially shoes, they work their way deep into the hay and might never be found. One night I took off my shoes and used them for a pillow. When I awoke in the morning the shoes were nowhere to be found. I dug into the hay calmly at first then in a panic when it appeared I would not find them in time to make the morning count formation. The thought of having to walk in my stocking feet made me somewhat ill. Finally all the men near me joined in the search and they were found about 6 feet from where I had slept, deep in the hay. I slept in my shoes for the balance of the war. In fact, I wore the same clothes, except for one change of underwear and socks from February 4, 1945 until I reached Belgium in mid May 1945 where I was issued a US Army uniform. Of course the same held true for all the other POW's that were with me. Amazingly enough no one complained about this. Their sole concern was something to eat and drink and a dry, warm place to sleep.
Days turned into weeks and we now went through an occasional village with 200 to 300 yr. old half-timber houses and stores. The shop windows were almost empty and the streets were deserted. The buildings were in fine condition and were a joy to see. At this point I took on the role of the spectator or tourist taking in the sights, not really being one of the prisoners passing through the village. We had seen many old barns and farmhouses but this was our first view of townhouses.
Food was now in really short supply with all our Red Cross food long gone. The guards managed to produce enough black bread to give two slices a day and two or three steamed potatoes. Then the bread all but gave out and our diet was made up of steamed potatoes, the same as were used to feed pigs, and raw carrots and kohlrabis. Bill and I quickly learned not to eat the vegetables raw as they gave a bad case of diarrhea. As the weeks dragged into months the monotonous diet of steamed potatoes and polluted water caused chronic dysentery for many men including Bill and myself. In a few days we were too week to walk so we were loaded into a horse drawn wagon to continue the movement westward away from the ever advancing Russians. Just before we became sick the column was walking through a strip of land still in control of the Germans that was about 10 miles wide and 20 miles long with the Baltic Sea to the north and the Russian Army to the south and east. It was eerie; everyone and everything had left the area. Even the birds had left. The distant boom of artillery could be heard all day long. It was here that two British POW's appeared out of nowhere to join in the rear the column. They had waited behind some tall grass close to the road for the whole column to pass then silently stepped into the column beside me. They put their finger to their lips signaling to us not to say anything. They told me they had escaped from a column a few days earlier but had been unable to find anything to eat. They were so hungry they decided to join the POW group in hopes of getting something to eat. We walked through that area in one long day. After the war I read that the Russians were shelling the coastline with warships north of us in an attempt to cut off the escape of the German forces along the coast.
About three weeks into the trip a barn could not be found one night so we had to sleep in a snow covered field. Three of us pooled our blankets, which gave three under, and three over us. We drew straws for the middle position and Bill and I lost. We slept with all our clothing on including our overcoat. That was the worst, coldest night I ever spent. When I woke up in the morning I felt like a frozen turkey. All my muscles were as stiff as a pine board. The fellow who slept in the middle had to help Bill and me to our feet.(back)
Thank goodness I had two pairs of mother's hand knit socks that I alternated daily. The unused pair was carried under the pants belt inside the trousers to dry. They never wore out and I never had a blister. Many had terrible problems with blisters on their feet. With nothing to help the problem they were forced to walk for many hours the next day breaking the blisters which then often infected. They were in misery for weeks on end.
In a clothing parcel my parents sent to me in Stalag Luft IV was, in addition to the socks, a McGregor wool fatigue sweater with a shawl collar. What a marvelous gift. It made life much more pleasant for me. I wore that sweater all the way across Europe to the coast of France and it's still in use by my daughter, Diane. A great sweater, a life saving sweater.(back)
One day we walked from 7 in the morning to 10 at night in almost constant rain. Our wool overcoats absorbed the rainwater, especially in the shoulders and arms until they felt like they had gained 20 pounds. We walked all day and then in the dark for four and a half-hours and the rain never let up. The guards would not let us walk in the road, perhaps to keep it open for military traffic. So we walked above the drainage ditch beside the road where the ground was slippery with mud, making progress even more difficult. After eight hours of this we were all exhausted, including the guards. It seemed to take more effort to speak than we could muster so we walked in near total silence mile after mile. The last two hours none of us thought we could take another step but forced ourselves to plod on because the alternative of lying down in the mud was even worse. No one was strong enough to carry anyone else. The guards were also on foot and had no way of transporting anyone who couldn't walk. So to lie down beside the road I guess would be to die of exposure. The column stopped at three barns during the night while the lead guard talked to the owner. But it was always the same; we kept walking to another barn. Finally at 10 o'clock that night after walking 40 kilometers (26 miles) with no food or water and on our feet for 15 hours and only minutes from collapsing we were let into a nice, dry barn to sleep .God bless the owner for his hospitality. That was far and away the worst day of my life. After that day I felt I could endure almost anything and survive. In a strange way it had a good effect. Every day after it seemed easier because we compared it to the 40 kilometer day in the rain.(back)
By this time many men had developed dysentery and in a few days were too weak to walk. Bill and I were in this group. Somehow the guards rounded up some horse drawn wagons. A single badly emaciated horse drew the wagon we were in. In fact the poor animal was in the poorest condition I had ever seen a horse. It was close to starvation and was forced to draw a wagon with six or eight men. As the wagon moved westward we were overtaken and passed by a battalion of infantry in trucks. The road was narrow and trucks barely missed brushing the wagon. For some reason the horse turned to the left and looked back over his shoulder. At that exact moment a passing truck struck the horse squarely in the jaw. The crunching sound of bone was unmistakable. He staggered and for a few seconds seemed to have been knocked unconscious but managed to recover and just kept on trotting. He never turned his head again. I almost cried for that poor horse.
We traveled for a day in the wagon and came to a large barn that was part of a farm located in a quiet area well away from any traveled roads. Here we were treated quite decently but proper food was still in critically short supply. Everyone in the barn, and there were about 30 of us, had dysentery which kept us trotting day and night to the slit trench latrine. We were all bleeding to one extent or another. With rest and a regular supply of safe drinking water we started to recover some strength. We were there about five days. While there we had a daily visit from a herd of small deer that were about the size of a tall, slight dog. They kept their distance, never coming closer than about 100 yards. It was exciting to see them and some comfort to know that there was a place in war torn Germany peaceful enough to be home to a herd of wild deer.
The 30 or so men in the barn included an American medical doctor who was trying his best to care for us. But all he had for medicine was powered charcoal for dysentery. To be effective it had to be swallowed dry. He told me that was all he could get from our captors. It did seem to help.(back)
The German government had betrayed their country by throwing it into a series of wars that made no sense and which they couldn't win. The cities, railroads, and factories were being bombed relentlessly by huge formations of allied bombers that we saw flying high overhead almost daily. There were 500 or more in a formation. It was now April and the weather was mostly clear and sunny. Perfect for high-level bombing.
The citizens were suffering greatly. Food, even on farms, with the exception of potatoes was in very short supply. Bread was becoming more and more a rare commodity. German men were also becoming a rarity. Even on big farms there was only one or at most two German men. Women, civilian slave labor, and POWs were doing all the work. The town and village streets were devoid of men, except those in uniform. Our guards were what we considered old man, ranging from about 50 to mid 60. It was easy to tell that they knew what was really happening and where Germany was headed. They hadn't fallen for the propaganda as the younger men had. I learned much later that between 90 and 95 percent of the entire labor force in Germany, and probably Austria too, was slave labor and POWs. In tank and airplane factories the ratio was as high as 250 slaves to one German supervisor. Almost the entire adult able-bodied male population regardless of age was drafted into the armed services.(back)
Next we were loaded into boxcars and transported 50 or 60 miles westward. On the way the train passed through the heart of Hamburg and came to a stop on a section of track that was elevated about 50 feet above street level. We were allowed out to relieve ourselves. The sight before me was one that I can never forget. From that elevated position I could see a large portion of the city. There was not a single building that had its roof remaining. Not a single building that had four walls standing. In fact as far as the eye could see the streets had been cleared and the spaces defined by the intersecting streets were piled five feet high with brick, stone, and concrete rubble. Only very well built buildings had even two partial standing walls. About a mile away were the remains of a medieval cathedral consisting of parts of three walls and no roof. From what I could see the city was completely and utterly destroyed. The old section of Hamburg was very old and its loss from a historical point of view was a tragedy. Despite these conditions the railroad through the city was still operating and a few handcarts were being pulled along the empty streets. For all practical purposes the city was dead. Hamburg and Philadelphia were, at the time of the war, considered sister cities having very nearly the same population, situated on a river the same distance from the sea, and both had a broad range of industry including shipbuilding. As I looked over the city I couldn't help but think " what if this was Philadelphia?". Even the enemy didn't deserve to be treated like this. Of course the German Air Force had completely destroyed Coventry and tried to do the same to London. In the end it wasn't the leaders of the German Air Force that were punished, it was the civilian population, especially those in the big cities that suffered. After the war I learned that a large part of Hamburg was destroyed in a single night by British fire bombing. The fire was so intense that even the streets burned. The 30,000 people killed that night were mostly women, children, and old men. Needless to say they had nothing to do with the bombing of Coventry or London.
The train moved on and in a day we were back with our old marching column. It had some new faces and some old ones were missing. Now we went for days without food and our situation was becoming desperate. Then we got a heaven sent break; the guards managed to get the use of a large barn and yard for three days. This yard was walled in so it was easy for the guards to keep track of us. This seemed to make them more tolerant toward our activities. There we build ovens by digging into a dirt bank with sticks. The farmer gave out a generous ration of raw potatoes, which were boiled, mashed and baked into a tasty pancake. Some of the guys broke into the farmer's stores and stole flour and dried peas. The flour was used to bake a thin cracker like cake. This was a lighthearted time and friendships widened to include guys outside their own group. Here we had time and the opportunity to interact with someone other than our best buddy. The farmer discovered that some of his food was missing and the guards threatened the shoot someone if it wasn't returned. I guess enough was returned to satisfy the farmer since no one was shot. Later I learned that the food had been taken from a secret room that had a door in the haymow. It was padlocked but one of the guys picked the lock with no difficulty. While in this same haymow a lone chicken, wondering around, came within easy reach and I grabbed it, rang itís neck and with Bill cooked pieces of it over a small fire in the barnyard. We couldnít spend too much time over the fire or a guard would investigate, so we ate the chicken half-raw. It was many years until I could again eat chicken.
This farm had several Polish and Russian young women who were serving as slave labor in the fields and in the house. Bill had been carrying an extra pair of new US Army issue shoes ever since we left Stalag Luft IV. He managed to contact one of these women and an agreement was made to exchange the shoes for two loaves of Russian black bread. It had to be baked at night in secret and would be turned over for the shoes the next day. True to her word she produced the bread and got the shoes. She got the better deal because a pair of real leather shoes at that time was worth a whole lot more than two loaves of bread. Of course she took a terrible chance in being caught stealing flour and dealing with the enemy. The loaves were huge and fed us in style for several days. I still had my gold finger ring with a moss Agate that I was holding in reserve to trade for food as a last resort. Several times I came very close to giving it up for bread but somehow I knew that the ring was our last lifeline and once traded the last assurance of survival would be gone. I managed to wear it all across Europe and back to the USA. I still have it; my wife wears it to this day.(back)
The column moved east, toward the Russians, past Luneberg, looking down on the beautiful old town. About a mile and a half ahead was a column of British POW's that came into sight every now and then as we both moved through the hilly countryside. Two Hawker-Hurricane fighter/bombers made several passes at the road far ahead of us. At the time we couldn't see the other column and no gunfire was heard. We thought the pilots were looking over the column to see if it was friend or foe. The British all wore RAF uniforms, which were very close in color to the Luft Waffen Ground Forces uniform. A little later a German officer addressed us and said the British POWs had been strafed by their own planes and 20 British and 10 Germans had been killed. Strangely no one was only wounded. These fighter/bombers carried awesome firepower with three machineguns in each wing. Later we learned from the surviving British that the reason for the high ratio of guards to POW's killed was the guards dove into the ditches and the POW's ran across the open fields. There were about 20 times as many POWís as guards. The planes concentrated their fire on the ditches. The officer asked for volunteers to collect the bodies onto a truck. No one responded and he left. We were now very fearful that we might be mistaken for the enemy. What probably saved us was that our uniforms were a motley mix of RAF and US Army issue. My whole uniform was RAF blue, except the cap. (back)
Only a few days later we were reasonably comfortable in a large barnyard that had a small air raid shelter dug into the ground. Next to the barnyard were large fields. Close to us was a tall haystack that was much larger than any I had seen before. It was a beautiful, sunny, spring day and out of the blue sky came a single Hawker-Hurricane fighter-bomber. It dove directly for the yard where 50 or more men were scattered about. I watched in disbelief as it came closer and closer, thinking the pilot must by now have recognized us as POW's. When he was about 300 yards away he fired two wing rockets at what appeared to be straight at me. They left a trail of white smoke behind them as they came. I was convinced the rockets were aimed at the middle of my chest. I leaped into the shelter not bothering to use the six steps provided. Barely having reached the floor of the shelter when the rockets exploded. Being convinced that they had hit the yard I ran up the stairs expecting to see awful carnage. But there was none. The target had been the haystack . It was no longer there. Hay was all over the place and all that remained was the pole that had served as a support. The pilot must have suspected it hid a weapon of some sort. At that point in the war the Allies had complete control of the air so the enemy was in constant danger of being strafed or bombed. The tables were turned. Nothing could move during the day without being strafed by fighter-bombers. We saw ample evidence of the havoc they had wrought in the form of burned out trucks by the side of the road. One had to wonder if any had been carrying Red Cross parcels.(back)
My column had already crossed the Elbe from East to West and now we were crossing it again. Evidently the British were more of a threat than the Russians. We were on the eastern side of the Elbe moving only short distances each day. Up to this time we very seldom saw an officer in charge of the guards. Now a Hauptmann showed up one morning and addressed us, first by greeting us with a hearty ĎGood morning boysí to which he wanted us to respond by saying in unison ĎGood morning Hauptmanní. He repeated this dialog several times until our response was loud and cheerful enough to suit him. He was a gem, but he was with us only a few days. A replacement came and he too lasted only a few days. This went on until we had seen four different officers. We didnít know what was happening to them but suspected they knew the war was lost and were deserting.
Now we went north a few miles and then turned westward. A few days later we were crossing the Elbe a third time. As we were walking over the bridge, about mid-span, the faint sound of an airplane engine could be heard then a near deafening explosion. Several of the guards ran across the rest of the bridge as fast as their legs would carry them. There was no evidence of a bomb having exploded but whatever it was it was very close. Then we saw a well-concealed antiaircraft gun position near the end of the bridge. It was there to protect the bridge and had fired a single shot at the distant airplane. It had given everyone in the column a near heart attack(back)
It was well into April now and some days were very warm. As we slogged along in woolen clothes carrying a pack, two blankets, and an overcoat it was difficult to believe that we would need all these clothes and blankets. Some men discarded an overcoat or blanket by the side of the road. At first a guard would pick it up and kindly return it to its owner. But they would discard it again so the guards gave up helping them. Bill and I agreed that we couldnít chance throwing anything away since there was no way of knowing what the weather would do. As it turned out we could have discarded our overcoats but not a blanket. On especially warm days a few men collapsed on the road. The guards assured us that they would be picked up later in a horse drawn wagon. Of course we had no way of knowing if they actually were since we never saw them again.
By now the Germans didnít seem to know where they should lead us. We doubled back on our path to the east toward the Russians. It was clear that we were in a pocket with the Russian Army east of us and the British Army south of us. Then we moved northward through very sandy country covered with low mounds and scrub growth. It reminded me of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. One area we went through had been used for tank training as it was crisscrossed with tank tracks but on this day it was deadly silent. Now we were out of the farming district and away from all villages. The roads we traveled were sand and made every step an extra effort. It took only a day to cross these sandy dunes so they must have been rather shallow in depth. We were moving up a secondary road toward the old trading town of Lubeck on the Baltic Sea.
Early the next morning we came upon a small group of German infantry all dressed in new camouflage uniforms. They were very young, about 15 to17 years of age. They got into horse drawn wagons and dashed off northward as fast as the whipped horses could take them. They were retreating from the advancing British who must have been close. About midday we reached a farm with a large barnyard where we set up camp. The guards were suddenly very tolerant about what they allowed us to do. Groups were wandering out onto the road and walking away in both directions with no objection being raised by the guards. Even though we knew we were taking a terrible chance, Bill and I walked out of the yard and back to a small cheese factory we had passed that morning. French POWís were manning the place with no sign of supervision. They offered us cream and I drank about a half- pint, which made me a little sick. We were given all the cheese we could carry. Bill and I took a full wheel of green cheese, about 30 or 40 pounds. It was past the cottage cheese stage but not firm enough to slice cleanly. We took it back to the campsite, ate our fill and offered it to anyone willing to try it. I ate so much of that cheese I couldnít eat cheese of any kind for several years after. .(back)
Some of the guys were now returning from the village up the road with an assortment of food they had gotten from a warehouse that had opened to the public. So Bill and I left the cheese and walked quickly into the village. There was no problem finding the warehouse, as it was the only building that had anyone around it. It was small, about 20feet square, and had been full of staples such as flour, sugar, and canned foods. Civilians, mostly women, were rushing in and out of the place carrying all they could. Women were shouting at the top of their voice ďEnglander kommenĒ. Maybe this would be the day we had waited for so long. Bill and I went into the building, which was a single room. A German Army officer was standing in the middle of the floor threatening to shoot the next person who took anything. No one paid much attention to him except Bill and myself. People continued to haul out what was left but by this time there was nothing left but sacks of sugar. Bill and I lifted a 50 kilo (110 lb.) sack off the floor, past the officer and down the road toward the campsite. The sack was almost more than we could carry. We stumbled down the side of the road making plans to exchange our bounty of sugar with the other guys for flour and canned foods. We hadnít gone far when a tank rounded the bend in the road about a quarter of a mile in front of us. I could clearly see the white star and bar on the front of the tank. I shouted ďBill, itís the British. Forget the sugar ď and we dropped the sack right there and ran toward the tank. The tank and the rest of the British column reached the barn the same time we did. Behind the tank were three open tracked vehicles called Bren Gun Carriers, then several transport trucks loaded with troops. The column came to a stop and its leader, a young Captain, got out of the tank and accepted the surrender of the German officer in charge of the guards by taking his offered pistol. The half dozen or so guards were lined up in front of the roadside barn, placed their rifles against the door and stood awaiting further orders. Not a shot was fired. In fact the tankís main armament was still covered with a canvas boot to protect the barrel bore from road dust.
We were liberated at last and all of us were shouting thanks and praise to the British and nearly hysterical with joy. It was the 2nd of May 1945. One year four months and 14 days since I had bailed out over the Tyrolian Alps. We had been on the road since Feb.4th a total of 89 days and never in a house or heated room that whole time. It was mid afternoon by this time and a beautiful spring day so all the British soldiers got out of their vehicles and sat by the side of the road and boiled water with little Primus stoves to make tea. Many of the British POWs in the group had been held much longer than any of the Americans. One of them on being liberated fell to the ground weeping and shouting ďFive years. Itís been five years!Ē he repeated this over and over. A little later when he had regained his composure he told us he had been shot down while dropping propaganda leaflets over Germany in 1940.(back)
They shared their tea with us and we sat and talked while sipping it. The Captain in charge told us he couldnít stay with us since he had to continue pressing the retreating German forces. He told us to walk four miles down the road where we would find a reception area for liberated POWs. One of the British soldiers told us that his outfit was a Signal Company, a unit of the Royal 2nd Dragoons. Their mission was to make initial contact with the enemy, estimate itís strength and radio this information to the main force commander. After the Royal 2nd Dragoons packed up their tea making stuff and moved up the road out of sight we started walking south down the road somewhat lighter than we arrived. The overcoats were discarded but blankets and packs were saved. About two miles into the trip some of the men who had started before us came running up the road and told us they heard that a whole division of German infantry was advancing our way. We were sick with fear. Could we be liberated and recaptured all in the same day? How could a division force get behind the advancing British? We thought if we could get to the reception area we might be safer so we all continued to walk toward it as fast as we could. About a mile further both sides of the road were jammed with German military vehicles of all kinds, including self propelled artillery that had been abandoned. None of them had suffered much damage so we reasoned they must have run out of fuel.(back)
We reached the reception area that was only a crossroads with a few British soldiers who were receiving individuals and small groups of surrendering Germans. The Germans put their guns in a pile and would gladly give us any insignia or medals we asked for. One not so young Corporal was so happy to be out of the war and still alive that he tore off all his insignia, including an Iron Cross, and gave them to me.
As we waited in the reception area a column of surrendering German soldiers came up the road from the south. They were marching six abreast, all in step with their officers in the front left corner of each unit. There were about 200 in the column, probably the remains of a Battalion. I studied them carefully and saw in their faces bitter disappointment, fatigue, and a hint of relief that the war was finally over. They didnít look left or right, only straight-ahead and marched by with as much pride as their situation could possibly allow. German organized resistance was collapsing on all fronts and it was only six days till a formal surrender was signed.
The noncommissioned officer in charge of the reception area told us where to go to get food and shelter. It was too far to reach that day so we spent the night in a farmhouse that was occupied by one young woman. In the area were many freed British and Russian farm labors who were having an outdoors party, drinking wine, stealing young pigs, driving about in a liberated Volkswagen and having a grand time. We were too tired to do any partying. All we wanted was a safe place for the night. As for the young woman, she didnít seem to mind us being there. That night, from a window, the three of us watched two large barns go up in flames. She told us liberated Russian farm labors had torched them and she was fearful they would do the same to her house even though it was not on the same property as the barns. She indicated that she was glad to have us in the house since our presence might discourage the rampaging Russians from breaking in and molesting her. Before we went to bed I looked the place over for anything she could use as a weapon to kill us in our sleep and found only a pair of scissors which I kept. She saw me pick them up and signaled to me that she wouldnít do anything like that. By our brief contact with this woman I sensed she could be trusted and Bill and I enjoyed our first nightís sleep in a regular bed in a long, long time. To be sure we propped a chair against the door.(back)
The next morning a small group of us assembled on the road and walked to a British encampment that had been setup to care for liberated POWís until they could be flown to England. Beside the camp was an airstrip where B17 Bombers were to land and act as transports. This outfit, according to English custom, served a light breakfast, meat and potatoes for a midday meal and for dinner one slice of bread, a wedge of cheese and tea. No seconds. No wonder we never saw a fat British soldier. In fact they were not much heavier than we were and we were not much more than skin and bones. Planes were to arrive in a day or two so Bill and I sat beside the runway scanning the sky for the familiar silhouette of a B17. But they never came. After waiting for seven days we became hopelessly impatient and struck out on our own in an attempt to contact American forces.
The main roads had plenty of military transports on them and the drivers didnít hesitate to give a ride to wherever they were going. By using the Autobahn we made Bremen the first day. Bill and I explored the center city section admiring the fine buildings. What was left of them. The top floor of most of the very substantially built apartment buildings was missing. They had been bombed off. In what appeared to be the retail section damage was more extensive but only a few buildings were completely destroyed. The city was deserted; the entire population had left. A group of five of us went into one of the first floor apartments to spend the night. It was completely furnished and suffered no damage even though the top floor of the entire block was missing. Whoever had lived there had left, taking nothing with them. Everything was in its proper place, even a complete set of fine china. This had been the home of a wealthy family. We dashed around the place looking for some loot small enough to carry in a haversack. I settled on two small beer steins from an extensive collection and an attractive hand carved wooden letter opener. That was all the loot I took out of Germany. The next day we were out thumbing a ride again.(back)
We passed out of Germany into Holland. Holland had been heavily damaged in the recent fighting and bodies must have still been buried in the rubble of destroyed buildings as the sickening odor of decay was ever present. We passed through Holland without getting out of the truck and into Belgium. Our temporary destination was Brussels. What a contrast to Holland. This city had suffered no damage at all. It was beautiful and the streets were full of well fed, well dressed, happy people. By that time the war was obviously very nearly over and I could feel the excitement in the streets. We got directions to the American installation that was in a two or three hundred-year-old Belgium Army barracks built of stone. There we were feed, bathed, issued an American uniform, and even given a cash advance on our pay. We toured the town with our newly found money in our pockets, the first money we had seen since being shot down. What a marvelous feeling to be able to move about as I felt and have a whole city to roam. The military didnít put any restriction on us either. In fact it seemed that they didnít care if we stayed in Brussels as long as we wanted.(back)
After spending one night in the ancient barracks we joined a group and were driven to Camp Lucky Strike near Le Harve on the coast of France. Lucky Strike was a huge staging area for returning troops and liberated POWís. The food was great, no comparison to what my crew had been offered in North Africa. We all took seconds and put on noticeable weight. The Mess Officer, a giant of a black man, impeccably dressed and groomed, called all the men in the company together to tell us that we were eating double rations and at that rate his food allowance would soon be exhausted. We listened politely but found it hard to believe that the United States Army could run out of food no matter how much we ate. So we went on eating double rations and putting on more healthy weight, hoping to be back up to our normal weight by the time we arrived home to spare our families the pain of seeing us the way we were.
All the surviving members of my crew were assembled at Lucky Strike. We exchanged stories and were glad to be together again but the closeness we had known was no longer there. The individuals sixteen-month struggle to survive had separated us in a way that it would take time to regain our friendships. My best friends on the crew had been killed. Solsbery was always reserved but now he had almost nothing to say, keeping mostly to himself. I looked up our pilot, Lt. Vogel. He was very foggy on what had happened the day of the crash. In fact I wondered if he really knew who we were. On the other hand Bill Boyer was very talkative. Ed and I seemed to have maintained our mental health better than any of the other survivors. We now got along better than we did before internment.
An Army dentist in a farmhouse near the camp extracted the two teeth of mine that had decayed and abscessed while in Stalag Luft IV.
Le Harve was so badly damaged that it was not suitable for leave so we went up the coast to the town of Dieppe. It was the site of a daring raid conducted by the British early in the war. In prison camp I had met a British soldier who had been taken prisoner there. Here we drank calvadose; a vile tasting distilled wine product. Wine was not available for purchase. Whatever wine had survived the war was being saved for the locals. There was no place to buy a meal but small gift items were in ample supply. I bought several leather pieces to take home as gifts. On examining them carefully back at the tent I discovered they were all made in Mexico.
We arrived at Lucky Strike in mid May and waited until July for a ship to take us home. Several times we were given the offer to fly to England for a visit and return later for a ship home. But we were afraid we might miss the next ship and extend the wait even more. As it turned out we could have spent a month in England and had time to spare to catch the next ship. The officers in charge probably knew this but never told us. None in my group took up the offer.(back)
Finally a ship arrived and about 1500 returning men were loaded onto her. She was a Navy troop transport that had been an Italian luxury liner, the Contessa. It was in Philadelphia undergoing repairs when Italy declared War on the US. It was confiscated and turned over to the Navy. Bunks had been added in every conceivable place including the swimming pool. The staterooms were gone and in their place were row on row of bunks four high. Returning home was a pleasure cruise. The ship was fast and quiet not at all like the Liberty Ship I had taken to Africa that shuttered every time its propeller came out of the water. Every meal was a banquet. There was either turkey, chops, steak, or chicken every dinner and fresh eggs for breakfast. This was more like it. After six beautiful days on the Atlantic the ship arrived in New York Harbor. It docked in Hoboken, New Jersey. From there we took a train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. One full day of processing there, then a Greyhound Bus to Philadelphia where my sister Shirley and my father met me at the bus terminal. Mother was at home preparing a grand welcome home feast. I was granted a thirty day leave and spent it mostly near home soaking up the pleasures of family and friends.
Of the five crewmembers killed in action three lived in New York state; the others, including the survivors, were from Kansas, Texas, North Dakota, and Ohio. Ed Fennessay lived in Brooklyn, New York so together we visited the father of Paul Leland in Brooklyn, the aunt who raised Harry Ludwig in Watertown, and the young widow of Donald Parks who was living with her parents in Old Forge. I dreaded the thought of meeting these people, not knowing how I might be received, but they made us comfortable and really appreciated the fact that we came to talk to them, and I felt much better for having done it.(back)
Then in August 1945 I was ordered to Miami Beach for rest and recuperation. A luxury air-conditioned train took me to Miami in late August. Passengers alighted from the train in an open area away from the terminal building. When I stepped out of the railcar I was nearly overcome by the heat. The sun beat down with the force of hammer blows and even though I was wearing sunglasses it was painful to open my eyes. I had spent months in the southwest deserts of the United States and months in North Africa but I had never experienced anything like this. I really didnít think I would last more than a day or two. But I did. I quickly learned how to stay reasonably cool and became acclimated to the sun and heat.
The Army Air Force had taken over most of the hotels on Miami Beach for R and R. I was assigned to the Alhambra Hotel on Collins Avenue located on the side away from the ocean. It was a beautiful hotel, with the lobby patterned after the Alhambra in Spain. But it was not air conditioned, as few were at that time. Getting a nightís rest in that heat was difficult. After a few weeks the Alhambra was turned back to its owner and we were moved across the avenue to the Atlantic Towers Hotel directly on the ocean. What a difference! Another fellow and I had picked a corner room next to the ocean thinking we would get a breeze there. It was closer to a gale. We had to regulate the windows to tame the air passing through the room. It was cool enough at night that we had to use a sheet.
At the suggestion of my commanding officer I checked into the military hospital at Coral Gables, the old Coral Gables Hotel. I was there about ten days being examined, x-rayed, and had minor surgery to remove a piece of shrapnel from the left wrist. The surgeon didnít advise any attempt to remove the shrapnel from my left knee. He said leave well enough alone since I could walk on it. On October 5th, after enjoying a grand vacation in the Miami area, I was issued my discharge papers. I bought my first civilian clothes in nearly four years at a fine menís store in downtown Miami. The next day I changed into my new outfit and took a train home.
The phone rang in the middle of the day in April 1996 soon
after returning home from
When I read the letter I learned that the town's
people of St. Jacob in the Ahrntal of the
Bullock had matched the names on the U.S. Air Force supplied Missing Aircraft Report with the names of the crewmembers
buried in the churchyard of Saint Jakob in the Ahrntal, South Tirol, Italy. The Ahrntal is the valley immediately
south of the Zillertal. I parachuted onto the south-facing slope of the mountain. On the other side of that mountain
is the north facing sloop of the Zillertal and the ridgeline is the boundary between
after Keith's first letter I got a phone call from Andreas Gruber of Saint Jakob who had received my telephone
number from Keith. He said the town's people would pay the airfare to
in September we flew to
The weather was sunny and mild for the days leading up to the event. Two days before the dedication we all visited Maria and her son Peter in their house, which is known as the Haus Hittal. Every house takes its name from the original owner. This is the house I was taken into to rest on my way down the mountain after being shot down. On the morning of the 14th we woke up to a change in scenery. The ground and trees were covered with 3 inches of snow. It was a beautiful sight, winter had come overnight. But now we worried, will we be able to get up the mountain to attend the dedication. But as the day went on it warmed up and the snow began to melt. We were driven up to the Hittle Haus and walked the rest of the way to the site where the dedication ceremonies were to take place. The mountain path was so steep that Ruth and I needed help from younger men to lean on and a ski pole to steady us. It was like climbing a steep set of stairs. After a lung-searing climb, we reached the area where the commemorative plaque was mounted. Many people were already there including a choral group and a small band. I was shown to a seat in front of a tree and given an opportunity to rest. An Italian national television station camera crew was one hand to record the event. Their camera ran the entire event. We were then led a little further up the mountainside where we stood by the boulder that held the plaque. Nearby was a lectern with a microphone. I looked around and counted the spectators, I estimated there were about 160 present. Now Andreas Gruber moved to the lectern and began to speak. He gave a welcoming message in German of which I understood only a little. But the theme was they have enjoyed fifty-three years of peace thanks to the allies, especially the Americans. While he didn't actually say it, it was clear that the local population had suffered under the Nazi regime. Evidently the German speaking Italians had to serve or were expected to serve in German forces, whether they liked it or not.
After Andreas finished his speech the president of a German military service club was called on to speak. I could only make out a phrase now and then.
Following him the representative
of the governor of the state of
In between speeches the band played and a choral group sang. Andreas was the leader of the whole program and the band. Finally the time came to unveil the plaque and I was given that task and to read each name of the crew on the ill-fated B17. All 10 names were on the plaque including my own. At that time I was the only living survivor. The plaque was about 30 inches long by 20 inches tall, beautifully designed and cast in bronze. The base relief of a B17 graced the top of the plaque and each crewmemberís name, rank, and position was arranged in two columns. Generous donations by the local citizens and businessmen financed the purchase of the plaque. It was fastened to a large boulder very close to where a portion of the B17s fuselage had landed. Two deformed trees were clearly visible close by. While the band played soulful music I placed the bouquet of flowers, which Ruth had purchased earlier, under the plaque. Short speeches were then given and I was asked to say a few words. Only a handful of the original hundred and sixty spectators still remained. The television camera, which had run continuously during the entire program, was finally turned off and packed away. The ceremony left me with a glorious warm feeling that the five men who gave their lives were so graciously recognize, by the former enemy.
Ruth and I were helped down the same path we took up. The trail led right by the Haus Hittle where we stopped for a visit at the invitation of Maria. Maria did not attend the ceremony but she was most hospitable to us. She laid out homemade bread, butter, and smoked bacon, which is known locally as spec. Itís almost raw and it was all I could do to eat some of it. I had no trouble eating the bread and butter, which was delicious.
This house was built in 1684 and was still very livable. The far end of the house held farm animals in 1943 but that part had been torn down sometime since, making the house appear considerably smaller. Not far from the house was a small wooden barn that was built in 1490 and while almost black with age was still in good condition. Chickens were given the free run of the yard and house. We, the five guests, Maria and her son Peter, sat at a table in the corner of the rather large kitchen. Next to us was a large wood burning cook stove, built into the wall. Walls and ceiling were stucco. The ceiling was arches and jet black from soot, but the walls were bright white. It was evident that fireproofing was a consideration when it was built and an important contributor to the long life of the building.
night we were treated to a dinner feast complete with wine and after dinner cordials. We spent five days at the
Gruber Guesthaus, ate all but two meals there and enjoyed many glasses of good wine but when we checked out they
would not accept any payment. So our return trip air fares to
The people of the Ahrntal were more than kind to us and extended genuine friendship and warmth and invited us to return, so our departure was painful. We hope to accept their invitation sometime in the not too distant future.
In May 2001 we did return to the Ahrntal and Saint Jacob. Again we were guests of the Gruber family in Haus Marcus. We were greeted as warmly as we had been on our first visit in 1996 and given every possible courtesy. While there we took long hikes up spectacular mountain trails and climbed up to the memorial plaque and beyond. The climb this time wasn't nearly as strenuous as in 1996 as I had lost some weight and was in better condition. On this visit I tried to locate the spot further up the mountain I parachuted into, but my wind capacity wasn't enough to allow it. I may have been able to get to the spot but I knew I wouldn't be able to make it back down all the way to the Haus Hittle. Marie's son Peter, who knows the whole mountain intimately, confirmed that there is an area further up the mountain where the ground is fairly flat and that fits the description where I landed.
Donald J. Lewis
The End (Back to Top)