Pearl Harbor was bombed December 7th, 1941, and World War II was proclaimed. Reedley Jr. College offered a liaison pilot training program in Bishop, California that I was very interested in. I was then called to Santa Ana, California as an aviation cadet. I met my future wife, Edna, at Reedley College. She joined the WAVES (Navy) and was the first one called from Reedley.
My assignment was to the 401st Bomb Group and the 615 Bomb Squadron flying out of Deenethore, England. We landed in Liverpool, England on D-Day. Our crew flew 8 missions, and then on our 9th combat mission flying a B-17,we were shot down over Magdeburg, Germany with a crew of 9 members on September 28, 1944.
We were returning after dropping our bomb load, when the number 2 engine of “Little Moe” was hit by flak, which caused the engine to disintegrate and started a subsequent fire in the main fuel tank. A large hole was simultaneously blown into the left side of the bomb bay, and fire began shooting from the hole into the cabin burning through the flight control cable running along the side of the plane. Then the entire cabin started filling with smoke, funneled along through the defroster tubes at the base of the windshields, but since we had dropped our bomb load, we continued on in formation, away from Magdeburg. However, I knew that the aircraft was quickly losing power, and after confirmation from my tail gunner and ball turret gunner that large pieces of the plane were coming off, I knew it was time to give the entire crew the order to “Bail out.”
As my crew left the “Little Moe”, one by one, I stayed with her until I was reasonably sure they had all evacuated the airplane. Then I crawled back through the tip turret and opened the bomb bay doors to check the damage. It was then that I saw the full extent of the flak damage, and that the fire would soon reach the fuel tanks, which would destroy the aircraft. I crawled back to the cockpit controls, which by now were completely gone. I continued crawling to the front escape hatch and parachuted out. We had been flying at 30,000 feet. As I jumped from the nose hatch, the information that I received in B-17 flight crew training echoed in my mind—chances were that the person bailing out through the nose hatch would probably be hit by either the open bomb bay doors or one of the ball turret guns. Fortunately, I managed to get clear of the aircraft unscathed.
In the event it was necessary to parachute from a damaged aircraft, we were instructed to delay opening our chutes for as long as possible, as our chances of evading capture would be greater. I fell for several thousand feet through a complete undercast, and when I came out of the other side of the cloud cover, opened my chute.
When the chute opened, I started oscillating violently from side to side. I pulled up on the shroud lines, which caused me to suddenly drop straight down. I was so close to the ground that I had to let the shroud lines go again to avoid serious injury or death, which started my pitching to and fro once again. Unfortunately, I let the shroud lines go too fast, and I remember my feet just brushing the ground and then swinging up hard again. When I reached the high ARC of the swing, my chute collapsed onto the ground, and I fell to earth, coming down on the back of my head. Needless to say, I was groggy from a lack of oxygen in high altitudes, and it seems that I was knocked unconscious.
When I came to, I gathered my chute in a frantic evasion attempt, but it was too late, as a German non-com and the local burgermeister were waiting for me. They took my chute and personal possessions, and then marched me back to town, through a street thronged with civilians. The locals began throwing things, spitting at me, and yelling obscenities at me in German. After running this gauntlet, my captors locked me up in a chicken coop.
I didn’t know whether I would be taken to a German Prison camp or Army or Air Force Base, It was Daek. Once at the base, I was locked in a windowless room with no furnishings for a couple of days. At night, they would take me out to be interrogated by a German Luftwaffe officer. He would sit behind a small table with 2 candles stuck into bottles behind him lighting him and an armed guard posted in the room. The effect was very eerie, and it had me at tremendous psychological disadvantage. After lengthy questioning, all he got out of me was my name, rank, and serial number. Since I was uncooperative, I was returned to solitary confinement for days. Eventually, I was given some erstatz brot (bread) and about six inches of blood sausage to eat.
This was all I was to have to eat until I was finally taken out and put aboard a German civilian passenger train to be transferred to the Frankfurt Dulag, (a central processing area from which POWs were sent out to the individual Stalags). I was not given a seat, but was made to stand in the aisle way with a “Jap” civilian sizing me up for most of the trip.
Along the route, I was transferred to another train, and since it was awhile since I had eaten, the guard who accompanied me offered me a bowl of unwashed potato soup. I gladly consumed it, although it did have quite a bit of dirt in it. When I finally arrived at the Dulag, night had fallen. I was once again placed in solitary confinement, and then extensively questioned. During the days following my initial arrival and confinement, a group of us POWs were brought into contact with an American Full Colonel and were fed a group of boiled prunes, raisins, and some other mixture that gave everyone a severe case of diarrhea. We were also given a small sack from the Red Cross that contained a bloc of tooth powder, a toothbrush, a safety razor, and a small bar of soap.
After this, some other POS and I were loaded on to another train. Each time we passed through a town where bombing had occurred, we were told to stay hidden, as the residents of the bombed area might try to kill us.
Eventually we reached Stalag Luft I at Barth (on the Baltic Sea) where we were questioned again, had our pictures taken and were given an opportunity to send a note home to our families. I realized at the time that this might be a way of the Germans obtaining unauthorized information from the prisoners. Indeed my suspicions were confirmed upon arrival at home after V.E. Day, when I learned from my parents that the Germans used these letters home as a way to short wave propaganda to the East Coast of the United States.
After arriving at Stalag Luft, I was given a long burlap sack and was told to put Excelsior from a pile to put in the burlap sack (my mattress), and was assigned to a room in one of the barracks with approximately 27 other American flying officers. We had a heater-type stove, which had been modified by the inmates with a firebox on top, just large enough to hold one galvanized bucket. Each room had two of these buckets, and with no running water in the barracks, the bucket had to be used to carry and store water and wash our clothes, as well as cook our food. Besides potatoes, we were occasionally afforded some bug-infested rutabagas, esatz coffee, black bread and cow or horsemeat.
The boredom of my seven-month stay in the camp was broken by our weekly three-minute showers. However, the dull routine of the camp was disturbed one night. We were hustled into our barracks and confined there for a day and a night due to a massive American bomb raid to the east of Barth. Apparently, the Allies were pounding a German offensive missile conference in a neighboring town. We were able to see B-17s, B-27s and some four engine British bombers flying over the camp in formation silhouetted against the daylight. It was a glorious sight, and it filled us all with hope and pride!
Several days later, a great deal of activity began in the German ranks. We later learned the neighboring camp had been bombed by the Americans and British, and the Germans were hastily packing up and leaving the area. When the Russian tanks and shock troops came into the Stalag, we knew why “the krauts got the hell out of Dodge.”
The Russians liberated our camp, and the next day, a couple of my roommates and I walked into the town of Barth. But when we returned, we found the camp to be in total bedlam as well. At this point, three other Krieges, (the German term for prisoner of war,) and I decided to walk out of the Stalag.
We walked through woods, and eventually came to an inlet, where a couple of soused Russians had commandeered a rowboat. We talked them into taking us across the inlet, and hit the ground running on the other side until we reached a small village that another Russian unit had taken over. There, we spent our first night of freedom. The next day we hitchhiked out of the village, and kept on thumbing rides and walking until we reached Rostock and then hitched a ride on a truck on our way to Wisemar, which had been occupied by Canadian paratroopers. We gorged ourselves on a barrel of dill pickles we found on the truck. Unfortunately, this was the richest food we had had in some months, and we were all violently ill!
In Wisemar, the Canadians put us on Lancasters back to Britain, and we were all shipped to an American military hospital in Braintree, England. When I was finally discharged by the hospital, after several days of quarantine, I was taken to London to await passage back to the states on a liberty ship, that eventually docked in Newport News, VA. Although I was still numb from my POW experience, I practically sprinted off of the ship, I was so glad to be home.