453 BG, 733 BS, 16.08.1944
Mission 132 - Dessau, Germany ? Aircraft Assembly Plant
LIKE SOMETHING CONJURED-UP OUT OF THE ?TWILIGHT ZONE?
I flew in ?Baker Two Dozens?, otherwise known as B?24s, the Heavy Bomb Group (453rd) out of Old Buckenham, England. I was with the 733rd Bomb Squadron. Incidentally, our Group Operations Officer was then Major James Stewart. Believe me, this guy was not simply a public relations hero, he flew the tough ones too!
I became a POW on 16 Aug 44. I transited the interrogation center outside of Frankfurt/Main, known as Dulag Luft. This was the central interrogation center and initial transit camp for all aircrews and from here I was sent to ?permanent? officer or NCO camps. I went to a newly established camp, Stalag Luft VI at St. Wendel, not too far from the French border and Metz, France. (In 1955, I revisited both the interrogation center as well as St. Wendel and found the interrogation center to be still in use... this time by Army MI and Air Force P1 for debriefing East German and Soviet Bloc escapees/defectors. I also located the rooms where I had been interrogated and held in solitary. The buildings interior had not been repainted and I found my initials in one room. Conversely, nothing was left of the St. Wendel camp except the concrete floors.)
Approximately 200 of us USAAF NCO POWs were stuffed, 50 to a box car, and shipped diagonally some 700 miles (SW to NE) across Germany to our second ?permanent? POW camp, Stalag Luft IV at Grosstychow. (As I recall our train trip took ten/twelve days, during which time we were often halted by air attacks on railroad marshalling yards for rail repair. On the once a day, five minute period we were allowed out of the stinking, unlighted boxcars, it was a little disconcerting to see German artillery and panzer units attached to each end of our train...while our boxcars all had large red crosses painted on the top! Obviously, we were being used to protect their shipment of war material & troops! The filth, sickness, malnutrition and fear that pervaded all aspects of POW life was epitomized in this particular ordeal. It?s not hard to imagine the frustration and fear being locked up in an unvented, unlighted boxcar, while undergoing a bombing or strafing attack!)
I was in ?D? compound at Stalag Luft IV. Each compound held approximately 2,500 NCOs, mostly USAAF, but including several hundred RAF NCOs. There were a total of four compounds, A,B,C & D, with a total camp POW population of close to 10,000. * A couple of asides. The sound of cheering POWs when a German ME-l09 crashed while flying over our camp... followed immediately by the sound of machine gun fire into our compounds as guards in the towers fired over our heads in retaliation for our cheering the plane crash! Another. Since our camp was as close to escape proof as possible, quite a few of us used to entertain ourselves by constructing and baiting snares and traps for the German Shepard police dogs that were turned loose in the compounds after dark. Another. A cowboy friend of mine, in ?D? compound, from Bisbee, AZ, who had once worked for the famous ?King Ranch? in Texas, actually identified the ?King? brand on two poor old, nearly dead horses being used to haul supplies into our compound. It seems this ironic situation came about as a result of ?King? horses having been sold to Poland prior to the war. Since our camp was located to what was then Poland, we surmised that the Germans had captured the horses and the poor things were ending their days pulling wagons instead of leading cavalry charges! In fact, they may well have ended up as meager meat nourishment in our camp diet...horse meat was a looked-forward-to delicacy for us.
The descriptions by Joe O?Donnell, in the Shoe Leather Express Book I and II, relating to the hardships and brutality of POW life in general and the 600 plus mile ?Death March? in particular are accurately portrayed... albeit slightly understated. While I marched with the 2,500 odd ?Kriegies? of ?D? compound over a somewhat differing route, we all endured the same sub?human treatment from the first week of Feb 45 until liberation... for me, 4 May 45; a couple of additional asides here.
The vivid recollection of laying out in an open field in sub?freezing weather the night of 14 Feb 45, enduring a sleet & snow storm, but fascinated with the sight of hundreds of RAF bombers lighting up the distant sky as they unloaded their bombs over the German city of Stettin. Being strafed by RAF fighters while marching adjacent to some German troops. However, on the bright side, we did manage a wee bit of fresh beef as a result of the strafing of several nearby cows! Being marched from first light to dark and then herded into a pitch-black barn and locked up with all the agony of sickness and human filth one can imagine. Yet throughout this entire period the most vivid recollections remains the dignity, trust, faith and caring that repeatedly was displayed by one POW for another. Let me add my endorsement to that of others for ?our? doctor, Capt. Leslie Caplan. He more than any epitomized this dedication and camaraderie. The individual and group pride in literally walking our guards into the ground on many occasions. The assigned Luftwaffe guards from our camp were for the most part, old or unfit for combat and as the march continued into its third month, many of these troops had to be regularly replaced for varying intervals by regular combat troops picked up along the march route. The latter freely admitted that for them the war was ?kaput? and assured us we would eventually be turned over to advancing Allied rather than Soviet forces... since they well knew their fate if taken prisoner by the Soviets!
Spending Easter of 1945 in a cesspool of a POW camp, Stalag XIB at Fallingbostel, where potato peelings and sawdust bread were standard fare. Trading Soviet POWs cigarettes for kohlrabies, rutabagas and potatoes.
After being liberated by Canadian tank elements of the British 2nd Army, we still had to make it westward to our Allied lines... approximately two days walking through a ?no?mans-land? of intermittent fighting. Being rather foolhardy and certainly delirious with the joy of freedom, four of us came upon an abandoned German Army staff car, still in running condition and with a bit of gas. /we immediately ?liberated? this four wheeled gem and headed ?into the sunset for freedom?! The amazing thing, in retrospect, is that we ever made it the 30?40 miles without drawing some kind of fire, but we did and by the time we arrived at the assembly point in Luneburg we had picked up another four happy ex?kriegies! The Brits thought we were crazy to have chanced a swastika?emblazoned vehicle through this ?no?mans??, but the good Lord was smiling on us, I guess!
My feelings are that an abiding faith in our fellow man and a deep trust in God helped insure our spiritual/emotional strength when our physical strength often reached a breaking point. Dysentery, malnutrition and mistreatment were the ?big three? of physical hazards faced daily by all POWs, but to my knowledge, not a single man among us ever simply quit or gave up his will or determination to make it. . .we simply took care of each other!
My WWII involvement commenced in 1943 with Basic training and Radio Operators School. Assigned to England in Feb 44, I completed gunnery training and eventually joined an already formed B-24 combat crew. However, since the crew already had a radio operator, I flew all my combat missions as a B?24-tail gunner. (I guess being responsible for something as big as the tail end of a B?24 makes one a little more cognizant of his own tail!) On D-Day, I flew a non-combat mission as a radio operator over the English Channel relaying radio commo. What a sight the channel full of invasion ships was to an 18 year old Staff Sergeant!
Our combat missions commenced on 16 Jul 44 and ended 14½ missions and one month later, 16 Aug. We had sustained an engine failure prior to dropping our bombs and were forced to proceed on our own without fighter escort. We were jumped by a single ME?109 who attacked from the favorite (fighter) 6 o?clock low position. Being in the tail, I was the only one able to return fire, which I did with what turned out to be considerable success. The German fighter?s cannon shot out another engine, plus a goodly portion of our tail section. Five of us eventually survived the bailout, with four not making it.
While floating down, I observed another chute nearby and yelled, but had no response. On landing I fractured my ankle and was soon captured by local militia. It was then that I learned the other parachute contained my recent opponent, a young German NCO pilot. Since he had sustained some minor burns on his hands and face, I was forced to carry his chute, plus my own to a waiting car... believe it or not, a 1939, 4-door Mercury convertible sedan! The German and I were taken to a Luftwaffe glider school nearby where we both were given some initial medical attention. Later the other four surviving crewmembers and I were driven to the spot where our bombs had landed? a clearly marked military hospital in the middle of some woods. One of our 500-pound bombs had caused severe damage to a wing of the hospital and the Germans were positive we had deliberately attacked the hospital. Although we tried to explain that the bombs had simply been salvoed at the time we were attacked, we nevertheless were kicked and knocked around pretty hard. I frankly thought we were going to be turned over to the mob of civilians who had attacked us, but the military must have known our bombing the hospital was an accident for they certainly kept us from being killed on the spot.
Following release from active duty in Oct 45, I entered the University of Southern California, eventually graduating with a BS in Public Administration. I was recalled to active duty in Aug 50 and assigned to B?29s. I flew these as a radio operator/gunner until shortly before applying for OSI duty. I entered OSI in Feb 52 at Hqs Dist 13, where I remained as an agent trainee until May 52.
In 1954-1955, I attended the then Army Language School in Monterey, Ca. This in turn led directly to a Germany assignment from 55-59 and follow-on assignments to this country again from 63?66 and 70?76.
During my initial OSI stint in Germany, I initiated a personal search of American Military Cemeteries bordering on Germany, in hopes of locating my four deceased crewmembers. After covering France, Luxembourg and Belgium I finally located their graves (and that?s a story in itself) at the American Cemetery in Margraten, Holland. Amazingly, three of the four families of these deceased comrades only learned of where their loved ones were buried as a result of my subsequent successful search for next of kin. Needless to say, this cemetery and the memories it holds has been visited every Memorial Day my family and me during every subsequent year of our assignments to Germany.