[as recorded by Crawford Hicks, transcribed and compiled by his granddaughter Kristina Hicks]
I was born Feb. 10, 1921 which was only 3 years after the end of WWI.
The war was still on American minds when I learned to read – there was extensive aerial combat in WWI and a lot of romantic stories came out about airplanes after the war. I knew early on I wanted to fly so I read all the stories I could get my hands on about WWI: stories about the Red Baron, Eddie Rickenbacker, the Circle Squadron, the SPADS, Neuports, German tri-planes, Bleriots, de Havillands. Lindbergh flew across the ocean from New York to Paris in 1927 which was only 9 years after the war ended and I read his book “We.” I built model airplanes. Some flew and others did not. Anyway, I wanted to fly.
I was 20 years old on December 7, Pearl Harbor day, and when war was declared I knew instantly that I was going to have to go. I didn’t necessarily not want to go, but I knew that if I went I wanted to go in the air, I wanted to be a pilot. The air corps was taking guys with at least a high school education. But I was only 20 years old and my mother would not sign the release papers for me to enter the air corps. She was afraid it was too dangerous. So when my 21st birthday came that February after Pearl Harbor I immediately went down and signed up to get into the AV cadet program. I was accepted and went through the screening and made it through – this was in March. I was sworn in to the army as a private and about two or three days later I became a – something the next higher grade, I think it was a corporal. I wasn’t on active duty yet, I was still at home. So I went to work, and did my thing. In the spring of that year I worked in a bank and got paid at the rate of 21 dollars a month. It was at this time I met my future wife, Rene. She was 18 and I was 21.
I finally got called to active duty in July the 21st of 1942. That’s when I started my active duty training to become a pilot. I went to Nashville Tennessee, Berry Hill was the name of the place. We had our indoctrination, got our shots, got our pay records squared away, got our uniforms, and learned a little bit.
From there I went to Maxwell Field for 2 months, for preflight training. At Maxwell Field we learned many things including Morse code, a bunch of things about how to march and how to be an officer, the things that were required. Military courtesy in other words. I learned something about weather, something about navigation, a whole lot about the Air Corps in general and about airplanes. I completed two months there which were quite interesting. It really helped me physically: I didn’t lose or gain much weight but I certainly changed the way it was located! It was all muscle then!
First flight training
From there I went to primary flying school at Darr Aero Tech which was in Albany, Georgia and is the site of the current municipal airport.
My first flight as a student pilot was my first time in an airplane. Quite new, quite different, different from what I expected and I was a little bit apprehensive. (I never could go down elevators in big tall buildings. My stomach would go up in my mouth – it took my breath away.)
We started flying in a Stearman which was a two place open cockpit bi-plane. Both the instructor and I had helmets and goggles just like snoopy. I even got a white scarf to wear around my neck like snoopy. I thought I was the sexiest thing on two wheels when I wore the helmet and goggles!
The instructor sat in the front and the student in the back. He would talk to the student through a gosport tube which was a one-way communication device from the instructor to the student. It was like the old garden water hose – you could talk into the hose and hear at the other end. There was a funnel speaker for the instructor with tubes running to the student’s helmet and attached at the ears of the helmet. Only the instructor could talk to the student – the student could not talk to the instructor. The instructor also had a mirror to see the student.
The instructor showed me the various aspects of the airplane, did some maneuvers and explained them to me so as to give me a feel for the airplane. And one of the first things was to do a stall. A stall is a maneuver in which the power is reduced and the airplane no longer has flying speed and so it falls off. It means it just falls to the ground.
Well the instructor pulled the throttle back and caused the airplane to stall and it felt as if we were going down in an elevator except worse. I froze on the rudder pedals, and held the stick and throttle like a vise – and I was frozen on there.
The instructor felt me doing this and he asked through the gosport tube, “seat belt on?” I nodded yes, “parachute buckled?” and I nodded yes. Then he told me “now, when I tell you I want you to put your hands above your head.” And I nodded yes, so he proceeded to turn the airplane upside down! There I was, reaching for the ground 5,000 feet away. That really stopped me from sucking eggs. But I did it, and it certainly broke me from being concerned about the stalls that we did.
Stearmans had low power and we had to dive to get enough speed to go all the way around in a loop – and look at the airplanes today – they go straight up from the ground. It was a very good student airplane, very stable. Didn’t have much power but you couldn’t do many things wrong with it.
We went on to learn the other various maneuvers an airplane could do, a snap roll, a spin, a slow roll, a loop, an Immelmann; things that I had read about from WWI. But we were doing them with a lot of fun too.
We had a certain number of hours of dual instruction before you were allowed to solo. I had about 7 hours and 40 minutes or something like that. And I was able to handle the airplane pretty well – except landings. The landing gear was rather narrow on a Stearman (it was a PT-17), and we had to do three landings on three consecutive days in order to qualify for solo. Well on the third landing of the 1st day I ground looped a little bit. A little bit meaning not very seriously. Enough to get some grass stain on one of the wingtips. A ground loop is where you come in and the airplane doesn’t go straight on the ground it goes round and round. Well that’s what I did. That was on the third landing of the 1st day and on the third landing of the 3rd day I did the same thing to the other wing but it wasn’t bad enough to wash me out, to disqualify me. So I managed to survive that.
We went on to learn a lot of other things, including a lot of awareness of the points of the compass. The instructor would put us in a spin and say, “now pull us out south,” and you would have to keep your wits about you while you were in the spin, and do those things necessary to correct the spin and still come out with your airplane heading south. This was doable, and we did learn how to do it.
We also had a little instrument flying instruction. Our instruments were the needle, which indicated whether you were turning left or right, a ball indicating whether you were doing it in the proper manner and then airspeed is just what it says, it tells you how fast you ‘re going. The combination of those three instruments told you when you were flying straight and level, straight and level being up and down, vertically, up and down forward to back, up and down left to right. So those three instruments and the altimeter telling us how high we were, were all we needed to do blind flying. We were taught to fly instruments while we were still in primary. Got about 60 hours there.
Went on from there to Greenville, Mississippi, in what they called a “Vultee Vibrator” – it was a BT-13, it had twice the horsepower of the Stearman, could do a lot more things, it had a canopy over the cockpit, it was a two place airplane, low wing, fixed landing gear, but we could do a lot more, had a lot more power.
Of course we did aerometrics there, and we learned to do formation flying. Formation flying was where you kept your place in formation by picking two spots on the airplane which you were following, and keeping those spots in those same relative positions all the time. You would change your airplane by the throttle and the rudder and the stick, you would change your position to make sure you kept those two spots in perspective all the time. And that’s how you do formation flying. We had about 60 hours there, did a lot of instrument flying and a lot of Link Trainer which was simulated instruments. Lot of cross country work, and I got lost a few times of course. And also got a good sunburn from just being in the airplane canopy at that altitude. But it was good nonetheless.
I did not have good landings there and I had this British instructor who would tell me, “Get on the ball Hicks!” Now that’s all I hear from Edna, “Get on the ball, Hicks!”
We finished at Greenville, Mississippi just before Christmas. I was able to get home for about 4 or 5 days at Christmas time 1942. From there went to Vincennes, Indiana, to George Field which was right across the river in Illinois. That’s where we divided between the fighter pilots and the bomber pilots. I’d said I wanted to do the bombers, which is what I did. So they sent me to twin engine, to advanced, this was the advanced flying portion of the cadet training. There we flew twin engine airplanes, (they had room for 2 or 3 people) and we learned more about formation flying, a lot more instrument flying. Our military training had been completed by then so now we were just learning how to fly.
Well we did finish flying school and on April the 29th of 1943 I got my wings and got commissioned as a second lieutenant. This was one of the most thrilling moments I have ever experienced. I was so happy to get through it, I was now a pilot and just as importantly I was now an officer in the air corps. I was very happy. Rene, to whom I was engaged, came up to see me, with her mother and my sisters and Joanne and Marguerite. They all came to be with me, Joanne pinned one of my bars on, maybe Marguerite pinned my wings on and Rene pinned one of my bars on. It was a very important moment for me. I had a short leave after that and went back to Louisville just to be on leave and do nothing.
B-17 transition school
I was assigned to B-17 transition training in Columbus Ohio, Lockbourne Army Airfield. There I learned how to fly a B-17. The first time I saw a B-17 up-close I thought, “I will never know how to fly that one.” It was huge. It was, I’d say, three times larger than anything else I had ever been in, and much higher and wider, and had four engines instead of two and I thought, “It will never happen.”
Well, of course we got a little indoctrination, and then I got into the left seat, this was where they said you were going to be, and I started to learn how to fly left-handed. Everybody who’s a pilot of an airplane flies left-handed.
Well, I had a real good instructor who was real understanding, and pretty soon I was able to get the airplane to go where I wanted it to go and do what I wanted it to do. Air flying there was done to learn how to fly the airplane, learn how the engines worked, learn how the airplane worked internally so we were familiar with it – we didn’t have to do the stuff ourselves but we had to learn all about these things.
Collecting the Crew
After finishing there, I had a short leave and was sent to Pyote Army Airfield, Pyote, Texas. It was called a rattlesnake bomber base because when the people built the base there were so many rattlesnakes down there they had to clean them out with bulldozers.
There, I did more flying, more learning about the airplane, and then I started collecting my crew. My co-pilot Gene Bianco came on first, and he was just fresh out of school. I was an old hand by that point, I’d been out of school four months, I’d had my wings four months so I was the “experienced pilot”. But Gene had just finished flying school, so he was about three or four months behind me.
Gene was from Syracuse, NY and we hit it off real well. We got bits and pieces of our crew from time to time, got the bombardier, Tom King, and he did quite well except he got airsick, and so finally he had to be replaced – he was grounded. And then the navigator Bud Guisewhite came on board then he was transferred to another flight for some reason or another, so we lost him. Then at some point in time, Hardy Mitchener, and Lester Kunz came on. Mitchener was the navigator, Kunz was the bombardier, a very good bombardier, he could knock the eyes off a squirrel at 20,000 feet. And we had the rest of the crew come on, the engineers, the waist gunners, radio operator, ball turret, tail gunner, they came on to complete our complement of 10 people.
We were there for a while and then we went on to our second phase which was in Dalhart Texas. When were up there, I had a lot of sinus trouble – I was smoking at the time. We got a lot of flying in, did a lot of instrument time, and I had over 100 hours of actual instruments, which is a whole lot of flying blind if you will, plus a whole lot of link trainer time.
We finished there in early 1944 and were sent to Kearney, Nebraska by train. We spent about a week up there, and picked up a brand new B-17. I think it was a B-17F I’m not sure, but brand new. Had 6 hours on it, smelled new. Even the heater worked and B-17 heaters just didn’t work after a while.
Well we got the crew together, we got an airplane, and were taking it up just for a ride to see how it did and I wanted to take it up and see how high it would go. Well we got it up to 35,000 feet and I felt the controls getting a little bit mushy so I decided we were high enough and started on back, then we went down to about 15000, something like that, and I wanted to see how it would do on a stall. So I did what is known as a power off stall, I held it level and just pulled the power back until the engines were barely turning over so that it was losing flying speed and I held it level with the controls. And it was registering slightly less than 80mph before the stall broke and it started going forward, and when it did go forward it just mushed down, it was a very stable airplane. Well this was the airplane we were to take overseas.
Flying to Europe
We went from there to Presque Isle, Maine and as I said I was having a lot of sinus trouble. We got to Presque Isle, stayed overnight or so, to get refueled and so forth, and then we took off for Goose Bay, Labrador. We got above Goose Bay, we were at 30,000 feet and the weather was soft in all the way down to the ground. So they said go back. Back to Grenier Field, New Hampshire. And when we got down there I was having a bad attack of sinusitis, so they put me in the hospital for a couple days to clear it up.
And then we took off again for Goose Bay. Here again, went at high altitude and came back down but my sinuses had not cleared, my head did not open up all the way down to the ground and I was just miserable. Miserable. Gene had to land the airplane. (Incidentally, the best landing we ever made!) They put me in the hospital there and kept me in there for a week or so and finally cleared the sinus problem up. Neither the hospital people nor myself correlated my sinus problem with smoking. And I was smoking a pack a day but I was miserable with those sinuses.
So we got out of Goose Bay and we flew the great circle route, similar to what Lindbergh flew when he flew across the ocean. The great circle route from Goose Bay just south of Greenland, and landed in Iceland. Very pleasant trip, had a little bit of rough weather, but it was no problem. We refueled in Iceland, spent the night and then took off the next day for Ireland. Beautiful day when we took off about 8 o’clock in the morning, something reasonable, flew along, Mitch had set the course that we were to follow and I was following it. But what had happened was, I had set the course and there was a radio beacon, a radio compass we would use, which was reading a radio signal, and it was the correct heading so I was following the radio compass and I told Mitch to just take it easy for a while, to not work anymore. So he did and I kept noticing the needle moving to the south, moving toward the south, so I called Mitch and told him about it and he checked our position and we were several degrees off course heading toward the south and the only thing we could figure was that the Germans had set up a false radio signal to lure airplanes coming over, lure them to get off course which was what we were doing. Well he got us squared away, got us back on course.
So we kept flying and I saw a real pretty white column coming out of the ocean up ahead of us. Here it was, the middle of the morning, sun shining, a beautiful day, this was April the 1st. This column kept on rising and rising, and finally I saw the green patch underneath, this was Ireland. It was absolutely gorgeous. We got there, landed in Ireland, got off the airplane and I had to go to the bathroom and I asked somebody where the bathroom was and he told me in some foreign tongue which I learned later was Gaelic but finally I made it known that I had to go to the bathroom. It was Interesting, here I was on allied soil.
They took the airplane away from us to modify it for combat and we got on a boat to cross the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. We made this trip by night, it was quite rough. It was really cold; we’re talking about April, first part of April. And people were getting sick on the boat, it was quite rough. I came close to getting seasick, I’d go down into the head, to go to the bathroom and people were down there throwing up and it was pretty bad smells that’d make you sick by itself. So I did whatever I had to do then I’d get back on deck, it was cold on deck, quite cold, but I preferred having the wind in my face to keep me from getting seasick, it helped me from getting seasick. And I’m a strong advocate now, if you have an inclination to be seasick get up in the bow of the boat and see what’s going on and you’ll feel much better about it.
We got to our destination in Scotland, we went through Scotland by train, I don’t remember too much of it, but we went to Stone, England which was an orientation area I guess, we were there for a few days just sort of getting the hang of what England was all about and everything and then went on to our base near Peterborough, it was the 351st bomb squadron, in a little town called Oundle, and the base was at Polebrook. We went through more orientation; we were assigned to the 509th squadron, and so very shortly thereafter I had my first mission. This was about the first of May.
My crew flew nine missions and I flew ten, all out of Polebrook, England. There were ten people on the airplane. I was the pilot and then we had a co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, engineer, ball turret gunner, radio operator, left waist gunner, right waist gunner and a tail gunner. Each of us had a job to do and we were very very compatible, we had been together since 1943 so
we’d flown together a whole lot and we respected each other very much.
My first mission I flew as a co-pilot which was their standard procedure to indoctrinate new crews as to what this was all about. However, I flew it the whole time, had the controls the entire flight, flew the
formation and flew during the combat. I was so scared I almost got sick when I saw the flak but was too busy flying to get sick. I didn’t like it, but it had to be done so I just kept that thing in formation and did what I was supposed to be doing, and we dropped our bombs on a target on the coast of France. The Germans were building rocket launching pads which looked like ski jumps on the coast of France. They were building these pads so they could launch rockets against England. We were hitting those, that’s what we did the first day. Got some holes in the airplane from flak. On the way home I saw the white cliffs of Dover which said I was almost home. This was in May 1944, before D-day and the front line of the combat zone was the French coast. But we did the mission and got home ok so I was accepted as being able to fly my own crew in a mission.
Well we did, the next mission we flew we got an airplane, a B-17 named Wildfire. It was not a very good airplane – had a lot of problems with the supercharger – but I was flying wingman, in one of the back squadrons and we had to hit Berlin. Well the airplane was not flying well because of the supercharger but I was not about to abort because that was my first mission. So we went on in and I was of course scared to death because the flak was heavy and I don’t think we had any fighters that day but the flak was very heavy. And quite frightening. But we got through it and got home, had a few holes in the airplane.
And we hit Berlin three more times in a row. I think it was in a row. Now keep in mind this was in May just before D-day, although we didn’t know D-day was this close. This was a softening up process. As I said we had 4 missions to Berlin, and each one of ‘em was pretty hairy.
Had at least one hole in my plane from enemy action on each mission – on one mission, got a hole in the gas tank and was running low and left formation letting down over the English channel- two Spitfires came up in response to my call for “little brothers” and escorted us to the coast of England, white cliffs and everything, they were beautiful!
On another mission, a German fighter came through our group head on and came under my left wing – had he not had his oxygen mask on, I would recognize him today but right on his tail was the most beautiful P-51 you have ever seen!
One day we were approaching our target and an antiaircraft shell – a flak shell – burst right above the astrodome of my airplane a piece of the flak came through and hit me on the shoulder strap of my parachute and I felt it just like somebody hitting me with a fist and I thought, “Oh boy I got the purple heart I got the purple heart!” Well, I looked down and there it was a piece of flak about the size of my finger, still hot, and just sitting there on the parachute strap, and hadn’t even penetrated well I took the piece of flak out and put it in my flying suit. And I don’t know where it is now, but that’s the closest I came to getting a purple heart – thank goodness!
Another instance, on our way home from a mission we would let down when we got over what we thought was safe territory and at that time there was a body of water called the Zuider Zee – zee is sea and Zuider that’s the name of the place – and it was an open body of water, it was a bay, sort of, in Holland, and we would cross over this bay on our way home we would start letting down when we hit the edge of the water because we were safe from anti-aircraft. We would let down. We were flying along one day, we’d hit Berlin, I guess. And flying along fat dumb and happy about 20,000 feet and all of a sudden wham, about 6 shells, one round, of anti-aircraft shells burst among us in our formation, knocked three of the guys down. The Germans had a gunboat down there and out of 6 airplanes knocked 3 of them down. Three airplanes. One with one burst. I had it on automatic pilot, that’s how complacent we were. You know we were in a loose formation, had it on automatic pilot, the shells knocked a hole in the rear of my fuselage near the rudder area large enough to crawl through I found out later and knocked my automatic pilot off, the airplane went up on it’s wing and I had to cut it off and fly it manually from there on, and it barely missed a control wire. But that darn one burst was big enough to crawl through the side of the fuselage. So we would have been in deep trouble. Talking about guardian angels, I had one there.
Getting shot down
Our last mission was May 30, 1944 to Oscheileban where we successfully hit the target. We bombed in 18 ship – we call them ships- formations. These formations were made up of two three-ship formations per squadron, and there were three squadrons. We had a high squadron, a low squadron and a lead squadron.
On the day in question I was leading the formation (we called it an element) of 2 other airplanes, leading them in the low squadron. Meaning there were three airplanes ahead of me, and I was behind and below the other three.
We had dropped our bombs and were on our way back home and an ME 109, that’s a Messerschmitt 109, a very tiny airplane I later found out, came right through our formation head on.
Now the ME 109 had a 20mm canon positioned instead the fuselage and it fired through the propeller hub and you could see that darn thing coming right out. Well what this meant was that the pilot was able to aim the airplane just like you would a gun to make the bullet go where you wanted it to go. Now all of our aircraft were all prop jobs as well as the ME109 but all our airplanes had to have the guns firing outside the arc of the propeller and so the pilot really couldn’t aim the airplane as well. As I understand the guns were positioned so that they would converge at around 600 yards out there but who in the world can tell what 600 yards is when you’re at 10000, 20000 feet, you have no points of reference. So anyway, I don’t see how our fighter did any good at all but they did, they were pretty effective.
Anyway, the ME 109 came through our formation 12 o’clock level and I could see the tracers on its shells coming at me. I could not do a thing. I couldn’t duck or anything, I just could see ‘em, and I said, well, ok.
So, they hit us in our right wing and set our two right engines on fire. (These were four engine airplanes.) I fell out of formation, dropped back so that we stayed with the formation but I couldn’t maintain the speed. I tried to put the fire out with fire extinguishers which we had in our engines. They wouldn’t work so then we feathered the props, the propellers. A propeller is nothing but a huge screw, with the blades of the propeller being the threads of the screw. When you feather, you make those blades or threads turn straight ahead so that you’re not creating wind resistance. So that’s feathering and it’s only true for propeller driven airplanes. I couldn’t put the fire out so I feathered the two right engines, and rang the escape bell for everybody to start getting out, getting ready to bail out.
In the meantime we were dropping below the formation – we were flying around 25000 but we kept on dropping down and down and down I guess we were around 15000 at that time.
The fighters made another pass at us. I could smell the smoke coming into the cockpit and when the fighters made the second pass the bombardier was in the catwalk below us, below and between Gene and me, trying to find out what we were going to do and he asked me “what are we going to do” and I said “I’m trying to put the fire out,” and told him just to hang on and about the time they made the second pass at us, the fighters hit him with a shell in his body some place, he started shaking and I could see blood coming out of his mouth so Gene and I both agreed he was killed instantly.
The alarm was going off so everybody started bailing out. The big concern I always had was the ball turret gunner. Now keep in mind the ball turret gunner sat below the airplane and he has to be small to even fit in there to start with. In order to get out you had to have the ball turret turned in a certain position, so I was always concerned for Steve Vasilik who was in the ball turret. So I said “get Steve out of there,” the very first thing over the intercom. And they did get him out. That was so important to me, I could just see myself being down there and nobody else in the airplane going down to let me out, that’s the fear I had.
Ok, so, we got him out and everybody started leaving the airplane. Remember that two engines on one side were not working, so I had the engines on the other side going as hard as they could go. But the airplane turned and went up on its wing with the good engines up meaning because it had so much pull thrust, so I had to get back in the seat – I was getting out – and had to trim the airplane up and keep it level so that everybody could get out. They did and then I went down to the navigator’s escape hatch which was down in the nose of the airplane- well, not exactly in the nose but below the pilot’s compartment. Now this was the first jump any of us had made. But you know what? We were all very very calm. We were scared, yes, but we had control of what was going on.
The time frame from the moment we were hit till the time when we evacuated the plane was 5, 10, 15 minutes. We were on fire, the two right engines on fire. So as I said, we had fire extinguishers in the engines themselves. I tried to put it out, we couldn’t, and I smelled smoke coming through the gasoline lines coming in so I said lets go ahead and get out. So I’d say 10, 15 minutes or something like that. I kept us in touch with the group as best I could by lowering, going down. We couldn’t keep up with them speed-wise, but by lowering our altitude we could keep up the same speed, but losing altitude. So we were about 10000 feet when we all jumped out.
Jumping out of the airplane was really interesting – there was no choice to be made, there was no “should I jump, should I not jump,” the decision was made for you, you had the fire in the cockpit behind you, you knew you had to jump. That’s what we did. What we all did.
And I remember letting myself out of the hatch, hanging on to the edge of the hatch, closing my eyes, saying a prayer, “lord help me get through this,” and letting loose. I started tumbling real rapidly, thought I was going to get sick because I was turning so fast and all of a sudden I stopped turning, stopped tumbling, and I was on my back, turning around slowly, in a circle, my body was turning. I remembered instructions that this would happen, and the way to stop it would be to stretch your arms and legs out and that would stop your spin. Well I tried it and it worked, and we’d been going down, descending all this time, since we first got hit so I looked over my shoulder and I thought well, the ground looks pretty close I better pull the rip cord which I did, and it seemed like it took a long time. I looked up and saw it trailing out behind me so I knew I was alright and it seemed like I felt the jolt of it’s opening, and seemed I didn’t have much time, maybe two or three swings, before I was on the ground. So it was sort of tight there.
My chute caught in a tree and it let me down easy, my feet didn’t even sting when they hit the ground like they do sometimes. Truly you know it’s amazing how clear you are in your mind and how clear everything is in your thinking in times like these. I was engaged to Rene at the time, and the minute I hit the ground my thoughts were, in this order, what are mama and Rene going to think. I thought what are they going to think? ‘Cause I knew I was all right but they didn’t. You know that was the worse part.
And I guarantee you I said a little prayer. This is an interesting thought philosophically: I was alive, I was so appreciative of the fact that I was a live and I just thought, this is the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s wonderful. I’m so happy that I felt this way, but it’s true. I wasn’t worried about what bad things were going to happen.
First encounter on the ground
I remembered what our instructions were if we had to bail out, they said what you should do was take your gear and throw it in one direction then go in another direction to throw the Germans off. Well I started doing that but that didn’t work because over the hill I saw a man on a motorcycle coming up. And so I didn’t know any German, for some reason or another I pointed to the ground and said “Deutschland?” and he says, “Ya,” and I pointed at him and said “Deutsch?” and he says “no, French” I thought, “Oh boy oh boy, I’m in the French underground!” But, no that wasn’t the case. He was a French policeman, the French he had been pressed into the German war effort and of course he was made to do what he had to do, so he was going to take me on in.
I was smoking at the time, so I was not carrying a gun but I did have a Zippo lighter in my pocket. A Zippo lighter was a very hard to get item therefore very valuable. When he searched me he took my lighter. Well, I held my hand out and looked him right in the eye and just shook my head, said “no.” And he gave the lighter back to me. We were out in an open field and he had a gun and I didn’t. Now that doesn’t mean I’m brave, don’t get me wrong, I think I was in shock.
Well, he made me take my parachute and my mae west (that’s the floatation device we always wore) and walk to this little village. It was Niemburg, Germany just across the border from Belgium. Remember there were just the two of us there. Well he took me on in to this little village and then he started screaming at me, just screaming bloody murder. And I sort of figured he was trying to make up something about this lighter so I handed the lighter to him and he shut up and went his way.
We’d gotten up at about 3 o’clock that morning; by this time it was at about 11 o’clock. I asked for a glass of water and they brought me water (incidentally water in German is wasser, drinkwasser, it’s very close, so it was easy to communicate.) So they brought me a glass of water and I put the parachute under my head, made a little pillow and went to sleep, took a nap. And they had a man with a big long gun guarding me.
Well they woke me up later on and by that time, Gene Bianco, the co-pilot and Briggs, the radio operator had joined me, Ulis Briggs (of course, guess what we called him, “Useless” Briggs, you know that’s the way it is, that’s always the way it is – he was a real sharp guy, though, a real wonderful man). So this was the 30th of May 1944, we were walking under guard with these ground soldiers from the Wehrmacht, and they were walking us to jail, to a little village that was not too far away.
We were walking along there, carrying our parachutes, guns to our backs, and this good locking German girl in shorts came by riding a bicycle, and Ulis gave her a wolf whistle! I don’t know why he didn’t get shot but he didn’t.
Well, we were taken on, and put in individual cells in a jail on a military post. We were given some horrible coffee and some horrible bread. And no bed clothing. There was a bed in the cell made of wood with a wooden pillow and that was it. It was slightly inclined. And so we lay there. But I tell you what, it was soft enough for me to sleep so I did. I slept on it.
The next morning we were taken out and they were having a gas mask drill. I always had phlegm in my throat – my nose was always running in my throat – so I had to clear my throat. So, I cleared my throat and spit close toward the gutter but it actually landed on the sidewalk. And this German guard started screaming at me, a German with a gas mask on, just started screaming at me, just raising all kinds of sand, and of course I knew what he was talking about, he was pointing to where I’d spit. But I didn’t know that was so heinous a crime! But so I kept my eye on him but I reached down, to wipe it up with my hand, you know! And while I was down there he kicked it, kicked me. But I saw it coming and I remember I put my arm up and sort of caught his foot with my arm and sort of rolled with it, so it didn’t hurt. Aside from that, while we were there nothing untoward happened to us. We were treated decently.
We were put on a train and taken from there to – I found out later – to the Dulag which was In Frankfort. This was the interrogation center. There are two Frankfort’s and I don’t know which one this was but an interesting thing happened there on the way to the forum. We went through the train station in Frankfort, and for those of you who have not been there, the train stations quite often are huge glassed-in buildings, real tall and real huge, they cover acres of ground.
Frankfort had a lot of the windows knocked out and you could see the bomb damage there. We were being walked through the train station from one train to another and the civilians gathered around us, and they were screaming all sorts of things, saying “terrorfliegers” and this sort of stuff (Terrorflieger is German for” terror-flyer”). We could well have been hurt, but the guards kept us from being hurt, they guarded us.
So, we were taken to the interrogation center which was not far from Frankfort and this was a very interesting experience. (I believe this is where I saw Mitch, my navigator, again). We had been briefed already to give only name rank and serial number and we had been warned by our intelligence that they were going to try to frighten us by claiming that we were spies, and these kinds of things.
So, I went into the interrogation room to find this nice looking young man in a German uniform who spoke beautiful English.
“Mr. Hicks, how are you?”
And I was smoking at the time and I hadn’t had a cigarette for two days and he offered me an English cigarette and we sat there and smoked, and then I took another one, and he started asking me things and I’d give him name rank and serial number!
And he’d say, “Well, you know you can be shot for being a civilian?”
And I said, “But I’m in uniform.”
“Yeah but a lot of spies come in uniform.”
“Name rank and serial number.”
Exactly as we’d been told. Moral to the story, if you’re forewarned, you’re not nearly as anxious as if it’s a surprise to you.
Well then he started telling me things. He started telling me the initials of all the people on my crew! And that was interesting!
“Name rank and serial number.”
Then he started telling me about Rene. Apparently they knew I was engaged to Rene at the time! What had happened was the intelligence gatherers had kept their eyes on all the guys that graduated from flying school, with the possibility they would be over there and they kept dossiers on us, apparently. So they told me about Rene, told me I was engaged to Rene, this kind of thing, told me the initials of the crew. And they even told me the number of my airplane.
They said, “It was a triangle J, wasn’t it?” referring to the marking on the tail.
And I said, “Yes,” I figured they knew everything already. But their intelligence gathering techniques were to tell you a lot of stuff that was true then get you to corroborate stuff that they may not have known to be true. That was their idea and they were very successful at it.
To give you an idea of how well the Germans had infiltrated our ranks and knew about us, whenever we had a mission, the base was sealed off, and nobody was allowed in or out until after the mission had come back home. Nobody was allowed in or off the base.
Angel plus two
Also, the day we went down, we had been briefed to fly at a certain altitude. Before each mission, we would be briefed as to what target we were going to hit, and what altitude we would fly. Now, the initial point , the “IP” is a point close to the target where all the airplanes in the group close up and fly straight and level for 30 seconds, 45 seconds, something like that. As long as they need to let the bombardier take over control of the lead airplane. Well, the bombsite – which was top secret at that point in time – was set up so that it was hooked to the cruise control, if you will, of the airplane, and the bombardier then had the ability to twist his knobs to change the direction of the airplane slightly and to change the elevation very slightly so as to correspond with what his gun sight was calling for. You would fly straight and level, you’d lock the crosshairs in on a target, flip your button, and as soon as the airplane hit the right spot so that the bombs from that level with those air conditions were dropped, they’d hit the target. It did all the calculating, and this was like a computer except this was 1944! So this was what we had then. But anyway, that’s how the bombs were dropped.
On the day in question let’s say it was 27,000. Just before take-off they put a blackboard by the end of the runway saying “angel plus two”. And of course that was our code, it meant we were to increase our bombing altitude by 2000 feet. Which we did. And I didn’t know why and didn’t care why – the higher we went, the better I liked it! But this was important from Mitch’s standpoint because as the navigator he’d had a more intense briefing on what we were to do and our target and all this sort of thing than I did. They knew I didn’t know anything, they knew that all I did was drove the airplane! But Mitch was the guy who had the information if anybody did. They kept him in interrogation an extra day – trying to find out from him why we changed the bombing altitude. Now, I didn’t know and Mitch didn’t know, we had not been told. They didn’t tell us anymore than we needed to know!
They had the German shepherd guard dogs and they were quite intimidating, they didn’t let ‘em loose on us or anything but we walked beside of ‘em, they were about 6 inches away from my leg snarling like nobody’s business. And of course we were still in a little bit of shock but nothing we could do about it so we just obeyed ourselves and did what we were supposed to do. I had visions while we were there of breaking loose and being a hero, escaping and stealing an airplane and taking off, but shoot, I didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance of doing anything like that! So that was our interrogation. We were kept there a couple days or so, not too long.
An Official Welcome to Germany!
Went on from there and got on the prison trains, which were like regular cars but with bars on them. Not too bad accommodations really, I had seen something like these trains before only these were jail cars. And we rode for I don’t know how long it was – my sense of time eludes me on that.
We were taken to Sagan, Germany. Sagan was in the north eastern part of Germany right near Braslow Poland near the Polish border and it was way far away from civilization, from the American line.
We were being taken to Stalag Luft III. Well, we get off the train, were milling around outside the prison camp fence and there was a loading platform, and up there is this German guard standing up there – a solid fellow, short, sawed off kind of thing, real mean and nasty looking, bristling with guns all over. He puts his hands on his hips and looks at us and says “Jesus Christ fellows, where are you guys from?!” and we all just about flipped because he was speaking the best Brooklynese we’d ever heard in our lives! It was the funniest thing. And of course we just broke out it was so good to hear some friendly words from the Germans.
We gathered around him to find out who he was and it turned this man had been raised in Brooklyn, had gone to Germany to visit relatives and had been caught and conscripted into the German army and so there he was! This was our first word from home so to speak and he was the one who he told us about D-day, he said, “the invasion has stahted”. And I tell you what this was about the best news we could have had. We all cheered and we were all happy and our morale went up like nobody’s business. Keep in mind this was the 7th or 8th of June. The 6th of June was the invasion. So this was just a day or two after D-day.
Stalag Luft III
We went into the camp, through the barbed wire gates that swung only in, not out. And first thing there, I saw two people I recognized. One of them was Karol Whitman, the brother of a friend of mine uft from Louisville Kentucky. He’d been shot down about a month or so before.
And the other was our operations officer whose name was Clay, he was the captain. Captain Clay was the guy who kept all the airplanes going, and he had an assistant who was a first lieutenant named Van Tassel. And Van Tassel had been there over a year and only flown two missions. So let’s face it, he’d been able to get out of flying missions some way or another. Captain Clay was the director of operations and he was flying missions, but he got shot down, was a POW. I was talking to him later about the German intelligence abilities, and at the interrogation center, he told us that the Germans asked him, “Do you think the cunning Lieutenant Van Tassel will be able to take over your job successfully?” So they knew the personalities in the camp. They knew everything about us! So that was rather nerve wracking. Well, it was interesting to see how well they had infiltrated.
Well we got there and met these two fellows among others and another friend I met there I think a little later was Sidney Smith who was one of my supervisors down at Sears and Roebuck when I was going to school at U of L. and I was working down there part time. So it was old home week when we got there.
And then we were assigned to rooms in our compound. The Stalag Luft III had 5 compounds. North, south, east, west, and central. Seems like we were in the west compound. There were around 10 acres in each compound and around 2000 people in each one. We had barracks, long barracks, we had rooms, there were 12 of us put in a single room. Well, Mitch and Gene and I, we got together and we got into a room with Karol, at that point a total of twelve of us, in one room in the barracks.
Our room was a fairly good size I guess. We had triple deck bunks around the wall and had a single table like a picnic table type in the center with benches and some individual stools, enough for the people there, one for each, and there was a stove in the center in the end corner where we were supposed to be cooking our food. In actuality we only used it to keep warm because it wasn’t large enough to cook on, we all pooled our coal that we were given as rations and cooked in a communal stove at the end of the building. This was our room. We had at this point twelve and later on we had fifteen people in the room, triple deck bunks: there was Marmon Semar, Bill Rider, Hanslick , Charles Lindbergh, Jack Varin, Cotton Hodges, Crawford Hicks, Hardy Mitchener, Gene Bianco, Doug , Frank Murphy, Mortimer Greenwald, Bill Popovitch, All Hill, and Don MacDougal.
In our room the senior there was a first lieutenant. I was a first lieutenant too but I didn’t know it yet. I had been put in for it when I got shot down but I didn’t know it. Mitch was a very junior 2nd lieutenant but because of his personality and ability he organized our room. Here’s how he did it, no here’s what he did, ’cause how he did it lord only knows.
We had one man in there who was only 19, but he was very good with his hands. We got food parcels from the Red Cross, and in these parcels we had cans of powdered milk, and the name of this was Klim, milk spelled backwards. These Klim cans were a great source of material for us so Mitch said “ok,” (and everybody agreed to it) “I will take care of all the cooking and MacDougal will take care of building pots and pans, everybody else will keep the room clean and KP and everything else we do it on an equitable basis.”
We’d have to stand by inspection every Saturday morning so we were supposed to clean up and wear our best bib and tucker. And clean our rooms up, that was the big thing. And then when the inspecting officer would come in we’d stand at attention by our bunks and be looked up and down and he’d check the room and so forth. Well we had, our room had tremendous morale. It really did, Mitch was our leader, let’s face it. Not only because he was the cook but because of his personality. He had the personality to do it.
Anyway, in our room for example, clean up meant sweeping everything, getting the dirt off the floor and having your clothes in just some kind of medium degree of disarray. But we didn’t. What we did, when the weather permitted, we got the GI soap, the German soap that was very strong and we scrubbed the floors, we scrubbed the table tops and our benches and they were literally white they were so clean. And we had head and shoulders the best room in the whole compound, so everybody would come to see it.
On the other hand, there was a fellow across the hall from us who felt so sorry for himself that he would only wash his face up to his hairline, he wouldn’t wash his ears or under his neck or his chin or anything, he felt sorry for himself. Now this whole thing was one of the best maturation processes that ever happened to me. ‘Cause I would start feeling sorry for myself, and Mitch would jump on me and make me feel so juvenile, that I wasn’t allowed to feel sorry for myself. He was a leader, he truly was a leader.
He called me Shuffle because I had a pair of overshoes issued to me in Dalhart Texas which were much too large and I had to shuffle going through the snow. Well, I was the pilot but I’d ask “Mitch where we going?” “Well, we gotta go here, damn it Shuffle, keep it on course!” ’cause I would wander you know, I wasn’t watching what I was doing, I didn’t care, Mitch could take care of me! No really, we had an excellent just an excellent rapport. That was not a problem, I didn’t have any rank problems at all because we were all in that thing together. And everybody knew it.
Mitch instituted a rule at the very outset, he said, “I’ll do this, I’ll be the cook and I’ll take care of all these things but all of the food, ALL the food that comes into this room belongs to me. Every bit of it. If you get something in a package from home, I get it.” He did not make any exceptions at any time. “You can have your clothes, you can have everything else but I get the food.” He took that food and made repast out of it. And the food was distributed. We didn’t share, it was distributed, believe me. He was the navigator but he had been to cook and baker school in the army and he could make anything out of nothing.
He took the German bread which was absolutely horrible, it was sour, and he’d crumble it up and dry it and use that as the flour. He’d use the powdered milk called “Klim” in our Red Cross parcels and he’d mix it with a little teeny bit of sugar to get a little touch of sweetness, he’d cut up prunes and put them in the cake as fruit, or raisins or whatever he had. And whatever chocolate he had, and stretch it out, and we had a cake everyday. We had a cake every day we were in camp except when we were marching on the road. Everyday we had a cake. And then for birthdays he would take some or this red food coloring and he’d put something on there. Every one of us had a special birthday cake. We had a cake at Christmas. We had the best meals of anybody in the whole building!
There was an oven there. We also pooled our coal allowance and we didn’t use it for heat. We used it for our cooking stove.
Nonetheless, as time went on, I was hungry. I weighed about 200 lbs went I went in, about 155 when I got out. We weren’t mistreated, we just didn’t have enough food to eat, not as much as we wanted. In our Red Cross parcels they had supposedly enough food for one man for one week. We got half rations all the time so we got enough for half a week. So this is how they abused us by – we were supposed to get one Red Cross parcel per man per week and we only got one half of a parcel per man per week, that was the abuse. They just kept ‘em in a store room out there, hell, they just didn’t want us to have ‘em!
I learned how to eat and enjoy blood sausage and I learned if you cook it crisply it tastes pretty good. It’s better than nothing. I learned also to eat the skins of potatoes except they weren’t washed very well I got diariah pretty often. I learned to crack prune seeds open and eat the kernels. That wasn’t so pretty good but it was something.
I wasn’t starving to death I was just hungry, believe me. I would start complaining. But Mitch wouldn’t let me feel sorry for myself. This was the kind of guy he was, he had this kind of rapport. And I cannot give Mitch too much credit because he deserved more than I can ever give him. For what he did for me personally. He didn’t keep me alive, no, but he was so instrumental in keeping me happy.
Daily activities at the Stalag resort
We didn’t do any work except for our own personal benefit while I was in prison camp, as opposed to the enlisted camps where the enlisted men had to go out and work for the Germans. This was according to the Geneva Convention. And they did not have conditions as good as ours. Now we had sheets on our beds, we had wood shavings as mattresses, we had wood slats as springs, but nonetheless we had sheets on those beds! So they got changed every six months, but we had sheets.
So we did not have a hard life. We established a very good rapport with the German guards. Our camp was physically identical to Hogan’s heroes. Physically identical. The buildings were the same, the barbed wire was the same, the guard towers were the same. All we had to do was work for ourselves. So our most time consuming was to walk around the compound which was about 10 acres in size. We’d walk around the compound all day long. And as we’d walk by the German guards we’d thumb our noses at them and put our fingers up to our ears and make funny faces at them. Jus for the fun of it you know.
Well one day one of the guards in one of the towers turned his machine gun around and pointed it at us. We all fell to the ground, scattered and so forth, and he stood up there and just laughed and laughed and of course we would shake our fists at him and go on about our business. This was, one of the funny things that happened.
We had, until they stopped us, a swimming pool, which was really a fire pool, water in case we had a fire, but nonetheless we used it for a swimming pool until our own medical people stopped from using it because it didn’t have the chlorine and all that sort of good stuff. We did use it as a swimming pool.
All of us were officers in there, in fact the whole camp was officers. And they had 2000 people in our compound and 5 compounds in the whole camp. And all of them were officers, except they had about one enlisted man per 10 officers who were supposed to do the labor for us, would you believe that? Batmen.
You know the British had batmen their as their aids, and the lower ranking officers had batmen as well as the upper ranking officers. So we had batmen. We had something like ten or fifteen in the camp. The only work they did was when the Germans would bring in the great big buckets or kettles of soup with a little stock in it, they would dish it out when the guys came by with their containers to pick it up for the rooms. That was about the amount of work because we all took care of our own selves.
Almost all of us were Americans, they had a sprinkling of British in there. Not very many, there may have been a Frenchman I don’t know, we had some people who’d been in there for 4 years, some of the British had been in there “mestress” uniforms they’d break it out on occasion, dress up, morale was tremendous there, just tremendous.
Another thing, we had little sickness, I didn’t even have a bad cold while I was over there. We did have a few fellows who had been shot up. I remember one man had a – a hand had been shot off – and he was repatriated. So we got tremendously good treatment. The Geneva Convention was adhered to pretty closely and so we got very good treatment, they even had doctors available although they weren’t in the compound, we did have medical attention available to us.
We had our own military command system within our ranks and we had orders that we were not to escape. The Big Escape had happened from our compound. Now those were British mostly, there were not many Americans who participated in the Big Escape.
We were not allowed to escape because we were so far inland that it was virtually impossible for us to even get any place after we escaped. So for this reason we were ordered not to try to escape. Well that made me happy to because I was happy being warm and being protected.
However, Jack Varin – he left the group and went off by his own and he got back alright but he had a hard time and he didn’t get back any sooner than anyone else did.
Letters from Home
Just before Christmas I started getting letters from home. I got about six letters from Rene. They were gold. That was the tie to home. Got two or three from my mother. So I knew what was going on with her but she knew I was alright, that was the big thing.
Then come Christmas time I got two packages from home. Of course we spent Christmas there and it was one of the best Christmases I ever had because I was expecting absolutely nothing. I got a package from Joanne and Marguerite with cigarettes, socks and washcloths. I don’t know how they knew it but they sent four cartons of lucky strikes I think. Lucky strikes were the cigarette I smoked, and they were worth a fortune. Nobody had any over there because they were just not available. And it was really one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. Because somebody was remembering me.
I remember one letter Rene sent one to me saying our friend Ted got killed, was missing and they thought he was dead. That was my good friend Ted Jensen who went through flying school with me. And he worked in the bank with me. He was flying p-47s, now he worked at the base. Ted Jensen worked at the bank with me at Louisville trust company, and we went through flying school together in the same class. And he went to single engine and I went to twin engine and he flew P-47s Out of England and I was flying B-17s. He was at my base the day I got shot down and the story that I heard later on was that he just tore that base up because I had told him I was really getting apprehensive. And he tore the base up, contending that I should have been grounded for a period of time. Ted was pretty violent when he got drunk and he got drunk and just had a bad time.
Chocolate and Cigarettes
Cigarettes and D-bars – a D-bar was a highly nutritious candy bar you got in the Red Cross parcel, these were our mediums of exchange. Money was an oddity. One fella had a ten dollar bill he had smuggled inside his money belt, inside his belt and we all looked at it one day just to see what a ten dollar bill looked like. It was valueless. D-bars and cigarettes were the thing.
Lucky strikes were the highest quality cigarettes, they carried the largest weight. They set up points at the ACCO for various kinds of things. So you could trade this which had ten points and get two of these each of which cost five points. They used a point system, the D-bar being the most valuable and then lucky strikes, then camels. Chesterfields were down a little bit. Oh, Old Golds. We had a bunch of Old Golds and people didn’t like old golds. Then we had English cigarettes, and they were pretty bad and then we got Turkish cigarettes which were barn sweepings. But we smoked em!
While we were there we had a library and I took Spanish lessons. I learned how to play bridge. And I played solitaire. I literally wore the spots off a deck of cards, playing solitaire. And of course I lost money. I kept a mental record of how much I won or lost, and I mostly lost.
We had a lot of good musicians in the camp and the YWCA was very good at supplying us with recreational equipment. So we had a 14 piece band. We would have concerts periodically. We had self entertainment.
Now Mitch my navigator was in the room and he could tap dance. And back then I used to – I learned this in high school – do a little rhythm number with my mouth. Gene my co-pilot, Gene Bianco, played beautiful guitar.
A fellow who was knocked down in the fall called Charlie Lindberg incidentally played a hot guitar. And I mean it was real hot.
They found out that Chuck could play and the YWCA provided us with some musical instruments. Because Chuck and Gene were so good at playing music they were given custody of two guitars, so they would go from barracks to barracks and play. And play for everybody. Chuck brought some new songs I hadn’t heard before…”I walk alone” that’s one of ‘em he brought.
Then the two of em would sit in the room at night out of their bunks and play, and you have no idea of the nectar we were getting, it was the sweetest thing. We hadn’t had any good music for 6 months or something like that. That was the thing we missed the most, one of the things.
We had enough entertainers to put on shows, including talent shows, you know like Kay Kyser, this kind of thing. Well so I was on the show one time and I did “you’ll never believe me”.
[Singing]: And when I tell them
And I’m certainly going to tell them
That I’m the guy whose wife someday you’ll be
They’ll never believe me
They’ll never believe me
That from this great wide world you’ve chosen me
It was a real popular song back then! Anyway, I did that on the stage. And Mitch came out and we answered some questions you know like Kay Kyser Kollege of Musical Knowledge – name that tune was what it was – you know they’d play three notes and then we’d guess what it was. Of course everybody knew what they were.
Mitch was a tap dancer and his father was an entertainer, a professional in show business so I would do my little rhythm thing and then I would stop and Mitch would do about four or five beats of soft shoe. And then I’d go in and do another verse of my rhythm stuff and then he’d do some more tap-dancing. And we brought the house down:
Seven come eleven on a rusty dime
Dark darky shooting craps on a watermelon rind
He said the oh wont you give me little more
One dolla two dolla three dolla four
Ok, I would do that and then Mitch would chime in with me
E, I, gimme piece a pie
E, I, what kind a pie,
E, I, any kind a pie,
Raspberry, gooseberry, huckleberry pie
And then Mitch would start his tap dancing and he would go bang bang bang bang bang and then I would do a couple of other verses, then the two of us
E, I, gimme piece a pie
We would do that for a minute and thirty seconds something like that, but it was good, it was very entertaining and we won first prize which was a big hunk a cheese! And believe me that was valuable – and it went to the room!
Relationship with the guards
Now the German guards would attend all of our entertainment shows. And we would call them goons until they found out what it was, and then we called them ferrets until they found out what that was and then I forget what else we called them.
Now, referring to Hogan’s Heroes, their camp was pretty much identical to our camp, physically; in fact I think it was taken from our camp. The relationship with the guards was not that good but we did have a good relationship with the guards. There was a captain there but he was nothing like the Hogan’s Heroes captain. Nothing like that. The guards, they were either old men or people who couldn’t do anything else. But they were not bad people, we were not mistreated, and we did have camaraderie with them.
We were held by the air force in their prison camps, not in the army Wehrmarkt prison camps. We were KriegkefanGenen. We were kreigies, that was our nickname.
As a matter of fact there was one sergeant who wanted to go to Texas, wanted to move to there when the war was over, and so we called him Tex. And he responded to Tex, he loved it. And he spoke English.
We used to have a lot of fun playing games and tricks and so forth. One night in particular I remember. We used to have a spot check made, we had to have lights out at 12 o’clock at night. We knew that they made spot checks – the Germans did – and we heard them coming in at the end of the hall, we were not allowed out of the building after lights were out. And we heard them come in down at the end of the barracks and so we all got a book, we were lying in bed and we all got a book and opened it front of us in the dark and – we did it on purpose, you know – and so the German guard came in and turned the light on to count us and what he saw were 15 guys lying in bed reading a book. He didn’t even count! He turned the light off and slammed the door and went on! We just roared out load when it happened!
We would have hot showers supposedly twice a week. Now think about that. We were in combat if you will and had hot showers. Now that’s not bad! But the sadism of the Germans – no, not the Germans but our captors, we would get all soaped up in the shower and they’d be watching through the windows, they’d turn the water off. And then we’d scream “come on you SOBs” and then they’d finally turn it back on and let us wash off.
One day I remember that a German fighter pilot came by and came down so low that he kicked up the dust from the field and he went up and did slow rolls and we all yelled, “Crash you bastard, crash!” It just shows you the camaraderie that existed between the flyboys. There was a whole lot of that. A whole lot of mutual respect to troops.
I was not a political prisoner, I was a war prisoner. It wasn’t a personal thing.
And June of that year 1944 was the first time I had seen a jet. Now keep in mind that I don’t know when Americans got jets. But in June of 1944 I saw my first German jet and I heard it up here and I looked over there and that’s where it was. It was scary. That was my first German jet. So they were way ahead of us I think in jet propulsion.
Necessity is the mother of invention
I was really impressed with the ingenuity of people, Americans included. We would put on fairs, I remember this one fair – it was a craft show was what it was. One man had, by using nothing but a table knife – we had no tools at all except our eating utensils, and those were not sharp knives – one man used a table knife which he has sharpened and carved out a grandfather clock – which ran!
We were grounded flyers and we had our wings, but we came up with, somebody in the camp came up with a symbol for us which was our wings with a chain and a ball attached to it. So we used our dog tag chains and the cans of food we got from red cross parcels, some of it was sealed with lead, around the tops, so we’d take those cans and melt the lead and form little half balls in the sand with the chain stuck in it and then with a safety pin on the back and so this was our symbol over there, ball and chain. The wings with the ball and chain. Those guys got a certain number of D-bars which was our medium of exchange.
We had the German radio. And we kept a map with the lines of who was doing what to whom and with what. We also had a clandestine radio in the compound and this was our intelligence network within our own organization. I was told later that the parts of the radio were brought in in baseballs! They would send game equipment into us and it got to us this way. We did have a secret radio. Of course we had guys in there who could do anything you know you figure all the different people you have a wide variety of skills. And so we did have radio. So we knew – now here again, this was one of the reasons our morale was so high – we knew where the front lines were. We knew who was doing what to whom with what. And so we had our own little secret map and every week or two or three days- whenever it was important – it would be passed around to all of us so we could see where the real lines were. And then we’d go and compare with the official German lines, we could see the difference. So that made a difference, you know, it helped our morale a whole lot.
In December of ’45 we started hearing the Russian guns coming from the east. Here again, our internal underground system said “be ready for a march.” So we were all getting our mental activities acclimated towards this direction. And it was cold, very cold.
Everyday we had two formations which we had to attend, it was called appel, our roll call, and we had to be out about 9 o’clock and line up according to our building numbers and formations had to be counted, and every afternoon about 5 the same thing happened. So we had to be there.
And one afternoon I guess it was before the afternoon appel, we were notified we were getting ready to march. Well I don’t know if we had appel that night or not, but we went back to our rooms, and then we had to get all our personal gear together and fix it in such a way that we could walk, and be prepared to march.
Now I had been issued a French officer’s overcoat. It was a good long overcoat, real long, real nice, warm. I think I had two shirts and maybe two pair of pants to my name, this was the extent of my clothing and maybe some of the stuff that I’d been sent but not a whole lot. So what I did because it was cold I put all my socks on, like two or three pair a socks, had my shoes, put both pair a pants on, I wore one shirt. And with the other – ok I had a Red Cross box which was about two feet wide and 6 inches deep and two and a half feet long it would fit inside a buttoned up shirt. So I buttoned the shirt up, tied the ends of the arms of the shirt, then I had ropes about 6 feet long, and I also had a toboggan cap, and boy that saved my neck too. We broke out all the food and distributed it then and there so I had a few boxes of cube sugar and that was it. And so I took that box with my food – and in it was my food.
Some guys made nutritional food bars. So we put all of our extra food in the box and put it on my shoulder and I would take the arms and put them over my shoulders, cross them in front, now this is on the outside of my coat, that French army coat across my front and then around, around my back and then around front again and then tie ‘em in front so I had a real nice high riding backpack and I carried a boxes of cube sugar in my pocket.
So about midnight, that night we got ready to move. It was cold. I don’t know how cold but it was cold. This is in the middle of January in eastern Germany.
We started walking, we walked we walked, it wasn’t really a march it was just a movement. We didn’t stay in formation all we had to do was stay on the road course our rooms stayed reasonably close together because we were close to each other. I remember we stopped for a rest stop, we had no place to stay except right there on the ground so we’d sit or lie on the snow when we stopped.
Now, the first night we were walking, we had stopped, we were tired, thirsty and cold. And this German lady brought a pitcher of hot water out and filled our cups. I don’t recall ever drinking anything more tasty and more satisfying than that was. A cup of hot water, it was absolutely wonderful. It was exactly what we needed, something to warm us up and quench our thirst a little bit. But this German lady did this for us.
We’d eat a cube a sugar every once in a while to give us some energy, I don’t know if it was good or not. But we did, we did that.
Every once in a while we’d look over and say “Mitch, how you getting along?” “Hey I’m fine, just keep on going, Shuffle” you know we would banter back and forth. And Mitch and I and Gene and most of in the room most of us were in very good shape, physically and from a morale standpoint. Incidentally, prior to this move we’d been warned so we did a lot of exercise and walking, we did get ourselves in condition. Some of the fellows felt so sorry for themselves, they were tired, run down, but attitude was the big thing. Some of them started throwing their pocket handkerchiefs away, they threw their pack away. They threw everything away. They just felt like they couldn’t go on any farther.
One of our roommates was Mortimer Greenwald from Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Now mort was very Jewish and he was a very wonderful person, a very wonderful person. He spoke 7 languages and he was very very helpful to us. And of course he was very Jewish as I said and you can just imagine the fear that he lived under the whole time he was there. But he never complained about, he carried his share of the load, and was one of the guys and was very good. On this march, Mort as we called him, was up and down the line of people, helping people who had fallen along the way, who had dropped out, got tired and of course he spoke fluent German so he could interpret he was interpreting for the guys and he was a tremendous help. He would run up and down that column and taking care and answering questions and resolving problems. And he was carrying his own pack all the time and other guys’ packs too. It’s funny how you start to help somebody else, you get stronger.
Potato soup and BBC
Now in route, we would stop at a little village periodically just for a rest and the guards were very lenient with us we could go in the village and do whatever we could barter and get our food and stuff like that. For example I went up and knocked on a door and this German lady let me in and I asked her if she had something to eat and she gave me some potato soup. Now this was soup made of potatoes and water and that was it, but daggum it was good. And she had a stove in the kitchen which was one of those square ceramic stoves, a beautiful thing. And it certainly kept the whole place warm. While we were there I noticed a radio in the corner of the room so I asked her – in sign language – if I could turn it on and she said ok, so I turned it on and turned it to the BBC. The British broadcasting company. And she didn’t say turn it off she said turn it down keep the volume down, she didn’t mind my listening to, but she didn’t want the German authorities to know she had let me listen to it. So I listened to the British news a little bit and that was that, but that was an example.
We would have these rest stops like this and as I said we would barter for whatever I know that a couple times, some of us, well one time I went into a barn and lay in the hay load for a little bit. Because that was, and that let me do it, you know, the German people, they were very clean, their barns were part of their house, their house and their barn were in the same building. But there was no odor interchanged between the barn and the house, everything was very neat and well kept.
Bullets over the snow
At one point during the night we were walking along, it was the middle of the night at some time, and up ahead coming toward us, a team of horses pulling a wagon was running, I don’t know if they were out of control or what but they were running, we all jumped to the side to let em pass. Well some of the fellas apparently tried to use that interlude as a chance to escape and they took off threw the woods well the Germans guards so they so they let them loose and started firing. Well, when I heard those guns going off, all of us, my self included, lay on the ground. And tried to get into that snow as deep as we could. I remember lying there and feeling the cold snow on my forehead and it really felt good. It was keeping me cool! And I was thinking maybe my backpack would stop any bullets that would come through. Well, I didn’t get hit but they were flying over our heads and I guess the guys got caught.
Our room was extraordinary I think in that we had a lot of good leadership. As I said this navigator that I had was a wonderful person he was the real leader of the room and he’s the one who gave us a lot of desire to keep on going. We were tired. We were not being oppressed, everybody was tired, the guards were tired, but we had to move, and so we did move – all that night, all the next day and all the next night until we finally got to an old pottery factory.
Relief at the Pottery Factory
Karol Whitman was hurting pretty badly, just tired, dead tired and he was gone in terms of afraid and tired and hungry and thirsty and everything else. So he asked me to stay with him, so he and I got into a hayloft. That hay was so nice and warm, you know, it was shelter. Now keep in mind I had slept with my brother my whole life, and so he and I bundled up with each other to keep each other warm and I made him take his shoes off, loosen em up so they wouldn’t freeze during the night. I put my French army overcoat over us and we slept for a few hours that morning. That’s the only thing I did, he says I saved his life but that’s not true. Of course we were very tired and we could sleep well. But during the night I felt field mice running up and down inside of my clothing. Cause they were looking for some place to get warm too! And I know that I was aware of it but it didn’t bother me I was so tired I really didn’t care. And they weren’t biting so who cares! And then we went on from there and got to this pottery factory, stayed there a couple days, got warmed up, recuperated.
40 and 8 boxcars
We stayed at this pottery factor for two or three days until the Germans brought these boxcar trains up to us. The boxcars were what the WWI cars which were designed to carry 40 men or 8 horses, not forty men AND 8 horses. Well, they put 52 of us in each of the boxcars plus the guard, that meant 53 guys in a boxcar, well you can imagine we had about a two by two foot square of space for our own. Well, here again the ingenuity came out and fellows took their blankets which we were carrying, and a lot of them would string em up inside and make hammocks out of them, so that relieved the pressure an awful lot. So we were able to manage.
Now the train would stop for a rest stop and we would get out and go to the bathroom, of course we had nothing to do but sit and eat our food, so all of us had to go to the bathroom, which we did. And we would stop in the marshalling yards, and you’d look out over the yard and see 4-5 thousand guys or I don’t know how many – 2000 – squatting down to go to the bathroom, then you’d look a minute later and you’d see 2-3000 plots of little white paper sticking around, and the station master would come out and scream because it was his area and he had to do something to get all this mess cleaned up! And of course we’d laugh about it.
We would then go back to our respective cars, get back on board, the guard being the last one to board, we would get on our car and the guard would throw his gun up to us and we’d pick it up and then pull him on up and he’d shut the door and we’d start singing Lili Marlene. And the guard liked that. So we really passed the time away and didn’t have too bad of a time.
We were on the train something like three days as I recall. I did not keep a diary, I wish I had, but I didn’t. So we were on the train about three days, and once in a while whenever an air raid occurred, the train would stop and all of the personnel – all the German personnel – would get off and go to a bomb shelter. We weren’t, we were locked in the cars and we stayed there. And of course we could just imagine what was going to happen, we could hear the bombs dropping in our General area. And this did not make us happy at all because we knew what those darn things could do. But none of ‘em hit us apparently the allied flyers and of course these were Americans primarily if not entirely – knew we were on the trains so gave us a wide berth. But this happened a couple of times before we got to our destination.
Ok, the destination was Nuremburg, this was the city at which the war trials were held later. We got to Nuremburg and we were put in barracks again, they were not nearly as nice as the ones we left at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, but we survived and we did not have a central cooking place like we did there and some things of this sort, but here again, we survived. We would anytime an air raid occurred, the Germans made us go back to our barracks and they wouldn’t let us be buy the window, so we’d lie on the floor and look out the window, and look up at the airplanes, and it was sickening to see B-17s flying there and get a hit, catch on fire, and wings come off and nobody come out of the airplane. We saw that several times. At night time the RAF, the royal air force would come over and bomb the targets around Nuremburg. We could see, they would drop a line of flares and we were told they would bomb things on the other side of that line of flares, the other side from us. Well one night an errant bomb came real close to our barracks and it was so close that it knocked the side of the wall loose from the floor and moved it about 6 inches off to the side. So that gave us some little taste of what the German people had been going through all these years with the bombing. Personally I don’t see how in the world they kept their sanity but they did it. Of course the British in London were having the same thing happen to them, so you know, if you haven’t been there you really don’t know what it’s like now it was scary, no question about it.
Now the dates I’m going to mention are approximate or the times rather, they’re very general but they are just approximations. It took us until the first of February to get to Nuremburg and we were there for oh about a month and a half. Or something like that. Conditions were not good as I said. Toilets were not very good, no bathing facilities.
Mitch’s bath in the snow
However Mitch, my navigator one day decided he was going to take a bath. Now the water supply was a single spigot out in the courtyard which was surrounded by our barracks. Well Mitch proceeded to go out there, snow on the ground, take all of his clothes off and take a bath by cupping water from the spigot and running it over his head, and under his arms, and things of this sort, he would soap himself and do that and then of course, he did it very calmly, he didn’t do it in a hurry and I know he was an Actor anyway, and I knew he did it for the benefit of all the guys who were watching him, including the guards. But it was in the snow, and he bathed himself stark naked out there in front of god and everybody. Of course we all cheered and everything else when he came back in and his favorite expression was “garden seed” and he said “garden seed it’s cold out there!” that was the extent of it but it was an enormous morale booster.
From Nuremburg to Moosburg
Well we stayed at Nuremburg until Easter. And I remember on Easter Sunday, it seems like we went to services on Easter Sunday, and the air force, air corps, did a bombing raid on some targets close by, and they had a P-61, I think it was, a Black Widow. I remember seeing these this airplane doing strafing lines and seeing all the action, seeing it first hand. We were just getting ready to move on out of there where we were being moved from Nuremburg, but it was about Easter Sunday as I recall.
We were moved from Nuremburg to the next camp which was called Moosburg, it was about a hundred kilometers to the southwest and it was north of Munich. So we had a hundred kilometers to go. Well, it was getting warmer by this time, remember this was the first part of April, so we proceeded and we had our food stuffs, we had our chocolate bars and we had our cigarettes. And we had sugar, some sugar. Well these things were in a non-supply mode in Germany so they were worth their weight in gold.
It didn’t take us long before – there were about four of us together – and we persuaded a German to let us have his hand cart. It was a cart that was used to go to the market with, but it was so balanced that you pushed down on the handle and it would move forward, so we put our packs and any food that we were acquiring in this part, so we had a pleasant trip.
Remember we had to go a hundred kilometers but we took ten days in which to do it. I believe we crossed the Danube River in the meantime too. So we did take our time, really it was nothing but a pleasant walk. The weather was nice, it didn’t rain or it might have rained a little bit but not much so we just had a nice pleasant walk going about ten kilometers a day.
Colonel Alcar was our senior officer in the camp and the story goes that when we got to the Danube colonel Alcar refused to cross unless certain conditions were met and he was threatened of being shot and everything else but he held his ground and his conditions were met! I don’t know what they were but the point being that he did that. He was taking care of us the whole time. Keep in mind that the Germans were well aware that the end was close. This was something like roughly the middle of April.
Well we got to our camp in Moosburg and there was barbed wire as usual, the accommodations were even more sparse than they were at Nuremburg. We had a big tent and most of us slept in this big tent, just put our sleeping bags – or whatever it was we slept on – on the ground and that’s where we slept! It wasn’t too bad, I don’t remember what kind of food we had, I think it was just the food we brought with us. But we had acquired a goodly amount of food, I think we acquired a ham and a bag of potatoes, so we were able to eat pretty well.
Speaking of eating and cooking. The ingenuity of the guys in prison camp
was just fantastic. Remember before I mentioned Klim cans. These were cans which were about maybe 4-5 inches across and about 3-4 inches high, 4 inches high we’ll see. Then you know what a number 2 ½ sized tin can is. Well the Klim cans were used for everything but they would get the number 2 ½ size can and take a church key kind of thing and cut about 4 or 5 flaps in the lower part of the side of the can, and push those flaps inward so that they formed a little shelf about one or two inches from the bottom of the can. Then they would take a number 2 size can which would fit inside the 2 ½ size can and this was the place where they would put their food to be cooked or warmed. Now this was a little Bessemer furnace. Wood was very hard to come by, you just didn’t find any because everybody had scoured the forest so little twigs and leaves and things of this sort were used to create a little fire in these little stoves so each one of us had one of those little stoves. And this is how we did our cooking. Now keep in mind we put the fire in the 2 ½ size can, in the bottom, we put the food inside the 2 size can and put it inside to rest on that little ledge we had made and this is how we would cook. So we were able to cook potatoes a little bit, chop em up fairly finely and bits of meat and stuff like that so this is how we survived. We were happy doing it. We were complaining of course, but we were getting food to eat. And we would use this same can, we’d wash it out and use it to make our hot water for coffee, we learned to mix cocoa and coffee together and a little bit of sugar made a mighty good drink. So this is how we lived, this is how we ate.
We were at Moosburg for three weeks give or take I don’t remember exactly how long and on April the 29th we heard gunfire over the hill. And somebody said well it’s uh, the army’s getting close, the tanks are getting close. Well, yes they were. And we kept on hearing them and oh, the middle of the morning, on Sunday morning April the 29th – incidentally this was 2 years to the day that I had graduated from flying school and gotten my wings. On Sunday morning about the middle of the morning, over the hill comes some the tanks. And they came down and came on through the gate and the first thing they did was run that American flag up and I – I just don’t have any reservation – I cried, I cried because it was so good to see it, and I knew what it meant. It meant I was free. I did not have a horrible time in prison camp. But I still had no control over what I was doing. But this meant that I was free, and it was very very very important.
The tanks came on in and of course GIs came and we welcomed them with open arms we saw a platoon or a squad of German soldiers, the guards walking around the outside perimeter of the gate and they were singing! And we went up to the wall of the fence and they started throwing their guns over to us and all sorts of things like that, cause they knew it was all over too and they were happy about it too. Now this was on the 29th of April. Well also the Red Cross girls were right there along side, not on the first wave but they were very very close to the first guys who came into the camp and they were giving coffee and doughnuts if I recall. And we hadn’t had donuts for at least a year. And they were pretty good. But those girls were right there.
And on their heels, General Patton came. He was there personally. I think he had two stars at the time. Had his pearl handled guns on his hips. He came in and he did a quick tour of the camp. He was oh, about 6 foot one or something like that I’m 6 feet. And I was trying to walk beside him just to get a better look at him, I had to run to keep up with him. He had brigadier Generals and full colonels running along side of him just trying to keep up with him. He toured the camp, was chewing tobacco, had a high pitched voice and he said, “Men you’ve done a good job.” And ”We’ll get you out a here real soon, keep up your chin” That was about it, then he went on, but boy, it was certainly good to see him. He had caused this thing to take place, he said hey, we’re going to liberate these guys and that’s what he did. I tell you what, he was my hero.
We stayed at the camp for 3,4,5 days after liberation, some of the fellows went in town and were able to get souvenirs. I didn’t, I just, I guess I was still in shock, being freed at last, so I just stayed around camp and did whatever, waiting, making sure I heard what was going on and finally we were taken to a little airstrip, not too far away from the camp, taken by trucks up there and we got on C-46s and flew from there to France and it certainly was good to see the country again.
Went up there, were put on a train, went through Paris, and I remember seeing Notre Dame Cathedral from the window. We stopped in Paris long enough to eat, but they wouldn’t even let us go into town, ’cause they knew that if we did we’d probably get lost and either eat ourselves or drink ourselves to death or what have you! I didn’t drink but these guys being newly liberated they were liable to do anything. So they kept us under close control, they let us get off the train, we went to some kind of a restaurant, had a meal and then we were taken on from there, to Lucky Strike.
Camp Lucky Strike
We were taken to Camp Lucky Strike, identified and went through all that rigmarole, dog tags and so forth, and de-loused. I didn’t have any lice on me, our camp was pretty free of it. But we were deloused, had all of our clothes taken away from us – there went my coat – showered, given new GI uniforms. OD issue. And we could draw a little bit of money if we wanted to which we all did and we were allowed to send a wire home. And of course I send one to Marguerite. Momma did not have a telephone but I sent one to her telling her I’d been liberated, and where I was, that I was in France and I’d be home as soon as possible.
Keep in mind that Patton released us on the 29th of April and on the 7th of may, the armistice was signed for Germany, and it was signed in the town of Reims, France and there was quite a celebration that night. Quite a celebration. And I went into town just to see what it was and people were cheering and walking up and down and hugging everybody and fireworks were going off, it was quite a spectacle, and I was right there where history was made, fireworks going off and everybody just having one big time.
Then went on back to camp, moved out in a day or two or so and were put on a Liberty ship – that was the size vessel. Went from Le Havre to the coast of England to pick up injured people, and then started on the trip back across the ocean.
We were fed four meals a day. I mean they were big meals and good meals. And I ate everything on my plate, everything in sight until I was just miserable! But I was not about to pass anything up! I weighed about 155 or 150 when I was liberated and I weighed something like 185 when I got back to the United States. So that’s how much I gained in that short a time.
I remember I didn’t like the boat trip so pretty good. Because it was a little bit rough every, once in a while the screw would come of the water and I thought the whole thing was coming apart. But the trip over was not too bad.
We were on the ocean about 10 days. Keep in mind this was right at the end of the war and we were told that some of the German U-boat captains had not been advised of the armistice. So there were still German submarines around so we went in a convoy and that sort of slowed us up too, zigzagged our way.
But we did get home and landed in Boston, stayed there overnight and then took a train for the distribution center in Indiana which was close to home, they sent us there by train, I got there and immediately caught a bus for Louisville.
I got into Louisville middle of the afternoon, I left my bags at the bus station, just had a little overnight bag with me, so I took a taxi to Rene’s house which was at 18 Algonquin Parkway in Louisville. Rene was outside her house, this was in June so she was out there in shorts talking to her mother and father about something or other. And the taxi pulled up at the end of the street and let me out and I saw her and just ran, ran as hard as I could and I dropped my bag and I grabbed her. It was such a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful experience. Of course I was crying, but here, she didn’t know who it was at first because I had this green uniform on and had gained weight and everything else, but we had just a wonderful reunion.
I stayed there a few hours and of course I was concerned about Mama – I couldn’t call Mama, because she didn’t have a phone, but I did call Marguerite- and I got them to take me out to Marguerite’s house. They wanted me to stay longer but I just had to get out and see Mama. Went out to Marguerite’s, outside of Louisville, and she took me on out to the farm, Mama and Papa were there, and Edward my brother. So we had a nice reunion there too and I was so happy to be home, of course I was still in shock of having all the things behind me but this was the end of that story. Thank goodness it had a good ending, I count my blessings all the time.