After parachuting from our diving, out-of-control B-24 from about 2,000 feet, Lt. Clifford Peterson, our pilot, and I landed close to each other, on the wooded slopes of a mountainside near the small border village of Etting-Munster, southwestern Germany, about 20 miles east of Strasbourg, France. So ended our mission after bombing Friedrichshafen on 18 March 1944.
I landed safely in a clearing of patchy snow, and although Pete's chute had caught some tree branches, he was on the ground, but injured in the face, eye, arms and legs. Only three other crewmen from our ship survived: Lt. James Moorehead, our temporary navigator had managed to bail out earlier and was captured; Russ Vreiling, copilot; and Eugene Roscoe, radio operator, whose parachute blossomed open just before he struck the ground, breaking his leg. I saw, from my vantage point on the hillside, both Vreiling and Roscoe being captured almost immediately by German Home Guards (an assortment of old men, Hitler Youth boys and wounded veterans).
Pete, still in shock, was on all-fours, tangled in his parachute shrouds. I helped him up, wiped the blood from his face, and carefully removed several pieces of shrapnel from him but couldn't get out the big piece embedded in his forearm. At least we were alive, awake and mobile, but in occupied territory. Both our escape kits were gone, but we decided to try to evade and get away from our landing location as soon as possible. The time was about 3:45 p.m. By avoiding the patches of snow on the ground to prevent leaving tracks, we slowly and cautiously made our way down the hillside and found a road. Pete reckoned we were somewhere near the French border.
It wasn't long before we heard someone approaching and immediately sought cover behind several roadside bushes. Three people, a very old lady, a woman of about 40, and a boy of about 12 dressed in his Hitler Youth uniform, passed slowly by. The younger woman was carrying a huge pile of branches on her back, the older one and the boy were pulling a two-wheel handcart full of firewood. We sat there watching from the bushes like a couple of furtive monkeys.
After they'd gone by, we discussed our next move and how to get across the border into France, which would, of course, improve our chances of escape. Which direction did this road lead? Where would we find shelter and a hiding place for the coming cold night?
We eventually decided to walk along the road and see where the three people had gone. We rounded a bend in the road to see all three enter an isolated house after stacking their firewood outside.
We decided to take a chance and venture in. The two ladies and boy showed no great fear at the sight of two shot-down and disheveled American airmen. Eventually we managed to find a map of Germany in one of the boy's schoolbooks. They indicated our location on the map and they very kindly gave us a big chunk of raw bacon.
Then I heard the ominous sound of barking dogs. I looked out through a corner of the kitchen window. A patrolling search party? There they were, coming down the way that we'd approached, dogs straining on their leashes, nose to the ground, following our scent. There was no cover, no place to run, and then the dogs were scrabbling at the door.
An assorted collection of militiamen, some with arms missing and carrying old rifles, ancient shotguns, etc., swarmed into the house. And they didn't even bother to knock at the door.... It was like a scene from a "B" movie.
Pete and I were sitting at the kitchen table. We weren't scared at all as they indicated to us to stand up and raise our arms while one little old fellow, who seemed a little braver than his companions, attempted to search us. The only problem was that he seemed reluctant to get too close to us. Standing about four feet away, shaking like a leaf, he leaned forward at full stretch and attempted to pat our flight clothes with his finger tips. We could have both been concealing .50-caliber machine guns and I doubt if he would have found them.
After thanking our three hosts for their kindness, we were marched out of the house and down the road with a cocked shotgun in our backs. The more we walked, the more people we collected along the way. When we eventually arrived at the local village jail, we had a total of about 200 curious Germans of all ages.
Russ Vreiling and Eugene Roscoe were already there. Both had serious injuries: Roscoe a broken leg and a shattered kneecap; Vreiling unconscious with various injuries, but he fortunately survived. Pete was escorted to the local hospital along with his two injured crewmen and I was escorted to the prison in nearby Strasbourg. After spending that night in the city j ail in Strasbourg, the second night I was in Freiburg prison, back in Germany, along with 11 other shot-down flyers. Two days later we boarded a train for the interrogation camp at Wetzler, near Frankfurt-Am-Main, Germany, and another two days later, 22 March, I was in the city of Frankfurt, where I had my first shower and food since breakfast at Wendling at 2 a.m., 18 March.
That night Royal Air Force Bomber Command hit Frankfurt. The British Pathfinder plane put on a Fourth of July fireworks display with red and green marker flares. We had red flares drifting down over near our camp while dozens of searchlights scanned the night sky. We scrambled into a partially-completed concrete air raid shelter along with other Allied airmen. The raid began.
A 4,000 lb. "cookie" and several other bombs hit our camp. As the bombs exploded all around the camp, the ground appeared to visibly shake and heave. Six barrack blocks were there, but the next morning you could have put the largest remaining piece of the buildings in your pocket. There were huge lumps of clay, as large as an automobile, lying all around the edge of the "cookie" crater, which was itself large enough to take a two story house. However, I recall my first air-raid with tender and loving emotions.
What was the tender, loving part? The constant roar of many aircraft and the massive, earthshaking explosions were absolutely terrifying, but those lovable "Limey" boys, shot-down British airmen - about six of them - sang songs such as "Roll Out the Barrel/" "Roll Me Over In The Clover," etc., all through the raid. I'm sure I would have died of fright had it not been for their great moraleboosting cheerfulness. They, of course, were fully experienced and had seen it all before under German bombs back in England. Even now, I would come and help them fight. I had many experiences thereafter with other Limeys, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and, of course, us "Yanks".... all great buddies in a crisis.
The following morning I volunteered for a burial detail to get out of our wrecked camp and away from several ticking delayed-action bombs. I helped bury eight Allied airmen in a shallow grave on top of a nearby hill, but we were told to leave before we could get the mass grave fully backfilled. The German authorities then ran and walked us through devastated Frankfurt to a train waiting on the other side of the city. Broken glass crunched with every step, long lengths of steel street-car tracks were twisted and rolled up like roller-coasters, broken bedsteads hung crazily from smoldering and shattered buildings, old people were sitting on the pavements and curbs sobbing while the rest of the civilian population were cursing, spitting, throwing rocks and stones at us, trying to attack and strike us as we ran.
Five days later we arrived at Stalag Luft IV Heydekrug, East Prussia, in four feet of snow. Walking from the train to the POW camp barefooted was quite an experience. We didn't realize it then, but compared with what lay ahead of us during the next year or so, Heydekrug was a beautiful "rest camp." Our best food at Heydekrug consisted of a teacup full of mashed potatoes once a day and the luxury of hot water. Occasionally we received a very scarce supply of Red Cross food parcels. The best issue was one parcel for two men every two or three weeks. We always seemed to be hungry during the entire 14 months as prisoners of war.
We left Heydekrug in mid-July 1944 by rail for the port of Memel (today called Klaipeda, Lithuania), and were loaded into the Masurin, a captured Russian tanker. We were 800 to each hold, standing room only, a few buckets of water and no food. Exhaustion set in, and with standing room only began to sleep on top of each other. At first we designated a corner of the hold to relieve ourselves, but as the deck became entwined with layers of bodies this became impossible, so we "did it" where we stood. The reader can well imagine the putrefying results.
At first, the German guards let some prisoners up on the main deck, but two desperate prisoners jumped overboard and were machine-gunned in the water. Thereafter, no one else was allowed up on deck for the rest of the voyage to a Baltic port near Stettin, at the mouth of the River Oder, the prewar border between Germany and Poland.
You could smell us from two blocks away. To add insult to injury we were hand-cuffed in pairs with what appeared to be medieval screw-on chains and loaded into railroad boxcars for the next stage of our transfer to our new camp. The journey lasted for about 10 days due to interminable delays sitting in sidings to let other trains pass. We eventually arrived near our destination, Kiefheide, about 3 miles from our next POW camp, Stalag Luft IV, and were off-loaded in a wooded clearing covered by machine gunners. By this time each prisoner had what seemed like thousands of lice all over his body.
The guards were under the command of Hauptmann Pickardt, a typical Prussian officer, but he was only about 5 feet tall. You could have cut your finger on the creases of his immaculate breeches and shave in the shiny reflection of his highly-polished black jackboots.
A column of four abreast was formed, I've no idea how long. On the right side of our column, where I luckily was, the guards were old men. On the left were young German Navy sailors armed with rifles, bayonets fixed. Large dogs, straining at their leashes, and machine guns set up in the woods along the road, were additional deterrents against would-be escapees.
The "run" began. We'd been told that if we fell out we would be shot. The dogs were snapping at our legs, and the sailors had been whipped into a frenzy of hate by Hauptmann Pickardt yelling, "These are the men who bombed our country and killed your wives and children.... Take your revenge now!!" They used bayonet sticking, (not the running-through kind, just sticking), rifle butts, kicks, and dogs -we ran, or else. Two files forward and on the left side was an Englishman. Every time they hit or stuck him he's curse them -"Schweinkopffs! .... Dumbkopffs! .... " so they gave him an awful lot of attention. But he never went down and he never quit cursing them. They must have hit him and stuck him about 60 times.
It was hot and we had no water. Somehow we arrived in a field outside the camp. Have you ever been thirsty.... really thirsty? Your mouth gets full of white frothy cotton, your tongue swells up and you have difficulty breathing. Solution: put a stone in your mouth to hold your tongue down.
I recall very little about that camp other than we were ordered to sleep in that field outside the camp for the next three days without food or medical treatment and very little water. On the third day we were taken into the camp for processing and given a bowl of watery soup, our first meal in six days. Only three other incidents come to mind: Lightning struck a hut and 12 British prisoners died.... A German fighter was shot down and we all cheered.... A German electrician was accidentally electrocuted while up on a pole and we all cheered....
Somewhere along the line in that camp I died for a while. Amnesia? I woke up in a camp near Nurnberg, where we were bombed again. I have no idea how I arrived there. I know that if we moved abruptly, like leaning over to tie a bootlace, we'd pass out on the floor.
We left Nurnberg and we walked to Mooseburg, where we were eventually liberated by Gen. Patton's advancing armored columns in the spring of 1945. That was a fine walk - feet covered with blisters. We slept in fields, in cold rain and in a barn. Rain is great to sleep in.... you get clean even if you do freeze. Let it be known that I fared well. I lost 40 lbs. in weight and was physically sick for two years.
However, I was one of the very lucky five from our crew to survive the war. The five who went down with our B-24 and were killed were: Edmund Brown, bombardier; Leon Hancock and Enoch Masters, waist gunners; Ora Harrell, ball turret gunner and Jimmie Byrd, tail gunner.