Thursday, the 24th of February, 1944, is a day that I shall never forget. I credit my being alive now, to unusual good luck, and a damn good parachute. Our target that day was a J-U SS factory in the town of Gotha, deep in Germany. We weren't too worried about the mission, although our position of "tail-end Charlie" in the group, didn't exactly make us feel happy either. However, we were flying the good ship "POCO-LOCO", the plane our crew brought over from the States, so we felt fairly confident.
We took off at nine o'clock in the morning, formed our groups east of the "Wash" and then headed for Germany. Over the English Channel I ordered the gunners to test fire their guns---they all worked O.K., except the Engineer's. In a few minutes time he called me over the interphone--he had remedied the trouble, we were all set. At approximately eleven o'clock we crossed the Dutch coast---the atmosphere was sparkling clear---there wasn't a cloud in sight. We were flying at an altitude of 20,000 feet and I could distinguish ground objects with ease. Above us I saw the contrails of friendly fighters, they must have been up at about 35,000 feet, there were five or six of them. Little did I know then---that was the last I was to see of our escort that day.
We proceeded on course, all the gunners were on the alert---tense at their stations, scanning the skies for enemy fighters---the bomber formation seemed to tighten up as if they sensed that all was not well. We were only about 50 miles inland when justification for any uneasiness was realized ---the screams of "enemy fighters!!" was heard over the interphone in our plane, and in others too---I'll wager.
Yes--the Luftwaffe was out in force---ready to give us a rousing welcome. There were 50 to 75 Focke Wulf 190's and M.E. 190's attacking---hitting us mostly from beneath which made it hard for us to spot them, as they blended with the ground in that position of attack. However, there were several wings of bombers, and we were more than holding our own with our concentrated fire power. An occasional Liberator went down in flames, but the Jerries were paying dearly for each one.
I was in the nose turret but my chances for shots were far and few between as most of the attacks were from the lower rear. Our tail and ball gunner, Jan Brown and Tracy Kelly, respectively, were doing an excellent job in staving off attacks from that quarter. I could feel "Poco Loco" shudder each time one of them let go a volley with his twin fifties. More than one Jerry went down in smoke and was sorry he doubted their marksmanship. Our real trouble began when the different wings of bombers split up to bomb their respective targets. Our wing continued on course while the others veered northward. Unfortunately, the German interceptors stayed with us.
We were well inside of Germany now, and knew that we were in for a bad time---the situation was desperate. Our bomber force was gradually dwindling while the number of German fighters increased steadily---more and more of them taking off from German soil. We estimated that there were about 200 enemy aircraft in the group attacking us. They queried up in fives and sixes, on all sides, striking simultaneously, hammering us from every direction. Hits were scored in every attack. We fired green flares in hope that some friendly fighters might be in the vicinity and see our pleas for help--but non came. Where was our escort? That was the foremost question in every crew member's mind. Later on, we found out what had happened--- through some miscalculation we were 15 minutes ahead of schedule and were missing connection with our escort at rendezvous points all along the route. Avery costly mistake, I'd say.
As we approached Kassel, the Jerries suddenly left us---we were puzzled. The answer to the situation came soon enough---over the town of Kassel we encountered the most terrific flak barrage I've ever seen. My opinion is voiced by others, also. Plane after plane had engines hit, or some other damage which forced them to lag behind. (Why S-2 routed us over that town is something I never will understand.) Leaving Kassel, we were a sorry looking formation---ships were straggling everywhere. The fighters, who had left us momentarily, sized up the situation, saw our plight and came in for the kill.
From there to the I.P. was a horrible nightmare. A burning ship was to be seen almost anytime. Many were German but too many were ours. "Poco Loco" wasn't faring too well either---our tail turret had jammed and was all but useless, our top turret was put completely out of action by 20 millimeter shells, and our ball turret was about out of ammunition. At the I.P. the radio operator opened the bomb-bay doors but I had to get out of the nose turret to manipulate a stubborn bomb release lever which was giving the navigator trouble.
I had just gotten back into the nose when the climax to our worries was reached. A rocket tore through our flight deck leaving a gaping hole about a foot and a half in diameter, on each side of the ship. The plane started burning immediately, our electric power was out, the control cables were gone and our radio operator lay mortally wounded among the shambles of wrecked radio equipment. In the turret, being rather isolated, I was unaware of the terrific damage done by the rocket. However, when, during a head-on attack by several F.W. 190's my turret failed to operate, I knew something was amiss.
Trying the interphone---I found it silent. Then the ship started slipping to the left---things were happening fast. The navigator pounded on the turret door--a signal for me to get out. Getting out of the nose turret, unassisted, was a problem to be reckoned with. Rigged in full flying equipment---it's a difficult task even when one is in complete possession of his faculties and has time. I had to get out in a hurry---the ship was starting a slow spin to the left. How I managed such a quick exit that day remains a mystery to me.
Once out, I wasted no time---the navigator had the escape hatch open and was preparing to jump. He had just left when I reached for my chute. In my hast I put it on backwards (it was the chest variety and this puts an opposite strain on the hooks, from what was intended.) but there was no time for lingering decisions--the ship was burning from nose-wheel to tail-turret, the acid smoke was nauseating. I plunged head-long out of the escape hatch---looking up, I saw the blazing fuselage of "Poco Loco" pass over me. The opening of the chute blacked me out for a few seconds. When I looked in the directions where "Poco Loco" should have been, I saw a huge black pall of smoke--"Poco Loco" had exploded in midair--just seconds after I had gotten out. With it, four members of our crew were blown to eternity--They died as many fliers do--may the rest in peace.
As I drifted earthward I had grim satisfaction in seeing the blazing J U SS factory in the distance--the price was high, but the boys had hit the target. Hanging in space, I was awed by the silence, broken only by the rippling of silk. I looked upward--my chute had held---God had spared me, and I thanked Him.
As I neared the earth, I was surprised at my rapid rate of descent. The ground appeared to be rushing toward me. From high altitude it hardly seemed that I was falling. Below me, a group of Germans lay in wait---I sideslipped my chute to miss some buildings and buckled my knees slightly to avoid broken bones upon impact. I landed less than fifty feet from the Jerries--I hit with a hard thud, felt something snap in my back and fell forward on my chest. There was no wind and the chute covered me completely. As a clambered out from under the silk the Germans were at my side.
I was ordered by gestures to put my hands up. I raised them without hesitation, my back ached terribly---I must have sprained a vertebrae in landing. The German party consisted of several civilian home guards, armed with pistols, and two regular Wehrmacht soldiers. One of the civilians proceeded to give me a verbal lashing---he raised his voice until I thought his lungs would burst, and ended up in a series of frenzied gesticulations. My feelings weren't hurt a bit---I didn't understand a word he said. As a matter of fact---I laughed quietly to myself. He must have seen through my outer complacence for he struck me full in the mouth several times with his fist. I was in no position to fight back--the muzzles of three guns were staring me in the face. One of the Wehrmacht soldiers brought this to a halt and rebuked the civilian severely--this gave me inner satisfaction. The soldier knew that some day he might be a prisoner and probably imagined himself in my shoes.
I then had my clothing searched---the Germans confiscating every-thing found in my pockets. I regretted most of all, loosing a boy scout knife that I had carried on all my missions. It would have proven invaluable, here a Barth.
In the company of the Wehrmacht, I was driven by automobile into the town of Eisenbach. (I had landed near a highway in the outskirts of that town). Arriving in town, the car left us, and we proceeded by foot. Not being allowed the use of the sidewalk I trudged along in the street---one soldier in front and another in the rear. Carrying my chute and Mae West jacket, I must have been quite a novelty, for the sidewalks were lined with curious citizens. They raised their fists and spit---calling me a "Schweinhund" at the same time. One old man, driving a horse and wagon, kept abreast of us for several blocks. He had his horse whip in my face all of that distance. I was glad when the walk was over with---the German people weren't very courteous. As a matter of fact, they were downright angry---it wouldn't have taken much provocation for them to hang an American flyer.
In the city's local jail I was interrogated by several lesser Nazi officials who spoke English. They were intent on finding out what sort of ship I'd bailed out from. "Ves set two enchun or four enchun, maybe, yah?" was what they asked me. I gave them the routine, "name, rank, and serial number" in answer to each query. After several attempts they dismissed the idea of questioning me.
My next stip was a military barracks or Gestapo headquarters on the outskirts of town. My conveyance this time was the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by a rather pretty, buxom German wench. A guard clung to the rear of the sidecar and I mean clung---the girl lpaid no attention whatsoever to sharp corners. The streets were icy, and most of the time we were moving in some direction other than forward. I felt safer in the burning airplane I'd jumped from a few hours before.
In a rather elaborate office at Gestapo headquarters I was subject to a second clothing search. They told me to undress---the fact that several female stenographers were in the same room made no difference, so, undress, I did. I had stripped down to my underclothes when they brought the act to a halt. I expect I looked pretty silly standing there in my John L's, but I was past the stage of modesty---I didn't mind my appearance at all. The girls didn't even lift their eyes from their work---it must have been an every-day experience for them. The search this time was more thorough. They felt all the seams of my clothing, paid close attention to my flying boots and examined the contents of my escape kit with close scrutiny. I was hiding nothing, so it made no difference to me.
After the search, came more interrogations---I was questioned about every fifteen minutes, each time by a different person, the rest of the time I just stood there. My back was hurting and I felt weak---I wanted to sleep more than anything else. My spirits were low---I didn't know who, or how many were alive from my crew or what was to happen to me in the immediate future. I was also hungry--it was fifteen hours since I'd last eaten and I'd burned up an awful lot of calories in those hours. One of the Gestapo men made and consumed a huge liverwurst sandwich in my presence--he had the makings in a desk drawer. Whether this was done to antagonize me or whether it was his regular routine, I don't know. At any rate, the office seemed a very incongruous setting for liverwurst sandwiches.
After several hours of painful waiting, broken only by intermittent questionings, more American fliers were brought in. I had cause for elation, for among them were five members of my crew. We just nodded casually, pretending to be strangers ,so as to give the Germans no indication of the type of ship we'd bailed out from. It actually was hard for me to recognize our engineer--his face was burned so badly.
I was then taken down to a basement room of the building which contained a number of triple deck beds with mattresses of straw. The rest of the Americans joined me about twenty minutes later. Their interviews were of shorter duration than mine as I imagine is generally the case when a group of captives are brought in. In this room I had my first opportunity to talk to the remaining members of our crew. Using gestures, and speaking in barely audible whispers, to prevent any dictaphones or the German guards outside the door from picking up our voices, they gave me the gory details of what had happened to the rest of the men. The engineer said he believed the pilot, co-pilot and radio operator were either dead or dying when he left the ship. As for the missing waist gunner--the ball turret man thought he'd bailed out, but wasn't sure. There was too much fire, smoke, and confusion for any to be sure of anything.
Four men were dead--that made me anything but cheerful. However, I was relieved to know that as many survived as did. When "Poco Loco" exploded, I had thought that most of the crew had perished--I was unaware of the fact that many had bailed out before. That those of us, who were left of the crew, were together again, was another thing to be grateful for.
We had been in the basement room several hours when the Jerries showed signs that they hadn't forgotten us. We were brought some food--consisting of bread and ersatz coffee. Not a very palatable repast but appreciated under the circumstances. After eating, I took to one of the bunks, as did the others. The ache in my back throbbed ceaselessly, but most of the other men were in such a pitiful state that I felt it wrong to complain even to myself. Our engineer's eyes were practically closed from burns and he had flak wounds in half a dozen places on his back and arms. One man had two bullet wounds in his leg, still another had his leg broken. There were bruised heads, burns, shell wounds or fractures on more than half of the men present. In spite of the fact that they had had no medical attention or just very little, there was practically no complaining. They did want to rest however. The Germans had planned otherwise, though. Three or four times during the night we were moved to a dark, dingy, wet hole of a room almost adjacent to the one we were in. They claimed there were "air raids", going on, although it was obvious that one room afforded no more protection than the other. The "air raids" were a farce--just something to make us uncomfortable. After each one, when we were back in the original room, the Germans would interrogate us. In our exhausted state, they probably expected us to break down--they were disappointed however. Toward morning we finally managed to get an hour or so for sleep.
The next day we were on the move again. By army truck we were transported to the town of Erfurt--thirty miles to the east. The journey was a cold one--the trucks were of the wood-burning type and hardly crawled along. It took us all of three hours to make the short trip. I almost froze to death, being clad in only a light flying suit.
The town of Erfurt showed signs of recent bombings. There were huge bomb craters in the streets--no effort had been made to fill them. The buildings in certain sections were damaged considerable also. On the edge of town, adjacent to an airport, we were housed in wooden barracks. All the German personnel there, were attached to the Luftwaffe. They wore the blue uniform, differing from the Wehrmacht, who wear a uniform of green. At this camp there were several hundred recently captured American airmen. The Germans had had "good hunting" for several days. Among them I recognized some old classmates. A fine place for a reunion!
We were destined to stay in this horrible place for a stretch of four days. Twenty-six of us shared one room--sleeping on filthy straw mattresses that covered the floor. Our bodies were grimy with dirt and dried blood, accumulated during the past hectic days. Though we were tired, sleep was almost impossible--the bedbugs and lice attacked us relentlessly. To make matters worse, the lights were kept on all through the night, while a couple of guards, armed with sub-machine guns, watch over us. The food, what there was of it, was bad--a few slices of bread, a cup of ersatz coffee and a couple of boiled potatoes or turnips, was our day's rations. We would not have minded the bad food so much, if we would have had something to smoke, but our cigarettes were the first thing the Germans grabbed when we landed. I believe they would have sold the Nazi party out, for a couple of packs of good American cigarettes. A German soldier only gets three or four smokes per day, and what he gets isn't even a good imitation of a cigarette.
We were at Erfurt a couple of days when a new addition, to those of us in the room, was added. A German, posing as a Canadian, was put in among us, to obtain information vital to their cause. We doubted his authenticity from the start--he asked too many questions and didn't even eat all of the meager rations set before him. I suppose he was fed during the night--he made frequent excursions with one of the guards, claiming he was going to the toilet. Later on, we had his true identity confirmed, by someone who knew.
On Monday, the 28th of February we left Erfurt for Frankfort on the Main. We traveled by rail in old, wooden, separate compartment coaches. Altogether, I rather enjoyed the trip--we received more than the regular ration of food and managed to get a few cigarettes from the German who was guarding us. Seeing something besides four walls was also a novelty--Germany has some beautiful scenery--I marveled at the trimness of the forests. America could well learn something from the Germans, in that respect.
Our first night at Frankfort was spent in a heavily barred cell at the interrogation center, a short distance from the city proper. Six of us occupied the cell. We had a restless night, due to the crowed conditions and the intense heat radiated by an electric unit, that we were unable to turn off.
The following day was a rather uneventful one--however, it did contain a point of interest that I shan't omit. The Jerries gave us a printed questionaire and told us to fill in all of the blank spaces. The questionaire was absurd--it asked us -our group identity, type of aircraft, and a number of highly technical questions in regard to our equipment. For us to answer those, would have been treason. The questionaire trick is an old one, and not a very good method for getting information , as all of the crew members are instructed to expect just such things. The conventional "name, rank, and serial number" were the only blanks filled in. According to the Geneva Convention, of which Germany is a member, that is all the information a prisoner of war has to give. Of course, all of the intelligence departments, including our own, try to obtain more, by threatening the prisoner, putting him in solitary confinement, etc. In many cases they succeed. More secret information is gotten through prisoners, than any other single way. The American soldier, however, is noted for his security.
During the past few days, there were several occasions, when I thought I had reached a state of discomfort that couldn't be exceeded. That I was wrong, soon became apparent--my last night at the interrogation center, proved itself to be the most miserable. Fifty-five of us were literally jammed into a room that couldn't hold half that many in comfort. There was only space enough for a few to sit at a time, so most of the night we had to stand. The heat was oppressive, and the odors emitted from our filthy bodies was anything but pleasant. I was never so anxious, in my entire life, to see the break of dawn. All in all, the interrogation center was, in my estimation, the most disagreeable of our many stops. I was overjoyed to hear the we were leaving that day.
On the following morning, after a short walk, we boarded trolley cars for Dulag Luft, in the center of the city of Frankfort. Dulag Luft wasn't a strange and meaningless group of words to us--we'd been briefed as to its purpose and location, several times, by our intelligence, both in the States, and also, in England. All captured airmen, no matter where they are captured, ultimately end up there. It's the final stop before being sent to a permanent prison camp. At Dulag, purposeful interrogation of prisoners, is brought to a conclusion.
The trolley brought us to within a short distance of the camp. Walking the remainder of the way, I was reminded of my first excursion through a German town, on the day of my capture. This time, I felt more secure--there is strength in numbers--misery loves company. With over a week's accumulation of beard and dirt, we must have presented a sorry example of the American soldier to the people of Frankfort.
At Dulag Luft, we made contact with the American Red Cross, and had our first opportunity to write home, and notify our parents that we were alive. The Red Cross gave each of us a prisoner of war parcel, containing soap, tooth brush and powder, clean clothes, razor and blades, cigarettes and other things for body sanitation and comfort. Next came a hot shower--never have I appreciated anything so much--the hot water and soap was soothing and stimulating. Slipping into clean clothes I felt like a new man. With a shave and a good meal (thanks to the Red Cross food parcels) to complete the rejuvenation, I was REBORN.