Army Air Forces Historical Association
Zwerin: I understand that your unit received a citation for bravery in the Gotha operation.
Kaplan: Yes, we did but I never got it. That was a presidential citation. I got several other awards that I was entitled to, but I was a POW when that citation was issued, and I didn't get it. When I came home I went to work right away, and I didn't follow it up.
Zwerin: Getting back to the beginning. When did you join the Air Force?
Kaplan: In July of 1942. I was drafted.
Zwerin: How did you feel about it at the time?
Kaplan: You know, I was kind of a Mama's boy. I never spent a lot of time with other boys as a kid. I wasn't mach interested in sports, and I didn't play the street ball games. I never was much good at that kind of thing. I did a lot of reading. The first time I was with other men was when I got into the Army.
Women had a lot to do with my growing up. Now, I was away from Mama. I was with a bunch of men, and they treated me like one of them. That was a nice feeling. And I had my own bed for the first time in my life.
Zwerin: You didn't have your own bed before?
Kaplan: No, I slept with my brother. And my two sisters slept together.
Zwerin: There were four of you?
Kaplan: Yes. As a matter of fact, my nephew, David, once asked his father, my brother Howard, "What was the happiest day of your life?" And Howard said, "The day my brother went into the Army." It was the first time he ever had his own bed.
Zwerin: How far had you gotten in school before you were drafted?
Kaplan: I had a couple of years of college. I went to Townsend Harris High School, and then I went to City College.
Zwerin: Where did you get your basic training?
Kaplan: In Atlantic City. That was strange too. Living in a hotel.
Zwerin: A hotel, for basic training?
Kaplan: They didn't use barracks in Atlantic City. They used all the hotels there. That was the housing that was available. We trained on the beach, and we did our marching drills in Convention Hall. There was a big indoor space, and regardless of the weather, we could do our short order drills and things like that.
Zwerin: And where did you go from there?
Kaplan: I went to aviation mechanics school.
Zwerin: How did you happen to be selected for aviation mechanics?
Kaplan: We took a whole battery of tests. We took the GIC, which was the IQ test the Army gave everybody. You got certain grades, and as a result of getting those grades, you were permitted to take other tests; and I was accepted to go to aviation mechanics school in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Zwerin: How long were you there?
Kaplan: Four months; I finished the school. I was a lousy mechanic, but they didn't know it. I was very good at theory, though, and they offered to train me as an instructor, which I thought was great.
The method of teaching in the Army is, you're really a part of everything that's going on. You audited the courses and watched the more experienced men. Then, again, you had to kill time, so I went out with a couple of other student instructors. We left the school one afternoon, and went down to the soldier's club and had a couple of beers. That was another new thing for me.
And sure enough, the master sergeant in charge of the school came by and saw us. He let us know that our behavior wasn't correct, that we belonged to him, and he was going to be on our tail.
Zwerin: What were you doing wrong?
Kaplan: We were supposed to be in school. We were playing hookey. So, he scared the living daylights out of us, and as we walked back to the school, we passed an aviation cadet application office. We went inside and applied for aviation cadet school. Then, down the road, there was an officers' candidate school, and we signed up for that. We were going to take whatever came first.
They gave us a routine physical, and just at that time, some men who were supposed to have shipped out couldn't make it; and the three of us were offered a chance to ship out right away, in their place. We were still scared of this master sergeant, and we took the offer.
That meant a change from aviation mechanics to going back to school for aviation cadet training -- pre-flight school, and later, navigation.
Zwerin: Was your aviation cadet training at Mather Field?
Kaplan: Yes, but first we went to Santa Ana, which was south of L. A., for ground school, the beginning of our aviation training. There was a lot of technical material. We learned about weather and about principles of flight, and we trained to become officers.
They hadn't determined yet which one was going to become a pilot or a bombardier. That came later. But we started these studies, and also we learned how to drill men. That was one thing I did like. You needed a loud voice, and I had one. Also, there was a rhythm to it that I liked. I had a flair for it, and I fell right into it. I felt I had found something that I was good at.
After we went through ground school, there was a hiatus before aviation cadet school. They had to separate us out. One was going to pilot school, one was going to navigator school, one was going to bombardier school. But there was a blockage in the pipeline, and they had to hold us a little longer.
At this time, they offered a number of us an opportunity to set up a school for glider pilots. It seems that when they first started training glider pilots and paratroopers, they had put too much of an emphasis on glider troops. They were men who had something like flight training, but not quite at the same level.
These men were brought into this program, and we set up a school. There were about twelve of us, and we set up a series of courses to bring them up to speed. This included meteorology, map reading, math, and principles of flight, so that they could become aviation cadets. I enjoyed that.
Zwerin: You set up this school, and you taught there, on the basis of how many months of training that you had received?
Kaplan: Several months. That's the way the Army is. One of the duties of officers in the Army is to pass on the information that you have, to train other people. As a matter of fact, it's one of the things that stood me in good stead eventually when I went into business.
Zwerin: And that's how you changed from aviation mechanics and became aircrew. How was it decided that you would be a navigator?
Kaplan: Another series of tests, including mathematics. Math was my field; I had wanted to teach it, actually. But at that time, there were 10,000 people in teacher training who also wanted to teach math. High schools were loaded with them.
Zwerin: When did you leave for England?
Kaplan: In November of 1943. After you graduated from navigation school, you had what they called staging . You met the crew, you flew together, you became a team. Then, after you finished all of that, you did some specialized training like over-the-water navigation, and you practiced bomb runs, and that kind of thing.
Then we got together in Kansas City. From there we picked up a plane and we went across. We flew up to Presque Isle, Maine, the northernmost part of the United States. This was an exciting part of the trip for me. From there we went to Newfoundland, and from Newfoundland we flew to Scotland. I remember the landfall that we made. This was the first time I knew I was a navigator.
Zwerin: You had done the navigating across the Atlantic?
Kaplan: Yes. Even though we had radio and things like that, I used a couple of tricks and gimmicks that people had taught me in my navigation training, and I wound up crossing the coast within five miles of our planned landfall. It was an unbelievable experience for me.
We landed at Prestwick, near Glasgow.
From there we went to an area where all these crews who were coming in as replacements were brought. We were assigned to the 392nd Bomb Group, based in Wendling. That's between Norwich and an area called The Wash.
Zwerin: When you came there, did you go right into combat?
Kaplan: No, we had a few days of additional training. There's a period where you are first assigned to a squadron, and then you do some training in your own plane. You feel out the little bugs of the plane you're assigned to.
Zwerin: What planes did you fly in?
Kaplan: Our crew flew a B-17 across, and we delivered it. When we got to England, they assigned us to a B-24, and that's the only one I flew in, in combat.
Zwerin: What planes did you train in?
Kaplan: The first was an AT 11, a twin-engine ship where we did our first navigation. They would line us up in the plane, and each crewmember would do his own work. From there they took us into a Lockheed Vega, which was a popular airplane at that time--a very stable plane-and that's the plane we did most of our training in.
At aviation cadet school, at Mather Field, near Sacramento, I did some night work on my own in a B 25. There was a group stationed not far from Mather Field, and occasionally they would let us go up at night to do some celestial navigation.
We never really used a great deal of that in combat. By the time we became operational, they had LORAN, a special guidance system which is used to this day. There was also a radio compass, with which you could tune into a particular radio station. By the strength of the signal or lack of a signal, you could determine your position and direction.
There was another guidance system called by the acronym, GEE, that I had to get used to. It was a very precise and exact way of determining your location, your fix. Again, it was a system that used radio signals from several locations.
Zwerin: So you went into combat in about a week, after going up on various training flights.
Kaplan: Yes. But you didn't fly combat every day. The weather might not be right, or you'd have a flight, and the weather over the target area would be no good; or you'd be looking for a different target. But we were now in combat, depending on the weather and different conditions.
Zwerin: Would you describe your combat experience? What were your briefings like, and your debriefings? What was the typical procedure for a day with a mission?
Kaplan: We would be awakened very early. If I was flying "lead" that day, our crew was called out earlier. "Lead" or "wing." It sounds very exciting.
Zwerin: From Mama's boy to hero. That's fantastic.
Kaplan: I never thought of it that way. I was scared most of the time.
Zwerin: But you weren't so scared that you couldn't do your job, were you?
Kaplan: I'll tell you something. That it is a part of my family. You always do your job. On that video that I told you we made of our family, we found this thing about our parents. They did whatever had to be done to keep the family going. And each one of us is that way in our working habits. We did whatever we had to do.
Zwerin: So you would get up early on a day with a mission?
Kaplan: You got up early, you would go to the mess hall. First I would have to check, is the mission really on? If it was on, then we'd get a fried egg. You always had real eggs on the day you flew a mission. That was how you knew this was for real, and not a training thing. Then you went on to separate briefings. Navigators had their briefing, bombardiers went to another briefing.
Then we met the rest of the crew, and that was very dramatic. Did you ever see the movie, "Twelve O'Clock High"? Everybody sits there, buzzing and buzzing, and then, suddenly everything is quiet.
A high level officer would get up and pull the shade down. You'd see a long ribbon showing the path to the target, and everybody would groan. Then they would tell you the point of the mission, who would escort you in, and who would fly diversionary maneuvers.
Sometimes that was very discouraging. I never liked the idea of being the diversionary force. If I was going to lay my life on the line, I wanted to be doing the real thing.
They were still having problems with escort planes for us. They couldn't carry enough fuel to follow us all the way into the target, and their ammunition was limited. The fighters would take us out to a certain point, and have to turn back.
Other fighters with a longer range would meet us further in; but eventually they all had to leave us before we reached the target. Then our only protection was to stay in close formation. Every bomber had ten gun positions, and we all covered one another.
But if your plane was not operating properly, if you were hit by flak and couldn't keep up in the formation, you were in serious trouble. You were on your own, away from the protection of the other bombers. Then the German fighters could come in and pick you off, and that is precisely what happened.
Zwerin: How did you get into formation?
Kaplan: We would take off and circle around till we got together, and we would go off. Then you'd get a Vee formation. There were lots of Vees on top, Vees on the bottom and there could be several hundred airplanes there. When you were doing this, forming up was the most dangerous part.
Zwerin: You could bump into each other?
Kaplan: Yes, it happened. There were occasional crashes. When that happened, other planes would move into position to complete the formation, and you would go forward. By the time you crossed the Dutch coast you'd start to see some fighters.
Zwerin: Their fighters?
Kaplan: Our fighters. When their anti-aircraft was coming up, the Gerries weren't around, because the flak could be hitting their planes. Their fighters were waiting, after the flak. Our fighters would be up high, stay as long as they could, and they would return.
Now you would get to what we would call the initial point, and you would turn into the target. But if you're going to bomb a certain area, you wouldn't fly right to it. If they knew exactly where you were going, they would know exactly where to put their defenses up.
You're flying along this way, and you reach the initial point. That's a point that is very easily recognized. There's a railroad, there's a river. Everybody is in position, and then you make your final turn. This is when you are the most vulnerable. From the time you make that turn until the time you're over the target, you've got to stay in tight.
You know, we have this myth of pinpoint bombing. That really did not work the way we advertised it. First of all, there's no sensible way you can have 100 airplanes, bomb correctly, each one jockeying with its automatic bombsight. So if you had the lead crew, you would go in and be working with your bombsight. You would drop the bombs, and the planes following you would be watching, and would drop their bombs too.
At the point where we would make the turn, the bombardier of the lead group would call back to the pilot, "I've got it." In other words, he lines up this bombsight onto the target, and automatically, by the hydraulic or electrical system, this steers the plane. It's an automatic bombsight.
He has it set up so that the bombs are dropped after he passes a certain point in his bombsight. The planes following see the bomb bay doors open, and that is their signal to drop their bombs.
Up to this point, you've been working for Uncle Sam, as we used to say. Then you turn, and start working for yourself. Now you're just trying to get home.
Zwerin: The navigator guides the pilot there, and the bombardier is the one to line up the plane over the target --
Kaplan: -- until the target is hit. From then on the pilot takes evasive action, and the navigator gives him the heading home.
Zwerin: The navigator reads the maps, tells the pilot where to go?
Kaplan: It's a lot of educated guessing. Navigation in a plane is not precise. You use the same systems you use in a boat, but the speeds at which you travel, and the different movements of the plane, are such that you can't be 100% accurate. The plane is vibrating and moving. You look at the compass and it's moving eight degrees that way and six degrees this way, and you say, well, that must be five degrees.
You keep looking at this compass and trying to maintain a certain heading, but it changes because of the speeds at which the plane is going. The pilot also has an automatic pilot to help him.
Zwerin: Did the navigator sit near the pilot?
Kaplan: No, the navigator sat in an office in the nose compartment, behind the bombardier. The pilot and copilot sat in the cockpit. I didn't see the pilot, but we talked to each other constantly through the intercom. We all had some visibility through the plexiglass. Also, the navigator could move around in the plane.
Zwerin: You sat and did calculations, mostly?
Kaplan: Yes, but most of our calculations were done beforehand. If I'm the lead navigator, I've done my work ahead, and then I just make corrections. If you're in the lead plane, you're the "lead navigator"; if not, you're "follow the pilot."
If I'm in a plane behind the lead plane, I don't tell the pilot what to do. I just keep a record of where we've been. But if something happens to the plane, if you get hit, you've got to be able to tell the pilot where we are at any given point, and give him a heading to go home, if we have to go home alone.
Zwerin: What were typical targets? Germany, usually?
Kaplan: Yes, but when we couldn't go to a big target, we'd go to what we called "no-balls." It was usually the submarine works at St. Nazaire, France. This was an easy mission, a milk-run. We didn't have to worry about going in deep.
You crossed the Channel, and there was a lot of flak, usually. There were concrete submarine pens at St. Nazaire. When we went there, lobbing the bombs from above didn't do much good because the bombs would just bounce off the concrete. So the trick was to approach the submarine pens from the sea, and drop your bombs so that they would go under the concrete ceiling.
Zwerin: Could you actually direct the bombs?
Kaplan: Today you can, but you couldn't then. What we used to do, we'd come in from a certain altitude and drop the bomb. It moved forward at the same speed as the plane; and if you had figured out the trajectory correctly, by the time you'd get over the target, the bomb was coming down under the ceiling of the submarine pen.
Zwerin: So that was an easy mission.
Kaplan: Yes. Now, if you were deep into Germany and you couldn't complete your mission, and you had bombs, the rule was that you dropped them anywhere. They were called targets of opportunity. If you were in France, you were only supposed to drop them on military targets like bridges and railroad yards.
Zwerin: And if you couldn't find any?
Kaplan: You couldn't bring live bombs back to the air base; so if you had to get rid of them, you dropped them over the Channel.
Zwerin: You just described some easy ones. Now would you describe some difficult ones?
Kaplan: Well, there were human beings who made these plans, and human beings flying the planes, and things go wrong sometimes. At the beginning of that week when I was shot down, there was a maximum effort every day we flew.
We didn't normally fly every day, but this whole week, everybody was flying. When we got near the initial point, it didn't look right. We couldn't pick out our initial point. Finally, the one flying lead that day -- I wasn't, but it could have happened to me -- he thought he saw the confluence of river and railroad. It looked right to him, and we made the turn, but we did not find our target.
There were over 150 planes making a complete 360 degree circle, looking for the target. Talk about guys being scared! Finally, we dropped our bombs at the signal of the lead crew, but those of us in the rear knew that we had not hit the target.
When we got back from the mission and had a debriefing, our reconnaissance pictures showed that we had hit a cheese factory and a school.
Zwerin: Do you remember a successful one, where the opposite happened?
Kaplan: I can remember a couple of times when we hit industrial plants in the Ruhr. And the day that we were shot down, we had a tremendous success. That was Gotha, the Messerschmidt airplane works at Gotha.
Zwerin: That must have been the action for which your unit received the citation -- the one you should have gotten, and didn't.
Zwerin: What other targets did you hit?
Kaplan: We hit the naval base at Kiel. As a matter of fact, that was the first time we used B-17s and B-24s together. It was a catastrophe. They flew higher than we did, and we flew a little faster than they did. The planes were hard to keep together in formation. We had flak, we didn't have any fighters up there.
But most of the injuries at that time were from frostbite, because the men touched their guns and instruments with their bare hands, and it was about 50 degrees below zero. The men had electric gloves, and silk gloves inside the electric gloves. They weren't supposed to touch the guns without their silk gloves. But a lot of men did, and had very had frostbite injuries.
What happened was, they got very frustrated and wanted to fire their weapons at the enemy planes. But the guns froze up because the lubricating oil in the guns had frozen, and the men couldn't free them. It was terrible. A lot of people were hurt.
Zwerin: Did you have many planes penetrated by flak, and men being hit?
Kaplan: Yes, we had substantial flak damage, but most of our injuries that day were caused by frostbite.
Zwerin: The B-24s were called Liberators?
Kaplan: Yes. They were also called flying boxcars because of their squared-off shape. And the B-17s were called Flying Fortresses. They're about the same size. We carried more bombs and we had a little better speed, but the B-17s could fly higher, they could fly tighter formations, and take more punishment. They were safer airplanes.
Zwerin: You mentioned hundreds of planes going out. How many went out at a time on a mission of that size?
Kaplan: About 100, 120.
Zwerin: How many planes were in a squadron?
Kaplan: Seven in a squadron. Four times seven is 28, and possibly 32, would be on a normal mission. But they had what they called "maximum effort." When you had a maximum effort, every plane that could possibly fly went up, and joined the other squadrons. So we had as many as 1,000 planes in the air.
Zwerin: Was that very often? I think of that as D-Day.
Kaplan: Toward the end, in February, 1944, it was not unusual to have 1,000-plane raids.
Zwerin: Let's get into the story of when you were shot down. How long had you been flying missions before that happened?
Kaplan: I became operational early December, 1943, and I was shot down on February 24, 1944.
Zwerin: How many missions did you fly before you were shot down?
Kaplan: Seventeen--and a half.
Zwerin: You mentioned that the plane you were shot down in had been named The Jinx, even before that day. How did it get that name?
Kaplan: There's a lot of barracks humor, or black humor, that the men would use about their situation, to cover up their fear. "Jinx" was a reverse way of saying they hoped it wouldn't happen. Actually, this was not our plane. Ours had been damaged, and we were given The Jinx to fly on this particular day.
Zwerin: And the first day you went out in that plane, you were shot down.
Kaplan: I was not surprised. We had a problem with one of our engines, and we had trouble keeping in formation. We had sustained some damage before we got over the target. There were six planes that were flying off us, and we couldn't get into formation; we were always falling behind because we didn't have the power. So all seven planes were shot down. Seventy men.
Zwerin: Seventy men shot down and, what? Imprisoned, killed?
Kaplan: From our plane, seven of us were captured. The copilot and engineer were hit by gunfire and died in the plane, and the pilot was killed on the ground.
Zwerin: And the ones who survived bailed out?
Kaplan: We bailed out. The pilot also bailed out, but he was killed on the ground by German civilians.
Zwerin: How high were you?
Kaplan: We were at 29,000 feet. We really shouldn't have been at that height. It was above our ceiling.
Zwerin: And it was freezing. How did you survive that?
Kaplan: Well, it doesn't take you long to come down, you know. I was trying to slip the chute--make the chute fall faster by pulling the shrouds. I felt, if I could get near a railroad, which was not far, I might be able to follow it out of there. But I got hung up in a tree. Finally I got out of the chute, fell to the ground, and broke my ankle.
I was alone. There was no one around me for hours. The rest of the crew were several miles from where I was. I was in deep snow, and it was bitter cold. I could hear the Germans thrashing around some distance away. I was afraid I was going to freeze to death.
I had what we called a dinghy whistle, to be used in case you went down in the water. I blew this whistle, and finally some "soldat" came over to me. He pointed at his rifle and said, "Pistole?" And I said, "Nicht pistole."
Zwerin: You had no gun?
Kaplan: No, I left it in the plane. I didn't want to have that damned thing with me. I wouldn't know what to do with it anyway. As soon as he saw that I didn't have a gun and that I was injured, he grabbed the parachute and stuffed it under his coat. He was going to take it home to someone. There were some schoolkids with sleds, and he turned me over to them. Then he went off with the parachute.
The kids brought me into town on a sled and turned me over to the local police chief. I was in a civilian jail for three days, but they got me fed. They brought me into this place, there were a lot of civilians around, and they gave me some soup.
In the jail, I noticed a couple of other men from my group. And I had a lucky break, because the daughter, or somebody connected with this policeman, had a boyfriend who was a prisoner of war in Arizona. She brought me food for a couple of days, and wanted to know if conditions were "schoen" in Arizona. I assured her they were.
Subsequently they picked up a bunch of us from different locations and brought us to a factory. I couldn't walk properly because of my broken ankle. There was a man working in the factory who had been a POW in World War I, and he made me a crutch.
Then they put us on trains and I came to Frankfurt am Main. There things began to get rough. They took us to a place called Oberursel, which was an interrogation center just outside of Frankfurt, and put us in solitary confinement.
Zwerin: What about medical care? Didn't anyone come to set your ankle?
Kaplan: Not at that time. I didn't get any medical care for at least ten days. So I just waited. Then I went through an interrogation period. After awhile, the interrogator said to me, "Du bist ein guten soldat," meaning, I was a good soldier.
Zwerin: Why did he say that?
Kaplan: Because I didn't tell him anything. But you do stupid things. I did something when they started asking questions and taking our dog tags. Someone asked me, "Religion?" And I looked at him and said, "Jewish!"
Zwerin: Didn't he look at your name and see that it was Kaplan? Or were they that knowledgeable?
Kaplan: I don't know. Why did I have to say it? I don't know why I said it, because I had already thrown away some of my identification. So I said, Jewish, but no difference was made in the treatment I got at that time. I was in POW camp for a year before it began to make a real difference.
Zwerin: How much longer were you at the interrogation center?
Kaplan: I was there another day, and then they shipped us out to different camps. I was sent to Stalag Luft One, for Allied airmen, in Barth.
Zwerin: What was life like in that camp?
Kaplan: It was a little hungry, and you were restricted. The first care I got was there. The other men in the train with us went directly to the barracks, and I went to a dispensary.
There was a British dentist who had been captured at Dunkirk. He was in charge of their "lazaret," or dispensary, and he said my ankle had to be set. They didn't want to take me for an X-ray, and he fought with them, and got them to take me to the hospital. But it wasn't set properly.
Zwerin: Were you able to function?
Kaplan: Oh, yes. They put the cast on, and I ran around with it for about three months. One thing about being a prisoner is that you learn not to complain too much. There's always fellows around who went through worse ordeals.
Zwerin: So they gave you at least basic care. It could have been worse?
Kaplan: Yes- until the Gestapo took over the camp, on January 19, 1945. All the Luftwaffe guards were removed, and that was a whole different bag. This was shortly after the attempt on Hitler's life, in December, I think. And then there had been the firestorm bombing of Dresden, which angered all the Germans.
That was when they separated out the Jewish officers. I had been in the North Compound, and they moved us into the South Compound. We were supposed to be walked out -- marched down to Berlin in the cold.
Some of our own men were anti-Semites, but most of the other American prisoners were a very good support for us. There were officers who let us know that they weren't going to permit us to be "walked out."
Because of my injury, I never really had the right footwear. I had been trying to get a decent pair of shoes for months. When I got back to my barracks one day, there was a pair of shoes on my bunk. Then I knew for sure that we'd be moved out, but it left me with good feeling.
Zwerin: Then you never were actually walked out?
Zwerin: And you feel that was due to the pressure of the non-Jewish officers?
Kaplan: Oh, of course. Colonel Hubert Zemke was our Senior American Officer in the camp. He bluffed the Germans and said we had some weapons. We did have about seven "pieces". He said we were going to rush the towers.
We also had a parachutist officer who was a prisoner there. He had organized this Group X, which included all the prisoners, regardless of their background. We used to plan what we would do if the Armageddon came. He figured out that we would lose about 20 percent, but that they couldn't kill us all. It never came to that, but we had a plan.
Zwerin: What were some of the bad things that happened?
Kaplan: Some of our men were killed. There were some bastards among the guards. They were in power. But there were also some decent guards who behaved like human beings. We could deal with them.
Do you remember, when they had those hostages in Iran, something happened between the captors and the captives? The first thing is, they have the power of life and death over you. When someone turns the key on you, something happens to you.
You think, I'd better be nice to him; and after a while you develop some kind of relationship. You realize that he's a solder, and you're a soldier, and there are certain things you can get from each other.
We used to get Red Cross parcels, and there were things in those parcels that the Germans needed and couldn't get. So we used them for trading. I was such a trader in our little group.
The Red Cross parcels included cigarettes; and cigarettes were a medium of exchange, they were like money. So the men who were best off were the ones who didn't smoke, because they had all this money and you could exchange it.
Sometimes you got an egg, a chicken, a bar of soap, or who knows what. You might get a gun. It was a cautious relationship. We used one another. I think the term is symbiosis.
While I was in the camp we made up an escape map as a result of the help we got from some of the guards. They didn't know they were helping us, of course. They would never knowingly have done that.
The way this map developed, we first got a little road map of the area, and then we started to be very specific about every quarter of a mile. We had men, whose responsibility was to get as much information as possible, when they went out on a work detail. They'd come back, and add a little piece to the map each time.
We'd say to the guards, "What's over by the "vasser" (the water) and they would tell us that there was a little bridge, and people would go swimming or fishing there. And we would accumulate this information. Eventually we would wind up with a map, and we made copies for one another. I still have my copy.
Zwerin: How did you spend your days in camp?
Kaplan: One of the hardest things to do when you're in prison is to fill the time. Some men slept as much as possible. The most important thing is to give your life some kind of purpose when you get up in the morning. The YMCA sent us books, and I read a lot.
And we had many activities. We established a school. Some men taught, some came to the school, and some men would use the school as a diversion. The guards would be watching us while we took care of the classes, and meanwhile somebody else would be digging a hole. The activities had more than one purpose.
Zwerin: Was there much tunnel digging?
Kaplan: Oh, sure. It was kind of tough because we were near the water and the camp was sitting on sandy soil. But, we had some successful escape attempts. We considered them successful if anybody got out of the camp. As far as people getting home, we wouldn't know at our level. Our men were pretty sharp, and they had learned from the British prisoners various systems for pumping air, shoring up tunnels. The first things we used for shoring up tunnels were slats from the bunk beds. As we learned more about our surroundings, we moved some boards from the attic.
We were in prefabricated wooden barracks, and the rooms were bolted together. We found that, if we were very careful, we could unscrew those bolts, widen the space between the walls, and fill them up with sand. Because that's your other problem: You can dig a hole, but what do you do with the stuff in the hole? This was a big engineering problem.
You may have seen some of that in the movies. In the spring, everybody grew victory gardens. Eventually the gardens got higher than the rest of the compound, because people were dropping the earth down through their trousers.
Zwerin: Didn't they ever get caught?
Kaplan: They were caught in other ways. There were shallow ditches, or crawl spaces, underneath our barracks, and they ran dogs through them. Some guards (we called them ferrets) were slightly built, and they could crawl under us to listen to what we were doing.
Other guards who could speak English, would come to our barracks to act friendly and shoot the breeze, and meanwhile they would be looking for signs of escape activity. They tried to use us the same way we tried to use them. Prisoners were always trying to escape, some through tunnels, some through a system we called a "blitz." We had double fences with barbed wire inside. First, we'd make ladders out of the bedslats. Then we'd start a furor on one side of the compound, and a couple of men would rush the fence. The POW's would run out to the fence and throw the ladder onto the wire.
Zwerin: Was that an escape attempt? It seems so futile.
Kaplan: You have no idea how desperate some people can become. Oh, sure, there were things we did, we knew we were just keeping the guards busy. But these men just couldn't wait. And I don't know anybody who got out of our camp that way.
There were people in Sagan who had blitz tunnels. They would dig very shallow tunnels, and wouldn't shore anything up. Two or three men would go under the sand, just keep digging and pushing this stuff out, and then they would break out. They would just take their chances.
Zwerin: Were there any specific incidents related to being Jewish that you can recall? You said it got rough when the Gestapo came in.
Kaplan: It was a prisoner of war camp, and all prisoners were protected by the Geneva Convention to some degree. Also, the Salvation Army sent observers to the camp from time to time, and they were very helpful even though they had no official status.
But the Gestapo made it very difficult for the Jewish officers. They segregated us because we were Jewish. We had a little less food, and there was a certain amount of harassment.
They would ask us, "Do you think it was right -- for a million dollars you come and bomb another country?" That was their story. They used to talk about the "million dollar bomb run." If you did 25 bomb runs, you got a million dollars.
Zwerin: But none of this sounds like the sensational stuff they showed in movies about the POW camps.
Kaplan: Prisoners were brutally beaten. You've got to understand, when you've gone through that, you push some of it behind you. There were men who used to try to climb the wire, and, unnecessarily, they were shot. The guards could have brought them down. Things were done to the men that were not necessary. It was a way of committing suicide.
A punishment that was legitimate was, if you were caught escaping, you were supposed to be put in solitary. We called it the "cooler." They would put you in for as long as 30 days. The cooler was so crowded that, one time when I was in solitary, there were four men in my cell.
I was active in some of the camp theatricals, and we put on a show. Everyone was invited, the Germans too. And then, the men in some other area were trying to get out. They put about 90 of us in the cooler, because we were part of the escape attempt.
Zwerin: When you were in the cooler, did you get any food?
Kaplan: Yes, but we got German food, we couldn't get Red Cross parcels. Without Red Cross parcels we could never have existed -- no way under the sun.
Zwerin: And they gave you those parcels? They didn't keep them?
Kaplan: They stole some, sure, let's face it. There's a tremendous amount of corruption in any kind of prison. But we got parcels.
Zwerin: You said Colonel Gabreski was in that camp. Did you ever see him?
Kaplan: Yes, but I don't think he knew me, although I did meet him after the war. There were several colonels -- we had Spicer, Ross Greening, Zemke. But they had a lot of administrative work to do, representing the prisoners. People got sick, people had fights with each other.
Zwerin: So they really helped to run the camp.
Kaplan: The truth is, none of those camps could have been run without some assistance.
Zwerin: How were you liberated, and when?
Kaplan: The first people to come to us were escaping Russian prisoners of war. Actually, before they came, we were already in control of the camp. The Germans wanted to get out before the Russians came, and get to the British and American lines. The day they were getting ready to leave, they asked us for permission to go.
After they left, we remained behind the wire because we didn't want to have any problems with the townspeople. We were staying until we had contact with some Allied people. Then the Russian POWs came, and they had found horses and guns. They saw us behind the barbed wire, and they thought that Zemke was holding us prisoner. They kept motioning to us to come out, and then, this barbed wire which had kept us imprisoned for so many months, came down. We just walked over it. It was incredible.
Subsequently, the Russian Army came, and the first thing they did was to get everybody together, and they had a Russian USO show. They had some women singing, and they were dancing, and playing accordions and balalaikas.
There was a Russian officer, I don't think he could speak English, but he called out to us, "You want bread? I get you bread! You want women? I get you women!" Everybody roared. Then they killed a couple of cows, and everybody feasted. A lot of the men got sick, they ate so much at one time. But I'll never forget that Russian officer.
These Russian Army men were mostly Mongolian types. Most of those soldiers were little people, with Asian-looking eyes.
Zwerin: So these soldiers looked like Tartars?
Kaplan: Yes. And they all had these 98-cent machine guns. They looked like toys. Everyone carried a machine gun.
I was a "dolnetscher," an interpreter, because of my Yiddish. I used it with the Germans. There was a man in my barracks who spoke some Russian, and some of the Russian officers who could speak Yiddish and Russian got together with us. In fact, I brought a message back to a relative of one Russian. His family in Pinsk had been killed, and he had a relative in the Lower East Side of New York.
At that time, a newspaper was put out by an American writer whose name was Veotor. He had been flying as a journalist in one of the planes that was shot down. He somehow put together a newspaper about our taking over the camp, and the Russkies coming, and how there was a group of men who went out toward the Allied lines to get in touch with the British and Americans.
When they made that contact, that was when we first got a plane. They came in to pick us up with stripped B-17s. All the insides were taken out. It took several days to get that organized, and then we were flown to Reims, in France, near Le Havre.
There was a camp there called Lucky Strike. That's where they took all the RAMPs-Returned Allied Military Personnel. We had to be identified to become American soldiers again, because we could have been anybody. Lots of Germans got out that way.
At Camp Lucky Strike, who do you think we had feeding us? The captured Germans, these guys who had been the elite. This time, they were the sniveling ones. Remember when I told you what happens when somebody turns the key on you? It happened to them.
Zwerin: And how long were you there, before you were sent home?
Kaplan: We were there for about two weeks. Eisenhower came to visit in a little plane, and we all lined up for him. Also, I had a reunion with two instructors from the school that we had set up for glider pilots in Santa Ana. I recall that one was named Goldberg, and the other was DeWitt Clinton Jones III.
Zwerin: When was that? Do you remember your exact day of liberation?
Kaplan: The day the Germans left Stalag Luft One was May 1st. V-E Day was May 8th. In mid-May we left the POW camp and walked a couple of miles to a military airport near Barth. They loaded us onto those B-17s and flew us to Reims.
We stayed at Camp Lucky Strike for about two weeks, and left at the end of May. Then we boarded ship at Le Havre for New York. From there we went to Camp Kilmer, N. J. for a couple of days of processing. That's where I got my new officer's identification card, dated June 17, 1945.
Then we went to Atlantic City, to a military medical facility, for checkups and some rehabilitation. Finally, we went to Fort Dix, N. J. where we were discharged and got our "ruptured ducks." Those are insignia for discharged servicemen who have finished their tour of duty.
I want to mention something interesting that happened before we left Lucky Strike. Some friends and I decided to go into town and get some Calvados, apple brandy. We had a few drinks, and missed our truck going back. While we were walking back, we met some American officers, and they asked if they could help us out.
We said we needed a place to spend the night, and we had to get to Lucky Strike the next morning. So they set us up in one of their tents. This was a black outfit. There were a few black officers, but mostly white officers. I remember feeling so good and warm with these men, the black servicemen we stayed with. They took care of us, and then they drove us back to camp. This had a tremendous impact on me. I still had a lot of idealism.
Zwerin: You still do have some idealism, don't you? How did you feel about the war? Did you feel that it was worthwhile?
Kaplan: Once I got in I felt that we were doing the right thing. But I changed a lot after the war.
Zwerin: To the extent that you feel it was not a good war, or shouldn't have been fought?
Kaplan: No. I would never feel that way. But I feel that there are no solutions that are won by war. I feel that you have to come on strong in negotiating, but the solutions are not won in the battles. You win a battle, but you do not win the war or peace.
Zwerin: If you're conquered in war, what opportunity do you have to solve the problem?
Kaplan: You do anything you can to survive, or improve your situation, and that includes fighting. I'm not a pacifist -- don't get me wrong. I have nephews who fought in four wars in Israel; but the odds are against them, and they know that it's enough.
There's no way it can be solved by fighting. There have to be other means. We teach people how to shoot, how to survive in battle, but we don't teach them how to be peaceful. Intelligent people should be able to sit down together and solve the problem without killing a lot of young people.