farmer recalls POW experience… “I had the feeling we weren’t coming
The News – Buffalo Lake, Minn. 55314
It started out well enough, that late November day in
1944. The 398th Bomb Group, stationed 40 miles north of London was
screaming with the sounds of B-17 Bombers going to and returning from runs
This was to be First Lt. Norman Kottke’s
last bombing run. His
transfer had come through the night before. The eleven men that made up
the crew of the bomber went to briefing the night before and received
Misburg, Germany. Near
Frankfurt. Their mission:
To bomb the last standing natural oil refinery in Germany.
Weather: Excellent for
a bombing run. Very Cloudy.
As the men walked back to barracks late that
night Kottke felt very uneasy.
"Knowing this was to be my last bombing
run, and that all the others were successful, I had the premonition that
we weren’t coming back from this one.
I wasn’t scared in
the sense of being scared, but I knew we were pushing our luck.”
Kottke has been on 32 successful missions in
his 13 month tour of military duty. He
recalls bombing oil refineries, railroad yards, and shipping lanes in
Hamburg, Cologne, Munich and Berlin.
“Sure it’s a terrible thing to bomb
cities, but in time of war, you do what they tell you, that’s your
Early that Sunday morning the B-17 was high
over cloud-covered England headed for Germany with a full load of 500
Kottke was the bombardier of the craft and
was strapped in at his station in the glass enclosed nose of the plane.
All the instruments checked out and the 33rd bombing
mission was a “go”.
A normal run takes 8 or 9 hours, so Kottke
and his men settled back for idle talk while they headed into enemy
“We were up at around 26,000 feet, the
routine altitude for a bombing run, almost 5 miles above the earth, and
cruising at just under 150 miles an hour.”
“Our radar device, which was a brand new
addition to warfare at the time, was designed to pick up large amounts of
steel below and was giving a good read-out of our target.”
In briefing, crews are familiarized with
what they are going to strike. Using
binoculars over clear skies, they pick out tell-tale signs such as a large
smoke stack or railroad tracks converging together below.
In the event of cloud cover, their radar finds the site for them.
The actual time during “bombs away” is
approximately twenty minutes, and all but one plane in the squadron scored
a direct hit of the refinery. That
planes’ bomb release mechanism malfunctioned.
“We were headed downwind for our target
when we noticed that right above it was this huge hole in the clouds about
twenty miles in diameter, looking straight and clear to Germany!
We had to fly right through them to release our load.
Just as we dropped the last rack of bombs.”
“Just that quick a terrific blast hit us,
shattering all the glass in the pilot’s cockpit.
That stuff up there is ¾ inch and supposedly shatterproof, but it
busted like fine China!”
“There was no panic in the plane,”
remarked Kottke, “nobody lost their cool, but we all knew that what we
learned in survival training was gonna be put to good use from then on!”
“All the pilot’s instruments were
rendered useless, the ailerons were flapping in the breeze, and our radio
was knocked out of commission. Our
intercom fortunately was working so the first thing we did was to check
and make sure everyone was okay, which they were.”
“In my compartment I had an altimeter and
an airspeed indicator, so my job became reporting our altitude every
The other planes saw Kottke’s B-17 drop
out of formation and reported back to base that they were still under
control, they weren’t spinning wildly or anything, there was no fire and
that nobody bailed out.
“They expected that we would make it back
by the way our plane looked, and we might have done so had we two good
engines to fly by.”
“Our bomber had close to 150 miles to go
to make it back to United States controlled France, but we were dropping
at better than 700 feet per minute. It
was then that we realized we wouldn’t make it!”
Gliding at 130 miles an hour from 26,000
feet, the bomber returned about 60 miles from the bombing site.
The pilot was now faced with the decision either to stay with the
plane or to bail out.
“We were flying into a heavy cloud bank at the
time and with our erratic instruments we didn’t know how far the clouds
extended to the ground. The
pilot decided it was time!”
“I happened to be one of the first out of
the plane. I had this little
escape hatch under me so I opened it and pushed out with all my might.
They say if you don’t clear the plane you’ll get cut in half by
the gun turret on the belly of the plane.
I didn’t feel like taking any chances!”
“It’s quite a feeling jumping out of a
wrecked plane for the first time in your life doing 130 miles an hour,
7,000 feet over Germany. The
roar of the huge whining engines is deafening at first and an instant
later it’s perfectly calm, almost peaceful.”
Kottke was just about to pull his ripcord
when an impulse hit him.
“Norman, I said , as long as you’re up
here 7,000 feet with nothing better to do why don’t you try free
“And be damned if I didn’t!
It worked beautifully. You
put out an arm and your body goes one way, put out the other arm and you
drift over the other way. Works
great, but probably a stupid thing to be doing while dropping unexpectedly
into enemy territory.”
“I drifted through the clouds and right
over a small town. There were
half a dozen houses, a church and a beer joint.
The kids were playing outside on a crisp Sunday afternoon.
It was a breathtaking site to see from the air.”
“I watched the adults as they ran around
pointing up at me. I came
down in a wheat field a few hundred feet from the village, ditched my
parachute and started to run.”
“Two men and a woman began chasing me so I
headed for a small woods to hide in.
My luck had been going so great all day long, I guess it was bound
to continue. Here
the woods I was heading for was completely bare.
No place to hide!”
“The only thing left to do was lay down in
the tall grass, so I pulled up some roots to cover myself with.
The wait seemed to last forever!”
“The two men headed right for the grove,
like they should, but this darn woman came right for me.”
“I could hear her walking closer and
closer, and was just waiting for her to peer down at me over the grains of
Kottke laughed, saying “And to this day
I’ve never trusted women.”
“Well, the jig was up.
I was caught. But to
this day I wonder what would’ve happened if she hadn’t found me.”
“The military picked us up and marched us
all night to some kind of holding camp, a place they keep you until they
decide what they are going to do with you.
The rest of my crew was rounded up by this time and we were
re-united in that basement room.”
“After about a week of that we were
brought by train to our interrogation center.
The train would have to stop many times along the route to let
large convoys of trucks and tanks pass over the road.
The railroad yards were full of camouflaged tanks and heavy
artillery equipment, and we remarked among ourselves that this looked very
unusual. Little did we know
that what we were witnessing at that moment was the big German offensive,
later known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge!”
“We arrived at the interrogation center
where each of us was kept in solitary confinement for nine days.
The Germans would get us up in the middle of the night to
interrogate us. They say the
mind is supposed to be the least able to resist during these hours.”
“The Gestapo mainly wanted to know what
this new device was that could enable us to ‘see’ through the clouds
to our target below.”
“Of course we didn’t tell them a thing.
We played dumb like we didn’t know ourselves what the contraption
was or how it worked. They
were really pretty good to us, probably because we were officers.
We say no torture of any kind, at least not in our camp.
“After a few weeks of that we were
escorted by train again on a scenic tour of northern Germany to our new
‘home’ for the duration; Stalag Luft Number 1, the Air Officers POW
camp. Over the winter we
accumulated over 12,000 roommates, so it got extremely cramped at
A typical day in a German prisoner of war
camp consisted mostly of playing cards, telling wild war stories and
especially plenty of walking. Each
morning the German’s brought a ration of coal to keep the stove going.
“Being on the Baltic Sea,” Kottke commented, “it got below
zero more often than not!”
“We were allowed to cook meals if we
wanted so we had a hot breakfast and a hot supper.”
Stalag Luft prisoners knew, during their 6
month stay that the war was just about over.
A prisoner smuggled in a radio and picked up the BBC, Britain’s
radio station and heard Allied progress daily.
“The German’s would never admit that
they were losing but you could tell each day that morale was dropping in
the ranks. Meanwhile our
officers told us not to try to escape, because the war was almost over.
It would be a foolish thing to do at that stage of the game.”
“One guy, though, decided he had had
enough and went over the fence one night.
He took with him some canned goods that we rounded up for him and
took off. He didn’t last
long out in the cold and was rounded up almost immediately by the guards
and of course not treated too favorably since then.
To discourage any further activity of that nature, they punctured
all our Red Cross canned goods, so we’d have to eat them right away.”
One night after six longs months in that
camp, the American officers met with the Germans.
They were told that the Germans would be gone the next morning.
Kottke and the other men in the barracks were stunned to learn that
they were no longer prisoners.
“We didn’t know what to do!
Our lives had become so routine and ordered that being free seemed
an impossibility. The first
thing I remember doing was to help tear down all the barbed wire fences
around the camp.”
A few days later a Russian convoy came into
the camp and dispatched doctors to tend to the sick and wounded men.
A couple of days after that the air evacuations began.
Huge carrier planes would land right on the flat land near the
camp, taxi around, load up 40 or 50 men and head right off again.
“It all happened so fast none of us could
really believe what was going on. Many
men were hesitant to get on the plane without a parachute for fear that
they would be again shot down, but with the mention of the United States
and freedom, they piled right in!”
The word "freedom" never sounded so