The End of My European Combat Career
Why Did I Join the Air Corps
November 25, 1943 -----
We'd been flying through heavy flak for the past five minutes in the Cape
Gris Nez area -- where S-2 said there was no flak. Tommy Thunderbolt
was about to drop his first bombs on German-occupied territory. We
were evading the stuff alright, slowed down and the first flight started its
diving turn on to the target, St. Omer, at 15,000 feet. I guess one of
the little black puffs caught up with the old man at this point 'cause there
was a roar, a shudder and an inferno all at the same time. In fact,
there was so much flame I remember the auxiliary gun sight just in front of
the wind shield, threw back the canopy thinking how strange it was that I'd
be so calm at a time like this and then proceeded to climb out without
undoing my safety belt. (Who's excited? I'm not excited.)
Despite all of this, it was only a matter of seconds until I was out.
It couldn't have been long or I would literally have been a "cooked goose".
I remember how good that cool November air felt. The fact that I
"knew" my parachute had been burned off didn't detract a great deal from the
sense of relief. So I did a half gainer and a one and a half with a
full twist thrown in and then pulled the rip cord just for laughs. To
my surprise it gave birth to a full sized and undamaged parachute.
I guess I was still up about 10,000 feet, so I had plenty of time to take
stock of myself before I hit the ground. Although it didn't hurt much
at the time, I knew my face was pretty badly burned because I could see
pieces of rolled up, charred skin out of the corner of my eyes. My
leather gloves had shrunk from the heat leaving my wrists exposed and pretty
well cooked. My leather jacket, also shrunken, felt like a straight
jacket must feel.
I got just a glimpse of my plane going down and four planes pulling out
over the target, but I didn't get to see any of the bombs hit.
The wind was pretty strong and as I got closer to the ground, I could see
a lot of Jerries and Frenchmen racing to reach my landing spot. The
would run or pedal their bicycles like mad, get up ahead of me and then
wait. I'd catch up and drift past and they would pedal and run like mad
again. It was sort of a little game that we had, but we all eventually
ended up on the same spot and obliging Germans helped me out of my chute.
After daubing myself with anti-burn jelly, they took me to the local
headquarters and later to Lille for an evenings stay in the local bastille.
Early on the morning of November 26 a German officer and a sergeant
picked me up from the Lille prison and we headed by train for the
interrogation center at Frankfurt am Main. We traveled first class all
the way and in one instance some civilians had to give up their compartment
for us. I guess at this time the Germans didn't have too many Lt.
Colonels and above.
It was not until that morning (the 26th) that I really started to feel
bad. My face was swollen about two sizes; my eyes were puffed closed
and except for a sliver of light through my left eye, I couldn't see at all.
My wrists in particular gave me considerable pain, eased only by keeping
them as high as possible.
When we started the trip I was given a part of a loaf of bread (black)
and a hunk of sausage and when we arrived in Frankfurt the next day, I still
had it untouched. I just couldn't eat. Although I ate an apple
that one of my guards mysteriously produced, I promptly threw it up again a
the next stop. I had better luck with a bottle of soda-pop produced in
We arrived in Frankfurt about noon the 27th where I was turned over at
the interrogation center and promptly chucked into a solitary confinement
cell. I kept asking for a doctor and finally when the "ask" had
reached a scream, I was taken off a few miles to the interrogation hospital,
Hohemark. Here I was gain put into a solitary room, but I had a soft
bed and clean sheets. I stayed in this room for a week without seeing
anyone but the doctor's orderly and a girl we called Madam X because it was
so obvious what her job was.
Next, I was moved to another section of the hospital where I was allowed
to mix with the other prisoners of war and where, to my good fortune, I was
introduced to Dr. R. J. Roche', a South African captain in the Medical
Corps. He took charge of me from this point until four weeks later
when I was released. His care and kindness was of infinite value.
It was in this hospital that I ceased feeling sorry for myself as I saw
boys who were in much worse shape than I. Boys who had lost legs, or
arms, or eyes.
Our food was pretty good and we were warm. I was here, also, that I
wrote my first letter home.
On New Years Eve 1943-44 I had packed my few belongings and was ready to
start on my trip to a permanent prisoner of war camp. Our trolley
stopped near the interrogation center on its way to the station to pick up
more POWs, and there a little man in a German uniform made his appearance,
crooked his stubby finger and asked for Kernel me Kollom. He hauled me
off and again I was chucked back into solitary confinement --- four slices
of bread and a bowl of watery soup(?) a day. My only companions for
that period were a host of the most energetic fleas I have ever encountered.
Finally, two week later, I was hauled out, asked a few more questions and
started on my way to Stalag Luft #1 at Barth on the Baltic.
On January 16, 1944 I arrived at the most permanent post in my Army
career up to that time. My stay -- 16 months almost to the day.
Life in Stalag Luft #1 was made bearable only because of the Red Cross,
the YMCA and their contributions. The Red Cross sent in food to
supplement the meager German ration. The YMCA furnished recreational
equipment which kept us from going "round-the-bend". Weather
permitting, I played volley ball or soft ball or sun bathed. Other
days we went to band concerts or plays put on by POWs. We played
bridge, poker and chess a good deal and spent a lot of time reading books
sent in by the YMCA or received in personal book parcels.
Our quarters were not exactly sumptuous. Mine was the best of four
compounds because the barracks had inside wash rooms and toilets and we had
a central mess until it burned down in the early spring of 1945. All
of the barracks were wooden sheds similar to our own Army's temporary
barracks. They were equipped with outside shutters to the windows
which were put in place each evening by German guards to keep light and
Kriegies from getting out. They also kept sufficient air from
getting in in the summer, but a myriad of cracks in the walls and floors
allowed icy blasts easy access in the winter.
Col. Jean Byerly, who was our camp's senior officer for the longest
period of time (later Hub Zemke took over when he arrived as he out-ranked
Byerly) organized the camp internally. That is, he called the camp a wing,
each compound a group and each barracks a squadron. Then he picked
officers to staff each unit. There was a surprising amount of work for
the staff to do, but it came in handy after our liberation.
April 30, 1945 -- Zemke who was then in command of us and Oberst
Warnstedt, the German Kommandant, had a meeting in which Zemke was
told that the camp was moving immediately. Hub had other ideas;
pointed how impractical it was to move and finally worked it out so that the
Germans would move, but the Kriegies would remain. Zemke called his
staff together, told them what was going on. Plan "B" was about to be
carried out. At 2:00 A.M. May 1, 1945, the last German guard, badly
overloaded shuffled out of camp. Minutes later our own picked,
military police had taken the Germans' places. Their instructions: to
keep the Kriegies in and together to facilitate an orderly evacuation.
Kriegies awoke to find their own buddies manning the guard towers.
A large crew, picked months before, marched out to the Barth airfield two
miles away and started clearing it of bombs and mines (there were some of
both) --making it ready for our airplanes to come and carry us home.
Other crews commandeered cars, motor cycles and trucks and a motor pool was
set up in camp. Transportation was at a premium. Bread had to be
hauled from the bakeries we had taken over. Sewerage must be disposed
of and there were a thousand and one chores in providing for 9,000 men.
May 2, 1945 -- The Russians arrived. It wasn't an army (there was
no fighting up here -- there were no German soldiers). It was a mob, a
horde of men and women and trucks and wagons and horses. Things got
out of control. One Russian came out to camp and insisted that the
fences be torn down. Said he, "You are our allies. We have
overrun your camp, therefore you are liberated. Tear down the fences."
The fences were torn down. He had a gun., He was more than a
little bit drunk.
Kriegies were all over Germany in short order. Complete control was
never regained -- but almost. Russian occupation officers soon arrived
and the entire area was quickly put under control. They were good,
those Russian officers, darned good. We had a good many enjoyable
parties with them too.
We had long since been organized for evacuation. On May 12, 1945 a
few B-17's landed at our "private" airfield, checked the set up and carried
a few happy Kriegies to France. The next day they moved 6,2430
American and British POWs out of our camp, a tribute to the Air Force and
our own organization. On May 14, the remaining prisoners and our staff
took off for France. The waiting, the monotony, the drudgery was over.
Time would pass more quickly.