World War II prisoner of war camp - Stalag Luft I


World War II - Prisoners of War - Stalag Luft I 

A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I


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William F. Miller - WWII B-17 Pilot and POW
2nd Lt. William F. Miller
Pilot - B-17
303rd Bomb Group
Shot down September 29, 1944

Stalag Luft I Prisoner of War
KGF# 6145


Bill passed in his sleep on February 15, 2007.   Blue Skies Bill !

Click here to e-mail Bill's family

Excerpt from his book " A Letter to My Grandchildren"

On 28 September 1944, the B-17 of which I was the pilot was shot down in combat in one of the big air battles of the war.  Out of our formation of 12 airplanes, we lost 10.  It was a wild few seconds.



I found out a few years ago that we had been shot down by Oberleutnant Horst Haase who was flying an FW-190 A-8.  He was killed seven weeks later in a collision with his wing man in a scramble takeoff.  At that time he had 56 confirmed victories, 82 counting unconfirmed ones, and at least three four-engine airplanes.  He was obviously a skilled pilot, and although he was promoted posthumously to major, I find it interesting that with that many victories he was just a first lieutenant.  In our services he would have been at least a major and more likely a lieutenant colonel. 

When I hit the ground, I was about 150 yards from a small village, in a flat field that had been planted and rolled — absolutely no place to hide.  I looked around.  Coming toward me from the village was a man in a green uniform.  Behind him was another.  Behind him, spread out, were a lot of men in blue uniforms carrying rifles.  Those rifles worried me.  If I had tried to use my pistol, the rifles would have killed me from beyond the range of the pistol, so I tossed it on the ground so as not to cause any confusion.  The first man to get to me was one of the green-uniformed ones.  He was carrying a Luger, and he said, “I speak English.”  In fact, he didn’t, at least not very well.  But he said he was a staff sergeant, and was obviously the senior line noncom on the scene and therefore in charge.  Thank God for that.  Then the next green-uniformed man arrived, unarmed.  The sergeant asked if I had a pistol, and I pointed to mine.  He picked it up, handed it to the other man, and started walking toward the airplane crash.   

The young one now armed with my pistol motioned as if to operate the slide, and I nodded my head.  He saw that it worked, then pointed the gun to the sky and pulled the trigger.  That mighty .45 roar may have saved my life, because about this time a civilian arrived, carrying a Luger and obviously insanely angry.  He rushed up to me, stuck the Luger against my head, and started screaming questions at me in German.  Believe me, when a lunatic has a pistol to your head, you learn fast. 

He screamed, “Englander?”  I shook my head.  Then, “Offizier?”  I nodded.  Then, “Pilot?” and again I nodded.  This time it got tougher: “Vier Motor?”  I hoped I didn’t understand that right, but as it happened, I did.  He was asking if I flew a four-engine airplane, and what would be the right answer to that one?  Had some bomber killed his family, or had the terrible punishment of almost continuous bombardment by the 8th Air Force and the RAF infuriated this man?  Of course I had no idea, so I just shook my head. 

In any case the young soldier stuck my pistol in this man’s gut and said something quiet but firm in German.  The civilian then started a big and very loud argument, but the young soldier stood his ground, the .45 always pointed right at the civilian’s stomach.  Finally, in sheer rage and frustration, the civilian whirled around and hit me in the face with his pistol, and stalked off, madder than hell.  The soldier took me into a house in the town.  He had clearly saved my life. 

I might point out that mostly the people in that town were just curious, and the only person in the entire escapade who was unfriendly was that imbecile civilian with the Luger.  Nobody but die-hard Nazis could own a pistol in Nazi Germany, and although I don’t know who that one was, he certainly thought he was important. 

I sat in a room with the young soldier for a half hour or so and someone brought in another prisoner, a lieutenant named Ellis from a different outfit — neither of us asked much of each other.  Then another half hour later an open military staff car arrived with Big John and some German officers and enlisted men. 

John had some little speck wounds under his left eye, where some small, low-velocity fragments of something had just barely punctured the skin.  He said to me, “Who cut your throat?”  I didn’t know it, but the chest buckle had barely sliced the skin on my throat.  It looked a lot worse than that — it looked as if someone had taken a straight razor to me.  I showed him the spot on my jaw where the guy had hit me with the Luger, and told him what had happened.  We were both very happy to be alive. 

Two different times while we were in that house, we heard a shot outside.  That wasn’t someone target practicing, I am convinced it was that civilian with the Luger, killing two prisoners who didn’t have the good fortune to be protected by a soldier home on leave armed with an American pistol that was illegally carried.  Let me tell you why I think that. 

A War Department letter, dated 9 July 1948, to Leo Waldron‘s[1] brother in Massachusetts reads in pertinent part: 

Translation of captured German records disclosed a report which indicated that your brother was found dead on 4 October 1944, two and six-tenths kilometers south of Wolfenbuttel.  The remains of your brother and several of the airmen lost on 28 September 1944, were recovered from a civilian cemetery at Heiningen, Germany.  According to information from the Burgomeister of Heiningen, the bodies were recovered from planes[2] that crashed in that vicinity on or about 28 September 1944.

 What’s wrong with that is that Leo was alive on the ground, giving first aid to Tony Zelnio, in a farmhouse, and in fact Leo was unharmed.  When Tony was carried away to a military hospital, a bunch of “farmers” took Leo away.  Those farmers were not armed, and they would have been unable to stop the mad assassin whom I had come up against earlier.  I certainly doubt that Leo would have tried to pull any rough stuff on his captors — as far as I am concerned, he was simply killed in cold blood. 

John and I talked as best we could to the young soldier who was guarding us.  He was 19, and he had been home on furlough when all the action started.  After a while, the staff sergeant returned and talked to our guard for a while.  When he was gone, John and I laboriously asked if there had been any bodies in the airplane that had crashed, and that we assumed was our “Miss Umbriago.”  He said, “Two.”[3]  But Leo had bailed out ahead of John and me, and indeed if he had been killed in the airplane, the staff sergeant would have reported three bodies, not two, because Turkington and Ball were dead inside the airplane.  To confuse this question further, there has arisen in recent years some doubt that the airplane that I saw crashing near me was in fact “Miss Umbriago.” 

Teddy Smith and Art Conn[4] were also killed on the ground, but I know none of the details.  Frank Posada “disappeared”[5] when the oxygen bottle was flying around the back of the airplane.  I have no idea what happened to Frank.  But I understand his name is on page 298 in one of four books listing dead U.S. airmen, in St. Clement Danes Church in the Aldwych section of London. 

John Hill and I were taken into the nearest big city, Braunschweig,[6] in a German military truck, and put in the guardhouse in a military caserne.  Later they took us into the basement of what appeared to be a military headquarters or administrative building.  There were about 18 other prisoners in our group by that time.

 Before I leave the subject of the little guardhouse, I have to tell you one little anecdote.  We had been shot down just a few minutes before noon, and by the time we arrived at the guardhouse it was about 4:00 in the afternoon.  We hadn’t eaten, but weren’t hungry.  But we also hadn’t been near a toilette since well before takeoff, and I had to pee.  There was a little peep hole in the door of our cell, and a lever that could be flopped down to show the guard out in the hall that the inmate(s) wanted something.  I flipped the lever.  In a couple of minutes our guard appeared.  Of course he spoke no English and all I knew about German was the four expressions the Nazi with the Luger had screamed at me, plus the word for pipe tobacco, which I remembered from a little briefing sheet we carried.  So I spoke English.  I pointed to my private parts and said, “I’ve got to piss.”  The guard didn’t understand.  So I pointed to my butt and said, “I’ve got to shit.”  Somehow he understood that and then he stood there smiling and saying over and over, “Piss.  Shit.  Piss.  Shit.”  He was proud he had learned two words of English.  Be aware that this man, like a lot of the rest of the Germans we ran into before we got to prison camp, were not unfriendly.  I found that remarkable, considering what we were doing to their country.  I had a tobacco pipe in one of the pockets of my coveralls, and I dragged it out, pointed to the empty bowl, and tried “pfeiffentabak?”  The guard laughed out loud — I began to appreciate later how bereft the Germans were of such luxuries as tobacco, and I don’t suppose a simple enlisted soldier in the German Army had seen pipe tobacco in quite a while. 

During the night, we were treated to our first air raid on the receiving end.  The RAF bombed Braunschweig a couple of hours after dark.  We were all put just inside the entrance to an air raid shelter, handcuffed[7] together in pairs.  Big John and I were one pair.  The air raid was extremely noisy — there were a lot of flak guns in our area, and the racket was fierce.  Our guards stayed up at our level, as did a bunch of military officers.  At one stage of the game, one of the guards was smiling and yakking along, moving his hands around as if telling flying stories, and suddenly he stopped motionless, listened for about two seconds, and then he and all the officers bolted down the stairs to the main part of the shelter.  Then outside there was a terrible whack! and the impact shook the building the way a terrier shakes a rat.  Dust fell all around.  After a short while, the German military people came back upstairs, considerably more subdued.  The big bomb must have hit close by. 

The next morning we had a new set of guards, and as luck would have it, they were of the eager-beaver type, full of self importance.  One of them handed me a push broom, but I had always heard that the Germans respected officers a lot more than we former GIs did, and by this time I had learned a few words of German, one of which was “offizier.”  So I just shook my head, pointed to myself, and said, “Offizier.”  It worked.  The guard handed the broom to another prisoner, a first lieutenant (remember, I was a second lieutenant, so he outranked me), who took it, started sweeping the floor, and said to me in a very nasty tone, “You’re going to do your share of the work.”  I said, “I’m an officer, and I don’t do menial work, and neither should you.”  He was very unhappy, but as far as I was concerned he didn’t understand the game. 

Later that morning those of us with minor injuries were taken to a German military doctor for treatment.  I was with First Lieutenant Charles G. (“Glenn”) Glasgow, a West Point graduate and pilot who had gone through Phase Training at Alexandria when we were there.  Glenn was sent to our Group and was considered special by the brass there, so they kept him out of combat until a new airplane arrived from the modification center, which they could assign to him only.  This was his first mission.  His airplane had exploded in flight, and he was the only survivor.[8]   

Later that day we were all put on a train for Frankfurt.  When we arrived in Frankfurt a few days later in the afternoon, there was an 8th Air Force air raid alarm under way, and we went into the air raid shelter below the main railroad station.  To get into the shelter, the people had to go through a very large men’s toilet room.  We were surprised to see the workings of a German public toilet, with men standing up to urinals, pissing away, then tipping the old lady with the hand towel concession who kept the place clean.  When the raid was over, we got on a streetcar and went to the little suburb of Oberursel and into the Luftwaffe‘s interrogation center.   

In the interrogation center, I was up to some of my usual cocky mischief.  Our heated suits had a soft aluminum shorting plug that could be inserted in the suit down near the foot, in case the wearer didn’t want to wear the shoes.  I pulled my aluminum plug out and found that it made a fairly decent pencil, so on the wall of my cell I drew a picture of Hitler, with a big Vee surrounding it.  If I do say so myself, it was a fairly good drawing.  In time, a sergeant came into my cell, and seeing the wall said, “Oh, we have a great artist.  Don’t you know it is forbidden to mark on the walls?  I’m going to take away your food, and in two weeks, maybe three, everybody will hear the church bells ringing all over town, and they will all be so sad you are dead.” I said, “Stand at attention when you talk to me.”[9]  In actual fact, I wondered what he was going to do, but I assumed correctly that in the German military, a sergeant doesn’t have much authority.  Later that same day another man came into the cell and repainted the wall.  Nothing else happened. 

We were interrogated about the usual things the Intelligence people like to play with.  Order of battle, mostly.  They asked me what organization I was with, and I said I would tell them if they would check on the rest of my crew.  They agreed, and then I learned for the first time that none were there except John Hill.  I told them I was from the 303rd Bomb Group, whereupon the interrogator, a very correct and outwardly friendly captain, dragged out a thick loose-leaf notebook on the 8th Air Force and showed it to me.  As nearly as I could tell, it was completely correct, but I acted unimpressed.  It is the standard sort of interrogation technique anyone would use, and indeed I was not and am not impressed with what that sort of information represents.  What the hell difference did it make if I was from the 303rd or any other Group?  Many years later I was to learn a lot more about the phoniness of Intelligence. 

A few days later we went to another center (“Dulag Luft”[10]), near Wetzlar, and the following day we got on another train for the slow, circuitous five-day trip to the little fishing port of Barth, in western Pommern[11] (German spelling).  That was the site of Stalag Luft #1, our home until the war was over.  Before we left Dulag Luft, we were each issued a Red Cross parcel, 5.0 kg (11 lb.) of food. 

There were 80 prisoners in half of that one car, the guards being in the other half.  That meant 10 men per compartment, and I slept variously on the floor, in the baggage rack, in a seat, and in the hall.  While we were on that train, I started getting pain around my lower right wisdom tooth, which had taken the brunt of the Nazi civilian’s hit with the Luger.  The senior guard on the train was about 40 years old, and he spoke fair English.  When he found out that John Hill and I were from Dallas, he asked if we were familiar with the Something-or-Other[12] Leather Company.  In fact, I had applied for a clerk job there and knew where it was.  Then he said that the founder of the company was his grandfather, and when he, the guard, had finished the equivalent of high school in 1928 the grandfather wanted him to come to Dallas and work in the company.  He had turned the offer down, and now he was living with that decision.  But he was a decent man, and he said he couldn’t take me to a doctor in any of the big cities we would stop in on the train, because it would be too dangerous for me.  So he gave me some aspirin, and I treated myself by placing an aspiring against the aching tooth, and holding a prune from the Red Cross parcel between the teeth on the other side of my mouth to keep all pressure off the painful one.  I existed like that for five days, and didn’t enjoy it at all, but it sufficed.  Later on in prison, I had that tooth extracted by a British plastic surgeon who was acting as the only dentist in the camp.  He did a good job. 

One other aspect of that train ride was interesting.  We prisoners had those Red Cross parcels, but the guards had none.  So we gave them a few smokes, one at a time, until it became apparent that we had some reasonably good trading material.  In due time one of our guys suggested to one of the guards that when the train stopped next, he ought to go get some beer for us.  The guard immediately made a deal of cigarettes for beer, and the next thing we knew, we were drinking some of that great German beer.  It certainly helped.  We also had soluble coffee in those parcels, and we arranged with the guards to make coffee for all of us, them included, by using hot water from the steam locomotive.  Bootleggers won again, on both sides. 

Later I learned that there was a thriving black market in Germany, much of it centered on American cigarettes.  It might seem strange to you guys, reading this some time in the next century, that cigarettes were ever that important, but they were.  In prison we were not allowed to trade with the guards, but we were told that in Berlin, with the city largely in ruins and the apocalypse taking place all around them, people were paying 1 Reichmark, the equivalent of about 37¢ American, for a single cigarette.  In the PX we could buy a carton for $1.05. 

That train ride took us through many of German’s larger cities, and I want to emphasize that Americans generally have no idea of what the bombing campaign was doing to Germany.  In one city (I don’t remember which one), the train station was one of those typically elevated things with the tracks one level above the street, and we stopped there for an hour or so.  We could see the entire skyline.  As far as the eye could see, there was not a building standing in its original size.  The corners of masonry structures, stronger than the linear elements, stood above the masses of broken debris, but there was no such thing as a real building left.  The railroad station was kept functioning, but its roof was long since gone in the bombing. 

But I stray again.  Sorry.  After the war, I got a copy of the New York Times for 29 September 44.  It said the Eighth Air Force had, on the previous day, been subjected to repeated, vicious attacks by swarms of fighters.  We admitted losing 49 B-17s and claimed 36 German fighters shot down.  The official history of the 303rd Bomb Group says we lost 10 airplanes out of our formation of 12 in the low squadron, and one (Glenn Glasgow‘s) in the lead squadron (we sent out 29, with one aborting because of a turbocharger failure).  I believe we lost more than 11 airplanes.[13]  I consider the 49 B-17s and the 36 German fighters to be exaggerations in favor of our side.[14]  But any way you slice it, it was one of the big air battles of the war, and to that extent I am proud to have been in it.  But I wish I hadn’t been. 

One snide comment:  After we had returned safely to Molesworth on the 27th, I was asked to fill out the papers for promotion to first lieutenant.  This was not surprising — I had 1700 hours of flying time and had been a pilot for almost two years (a rather experienced veteran for those times).  So I filled out the form in pencil, then signed a blank copy for the clerk to fill in with his typewriter the next day.  When I was liberated, I fully expected to be a first lieutenant, but I discovered that the paperwork had been thrown away.  I consider that to have been pure administrative betrayal. 

When we arrived in the camp, each of us was photographed and the picture attached to an index card that was kept in the administration office.  When we were liberated, some thoughtful one of our guys took all those cards and handed them out, each one to its owner.  Many years later I had mine copied, blown up to 5” x 7”, and framed as a reminder.  Recently an Internet friend scanned that blowup and gave me a diskette with the file.  I reproduce it below.

Bill Miller prisonser of war photo id

Let me make clear that life in Stalag Luft #1 was nothing like life in a concentration camp.  The word “luft” means “air” in German, and indeed our camp was run by the Luftwaffe.[15]  For that matter, “stalag” is an acronym for “stammlager — “branch camp.”  The camp was divided into four compounds, and there was normally no prisoner traffic between compounds.  I was in room 6, block 6, north compound 2.  There were about 8,500 prisoners in the camp by war’s end. 

With almost no exceptions, we were all officers.  According to the Geneva Treaty, we were not supposed to work except for our own housekeeping and cooking, and in fact we did that cheerfully and little else.  We had individual guards who had duties that required them to come into the compounds, but basically the guards were in towers placed strategically around the double barbed wire fence.  In each tower was a liquid-cooled machine gun.  The barbed wire fences were about three meters apart and four meters high, with wire running both horizontally and vertically.  Loose wire in coils lay between the two fences.  There were two of these around the periphery of each compound.  About three meters inside the main fences was a so-called “warning wire,” a single strand of barbed wire on posts about a foot tall.  We were not allowed to touch these warning wires, at pain of being shot without warning. 

When we were getting weekly Red Cross parcels, a guard would come into the compound and supervise the allocation to each room and see to it that no one kept any of the small pepper packets from each parcel, and to make sure the canned goods were all punctured so they couldn’t be hoarded.  The theory about the pepper was than someone trying to escape could use it to throw a dog off his trail, but I suspect the officers who ran the camp simply confiscated that pepper for their own personal use.  We in my room managed to steal a few packets for our own use. 

We were counted twice a day.  Each barracks would line up in a formation of four rows, with the senior officer (“barracks commander”) standing in front just as the commander of an infantry company would do.  All the barracks of each compound were grouped around an open area so that they could all be counted in series without the guards losing sight of any of them.  As the Lageroffizier[16] approached, the barracks commander would call his barracks to attention.  When the Lageroffizier stopped, the barracks commander would turn around and salute the Lageroffizier.  Then the German officer would return the salute and say, in English, “Have your men stand at ease.”  Thereupon, a German enlisted man would walk along the front row of prisoners, counting them off by fours.  When he was finished, he would give the sloppiest Nazi salute you can imagine, and report the number of prisoners in the formation.  The Lageroffizier for our compound was a major who had been the headmaster of a boys’ school, and he was in no way similar to the textbook tough German officer, but was quiet and peaceful.  While the outside prisoners were being counted, one prisoner would remain in each barracks, along with any prisoners who were too sick to stand outside.  A guard would walk through each barracks and count the number of men in them, accompanied by that one prisoner whose job it was to see that the guard didn’t steal anything. 

The Luftwaffe had never been very Nazi, and until the attempt on Hitler‘s life on 24 July 1944 they did not use the Nazi salute.  Thereafter they were ordered to do so, but I must say they managed the sloppiest salute I ever saw, barely raising the right forearm up toward the shoulder, but with the hand no higher than about shoulder level, and not extending it forward.  They were obviously expressing disdain. 

Our activities, other than housekeeping, were strictly social.  There were two bridge games going on in our room at all times when we were not sleeping or eating.  I declined to learn much about bridge while I was there, because I thought the game was taken much too seriously by all the players.  We spent a lot of time swapping rumors, mostly about when the war would be over. 

In our compound there were about five black pilots from the 99th Pursuit Group in Italy.  These were the favorite fighter escorts of the bomber people in Italy because they didn’t get suckered away by Luftwaffe decoys, but stayed with their bombers to protect them.  That favorite pastime, the deliberate proliferation of rumors of every kind, came into play this particular night.  After the lights were out, one of the guys in my room said, “I heard that some new Kriegies[17] are arriving tomorrow, and they’re going to move one of those black pilots into our room.”  We had a stereotypical fatmouth redneck from Virginia in the room, and he instantly came out with, “They move one of those niggas in heah and Ah’ll beat hell out of ‘im.”  I was very happy to hear 18 other voices join mine in unison, “No you won’t.”  Jim Crow does not play well in a POW camp. 

There were 20 men in our room, which was about 20 feet square.  We had a small stove that had been built by one of the few Soviet prisoners, and we did all our cooking on that small stove.  Our bunks were of the two-tier arrangement.  In the normal course of things, each of us got one Red Cross parcel per week, plus whatever German military rations could be afforded.  The Red Cross parcels contained 5 kg (11 lb.) of various American staples such as lump sugar, raisins or prunes, soap, soluble coffee, Spam or corned beef, a “D” ration bar of chocolate, and five packs of American cigarettes.  We all smoked like so many chimneys.  That was the only period in my life when I smoked cigarettes. 

In late February 1945, the Germans ran out of transportation and could not get Red Cross parcels delivered to us.  Of course, over the run of the months during which the camp had been there, the guards had all seen that we were eating much better than they.  They were supposed to supply us with regular German military meals, but the quality of those meals slowly sank until they didn’t amount to much.  When they ran out of transportation, we simply got what their rations had sunk to, and it was pretty poor.  I’ll never take another bite of a rutabaga as long as I live, and it was 20 years or so after the war before I could eat cabbage in any form.  Five weeks after the transportation crunch, there appeared in the camp a big American 6 x 6 military truck with Red Cross markings.  It was the first of several that were bringing a new supply of Red Cross parcels.  It was a mighty welcome sight. 

The Hollywood portrayal of American POWs is a far cry from what I saw.  It was clear to all of us that the war, by any rational assessment, should already have been over by the time I got there, and we expected to be out of there in short order.  Consequently, almost nobody in the camp was interested in planning an escape.  Together with the four men in the small room next to ours, I tried to figure out how to get out of there, but aside from some rather far-fetched ideas, we didn’t come up with anything.  There were two physical problems.  First was the fact that the camp was built near the shore of the Baltic Sea at an elevation of maybe two feet, so tunneling was basically out of the question.  The other was that the barracks were built about four feet above ground, standing on wooden pilings, and at night the Germans put a guard with a sentry dog into each compound, thereby stopping any attempt to do anything involving work under a barracks.  To the best of my knowledge, no one ever escaped from Stalag Luft #1, although a couple of guys got as far as the main gate once. 

I admit I wasn’t very popular in my own room.  Aside from the sheer boredom that comes with living with the same 19 guys for months, listening to their war stories, personal histories, jokes, poems, and other trivia over and over again, I had a problem with several individuals.  That problem stemmed from their absolute insistence that when they got back, they were going to get in the Training Command.  I had been in the Training Command as a student and as a pilot, and frankly, I thought it was terrible.  But my roommates had it branded onto their brains that the Training Command had to be terrific simply because no one shot at you there.  The people in my room also didn’t want to talk about escape, and when I tried to talk about it, they sneered at me. 

Next to our room was a small one in which our official translator for the barracks lived with three other officers.  Our translator was 2nd Lt. William Gambrell, a pre-med student from Austin, Texas.  “Willie” was very intelligent, albeit unconventional at times.  The Germans rationed lumps of pressed coal to each barracks once a day, and Willie had the responsibility for ensuring that we in our barracks got our full ration.  The guard who oversaw the coal issue for the day was Oberfeldwebel (tech sergeant) Heinrich Zufall, who was 54 years old.  He had the typically rosy cheeks of a north German, and we called him “Grumpy,” but not to his face.  Willie would get him involved in some complicated discussion while the guys were picking up their boxes of coal lumps, and Willie usually managed to get one or two extra boxes for the barracks by virtue of arguing about the count. 

“Grumpy” was, in fact, a good man.  He never broke the rule of not trading with us, and we certainly did not try to get him to. We always left a package of cigarettes from a Red Cross parcel lying on the table, open with a few cigarettes poking out to be taken.  He would arrive unannounced in the small room, plunk himself down on a bench, and say, “Guten Morgen.”  I spent a lot of time with Willie and his roommates, and got to know Grumpy to an extent, too. Without asking permission in any way, Grumpy would help himself to a smoke or two or three, and engage Willie in a conversation that might go on for an hour.  Grumpy’s son had been killed while flying as the rear gunner in a Ju-87B Stuka dive bomber.  Grumpy’s brother, 56 years old, was killed in the infantry on the eastern front.  Grumpy was no fan of Hitler or the Nazis, that was clear.  But he was a good soldier. 

One day Willie pulled a prank that was a classic.  Here’s the way the conversation went: 

Willie: “Warum sprechen Sie kein Englisch?”  (“Why don’t you speak some English?”)


Grumpy: “Ja.  Es ist zu compliziert.”  (“It is too complicated.)


Willie: “Es ist einfach.  Sie könnten sagen, ‘Guten Morgen’ auf Englisch.  (“It is simple.  You could at least say ‘good morning’ in English.”)


Grumpy: “Ja.  Wie sagt mann ‘Guten Morgen’ auf Englisch?”  (“OK, how does one say ‘Guten Morgen’ in English?”)


Then, without warning us in any way, Willie came back with: 

Mann sagt ‘How’s your pecker hanging?‘” 

I thought I would explode laughing, but I dared not so much as snicker, and the other three guys in the room contained themselves with considerable difficulty, just as I did. 

So thereafter when Grumpy came into the little room, we insisted that he say “Guten Morgen” in English, and he would manfully do his best.  We never even grinned.  But it was great fun. 

I perfected a method of stealing potatoes that was very successful.  We had round baskets much like bushels, with wire handles on top at each side, and each barracks got so many of those for a day.  The guards delivered a big pile of potatoes by wagon, and whenever one pile was depleted, they dumped another pile into the compound.  I wore a GI “combat jacket,” which was a short garment fitted in the front with both a zipper and buttons.  I could leave the zipper and two of the middle buttons open, squat down right in front of the German guard, and fill the basket one potato at a time with each hand, and now and then slip a potato into the jacket.  When the basket was full, I would stick a thumb through each wire handle, hold the basket against my chest, and walk to our barracks.  It was impossible to see that I had potatoes inside my jacket.  One time I counted the potatoes from one run with a basket: 39 of them.  I guess the guards must have suspected something, because after a couple of months of that theft, they started dumping the pile of potatoes and specifying how long it had to last.  That meant that I had to stop my thievery, because if that pile wasn’t going to be replaced whenever it was empty, I would be stealing from the other prisoners.  Obviously, I quit. 

In fact, a sense of humor is essential when you’re behind barbed wire.  Practical jokes are pulled all the time, and sometimes we would pull one that we knew would puzzle the guards no end.  One of these I saw three times, and each time was exceedingly funny.  It went this way: Two of the prisoners, when arguing about when the war would be over, would get up a bet.  The terms would be “I’ll kiss your ass in front of morning roll call if the war isn’t over by (fill in the blank, but in these cases it was either Christmas 1944 or the following New Year’s Day).  Well, the appointed days arrived and the war wasn’t over, and when the Germans had finished their outside count of prisoners but were still busy in the various barracks, the commander of the barracks with the bettors would call the barracks to attention and then announce, “Lieutenant (whoever), front and center.”  Thereupon the guy who had won the bet would march stiffly out of the ranks, making square corners at all times, stop just a few feet from the barracks commander, drop his pants and underpants, and bend way forward from the waist.  Right behind him, marching in the same formal way, was the loser of the bet and his “second,” a prisoner equipped with a coarse brush, a towel, and a bucket of warm, soapy water.  The second would dip the brush into the water, scrub the winner’s buttocks very ostentatiously, towel it dry, then step aside and gesture for the loser to inspect.  The loser would step forward, put his face down at the level of the winner’s butt, and take a long look to see that it was clean.  Unfailingly, he would suddenly stand upright, shake his head very dramatically, and point at some imagined spot of whatever pollutant, and insist that the second redo the scrubbing and toweling.  After about three iterations of this farce, the loser would lean down and very quickly give the winner’s buttocks a very short kiss.  Then all the compound’s prisoners would let out a loud cheer, and clap their hands in wild appreciation.  What was funny about it was the expression on the faces of the guards in the towers, who could not, in their wildest imaginations, understand what these crazy Americans were up to. 

The Senior Allied Officer in our compound was Colonel Henry R. Spicer, a P-51 jockey.  He had been shot down by a German flak gun on the French coast when he let down to 7,000 feet to light his pipe, I was told, but he was a fine officer no matter how you sliced it.  After the war I had a chance to talk to my Wing-Base Commander at Salina, Kansas, Colonel (later four-star general) Joe Kelly.  I asked him if he had ever known Russ Spicer, and Colonel Joe said, “Know him!  I paid for the sonofabitch’s wedding.”  A poker game was the vehicle, and I was not surprised that Spicer was a good poker player. 

One day in early 1945 right after we had been counted in evening roll call, Colonel Spicer said, “After I dismiss you, lads, I want you all to gather around.”  Then he dismissed us, and we gathered around him to see what he had in mind.  He said, “You people are getting too friendly with the Germans.  They are our enemy, and in Holland when they overran a field hospital, they killed everybody in it.[18]  I know you all want to go home, but if this war lasts 10 years, and every manjack of us rots in this damn place, it will be OK because all the goddam Germans will have been killed.  Just today we have been ordered to salute all German officers, regardless of rank.  The Geneva Treaty says we must salute only officers of equal or superior rank.  My orders to you are to salute only officers of equal or superior rank.  That’s all.” 

There were English-speaking guards listening to that spiel, and the next day they came to arrest Colonel Spicer in his barracks room.  Unfortunately, they sent an enlisted man, and Ol’ Spicer grabbed that poor soul by the scruff of the neck, threw him out into the hall, and said, “If you want to arrest me, get an officer to do it.”  Shortly thereafter, the Lageroffizier came in and said, essentially, “Come on, Colonel Spicer,” and off to solitary confinement our good colonel went. 

From his solitary cell, Spicer was allowed to go outside twice a day for exercise.  There was a small open area behind the solitary cells, and he could run or walk around that area for whatever time he was allowed.  It was located right behind the prisoners’ dispensary, and of course it didn’t take long for the word to get around that Spicer’s guard let people smuggle small items to him as he passed by the rear windows of the dispensary.  I managed to make a small package of fudge that I got to him that way. 

In due time there was a court martial under the auspices of a German general.  They found Colonel Spicer guilty of “insulting the German race,” and condemned him to die.  But he just stayed in solitary the rest of the war.  I saw him later when he was the Commanding General of the 17th Air Force at Ramstein, Germany, and he looked fine to me. 

The Soviet Union had not signed the Geneva Convention and the Soviet prisoners did the various menial chores in the camp.  They said they had told their guards that if anyone harmed a hair on Colonel Spicer‘s head, they would kill every man, woman, and child in the entire state of Pommerania when their army liberated the area.  That sounded pretty far-fetched to me, and still does, but it made a good story for us prisoners. 

Late in the War, when the Red Army was getting closer to liberating us, we were told by our leaders to dig fox holes in the open area between our various barracks, and trap doors in the floors of each room, “in case the Germans counterattack.”  I couldn’t imagine the German Army being able to counterattack anything at that stage of the war.  In the first place, there were no German Army organizations anywhere near us up there isolated along the Baltic coast.  In the second place, our guards now contained a large number of very old and very young men of the “Volksturm,” the equivalent of the Home Guards in Britain, who were patently incapable of attacking the Red Army that was pouring all over Germany.  So I didn’t dig a fox hole.  Everybody else did, and in our room the guys worked hard to build that trap door.

[1]       Sgt. Leo Waldron was the upper turret operator. 

[2]       Italics mine.

[3]       Obviously Turkington and Ball, we thought.

[4]       Navigator.

[5]       Tony Zelnio‘s words.

[6]       “Brunswick,” in English.

[7]       It is against the Geneva treaty to handcuff prisoners of war.  In this case, I believe being handcuffed was a way of showing the civilians that we were under the control and protection of the military.

[8]       An excellent example of the random nature of success or failure in war.

[9]       Talk about fatmouthed.

[10]     “Dulag” is the German acronym for “Durchganglager,” or approximately, “Transient Camp.”

[11]     “Pomerania,” in English.

[12]     I’ve forgotten the exact name.

[13]     The pilots of two other 303rd crews that came into our POW camp a few months later said we lost “16” and “all 18,” respectively, of the aircraft we put up on 28 September.  I don’t know how to evaluate any of that.

[14]     Both sides had ways of shading their losses, mostly for political reasons.

[15]     That is, the German Air Force.

[16]     The German officer in charge of a compound.

[17]     Short for “Kriegsgefangener,” which is “prisoner of war” in German.

[18]     I don’t know whether that was true, but it was a dangerous thing to say.

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