The Military Experiences of Walter Neuwirth
from Riverside High School (Milwaukee, WI) in 1941. My parents owned a
flat at 117 E. Locust Street Street, we lived downstairs and our tenant,
Adolph Behrens, lived upstairs. He was an engineer at Square “D”
Company and he helped me get a job there as a tool and die maker
apprentice. It was one of the best things that could have happened to me
as I enjoyed making tools, dies, and gages for 47 years at Square “D”.
7, 1941, my best grade school friend, Chuck Gross and his future wife,
myself and a girlfriend were on our way to view the capitol in Madison,
Wisconsin. We heard a news flash on the radio that said Japan had bombed
Pearl Harbor. We realized that we would be effected before long. Some of
my friends enlisted right away while others waited until they were
drafted. Then, after getting a few deferments because of my trade, I
asked a girl I knew in the draft office if she would tear up my
deferment, which she did. Right after that, a pilot training program was
announced. I again asked the girl in the draft office for help, this
time I asked if she could get me back off the draft list so I could join
the Army Air Corp. She said it was easier to get on the list than off
but somehow she did it. I took the exam for pilot training, which wasn’t
that difficult, it also made me eligible to become a navigator or
bombardier if I washed out as a pilot. First, I was sent to Maxwell
Field in Montgomery, Alabama to get basic training, learn to march, and
as a new cadet be harassed by the upper classmen. We had to eat “square
meals” which meant eating without looking down, right, or left. We
constantly were forced to do push-ups for some perceived wrong.
After that it
was off to Avon Park, Florida. In April of ’43, I started pilot
training, six weeks later I had soloed and was given a flight test. On
take off I let my air speed get a little low. I quickly put the nose
down to pick up speed, but it was too late – the test pilot had washed
me out. What I didn’t know then was that they had plenty of pilot
trainees, so they had to wash out over half of them to fill the need for
navigators, bombardiers, and gunners. The army sent me to be a
bombardier, my second choice.
bombardier was also the gunnery officer so I was sent to Laredo, Texas
for gunnery training. First, we learned how to strip a 50 caliber
machine gun completely apart and put it together again, blindfolded.
Then we practiced shooting a large sock that was pulled by a plane with
about 1,000 feet of cord between the plane and the sock. Every so often
we heard complaints that the tow plane had bullet holes in it.
Then on to
bombardier school. We would sit on a platform 12 feet high, fitted with
a bomb sight. The movable platform was connected to the controls on the
bomb sight and could go forward, right, or left. Then looking through
the bombsight we would try to bomb the bug which was about one foot
square and moved across the path of the bombsight platform. Turning
handles on machines must have helped me as I had the second best score
in my class when I graduated.
Next it was
on to Peterson Field in Colorado Springs, Colorado to meet and train
with the rest of my crew. I lucked out, my new crew became a good crew.
Although on our first flight as my pilot, Herb Rubin, came in to land,
we hit, bounced 20 feet in the air, and were like a yo yo until we
finally landed. In fact, I missed a few missions until my co-pilot told
me the pilot was really smooth on his landings now. I flew again and,
sure enough, he was really smooth on his landings. Then it was my turn
to pull a dumb one. We were practice bombing and I dropped some black
powder bombs which gave off a black puff of smoke when they hit so you
could see how close to the target you were. I didn’t see them hit, but a
while later I realized I hadn’t opened the bomb bay door, which I
immediately did. If you attempt to drop a bomb with the doors shut they
shouldn’t release, but mine did and then, when I opened the doors, the
bombs fell right on Lowery Field in Denver. Thank goodness they hit in
the open field and we beat it for home.
Then on to
Lincoln, Nebraska to pick up a brand new B-24 to fly to Italy. We flew
to Bangor, Maine and spent the night. In the morning we took off for
Iceland, spent one night there and then off to the Azores. We flew above
the clouds without radio contact. We had to hope our navigator knew what
he was doing. He got it right, the clouds ended and there were the
islands with their beautiful white-washed buildings surrounded by the
deep blue ocean. We discovered they were known for champagne which we
bought while we gassed up. On the way to Tunis, Tunisia we drank the
champagne from our mess kits and played poker. The pilot was also
playing in the rear section of the plane. After a while, I went forward
to see how the co-pilot (Tom Little) was doing. He had the plane on
automatic pilot and was sound a sleep. He awoke and let me fly the
plane, since it had dual controls he wasn’t worried. We flew over the
Mediterranean, and passed Oran, Algeria which had many big battle ships
in its port. We landed at Tunis and went to the Casbah in North Africa.
We took off our officer bars and went to an enlisted mans dance.
back early in the morning then had breakfast and took off for
Spinazzolla, Italy. We saw Mount Etna on the way. We landed in
Spinazzolla and were taken to our quarters which was a tent on a 15-foot
square wooden platform. I believe it had been home to a crew that had
been shot down. The next morning we flew our first mission. We each flew
in a different plane to get combat experience, our target was
Frederikshavn. We got about three quarters of the way there when they
said the weather was too bad at the target and we should return. We
dropped our bombs in the Adriatic Sea and landed. We were back about an
hour when here comes a B-24 flying so low it had its wing between the
tents. The pilot flew at the base of the control tower which caused two
people to jump for their lives, one was the Colonel, the head of the
base. It turns out the pilot was celebrating his completion of 50
missions. His joy was short-lived when the colonel told him he had to
fly another mission.
morning we flew to bomb the ball bearing works in Schweinfurt, Germany.
Again, bad weather caused us to return. All returned except one, the
pilot who had to fly the extra mission. He continued on and found a hole
in the clouds and bombed the target. He then took pictures (movies) of
his accomplishment and flew home. The Germans thought we all had turned
around so he had no flak or fighters. When he finally came in the
Colonel asked why he didn’t turn back with the rest of the group and he
said his radio wasn’t working. He then went home.
where we didn’t drop our bombs due to bad weather, we had to salvo them
into the Adriatic Sea before we landed. I tried this on an aborted
mission and my bombs wouldn’t release, so I had to go on the catwalk and
release them manually. I had the bomb bay doors open and started to
release the bombs when a down draft grabbed me and tried to pull me out
of the plane. It tore off my portable oxygen mask, tank, helmet, and
goggles as I hung on to the bomb rack for dear life as it was very
narrow on the cat walk. I had no parachute on. My engineer saw I was in
trouble and closed the door.
before our last mission my co-pilot, Tom, had to test fly the oldest,
most beat up crate in the squadron which had just gotten a rebuilt
engine. It had so many patches covering bullet and flak holes it looked
like it had the measles.
morning, July 19, 1944, we found out we would be flying our first
mission with our own crew. Then in the briefing they told us our target
would be Munich railyards and factories, and what plane did we get to
fly? Yes, the one the co-pilot had test flown.
out o.k., but about three quarters of the way there an engine died. We
had to drop our bombs to keep up with the formation. We didn’t turn back
as German fighter planes were just waiting for cripples and stragglers.
was trying to get the dead engine started so I took his place in the top
gun turret. Right over the target we got a direct hit in the #3 engine.
It seemed to lift the engine up and drop it off the plane, gas, and oil
was spraying out. I turned my turret away so I didn’t have to look at
We then flew
into the clouds. We were losing altitude. I went to the nose and asked
the navigator, Amos, if he thought we would make it. He said, “Look at
the altimeter” which was spinning down. I left to go up to talk to the
pilot, halfway there the bailout bell went off, so I went right to the
bomb bay doors.
I pushed the
lever to open the bomb bay doors and nothing happened, the engine that
had been shot off the plane operated the hydraulic system which would
have moved the doors. I ran to get the crank that would open the doors
manually. I opened the doors about a foot, then if I put all my weight
on the handle it would open up another inch or two. The crew started
jumping out, they would get stuck in the opening and the pilot, Herb,
would shove his foot down on their shoulder and out they would go until
only Herb and I were left. Herb gave me a wave and, stringbean that he
was, out he went. I looked down and the grass was looking very green and
very close. I quickly jumped and got stuck tighter than a drumhead. I
tried to break loose and wondered “Where is that super human strength
I’m supposed to have in a situation like this?” Then something struck me
across the legs and broke me free. Later I figured it had to be part of
the cowling of a damaged engine. I saw the guns from the ball gun just
miss my head and I pulled my ripcord. Nothing happened. The cable that
was supposed to pull two pins that would open the chute was broken. I
was learning as I went along. I opened a flap that held the two pins and
pulled them out and the chute opened with a whoosh. I was jerked up and
boom, I was on the ground. I slowly felt around my body to see if I was
still in one piece. My sock felt wet, it was covered with blood. I’m not
sure if it was from the flak, plane, or what. I got my chute in about a
three foot ball, put it in a hole and covered it with rock and branches.
Next to where I came down was a ravine, I slowly worked my way to the
bottom and found a natural cave made by tree limbs and shrubs which was
half surrounded by water. I climbed in and laid down to relax. I thought
if I could stay there for two or three days they would stop looking for
me. Then the throbbing in my leg started. I thought if it went
completely numb I’d never be able to get out of that ravine. So out I
went, I crawled up the hill and after awhile found a trail. I headed
south and came to a suspension bridge which stretched across a ravine. I
was halfway over when I heard “HALT”. I looked back and saw two men on
one knee with long guns aimed at me and two men standing with their guns
aimed at me. I turned and came back to the “home guard”. One person kept
aiming at my head until we were within a foot of each other. I must have
been quite tired and worn out by then as I told him “If you’re going to
shoot, shoot.” At that their leader said something and he lowered his
gun. We then sat for a while and they wondered in German that I looked
very young to be an officer. One guessed 18 and another guessed 17 and I
couldn’t resist, I said 21 in German and one of them said “Be careful he
speaks German better than we do” – which certainly wasn’t true.
took me back to the plane. I slowed them up as my leg was giving me
grief, however, they thought I was in poor physical condition. When we
got back to the plane it was completely destroyed. Much to my surprise,
their was a body in it. I bent to look at the name tag and they told me
that they had already taken it. The dead man was Amos, my navigator. I
don’t know why he didn’t jump.
then took me down the foothills of the Alps to the city of Oberammergau.
I was on a back porch and many of the towns people came to see the
captured American Flyer. The lady of the house came out and asked if I
was hungry, I told her yes and she brought me a big cheese sandwich and
a glass of milk. It was the last cheese I would see for 10½ months. Then
a big Mercedes convertible pulled up driven by a monocled German
officer. On the way to the Police Station he asked if I could speak
German, I told him no and he said “You lie, but we will get the truth
out of you.” After checking in at the Police Station they took me to the
hospital and cleaned and bandaged my ankle. I was in one room with a
door that connected to the next room. My pilot, Herb Rubin, was in there
and in the doorway sat a soldier with the skull and cross bones
insignia. He must have been wounded and was also recuperating. When Herb
and I tried to talk he almost shot us. I felt the mattress for softness
to needle him and he almost shot me. He then said “You will sleep on a
lot worse.” He was right, the next day they transferred me to a dungeon
type prison cell with a foot thick door with a peep hole. The one small
window was about 15 feet high with bars on it. My bed was a board hung
to the wall and held level by a chain, it had a gunny sack with some
straw in it. I’m sure it was filled with lice as I began to itch. Then
on to Oberursel. We arrived July 21, 1944 and were put in solitary
confinement and interrogated. I told them I knew nothing which was the
truth. Although my interrogator said if I didn’t tell all I knew he
would turn me over to the Gestapo and they would make me talk. He then
called and told them I was refusing to cooperate, all the while holding
down the phone lever with his finger. They then sent us to Wetzlar where
we got a hot shower and our clothes were steamed to kill any bugs in
them. On the 25th of July we left for Barth by train. At the
train station a crowd gathered and started yelling “Hang the terror
fliegers!” Our guards were very young men who were frightened. My pilot
said to the head guard “I don’t blame you for being afraid, but if you
leave us to the mob, at least give us some guns for protection.” They
then got their courage back and forced the crowd back and got us into a
room in the train station until the train arrived.
The train had
bars on the windows and lots of guards, when I think now how angry the
crowd was I can’t blame them as I’m sure many lost homes and relatives
in bombing strikes. Though at that time, with my life on the line, I
wasn’t that understanding.
Then away we
went to Stalag Luft 1 in Barth. It was about 100 miles north of Berlin
on the Baltic Sea. It was slow going and when we got to Berlin they
parked the train for 16 hours in hopes that our own bombers would hit
us, but we lucked out, as they didn’t bomb that day.
We got to
Barth July 29, 1944 and the Germans said “For you, the war is over.”
They took our pictures and gave us German dog tags. My pilot Herb, who
was a great judge of character, picked the 18 men for our room, which
was o.k. with the Germans. Our room became a beehive of activity.
We had no
pots or pans so we made them from cans we got in Red Cross parcels. They
didn’t leak and we could cook rutabagas, potatoes, or anything our cook
had to work with. We made pans for other rooms and sold them for coal.
We then made an oven out of cans, it was double walled, the smoke pipe
would go in the bottom, around the sides, and out the top. We then would
rent it out for more coal. We also made a grandfather clock. I always
enjoyed playing cards, but no one played my favorite game, sheepshead.
The game of choice was bridge. My pilot, Herb, taught me the game and we
developed our own bidding system which we called the Neubin system (Neuwirth
Herb was then
taken out of our room and put in a separate Jewish section. You can
guess what would have happened to him had we lost the war. I then taught
the Neubin system to Paul Sundheim who had lived in Buffalo, New York
and we played in the big, once-a-year tournament which had been won
every year since Dunkirk (1940) by the two Padres who had been captured
there. Paul and I played them for the championship and won. I’m sure it
was more luck than ability, but that didn’t make the Padres feel any
night a British Mosquito fighter plane would come roaring out of the sky
and strafe a German airfield about five miles from our camp. We called
him “Bed Check Charlie.” One night the Germans shot him down. Then
nothing but quiet nights for a week, then out of the sky comes a
Mosquito with guns blazing right through the prison camp. Each room had
a chimney on each side of the hallway and in 10 seconds every one of us
was between the chimneys. Then the pilot realized his error, pulled up,
and dove on the airfield with guns blazing, a new “Bed Check Charlie”
was born. Not one person was hit in his dive on us.
morning of April 30, 1945 we knew the guards had left about 10:00 p.m.
the night before. Also a Russian tank had pushed down the barbed wire
surrounding the west end of our prison camp. About an hour later eight
of us left to travel with the Russians to the American lines. First, we
rode with a Polish ex-POW refugee who had a large wagon and two sturdy
horses. He wanted us with him hoping the Russians wouldn’t take his
wagon because we were Americans. His idea worked because we were able to
travel south about 35 miles to east/west highway. He went east to Poland
and we went west toward U. S. lines.
night the Russians stopped us and said we couldn’t travel at night and
they chased some Germans from their bed and said we could sleep there. I
felt terrible, but didn’t get a chance to sleep in bed as a Russian
officer liked the fact that I could speak a little German so he could
brag about his part in the war. We drank vodka from water glasses until
he got sick and I thought the floor was very comfortable.
next night the Russians had us stay in a barn with lots of hay. During
the night the Russians got drunk and sprayed the barn with their Uzi
type weapons, even though there were over 100 people in the barn no one
was hit. The next day we went past a Jewish Death Camp (dead and
starving people.) I can’t remember this, but my friends say I was there.
That night we slept at an apartment complex taken over by
slave labor Romanian girls whose fathers and husbands had been killed in
retaliation for a German officer killed in their town. The next night we
slept in a U.S. prison camp like ours and we left in the morning. Later
in the day we saw a jeep pulling a large wagon with a U.S. Captain and
two sergeants and a man with a GI coat. The Captain asked us to sit
around the man with the GI coat. We deduced later that the Captain was
bringing out the rocket scientist Werner Von Braun and was hiding him
among us in case we were stopped by the Russians.
He then got us across the Elbe River where we stopped and
took a picture. I didn’t get to see the picture until 45 years later
when Bob Grant (an ex-FBI agent who said this was the most exciting week
in his life!) found me and sent me the negatives and pictures.
Living 24 to a room while in prison camp we formed a bond of comradeship
and respect for each other. After the war we all became busy with new
families, school, and jobs. We lost contact with each other until 1988
when Hersha Davie got six of us and our wives together in Las Vegas. We
have had many wonderful reunions since then including one in May of ’99.
We all get along very well and think of each other as family. We had
reunions of 22 or 24, including wives, but our last one was 10 including
wives. It has been wonderful, but I guess we are running out of gas