Stalag XIII-D, Nürnberg— The sight of a grotesquely burned pilot,
wandering lonely about the camp, was a shock to all who saw him. He had no
ears, no eyelids, and his mouth just a hole in a face of hideously scarred
skin drawn taut over a scull topped with hair the color and texture of a
dead mouse. We tried not to stare.
More than a hundred of us lived in a
huge tent, crammed together on the ground on straw ticks. Mess hall meals were sumptuous feasts of
a thin broth garnished with bugs, accompanied by dehydrated black
sauerkraut, and bread largely composed of sawdust. We ate it all!
One day the grotesque pilot wandered over to my area and said, "Hi
Dumbfounded, I could only stammer, "I'm sorry, I don't know who
"I'm Ray Trombley," he responded. Stunned, I could only babble
The Ray Trombley I'd known so well in flight school was cherub-faced
with curly blond hair, and an impish grin from Springfield, Mass. I was
unable to comprehend this was the same person. Nor could I bring myself to
ask him what had happened. Shamefully, I was relieved, when he wandered off,
clutching a dirty piece of gauze to wipe pus from his eyes. It was a
terrible moment—sympathy and revulsion intertwined. I was not proud of
When Ray had left, one in my quartet took me aside, stunning me when
he said, "Phil, please don't ask Ray to eat with us. I couldn't take it." It
seemed terribly cruel, but I understood. I said I wouldn't. The point was
moot, as Ray never asked to join us.
Only later did I learn that he'd gone on to fly P-38s in Italy north
of Foggia. On his 17th mission to Vienna on November 1, 1944 he caught a
wing tip on a tree while strafing a large concentration of trains and
locomotives in Hungary and cart wheeled in. He was burned horribly climbing
out of the flaming wreckage. Hungarian soldiers captured him and lugged him
in a horse drawn cart to a Catholic hospital in Kormand, Hungary where he
was expected to die. He survived, and in a month or so two Hungarian guards
took him to another hospital in Budapest by train disguised as a Czech
prisoner-of-war. On the train two German soldiers came up to him and put a
gun to his head threatening to shoot him as a spy in disguise before letting
him go. It was just one of the many close calls he was able to survive.
By the middle of January he was believed to be well enough to join up
with six other P.O.W.s, and two old guards to go to Frankfurt-am-Main. On
the way to Vienna they were chased by angry civilian crowds trying to hang
them. In Vienna they were made to stay on the top floor of a department
store that was bombed nightly by Allied planes. From Vienna, they went by
train and on foot for roughly 250 miles through the beautiful Danube valley
to Regensburg. Coming into Regensburg they were strafed by P-38's, but
fortunately no one was hit.
From Regensburg to Frankfurt was another 200 miles. So, fifty-four days
after leaving Budapest, and traveling at less than 10 miles a day, they
finally arrived in Frankfurt on March 10, 1945. Saying goodbye to the
guards, who had become good friends during the long trip, they were
interrogated and deloused. Then the seven of them were led into a huge room
where several hundred starving Russians were lying on the floor. The stench
was so overwhelming one of the guys fainted. After awhile they were given
bars of rough soap and led into a huge shower room to finally get clean. A
few days later they were all sent off to Nürnberg in miserably crowded
boxcars that were the lot of all large groups of POWs traveling by train.
Also at Nürnberg, from flight school, and flying P-47 Thunderbolts
with me in the 36th Fighter Group, 9th A.F., were Harry Vibbert and Joe
Schultis. Harry was shot down in September of '44. He suffered very severe
burns on his arms, legs, throat, forehead, and broke his ankle when he
landed in his parachute.
The Germans walked him several miles until he finally collapsed
standing at attention in front of a German officer seated behind a desk. But
regardless of how rough a time Harry had he never lost his indomitable sense
Joe was shot down during The Battle of the Bulge and evaded for five
days. His feet were badly frost bitten crossing streams in the frigid
December weather. He came that close to the lines that he could smell GI
cooking and hear American voices before he was captured.
I was shot down in March of '45 and suffered from two infected
hangnails and bunch of flea bites!!
Ray, on the other hand, was in terrible shape both mentally and
physically. To sleep he had to roll his eyes up into his head. In the
mornings he'd hold a little pocket mirror in one hand and wipe the caked pus
from his eyes with the dirty piece of gauze, while staring at his horribly
disfigured face. Our hearts went out to him, but there was nothing we could
In a way, Harry was Ray's savior. Though even more badly burned than
Ray, his face wasn't as disfigured as Ray's nor was he as overwhelmed by his
condition. But only Harry, with his unflagging humor, could allow him to get
away with dubbing Ray "Prune Face" and himself "The Brow"—from the comic
strip characters in Dick Tracy.
Whenever Ray sank into a funk, Harry would say, "Come on 'Prune
Face,' I'm 'The Brow,' and I'm the boss," and Ray would buck up. It was
beautiful to watch what those two men did for each other. One giving - one
receiving - both gaining. It's a memory I'll treasure forever.
We were liberated on April 29, 1945 from Stalag VII-A at Moosburg,
and Ray and Harry were flown home immediately for hospitalization. Later,
Harry, Joe, and I had a couple of wild nights out in Detroit, before going
on to our life's separate ways.
Years later, I visited Harry in the veteran's hospital in Detroit - he
was dying of cancer - and he kidded me about getting bald. For Christmas
that year he sent me a cheap red pen embossed with his name and a dime
store comb. I treasure them. He died shortly afterwards. I loved that man,
as only men who share in combat can.
Harry had given me Ray's address, and we still correspond.
Photographs put the lie to the old saying, "You can't make a silk purse out of
a sow's ear." He looks great - just an older addition of that baby-faced
blond guy I knew in flight school.
But, "Prune Face" and "The Brow" will never be forgotten - God bless-em!
here to email Ray Trombley