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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Lt. Phil Wright - World War II fighter pilot  1st. Lt. Philip N. Wright, Jr.
Fighter Pilot - P- 47 Thunderbolt
36th Fighter Group - 23rd Fighter Squadron
9th Air Force
 

Prisoner of War at Stalag VIIA
Shot down March 10, 1945 on a mission to Frankfurt.


 

 

 

Phil passed away in 2003.  Rest in peace.

 


Mission 59 1/2
 


           March 10,  '45 was my sixtieth mission. From now on I'd be eligible for rotation home. It was a happy prospect. What wasn't was a 2,000' ceiling and 5,000' thick cloud cover by no means great weather to be flying combat in.

           Since I'd joined the 36th Fighter Group on  August 1, 1944, a lot of good friends in the Group hadn't made it as far as I had. They'd either been killed or were missing in action. Among them were pals I'd had gone to flying school with: Jack Wyand, Harry Vibert, and Joe Schultis. Others I recall missing from the pilot's roster of the 23 Fighter Squadron were Don Smollen (K.I.A.), Pit Cole (K.I.A.), Jack Teagarden (K.I.A.), and Don Dreifke (M.I.A.).

Clyde Hartzel, Pete Quesada,. Phil Wright, and Robert Ferris

          But the biggest loss for all of us was Major Albert E. "Easy" Miles, our squadron commander. His chute caught on the tail of his plane when he had to bail out. He went in with his plane. "Easy" Miles was one of the bravest men I have ever known.

          The mission today is an armed reconnaissance in an area north of Frankfurt, Germany. My friend and roommate, "Maggie" Magnuson, will lead the squadron of two flights of four  P-47 Thunderbolts. I'm to lead the second flight of four.

         "Stay the hell away from the Remagen Bridge!" the briefing officer had told us.

         The capture of the Remagan Bridge three days earlier had been unbelievably good fortune, and 1st Army was doing everything possible to  protect this first bridgehead over the Rhine.

         "There is a 15 mile no-fly zone around the bridge and any plane, and I mean any plane-Allied or German, that comes into this zone,  is going to be shot down. So stay the hell out of there," he had repeated.

        We took off from our Belgian base, and flew east-south-east over cloud cover. Not until we were well into Germany could we see ground  through occasional holes in the overcast. In one of these, Maggie spotted a marshaling yard. He radioed the rest of us that he and his wingman were going down and take a look. The two planes of his second  element tacked on to the four in my flight. We circled overhead at 10,000 feet and watched Maggie and his wingman dive down and disappear through the hole. Shortly, Maggie radioed up that he'd spotted some locomotives and that the rest of us should come on down.

          I radioed my strung-out bunch to follow me and dove down through the hole and pulled out at 1,500' heading north. I saw the  marshaling yard and lined up on it, made my bomb run, and released my two 500 pounders, then broke away in a steep 90 left-hand climbing turn. I looked back to see the havoc I'd wrought.

        Terrible! My bombs had landed in some peasant's field and blasted a nice big hole in it.

         In order that I wouldn't get run into by the planes following me, I climbed back up into the clouds again, made a 180 turn, and came back down out of the clouds and tried to find the locomotives.

         I was flying a brand spanking new P-47D30RA  - my plane had been grounded for maintenance. A new plane has the smell of a new car,  and I babied this cream-puff along like an old man out for a Sunday drive while I looked for the locomotives. At the same time I was thinking about the marvelous rest leave I'd just returned from in Cannes on the Riviera.  

         "Ker-thunk." The plane was hit! I didn't even know I was being fired at. No flak, no tracers, no indication of any enemy fire at all.

         Aluminum skin over the wheel well on left wing was buckled up. Inside was a raging fire. Every pilot's  reaction to such an emergency is to check his controls, and I kicked the rudder pedals. WOW-the fire just spread the length of the wing.

          What to do? I could fire-wall the throttle and try to go back on the deck and pray the fire wouldn't get so bad I'd have to bail out. If it did, there wouldn't be time to gain enough altitude to jump. Another problem was, I couldn't remember if there was a bulkhead between the wing root and gas tank under the seat. If I guessed wrong-Blooey!

         Then there was the Ramagen Bridge. I guessed it was about 70 miles due west of my position, and if I made it, I'd be shot down by our own people.

         My next option was to go up through the 5,000' of cloud cover on instruments, then head for the lines. At least I'd be able to jump,  if the plane didn't blow up first. But I was a lousy instrument pilot, and with the plane on fire, I would be watching the fire and not my instruments. No way.

         The next choice-jump! The decisions took less than 10 seconds before I started my bailout procedure. I ripped off my oxygen mask, ejected the canopy, and rolled the plane upside down, ready to drop out, exactly as the book said.

         Problems: First, I hadn't rolled the trim tabs forward to keep the nose up, when the plane was upside down, and it kept diving towards the ground. Second, you just doesn't "drop" out of a plane going 150 miles an hour. That's no gentle zephyr, and it keeps you jammed in the cockpit. Third, upside down,  I was kicking at the stick to keep the nose up, while struggling to get out against slipstream, and I saw I was still hooked to the radio umbilical.

         Then pow! Out I went, like a cork from a champagne bottle. I had wriggled out just far enough for the slipstream to grab me instead of holding me in. It was the fastest I've ever gone anywhere, anytime - the radio umbilical didn't slow me down one whit. Forever etched in my memory is the image of the vertical stabilizer going right between my legs. The thought still makes me cringe.

          Flight school didn't include practice jumps; from now on it would be on-the-job-training. At best, I was at 1200' and didn't dare observe the nicety of counting to ten before pulling the rip cord. I yanked it. The chute serpentined out and opened with a lovely "WHOOMPH." and had he been there I would have kissed Sergeant McElroy, our parachute rigger.

          As the plane flew away-engine roaring - I suddenly felt like two people. One, a stranger, parachuting into Nazi Germany. The other, who was going to get back into the plane and fly back safely to the base. This horror just couldn't be happening to me! When the plane crashed into the ground in a huge explosion, I knew I wasn't going back to the base - and I became one person.

          Suddenly, everything became quiet-even serene. The first sounds to filter into my  consciousness were of the birds singing beneath me. It was eerily disorienting, but beautiful. As I drifted down, Hollywood images of Germans machine-gunning defenseless Allied pilots in parachutes flashed into my mind- I waited?

         I pulled on the parachute shroud lines, to control my descent, but I feared if I pulled too hard I'd dump the air from the chute and crash to the ground so I gave it up.

         The ground was coming up faster,  and  I saw a barbed wire fence I might straddle. Then the ground blurred, and I was on it in a heap. I looked around to see that I was in the back yard of a large house on top of a knoll. The six foot hurricane fence that surrounded the property was ample proof that the best way into this place was through the top. Down the knoll I saw a small town.

          We had been told in Escape & Evasion lectures that the first thing to do is to hide your parachute. If the Germans found it, they would have a place to start tracking you from. Okay, I gathered up the chute, took it into a shed near the back of the house, and crammed it down behind a woodpile. Outside again, I went around to the east side of the house and looked for a gate - no gate. I hurried back around the house to the west side to see if there was a gate there and came face to face with, what else, eight or ten German civilians on the opposite side of the fence.

         Their leader was a wild-eyed string bean of a guy that had a Luger pointed straight at me. My arms shot up in surrender. We stared at each other, wondering who was going to do what next. They seemed as surprised as I was and nearly as scared.

          They motioned me to go back around the house. I did, and when I was screened from them by the house, I took out my 45 Cal. automatic, threw a shell into the chamber, left the safe off, and shoved it back into my holster. I would go down with all guns firing!  When I rounded the east side of the house, where I had looked the first time, there was a gate big as life and the Germans waiting for me. Again, my arms flew up in surrender, and they took the forty-five.

         We started down the knoll towards the town, with me out front like The Pied Piper of Hamlin with a gun in his back, I think every kid in town showed up. They hooted and hollered at me in the German equivalent of, "We gotcha, We gotcha!" Kids are are kids. In my best military manner - head up chin in - I tried to ignore them and the dour stares of the adults that had joined the parade.

         That morning I'd given extra care to my uniform-boots and brass polished. I even wore a tie. If I was going to be their prisoner, at least I could be a proud officer and  gentleman of the U.S. Army Air Force.

         There was a a small factory at the edge of the town, where they led me down into a basement office. The room was maybe eighteen by eighteen feet with solid concrete walls. The first thing they did was make me strip off every stitch of clothing. They must have thought I was hiding secret papers or weapons. I did as ordered. However, standing stark naked in front of a bunch of people, to whom I'd not been properly introduced, lacked a certain propriety. But I didn't have much choice.

         About now, they decided to unload my forty-five. This set off the damnedest brouhaha and commotion among them as none of them knew beans about unloading a Browning 45 Cal. automatic. I was the only person in the room who knew there was a shell in the chamber and that the safety was off. If that forty five went off, in this eighteen foot square concrete room, the carnage would be unbelievable. I wouldn't die with my boots on; I'd die with nothin' on!!

         Naked as I was, I desperately pantomimed how to unload the piece. They thought I was trying to get the thing back and yelled and cursed me. But I kept at it, and it finally dawned on them I was trying to help, and "we" unloaded the forty-five. It was a scene right out of a Three Stooges comedy.

         When they found I didn't have any hidden weapons or secret documents on me, they let me get dressed and marched me over to the burgermeister's office. The kids of course, tagged along and continued badgering me. They were no longer amusing.

         Of the four or so Germans in the burgermeister's office the Burgermeister was the kindest. If he hadn't been there, I believe the others would have made short work of me because of the devastation and civilian deaths that resulted from Allied bombing.

         Two self-important uniformed officials came in and took over. I had no idea who they were or could I understand a word they were saying. But I got the feeling they weren't sure what to do with me, and I began  saying, "Luftwaffe, Luftwaffe."

         If captured, we had been told to try to get in the hands of the Luftwaffe-comrades-in-arms, that sort of thing. The next choice was the Wehrmacht, and most of all try to stay out of the hands of the Gestapo, SS, and the civilians.  At least these weren't the Gestapo or SS, and the "Luftwaffe" suggestion might work. I must have said the right thing,  for the leader quickly started to telephone.

         He greeted the person at the other end of the line with a loud, "Heil Hitler," at the same time his arm shot up in the Nazi salute. I couldn't believe it. I thought this only happened in Charlie Chaplin movies. Whatever he said was Greek to me, as I spoke no German. But it seemed to have solved the problem.

          I was dying for a cigarette, and with a lot of gestures was able to persuade them to let me have one. I sat ramrod stiff in the straight backed chair, and puffed away "by the numbers"  in my best officer and gentleman pose.

         The moment didn't last. A man in peasant clothing stormed into the room and began screaming and hollering at me. Then he smashed the cigarette from my hand. I had no idea what was going on. Through a little French, I finally realized he thought I had killed his wife and children. I couldn't have, unless they had been out in the middle of the field where my bombs had landed. No doubt his family had been killed at some point, and, for that, he was taking out his rage on me.

         In French he yelled, "Pourquoi? Pourquoi?" (For why? For why?)

         My only answer was, "C'est la guerre." (It is war.)

         It was the wrong thing to say. He jumped on me, and beat on me with his fists. I didn't dare fight back and just curled up in a ball. The other Germans finally pulled him off and shoved him out of the room.  I was damned lucky he hadn't captured me first.

         The situation calmed down after he left, and I was turned over to an older man in uniform. I thought he was the town constable. He took me outside, picked up his bicycle and motioned me to come with him. The kids were still with us but had stopped their antics. We walked through the town, until he stopped at a house in the middle of a block.  He leaned his bicycle against a low brick fence and  went up the walk to a side entrance.

         What followed was the greatest pantomime I have ever seen. The constable stood outside the door in profile to me, apparently telling an unseen wife that he had to take this vicious "Terraflieger" to the airfield in Giessen, and that he would be late coming home for supper. But it was just as obvious from the look on his face and the lecture he was receiving that she didn't believe one word of it. She must have yelled that all he wanted to do was to go to Giessen, get drunk and chase girls.

         He argued back furiously, while pointing down the walk at me, but staring straight ahead at her. Didn't she realize the importance of his mission and what a hero he was? Finally this shrew's face pops out  from behind the door, like a Jack-In-The-Box, she craned her head to see the "Terraflieger." Pop-eyed he'd been telling the truth, she jerked her head back into the house as quickly as it came out. The constable turned and strutted back down the walk full of himself, muttering, "Boy-did I ever tell her!" I didn't understand a word of what they said, but I didn't have to.

         The constable shoved the kids aside. He mounted his bicycle and motioned me to get going. I trotted along slowly, as he did S-turns to keep from falling off the bike. The kids had tired of the game and quit. I said the hell with running and slowed to a walk. The constable got off his bicycle, and we walked out into the beautiful German countryside-alone.

         The constable was an older man, and I gave a thought to overpowering him and escaping. But he kept the bicycle between us and his Luger on the far side. He knew what I was thinking and was prepared for any tricks I might pull. If I tried it one of us was certain to be killed. If I did escape, I had no food or anything else I would need to survive. It was seventy mile trek to our lines. The risk wasn't worth it.

         We plodded along silently into the late afternoon sun. Each deep in his own thoughts. In about an hour I guessed, my watch and all my other possessions had been liberated back at the factory-we came to an airfield in Giessen.

         The constable turned me over to the Luftwaffe and without ceremony they dumped me into a cell. My sixtieth mission was incomplete and all hopes for rotation home- shattered.


EPILOGUE

           Greycliff, Montana is a quintessential wide spot in the road. No post office, one retail store, and a few occupied houses. Greycliff is not a place to expect extraordinary coincidences to take place.

           In the summer of 1992 my wife, Joan, and I  were playing tennis at a friends ranch outside of Greycliff. One of our doubles opponents was Martin Siebert, a native of Germany, and pastor of the Congregational Church in nearby Big Timber. After the match, I mentioned to Martin that I had been a fighter pilot and P.O.W. in Germany at the end of World War-II.

       "Where were you shot down?" Martin inquired.

       "Near Giessen," I told him.

       "That's not far from where I was brought up," he answered.

       I told Martin in 1984 that. we'd tried to locate the town (I never knew the name of it) where I'd been shot down, but we were unsuccessful. I believed it was about five miles northeast of Giessen.

       Two weeks later Martin introduced me to a visiting young German couple who lived very near the place of my capture. I told them how I had parachuted into the back yard of a house on top of a knoll, and about my capture, and trip to Giessen. I believed the town was roughly 5 miles northeast of Giessen.

       A month later a letter arrived from my new German friends. In it were photos of "my house"  exactly as I remembered. Included was the current owner's name and address, Prof./Dr. Albert Spitznagel of Staufenberg-Mainzlar, plus names of several people who remembered the incident.

       In response to my letter, relating the events of that day and my excitement at discovering the site of my "downfall,"  Prof. Spitznagel invited my wife and myself to spend a weekend with him and his wife, Gisella, at the "house on top of a knoll."  We could not refuse and in February of 1994 we went.

       Their hospitality was fabulous and included a reception for us to meet many of those who remembered that March day in 1945. They included the burgermeister's son, Willie Krieling, one of my "kids," Friedrich Zecker and the current deputy burgermeister, Reiner Mehler, and a reporter from the Giessen newspaper to record the events.

       But the belle of the ball was Hilde Schmitt.  Hilde was then the twenty-one year old housekeeper/governess for the family of "the house on the knoll" and told the following,

        "...I don't know why I didn't go back into the house with the rest of the family, when the 'all clear' sounded. Suddenly, I saw a man - bent over running - along the fence and hedge. It was clear he was the shot-down pilot, and I ran up behind him with a pick-axe! Then other people came up the hill and captured you."

       At the reception, Hilde and I discussed how fortunate it was I didn't see her, when she followed me with the pick-axe. I had my forty-five, and if she had threatened me, I might have shot her. That would surely have been curtains for me when I was captured. The next day Hilde invited us to her home for champagne and cake.  We continue to exchange Christmas cards.

      The story was published in the Giessen newspaper on Monday morning and was read by a young man, Andreas Dort. He immediately called the Spitznagels, missing us by 15 minutes. He was livid.

       Andreas' grandfather had retrieved a section of my plane using it to cover a wood pile. His grandmother had made underwear from my parachute.

        Andreas had grown up obsessed with the plane and its pilot. Over the years he had collected many parts of my plane from the crash site.  Now his pilot had come to Mainzlar and he had missed him! Andreas' story also became a feature article in the Giessen paper.

       He wrote me that he wanted to send me pieces of my plane and parachute. After a lot of bureaucratic haggling with the customs department, the package arrived with the cherished mementos.

       In his covering letter Andreas wrote, "Please don't be angry because the pieces are in bad shape. They are very old. And only you know, what a sh*t big crash you've done."

       Another letter from Andreas told about how he found out who the constable was:
 

"Dear Phil,

        "On Tuesday  Sept. 5th a man from Staufenberg visit me in the Burgermeisterei. We talk about some official things. Then he said: are you the man, who found some plane-pieces?   I said: of course, what's happened?

       "He like to hear our story, because he was a 10 year old boy from Daubringen, than you have been going like a POW across Daubringen behind a bike!

       "Then he said: in front of the pilot was the police-officer, Mr. Hahn from Lollar. I thought, whom the (to f*ck) is Mr. Hahn? So I call the son from Mr. Hahn at that same minute. I explain him the problem and he said, it's real possible, that his father was the right man. He knows by himself (1945 = 13 years old) a story like this. I demand from him a  picture from his father and told him, that you will be crazy, if you can see the man in uniform and he was the right one. He will call me at the weekend, then I get the photo. The house where they are live in 1945 is real like this today. I take some pictures from it and send them prompt to you."


       In March of 1997 we visited Andreas and his wife, Claudia. They gave us a super time and we have become great friends. In addition to visiting the crash site and finding some more small parts of my plane, we met a neighbor of Mr. Hahn's. He remembered my being at the Hahn house and confirmed that Mrs. Hahn was a real, "battle-axe."

       All this is a tale the result of a tennis game at that "wide spot in the road," Greycliff, Mont.
 

Phil Wright photos - World War II memories

 

 

Philip Wright - WWII Fighter Pilot

 

Seattle Times 10/10/94

BY ALEX TIZON
 Seattle Times staff reporter

    Ah, nothing like a shard of windshield to buoy the soul. That is, if you are Philip Wright and the windshield is from your P-47 Thunderbolt fighter plane, which you last saw a half century ago nose-diving toward the German countryside.

    Boom. Goodbye, Thunderbolt.

    Wright, a lusty, crusty, fun-loving retired Air Force pilot, recently reunited with his old plane-or at least parts of it: pieces of windshield, some engine parts, a couple of 50 caliber bullets as big as Cuban cigars-thanks to an extraordinary set of coincidences and a young German man with a metal detector.

    The fragments, which Wright handles gingerly, as if they were jewels, mean a lot to him. A part of his life has come full circle, not to mention that it's been a kick to be reminded at age 70 that life can be astounding.

    "The whole thing boggles the mind," he says, referring to the serendipitous events that eventually brought the plane fragments back to him. The Livingston, Mont., resident was in Seattle this weekend to attend a reunion of the 36th Fighter Group of the 9th Air Force, which was first based in Ashford, England, then France, Belgium, and Germany, during World War II.

    The story began two years ago with a tennis match at a friend's ranch near Greycliff- "Nowhere, Montana." One of the players that day was a pastor [Martin Siebert] who happened to be from a town not far from where Wright's plane had crashed.

    Wright told the pastor how on March 10, 1945, he parachuted from his burning plane and landed in the back yard of a house near a village a few miles from the city of Giessen (and quickly became a prisoner of war).

    A few weeks later the pastor introduced Wright to a visiting German couple who happened to be from near Giessen. Wright told them his story.

    The couple returned to Germany, and a month later, they sent Wright a picture of the house where he landed. Wright wrote the owner, who then invited him to visit. In February this year, Wright and his wife accepted the invitation.

    Wright was amazed at how the village received him. He had become a sort of legend in those parts, and his return was covered by local media.

    Enter a 30-year-old German man named Andreas Dort, who found out about Wright's visit after the ex-pilot returned to the United States.

    Dort just happened to have a lifelong obsession with the legend the American pilot who crashed near his village. Dort, who for years had been unearthing the crashed plane piece by piece using a metal detector, through letters told Wright what happened to his P-47 after it crashed:

    Villagers took parts of the plane as keepsakes. Dort's grandfather took sheets of metal to cover a  woodpile, and his great-grandmother used the parachute to make pillow slips and underwear.

    "I prefer to call them 'unmentionables,'" Wright says, grinning.
 
    Early last month, Dort began sending Wright parts of his plane starting with a box of glass from the plane's windshield. As the pieces accumulated, Wright says he became increasingly amazed.

    He was only 20 at the time of the crash, a lieutenant and the youngest officer in his squadron. They called him "Junior." He had flown 59 successful missions. Sixty were needed to become eligible to go home. He was shot down on his 60th mission. The P-47 Thunderbolt was flying was brand new. "It smelled like a new car. I was kind of babying it  along."

    Nearly 50 years later, Wright showing off the miscellaneous fragments inside a Holiday Inn hotel room - fragments he cleaned and polished with pocket knives and steel wool.

    He picks up the gnarled pieces of metal and glass, identifies them with a fondness in his voice-"This is part of an ignition wiring harness. This is a link ejection chute . . ."

    He looks at them closely before carefully placing them back down on a table, not wanting to damage them, as if they had already gone through enough in this life.


Philip Wright with model of P-47 Thunderbolt

 

Click here to read one of my favorite stories by Phil - "Prune Face and the Brow"  - You really should read this one!!!!




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