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. John Edward Thompson
Pilot - P-47


Stalag Luft I POW
Shot down December 31, 1944

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The Road Traveled 

An Autobiography by John Edward Thompson, M.D. 

This story is being recorded at the request of Raymond Kader, who was a fellow prisoner of war from Stalag Luft One in Barth, Germany. We were fellow prisoners in room six, barracks nine, and for present and future family members, we should share our experiences from World War II. For my own family, I would like to share with them my heritage, childhood, and family experiences as well as those in the military.

I was born on the thirtieth of December, 1923 in our family home in Blanchardville, Wisconsin, which is in LaFayette County, in the south­western part of the state. My father was Ed Thompson, and my mother was Mary Anderson, their parents or grandparents had emigrated from Norway to Wisconsin in the years between 1850 and 1860.

Blanchardville is a small village nestled in the hills, valleys, and winding rivers, which were very attractive to the early farmers who were of Norwegian and Swiss heritage, and the area was well suited for dairy and cheese making. The very first settlers though were Mormons, who left Nauvoo, Illinois in 1848. Their persecution persisted and after twelve years they left the Blanchardville area, and went westward to join their brethren in Salt Lake City, Utah. The villages claim to fame was that the largest Limburger cheese factory in the world was situated here.

My father was the first family member to leave the farm, and to seek higher education in prep-school and in college in Minneapolis. His parents wanted him to go to the seminary to become a Lutheran Minister, and when he changed his mind his parents said, "you better come home and start working." He became a small town merchant in Blanchardville and was a church leader, an active school board member, and was a role model for his children. My mother was quite active in the church, and her hobbies were flowers and leader in the local garden club. Mother was a strict Lutheran; Sundays were reserved for church and family events. There was no card playing or alcoholic beverages in our home, but during the prohibition days Dad made root beer in the basement, and at times the root was left out, and beer was produced without the knowledge of his wife. Father was very active in the Progressive Party in the state of Wisconsin. Robert LaFollet, who was the candidate for President of the United States, was born on the farm next to my mother's, and so it was only natural that father would be an active worker in the party. I remember the depression; our local banks closed, and father struggled to save his general merchandise business. I remember using my meager banks savings, approximately three dollars and 80 cents, and giving them to my sister so she could start college in 1936. I also remember helping my brother Paul start college in 1939. In 1939, I worked on a dairy farm for room, board, and fifteen dollars a month. I remember my Aunt Annie teaching school for fifty dollars a month, and she had 44 students in eight grades in a one room school house. In the depression years gasoline only cost 18 cents a gallon. I could buy a watermelon for a nickel, and hamburger for a nickel so the money went a long-ways. Entertainment, which consisted of sucker fishing with my father at the local creeks and rivers, family picnics on Sunday afternoon, on the farm playing horseshoes, and a free movie on the side of the cheese factory on a Saturday night. Occasionally the movie was of the silent type, without sound, such as Charlie Chaplin.

During my high school years, the rumbles of war in Europe didn't seem of much concern to the average student. We knew about Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party in Europe, but the separation by the oceans from the wars going on in Europe seemed to isolate America from the problems facing the European people. The fate of the Jewish people and the resulting Holocaust in Europe did not seem to be of much concern to our Federal government. Austria was occupied in 1938, Poland was invaded in 1939, and France in 1940, in 1941 England managed to survive the aerial attack by the German Air Force.

Then on December 7th, 1941 in the afternoon, on that nice December day, war came to Blanchardville. I remember sitting in Bill Robb's restaurant with two of my classmates, and we were drinking nickel Coke-a-Colas when the radio first gave the alarm about the attack of Pearl Harbor by the Emperor of Japan. The next day on the eighth of December, Congress and the President of the United States declared war, not only on Japan but also on Germany and Italy. America immediately geared up for war and military preparedness was even seen in Blanchardville. Many men immediately enlisted in the service, woman went to work in the factories and continued to do farm work, and this call to all Americans resulted in a unified and strong country. I remember the salvaging of metals for the war effort. The recycling of old farm machinery and even taking up the old railroads tracks; and the local newspaper stated that these materials would be used for tanks, airplanes and ships to attack Tokyo and Berlin. My valedictorian address for our high school graduation in May 1942 was entitled "America on Defense".  Brother-in-law Phil was in the marines and brother Paul was in the cadet program, and even though I started college, I felt obligated to enlist in the Air Force in December of 1942.

My induction ceremony was at Fort Snelling in Minneapolis, and within a short time, I was sent to basic training in Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis in Jan. of 1943. The cadet program was too full and many were sent to basic training at army bases. This army base was poorly prepared for the influx of young men taken out of colleges throughout the middle west. We stayed in wooden type of huts that housed eight men, without any insulation, and just a small wood and coal burning stove in the middle of it, which was inadequate for the cold winter. There was a shortage of uniforms, so most of us, for the first two weeks, had to wear our civilian clothes without warm footwear or overcoats. Disease soon became rampant and Meningococcus Meningitis broke out in camp. The base hospital was overflowing with patients and the gymnasium was converted into a hospital. The death rate was quite high.

When dormitory space was available at Michigan State University at East Lansing, Michigan, we were shipped there by train, and placed in isolation for two weeks. Our morale immediately soared because we now had warm permanent type of living quarters, we had warm clothes, and good nutritious food. After this period of isolation, the commanding officer was told that the danger of Meningitis disease spreading to the University had passed, and we were then allowed to start classes. East Lansing was a wonderful city and the people were very kind to the cadets. There were 5000 students on the campus, of these probably 50 were men, and when the 400 aviation cadets came to the University the coeds gave us a very warm welcome. Michigan State was wonderful compared to the difficult times we had at the Jefferson Barracks. Educational classes were intensive, we received a semester of credits for three months of attendance in college. Classes included Speech, Political History, Geography, Physics, Trigonometry, Physical Education, Army Discipline, Band, and ground school, and got in ten hours of flying time in Piper Cub type of airplane. My instructor pilot made a notation in my log book that I possibly might make a fighter pilot. On the 20th of June, 1943, we left Lansing, boarding the train, and said goodbye to friends in the city. We left there with kind thoughts of wonderful people in the community and how well they treated the service men as part of their patriotic effort.

The trip by train took two days to get to San Antonio, Texas and to the aviation cadet center. During the next three months we experienced a variety of military and college courses and under the hot Texas sun, physical education classes soon produced airmen much tougher and leaner then when they entered military service. Pleasant memories remain today of wonderful friendships made with young men from throughout the United States, pleasant memories of my first experience with a Texas city, and I fondly remember the San Antonio River, and trips to Mexican border towns. San Antonio though had a large number of military people all during their history, and our reception by the local citizens was more neutral then what we had experienced in Lansing.

With excited anticipation we left San Antonio on the 2nd of October. We traveled northward to Stamford, Texas, where we were to start our primary flying. The people in Stamford were warm and friendly to the aviation cadets, and I still think fondly of my experiences there. Finally on the 21st of October, 1943, I departed and returned to the earth alone, I had become an aviator. The P.T. 19 airplane was a sturdy, safe airplane to start flying, and it was difficult to get into serious trouble.

On the 6th of December our group was sent to Enid, Oklahoma for the next phase of our training which was called Basic Flying. The airplane was called a Vultee Vibrator, and it was much larger with a bigger engine and we were thrilled to start flying this airplane. Instrument flying became an essential part of our training and soon we were doing longer cross-country flights as well as night flying. After two months at Enid we had finished our basic flying courses.  

On the 7th of February, 1944 we were sent to a Moore Field at McAllen, Texas for the final phase of our aviation cadet program. With some sadness, I had to say goodbye to several of my good friends, who were assigned to the heavy bomber training program. Those that went to Moore Field were slated to become fighter pilots. Our airplane was called the A.T.G, Texan. It was a more complicated airplane with more power and retractable landing gears and it could even be used for aerial gunnery. It was truly a great airplane used not only by the Army, but also by the Navy. There are hundreds of these airplanes still flying safely today. Gunnery had now become an important part of our training, not only in the ground school, but also out in the skeet and track range.

Finally on the 15th of April, graduation came, and we had finally reached the goal for which we had been so intensively trained. With pride we received our officer's commission and uniform. The only thing I felt sad about was that it was impossible for my parents to attend the graduation because of the long distance from Wisconsin to Texas.

A few years ago I returned to Enid, Oklahoma, to visit my P.O.W. friend, Pat Murphy, who lives in Enid and it was nice to see the air base was still functioning and in good condition. A couple years ago, Germaine and I returned to Moore Field and were so disappointed because the field had fallen into disrepair and the only thing that remained on this beautiful base was a drug training school for dogs.

We were then given ten days of furlough. After a difficult two day train trip I made it home to Blanchardville, and proudly presented my self to my parents. Two of my high school classmates were also at home, and we had some wonderful times with the young ladies of our community.

Reluctantly, I finally had to return to the military life for another month training at Moore Field. At this time we started flying the P. 40 airplane which was a monster airplane compared to what we had been used to before. An airplane that had a fairly narrow landing gear and had tremendous power and torque, it was so easy to ground loop this airplane. Our aerial gunnery training took us to Matagorda Island which is out in the Gulf of Mexico. The targets were pulled by another airplane and with our 50 caliber machine guns we were to shoot bullets into the target being towed. These bullets were color coded and when the Tow plane returned to the ground we could be scored as to how successful we were in our aerial gunnery. We also had a camera in the wing which recorded the accuracy of the pilot.

After another week leave at home I was sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for transitional training into the Thunderbolt or the P-47 airplane. On the 28th of June I was sent to Struther Field at Winfield, Kansas where I first soloed in the Thunderbolt aircraft. At that base, brother Paul and Father came down to visit with me. Paul had just returned from thirty missions as a B-24 pilot over Europe and we had a great couple of days together. I especially remember my father enjoying the beer in the Officer's Club. The Officer's Club was just a plain tar paper shack, but on that Saturday night somebody had imported a stripper from Oklahoma City, and she seemed to be attracted to my father's bald head. I'm sure he didn't tell my mother about his experiences that he had with his son in Kansas.

A most unfortunate accident occurred on the 1st of August, when a C-47 airplane was traveling from Brunning, Nebraska to Pierre, South Dakota for aerial gunnery. In an unusual electrical storm the C-47 airplane lost a portion of a wing and twenty-eight young pilots were all killed. Because of this event, Brunning was short of pilots and I was sent to Brunning for further training in the Thunderbolt airplane. I then spend two months in Brunning and in Pierre, South Dakota for dive bombing and strafing training in the P-47. Pierre, South Dakota is remembered chiefly because of the good pheasant hunting, and we would borrow some shot guns from the trap range and go out and kill enough pheasant to feed everybody on the base. Brunning is remembered only as a small airfield out in a cow pasture, in a real small community with very little facilities. I believe at that time the town was only four or five hundred people.

I then spent about two weeks at the fighter indoctrination unit at Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was allowed to go home for a final leave before going over seas. Baton Rouge is a wonderful city with friendly people and lovely ladies. We sadly said good-bye and we were off to the Port of Embarkation at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia. I still had time to visit Washington D.C. on two weekends. I spent a pleasurable, but short weekend with a high school classmate of mine who was a nurse in Washington by the name of Marion Olson.

Soon new experiences were awaiting me. At this time we were under secret orders, and were warned about the dangers of calling home or calling to friends and giving some kind of information that might endanger the convoy of ships. We boarded a Liberty Ship during the day and in the evening of the 31st of October we left the harbor at Hampton Roads in Virginia. In the darkness of the night, our ship left the harbor. When out on the ocean I was amazed to see the large number of ships in the glow of the moon for we were running without any light. There were at least 100 ships in the convoy. The convoy would only travel as fast as the slowest ship. Liberty Ships cruised around eight miles an hour and so we had embarked in a long and tiring journey to Europe. We had been out on the Atlantic Ocean for only four or five hours when a submarine alert was warned and soon we saw two destroyers racing back and forth searching for the submarines and dropping depth charges. This was scary, but fortunately the night was clear and there was moonlight. You could see the other ships around you, although you had the feeling that a collision would be possible. Later the submarine clear warning was given and we all relaxed.

The Liberty Ships were mass produced during the war by Henry Kaiser and were produced by many women in our country that learned how to do welding. From this we got the song "Rosie the Riveter". The Liberty Ship was a cargo ship of World War II, was manned by civilian merchant marines, and had a Navy gunnery crew of something like 15 or 16 sailors who manned the anti-aircraft guns aboard the ship. On each of these ships they placed a certain number of air crew men. I believe we had something like 25 pilots on the ship. I would suspect that if one ship was sunk 25 pilots who might die would not be a great loss for the war effort as compared to having a thousand of them on a single ship.

The Atlantic Ocean is wide and the journey is long at eight miles an hour. Every day I believe I was sea sick, and ate practically nothing. At that time I was smoking cigarettes, but during the trip I gave up smoking. Much of our time was spent lying on the deck, reading novels, playing cards, and writing letters. We were most happy to finally see the shores of Africa and Spain, and as we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar we were relieved to enter the more quiet waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The ship unloaded cargo at several ports in North Africa, and then passed on to Sicily. In the port of Palermo I saw the crew unloading cases of cigarettes which were probably marked for the black market, which was so prominent in Europe in the war zones.

Finally on the 28th of November we were allowed to leave the ship in the harbor of Naples in Italy. I was never so happy to leave a boat in all my life, for sea sickness was present nearly the entire trip although it did improve on the waters of the Mediterranean. I had never before in my life experienced this thing called sea sickness.

After one week at Naples experiencing some of the wonders of Italy like Pompei, my assignment to the 86th Fighter Group took me to Pisa, Italy. The 86th Fighter Group was a member of the 12th Air force and had a long and illustrious history coming through North Africa, Sicily, and into Italy by the Anzio Beach Head Invasion. The initial air craft used was the A-36, which was a modified P-51 for ground support for dive bombing and strafing, mainly in support of the infantry. Because this airplane had a liquid cold engine it was scrapped when the P-47 Thunderbolt was made available and the 86th Group was now flying this airplane. I was assigned to the 527th Squadron under the command of Major John Dolny. As the war progressed up the body of Italy from the invasion at Anzio, the 86th followed the English and American Armies always staying close to the battle lines. Their mission was to intercept and interrupt any supplies coming from Germany to the troops in Italy.

The group bombed all of the bridges, the highways, the railroads, and destroyed all moving vehicles by strafing for which the P-47 was famous. Eight-fifty caliber machine guns in the wings of the P-47 gave a tremendous fire power, which could destroy most things on the ground. The buildings and runways at the Pisa Airport had been destroyed by our group, but the engineers very quickly layed out the steel matting to create new runways. When I joined the group the army was fighting about 11 miles from the base. The group was lodged in the building of the technical school in the heart of Pisa, and within walking distance was the Leaning Tower of Pisa with its magnificent, white marble cathedral.

We immediately started orientation and training flights so that we could become familiar with the terrain which was mostly mountains. Within a few days we were flying missions against the enemy. A typical day would find us out on the flight line after an early breakfast and briefing by the commanding officer. We were well prepared by the intelligence officer for evasion in enemy territory. A typical mission might find 250 or 500 pound bombs under each wing; at times we would carry an accessory belly tank with gasoline which we would drop before striking the target. Increased weight was also due to the number of 50 caliber machine gun bullets, usually three to four hundred rounds in each gun, and eight machine guns, four in each wing. With this heavy load of armor we often had difficulty in getting off the runways. We would set up at the end of the runway with the engine wide open with the brakes on, and when full power was achieved we would release the brakes and go zooming down the runway. Even with such a program we often came close to running out of runway before the airplane became airborne. Missions that I participated in included escort for medium bombers such as the B-25 and the B-26, the dropping of Napalm bombs on enemy gun positions in the front lines of the mountains, bombing railroad and highway bridges, and strafing of military targets on the ground. In the mountains there would be observation officers who would locate the enemy artillery and place their position in a grid map. Without seeing the camouflaged guns, we would destroy them with napalm or explosive bombs.

Christmas service was arranged by Chaplain Fischer and it was a memorable experience because of the presence of Italian children singing Christmas hymns. On the 30th of December I celebrated my 21st birthday, and my friends had arranged for champagne and cake with candles.

My stay with the 86th group was to be cut short for on the 31st of December, on my 11th mission, events took place which completely changed my life. After a light breakfast we drove from the officer's mess to the air base, and in a badly damaged building we received our briefing and airplane assignment. Our target for the day was to be a bridge across the Po River in the northern part of Italy. According to the intelligence officer, the bridge had been destroyed before, but the Germans had recently reconstructed it and using it for military vehicles. Two flights were assigned to the target. There would be four airplanes in each flight, for a total of eight P-47s. With heavy loads all eight airplanes got off the ground safely, but soon two of the airplanes developed some engine malfunctions and they felt that they should return to base at Pisa. While cruising at the 9500 ft. the target came into view, the bridge across the Po River. The flight leader pealed off into a sharp dive and the air speed increased to over 400 miles an hour. I was in the number six position and the usual safe altitude seemed to be inadequate and I either struck bomb blast of my own airplane or the one in front of me, or there was an explosion on the ground, but I am not quite sure just what all happened. The Thunderbolt is a very heavy airplane and you must use the trim tabs to help you pull out at the end of the dive because of the tremendous centrifugal force.

As I pulled away from the target I realized I was in serious difficulty. Inspection of the external surface of the airplane revealed several holes in the wings and smoke started pouring from the engine. Within one or two seconds there was a flash fire in the cock pit. I had time to call my flight leader and said I was in serious trouble and I may have to bailout. When the fire returned in the cock-pit within three or four seconds and the right sleeve of my jacket was starting to burn, I knew that I had to get out of the airplane as soon as possible. I attempted to eject from the airplane by opening the canopy cover, but the centrifugal force did not permit me to get out of the cock­pit. With the airplane on fire I was able to reverse the trim tabs and with a kick I was able to eject from the air craft safely. My altitude at this time is unknown but probably only 1000 or 1500 ft. above the ground, and events happened so quickly that all the details are not remembered. I don't remember pulling the rip cord and the next thing I knew I was floating down to the ground. I landed roughly in a plowed field injuring my lower back. Many years later at a military reunion in Chattanooga, Tennessee, my good friend Leonard Milton, told about that morning when he was in number five position in the flight. Leonard said that he circled the area for several minutes hoping that he could give me protection so I could escape into the mountains which were five or six miles away. He said the flight leader called him and said, "Milton get away from there because you are gonna localize the presence of Thompson as he tries to escape". The flight then rose to a much higher altitude and then departed.

I do not remember any fear or thought of death, time was too short for these emotions to occur. Excellent emergency training permitted me to make rapid and life saving decisions and for this I am truly grateful for the fighter training that we received. A quick survey revealed bleeding wounds in my chin and neck, burns of my right arm, oil covering the entire body and flight clothes, and marked pain in my low back. As I gathered up the parachute I could see the burning wreckage of my airplane in a nearby field. 50 yards away was a deep drainage ditch with bushes and trees and under this cover I hid and planned my escape. The foot hill ridges of the Alps Mountains could be seen several miles to the north and the ditch faced in that direction. Our intelligence officer instructed us to escape into the mountains when ever possible for partisan troops controlled these areas. I ran northward towards the mountains through water, brush, and trees for 15 or 20 minutes until I was completely tired and had to rest. I then ran for another mile or so and came upon a small farm with a house and barn. From my hiding place I watched and only saw an elderly man working around the barn. After several minutes he then went into the house and I decided to ask them for help. I had some knowledge of the Italian language and told them I was an American pilot and asked them to hide me until darkness would come so I could escape into the mountains. I told them that financial award would be given by the United States Government if they would help me. The women bathed my face and neck, got me a glass of water, a bowl of soup, and suggested that I hide in the barn. The time elapse since the bailout was probably about two hours. When I looked out the window there were four horsemen coming up the road and they surrounded the house. I was quite relieved to see their German uniforms, for intelligence reports warned us to avoid young Fascist and Nazi military members, and whenever possible to surrender to Army or German Air Force soldiers. These military groups respected the enemy soldier and followed the Geneva Rules of War. The weapons we carried on our military flights were a 45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster, and a automatic rifle which was collapsed and fitted in the parachute seat cushion. In the cushion were maps, American and Italian money, language cards, and other things I do not remember. I placed the weapons down, walked up the front door, and surrendered. This is probably the most intelligent decision I have made in my life time for resistance on my part would probably have resulted in my death from rifle fire.

The second act of kindness occurred when the Germans ordered the farmer to get a horse and buggy and they made a bed on the floor and helped me to lie down. They took me about one and a half miles to their garrison post in the town of Pondevicto. In the building there were 8 or 9 soldiers plus their commander, who introduced himself as Sergeant Schultz.

Then the third act of kindness occurred. They took all of my personal belongings and sat me down comfortably in a chair by a fireplace, and they offered me a glass of wine. Since it was New Year's Eve, he even proposed a toast to the end of the war, and hoped that the Americans and the Germans could help each other to make a better world. He had relatives in Milwaukee and spoke English quite well. One of the younger men in the room had examined my parachute and he pulled on the cord which fills the "Mac West" life vest. When this pressurized cylinder exploded it made a loud noise, he jumped up, and then everybody in the room laughed at him. They then placed me in another wagon and took me a couple of miles to a nearby Luftwaffe Field. A German doctor examined me and I was then locked up for the night.

When Germaine and I revisited Europe in 1984 with my commanding officer, now General John Dolny, we located the Po River bridge and we also found the German Garrison building on the edge of Pontevicto. I was amazed that I could remember the site of the New Year's Party, but I could not find the farm house or the site of the crashed P-47.

The next day with several other airmen that they had captured, we were taken in a truck to Verona in northern Italy. Verona was an assembly point for prisons of war. Two elderly soldiers, who were going home on leave, were assigned to take us to Frankfurt, Germany for all Air Force officers were sent to the Lutwaffe Interrogation Center in that city. The highway and railroads which go northward from Italy pass through an opening in the mountains called Brenner Pass, and from there you go on into Austria and southern Germany. This was a very dangerous and difficult part of our journey because the Brenner Pass was being constantly bombed to shutdown the highways and railroads. All of the war supplies that went into Italy came down this system of roads. I remember walking through snow, riding street cars, hitch-hiking, trains, cars, buses, and any kind of transportation that these two older soldiers could provide us to get us into Germany. I remember being in a town which I believe was Trento in Italy. We got off a train late in the evening and we were cold and tired. The German soldiers took the four of us into a building that looked like it could be a gymnasium of a school. Four airmen in a room with a hundred German soldiers was a scary situation. We stuck very close to our two guards and stayed in the dark shadows as much as possible. We did get a bowl of hot soup and a piece of bread that evening which tasted very good because we were cold, wet, and frightened. We arrived at Bolzano in the later part of the morning on the 2nd of January, and after resting for six or seven hours, we took a night train because it was safer to travel at night. There are now 22 airmen in the prisoner group including Hopkins and Essenberg and the three of us became room-mates at Barth. On the third of January we experienced three air alerts, and most of the day the train stayed in a little town waiting for the protecting darkness. Then we passed through Innsbruck, Rosenheim, and into Munich. Next cities were Augsburg, Stuttgart, and finally we pulled into Frankfurt in the early morning hours on the fifth of January. In the railroad station at Frankfurt we again experienced a night air raid, we were kept on the train; fortunately none of the bombs came close to us although we could hear them. In the morning we were taken to Oberusel which was the Interrogation Center. We were happy to get out of Frankfurt because this was a primary bombing target for both the British and American Air forces.

Oberusel was about five miles north west of Frankfurt, and when we arrived there we were immediately placed in solitary confinement. The tiny room contained a small cot, the room had a single small window at the upper part of the outer wall, the door had a small opening through which the guards could place some food or water. In the corner of the room there was a bucket for a toilet. We were nervous and uncertain of the future; we had been traveling for a week in unheated railroad cars, hungry and tired with little sleep. Solitary confinement was used as a form of mental torture to make the prisoner talk; physical torture was never reported by any prisoner in Oberusel.

In the morning a small breakfast of bread and coffee was placed in the door opening. Following this I was taken to the interrogation room by a German guard, and the door was closed behind me. I remember entering this room with suspicion and anxiety. Behind the desk sat a German officer in a blue uniform, I didn't know what his rank was but I think it was Mr. Hans Scharff who was the noncommissioned officer whose specialty was interviewing fighter pilots. Questions were asked and I answered with only my name, rank, and serial number. For this is all that is required by the Geneva Rules of War. He then offered me a cup of coffee and a cigarette and asked about my health, how I was doing, sorry that they had to place me in solitary confinement. He did this in quite a pleasant way. He spoke perfect English because he had been a business man in South Africa, and while returning to Germany the war started and he was drafted into the military. Since I appeared to be uncooperative, he sent me back into solitary confinement; another evening in this dark room, cold and miserable. The next morning the same events happened. You were taken into a warm pleasant room with carpeting, and there behind the desk was Mr. Scharff. He again offered me a cigarette and coffee, and ordered his secretary to find a file on Lt. Thompson. He tried to impress me with the fact that the file on the 86th Fighter Group had my name in it, and this was easy for him to identify my group because the airplane had the group's markings on it, and he knew what group I belonged to and where I was stationed. He again asked some very simple questions about where I was from, and where I was born, and he showed me the file, and it even had the date of my graduation from flight school at Moore Field. He only seemed to be interested in one thing, and that was a group of pilots from Brazil had come to the air field at Pisa in December, and he seemed to lack information about them. It was obvious that I did not have much information for him, and he then thanked me and said I was going to be moved to the transient camp at Wetzlar. This was managed by the Swiss Red Cross to protect the prisoner of war with warm clothing and we got our first hot meal there which included potatoes, fish, cocoa, and two slices of bread. On the ninth of January we left Wetzlar on a train, and my diary stated that there were 80 men in the railroad car, and there were ten cars in the train. On the 11th we were again bombed in the railroads yards in the city of Wittenburg; fortunately none of the bombs struck our train car. We passed through Berlin safely and arrived at ten o'clock in the morning on the 12th of January at Stalag Luft Number One which was situated only one mile from the Baltic Sea. For any historian who would like to know more about this interrogation center and the techniques that were used there to obtain the information that the Luftwaffe wanted, you should read the June 1976 issue of the Air Force magazine which has a very complete article on Mr. Scharff. Also read a book that is called Nazi Interrogator. Mr. Hans Scharff, by Raymond Toliver. One can appreciate the difference between the professional German soldier and the Nazi criminals that terrorized Europe.

The prison camp was a dreary looking place with the double row of ten foot high, barbed-wire fence with coils of additional barbed-wire on the ground, and a warning wire beyond which the guards shoot. At intervals along the fence were wooden watch towers with powerful search lights to guard against night escapes. The warning wire was about knee high and everyone kept their distance from it. The entire camp, including the administrative buildings, was surrounded by a second such double fence. Our barracks was two feet above the ground to allow the German police dogs to sniff around underneath the building, and they were allowed to roam in the compound at night. Each barracks had a central corridor with small rooms on either side. There were ten rooms in the barracks, twenty-four men to a room, and there were nine barracks in each compound so that there was essentially about two thousand men in an area which was 175 yards square. We slept on wood slab bunks with a mattress filled with paper or wood shavings. Heat was supplied by a small iron stove and it failed to keep us warm in the harsh Baltic winter. Each of the barracks had a night latrine and cold water. One meal a day was served from the kitchen and usually was a soup made with turnips or potatoes. There was an occasional addition to the soup of horse meat. Important were the Red Cross food parcels, but these were few in number due to transportation difficulties so the prisoners lived on the edge of starvation.

Medical treatment was minimal and provided by a small staff of British doctors who had been captured in the war in battles like Dunkirk. To occupy our time the Red Cross provided us a small library and we even had some textbooks on various sciences. We had educated people in the camp who provided lessons in languages such as German and Italian. I took a series of lectures on Physics and Mathematics and we occupied our time with serious types of discussions. We took our uniforms apart and sewed them back together. We practiced Kriege Kraft and made many things out of tin can strips. I learned to play bridge from Bill Reichert and this helped to pass the days without wasting our energy. We wrote poetry, drew pictures, and thought of food almost every waking minute. On April 18th I sold all my future Red Cross prunes to Pat Murphy; he paid me by a check written in a camel package wrapper which , cashed after the war. The one box of prunes cost Pat 50 dollars. Showers were infrequent, and clothes washing was rare because the weather was cold and we only had one uniform. Lice and Scabies were always a constant threat. There had been stories and movies written about the great escapes from prison camps in World War II but, as far as I know, no one ever managed to tunnel out of Stalag Luft One.

By the time I reached prison camp, our commanding officer sent out a directive that no one was to try to escape, the risk was too great, and the war was soon to end. The standard of exchange were cigarettes and the chocolate "D Bar”. The “D Bar" had the greater value because it represented food, and the exchange often would get you ten to twenty packs of cigarettes for one chocolate "D Baril. I had two items that Germans did not take away from me when I became a prisoner, one was a watch and the other was a cigarette lighter of a catalytic type. I had been offered as much as one hundred packs of cigarettes for it, and of course with that many cigarettes I could buy wine or food although the German guard would be severely penalized if he was caught. I did manage to get a bottle of cigarette lighter fluid from a German guard for a pack of cigarettes and I thought this would work in my catalytic lighter. When I first put this fluid into it, it melted the plastic lighter and there went my most valuable asset I had in prison camp.

From my home town I would meet Walt Wenger at church services on each Sunday morning whenever we were allowed to go to church. Walt was the brother-in-law to my brother Paul and he had been there for a year and had news from home. We received news reports from both the British and the German radio and we even had a small news letter that was published each day and posted in the barracks.

I kept a small diary and these are some of my notes. “ Rations are small, the Red Cross boxes are not coming through. Hungry all the time. Camp is filling up quickly with more prisoners coming in each day. Wet, mild weather is creating mud. Irv Smirnoff moved from our room. We worry for Irv is of the Jewish faith. Paul Anderson has a unique story. He was a ground group engineer, and went on tour of Berlin with a pilot friend. He was shot down on his first and only mission. No shower for three weeks. Crabs seem to be spreading throughout camp."   Note says on the seventh of February, "Perrot has Scabies. Air raid alarms are occurring. Do not look out the window during an air raid because the German police dogs are roaming around and will attack through the window. Electricity is short. Made a bet with Ray Kader on the 19th of February as to when the war was going to be over." I made a resolution that when I first stepped foot on soil in the United States I was to pray to God and give thanks. With the Russian army drawing near we were in danger; we realized that in our weak condition we might not be able to tolerate a long march. Search parties by the German guards were still common. To pass the time we studied and had classes in Mathematics and German. For Easter on the 1st of April we got some food parcels and stuffed ourselves with rather rich food. Many got sick with vomiting and diarrhea. On the 4th of April Max Schmeling visited our camp in his role of public relations expert for the German government; they realized that the future of Germany depended on a close relationship with the United States and it showed the fear that the Germans had for the Russians. We lost our classroom because more P.O.W.s needed the space to live in.

Seventeenth of April I made contract with Murphy for fifty dollars. Sold all my future "D Bars" to him. Nineteenth of April we heard artillery, which we felt was due to the Russian army. Later part of April the food supply seemed to increase and everybody had more to eat. On the 28th of April Russians broke out of Stettin and were coming towards the prison camp. Thirtieth of April we dug slit trenches in case the war broke out in our area.

On the first of May we awakened at one-thirty in the morning to find that we were free. The Germans guards had left the camp during the night to fight against the Russian army. Col. Zemke gave order to restrict our activities to the camp. In the evening, a Russian tank came up to the compound and we were all surprised to see the first soldier to come out of the tank was a blond woman. Ray Kader and two other P.O.W.s and I went to Barth where we met the Russian army. On a Baltic sandy beach, we saw a gruesome sight that brought home the horrors of war. On the beach there was a table cloth spread out with some containers of food, and around this there were two small children, one in a baby carriage, and three other women. All were dead with a single bullet hole in their heads. Ray says that we buried them, but my notes do not describe that part, and I often wonder if anyone ever identified them or knew about them. The Russian had the guns and they did all the talking, and sometimes we wondered about being a Russian hostage. The Russians did furnish us meat after they swept the entire country side and took all of the cattle from the farmers. We visited the German air field and I brought home some souvenirs from a Luftwaffe officer's room. I still use them today when I talk to school children about veterans, need for patriotism, and respect for the flag. One afternoon we had the opportunity to see a Russian U.S.O. type of show with singing, and dancing.

War officially ended at midnight on the eighth of May. On the ninth, my note says, Abbott, Yellot, Strombotne, and I ate breakfast with several Russian soldiers, and we had a light lunch with a couple of Germans. In the evening we had supper with the Americans. So this was an international day. We left Barth on the 13th aboard the B.17s of the Eighth Air Force and we were glad to leave because we had developed a fear of the Russians. Most of the P.O.W.s sat on the floor of the airplane. I probably was the smallest and I ended up in the tail gunner seat. In the flight back to France, I became quite nauseated due to vertigo. The next day we flew to Le Havre in C47's and were placed in a resettlement area called Camp Lucky Strike. There we received a shower, new clothes, Typhus shot, and I remember being sprayed with D.D.T. to control any lice or crabs. We stayed at Camp Lucky Strike for one week seeing movies, eating, and getting our strength. One of my notes said we got into the town of Nettefleur where we had a few beers. Soon we were all discouraged because the camp was disorganized and on the 21st Anderson, Troy, Kader, Essenberg, and I decided to skip out of camp and travel to Paris. There we processed in at the P.O.W. center and were giving officers uniforms and 125 dollars in cash. That night Troy and I went to the Bel Tabarin night club. Troy and I were buying champagne for everybody, and we had a really great time. Troy and I then caught a train to Dijon in France to visit with Troy's friends of the 17th Bomb Group.

His fellow pilots treated us like royalty with steak, best of wines, and anything that our hearts desired. On the 26th we left Dijon in a jeep with one of Troy's officer friends and he drove us back to Camp Lucky Strike. There I met my good friend Joe Dell, who had been in training with me and he had also become a prisoner of war when he had to bail out of his P-47 airplane over southern Germany. Confusion persisted and on the 2nd of June Abbott and I caught a ride on a B-17 to Ipswich in England and landed at the 100 Bomb Group Air Base. In London we stayed at the Red Cross center and on the 4th we took a train to Blackpool where the English people welcomed the two Ex. P.O.W.s. With our money almost gone, we again checked in at the Air Force center and were given orders to proceed to Southampton where we were processed on the 12th. On the 13th we boarded a hospital ship. Most of the passengers where wounded infantry soldiers and we had good food and pleasant company. We arrived in the harbor in New York on the 12th of June, and I remember with pride and thankfulness to see the Statue of Liberty. When the ship docked, we were welcomed by bands and reception committees. As we stepped ashore happiness was overwhelming with the realization that we were really, really back in the United States of America.

In my P.O.W. diary I drew a picture of the Statue of Liberty and had inscribed it with the following poem: "So it's home again, home again America for me. My heart is turning home again and there I long to be. In the land of youth and freedom beyond the ocean bars, where the air is full of sunlight and the flag is full of stars".

Processing was rapid and soon I was on a train traveling to Wisconsin. A reception with my family and many friends was overwhelming. People shared their gas rationing coupons with me so that I was unrestricted in my activities and enjoyed the companionship of the many young, lovely ladies of Blanchardville that I had been dreaming about in prison camp. Strombotne came from Tennessee to Wisconsin and we enjoyed several days together. Dad and I did a lot of fishing together and reminiscing about my experiences in the war. I was pleased to see how information was passed on to my parents by the Red Cross and the Air Force. Several of the letters that I had sent from prison camp were received by my parents. The adjutant general of the Army had kept my parents posted as to our liberation. It was also of interest that a Mr. Ed Taylor in Tauton, Massachusetts had been monitoring the German radio all during the war, and he heard my name mentioned on two occasions and sent notes to my parents. After I had been home a month I took the time to write to him and thanked him for his great service to the military people in the prison camps. He stated there were other people on the east coast who did similar short-wave radio work and relaying messages to the families of military prisoners of war.

After this pleasant sixty day leave in Wisconsin I was ordered to the Rehabilitation Center in Miami Beach where I enjoyed two weeks of luxurious and healthy living. During the processing there I requested a return to flying status and service in the Pacific. I was then assigned to Minter Field in Bakersfield, California and started flying there. Of interest is that officer's quarter only cost fifty cents a night and meals thirty-five cents. With the cessation of the war in the Pacific, I either had to join the regular army or ask for discharge. I was then transferred to Truax Field in Madison, Wisconsin, and on the ninth of December, 1945

I was discharged from active duty. I then returned to Minneapolis to attend Augsburg College to finish my premedical studies. In 1942 I had received a deferment to go to Medical School, but patriotism was so strong with my brothers in service that I had to enter the Army Air Corps too. Now I was returning to college and I wanted to get into Medical School as soon as possible. I attended night school and summer sessions at the University of Minnesota and with one more year at Augsburg College and with my military credits I was able to graduate in the spring of 1947. During this time I dated a young nurse at St. Mary's Hospital where I was working as an orderly to help pay for my education; love overwhelmed us and we were married that summer. The University of Wisconsin accepted me for Medical School in the fall of 1947. These were wonderful years, but difficult at times because our financial resources were limited; the G.I. Bill was a great help in getting me through Medical School. I joined the Air Force R.O.T.C. with the idea that I was going to make the Air Force my career.

Germaine was a wonderful and dedicated wife, never complained about our hardships, and was supportive of me in trying to get an education even though we did have two children during this time. I graduated with A.O.A. Honors in the spring of 1951, and we immediately returned to the Air Force for my internship at Brooke General Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. We were then transferred to Mac Dill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. This was an enjoyable year for my family as well as myself, enjoying the clinical experiences I got at this new Air Force Hospital. Military medicine did not live up to my expectations and this was true of many other young doctors at that time, and I decided to leave the military service. I then returned to Wisconsin with my family and practiced for a couple of years in Mauston, Wisconsin. Then I took a surgical residency at the Gunderson Clinic in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and finally ended up starting a clinic in Nekoosa. I remained in the Air Force Reserve for over thirty years, and for awhile I did some flying in Minneapolis, but found that the medical part of my life left little room for active reserve status. For many years I did the physicals for our National Guard, and during Desert Storm I returned to work in the office because of military which was required of one of our doctors.

My life as a physician and my experiences with the Air Force have been one of satisfaction and happiness. My brief sojourn as a prisoner of war in Germany also had its rewards. The camaraderie from the "Barth Experience" remains strong even though there has been fifty years to fade ones memory and I look forward to our reunions.




John E. Thompson, M.D.

John E. Thompson, M.D., 83, of 705 W. Fifth St., Nekoosa, died Sunday, April 15, 2007, at his home. Following cremation, burial will be in Riverside Cemetery in Nekoosa, Wisconsin.

Dr. Thompson was born Dec. 30, 1923, in Blanchardville, to Edward and Mary (Anderson) Thompson Jr. He married Germaine Kusnierek on Aug. 23, 1947, in Blanchardville.

He served in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1945 in the European Theater. He was a prisoner of war in Germany from 1944 to 1945.

John received his bachelor's degree from Augsburg College in Minneapolis in 1947 and his medical degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1951. He served an internship at Brooke General Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, in 1951 and the Army Medical Corps from 1951 to 1953. He practiced at Hess Clinic in Mauston from 1953 to 1956, served a residency at La Crosse Lutheran Hospital from 1956 to 1957 in general surgery and practiced medicine at the Nekoosa Medical Center from 1957 to January  1993.  

Dr. Thompson was the former medical director at Edgewater Haven and served on the board of directors at the time of his death, was a former member of the Riverview Hospital medical staff, where he served as chief of staff in 1963 and 1975. He was a member of the medical societies of Wisconsin and Wood County and a member of the American Medical Association.

Dr. Thompson was a longtime member of the Nekoosa Lions Club, where he was a recipient of the Melvin Jones Award; member and past commander of the Nekoosa VFW and of the Nekoosa American Legion; member of the Air Force Association; Ex-Prisoners of War Association where he served a term as the president of the state chapter, and was a recipient of the Air Medal and Purple Heart. He was a member of the Sons of Norway and First English Lutheran Church. He was a supporter of the 3-0 Day Committee.

In 2005, he was honored by the Heart of Wisconsin as the Wisconsin Rapids Area Citizen of the Year.

Dr. Thompson enjoyed hunting and fishing and took great interest in conservation and good citizenship and most of all enjoyed family gatherings.

He is survived by his wife, Germaine; one son, John Michael (Jean) Thompson of Stevens Point; four daughters, Vicki (James) Herzberg of Wisconsin Rapids, Rebecca (John) Gabor of Wausau, Nancy (William) Kautzer of Nekoosa, and Julie (Jeffrey) Dobkin of Newport Beach, Calif.; 12 grandchildren, Eric, Sarah, and Hailey Thompson, Steven (Marilyn) Herzberg, Nicole (Derek) Crowley, Quentin (Dana) Gabor, Abraham Gabor, Sash a (Cary) Anderson, Gabrielle and Courtney Kautzer, and Adin and Finn Dobkin; eight great-grandchildren, Lexi, Keegan and Karis Crowley, Sam and Abbie Herzberg, Soren and Caspar Gabor, and Emma Anderson; two brothers, Paul (Gloria) Thompson of New Glarus, and Robert (Julienne) Thompson of Bloomington, Minn.; one sister, Vivian Paulson of Rice Lake; and one brother-in-law, Gerald (Phylis) Kusnierek of Underwood, Minn.

He was preceded in death by his parents; two grandchildren, Todd Herzberg, and Isabella Dobkin; one brother-in-law, the Rev. Phillip Paulson; and one sister-in-law, Joyce Moya.


When I come to the end of the day

And the sun has set for me

I want no rites in a gloom-filled room.

Why cry for a soul set free?

Miss me a little, but not too long

And not with your head bowed low.

Miss me, but let me go.

For this is a journey we all must take

It's all a part of the Maker's plan,

A step on the road to home.

When you are lonely and sick at heart

Go to the friends we know

And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds

Miss me, but let me go.
                                         - Author Anonymous



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