I enlisted in the Air Force and was inducted at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, reporting later to Miami Beach, Florida, in November of 1943. We lived in hotels and took basic training on a golf course and on the beach. From there we went to Panama City, Florida for further training. From Panama City we were sent to Mitchell Field, New York for crew assignment. As a crew we were sent to Charleston, South Carolina and started flying together.
When I reported to basic training I had had to leave my girlfriend Franny in Baltimore. So, after basic I asked her to come to Charleston and we would get married. I rented a furnished room a month ahead to hold it, and she came down and we got married June 3, 1944. She stayed until I got leave and we went back to Baltimore where I had to leave her and return to Charleston.
From Charleston we went to Westover Field, Massachusetts, where we flew submarine patrol for two weeks. There we were given a new plane for our own to go overseas. We left Mitchell Field, New York and went to Bangor, Maine to pick up supplies and extra equipment to prepare to go overseas. We left the states and went to Newfoundland and stayed there about a week because of bad weather. When the weather finally broke, we went on to the Azores where we gassed up for the flight to Africa. We landed in Marrakech, flew on to Tunis, and from there we flew to Foggia, Italy where they took our plane and gave us an old beaten up one. Later we found out that this was customary; a new plane was given to a crew that was about finished and ready to go back to the United States
We were assigned to an air base at Cherignola, Italy and given a six man tent to sleep in at the edge of an almond orchard. At first we had a dirt floor, cots and candles for lights. We started improving the flooring and made some cabinets out of cardboard and rolled up the sides of the tent to get cool air. After a week or two we were given one bulb for light which got its power from a generator at the base.
We started flying with other crews to learn how to fly in formation. Experienced pilots flew with us for a few days and then we were on our own to fly every day. The weather permitting, we then started flying actual combat missions on August 12, 1944.
The targets in northern Italy were called "milk runs" because they were more like training missions, but the Polesti targets were the worst in Europe for enemy flack and fighters. The Hungary targets were bad for fighters, but Blechammer was as bad as Polesti because we had to fight our way from the target until we had to parachute out of the plane.
Before we got to the target we lost an engine due to flack (ground fire). We saw one plane blow up and two others take hits. On three engines, we could not keep up with the formation. After the bombs were dropped, we were attacked by four fighters and lost another engine and suffered other damage.
One fighter came toward the tail, another from the side, and then another from the underside. I shot the plane attacking our tail, and it exploded. The fighter on the side killed Tomlinson, and hit the ball turret gunner, giving the German fighters two positions not covered.
The next attack came from above, and top gunner Peterson and I both were shooting at him, and he was hit and bailed out. Then I realized we were going down fast and our radio was shot out. I got out of my turret and went up into the waist and put on my parachute. Peterson came down into the waist with his parachute on, and I had to move Tomlinson's body from the escape door so we could get out. I opened the hatch and motioned for Peterson to go out, but he motioned for me to go! I realized that we had to get out, so I jumped. Peterson told me later, when he saw my chute open, he jumped, too.
As we were going down, we could see people shooting at us. A German fighter came straight toward me. We had heard about fighter pilots shooting at airmen in their chutes. But, at the last minute he tipped his wing and came close enough for me to see him motion to me.
I went down in the woods. The others were captured in an open field. I could not get my chute out of the trees, so I took off my flying suit and boots and left them in a stump hole. The pilot had said we were in Hungary when the attack from the fighters first began. I crawled under the bushes and tried to collect my thoughts, removed my escape kit and tried to determine where I was.
Later, I decided to move to a better location and I had not gone but about ten steps when someone hollered and I looked to see a German soldier with a rifle pointing straight at me. He kept motioning for me to put my hands up. I could see he was as scared of me as I was of him. Another soldier then came up and they searched me. They kept saying "pistols," I guess because they knew we were issued .45 pistols. I told them that mine had gone down with the plane. I was always glad that I didn't wear it, because I might have tried to use it.
They took me out of the woods to a road where there were other people and a wagon that held a German pilot with his parachute rolled up in his lap. I was told to get on the wagon with the pilot who was about eighteen years old with blond hair and about my size. He smiled and motioned with his finger and said I "putt putt" you and you "putt, putt" me.
We were taken to a small village about the size of Efland, North Carolina, and it had a jail. There I saw two of my crew members and four from another crew at the jail. We spent the night with bed bugs, roaches and everything else. The next day we were moved through the village and were fortunate to have the German soldiers along to keep civilians off of us. They were throwing things, spitting and hollering "gangsters" at us. We understood why later when we passed a hospital that had been bombed.
We were put on a truck with eight others and transported to the city of Budapest. Once there, we were given something to eat, the first food we'd had had since we were shot down. We were then questioned and our belts, shoelaces, rings, watches and everything that we had in our pockets was taken from us.
We found out later that we were in an old political prison. It was three stories high, and was open in the center with walkways around each staircase. All of the cells were solitary cells about four feet by sixteen feet in size with no windows, and one light bulb that burned all of the time. Our comforts consisted of one cot, a door with a slot through which bowls of soup were given to us twice a day, one loaf of bread a day, and one bucket for a toilet. No one ever spoke.
Enduring seven days of this, you did a great deal of thinking. I counted the bricks in that cell a thousand times, and I thought I would remember the number, but I don't. After seven days of silence I was taken to a German officer for questioning. We had been trained to give only our name, rank and serial number. I was then sent back to my cell for another seven days, followed by another trip for questioning.
This time, a German who spoke perfect English told me that he would say things to me that he only wanted me to verify. I was told the type of plane we were in, the type of bombs we dropped, the target we hit, our air base in Italy and where we were trained. I figured one of our crew members told them all of this information. I was sent to another room with three members of my crew, and they said that they were told the same thing, and it was good to have someone to talk to.
After a few days we were taken under heavy guard to a train station where we were put on those notorious, forty by eight, boxcars that were known all over Germany: forty men or eight horses.
I think there must have been forty of us in the car when more men were brought in. It was too crowded to lie down, so we had to stand or sit. We were locked in our boxcar and in the next one were the guards with their dogs. We only had one bucket for a toilet for over forty men. Some men were sick and some were injured. We were on the train for two days before we were allowed to get out and given water and bread.
At this point everyone was getting filthy and many had dysentery, yet with still only one bucket on the boxcar. We stopped in a large rail yard one night and the R.A.F. came over dropping bombs. The guards left for shelters and we were left behind, locked in the boxcar. Luckily the bombs missed us but they did tear up some of the rails further ahead. We stayed there another day, still locked up. Finally, we started again, attached to another train, and we started seeing lots of bomb damage to towns and bridges as we passed through Poland.
After five days the train stopped and we were told to get out. We were at a train station in a small town where there were guards with dogs to escort us on a one mile walk to our camp. By this time, we were in pitiful shape. The camp was still being built, but we were assigned to barracks with twenty-two men, all together in one room. We had a spigot to wash up with and a latrine which had ten holes. Many times you didn't have time to wait. For that reason it was a very good thing our government sent lots of clothes and shoes to the camps.
In the camp itself there were almost 10,000 airmen and a few British airmen in one division, and there were four divisions total. The division that Peterson and I were in did not include any other members of our crew. I found out later that Botwright, the engineer, was next to us and we could holler to him across the barbed wire. We finally learned that one of our crew members had been killed, two were in a hospital somewhere in Hungary, and the three officers were in another camp about ten miles from us.
We had roll call twice a day, and were given soup and one-fourth of a loaf of sawdust bread a day. Once in a while, we got Red Cross parcels, which were like Christmas to a child. We were each supposed to be given a package, but we usually had to divide one package four ways. The packages contained everything you needed for a week: canned cheese, canned meat, crackers, candy bars, chocolate, cigarettes, toilet paper (which was worth a fortune), a sewing kit, playing cards, biscuits, and writing paper.
Cigarettes were often used as money; so many cigarettes for a candy bar, so many for a sweater, so many for socks and so many for a pencil. Many old prisoners were getting parcels from home that included clothes, food and cigarettes. We received a variety of things from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, but it was the food parcels that kept us alive. Many more men would have died had it not been for those food parcels. We had a number of POW's who went out of their minds and tried to climb the electric wire fences. Guards in the towers would shoot over their heads as a warning but always had to shoot them because they were so determined to try to escape.
Twenty-two men in our room and all of the rooms were alike. Each room had a little coal stove, and we got three bricks of coal a day. Bunks were built around the room, each three high and two wide. Peterson and I slept together, as most of us had one partner with whom we divided food, shared clothes and ate together. Peterson was a great help to me in every way and I hope I was to him, especially after we left the camp and tried to survive the Black March.
Everyone in the camp had a special buddy; you needed one to survive, and Pete became my special buddy. We lived together, talked together, ate together, planned together, marched together, and on that awful march, we slept together. I know I needed him to get through that terrible winter, and I think he needed me. As Pete said, we were closer than brothers. He only got mad at me once, over the coffee water. He walked about a half mile to the creek for the water, and back a half mile to the camp where I was building a fire. The guard had allowed him to go. When he got back, I accidentally knocked it over. Boy, he was mad; no coffee water! Pete was, and still is, a very special person to me.
Christmas time was coming, which made it harder for everyone. One guy in our room suggested that we start saving our food for the holidays. Then the idea came to make a cake for Christmas day. Each one of us would give something from our parcels such as powdered milk, chocolate, sugar, or salt. When the day came we had lots of food and a beautiful, big cake. Some men in another room had fermented sugar, raisins and other things to make alcohol, and we traded some of our cake for enough alcohol for all of us to have a couple of swigs. The alcohol was very potent, especially on our empty stomachs with that rich cake. Years later there an article about our cake appeared in The American Legion Magazine, December 1957.
Some of the men in our room had received musical instruments from home or they were able to get the guards to get instruments for them. These musicians would get together and play. At Christmas the Germans allowed us to use a large hall and the men with instruments gave a wild party. You should have seen the crazy dancing that was done. Until the last song, "White Christmas," was played. After that each one of us went back to our room with tears rolling down our cheeks.
We were getting some war news from a small radio, the size of a pack of cigarettes, that had been smuggled in a piece at the time and kept secret all the time we were there. We could receive the BBC once a day on a certain wavelength. One person listened, and told some other men who, in turn, told other men in each of the other barracks to spread the news of the day.
We knew the war was about over and that the Russians were coming toward us. But, we did not know where or how fast until we started to hear big guns in the distance, getting louder. On February 5, 1945, word was sent around to get what you could carry and be prepared to move. Early the next morning , we were told to fall out and we were marched out the gate in groups of two hundred men, with one guard for every ten prisoners. With every twenty men there was a dog. We went to a warehouse where Red Cross parcels had been hoarded by the thousands. We were given all that we could carry. The snow was knee-deep, and the temperature was ten below zero.
We did not know where we were going or how long we could last outside in this weather. In addition, we had no idea that history would later call our journey the "Black March." The longer we marched the more things the men began to throw away: clothes, shoes, and extra food parcels, having no idea we would last long in this weather and in our physical condition. The guards, on the other hand, were young and in good condition. They allowed the dogs to nip at the legs of stragglers and would themselves often stick the slower prisoners with bayonets.
We walked about ten kilometers before we stopped for the night in a snow-covered open field. Every one of us was , hungry, thirsty and dead-tired. All that we had to eat or drink was the snow that we could pick up. Many, many nights during the march, we slept on the ground in the ice and snow. Peterson and I each had a blanket and a long Army overcoat made of heavy wool. We put one overcoat on the ground and covered up with the two blankets and the other overcoat. The blankets were thin like burlap and did not do much to keep us warm. We were not allowed to build a fire even if we had something that we could burn. One morning we awoke to find that someone had switched our top coat and exchanged it for a short one that only went to mid-calf. Our other one went down to my ankles, and was really warm.
Not too long after we started on the march, I had my twenty-fourth birthday, on February 11, 1945. My good buddy Pete (Paul Peterson) presented me with a small piece of bread for my birthday gift. He had saved the bread for me from his small rations for a couple of days. You can imagine how much this meant to me.
The next morning we were still tired, had sore, blistered feet and were very hungry. All of us were cold, and some were sick. We had camped by a little stream which we drank from and used as a latrine. We were moved out and went to the road a short distance away and found that another group had used this stream ahead of us!
That day everyone was getting concerned about how long we could stand this without heat, hot food, and shelter, especially those who were sick. The guards were beginning to push us harder, walk us faster, and give us fewer rest periods. More men were falling out and we did not know what was happening to them. The guards threatened to shoot us if we could not keep going.
We walked until almost dark when we reached a school where we had some protection from the outdoors. We had hoped to be able to keep warm inside, but our clothes, shoes and socks were soaking wet. We were warned by some of the older prisoners not to take off our shoes because our feet would swell and our shoes would shrink as they dried. So, we slept in our wet shoes. If we dared to take off our shoes for the night, we tied the strings together, and put them around our neck for safety. We could not march without shoes. We estimated that we had walked about sixteen kilometers. That night we could hear heavy guns, and British bombers came over and dropped bombs ahead of us.
We started out again the next. As we had been warned, some men could not get their shoes on because their shoes had shrunk. We were pushed again that day because the guards wanted to get further away from the Russians. Many more men began to drop out and we heard some shooting behind us. We felt that it was probably the guards carrying out their threats. We hardly stopped except maybe to let military traffic go by.
The Germans were going towards the sounds of the big guns. The condition of the men continued to get worse. One night we were able to get into a big barn where we had hay and straw to lay in to keep warm and rest. That barn felt like a motel. We stayed over until the next day and then began another day of walking. We came to another prison camp which was used to get everyone together.
There was every nationality you ever heard of. The French Moroccans had long black hair worn under a turban and they washed it every day under the spigot and took baths out in the open. When they went to the latrine, they carried a little pitcher with water, didn't use paper even if they had it, using instead their left hand. They then washed their left hand and did not use it to eat with.
The young guards were taken away and replaced with old home guards. We actually felt sorry for them but we needed them to keep the civilians away from us. The home guards were getting desperate because they didn't want to be caught by the Russians. One day we were near an old mill sitting in the sun in a cemetery picking off body lice when we heard American bombers. The bombers soon came into sight, straight toward us. They were flying low and we could see bomb doors open. We knew they were getting close to dropping bombs, so we took cover behind a rock wall. Each time a bomb exploded, the wall would start coming apart. It was a very close call for us. We later found out that they were bombing a bridge just beyond us.
By then it was April and getting warmer. We did not have to walk as far, or fast, and found more schools and farms to sleep in. We began to hear more big guns behind us. On the night of April 24, 1945, we were in a big barn when we heard a terrible sound which turned out to be an American armored car coming to find out where we were.
The next morning an American spotter plane came over very low, waving its wings back and forth. We were going toward the Rhine River and later saw two tanks and armored cars with American markings coming toward us. The Americans had stopped at Bitterfield on the Rhine River, waiting for the Russians to get there. We were told they were part of Patton's forward division.
We were liberated at Bitterfield on April 26, 1945. The Americans helped us cross the river on a temporary bridge because they had blown up all of the bridges in the area. Peterson and I were taken by a tank crew to a house that the Americans had taken. We were told to burn our clothes, which we gladly did. We had not had a warm bath in two months, had worn the same shoes, had not had a haircut, and were in terrible condition. We both got into the largest bathtub I had ever seen, large enough to swim in. It was wonderful to be able to shave and put on clean clothes. Each of us was given a big glass of whiskey and all of the food we could eat. With full stomachs, we went to bed under a large feather blanket that made us feel like we had died and gone to heaven.
The next morning, April 27, 1945, we wrote letters home and the tank crew mailed them for us even though they were not supposed to. I later found out that my letter to my wife Franny arrived on the morning of May 8, VE-Day.
We were trucked to the Hallie staging area and flown to Rheims. We then flew to La Harve on May 13, to Camp Lucky Strike, which had tents for all American POWs. We were fed around the clock and had egg nog between meals. After a few days you would not recognize your friends because they had clean clothes, haircuts, and gained a great deal of weight. Many men got sick from over-eating.
By then the war was over, and we had to wait for ships to come to take us home. Later we learned that they kept us longer so that we would gain some weight before we got home to our families. We boarded ships on June 5, and docked in New York on June 12. We were then taken to Camp Kilmer, NJ in preparation for going home. You were put in barracks according to the state you lived in.
We were put on a train bound for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and when we got there we were again examined and given new clothes and $50 to get home. I caught a bus to Fayetteville and then another to Hillsborough. At six o'clock on the morning of June 15, 1945, I walked to my Uncle Ewell's house and he took me home to Franny and the rest of the family. I was finally back home. And thankful.