Editor's note: The following is a chapter from a book called Heroes of the Heartland by Jerry Cunningham. Email Jerry for information on how to get a copy of his book.
Survivor is a designation made popular by a recent television show. People volunteer to be placed on a desert island in hopes of being rewarded a million dollars. Difficult, yes, but a true test of survival? I don’t think so. The following is a definition of this word’s true meaning.
While having a talk with Dr. William Strother, pastor of the Northview Christian Church, I was told of Charlie Perry. Dr. Strother told me of Perry’s amazing story during World War II. Charlie’s phone number was provided straight out of the church directory, and I quickly made arrangements to meet with Charlie at his home near CR 200 North. I found Charlie Perry to be a humble man with a quick wit and an engaging since of humor. Charlie retired from farming and at one time owned his own kitchen counter company. Charlie and his wife Zella retired two years ago as tax specialist. Charlie found success in the business world and was spending time volunteering for his Church. The Perrys have called Hendricks County home for twenty years. While in the Perry home, I was introduced to his entire family via photographs on the mantle. Charlie beamed with pride when he spoke of his daughter, Donna. “It was always our dream for Donna to attend Purdue University.” Donna graduated with a degree, and now Charlie’s grandson is a Boilermaker.
Charlie Perry grew up on the east side of Indianapolis during the Great Depression. Perry told me of how his mother had passed away when he was a small child. One of Charlie’s sisters died not long after. His father tried to hold the family of three girls and one boy together but contracted tuberculosis when Charlie was nine. While his father battled the disease, young Charlie and his sisters were placed in a foster home. Charlie speaks fondly of the family that practically raised him and his sisters. “The Cottons were 65 years old when they took us in. Can you imagine being that old and volunteering to raise four kids?” I commented to Charlie that his life sounded rough. Charlie shook his head and said, “No, it was my dad who had it rough.”
Charlie Perry, drafted in 1942 and given a draft-board physical, told the doctors about his mother’s death and his father’s condition. Charlie stated, “They stamped me 4-F,” (which means medically unfit) “and let me leave.” Like millions of others who couldn’t fight for medical reasons, Charlie was disappointed and restless. The sense of duty and wanting to do your part was astounding during that era. He went back to the local induction office and tried to volunteer. “This time I didn’t answer all those questions quite as honestly, and I was accepted,” Charlie told me with a grin.
Charlie Perry completed basic training, went to Salt Lake City where he was assigned to the 706th Squadron of the 446th Bomber Group, and was assigned to a ten-man, B-24 bomber crew. The B-24 was an aircraft with four engines. Maximum range was 2100 miles with speed of 300 mph. “Our Officers were good guys; they didn’t try to pull rank on you like other officers did,” Charlie commented. The ten men became a team as close as any family.
Charlie’s crew was sent to Florida in August of 1943, waiting orders to join the fighting. Charlie was unsure if they would be sent to the Pacific Theater or Europe. An hour into the air, Captain Charles Mckeny opened a sealed envelope to find that they were to fly to England.
The 446th was assigned to the legendary Eighth Air Force, responsible for a majority of the bombing raids over Nazi-held Europe. The Eighth experienced an extremely high casualty rate. The bombing missions in 1943-44 were designed to interrupt the German war machine’s ability to produce aircraft, fuel and transportation systems. The Allies knew that they must weaken the German’s capabilities before an invasion of France would be possible. Hitler’s stranglehold over the continent was absolute.
Charlie was a ball-turret gunner. The ball turret was a small capsule located on the belly of the aircraft. As the belly gunner, it was Charlie’s job to fend off enemy aircraft. Charlie kept records of each of his 29 missions, which he allowed me to read. Each mission was filled with heroism and adventure. Charlie flew his first bombing mission on Christmas Eve, 1943. After a sleepless night, Charlie Perry and his crew boarded a B-24 bomber named “Shiflus Skunk.” The mission was to bomb a rocket installation at Eclimax, France. The mission was uneventful; the “Shiflus Skunk” along with other bombers of the 446th hit their target and returned safely to base.
Six days later the crew flew its second mission. This mission would be more indicative of the challenge that lay ahead. The target was a chemical factory at Ludswighaven, Germany. Near the target, the 446th met anti-aircraft fire and 15 German fighters. Charlie’s crew witnessed an American aircraft shot down with only two of ten parachutes seen. Charlie’s crew continued on its mission and safely returned to base. Not only were the bomber crews facing anti-aircraft guns, enemy aircraft, and engine failure, they were also forced to survive the elements. Flying at 25,000 feet in an unpressurized aircraft is a dangerous task. The temperatures dropped 30-40 degrees below zero and oxygen was scarce. Charlie said that, while under fire from anti-aircraft guns and attack by the Luftwaffe, on more than one occasion he saw a member of the crew frozen at his guns. Charlie said that under the stress of combat, men would create a seal on their oxygen masks causing the moisture around their mouths to freeze. Ice would form and men would lose consciousness. Charlie said a fellow crewmember had this happen twice. Charlie left his guns to break the mask free. Charlie would place his oxygen supply on the man’s face until he would come around.
The crew flew many more missions into heavily defended German territory. On January 24, a mission was flown to bomb the Nazi rail yards at Frankfort, Germany. En route to the target, the 446th encountered heavy flack. The black bursts of exploding German shells reached up into the sky 20,000 feet randomly picking off Allied planes flying in defensive formation. During the missions, it was a matter of life or death to remain in your formation. While flying in formation, the aircraft were better able to defend themselves against enemy fighters. If an aircraft was damaged or experienced engine trouble, it was forced to slow and drop from the formation. Much like lions on the African plains, the Germans would feast on the weak and defenseless stragglers when they left the safety of the herd. On this mission, Charlie’s aircraft experienced power loss in all four engines. Captain Mckeny was able to keep in formation as the group dropped its payload on the railway. After the bombs were dropped on the target, a dash was made for the English Channel. Charlie’s crew looked on helplessly as four Allied aircraft were shot down. While being pursued west, the crew could see black smoke spiraling over the horizon behind them. Captain Mckeny safely guided “Shiflus Skonk” back to base. While talking with Charlie, the admiration and affection he felt for his 24-year old captain is obvious. “Our entire crew was as close as any family. For nine months we ate, slept head-to-head, and went through battle together.”
On January 4, another mission to Frankfort was flown. As before, American aircraft were lost and Charlie’s aircraft was repeatedly hit. Luck and skill brought the “Shiflus Skonk” home each time. This was Sgt. Charlie Perry’s sixth mission. He would be required to fly 23 more. The three months it would take to complete the tour must have seemed like an eternity.
Charlie narrowly escaped injury on a separate mission. While returning to England his aircraft approached the English Channel. Charlie climbed from the ball-turret. Just than he realized his oxygen hose was still connected to the air supply in the turret. Charlie leaned forward to free his hose. Just than fragments from an exploding enemy shell ripped through the fuselage missing Charlie. “If I hadn’t leaned forward when I did I would be missing my head” Charlie said about the close call.
Anxieties were high among these young men. On March 3, 1944, the 446th gathered for the usual mission brief when a map of the German capital, Berlin, was uncovered. Charlie stated that moans came from the crews and a few men became ill. Berlin was heavily defended by a system of anti-aircraft guns and fighter squadrons. One can only imagine what crossed the minds of those men sitting in the room that day nearly 60 years ago. Casualties were sure to be high. Would it be a buddy from another crew? Or would it be you that didn’t come back for the nightly poker game in the barracks? Fate smiled on Charlie Perry that day; the mission was recalled over Holland due to bad weather.
Charlie’s crew flew many more missions until April, 1944. Each bombing raid was necessary to the war effort, but countless aircraft were lost in these months. Near the end of April, Sgt. Charlie Perry was to finish his tour and be reassigned as an instructor either in England or the States. Charlie told me that he had even requested and been fitted with a new pair of GI shoes to wear when he went on leave.
On April 29, 1944, Charlie volunteered to be a replacement gunner for another bombing crew. The B-24 was named “Luck and Stuff.” This would be his 29th and final bombing mission. The target would be Berlin. Charlie asked the tail gunner, Jimmy Calhoun, to switch places with him. Calhoun denied Charlie’s request. Charlie recalled the sky was beautiful that day. After the bombs were dropped, flack hit “Luck and Stuff.” Two of the engines were damaged on the B-24, and the ten-man crew was forced to drop from the protection of the formation. The squadron left “Luck and Stuff” behind as she was losing altitude and speed. Forty-five minutes west of Berlin, fighter escorts were radioed to cover the wounded craft. Minutes later several German fighters (FW 190’s), intercepting the call for help, appeared. The enemy quickly attacked the defenseless aircraft. In the first pass, Jimmy Calhoun was killed. Another member of the crew was struck in the leg. Fuel tanks ignited and fire raged inside the aircraft killing the flight engineer. The order was made to abandon the plane. The eight remaining crewmembers parachuted from the aircraft as it was under attack. Charlie jumped through a hatch at the nose of the aircraft as it started to nose-dive. One of the wounded aviators did not survive the jump. Charlie commented that after free falling, he opened his chute only to find that he was being circled by one of the enemy planes. Charlie played dead hoping the enemy wouldn’t shoot him as he floated to earth. “Luck & Stuff” exploded before it hit the ground.
The Indiana boy, on his last mission and only hours from getting his ticket home, found himself on the ground hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. As he was trained, Charlie removed his chute and hid it under some brush. When he turned to run, much to his dismay he saw 100 angry German civilians surrounding him with clubs and pitchforks. In the crowd were two German soldiers. The mob would surely kill the Americans; the only chance was to run to the soldiers. Charlie, unarmed and dazed, surrendered to the pair and was led away. Just hours away from wearing his new shoes home, Charlie Perry found himself on enemy soil, a thousand miles from England and a world away from Indiana. Charlie Perry would now face a second fight for survival, as he was lead away to a Prisoner of War camp.
After being interrogated Charlie was loaded onto a freight car with other Allied prisoners. Charlie stated, “I could see through a crack in the boxcar. I could see the destruction we had caused during our bombing missions.” Charlie could see a single church steeple, which remained undamaged. The crowded train took the Allied prisoners on a four-day trip to Heydekrug, East Prussia. During the train ride, Charlie met another Allied airman named Snuffy Stewart. The men became close friends and have kept in touch over the past 56 years. It’s amazing how these men, who spent a relatively short period of their lives together, created such a strong bond that they became life-long friends.
Once at the German prison camp, Charlie was assigned a number: 3714. After a few days at the camp and after convincing the other prisoners that he wasn’t a spy, the camp escape committee approached Charlie. He was told that the committee must approve any escape attempt. The German guards were constantly looking for tunnels. A British pilot was able to escape by posing as a guard who was going to change a light bulb. The pilot fled when two Germans had left a ladder near the fence. When the guards left the area to retrieve a replacement bulb, the pilot climbed the ladder, went over the fence, and crawled away in the cover of night. Charlie stated the guards returned, changed the bulb, and knew nothing of the escape. The men at the camp learned from a radio broadcast three months later that the daring escape had succeeded.
Back in the States, Charlie’s family had been notified by the War Department that Charlie’s aircraft had been shot down and that Charlie and his crew were officially “missing in action.” It wasn’t until a group of ham radio operators overheard German propaganda broadcasts that information about his fate was known. Charlie Perry’s name was given during a nightly Axes Sally show. The ham radio operator mailed a postcard to Charlie’s father to tell of what he had heard.
Around July 4, 1944, Charlie stated they could hear the artillery from the advancing Russian army. Hitler’s once invincible war machine was gradually losing ground. The savage fighting between the Russian and German armies would be some of the most brutal in the history of mankind. In Hitler’s attempt to conquer the world, unspeakable atrocities were inflicted on the Russian people. The tide had begun to turn.
In early July, the POWs were ordered out of their barracks and led away to the seaport at Memel. The men were loaded onto a coal freighter named the Mauserin. The ship had a capacity of 500 men but over 2,000 were forced aboard.
Conditions were unbearable during the 36-hour journey. One POW jumped overboard in an attempt to escape, but German guards opened fire on him. Charlie never learned the man’s fate. When the ship docked, the tired men were once again loaded onto freight cars and transported near the town of Stargaard. The men were ordered to line up along a roadway. It was then that Charlie’s morale hit rock bottom. The men were ordered to run five miles through the woods to the camp. Charlie states that dogs and guards with bayonets chased them. One of the men who fell behind was bayoneted by the guards and bitten by the dogs. His buddies carried him the remainder of the way. He had been stabbed 60 times but survived. At the new camp, prisoners were given only a small amount of bread, coffee and grass soup for lunch. Dinner consisted of a single baked potato.
After a few short months at the camp, the roar of the approaching Russian army could be heard in the distance. Once again orders were given to evacuate the men. This time trains and ships would not be provided. Eleven thousand men were sent on a desperate march in the dead of winter. Food was scarce during the march. One would think that all hope must have been lost. Charlie Perry told me that, in spite of the dangers he had faced in the air and as a Prisoner of War, he always knew he would live. “ I always knew I would make it home somehow.” If placed in Charlie’s situation, what would we do? The easiest thing to do would be to give up hope. The choice to remain strong and push forward would be more difficult than lying down on the frozen ground to perish or force the guards to open fire during a futile escape attempt.
It was now March 1945. The Allied armies and the Russians were closing in on the German fatherland. The two armies were pushing the German defenses closer to its capital. The POWs would encounter German civilians on their forced journey. The roads were packed with civilians trying to escape the Russians. The POWs received a morale boost when they were told to lie in ditches next to the roadway as a column of retreating German tanks roared passed. Charlie stated a few of the Scottish soldiers taunted the Germans by defiantly playing their bagpipes.
On April 27, 1945, the men were led to an abandoned ceramics factory near the Elbe River. The door was closing on the retreating Nazis, yet they resisted until the bitter end. The POWs were held in the dark factory overnight. In the middle of the night, two American soldiers dressed in civilian clothing slipped past the guards and entered the factory through a window. Here were the rescuers that the beleaguered men had prayed for appearing like thieves in the night. The pair told them that their unit was poised on the other side of the Elbe River and that, if the Germans had not surrendered the POWs in the morning, they intended to assault the building and bring them back. How would this journey into hell end for the tired, defenseless men? Would they be handed over peacefully, or would they be unarmed bystanders in a bloody rescue attempt? The hours before dawn must have seemed like an eternity. Early the next morning, the POWs were marched to a bombed-out bridge over the Elbe River. They were then told to march across. Charlie vividly recalls his last few steps of captivity. “As I was walking across the bridge, I could see an American soldier standing there. I couldn’t tell you what he looked like. All I could see were his gold second lieutenant bars. I wept as I walked past the lieutenant. I was given a Bible that I still have.” The awaiting Americans met Charlie and the others on the other side of the bridge. Charlie was unable to see his original crew again for thirty-six years. The men were shipped back in early June of 1944. “We all met up at a reunion in 1980, there are only eight of us still around”.
I was invited into Charlie’s home to talk about his experience. I have spoken with several World War II veterans and have had the privilege to be invited into their homes. One thing I have found that most of these men have in common is a small room tucked away from the rest of the house. While in Charlie Perry’s study, I saw a picture frame unassumingly placed in a corner near the bookshelf. Upon closer examination, I saw that the frame contained the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of our nation’s highest decorations for valor and conduct in combat. Charlie hadn’t acknowledged the medal until I saw it. It was awarded to Charlie Perry Stout Field while he was still a Prisoner of War.
Charlie was known for his humor. In December of 2000 I gathered some of the men in this book for breakfast. Many of them had never met. I didn’t know what to expect once they were gathered. I broke the ice by having the men introduce their self. Once the introductions were complete, the stories started to fly. I was riveted to every word. When I stopped to look around the restaurants I found I wasn’t alone several other patrons had stopped eating and were listening in. The stories flew from one veteran to the next. Finally Harry Northern stated, “Are we going to order breakfast?” Without missing a beat Charlie nudged Harry in the side and said, “We haven’t won the war yet.”
On March 12 2001 I received a call from Zella, Charlie had passed away unexpectedly. At his crowded funeral service Dr. Billy Strother stated “Charlie Perry loved his Country, his Family and his Lord.” Dr. Strother then compared Charlie’s passing to the incident fifty-six years ago when he crossed a bridge over the Elbe River to return home. During the service Dr. Strother stated “Did you know Charlie was a veteran?” The question was met with a roar of laughter. Charlie was proud of his accomplishments and we were all proud of him. Charlie had lived a remarkable life. Few have ever squeezed as much tragedy and triumph into a lifetime. When Zella called to tell me of Charlie’s passing I was quite saddened. My wife comforted me when she said, “Your life is better because you knew him”. She was right, I know all of our lives are better because of the cabinetmaker, farmer, tax specialist and hero who sacrificed to make our land free.