a lousy way to start the day!"
We lost two planes en route to Bemberg Airfield, Germany. Both were shot down by "flak" at nearly the same time in the dreaded Dummer Lake area known as "flak alley." It was the avowed purpose of the commanding general of the 8th AF to destroy the Luftwaffe. To reach that goal we regularly attacked aircraft factories and the airfields from which their fighter planes operated. The general's philosophy was to engage enemy fighters and shoot them down. Our bomber formations were heavily armed for that purpose. We were to be the bait. To encourage their fighters to attack us and be destroyed, our formations were sent into Germany over the same route mission after each mission. The enemy was not seduced by this ploy. They simply moved heavy flak batteries into the area and kept their fighters safely on the ground. Thus, the fighters could effectively attack the bombers, after they became damaged, or scattered by flak. Our air crews groaned every morning at briefing, when the mission map was uncovered revealing the same old "flak alley" route. What a lousy way to start the day!The crew of Brown Noser (the other plane lost that day), piloted by Kermit Fuchs, were killed in action except for Lt. Philip Wescott, who safely parachuted to earth and was captured. Our plane, piloted by Sterling Tuck was unusual in that it bore two names. On the right side of the nose it was called Werewolf and the nose art depicted an upright, ferocious black wolf. On the left side, the name was Princess O'Rourke, the art showed a cute, playful, black Scotty puppy. We bailed out, were captured, and became prisoners of war.
I was manning the Wolfs nose turret and saw a field of flak bursting ahead of us at our level. It seemed preordained that we would sustain some battle damage as had happened on previous missions. I was startled to hear the pilot call on the intercom, "Pilot to crew, pilot to crew, bail out! bail out!" We had not even reached the area of my concern, but No.2 engine was already on fire! Looking back into the navigator's compartment for reassurance, I saw him stow his table and, without a moment's hesitation, disappear through the nose-wheel hatch. I rose in my seat and looked back toward the flight deck and saw the pilot scrambling from his seat. That convinced me that the order was official and I proceeded to extricate myself from the turret. I found my chest chute, snapped it on, sat on the floor and swung my feet into the nose wheel hole. The wind almost tore off my boots! I sat down upon the bombsight to ponder my situation. I realized no one had ever instructed me as to bailout procedure! The defining moment came when the plane nosed-down a little, picked up speed and the Plexiglas turret collapsed sending a blast of wind through the nose compartment. I stood up by the hole in the floor, but did not know whether to go head first or feet first. I did know, however, that Marin, my recent bride, would want me to at least try. I believe it was God's hand that pushed me out, for I have no recollection of acting voluntarily until I found myself in free-fall. Our all knowing God had me bump my head on the way out rendering me unconscious until reaching a lower altitude where I was safe from marauding fighter planes.
We were taken to a prisoner collection point and then loaded into a truck and taken to three crash sites. There we were provided shovels and stretchers and ordered to exhume bodies and body parts from the wreckage. We then carried them to the roadside where German officers collected dog tags and tried to determine the number of individuals involved. This traumatic activity could almost be classified a "war crime." It was at least cruel and inhuman punishment, as we were still in a state of shock from being "separated" from our group. There is no question in my mind that Phil Wescott of the 706th bore the task of helping to recover the bodies of his fellow crewmen. We did not converse among ourselves then, and I never knew until later that Phil and I were in Stalag Luft I together. It almost broke my heart to learn, in November 1991, that he was in the same compound as I and that he was from Pottersville, NY, a small town in the Adirondack Mountains very near my family's camp where I had vacationed all my life. We would have had so much to talk about! He would not have been so all alone and, just maybe, he would not have brooded about, "Why was only I spared, Lord? Why me?" I have since met one of his sons who told me that Phil would not speak of his wartime experiences. His feelings of grief and "guilt" were a great burden to him until he died at only forty-three years of age.
It was my "privilege" to be controlled by the Luftwaffe in Stalag Luft I at Barth that was located in one of the last areas of Germany to fall, hence no forced march. In my room was a lad from my class in Bombardier School. One day he was found in the latrine with his wrists slashed. He was bundled off to sick bay, recovered and was returned to his old billet. It seemed odd to us that he was not switched to another room. He was a bridge player and it was disconcerting to see him picking at his scabs while pondering a play. Another chap, late for Sunday Services, rushed out of his barracks and was shot dead by a guard. The kriegie was unaware that an air raid was in effect and we were confined to quarters.
In North Compound I, we were fortunate to have a mess hall/activity building. It was destroyed by fire shortly after my arrival, but was great while it lasted. It had a stage that supported our little theater and housed the dance band and library.
We had to cook in our rooms, when we had anything to cook. Sixteen men to a room in double decked bunks. One coal-fired space heater to cook on when there was fuel. Everyone managed to spend time away from his room. Walking the fence line was the major activity - just like the zoo animals before their habitat upgrading. There was also sports activity for those so inclined, but walking, walking, - around and around was central.
We were grateful
for the supportive efforts of the YMCA. Everyone knows the Red Cross furnished
the food that kept us alive (when our captors permitted its distribution),
but it was the YMCA who helped preserve our sanity. They provided sports
equipment, books, art supplies (we had some very talented persons among
us), scripts and costumes for plays, church supplies, medical supplies,
The author, Irv Day, is standing far left in this photo. "Shorty" Klaeser, mentioned in the next paragraph, is kneeling at far left.
There were many heroes there besides the Medal of Honor recipient. In my opinion, there was one unsung hero. He was the late Gilbert "Shorty" Klaeser of the 705th Squadron. He was helpful to the men of the North Compound 1. "Shorty" was from Kiel, Wisconsin and spoke German better than our guards. He was Barter Specialist, par excellence, and was responsible for many American cigarettes being exchanged for contraband goods. He was adept at bargaining and making trades. Other certifiable heroes were those who built and maintained the clandestine radios and surreptitiously spread the news throughout the camp. We knew of D-Day before our guards. It was great for morale!
At night we were locked into the barracks. The power was turned off about 10:00 PM and the windows were covered with non-ventilating shutters. A small slot above the windows was supposed to allow ventilation. As the war progressed, it became increasingly apparent that the Russians were likely to reach us before the Americans. After lights out, you could often hear someone shouting through the slot, "C'mon, Joe!" One night I was attempting to peek through the meeting crack of two shutters. I did not know that a "ferret" was standing outside. He swung his steel rod unerringly and struck a ringing blow to my forehead. The rod was used for probing the ground to locate tunnels. Our barracks were built on stilts that provided a crawl space to enable guards, and their dogs, to seek tunnel activity or eavesdrop on our kriegie conversations. Some of the fellows attempted to tunnel under the fence. I felt more secure inside the barbed wire.
One day the Germans abandoned us. They did not even say good-bye. Life improved when we discovered a large stash of Red Cross food parcels and packages from home in a nearby warehouse. Some of our farm boys rounded up some cows and a meat grinder. For the most part, we obeyed our leaders and stayed put. Some complained that they could not tell any difference between our leaders and the Germans. It was important to keep everyone in place while awaiting deliverance by our 8th Air Force comrades.
Everything went reasonably well until the Russians arrived. They scared the Germans away and we thanked them for that. But they did not liberate us. They seemed to think that they had conquered us. First, they criticized us for not tearing down the fences. Their commander wanted to drive his tank down the fences and turn us loose. Our CO did not want us "loose." So we appeased our allies by pulling down the guard towers. Then we were shamed for not displaying our mourning for our late Commander-in-Chief. We cut up our black blankets and fashioned armbands to show our respect. Some of the guys trooped off to Barth and mingled with the Russians. I went for a walk and came upon a canal. Walking along the tow path I came upon a baby carriage. It held a lovely infant covered with a ruffled coverlet. He had what was obviously a bullet hole in the middle of his little forehead. The young lady lying beside the carriage also had a bullet hole in her forehead. I presumed that she was the infant's mother and his father wanted to insure that his loved ones did not fall into the hands of the conquering Russians. I returned to the camp to wait as long as necessary for the airlift out.