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A MARCH TO LIBERATION

The Freedom we Enjoy isn’t Free

A March to Liberation A Memoir of World War II Experiences

VAN DENPLAS

In 1942 Van, like many young men his age, was eager to enlist in the military to protect his country. Defending one’s nation, whatever the cost, was generally expected. Most young men couldn’t imagine what the future might require of them, but were willing to serve. Was all the sacrifice worth it? If anyone ever had the opportunity to observe Van raising his flag in his front yard and saw the pride and satisfaction it gave him, the answer was obvious. This question simply didn’t require asking.

N  ormanDale Graphics, LLC www.NormandaleGraphics.com

By Warren Van Denplas, as told to Norm Penner


All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. Printed in the United States of America First Printing, 2015 NormanDale Graphics, LLC 431 West Strasburg Way Mustang, Oklahoma 73064 www.normandalegraphics.com norm@normandalegraphics.com The information contained in this product / on this site is for information purposes only, and may not apply to your situation. While every attempt to insure accuracy in compiling this memoir, the author, publisher, distributor, and provider provide no warranty about the content or accuracy of content enclosed. Information provided is subjective.


A

March to Liberation

A Memoir of World War II Experiences

By Warren Van Denplas As told to Norm Penner

Tea Leaves, Baseball, Sunday School, and Bowling

1

Sir, Yes Sir, Where to Sir?

5

Our Missions

11

Mission #13

17

From Szombathely to Budapest

23

A Blanket, Long underwear, a Bowl, and a Spoon

31

March to Liberation

39

Coming Home

49

A New Start

51

Epilogue 55


Forward Common characteristics of most World War II veterans are unwavering patriotism, unmatched determination, and a sense of responsibility to promote a better world for future generations. Convinced that their participation was necessary to win the war, they took their orders seriously. Many experienced tremendous pain and suffering in what seemed hopeless conditions. Warren Van Denplas (friends knew him as ‘Van’), was no exception. Van was the last person to bail out of his B-17 after it took crippling enemy fire. All but two of the ten crew members survived. He persevered through tremendous prisoner of war conditions which included a filthy living environment, body lice, dysentery, sub-standard diet, severe winter cold, near starvation, and hopeless degenerating conditions and events. But none of these seemed to threaten his spirit more than the threat of having his New Testament taken away. When finally liberated, he exhibited a deep appreciation for ordinary conveniences. White bread was a delicacy compared to the black sawdust bread from prison. Fine dishes and a tablecloth were viewed as elaborate compared to the bowl and spoon issued at the POW camp. It’s difficult to imagine how much Van’s eyes must have brightened when he finally got a new uniform after marching and sleeping in the same dirty clothes, having had no shower or bath for more than eighty days. All of these dreadful experiences seemed to form a character which I personally found admirable: a trust in the Lord to supply necessary daily needs, a conviction that his Bible was truth and was valid for direction in life, and a view that current daily trials were not comparable to conditions he faced on the death march. The following pages are Van’s expressions and words compiled from interviews and conversations recorded in Van’s home. I recorded them while my wife, Lucy, prepared Sunday dinner after Sunday morning church services. Thank you, Van, for suffering and sacrificing in your World War II experiences so that Lucy and I can enjoy freedom today.

Norm Penner


Tea Leaves, Baseball, Sunday School, and Bowling

Grandma Carpenter - Tea Leaves Reader The beginning of my life opened with a typical family setting, a mother, a dad, and two sisters, Ione and Jeane. Gladys, my younger sister, died of typhoid fever. I didn’t get to know her. I grew up in a home where I can only remember my mother as a parent; dad left us when I was about four or five years old. I guess I washed that out of my mind, I don’t remember him at all. When I was very young, we lived across the street from my grandmother (my mother’s mother), Grandma Carpenter. I used to go across the street to spend time with her. She would give me green tea with the regular tea grounds. This was a treat I wasn’t allowed to have at home. She would flip over the tea leaves in my cup and read them. Her readings were always positive and she was a very important part of our lives up until the time I went into the service. After Dad left us, Mother was left with three children to support. I don’t know how she did it, but she ended up in Scotia, New York, owning a small restaurant. 

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Virgil Hasche - Baseball My stepfather, Virgil Hasche, graduated from South Dakota State University and got a job at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He worked across the river from Scotia where we lived. I learned to know him as a regular customer at Mother’s restaurant. On a Saturday afternoon, he’d come there to eat. After a time, I realized that he and Mother had been meeting one another regularly. He asked me if I liked to play baseball and go on hikes. “Yes,” I said, rather excitedly. He told me to ask my mother if we could go. At that time I thought of him as a big brother. One day he came to me and asked, “What do you think about you and your mother getting married to me?” I was taken by surprise. My response was something like, “Oh boy!” or “Hot dog!” Virgil said “you and your mother” because he saw me as part of the marriage. After Virgil and Mother got married in 1935, I asked him if I could call him ‘Dad’. He responded affirmatively, and I always called him ‘Dad’ from then on, but my sisters didn’t refer to him as ‘Dad’ until much later. Three years following I was blessed with a half-brother, Bob. From that point on, our home life was a happy life. Dad was involved with everything at church, serving as Deacon, Sunday School teacher, and Director of the Sunday School. We had people over every Sunday night after services. We were taught Christian values from the word ‘go’. When I was twelve years old, my Sunday School teacher, Isabelle Irvine, explained to me my need for a Savior. She led me to the Lord, I accepted Christ, and was baptized. At that time, in our church, women were allowed to teach boys only through the age of twelve. My Sunday School class had such a respect for our teacher that when it came time to move on to the next class, we refused. When the church leaders sensed Isabelle’s influence, they made an adjustment. She continued to be my Sunday School teacher until I went into the service. She taught us right from wrong according to the Scriptures. She 2


really loved us. I have a special place for her in my heart; I can still picture her in my mind. She was one of the most important individuals who changed my life by leading me to Christ. The eight boys of our Sunday School class followed in similar footsteps. My friend, Don Nuttall, and I entered the military service and were discharged at about the same time.

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4


Sir, Yes Sir, Where to Sir?

Entry and Re-entry I graduated from high school in January 1941, at age 17. It took me only three and a half years. I was too young to get a job in a factory, but General Electric Company hired me in the mailroom for $14.93 a week. When I finally turned 18, I was able to go get a job in the factory, wiring radar equipment for the Navy. In December 1941, war began to break out. All young men my age began to think about serving our county. I talked to my parents and told them I wanted to enlist in the Marine Corps. So I talked to the Marine Corps enlistment officer and submitted an application. I returned later to check out the progress and discovered that enlistment in the Marine Corps was not possible because I had been doing military work for the Navy. I was given a deferment for six months. My next enlistment process began in February or March of 1942. After the six months deferment had expired, I was drafted in the Army Air Corps. A few months later I received a military notice confirming my draft status. I did my pre-basic training at Camp Upton, in Long Island, New York. From there I was sent to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for basic training, where we lived in what was previously a hotel 5


converted to barracks. As with most basic training experiences, we were assigned disciplinary tasks such as scrubbing the wood floors with GI brushes. We turned that old hotel into a military barracks of sorts. After basic training, I was then transferred to Seymour Johnson Field at Goldsboro, North Carolina, to receive advanced basic training. After North Carolina, I was sent to Amarillo, Texas, and was assigned to aircraft mechanic school. I graduated with Sergeant stripes. My next transfer was to gunnery school at Kingman, Arizona. The training was primarily aircraft to aircraft, firing from an open rear cockpit AT-6. Our guns had painted, 50 caliber projectiles. Each gunner was assigned a different color of projectile. When we checked the target, we knew who had shot what by the colors. Some training was also done from a platform off the back of a moving pickup truck with a shotgun. We shot skeet, and as a result my buddies nicknamed me ‘Skeets’. We had to be proficient with various weapons, including a 45 automatic pistol and a Thompson submachine gun. After completion, I was sent to the Salt Lake City Airbase in Utah and our crew assembled there. I was the flight engineer, a top ranking enlisted crew member. We had four officers: pilot, copilot, bombardier, and navigator. We had a radio operator, two  waist gunners, a tail gunner, and a ball turret gunner, for a total of ten on a plane. Our B-17 Flying Fortress was equipped with thirteen 50 caliber machine guns. Our crew went through several months of training, flying cross country, acting as a crew, coordinating our efforts, and solving logistical challenges. These were the days before computers. My crew was transfered to Rattlesnake Airbase, Pyote, Texas. Only one member of the crew was married, copilot Harold Boegy, a wild man, but a proficient copilot. His first priority after arriving at the plane was getting oxygen. He’d been partying the night before. After training as a flight crew, we were sent to Kearney, Nebraska, for further assignment and were then assigned to the 15th Air Force. Then we went to Langley Field, Virginia, for overseas processing. 6


While at Langley, a buddy and I had the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. We tried to find a hotel. With no success we tried the USO which had no space available. They had men sleeping on the floors and there wasn’t any more room for anyone. So we got on a trolley just to kill time. It cost us ten or fifteen cents for a forty-five minute ride. When we got to the end of the line at Cabin John, Maryland, the conductor called, “End of the line, everyone out.” We told the conductor we had no place to sleep and we really didn’t want to get off. So the conductor allowed us sleep on the trolley going back and forth from Washington D.C. to Maryland. The conductor delivered us back to Washington at about 6:00 a.m. in time to visit all the sights. That evening we jumped on a train and traveled back to Langley. After a short period of time, we had our heads shaved and were given a five day furlough, but we didn’t want to go home because of our shaved heads. We were then sent by bus to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, for a short period of time. We were informed that our bombardier was replaced by First Lieutenant Bob Underhill, who had training in radar equipment use for bombing techniques. He was the commanding officer of ten crews to be shipped overseas as one unit and would remain our commanding officer for the remainder of our time. We were sent to an army base in Africa. Technically we were under the command of the base, but Bob Underhill saw to it that we operated independently and were not assimilated into the remainder of the troops at the base. For the first few days we marched over a hill. We had a spotter looking around to assure that no one saw us goofing off. When any base personnel came to check on us, we started doing calisthenics to give the impression that we were a purposeful unit. Baseball seemed to be a good pastime, so we organized a baseball team. Five members of our crew played ball. For about a week and a half we played with different teams. It was like a permanent party there, even though we had to stand guard duty to protect the base. At night, for protection, two personnel would walk back to back between guard posts. Tower guards would watch as well. Residing in an Arabic nation, American military men found 7


that military mattress covers were a valued commodity. Arabs would trade for them, cut a hole in the top, pull them over their heads, and use them as clothes. But the holiday lifestyle soon came to an end. We got our notice to ship out and we boarded a British ship ending up in Naples, Italy. We were put on trucks and taken to Angola Airbase. This was in the central part of Italy, about 35 miles from the east side of the Adriatic Sea. It was soon posted on the board to fly our first combat mission. Our crew had been together a year and through all the training we knew each other pretty well, almost like family. At least six months had passed between basic training and the time we were assigned our crews.

Our Crew

Practice Missions

Pilot Copilot Navigator Flight Engineer Radio Operator Bombardier Gunners Tail Gunner Alternative Gunner 8

Charles Duncan Harold Boegy Will Clark Warren Van Denplas Joe Lavine Bob Underhill Sam Winston Teddy Tomaski Charles Willow Jim Rodriguez


Our bombardier was not a combat mission member. He was transferred to another crew because of his experience with the radar training. We had several different bombardiers. Crews that had been shot up or disbanded regularly got reassigned. But our crew mostly stayed together. We didn’t fly our missions in one particular plane, but mostly in older planes like the one in which we flew our last mission. ‘Big Twidget’ was an O.D. (Olive Drab) multicolored aircraft. The newer silver planes were not assigned to an individual crew and had no names. Our plane didn’t have a marking or identification. We talked about what to name our plane. Most of the planes that had names painted on the side were the earlier planes of mid-42. Ours was a mid-44, silver colored, with different numbers. We were assigned to a plane by its number. Some of our missions were flown in the same plane, but generally we were not assigned to the same aircraft. The reason we were first sent to Africa was that there was a shortage of aircraft; there were more flight crews than planes available. Our crew flew a total of thirteen missions. I remember many of the targets, some were in northern Italy. The Americans were able to advance through central Italy, cutting off supplies to the Germans. We also bombed Germany and went right through Switzerland. Our bombing missions were every day or every other day. At 8:00 p.m. the bulletin board posted the next day’s flight crews to serve. I remember one night, there was no posting. No one was sure what to think about that. A side story, Jim Rodriguez (Spanish), our tail gunner, claimed that there wasn’t a lot of difference between Italian and Spanish. He bartered with Italians and got a substantial supply of Italian champagne. We used it to celebrate our successful missions. I didn’t drink very much of it, though. I felt the need to be sober and alert. At 11:00 p.m. that night all crews  were scheduled to fly the next morning at 5:00 a.m. to southern France. The specific location remained secret. At that time we didn’t have a plane assigned to us, and we were scheduled to depart for what we thought was Italy. We assumed we would fly there, but that wasn’t within the plan. 9


10


Our Missions

A Little Java, a Little Make-do On one of our missions, I noticed a sudden hydraulic line spurt. Evidently a piece of shrapnel had grazed the hydraulic line and put a very small hole in the side. To be specific, it was a brake line used to control the brakes for landing. Without brakes our plane would overrun the landing strip and crash. It became evident that a makeshift repair was necessary. How do you repair a 4,000 pound pressure brake line? I got a first aid kit and wrapped the hydraulic line with a tourniquet first, then taped it to try to stop the leak. I was aware that the tourniquet alone could not hold under the pressure. I knew that as soon as the brakes were applied they would fail, not having enough fluid to stop. We didn’t have any more hydraulic fluid, so I tried to think of a substitute. I filled the hydraulic tank with the remaining coffee we had. Then I told the pilot, “We just may have a problem landing. We may not be able to stop. We might just have one press on the brakes.” We couldn’t reverse the thrust, and the flaps and rudders worked manually on cables. We could only control the pitch and the propellers. So we landed the plane, the pilot applied the brakes, and they held pretty well. You could 11


see the tape and tourniquet were wet with fluid and coffee, but it held and we landed safely. I guess when you’re desperate for hydraulic fluid, coffee will work, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a permanent substitute.

Ploesti Oil Field During a raid on the Ploesti oil field, our plane was hit by flak, but we didn’t know how bad the damage was. These oil fields in Romania were some of most heavily guarded targets in Europe. On one mission bombing Ploesti, we lost 21 planes in our group. After landing back at the base, the crew chief directed us in. His gesture of holding his forehead as he directed us in was justified. When we got off the plane, we noticed the main wing spar that extends to the full length of the wing was two-thirds severed. By all rights that wing should have fallen off and we would not have survived. But the B-17 had a reputation of being a tough plane able to persevere all sorts of punishing situations.

A Thirteen Mile Miss with Extended Vision We flew fourteen missions but one didn’t count. The target was the Marshland Yards in Vienna, Austria. Our bombsight had an extended vision feature that allowed us to see the target from a long distance. When you got close to the initial point, you are supposed to move the sight to standard vision. The lead bombardier unfortunately left it on extended vision, so the report shows that we dropped our bombs thirteen miles short of the target. We received no credit for that mission. With pattern bombings you would drop your bombs at the same position as the lead plane. It was kind of disheartening at the debriefing. At a debriefing, the bombardier had to report on what he 12


thought the results were. The rest of us had to give information on the flak and the fighters we saw. The scariest part of the mission was when we got to the initial point, a certain speed and altitude had to be maintained. You couldn’t make evasive actions. Your view ahead was almost black with anti-aircraft fire. But you had to fly through that black cloud not knowing what was on the other side. That was scary. You don’t get used to it but you’d get to the point where you accepted it. When there were fighters around, you moved with it. You didn’t have time to be worried. But when you fly into flak, you just hang in there and hope you don’t get hit. These two incidences plus the mission when we were shot down were the scariest ones that I recall.

You Play, You Pay One amusing event happened when we decided to celebrate. Rodriguez, the ball turret gunner, bartered with the Italians for champagne. We were going to celebrate the success of all our missions. But at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., a message came from the speaker system informing us to check the schedule. Our next mission was to pre-bomb before the southern France invasion. Some of the men who were inebriated had to stand under the 55 gallon drum gravity shower to sober up before flight. Each individual plane was given a plot, or area to bomb. Every plane was bombing individually on that mission. We dropped our bombs, and because it was an unusual situation where everyone was separate instead of in formation, we used considerably more fuel than we anticipated. We were not prepared to fly. As we started back, I noted to the pilot that we didn’t have enough fuel to get back to base. He agreed and requested information from the navigator for the nearest emergency landing. We knew there were fighter bases on Corsica. We radioed in to make an emergency landing but the request was denied because the landing strip was too short. But the copilot said we had to land, we had no other option. We landed 13


successfully and stopped just short of the runway’s end. The base officials weren’t happy about our landing. The runway was only about 4,000 feet. We normally needed 6,000 feet to land and take off. But they allowed us to fuel up enough to get back to our base. When we got to the end of the runway to take off, the pilot and copilot set the brakes and revved the engines to top revolutions. It didn’t look too good as I was calling off the air speed. Just about to the end of the runway, the pilot pulled the yoke back. We made it! Having detoured to Corsica, the pilot asked the navigator for the ETA (estimated time of arrival) of our home base. The navigator replied, “ETA the home base? Hell, I don’t even know where we are!” Every turn that we made, the direction, compass heading, speed, and altitude were to be recorded and presented at the debriefing. But our pilot just flew straight to the Adriatic Sea, flew south, and landed at the base. When we went to the debriefing after that mission, the navigator claimed he just couldn’t read anything he’d written down. He’d been asked about it but couldn’t read it. We flew that mission with the navigator and copilot not totally up to par. And the tail gunner was kind of off the chart. We got back and it was fine. I didn’t drink much at all, but when you landed after every flight the doctor met you and gave you a shot of whiskey and you had to drink it, doctor’s orders. It was supposed to help with the tension and stress, help you get your nerves straightened out. The Red Cross was there with donuts and coffee, kind of a small welcoming committee after every mission.

Debriefings I have briefing reports from two different planes reporting our aircraft as it was shot down. They were flying at 25,000 feet, and we were flying at 19,000 feet. One report indicated us as being attacked by four (Focke Wulf) FW-190s German planes, but the 14


other report showed us to be attacked by eight (Messerschmitt) Me 109s. If both reports were accurate, we were attacked by twelve planes.

Aircraft I recall on one of the missions, way off to our port side, three or four planes of a type we had never seen before. We were told that the Germans were developing jet aircraft. These aircraft were presumed to be the first of their kind. They were flying about three miles off our wingtip, reporting our airspeed, and identifying our aircraft, probably gathering information for debriefing much like we were required to do. Only one time did we see this type of enemy aircraft. I think they were the first ME263s. They were known to have a very limited flight time. In that stage of their development, reaching their altitude, they had only seven or eight minutes of flight left before they had to return to refuel. Eventually these jet planes got into combat in the later stages of the war. Our B-24s were larger and carried a bigger payload. But they were the first target of enemy fighters. They were just easier to hit than the B-17. The B-17 was more streamlined and more difficult to destroy. I only experienced flying in a B-24 once in Virginia when we were in flight training. I felt more secure in a B-17 than in a B-24.

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Bombs Sometimes on our missions we carried 250 pound bombs and sometimes we carried as few as six 1,000 pound bombs. I don’t remember exactly how many 250 pound bombs our B-17 could carry. We always dropped all the bombs we carried on board. They were attached on both sides, and electronically released. They were not armed when we took off, but after we were in flight, it was normal procedure to first test the guns and then the bombardier would go back and arm the bombs by pulling their pins. From that point they were live. All bombs back then were contact bomb, exploding when they made contact. They were all released at the same time, all in one shot. I remember, however, on one mission, one of the bombs was hung up and did not release. The bombardier had to walk down a small catwalk about eighteen inches wide, into the wide open bomb bay, and manually release it. It was never safe to land an aircraft with live bombs on board. Once a bomb’s pin was pulled, it couldn’t be deactivated.

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Mission #13

Just Like Any Other Day It was a normal day just like any other day. We were scheduled to fly, but had no idea where we were going. We got up at about 4:30 a.m. and went to breakfast. After that we were briefed and told we were flying to Obertal, Germany, to bomb a synthetic oil refinery. It was a normal preflight situation. The target was in the southern part of Germany, a quite lengthy mission. We were assigned to a particular plane that morning, but it was not ready for flight, so we were given an older plane. While most of the planes then were just one color, unpainted silver, this one was painted with the older O.D. colors and was given a name, ‘Big Twidget’. It had been previously assigned to an air crew that had finished their 25 missions. There was the normal preflight activity. We tested our guns and checked all the instruments. As flight engineer, I was responsible for preflight. Without the approval of the flight engineer, the pilot could not take off. After preflight we took off and got to the altitude, formed our squadron, and went toward the target. I do not recall how far or how many hours it took, but before we got to the initial point we were attacked by fighters and had to fly through flak. I mentioned earlier the scary feeling of flying through flak and not being able to divert. We got through the flak and couldn’t see any major damage. 17


We dropped our bombs and began to exit the area. Then we took a hit by anti-aircraft fire. I can’t remember if we saw fire first or we experienced an engine failure. Normally, after unloading our arsenal, our squadron would regroup and head back to the base. But because we had been hit and lost an engine, the pilot was having problems keeping the speed and altitude. At that point, we got hit a couple more times and then there were flames coming from the wings. Our speed and altitude continued to decrease. We could not keep up with the formation. Our pilot determined that we would have to fly at a slower speed and a lower altitude and that we would be on our own. We made the decision to lighten the plane as much as we could because at that point we had lost the second engine, one on each side. The outboard engine on one side and the inboard engine on the other side were gone. We started to throw everything out to make the plane lighter. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to make it back, we intended to try a landing at Vis Island in the Adriatic Sea, an island emergency base. We threw most of the ammunition out and detached the ball turret knowing that every little bit might help. I had taken off my oxygen mask and passed through various parts of the plane, deciding what could be thrown out. Going back to the bomb bay I noticed flames coming up through the narrow opening of the bomb bay. I grabbed the fire extinguisher and tried to douse the flames, but it didn’t work. So I pulled the emergency cord. When the bomb bay flew open, I realized that the flames were coming from other parts of the wings. We were in pretty bad shape.

“Joe Took my Parachute” Passing back through the bomb bay, I went to the radio room. The radio operator was gone. I made my way into the waist only to find the ball turret gunner almost ready to bail out, and he waved at me. Since I was walking around without my oxygen 18


mask or intercom, I didn’t hear the pilot’s instructions to bail out. My waist gunner, Teddy Tomaski, was still there. He was a big husky guy, about six foot, one. He was trying to put on a seat pack parachute. I saw him struggling to clip on a leg strap that was about two or three inches too short, and I then noticed a big hole in the plane. He shouted, “Joe took my parachute!” I used about all the strength I had to help him get it buckled and told him he was going to have to bail out. I nudged him a little bit and got him to the door and put his hand on his rip cord. He was absolutely petrified. Then I noticed that the tail gunner was still in the back of the plane. I took the eighteen inch concave catwalk to the back of the plane. I observed that it was kind of wet. I tapped Chuck on the shoulder only to find out as he fell back that he was ripped open and dead. The wetness on the catwalk that I crawled through was his blood. I went through the waist and the bomb bay to the cockpit. No one was there. I took the two steps down into the nose where the navigator and bombardier generally were. No one was there either. Feeling oxygen deprived, I thought it was about time I got out. Later at a reunion, my ball turret gunner said my eyes were like saucers. But I had been going back and forth through the plane, and realized I had not yet put on my chute. I put it on and bailed out the waist door. I pulled the ripcord after awhile. The experience of parachuting was like being suspended in a quiet place. It wasn’t like I was falling at all. I think part of that sensation was due to the lack of oxygen. All of a sudden the sensation of floating changed when I saw the ground coming up very quickly. I saw people out in the field, and I can remember looking up to see if the parachute was there and as I looked up, I hit the ground. There were farmers with pitchforks, hoes, and shovels, yelling out at me in German. I didn’t know what they were saying. They motioned to me to get up, so I go up. I had a 45 caliber pistol in the shoulder harness that I always carried. It had one round in the chamber and seven in the clip. I didn’t know where I was. There were too many of them to think I could match them with my 45. One held a pitchfork at me so I gave up the gun. The pitchfork was inches 19


from me, pointed at my chest. They started beating me with the pistol. I bent over and felt something on my back; I was hit in the back.

The End of the War for You, Son About that time an older farmer came by. He spoke English and explained to me, “Son, for you the war is over.” Our flight crew was issued an escape package. It was not to be opened unless we used it. It supposedly had $500 cash, biscuits, and a candy bar. If we got shot down or captured, we could use it for bribing or escaping. Of course, I never opened mine because we had to sign for it and were obligated to return it when we got back. The Hungarian farmers took my escape package. They took my 45 too, but they did not take the shoulder holster. Within a couple of minutes a Jeep-like vehicle drove up. Two men got out. I almost laughed when I saw that they were dressed like Arabian knights with pantaloons. We had been shot down in Hungary. I wasn’t sure if they were police or military. They came and checked me over and had me bring my parachute before we got into their vehicle. When we arrived to what was like a house within a yard, they took me inside and asked me if I spoke German, Italian, or French. I told them I spoke a bit of French. I couldn’t say sentences but remembered words from high school. I was amazed how much French I understood when they spoke slowly. They wanted me to pack the parachute. I had never packed a parachute before, but I was hoping that one of their pilots would use it, because I was pretty sure it wouldn’t open. They fed me and took me to another room for a couple of hours. They later told me that I would board a train at six o’clock. At about 5:30 they came back. Communication was sparse but they were very clear. They had my attention. I was to go with the well-dressed officer with a gun in his holster. I was not to cause any trouble 20


because he would use his weapon. The officer talking to me tapped me on the shoulder and shook his finger in my face. I got the message, “Behave yourself!” He had a gun and I was going on the train. As I look back, the situation was somewhat humorous in an odd sense. I got into this little Jeep vehicle and was driven to the train station. We were there early and went to a small restaurant, and a waiter brought two glasses of beer. It was terrible stuff, but I drank as I was told. Soon the train came and it was time to go. Here came the train, full of American prisoners. There were two prisoners sitting in the front seat of the train car we boarded. Some guards were ordered to move these seated prisoners somewhere else. The officer and I took their seats. The journey took a couple of hours. I had my own private guard. Some of the prisoners in the first train car inquired about my identity. Having a private guard, they wondered if I was someone ‘really important’. I replied in a joking manner, “Well, of course, I am important!” Szombathely was our destination. We got off the train. He and I went in with all the other American prisoners. At that point German guards took over. It was like a jail. To my surprise, I soon met the other members of my flight crew. They were all captured except the one in the plane who died, and Teddy Tomaski, the waist gunner, who was afraid to bail out. They said the Germans found him with an unopened parachute. Later it was noted that his rip-cord was never pulled. He may have been so terrified that he failed to pull it. I hoped he had died of a heart attack instead of from the fall. We had a very light interrogation and were asked only a few questions such as, our name and our rank. Some of the guards acted like they were going to kill us all. In training, we had been instructed to behave in a more strict military fashion if we were ever captured. This is what the German military expected. Generally, our military protocol didn’t require the formal salute to superiors. We respected our superiors, but we weren’t required this formality. But in Szombathely, the German officers criticized our lack of respect for our own officers. Although the compliance was just a formality, we immediately adapted. 21


22


From Szombathely to Budapest

We got secondhand information that apparently came from the British on the German Offensive. Our whole crew went down when the plane was lost. I mentioned before that we were instructed to present ourselves as military as possible if we were ever shot down by the Germans, so when I met the pilot, copilot and navigator, I saluted, and called them ’Sir’. This was the protocol we were instructed to use. They put us on a train again and we went from Szombathely to Budapest. When we got off the rail system in Budapest, we had to march through what I thought was the main street of town, several hundred of us all together. Both sides were lined with Hungarians. Since we were Air Force, and they’d been recipients of our bombing, they tried to take revenge by spitting on us and throwing things at us. But the German guards protected us from the people. After being shot down, it was a frightening situation to have hostility directed toward us. When we got to what was the Budapest Federal Penitentiary, they put three of us from our crew plus a few other prisoners in one cell. We had a table and cots. We were fed comparatively well, hot lentil soup.

23


Bibel! Bibel! The next day we were lined up in this long hallway standing side by side. We were told by a German officer to take everything out of our pockets. Our jewelry we had to set aside; we could have nothing on our person at all but our clothes. The one thing I had in my pocket was my New Testament. It was given to me not too long after I went into the service and I had taken it on my missions. This sergeant, a German Feldwebel, started picking up everything in front us. He picked up my New Testament. I began to holler, “Bibel!, Bibel!” I assumed it was the correct word for ‘Bible’ in German. When the Feldwebel went down to pick up my New Testament, I leaned forward and reached out my hand. He smacked me on the side of my head with the butt of his gun. A Colonel came by and asked in perfect English what the problem was. I told him I wanted my Bible. He spoke to the Feldwebel in German. After a discussion, the Feldwebel, gave me back the Bible. There was a message on the first page from President Roosevelt. The message stated the importance of the Scriptures and its direction for life. I got my Bible back. The next day, the guard came to take us one at a time for interrogation. The Colonel who had ordered my Bible to be returned was sitting behind the desk. He told me to be seated. I recall thanking him for my Bible, but he made no comment on that at all. He said something about his name, and I gave my name, rank, and serial number. He asked me about my target, to which I told him that I was at liberty to give only my name, rank, and serial number. He opened a big orange and blue book and asked several questions about my group, squadron, and our mission. But I continued to reply, “I’m sorry, but I can only give my name, rank, and serial number.” I can’t remember the exact sequence in our conversation, but I commented on his 24


perfect English. He told me he grew up in the United States and graduated from Stanford University. He had gone back to Germany, and went into the military, but he told me nothing more about himself. He asked me about the number of anti-aircraft guns around our airbase. I said, “I do not know sir, but, if I did know, I can only give you my name, rank, and serial number.” He said, “You don’t have to tell me. I already have all this information.” He told me that I was from the 15th Air Force, second bomb group, 96th bomb squadron. He gave details of the training and airbase. The only incorrect information he had was the commanding officer’s name. The commanding officer had changed three or four weeks before. The Germans had tremendous intelligence of our operations. He was very congenial. I felt rather at ease with him. Later, I found out why they weren’t bringing prisoners back. I was put in solitary confinement. I was in for four or five days. When I was taken back to the cell, my radio operator, Joe Lavine, commented, “You got your Bible back.” He asked, “Can I see it? I’d like to read some of it.” I gave it to him and told him he was welcome to read it anytime. I didn’t have the opportunity, but to be honest, self-preservation was more important at that time than sharing the gospel. But Joe, being Jewish, had read the Old Testament several times. When the whole group was together, my copilot gave him his St. Christopher medal to wear. That way he wouldn’t be identified as Jewish. I was interrogated a couple more times, with mostly insignificant questions, questions about how many people in my family. I was willing to tell them that but anything about the military, the answer was always the same. At my first interrogation, I was shaking like a leaf. I did not know what to expect. Although he was a Nazi Colonel, he seemed to have empathy for us. He was not abusive, either verbally or physically, and after awhile, I was more relaxed. After we got out of solitary confinement, life was simple. We weren’t allow to go outside, we stayed in our rooms. Three of our crew, and the others in our group, were all shot down at the same time. In our confinement, we talked about how we came to be 25


prisoners, how we were shot down. We talked about things that were of interest to us, but were of no military significance to the Germans. Of course with my own crew I knew the details. But when I was taken to the first location in Szombathely, the rest of my crew there were surprised to see me, because they thought I had gone down with the plane. We talked about the way we were captured. Honestly, I had no information that was significant that we could have told the interrogator other than what targets we bombed, and they already knew that. We were there about sixteen days. Within the base where we were stationed, each crew stayed together. There were no members of other crews in our tent. We had comparatively little personal relationships with the other crews. So in discussing with the other fellows that were shot down the same day, we all experienced the same thing. Whether they got shot down by fighters, hit by flak, whether all the crew got out, it was similar and those things we could discuss. We never thought much about the detailed information of future missions. That information was never given to us, until that morning, or the bulletin board the night before. Sometimes when you found out where you were going you said to yourself, “Whew. That’s a milk run.” On other days, “Oh, my gosh!” Some places were more heavily defended than others. Southern France, on August 15, was a milk run. We did pattern bombs prior to the troops landing. There was no flak or fighters. But when you heard that dirty word ‘Ploesti’, we knew it referred to the Ploesti oil fields in Romania, the most heavily defended targets in Europe. The target for our final mission was a synthetic oil refinery at Obertal, Germany. This was at the southern end of Germany. We didn’t fly deep into Germany at that time because we flew from Foggia, Italy. But later after we were captured, we found out that our group and squadron had gone as far as Berlin. Our missions were never that far north. We shelled Austria, Hungary, Romania, France, and southern Germany. This was our main area of responsibility. The British Air Force bombed Germany itself. The Ploesti oil fields of Romania were the main source of oil for the German military. The airmen who flew out of the 8th Air Force would say they had the most dangerous missions. 26


At first, that was true, because they initiated the bombings in Germany. And daylight bombings were disastrous. They lost thousands of planes. On one mission alone, 63 out of over 200 planes were shot down. That was 630 men lost. These losses continued until they brought in the P-51 Mustang. These fighter planes had enough fuel capacity to fly longer distances and could escort bombers to their targets as far as Berlin. It wasn’t until the Germans were driven out of Africa and southern Italy that the 15th Air Force moved to Italy and began to bomb targets in Austria and Hungary. In the beginning, the 8th Air Force’s missions were much tougher and their targets were more guarded. After that, Germany lost Africa and we moved into Italy. Not much later, Rome was recovered. Some monasteries were bombed. They were heavily defended by the Germans because they were heavily fortified and were an appropriate place for them to set up their defenses. Before we got there the Air Force changed their tactics. Instead of bombing that area, we bombed the supply lines to block provisions from getting to the heavily defended areas, disabling the enemy. One of the things that I can truthfully say is that I personally was never on a bombing mission where we intentionally bombed cities or civilian areas. Our targets were refineries, ball bearing plants, or marshalling yards. One focused area in Germany was a provider of rocket fuel. Our targets were all military targets. I was surprised to hear that Berlin itself was being bombed substantially. That was not the practice of the Army Air Corps at the time of our bombing missions. At that point of the war they tried to convince the German people that they were involved in an awful war that called for severe consequences.

55 Calibers vs 27 Millimeters The British bombed at night. Their recipients were predominantly cities. But later, our forces followed their 27


strategy. The main target was to destroy the German military. The German Air Force was nearly decimated at the end of the war. The majority of their destruction came from our aircraft. According to some sources, the B-17s did most of that. We had thirteen 50 caliber machine guns on our B-17s. Fighter pilots might disagree, but the majority of the German Air Force was blown out of the air whether by bombers or fighters. Near the end, the German Messerschmitt 109s had a 20 mm gun and later a 37 mm canon. All we had at that time were thirteen 50 caliber machine guns that didn’t have nearly the range as the ME-109’s weapons. It was at that time that the fighters were primarily engaged. The P-51 could fly for seven  hours. Our B-17 could fly for ten hours. We flew at 150 mph while bombing. The P-51’s top speed was about 400 mph. At level flight the P-51 was our fastest. Near the war’s end, P-51’s engines were changed from a Curtis Wright to a Rolls-Royce Merlin supercharged. Until then, the German Me 109 had an advantage in higher elevations. I don’t question the P-51 was the fastest, but I liked to be escorted by P-38s because they were able to escort us on the tail. In training, we had to identify both our own fighters and German fighters in a tenth of a second. P-38s were twin tail and more easily recognized. It was difficult to distinguish the differences of a P-51 to Me 109 from certain angles. From the side view, you could more easily identify a P-51 by it’s big air scoop underneath. But from the front, the distinction was more difficult. It was an easy mistake to incorrectly identify one of our own fighters and fire on them. But with the Lightening P-38s the ‘lightening’ tails were completely different and easier to identify. My sojourn in Budapest came to an end. They took us to the rail yards and herded us in 40 and 8 boxcars (40 hommes et 8 chevaux), forty men or eight horses. It was a steam powered locomotive train. A lot of prisoners were loaded. You had a hard time finding a place to lay down. It was a long trip, I can’t recall how many days. I acquired an appreciation for German sausage because that’s about all we had, sausage and bread. The train stopped every once in awhile, out in the middle of nowhere. We were allowed to relieve ourselves. I have no idea how many boxcars 28


were on the train, I recall there were quite a few. I suppose there were about forty prisoners to a boxcar. We sincerely discussed the possibilities of escaping when we got off the train. It wouldn’t have been difficult to overpower those guards. But where would we go? We didn’t even know where we were or where we were headed. All we knew was that we were heading North. In some areas, not far from the railroad tracks, women and children were digging trenches. We were either in Czechoslovakia or Poland. We assumed they were trying to defend against the Russians. But our thoughts of escape never materialized. We ended up in Stettin Prison Camp Stalag 4, Gross Tychow. After several days of not knowing exactly where we were, we remembered observing a marker in the railroad station ‘Stettin’. After unloading, we immediately encountered a host of German guards with police dogs on a leash; they had bayonets already in place on their rifles. It was a long walk from the railroad station to the prison camp. If a prisoner would falter on the way, a guard would prick him on the back with the bayonet. We counted 57 pricks on one soldier’s back. If anyone fell behind, angry dogs were waiting to attack.

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30


A Blanket, Long Underwear, a Bowl, and a Spoon

A train ran prisoners from the train station to the to the prison camp. This prison camp was surrounded by the big I-fences, and a big gate greeted us as we walked in. They marched us to a central area and split us up. They didn’t call us by name. They just took so many men and moved them into the barracks. Fortunately the one barracks I was put in was the same barracks as my ball turret gunner. We walked in to find some picnic-like tables set up at one end. The other end of the barracks had straw mattresses on the floor. This was our bedding. My ball turret gunner had been corresponding with my sister. She wanted to write to some servicemen, so I had her write to him. We were writing cards soon after we were imprisoned. I was writing to my folks, he was writing to my sister. We were allowed to write two letters and four postcards a month. The only correspondence my parents got was the first card that my ball turret gunner, Walter Crowder, had written to my sister the first day; they never got any mail from me. Walter told them not to worry about me, because I was sitting right beside him. My mother immediately began to question why they would receive a card from him but not from me. She began to suspect that I had lost my arms or my vision. Whether the Germans destroyed my letters and cards is not known. 31


We slept on straw ticks on the floor. Later, my ball turret gunner and I were separated, but still in the same barracks. There was a line separating the barracks. Even though we were in the same barracks, we were separated for all intents and purposes. I would say thirty to forty prisoners were on each side. Our early morning routine started with a call out for reveille. They lined us up in formation in front of each barracks, two lines, one in front of the other. The German guard would count us off to make sure everyone of us was there. After reveille, we were allowed to walk for fifteen to twenty minutes. To the best of my knowledge, there were about a dozen barracks to each compound, and four compounds. At one end of each field there were German headquarters, and at the other end were the guard towers with machine guns and a double fence. Between the headquarters and the guard towers was a large field, almost the size of a football field. There were six barracks on either side of this field. At one end of our side of the barracks there was a washhouse and shower. We were allowed to shower once a week. We had one potbelly stove, this was our only heat source. We were issued one blanket and one pair of long underwear for each prisoner. One of the things that we did for entertainment, if one could call it entertainment, was after taking off our long underwear we would pick the lice out of the seams. Lice were a constant irritation. Each prisoner was given a bowl and a spoon. We were issued one bowl full of broth and about one fifth of a loaf of black bread. This was our daily subsistence. Occasionally, we’d get a piece of fat in our broth, I use the term ‘fat’ as a general term. Bugs and worm-like maggots in the soup, literally, were the only source of protein we got. It seemed rather gross in the beginning, but after awhile we thought it was pretty good stuff. It was our basic livelihood. I weighed 175 pounds when I was first captured. Three or four weeks after I was liberated, my weight was 123 pounds. I had lost at least 50 pounds. Our daily routine started with a walk out in formation. We’d come in and they would let us do whatever we wanted for a short 32


period of time. Our watches were taken from us, so we had no idea of time. They took everything from us. For some time, we wore only the same clothes we wore when we were captured. Our clothes never got washed. This was in August, and not yet winter. We had been issued our long underwear, and later a coat and cap, but no gloves. Around noontime, they would bring us our broth. We would eat, sit around the tables, and play cards. My first bridge game was played in prison camp. We called it ‘Kriegsgefangene A’lager’ Bridge. We were called Kriegsgefangene, German for prisoner of war, and Lager was German for prison camp. In the afternoon, we were called outside and allowed to exercise. It was a very regimented existence and we knew what to expect. We had three roll calls a day, morning, midafternoon, and at night a lockdown in the barracks to assure that all prisoners were present. We were allowed lights after dark.

Sergeant Shultz, “Yah! Yah! Yah!” A peculiar similarity of most prison barracks, having talked to other fellows who were in prison camps, was that every barracks had a ‘Sergeant Shultz’ German guard. Stalag 13’s Hogan’s Heroes show may have been a takeoff of a POW’s experience with a Sergeant Shultz. We had a few men in our barracks that spoke a fair amount of German. They tested this ‘Sergeant Shultz’ to see if this jovial, round bellied man, with a round face could really understand English. He didn’t understand a single word, because the men who spoke German would say a little English and Shultz didn’t respond. He would come in and say, “Raus mit uns,” to get us out to roll call. Someone would come up to him and talk to him in German. At the end they would tag on, “You no good SOB.” He would laugh and say, “Yah, yah!” Anything you said to him would get a “Yah, yah!” reply with a chuckle. He was never mean or nasty to us. I think he was probably a German guard, but not necessarily a Nazi, just a guard 33


doing his job. In our compound we had British prisoners. Now we were told, I don’t know if it is true, that this British sergeant that was supposedly in charge of our compound was actually a British major who was dropped intentionally into a prison camp to take over the 2,500 men in each compound. In the month of October, we got a couple of footballs and softballs. We were given permission to choose up football teams and play in the center field. We played tackle football. No one seemed to get hurt. We took it easy. Only seven people were allowed to a team and they had to keep moving. The guards didn’t want more than seven men huddled together at once. We were permitted to have a championship football game. Groups of seven could now stand around, they didn’t have to walk side by side to watch this football game. What made this occasion humorous was that we played the championship on November 11th, which was Armistice Day, the day Germany surrendered in World War I. The prison officials granted this football game as a symbolic gesture on behalf of that day.

Cigarettes for Peanut Butter Sometime later, we started receiving Red Cross parcels. We’d get one parcel for two prisoners, so we shared with a buddy. It contained powdered milk, chocolate, and round crackers. We put water in the bowl with the crackers to make them expand. Then, we’d take the crackers out of the water and let them dry. It was still a cracker, but now, it was bigger. At least it looked bigger. We’d also take our powdered milk, scrape off the chocolate from the chocolate bar, mix it with water and some other ingredients, and then put it in the ash pit of the potbelly stove and make a cake. I can remember thinking when I got out of there, I was going to get some of that powdered milk and chocolate and make the biggest cake. 34


Other items sometimes included in the Red Cross parcel were a package of cigarettes, a little can of jelly, or occasionally, peanut butter. Peanut butter was considered a delicacy. You could trade it for anything, a chocolate bar, or even cigarettes. A Red Cross parcel was a gift from heaven.

Black Bread - What’s In It? The broth and the black bread, on the other hand, were not a gift from heaven. It was barely enough to sustain us. After the war the contents of the bread were checked. It was found to be 55 percent sawdust. This is what we ate, it was filling. As far as taste was concerned, there may have been a taste to it, but it wasn’t a taste that I remember. It was food, so it was great. But when we got the Red Cross parcels, that was memorable. The barracks were built up on stilts about three feet high. So this notion that prisoners could dig tunnels and link barracks or escape couldn’t be done. The barracks were up in the air. At night the guards would turn the dogs loose. We could hear them running around. We were told we were not to attempt to escape. There were stories of retribution, that for one man escaping, ten prisoners would be shot. And, it was believed that the war would probably be over by Christmas. At about that time, the Germans started their advance (the Battle of the Bulge) towards the American lines. The word came back that the Americans had been pushed to the seas. The notion of the war ending by Christmas went by the wayside. Sergeant Shultz, bless his heart, came in one time with a picture. It showed just rubble and in the middle of the picture was the Empire State Building. He told the prisoner who could understand German that the Germans had bombed New York City. But the Empire State Building in the picture was still there. It was propaganda, promoting the fact that they were bombing the United States. Obviously, if New York City had been bombed, the Empire State Building would not still be standing. This propaganda attempt 35


continued through the last half of December and into January. After that, we didn’t hear too much about it.

Christmas Day - 1944 On Christmas Day in 1944, we were granted a special privilege. This was the second time we were allowed to be in groups of more than seven prisoners. The first time was at the football game. After dark we were called out into formation. This was unusual because after lockdown they never called us back out. We stood in formation and they gave each prisoner a small candle. A guard lit the prisoner’s candle at the end of the row and in turn that prisoner lit the candle of the person next to him. There were about 2,500 of us men with candles. We could now walk around the compound freely, sing, and celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. It was a very unique experience, an exciting time. For those of us who were Christians, we could celebrate Christ’s birthday. For about 45 minutes they allowed us to sing and talk to people we hadn’t talked to before from different barracks. This experience was so unusual and uplifting. I felt a closeness to others, to Christ, and to God. From the Nazi point of view, it was Saint Nicholas Day, just a secular holiday celebrated with fireworks, much like Americans celebrate Independence Day. Someone would start a Christmas carol in a small group and other would join. Even those who weren’t Christians sang Christmas songs and carols. “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” Yes. “Oh, Tenenbaum,” No! Then we were ordered from over the loud speaker system to fall back into formation in front of each of our barracks. We were counted off again to make sure everyone was present. We were put back in the barracks and locked in for the night. Of all the good and bad prison experiences, this Christmas celebration seemed to give me a feeling that everything was 36


going to turn out all right. Little did we know that in less than two months we would begin the march. Somewhere in our compound or in another compound it was believed that some prisoners had a kind of radio facility where they were receiving news, possibly from the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). This was our only source of outside information. After awhile the reports dwindled and we did not hear much more of the German offensive. Then we heard that the Americans were back on the offensive and then the Russians were on the offensive making progress toward Germany. This was the extent of information or rumors we received. On the morning of the fourth of February, in came three or four guards. One of them spoke broken English. They told us to get our things together, we were moving out. The only thing we had to get together was our blanket, bowl, and spoon. Someone said not to bother with that. So we took our one blanket. Some men had remnants of their Red Cross parcels. They stuffed it in their pockets, caps, and coats. I was told there were 350 of us in that one group. They marched us out for 83 days.

37


38


March to Liberation

We were forced to marched out from our prison camp on the fourth of February. To the best of my knowledge, the next group that marched did so on the sixth of February. The reason for moving us out was because the Russians were advancing. The Nazis knew that standing in the way of the Russians was a death sentence. Every group was moved in different directions, primarily to the east and south. I took my bowl and my spoon and put it in my pocket. We had overcoats issued earlier before winter set in, but we just had our regular boots that were issued to us in the service. We had no other winter clothing other than a coat and stocking cap. I was asked once whether I had gloves. I had to stop and think. I remember walking down the road with my hands in my pockets. I guess not. At midmorning they moved us out in a group of about 350 with several guards. They didn’t move an entire barracks. My ball turret gunner in my barracks was moved up to the Baltic Sea and put on a boat and taken someplace west to another prison camp. He was not on the same march as I was. We were the first group to march out. They opened the gates; they had the armed guards and a German major that was in charge of our group and ‘Big Stupp’, the German Sergeant, Feldwebel. He was second in charge and mean as a snake. He was a good six foot four with round shoulders. I didn’t know his name. We just called him ‘Big 39


Stupp’. These two officers were the only ones we knew who were of the German hierarchy. They opened the gates, we walked out. In a sense it was kind of a relief. It was the first time we were allowed out since we first entered. But of course we had no idea where we were going, how long we were going to march, or what it would entail. Were they just moving us to another compound? They marched us a full day and gave us raw potatoes. One time they allowed us to stop along the road at a well, across the road from a farm, to get a drink of water. We got our drink of water under guard, three or four prisoners at a time. That first night, we came to a farmyard. We were given word that we were to bed down for night. It was early, maybe five o’clock. We were warned that anyone who attempted to escape would be shot. This was the end of the first day of our march. We began to realize that this was not going to be a picnic. We got together in groups of three, put one blanket on the ground, two blankets over us, and got as close together as possible in our coats and boots. We never took our boots off. I was once asked if I left my boots on for fear I wouldn’t get them back on. The simple truth was it was just too cold and I never thought of taking them off. The next morning they got us up, lined us in formation, and did a general counting to make sure everyone was there. There was no reason not to be there. We didn’t know where we were. Where would you go? We marched the second day just like the first. They gave us a raw potato or a kohlrabi to eat. We were never given cooked food on the march, just raw and cold. Like the first day, we were allowed a drink of water in small groups of three or four at a time under guard.

Just Like the Day Before We marched on back roads. We were never on a main road that I recall. The most major road we marched on passed a German Air 40


Force base. We saw 50 to 100 jet planes lined up in the field. We were informed later, after we were liberated, that these planes were to be jet fighters, but were never operative because the Germans did not have the materials to make the engines. Trying to give a daily account of events is not possible. Every day was much the same as before. There were nights we would go to sleep in barns. There were no livestock in them. At least we were inside. It wasn’t the coldest part of winter, but it was still February. It felt better sleeping in a barn than outside on the ground. The longer we marched, the more difficult it was to continue. If someone dropped to the ground, no one was allowed to pick that person up. You could help them along if they were standing. But if someone fell, they were pulled off to the side. A few moments later you would hear gun shots. If a prisoner dropped out of formation, he was executed. This didn’t happen daily, but the longer we marched, the more prevalent it became. Prisoners became weaker. All of us had dysentery and diarrhea. Remember, we went 83 days without taking our clothes off, without a bath or shower. So after 83 days, we smelled pretty ripe. After a period of weeks, we walked down a road with a gully along the left side. We observed dead horses, the remaining evidence of efforts that the Nazis used these animals to move field artillery equipment. Their fuel supplies for tanks were so limited, they had to revert to horses. Later, we saw vehicles that were abandoned either from lack of fuel or they broke down. The farther we walked, the more tired we got, the weaker we got, the more stalled German vehicles, wagons, and dead horses we saw abandoned alongside the road. I and most of the other prisoners got an indication that the Germans were in real trouble. For us, there seemed to be a hope for light at the end of the tunnel. But we had no idea how long we were going to be on the road, where we were going, or what the result would be. All we could see was the result of the combat that had taken place where the German military machines had been vanquished. From the position of the sun in the sky, we knew when we had the sun to our backs in the morning, we were headed west. But later, we had the sun to our left in the morning, which meant 41


we were headed south. We were later informed after liberation that the reason we initially headed west was because the Russians were moving in from the east. When we later headed south, it was to avoid our American forces who were advancing from the west. We never marched in a straight direction, and we always took deserted back roads. Never within the entire march did we see a moving vehicle until the day we were liberated. The only time we saw other people was when we bedded down for night. People would come out on their porches to observe.

The Difference Between Germans and Nazis One evening we were bedded down, it was still light, and this elderly woman came out on her back porch and called out something in German. She was calling to see if any of us spoke German. A couple of men went up to the porch and in their limited German, they conversed with the woman. I remember seeing tears streaming down her face. After the men returned, we were all inquisitive and wanted to know what they talked about. The woman wanted to know what a PX (a post exchange or small military store) was. She wanted to know because her son was a prisoner of war in Nebraska. Americans paid him a dollar a day and they allowed him to go and purchase things he wanted regularly at the PX. It caused her grief to see the comparison of how her son was treated as opposed to how her country was treating their prisoners, not giving them much to eat or making them sleep out in the fields in the winter. To my knowledge, this was our only encounter with German civilians. I can still picture this elderly lady on her back porch with tears coming from her eyes. The compassion she showed caused me to clearly distinguish between German Nazis and German civilians. This woman was in the same position as many other citizens of Germany. She showed compassion and most likely didn’t approve of the war or the Nazi regime and didn’t like their 42


activities. But she didn’t dare express her dismay. Sergeant Shultz, the guard back in prison camp, was another example of a pleasant compassionate human being. I can still hear him to this day, “Yah! Yah! Yah!” The German people were subservient to the Nazis. They had no choice. Any underground activity to support American or Allied Forces was punishable by immediate execution.

Death March Chicken-To-Go One incident similar to the television series “Hogan’s Heros” came about one day when a couple of fellows caught a chicken in a farmyard. They had a little coffee can-like container which they filled with water. We all stood around close to each other to keep the guards from seeing what we were doing. We had no knives to cut it apart, so we just tore it in small pieces. We had the water boiling on this little fire we started. We put this chicken in it. After four of five minutes we heard the guards hollering, “Feuer! Feuer! Feuer!” We put the fire out quickly, each of us grabbing a little piece of the chicken. It wasn’t even cooked, just lukewarm. But it tasted good. I think I got a wing. I’m not sure what it was. We just tore it apart. Other things we ate included grubs, crickets, and other insects. After we were liberated, we were told the reason for our movements. In some cases, the Russians overran the German prison camps and held Americans servicemen captive for several weeks. The prison camp where we were held was in Northern Germany. Estimating the distance of our march, we walked about ten miles a day for eighty-three days. We didn’t take straight roads. It was all back roads. At the end of our march we stayed two days at the same place. We estimated marching between seven to eight hundred miles. In a VFW magazine, the cover story headline read, “German Death March.” That’s exactly what it was. As prisoners walked 43


along, they got weaker and weaker. They dropped out and you couldn’t help them. A few moments later, you would hear a gun shot. They were put to death alongside the road. In a book, “My Name is Fred”, another POW from a different camp tells about the shudder he felt when he heard the shot. You anticipated hearing a rifle shot after seeing someone stumble. We later learned after we were liberated that Hitler had issued orders to his top generals, that all POWs were to be put to death. But his top generals refused to follow these orders. Hitler’s reasons for these orders was that prison guards could be of better use in combat. Each day of the march was pretty much the same, get up in the morning and walk all day, sleep in a barnyard or a barn at night. At the end of the 81st day we were put up in a roundhouse instead of a field. The next morning we got up and it seemed like a perfectly normal day. But we didn’t march that day. We just stayed at the roundhouse. Late in the morning we were ordered to get out of the roundhouse. We understood that there was an air raid in process. Planes flew over and we ran out in the fields. We buried ourselves in the sand if we could, but the planes flew over and bombed something else several miles beyond. When that was over, they took us back into the roundhouse. We stayed there all that day knowing something was going on. We had never done that before. We had always marched every single day. The next morning they got us up and all the guards had changed. The regular military were replaced by a bunch of old men, which we learned later was the home guard. The major and Big Stupp who was the Feltwebel, the First Sergeant, were still there, but all the guards were now old men. Sometime at midmorning they marched us out on a paved road. This was the first time we marched on something other than a dirt road. We had never marched through a city, a town, or a village. We had passed farm houses, but this was a paved road. We walked for about an hour to a big bend in the road and a half mile farther we could see open pastures. We could see a military caravan coming down the road. As we came closer, we could see it was an American military caravan, the 3rd Armor Division. We broke ranks and ran toward them. Evidently the Germans and Americans had 44


made some kind of arrangement for us to be liberated that day. They put us in their trucks where we hugged everybody. It was quite a day! Ten miles or so down the road we approached Bitterfield, Germany. When we got off the truck, we were first deloused. We had lice in the prison camp and had gone 83 days without a shower or clean clothes. We were taken into a large three story brick German school building. There were beds in the hall and we were told to pick one. We could lay our overcoats and knit caps on the bed, but nothing else. Later, even our coats and caps were removed.

Take a Shower, Please! We were to take a shower! The school was large enough to provide us all with a ten minute shower. After we showered, we were given a big towel. As we stood waiting for the next event, six or eight men observed and evaluated our sizes. We received clean underwear, clean socks, and coveralls based on our evaluated size. Americans had set up a more permanent army base at Bitterfield in the large school building. The base was equipped with supplies and ready to take care of us. These arrangements were already planned, probably before we entered the roundhouse. After the shower and the clean clothes, they took us to the mess hall for a bowl of soup and crackers. They were very careful about the food we were given because we hadn’t had anything decent to eat in prison camp or on the march. Then they turned us loose to do whatever we wanted. The mess sergeant said that if there was anything we wanted, he would get it for us. Like a choir, we all raised our voices in unison, “Peanut butter!” He went out to get us a #10 can, about a gallon, of peanut butter and some biscuits, and we had a party. Later that evening, three of us were talking to the Military Policemen. They invited us to make their rounds with them that 45


evening. We hopped in their Jeep, the three of us in the back and the two MPs in the front. They drove around checking things out. They said, “If there is anything you guys want, we’ll see if we can get it for you.” One of us said, “We’d like some white bread.” We hadn’t had a sandwich or anything else yet, just soup and crackers. The bread we had before was the black sawdust bread. They replied, “Bread? We’ll get you some bread.” They stopped at a bakery, which was closed. One MP went to the door. The shades were closed. The proprietor indicated that they were closed. The MP pulled out his 45 caliber and the proprietor opened the door. We got two loaves of French white bread. “Hey, you guys want any cameras or anything like that?” we were asked. We asked ourselves why we would need a camera. “In some of these houses we could find a camera,” they replied. We responded stating that we didn’t feel we had the right to go into people’s homes and take anything we wanted. We learned the Military Permanent Party did just that and took about whatever they wanted, holding no punches. They were the established permanent military occupants of the territory. When we returned, all the beds were made. We were ready for a good night’s rest. For the next couple of days we were at liberty to walk around and do whatever we wanted. We were on the west side of the Elbe River, the Germans were on the other side. We were told that the Americans had made an agreement with the Russians not to cross the river so as not to be in contact with the Germans. The war was assumed to be nearly over and the Russians would occupy the territory across the river. We stayed at Bitterfield for about three days. After that we were taken to a German military base at Halle. This base had been completely taken over by the Americans quite some time before. Again, we were free to go wherever we wanted. Some of us went into this apartment building and we got nice dishes, some glassware, some silverware, and a table cloth. We took it back to our barracks and set a table, nice dishes and all. Si Gullickson, from Fertile, Minnesota, got a camera and took a photo of this table. He was going to send us all a copy when we got home. I remember setting up the photo of the fancy table. But we never got the photo. Apparently, the camera didn’t come 46


with film in it. On another day, we went to a warehouse. We found ‘Kaffee Hag’, German coffee. The second floor was all full of clothing, German uniforms, many of them had names on them. We assumed that these were uniforms previously worn by German soldiers who were now deceased. Their clothing had been cleaned and put back in the warehouse. I took a hat and a coat with a name on it. I did not wear these clothes in Germany. No need for mistaken identity. I put it in my barracks bag and took it home. Later, we were transported by truck to an airport where we boarded DC-3s and flew to Lucky Strike Camp in Lahar, France. I thought I would never fly again without a parachute, but I did. At Lucky Strike Camp, we were given a physical, a strict diet, and new uniforms. We were given orders that we were to embark in a day or two and head back to the United States. Our sojourn at Lucky Strike Camp was over. We boarded a transport ship and started back home. It took us about five days to get home. On the second day out, we were lying on the deck watching the radar go round and round. All of a sudden it stopped. We all got excited assuming the worst possible scenario of the radar spotting a submarine. We were relieved to find out that it was just a whale! We finally landed in Hampton Roads at Camp Patrick Henry. We got off the ship and marched directly to the mess hall. We were given a meal served by German prisoners of war. At the end of the meal, we were served a small package of ice cream wrapped in paper. When we got to the end, I was given one of these packages. I reached out to take another. The German POW grabbed my hand to prevent me from having another. I nearly came over the table at him feeling he had no right to deny my request. A military police quickly came to break up the skirmish and sent the POW away. I was then allowed to take as much ice cream as I wanted. That evening, all of us former American POWs had a conference with the colonel in charge. One of the guys voiced his opposition about how much different we had been treated compared to how the Americans treated German POWs. They were served the same food as US military. They didn’t have to do 47


any work or suffer the kind of treatment we did. The end result of this conference was that a decision was made to take away the food trays that the German POWs ate from and replace them with #10 tin cans similar to the ones used by American POWs. They still were given the same food as determined by the Geneva Convention, but all the food got dumped into the #10 can. They got their meat, potatoes, vegetables, and desert all in one can. It kind of tickled us that someone came up with that idea to cater to our point of view. It was a symbolic gesture, but the German POWs were still getting the same food as US military.

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Coming Home

From Camp Patrick Henry we went to Fort Dix, New Jersey. I got a 45 day convalescent leave pass. There were several of us that took the local subway into New York. Then we went our separate ways. I took the train home to Schenectady. My folks knew I was stateside because I called to let them know. But they didn’t know when I was coming home. When I was in high school, I had a dog given to me by my cousin. He was a purebred Springer Spaniel named Nicky. When I’d get home from school, I’d get to the street corner and I’d whistle. Nicky would come running. I’d been gone for almost three years. I got off the train in Schenectady, took the bus to that corner, and for some reason I whistled for Nicky. Believe it or not, he came running for more than a block. The first member of the family to greet me was my dog. We both went to the house and rang the front doorbell. My mother came to the door and she almost went hysterical when she saw me. Dad was at work, but when he came home, I found out that they had rented a cabin on Jenny Lake. They felt I needed some rest and relaxation. While my younger sister, my mother, and I stayed at the lake, my father drove from there to work every day, a distance of about 65 miles. There wasn’t much to do there. We had access to a boat, so I’d take the boat out and drown worms, not catching anything worth keeping. One day when I was out in the boat I noticed my 49


mother and sister calling and waving for me to come in. I started rowing, not knowing if something was wrong or if there had been an accident. When I came closer, I heard them hollering, “The war is over! The war is over!” The Japanese had surrendered that day. I told them I had to get into town for the celebration. I knew there would be celebrations going on. When Dad came back to the cabin, as he did every night, I went with him the next morning to a big celebration downtown. I got an additional fifteen day leave and then reported back to Fort Dix. I was there for two days. On September 15, 1945, I was called into an office where they told me I was being honorably discharged. They also asked me if I wanted to sign up for the Reserves. My response was, “I don’t want to sign up for anything. I just want to get out of here.” I wanted no part of the service anymore, I wanted out. They said that I’d get a promotion. I replied, “Don’t talk to me about it.” I got my honorable discharge, I called my folks, and told them I was coming home.

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A New Start

I wanted to go to college, but most colleges were jammed with GIs at that time. It was difficult finding a college with room for a discharged GI. I lived in the state of New York at that time, and the state opened up emergency colleges. They took over barracks and started a college bringing in top professors from all over the state as instructors. I attended Lake Champlain College for two years. Since it was a two year college, I then applied to several colleges and decided to attend Denver University. Denver University accepted all my credits, which was the main reason I decided to go there. Five of us from our Sunday School class back in New York, when I was a teenager, decided on Denver University. We went out there together, five former servicemen, and rented an apartment in this big brick house at 530 Washington Avenue. We had an apartment with two bedrooms and a living room in the middle with kitchen privileges. We were there for several months before we learned that our landlady was the in-law of Pat’s oldest sister. Pat would later become my wife. These two ladies, Roxina and Pat, came by. The older sister, Roxina, was the daughter in-law of our apartment owner.

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Pat - The Love of My Life I was attracted to Pat the day I met her. However, one of my roommates was also attracted to her. But I asked her out and we went bowling on our first date. We both had a high game of 193, but I think she out-did me a bit. Later on she bowled in a league and had about 173 average. Pat was living with Roxina at the time. Not being able to afford a car then, we took a trolley back to Roxina’s place where I met Pat’s daughter, Margy. Pat and I enjoyed bowling and sometimes attended movies on our dates. We would take the trolley to her sister’s place, and I’d walk two and a half miles back home because I couldn’t afford the trolley both ways. She was worth the two an a half mile walk. I had an old Model A Ford back in New York. So, I called Dad and Mother and told them to sell the Ford and send me the money. With that money, I bought a secondhand 41 Hudson convertible, a worthy car for dating a worthy young lady. We enjoyed each other’s company. God’s leadership was present in my life. In 1947, I met Pat, the love of my life. On June 2, 1949, Pat and I were married.

Margy - High-Heeled Shoes Margy was born in 1939. She was the third party on my dates with Pat and we became quite close. In fact, I talked to Margy about marrying her mother before I asked Pat herself, because this was how my stepfather talked to me. She was very happy about it. She was ten years old when I married her mother. From the day we got married, Pat made it very clear that I was the head of the household. Margy would ask her mother 52


for something, but Pat would say, “Go ask your father.” One day as I entered the house after coming home from work, I noticed that Margy was not helping her mother with dinner. “Where’s Margy?” I asked. Pat pointed towards the cellar door and whispered, “She’s with a friend.” Being warned in advance, I played with it, and when dinner was ready I called, “Come on.” When Margy and her friend came out of the cellar, I noticed they had both tinted their hair. Margy expected me to say something about it, but I didn’t. Later, she asked if she could go over to her friend’s house, and I replied, “Not until you take that stuff out of your hair.” They both washed it out. She probably thought it was the first time I noticed her. I had a young fellow working for me, a senior in high school. Margy and his younger brother seemed to be developing a good boyfriend-girlfriend relationship. She said Bud, my employee, and his younger brother wanted her to go out with them to a movie. I never gave her a time to be home, but asked her when she would be back. She said she’d be home by midnight. When she came home after midnight, she asked, “Oh, am I late?” I told her not to ask again. Once Margy wanted a pair of high-heeled shoes, I responded, “You’re too young for heels.” But Pat explained, “All the girls her age are wearing heels. I’m sorry it’s two against one. She’s not asking for really high-heeled shoes.” It was the only time we had a difference of opinion. Margy got the shoes. Oh, by the way, did I mention that from the day we got married Pat made it very clear that I was the head of the household?

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It’s almost impossible to remember Van without recalling his wife, Pat. They enjoyed 60 years of marriage. Van and Pat lived in several locations across the country establishing friendships everywhrere. Freinds observed them working together as partners who provided wonderful hospitality and committed leadership to their church and community.

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Epilogue On February 24, 2012, Warren W. Van Denplas ‘Van’ passed away with members of his family by his side. He had made prior arrangements for his funeral as he had his for his wife, Pat. He passed away at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Following his passing, the staff of the hospital gave us some time alone with Dad before preparing him for transport to the funeral home. During that time we were joined by the hospital chaplain whose first name happened to be Charlie. He had spent a great deal of time with Dad and Dad was always cheered by his visits. Once the staff had prepared Dad, they called us into the room where we found Dad on a gurney wrapped in a white sheet covered by an American flag. As we proceeded down the hall to a special elevator, every man or woman who was affiliated with the Military paused to salute and stood at attention until he had passed by. It was one of the most poignant moments of my life and I know Dad would have felt so honored by their actions. He was buried with full military honors, including a 21 gun salute. He had chosen to be buried in a small cemetery in Rock Rapids, Iowa, although he could have selected Arlington National Cemetery or any other military cemetery. He wanted to be buried next to his beloved Pat, to whom he had been married for 60 years prior to her passing a little over two years before him. We, his family members, were so very proud of all he did for his country and wish to say, “Thank you, Van, for your service!”

Margy Hanna (daughter)

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Van carried his Bible, his most prized possession, with him throughtout his military service.

Recommended reading, a message on the first page from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stating the importance of the Scriptures, its inspiration and hope for turbulent times.

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US Army Air Corps Class A

WWII Air Corps 15th Air Force

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World War II Victory

Purple Heart

Army Good Conduct

European African Middle Eastern Campaign

Sharpshooter

Combat Crew

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Prisoner of War

Air Medal

Expert

USAF Senior Enlisted Aircrew

USAF Army Air Force Gunner


Conspicuous Service Cross

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A MARCH TO LIBERATION

The Freedom we Enjoy isn’t Free

A March to Liberation A Memoir of World War II Experiences

VAN DENPLAS

In 1942 Van, like many young men his age, was eager to enlist in the military to protect his country. Defending one’s nation, whatever the cost, was generally expected. Most young men couldn’t imagine what the future might require of them, but were willing to serve. Was all the sacrifice worth it? If anyone ever had the opportunity to observe Van raising his flag in his front yard and saw the pride and satisfaction it gave him, the answer was obvious. This question simply didn’t require asking.

N  ormanDale Graphics, LLC www.NormandaleGraphics.com

By Warren Van Denplas, as told to Norm Penner

March to liberation: A Memoir of World War II Experiences  

In 1942 Van, like many young men his age, was eager to enlist in themilitary to protect his country. Defending one’s nation, whatever the co...

March to liberation: A Memoir of World War II Experiences  

In 1942 Van, like many young men his age, was eager to enlist in themilitary to protect his country. Defending one’s nation, whatever the co...

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