On 9 September 1944, our target was the railroad yards at Mainz, Germany, just across the Rhine River from Wiesbaden. We were leading our nine-ship formation, had bombed and had just completed our turn to reassemble the whole group when the flak barrage, through which we had to fly, caught us. One shell hit us right in the middle and the ship exploded.
Copilot Bill Riddleberger and I were blown out by the blast. The nine other crewmen in the ship were not so fortunate.
I wasn't too expert in handling a parachute. Mine was spinning like a top on the way down, heading for a town, getting closer and closer to the ground. I remember thinking, "How do I stop this thing from oscillating?" I recalled something about shroud lines so I pulled on the shrouds and the oscillations stopped. The ground appeared to come up fast, and I hit the side of a brick building, which knocked the wind out of me.
It was then that I realized I'd been burnt and was bleeding from a head wound. I recall being treated in a room by a doctor who sewed up my scalp wound, blood all over the place, which scared me to death. He also put a roll of gauze around my face, like a mask, gave me a small bottle of liquid which he indicated thoroughly to me was to keep the mask moist.
They then put me in a hospital and worked on me. The bad part was that my eyes were seared and my eyelids healed together that night. The eyelids were a problem because the doctors couldn't get them open for a few nights until they cut them open.
Although I came down by parachute, I was unconscious until I got close to the ground and began looking around to see where I was about to land, fortunately in a plowed field. As soon as I hit the ground, it seemed to me the Germans, soldiers and civilians, were there to take me in custody and march me into the nearby village. I was in shock and lost consciousness again.
I woke up in a solitary room in hospital. My eyes, swollen shut so that I couldn't see, were being bathed. My mouth was also pretty well burned shut and the nurses were trying to feed me a sort of apple sauce.
Finally things started to ease up and we got more nourishment. I was then taken out to be interviewed and the doctor told me, "The interrogator told me that your pilot is in a room right over here close to you, but he said that the rest of your crew were killed at the crash site."
After my initial treatment in hospital, I'm assuming I went through Dulag, which was a collection point for most prisoners. From there I went in a prisoner of war train. We had two coaches with prisoners and one with our guards. Eventually we arrived at Stalag I, Barth, up on the Baltic Sea coast.
It must have been around October, because it was starting to turn cool. The first compound was occupied by British prisoners, the second was composed of Americans, and when I was there a third compound was opened for more American prisoners. I was in a room with about 12 other fellows. The bunks were three tiers high, but I was having problems with the burns to my face. I couldn't close my eyes too well and it's awfully hard to sleep at night with your eyes open.
I was transferred to a second hospital and then there must have been a dozen or so more because I don't really recall arriving at Stalag Luft III, Sagan, Silesia. But what I do recall clearly is being in Dresden late at night to catch a train during a bombing raid. The sirens were wailing and we had only three guards to protect us from a lot of German civilians who were also at the railroad station waiting for their trains. At that time we wished we had 50 German guards during that tense situation.
Incidentally, one of our nine missing crewmen was a Germanspeaking radio operator who was on board to monitor some of the German fighter people. This was extraordinary, as not many 392nd people knew much about those German-speaking operators and he wasn't on the loading list. However, our casualty report shows 10 crew plus one passenger. It didn't disclose his name, but years later the Germans told me who he was, his serial number and where he was buried back in the States.
The nine names of those who died in our B-24 that day were: F.D. Urmer, navigator; C.M. Smith, bombardier; C. Wright, engineer/top turret gunner; C.E. Schaefer, radio operator/gunner; H.J. Soda, ball turret gunner; E.L. Boyce and P.D. Johnson, waist gunners; R.L. Serrette, tail gunner; and R.W. Pettis, observer.
At Stalag Luft III, BGen. Arthur Vanaman was the senior American officer. He was a one-star general and it was known that he'd been the commanding officer of the Oklahoma City (Tinker) U.S. Army Air Force Base, and all of a sudden he showed up at a POW camp. He'd been the American Military Air Attache in Berlin prior to the war, spoke German very well and knew Hermann Goering, who had come down to see him. He'd flown one mission in a B-17, bailed out. and the B-17 and its crew returned to England.
There were certain people who thought that Gen. Vanaman's mission was to bail out because of his knowledge of the German people and their respect for rank.
Late in January 1945 we could hear gunfire as the Russian Army approached Sagan from the east. As they got closer to Stalag Luft III we walked out, heading west.
It was cold, the snow crunched underfoot and we were not too well equipped. The first night was spent in a church. We did pretty well and left at dawn, cold, stiff and hungry and so on. Later on during the march, we spent another two nights in the warmth of a pottery factory after the general prevailed on our behalf. Eventually we arrived at Spremburg, where we were loaded on a train, "40 and 8." In fact, they had 57 of us in our box car with one guard, and they took us part of the way to Mooseburg, the next camp. You had to lie on the floor and sleep in shifts, as it was pretty crowded. I recall several things about that trip because you were either constipated or the other way. It was a bit of a problem. But we eventually arrived at Mooseburg.
Due to my burns, the doctors at Barth said they were going to send me back to get the necessary treatment. I thought they were maybe going to repatriate me because there were stories of prisoners being repatriated in exchange for German prisoners who were in America.
There was a snow storm the day I left the POW camp. Three of us prisoners with two guards walked through a foot of snow to the town of Barth. We got on a train for Berlin, where we were to change trains. I was flabbergasted when we came into Berlin, because there wasn't any roof on the railroad station but the escalators were still working.
We finally got on another train and eventually arrived at a town called Bad Soden near Frankfurt. We were then taken to a hospital called St. Vincent which evidently had been a health spa during prewar years. The hospital staff was British. Maj. Charters, an eye specialist from Glasgow, Scotland, was the doctor in charge, and we had several Catholic sisters who did the nursing. Maj. Charters operated on my eyes and I received two new eyelids.
The story went around that as a result of that Coconut Grove fire in Boston, where so many people were burned, a Dr. Brown subsequently did a lot of research concerning skin transplants and plastic surgery. He'd written a book relevant to his findings and Maj. Charters apparently referred to Dr. Brown's book while working and operating on us prisoners. We were, in effect, his guinea pigs. However, Maj. Charters did commendable work and he helped to replace both my eyelids.
It was around 13 March 1945 that the German authorities agreed with the British doctor to declare the village, where there were three hospitals with hundreds of Allied wounded, an open village. They sent representatives out to meet the advancing Allied forces, told them there would be no resistance and they could come right into the village.
Eventually a column of Allied armor arrived. The first thing they did was tear all the barbed wire fence down with a cable and winch. They stayed all night and told us their orders were to continue the advance, that the Allied infantry would be arriving in three days and that they would ensure we'd get back with Allied forces.
True to their word, the infantry arrived three days later and organized ambulances began evacuating the less mobile patients. However, about a dozen of us decided to walk toward Allied lines when our transport failed to arrive.
Wearing a conglomerate of American and British uniforms and carrying our personal belongings in small bags, we started off. We'd probably walked about a mile down the road when a U.S. Army six-by-six truck approached and stopped. The driver asked us who we were, what we were doing, where we were going, etc. Although we didn't have any identification, apart from our uniforms, we climbed aboard the truck and the driver took us over to Gielhausen air base.
There were many former POWs at Gielhausen being flown out. We joined them and were subsequently flown out to Le Havre, on the French coast, near Camp Lucky Strike. From there I eventually got home to America.
We had a radio at Mooseburg that somebody had assembled from various components. We'd listen to the news from the BBC and pass it on. Then the guys would disassemble the radio.
When we were finally liberated at Mooseburg by the 14th Armored Division and the 99th Infantry, they didn't make too much of an effort to stop at the camp's main gate to check in. I recall the leading tank plowing straight through the barbed wire barricades. It looked pretty good to me, and the American flag was raised a short time later.
Cliff Peterson, who was also a prisoner at Stalag Luft III and at Mooseburg, mentioned recently that when we came home in June 1945 one of the songs the band was playing on the quay side as the ship pulled into New York harbor was "DON'T FENCE ME IN." The only song I remember was "MAIRSEY DOATES." I thought they'd changed the language!
Another prisoner at Stalag Luft III was Willard "Bill " Brown, Group Navigator, 95th Bomb Group, 3rd Air Division. He was shot down in June 1943 and was a POW there when Louis Stephens arrived. Capt. Brown was one of three prisoners chosen to accompany BGen. Arthur Vanaman (Vanaman was still senior officer at Stalag Luft III at that time) to meet with Hitler at his Chancellery Headquarters in Berlin. Bill Brown's story picks up just before he, Lt. Stephens and the others were marched to the west.
During the long months of captivity at Sagan, I made three escape attempts, all of which proved unsuccessful, but the temporary freedom they gave was a most welcome tonic. After my second escape attempt, the Escape Committee in the British (north) Compound became interested in my activities and invited me to become the "Mr. X" in the American officer's (center) compound. Mr. X was the person who was responsible for all escape plans and intelligence communications. A very good friend of mine, Roger Bushell, RAF, was the Mr. X in the British compound and he was mastermind of The Great Escape.
Much has been recorded, both in print and on film, concerning the activities of the escape organizations during the Second World War, and, in my opinion, the movie made of "The Great Escape" from Stalag Luft III, which took place from the British compound during the night of 24/25 March 1944, was among the best. It was about 75 percent accurate in its portrayal of actual events.
However, what is probably not so well-known are the following events concerning the attempts at shortening the war that took place during midand late-February 1945.
At that time a few of us were sent up to Berlin. BGen. Arthur Vanaman, Col. Delmar Spivey and Col. James Keefe were all senior American officers at Sagan. I was taken along as a so-called escape expert in case things didn't work out.
As it happened, the day we were scheduled to meet Hitler at his Chancellory Headquarters in Berlin, 14 February 1945, the Eighth Air Force bombed Dresden. Hitler ordered us to be shot in retaliation, and he gave the direct order to carry out our executions to the Commander of the Waffen SS, Lt Gen. Jon Berger. Gen. Berger was, among other things, responsible for all prisoners of war, plus the army of Ukrainians that had been hastily formed to fight the advancing Russians. These were "Russians" willing and able to fight Russians.
Fortunately, Gen. Berger didn't carry out Hitler's order. What he did was talk with Gen. Vanaman, Col. Spivey and Col. Keefe. He said to them, "I'm going to send you back to the United States with this message to be conveyed directly to President Roosevelt and Gen. Marshall in Washington:
1. The German armed forces will make a stand and hold the line against the Russians at the Oder River (the old Polish/German border). We will then wait for the arrival of American and British forces, our common enemy being Stalinist Russia.
2. I will assume personal responsibility for eliminating both Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler (chief of the Gestapo).
3. The Americans or British are requested to appoint anybody you like to administer the postwar affairs of Germany.
4. Abandon the terms of unconditional surrender.
5. Abandon the policy of the Morganthau Plan, which would reduce the postwar German economy substantially."
These proposals made a lot of sense to me.
Berger then took the dangerous risk, as far as his own life was concerned, of transporting Vanaman and Spivey to Switzerland in his personal staff car. These men were then flown to Washington, where they reported to President Roosevelt and Gen. Marshall.
The proposals were heard with interest, but no action could subsequently be taken because commitments had already been made at Yalta between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin a few weeks previously.
However, what Vanaman and Spivey did achieve was most important to all POWs. They obtained promises from Berger concerning the future safety of all POWs in Germany which, at that stage, was extremely precarious. Apparently, there was a plan in the pipeline for transporting all Allied prisoners down to the last redoubt in the Bavarian Alps with every man perishing in one final collapse.
When the Nuremberg trials took place after the war, both Gen. Vanaman and Col. Spivey went to Germany and gave evidence on Gen. Berger's behalf. Consequently, his sentence was reduced to five years. He died soon after being released during the early 1950s.