World War II Airmen remember captivity -- POW series

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Leo Brown
  • 442nd Fighter Wing public affairs
Part two:  Capture -- Airmen remember falling into enemy hands.

NOTE: This is the second of four articles in a series about Airmen from World War II who were shot down and captured by the Germans. The downed flyers eventually ended up in Stalag Luft III, a prison camp in eastern Germany, made famous by the 1963 movie, The Great Escape, based on the book by Paul Brickhill. These Airmen were interviewed during a reunion in Kansas City in April.

Oct. 10, 1943, started out happy for 2nd Lt. Fred Frey, a 23-year co-pilot on a B-17 Flying Fortress. Now 87 years old, he said he'd just received a three-day pass to go to London, but another co-pilot couldn't make his mission. So Lieutenant Frey, who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1963, was picked as a pinch hitter for a bombing run on Munster, Germany, which had key railroad junctions and was a part of the Ruhr industrial area.

After hearing about the amount of possible German resistance over his target that day, Colonel Frey said he felt a little uneasy during his pre-flight briefing.

"It's a funny feeling when (your briefers) tell you you're going to have 400-some (enemy) planes out there over the target," he said. "Two hundred-some of your ME-109s and roughly 200 of the Focke-Wulf 190s. And what flak (anti-aircraft) you can expect on the route going in and coming out. That's an eerie feeling."

"Flak" stands for the German fliegerabwehrkanone, which means "flyer defense cannon." The main German anti-aircraft weapon was the 88 mm cannon. Thousands of these cannon dotted German cities and industrial centers, waiting for American and British bombers.

While there wasn't much defense against flak, Colonel Frey said the B-17s, flying in formation, presented a formidable challenge to any airborne foes.

"The aircraft would be 50 feet below each other and 50 feet off to one side," he said. "That's when you have the most concentrated firepower. You had 10 .50-caliber machine guns on each B-17. Your position was covered completely around the aircraft. Hence the term 'flying fortress.' Not that that means a hell of a lot to the Germans."

Frey was right. The German fighters, single-engined Messerschmitt 109s and Focke-Wulf 190s, as well as twin-engine Messerschmitt 110s, weren't shy.

"The (German) fighters hit you before the target," Colonel Frey said. "Then they let the flak take care of you. The minute you clear the target, they hit you again. The Germans would send up the ME-110s and they would fly parallel to us in the same direction, so they had the direct route, the altitude and the right speed, and they'd radio that down to the gunners below, and, of course, the gunners would set the fuses on the antiaircraft shells so they would all explode at that altitude. As they explode, the shrapnel hits the engines and whatever else."

Colonel Frey's plane dropped its bombs and that's when his crew switched from offense back to defense.

"The fighters were all over us. We wound up with 20-millimeter shells coming in the cockpit," he said. "You're trying to stabilize the aircraft. I had my glasses knocked off. A shell blew up right in front of my face. It came in from behind me and I got the burst from the flash. I wound up with first- and second-degree burns. Shrapnel from the shells wound up in my leg and A2 jacket and my sleeve was all shredded.

"One burst went right into the control column and we lost control of the aircraft," Colonel Frey said. "The aircraft was doing lazy eights, the engines are running like crazy and you have no control on the manifold pressures. You hit the button to bail out. We lost 33 planes that day.

"The navigator was shot up," he said. "He had three or four wounds. I had to take off my oxygen mask and climb out of my seat and get my chest pack on. The plane was going through all these crazy movements. My bombardier was froze in the hatch and I had to place myself against the bulkhead and shove him through with my feet."

"I pulled my chute at 23 or 24,000 feet," the retired Colonel said. "I passed out and came to around 14,000. As I regained consciousness, I see this ME-109 coming at me. I could almost see his face. He was coming back down from attacking and he flew straight at me. He slide slipped around me. He was trying to collapse my chute with the backwash from his propeller, which he did, to a halfway point.

As he got closer to landing, Colonel Frey said he realized he had one more hurdle to jump, literally.

"We had a hell of a cross wind, if that wasn't enough, and I had to pick my feet up to go across these high tension lines," he said. "I just did clear them and I was on my way down. One of the trains was just leaving the marshalling yards with a full head of steam. I pick my feet up right as I was coming down on the embankment alongside the railroad track and I wound up banging into the hillside."

Colonel Frey said he blacked-out and "the next thing I remembered was from my hospital room. There was a kid standing at the foot of the bed. It was clear as a bell. I'll always remember - I'll never forget it - they had a little kid from downtown standing by my bed. His head was all bandaged up. He couldn't be more than 10, 11, 12 years old. All they had was the two little eyes looking at me and I remember the doctor saying, 'You ought to be proud of yourself for bombing women and children.' Then I blanked out again."

While Colonel Frey's was captured on land, then-1st Lt. Charles Woeherle, 90, and a St. Paul, Minn., resident, was bombing German submarine pens at St. Nazaire, on the French coast and bailed out over the ocean.

Lieutenant Woeherle was the squadron bombardier for the 351st Heavy Bomb Group's 509th Bomb Squadron. He didn't hold that position long, though. Six weeks after his arrival at Polebrook, Northamptonshire, England, he was shot down May 29, 1943.

Lieutenant Woeherle said he released his B-17's bombs, then realized he couldn't get the bomb bay doors shut. The gunner in the belly turret radioed that the four-engine plane had been hit by flak.

"We lost some altitude and were 'tail-end Charlie,' and that's just a helpless feeling," Lieutenant Woeherle said. "The Focke-Wulfs came in and killed the waist-gunner and the radio operator, and 'Baldy' on the lower turret, who I'd just talked to."

"The last thing we thought would ever happen was that we'd be shot down," he said. "The plane caught fire and we went out in order. There was no trouble leaving the plane."

Trouble wasn't far off, though.

"I pulled the D ring and nothing happened, and I was falling and falling and falling. I knew something was wrong. I looked down and the chute had not opened. The grommet was 'katty-wompass' on the post. Finally, I got a hold of that thing and pulled the 10-foot chute and 'wham!' - the chute went up and fractured my jaw and dislocated my shoulder."

Remarkably, Lieutenant Woeherle was overcome with a feeling of gratitude.

"I was so thankful," he said. "It was so quiet after all we'd been through. I said the Lord's Prayer and I wondered how high I was. We bailed out over 25,000 feet and it was cold up there, very cold. It was so cold, I took my lunch up with me the first few missions - sandwiches - and I couldn't even dent them with my teeth, they were so frozen."

Sandwiches were probably the last thing on the bombardier's mind, though, as he began to swing in his chute, as on a pendulum.

"You get sick and you grab two or three shroud lines," he said. "I did that, but the chute turned down, and down I went again. I was running out of space. If you hit water, you're a goner. I had about 3,000 feet left and a whiff of wind came by and opened the chute.

"The water wasn't cold and it didn't give me a chill," he said. "Then I saw in the distance two black specks and thought they must be ships."

Sure enough, they were French fishermen, who gladly helped the downed Airman. Lieutenant Woehrle said they took him to their home on an island. Given his injuries, he said he was especially grateful for their assistance, as short-lived as it would be.

"My jaw was fractured and my teeth didn't mesh," he said. "My shoulder felt better once it worked itself back into place, but it's terribly painful when it comes out. They were poor people, but they were generous with me. A woman made me something with eggs in it, and some toast and wine. It tasted awfully good to me. I was going through my escape kit - money, maps, compass, a Colt .45 revolver - when a man came in waving his hands. 'Allemands ici!' ('The Germans are here!') They'd seen the parachute."

A short boat ride to the mainland, courtesy of the German military, began Lieutenant Woeherle's journey to Dulag Luft and, eventually, to Stalag Luft III.

Tech. Sgt. Homer Reynolds, a Rosalia, Kansas, resident, also had some reflection time in his parachute. He was a flight engineer and upper turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator, shot down by flak on April 23, 1944, near the Hungarian-Czechoslavakian border.

"We made it to our 13th mission," said Sergeant Reynolds, who was the flight engineer and upper turret gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber. "We had a run on Weiner Neustadt and we had dropped our bombs. Flak hit us between the third and fourth engines and set us on fire. The pilot got us to where we could bail out without oxygen. We bailed out around 10,000 feet. It was real good weather, clear across the target that morning."

"Your whole life goes before you," he said. "In the 10 minutes or whatever it took to get to the ground, you're wondering what your family's going to do. My wife was home. She was supposed to have a new baby. And you just wonder. You just recall your whole life, because you didn't know where it was going or how it'd turn out."

That uncertainty grew, as Sergeant Reynolds and his fellow Airmen landed.

"We all landed pretty well," he said. "Then we got on the ground and the civilians took over with clubs. One of them shot me in the leg so I wouldn't run. It was in the lower part of the leg and it was just a flesh wound, but it swelled up to the size of a pumpkin."

The Airmen were moved to Budapest, Hungary, deeper into enemy territory.

"When we were going to the Budapest prison, they took us downtown and showed us where the English night bombers had come through," Sergeant Reynolds said. "They'd captured some of them and had them hanging from the light posts - there on the square in downtown Budapest."

Four days after Sergeant Reynolds was captured, then-2nd Lt. Bill Whitney, of Quilcene, Wash., joined the swelling ranks of Allied Airmen listed as prisoners of war.

"We were heading over to bomb V-1 sites on the coast of France near Dunkirk at Pas de Calais," said Lieutenant Whitney, who was a 22-year-old co-pilot on a twin-engine B-26 Marauder, a medium bomber. "We were 'tail-end Charlie' on the bomb run and that was the bad thing. The lead navigator (in the formation) made a mistake and we had two minutes on the bomb run."

Flying at 14,300 feet, Lieutenant Whitney said, "(The Germans) had plenty of time to zero in their antiaircraft guns on us. They were 88-millimeters. They knocked the port engine out and we started a very steep spiral, and the other engine was running wide open. There was no response with the controls.

"We're in a tight spiral and we're on fire, he said. "The pilot's motioning and yelling at me to get out. I tried to open the bomb-bay doors and they wouldn't open. There was fire and smoke. I opened the top hatch, which you weren't supposed to do, because you might get hit by the tail (as you bailed out).

"There was an explosion, and I passed out," Lieutenant Whitney said. "My chute had opened and I landed in a farmer's field. I buried the chute and crawled up a ditch. The Germans were thick around the coast. I hid in a haystack, but then the dogs showed up about evening and I wasn't in too good of shape. They took me to St. Omer, a famous World War I spot, and threw me in a cell. I think every guy is shocked when he's captured. You really haven't come to a realization yet to be scared."

Lieutenant Whitney said the German Wehrmacht (Army) soldiers treated him decently, but "later on the SS (schutzstaffel, which means 'protective squadron or echelon') officers were a little rough. I took a few head blows with a club. The first interview I had was by an SS captain and that was underground at a V-1 site."

Some veterans said once they landed, they were generally treated decently by German Army troops. In fact, two of them, retired Col. Stephen King, 83, of La Mesa, Calif., and then-2nd Lt. Jim Gregory, 82, of Long Beach, Calif., said they wouldn't have survived if German soldiers hadn't come to their rescue.

Colonel King, a B-17 pilot who was a first lieutenant when he was shot down June 18, 1944, said he landed in a field outside Hamburg, Germany. Several farmers surrounded him and herded him into a small town's fire station. Before he knew it, his hands were tied behind his back and a noose was thrown around his neck.

"There were two groups of people and I could tell they were arguing about whether to hang me or not," he said. "One group wanted to and the other group, led by a Catholic priest, didn't want to. All of a sudden, a couple of German soldiers came through the crowd. Thank God there was an antiaircraft battery near-by and they cut me down and took me off for interrogation."

Lieutenant Gregory, a B-17 navigator, was 19 years old when he was shot down on August 16, 1944, near Zeitz, in eastern Germany. He said he also landed near some not-too-friendly farmers.

"I didn't have any idea what I was going to do," he said. "Over the hill came two or three farmers. One guy had a gun. They all came down (to me) and said, 'Do you have a gun?' I said 'no.' They tried to help me up and then this guy - about two and a half to three feet away from me - pulls out his 9-millimeter Lugar (a pistol) and blasts me in the mid-section."

"That put me back down on the ground and there was a momentary shock on the part of some of the civilians and myself," Lieutenant Gregory said. "Then from down the road on his bicycle comes a (German Army) sergeant. He's yelling at the guy (who shot me) and he took the gun away from the guy. I think he saved my life. Who knows what would've happened."

His wound was bad, but not life threatening. Lieutenant Gregory ended up in the town of Camburg, Germany. There he was seen by a German doctor and had some poignant and almost humorous interactions with other locals.

"The most interesting part of that day was they took me to Camburg and placed me in the bowels of the rathaus (city hall)," he said. "I had visitations from people in the town. All these people wanted to see this prisoner. A teacher came in and then an old lady with a shopping bag, and she asked me why I was dropping bombs on her family. Former prisoners of the Americans in World War I came in. Everyone asked me if I knew their cousin Mathilda in Milwaukee and things like that."

"Our aircraft took out part of a barn and farmhouse and injured a widow and her two daughters," he said. "One of the kids was injured and burned and one of the kids didn't make it. That was one of the tragedies of the day."

Just 12 days before Lieutenant Gregory was shot down, then-2nd Lieutenant Ernie Thorp, now a resident of Clinton, Illinois, was shot down August 4, 1944 flying a mission over Bremen, Germany.

"I think it was a Friday," Lieutenant Thorp said. "I was the co-pilot (on a B-17) and I only knew the pilot. I didn't know the rest of my crew. We dropped our bombs and got hit by flak - shot up going in to Bremen. According to the briefing ahead of time, there was supposed to be no flak and it was the first time this crew was over Germany.

"We ended up in the sea and German fishermen picked me up," he said. "There were three of them on the fishing boat and an elderly man could speak English. He told me he was a POW in World War I and he said, 'The English treated me alright, so I treat you alright.' We tried to pay him but he wouldn't take the money. He finally took a silver coin and a stick of chewing gum. So I tell kids when I speak to them that 'this man's life is worth one stick of chewing gum.'"

The lieutenant said the boat made its way toward a dock where "six armed German soldiers - they looked as big as mountains, fully armed, fully equipped" waited for the captured Airmen.

Although Airmen were shot down all over Europe, many were taken to Oberursel, near Frankfurt am Main, in western Germany, where the Germans had stationed Dulag Luft, a German Air Force-run interrogation center.

The Airmen noted they were shocked and discouraged at the amount of information the Luftwaffe had on them. They were also stunned when they realized some of their interrogators were "Americans."

Colonel Frey, who struggled with black-outs after parachuting over Munster and ending up in a German hospital, said, "The next thing I remember (after the hospital) is I'm in a cell at Dulag (Luft) getting fed through the door. I have a blank again and the next thing I recall is I'm standing between two German Wehrmacht soldiers who are holding me up and a major is standing in front of me saying, 'Is that any way to stand in front of a German officer?' I'm only a second lieutenant and I tried to straighten up, but my leg was hurting like hell. I had this crap on my face for my burns. When it dried up, it looked like a dry riverbed. I don't know what it was, but it did a hell of a job."

Colonel Frey, originally from New Jersey, said his interrogator told him "he was a major from the Luftwaffe and he was from Seaside, New Jersey. He starts talking about the Jersey seashore, telling me he's going to be back there when Hitler wins the war and he's going to enjoy himself.

The colonel gave only his name, rank and serial number, so the interrogator, he said, "begins to recite to me when I graduated from flying school, when I arrived in England."

"He told me about my CO (commanding officer) who just got promoted to colonel," Colonel Frey said. "These were things that just happened yesterday and here he is running all that off. It's very disarming. Then he started asking more questions and I said, 'You seem to have all the answers. What are you asking me for?'

"He said all he wanted me to do is verify some information so he could notify the Red Cross. I said, 'Good, notify 'em.' I was the last one interrogated from my crew and I wonder if he had some information from someone. It's very disarming," Colonel Frey said. "He was so damn shrewd. It was unreal the way he asked those questions. No matter what you said, they would have got something out of it."

"My interrogator was from Boston and he'd been there 19 years before the war," Sergeant Reynolds said. "He knew all your slang and he let me know right quick that he wasn't going to put up with anything from me. He hit me (in the mouth) and knocked off two teeth, chipped them off with his pistol. He said he'd make an example of me for the rest of you (POWs). I came out bleeding a little bit.

"You were supposed to give your name, rank and serial number, but they knew more about me than I knew about myself," he said. "They had pictures out of the Wichita newspaper when I graduated from gunnery school. I had some of the identical ones at home. They knew what I took in school and that I'd worked in Kansas City. They'd done their homework. I couldn't believe it. I just couldn't believe they had all that information."

"They told me the name of my girlfriend," Lieutenant Whitney said. "Their intelligence was such that when you had a little newspaper article about so and so - maybe someone enlisted in the Air Force or whatever - that clipping somehow got to Germany and they had a file of those. As a result of that, they had some information. They told me the hard stand (parking space) where my plane was parked. Hell, I couldn't remember that. That would tend to shock you."

"They put me in a 135-degree room to sweat me out hoping that I would yield up some information for them," Lieutenant Woeherle said. "I was chumming around with a boy from Louisiana, an awfully nice kid, and he'd been in for interrogation. They had whipped him with a rubber hose and his face was so swollen that I didn't even recognize him. So it very much depended on who your interrogator was."

"It was amazing how effective the fifth column must have been in America because people were not careful about what they said or where people they didn't know got information," he said. "The Germans were very good at that kind of minutiae, but they sometimes missed the big picture."

"We have a tendency to think we're pretty damn smart," Colonel Frey said. "The best thing ever said about interrogation is 'to keep your mouth shut and say nothing.' You think you're being smart with some answers and you're not. Believe me. They're trained for that."

One of the interrogators at Dulag Luft was Hanns Joachim Scharff, a corporal in the Luftwaffe. Although he died several year ago, his son, Hanns, was invited to attend the veterans' reunion in Kansas City in April.

"My father was called (for military service) sometime in 1943 and he was going to be sent to the Russian front as a panzergrenadier," said Mr. Scharff, who now lives in Los Angeles. "My mother got wind of this, barged into some general's office and said, 'You people are crazy!' and the general asks why and she says, 'You're sending a person who is fluent in English to the Russian front and that's stupid!' and the general says, 'I agree! Who is this person?' and she says, 'My husband!'

"The general says (my dad) should be an interpreter and he was sent to translator school in Weisbaden (near Frankfurt)," Mr. Scharff said. "While there, he was assigned to Dulag Luft."

Mr. Scharff said a few of the top German interrogators of American pilots were fooling around in a Fieseler Storch airplane one day when it crashed, killing all aboard. That event opened the door to his father, just a private at the time, to become an interrogator.

"Some (POWs) were insulted to be interrogated by such a low rank," Mr. Scharff said. "So my dad had uniform jackets - majors, colonels - and then people realize how stupid that whole thing is. It's really the wits behind the person.

"My dad used to go on a lot of walks with (the POWs)," he said. "Close by (Dulag Luft) was a zoo owned by car manufacturer Adam Opel. They had moose and deer. 'Would you like to feed a moose today?' he'd ask a person. He found a way to break into one of Opel's cellars and tasted the wine there. So they'd be sitting there drinking wine and he'd say, 'So tell me about the bursts of red or white,' and the unsuspecting guy would say, 'Oh, that means we've run out of ammunition.'"

"My interrogator said, 'We've been in the war for a while. We've learned a few things,'" Lieutenant Thorp said. "All the information we had and special briefings about if we became a German POW - how we should behave and there were films on how things were going to be - it wasn't at all like that."

"It was demoralizing, naturally," he said. "My interrogator told me, 'If you don't answer these questions, the Japanese would take off one finger, then a second finger. We don't do that.' I thought, 'What are they going to do to me? What was going to be the final result if I didn't answer them?'

"He came around the shook and shook my hand. 'Thorp, you're a good soldier,'" he said. 'Would you like a book to read?' I said, 'Yeah, I'll take the Bible.' He said, 'Ja, ja, good choice.' Then he'd snarl at times and I didn't know what I was up against. I wasn't exactly in a very comfortable position."

Lieutenant Whitney, captured on the French coast near Dunkirk, said one day the quality of his food surprisingly improved - but he quickly realized it was an ominous sign.

"They hadn't been feeding us, except for this green death soup," he said. "They came in and had these nice meats and I was very surprised and made some remark from my feeble college German, and (a German) said, 'They're going to execute you today as a spy.'

"About an hour later, they took me out and marched me in front of a wall," Lieutenant Whitney said. "They stood me there and said they were waiting on the oberst (colonel) to come. They lined up about five of us and wanted us to face the wall. I didn't want to face the wall. Finally the oberst arrived and I thought that that was it. About that time, a flatbed truck showed up and these guys with coveralls with 'POW' on their backs showed up."

The Germans' bluff to gain information failed, at least with Lieutenant Whitney, and thus began his journey to Stalag Luft III.

There, he and roughly 10,000 other Allied Airmen would stay until January of 1945, when many of them were force-marched and carried by train to Moosberg, Germany. They were liberated there by Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army on April 29, 1945, one day before Adolf Hitler's suicide and nine days before the end of the war in Europe.

Most of the veterans at the Kansas City reunion weren't involved in the real "great escape," but they certainly have their share of courageous and amazing stories.

The veterans' memories of the horrible moments of combat and capture, now more than 62 years old, were told in such detail and with such emotion at the reunion -- it sounded as if the experiences happened yesterday. Little doubt these Airmen have replayed their experiences a million times in their minds. As the men talked, many of them mixed present and past tenses, as if going back and forth between the present and the past, a past that has earned these Americans the rightful gratitude of military members and civilians alike.