By Tech. Sgt. Leo Brown, 442nd Fighter Wing public affairs
/ Published August 21, 2007
WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Part one: Airmen endure captivity in Nazi Germany
Imagine winning a trip to England, France and Germany, spending time near the French coast, dining on new foods and meeting many locals. Add a train-ride the width of Germany, from Frankfurt to near the Polish border, and you have the makings of a wonderful vacation.
This experience, however, was very much unwanted for a special group of Airmen from World War II, who were shot down and captured by the Germans. Airmen who spent a good part of the war held in Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe prisoner of war camp.
Now senior citizens, this group of "kriegies" (short for the German "Kriegesgefangenen" - or prisoners of war) met in late April in Kansas City for their 62nd reunion. They meet every two years to celebrate the date of their liberation on April 29, 1945, at Stalag Luft VII-A in Moosberg, Germany, by Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army.
In the next three issues of the Mohawk, their startling stories of capture, internment and liberation will be told. Although there's a certain bravado that comes with being an Air Force flyer, these heroes - although they would deny that title - are incredibly humble and unassuming. They draw no attention to themselves or to the sufferings they endured.
"It's unreal today, but then we thought we were invincible," said Lt. Col. (Ret.) Fred Frey, 87, of Montgomery, Ala. "I show up (at the reunions) to see a couple of my buddies. Some people grow on you and you become brothers. Charlie Thompson and I have been together now for 62 years. He's from Utah and I'm originally from New Jersey, but we love each other like brothers. We think alike. When you live with an individual under the most adverse conditions you can imagine, people grow on you. You really get to know the individual. It isn't a casual friend to you. It's a friend."
While their numbers are thinning, the Kansas City reunion drew more than 70 veterans, plus their families and friends. Although they have many painful memories, these men possess a wealth of wisdom and humor.
"The older we get, the braver we were," said Jim Gregory, 82, of Long Beach, Calif. "I think coming back is one of the best things. It's a great memory jogger. Of course, there's the fun of seeing people you knew. We all grapple to relive our youth."
"It's emotional and gratifying," said Hal Halstead, 83, of Bismark, N.D. "It's just joyful. Sometimes you open up old memories. You look forward to the camaraderie."
Mr. Gregory and Mr. Halstead were crewmembers on "Full House," a B-17 shot down on Aug. 16, 1944. Mr. Gregory said, "It's not true that I told him (Mr. Halstead) that if he had to bail out to count to 50 before opening his chute."
"(Full House) proved not to be a winning hand," said Mr. Halstead, who was a 20-year-old second lieutenant when he was shot down. "I didn't know until after the war, you could go higher in rank."
"Humor was extremely important," Mr. Gregory said. "No question about it. Both then, and years later. I think they call it PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It did affect people. I can't document that, but guys were really worried. We weren't sure just what would happen. It all depended on your individual experiences, your psychological upbringing and other things."
Their humor, along with patience and ingenuity, helped them keep their military bearing - their mental and physical composure under stress - as they faced combat, interrogations and a very uncertain future at Stalag Luft III.
The camp, made famous in the 1963 movie "The Great Escape", the true story of 76 Allied Airmen tunneling out of Stalag Luft III in March of 1944, was in eastern Germany during the war. After the German surrender in May of 1945, the camp's location (near the town of Sagan) fell into Polish territory. "Stalag Luft" is short for Stammlager Luft, meaning "permanent camp for Airmen."
Today, a museum stands near the camp site.
Editor's Note: The 442nd Fighter Wing public Web site will run this entire series under a separate tab in the left-hand column of its home page starting with this story. The stories will be posted to the Web in their entirety instead of the edited versions published in the wing's monthly magazine, The Mohawk. One story per month will be posted until the four-part series is complete.