Sam enlisted in the Army Air Corps Oct. 27th, 1942. On June 26, 1944. He was assigned to the 352nd Squadron, 301st Bomb Group Heavy, 5th Bomb Wing, 15th Air Force in Foggia, Italy! While on his 19th combat mission, he was shot down over Austria and remained in captivity at Stalag Luft IV until he was liberated. He returned to the United States on June 12, 1945 and was Honorably Discharged on October 6, 1945.
Sam was awarded the Air Medal with three Oak leaf Clusters For Heroic actions or meritorious service while participating in aerial flight. (which means he received the award four times.). He received a meritorious promotion from buck sergeant to technical sergeant (two pay grades) for his heroic actions in aerial flight and his bomb group received two Presidential Unit Citations for missions he participated in.
a. The Air Medal was established by Executive Order 9158, 11 May 1942 as amended by Executive Order 9242-A, 11 September 1942.
b. The Air Medal is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the U.S. Army, will have distinguished himself or herself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight. Awards may be made to recognize single acts of merit or heroism, or for meritorious service as described below.
c. Awards may be made for acts of heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy or while engaged in military operations involving conflict with an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party, which are of a lesser degree than required for award of the Distinguished Flying Cross.
d. Awards may be made for single acts of meritorious achievement, involving superior airmanship, which are of a lesser degree than required for award of the Distinguished Flying Cross, but nevertheless were accomplished with distinction beyond that normally expected.
301st Bomb Group Heavy
The 301st Bomb Group was activated on February 3, 1942 at Geiger Field in Washington. They were Equipped with B 17s and moved to Alamogordo Army Air Base, New Mexico on the 27th of May 1942. The aircraft went to Muroc,( present day Edward’s Air Force Base) and did not reach Alamogordo until mid June 1942. The Ground unit moved to Richmond, Virginia and on July 19, 1942, left for Fort Dix, New Jersey. The aircraft went to Brained Field in Conn. between June 23, 1942 and June 30, 1942, and then moved to Westover Field Mass. The first aircraft departed for the United Kingdom on July 23, 1942, flying the northern ferry route.
The Group was Transferred from the 8th Air Force and Assigned to the 12th Air Force, XII Bomber Command on 14 September 1942 but continued to operate under VIII Bomber Command. The aircraft left for south-west coast bases between November 20, 1942 and November 23, 1942, then they flew direct to North Africa. The ground unit left Chelveston on the 8th of December 1942 and sailed in convoy from Liverpool. the Group operated with the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean theater and later with the 15th Air Force from Foggia, Italy. They flew strategic bombing missions over southern Germany and the Balkans and operated as support to the 5th Army’s ground operations. The squadrons of the 301st were, the 32nd Bombardment Squadron – Heavy, the 352nd Bombardment Squadron – Heavy, the 353rd Bombardment Squadron – Heavy and the 419th Bombardment Squadron – Heavy.
After myself and over half of the male portion of the Mark Kepple senior class of 1942 had been seduced by a flashy uniform worn by an army recruiting officer who painted a glorious picture of life in the Army. And after the high school offered an automatic diploma for immediate induction into the Army, I enlisted in the Army Air Corps Oct. 27th, 1942. After induction I was immediately shipped to Monterey, Ca. where I spent one month in basic training. After taking many tests, and being told that I had received the highest score to date in the mechanical aptitude test, the Army decided I was best suited for something in the field of mechanics. Since bomber crew members were in short supply, they, unbeknown to me, decided I would be trained as a flight engineer.
If you want to know more about our certified locksmith training please check our homepage for lock picking guides, training and learning.
I was sent to Keesler field Mississippi where I spent 19 weeks studying airplane mechanics. The most noteworthy thing about this experience was that, despite the fact we were condensing a four year course into 19 weeks, we were required to clean and mop the class room before and after each class. This took about 20 minutes out of each hour which were filled with highly technical information that even under normal conditions would have been very difficult to absorb. I complained bitterly about this to no avail. I believe to this day that some aircraft may have gone down in combat because engineers did not fully understand the operation of the machines they were responsible for.
From Mississippi I was sent to Burbank, California for factory training on B 24s. This was good duty as it was close to home and I got to see my parents and future wife Betty from time to time. However the course only lasted four weeks and we were promptly sent off to Kingman, Arizona for a six week gunnery training course.
While at Kingman we were given air to air gunnery training which consisted of flying in the rear seat of AT 6 aircraft and firing at towed targets with .30 caliber machine guns. We also had some limited time operating turret mounted machine guns in an old Martin bomber. On the ground we fired at skeet with shot guns while ridding in the back of a pickup truck. We were also taught how to shoot a .45 caliber pistol. All of this was great fun but did little to simulate actual combat conditions. Upon graduation we received our aerial gunner’s wings and then were quickly shipped out to Dalhart, Texas where crews were being formed for training on (guess what?) B 17s!!. My factory training was on B 24s!! However, in spite of the fact they are completely different airplanes, I did what I could to apply what I had supposedly learned about B 24s to B 17s.
While at Dalhart, we were taught how to dismantle and clean the .50 caliber machine gun and had to be able to do it in a specified number of seconds. Each of the crew attended their own schools depending on what they had been ‘trained’ to do. Pilots attended pilot training and navigators and bombardiers were given further training in their specialty. At the same time this was going on we started our flight training in a B 17. This consisted mostly of flying endless missions over the desert while the pilots were trained how to handle the “17” in all kinds of conditions. In our off time we had some good times in town and at the end of the course were given a furlough to go home for, I think, a week or two.
After returning from our furloughs we were dispatched as a crew to upstate New York much on our own since the C.O. was our pilot and one great guy. Here we were, a bunch of kids with a beautiful new airplane, all by our selves, in no particular hurry to get to our destination which I think was Nebraska. Feeling care free for once, our C. O. decided we should see some of the country first hand. He flew at low altitude enabling us to have a look at every thing from New York down to Washington D.C. When we got to D.C. he thought we should have a really close look at all the historic sights and began circling the White House and all the other important memorials including Washington’s monument. Every one was having a great time until one of the crew noticed a squadron of six P 38 fighters completely encircling us. The squadron commander of the P 38s unceremoniously advised our pilot he should proceed immediately to vacate the area, climb to proper altitude, continue to our destination and do it NOW!
In Nebraska we refueled and the bombardier picked up the Norton bomb sight, which was top secret at that time. He was instructed to keep it close to his person at all times, except when he turned it in to G2 and never reveal any information about it to any one, even us.
I do not remember how many other stops we made before leaving the USA for Natal, Brazil in South America; but I do remember when the MPs tried to stop us as we were taking off for Brazil. They wanted to arrest the copilot and the tail gunner. It seems there was a 10 o’clock curfew for enlisted men in town where they had been the night before. The copilot was a second Lt. and not subject to the curfew. They had become associated with a couple of girls and they were all walking down the street when an MP (who was a Sgt.) spotted them and insisted the tail gunner go home. The copilot pulled his rank on the Sgt. who then summoned his Lt. for equal authority. At this point a fight started and our guys got away and hid that night until take off the next morning. Needless to say our pilot did not heed the order to abort the flight.
We were held over in Natal for three weeks for various reasons much to our delight. We were not allowed to go into the town but were allowed to go to the beach. The beach had white clean sand with pineapples and coconuts abundantly available about 100 yards from the water. For 25 cents the natives provided us with all the fresh ripe delicious pineapples we could eat. But the neatest thing was the water itself. It was warm and so salty you could literally lay on your back in it and go to sleep.
But alas, the day came when we had to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to Dakar, Senegal, Africa. Before we left the pilot was cautioned not to try and sink any submarine we might run across. That feat had been tried by a B 24 crew who was promptly shot down by the submarines deck gun. The take off was a bit troubling because we had taken on all the fuel the ship could hold and the runway was very short with tall coconut trees at the end. I guess we made it because I am writing about it some 56 years later.
NOTE: it seems that the British RAF decided to avoid risking the chance that their aviation cadets would become engaged with the Luftwaffe fighter pilots during training. So they sent their new aviation cadets to the United States for flight training. While under going flight training with American Air Force cadets in Florida, a British cadet was on a solo flight over the Gulf of Mexico in a BT 17 (basic trainer). Looking down he spotted a submarine on the surface. He decided to have a closer look at the Navy and peeled off and made a run at the submarine. As he passed by at almost zero altitude just above the waves a machine gunner on the sub shot him down. You guessed it! A rubber boat from the German U Boat picked him up. After a few weeks traveling with the German sub sinking allied ships in the Atlantic, the British aviation cadet was taken to Germany and on to Stalag Luft III, as the only known aviation cadet in captivity.
As we flew across the Atlantic the pilot let each of us take a turn at the controls of the ship. This gave us a feel of how difficult it would be to try and land this huge airplane (huge to us as at the time it was one of the largest ever made) in the event (God forbid) the pilot and copilot were wounded or killed and unable to fly. Later we found out this had actually happened with disastrous results.
When we landed at Dakar we knew the honey moon was over. The atmosphere was as different as night and day from how it was at Natal. The place was hot, smelly, and desolate and we were immediately placed under strict military authority. As enlisted men, we were under the command of a Master Sgt. who was half off his rocker. He had a little pet monkey that he took turns beating and then loving while informing us of all his mandatory rules we were to follow while we were in his jurisdiction. He also assigned the shifts for guard duty we would have to pull 24 hours a day to protect our B 17. We had to sleep in a special barracks next to the Sgt.’s quarters. He delighted in waking us up for a 2 a.m. shift and ordering us around as if we were recruits in boot camp. I could understand how he had evolved to this pitiful state because, if I were permanent party at a place like that, I most certainly would have also gone off my rocker. Luckily we did not have to stay there very long; I think about a week.
Our next stop was the fabled Casablanca in western Morocco. To get there we had to fly over the Sahara desert. I wrote a detailed description of the whole trip in a letter to my mother. When she received it my laborious effort had been cut into tiny bits of confetti. I did not know the route we were flying was top secret. We also had to pull guard duty at this base but were not under the rule of a crazy Master Sgt. It was on one of my late afternoon guard duty shifts that I encountered the biggest human being I have ever seen. He began to approach from quite a distance away and I could see that his rifle was extremely long, it was made to appear even longer by about a two foot long bayonet. He also wore a coned shaped red hat with a tassel on top. His uniform was one I had never seen before. As he approached I became more and more concerned and when he got real close I got so concerned I pulled out my 45 and cocked it. However, he stopped about 20 feet away. He must have been about seven and a half feet tall not counting the hat. (This has got to be where all the basketball players come from.) Anyway he broke out in a broad grin showing all his specially designed gold teeth and I breathed a big sigh of relief as I realized he did not mean any harm. He then said the word “Charms” which was a popular hard candy at that time. Luckily I had a good supply of them and was most happy to share with him. As soon as he got his Charms he bowed and went on his way. I found out later that he was part of a whole group of soldiers from some country in Africa who were brought in to guard the perimeter of the base. It was most gratifying to learn that they were on our side!
On another occasion myself and another member of our crew were standing guard duty one evening when we noticed a large number of what appeared to be people smoking cigarettes in the distance. They seemed to be coming closer and closer and when they got within shouting range we decided we should tell them to halt. After a number of warnings, which seemed to have no effect on their continued advance, we fired a couple of warning shots. this also had no effect and they came closer and closer. Thinking we were being attacked, we then emptied our 45 caliber pistols into the middle of them. By this time half the base permanent party soldiers had arrived on the scene and an officer came up and asked us what was going on. We pointed to the red lights which were now moving in every direction as though taking cover. He looked at what we were pointing to and then said, “we’ll I’ll be damned Sergeant what part of the country are you from?” I told him California and then he said “Don’t you have any fireflies in that part of the country”? Yes its true, we were fooled by a bunch of damned fireflies. While no action was taken for the ignorance we exhibited, both our faces remained redder than the fireflies for the rest of our stay there.
The experiences in Casablanca were not over however. A Moroccan girl had been selling herself at night to the guys who were on guard duty. She was young and very attractive and her price was a few bars of soap. No one thought much about it since there are prostitutes around every military base. However it happened that one morning we all decided to have a look at Casablanca and started walking toward the city. As we approached the outskirts of town we noticed a group of people gathered around a wall. When we got closer, to our horror and disbelief, those people were stoning the young prostitute to death. We pulled our 45’s and shot over their heads and managed to chase them all away. The girl disappeared but we were told her death was sealed because no one could protect her for ever. We never saw her again. I could not believe there were still places in the world that did this.
There wasn’t much to see in Casablanca and after walking all over town we wound up in a kind of night club. The place was filled with every kind of soldier and sailor from every nation involved in the war. We ordered dinner and were just finishing up when some one said something insulting to someone and the whole place erupted in a free for all brawl. The tail gunner, of course, got into the fray but myself and several others crawled under a table and made our way to the front door. The tail gunner fought his way to the door and we went back to the base. I must mention that the tail gunner, who fancied himself to be quite a fighter, put on the gloves at a gym we were all at, before we left the States. He boxed anyone who wanted to try him. Over in one corner was a black guy working out. The tail gunner walked over and challenged him. One of the guys with the black man said “are you sure?” And the tail gunner, to his sorrow, said “yeah sure.” The next thing we saw was the tail gunners head bobbing like a punching bag on a string as he backed away retreating all over the gym. He finally put up his hands and quit and was then introduced to the man he was boxing; it was Joe Louis’ sparring partner.
Well the day finally came when we made our last trip to our final destination; the 301st Bomber Group, 352nd squadron based just outside Foggia, Italy. After we landed the airplane, was eagerly greeted, and was immediately taken away. I think it was the first G model the 352nd had received. Meantime the officers were taken one way and we, the enlisted men, were taken through foot deep mud to a tent. This thick deep mud was everywhere! And we had to contend with it the whole time we were there.
No one paid much attention to us, except for issuing flying gear and other supplies, for about a week. Then someone suggested we should go each evening to a large bulletin board and look to see if our name appeared on a list called “BATTLE ORDERS.” This was a list of the crews that would be flying the combat mission for the next day and to what airplane they had been assigned. It was then we learned that no crew was given a particular B 17 as their exclusive property and indeed, we flew in all models and in various states of mechanical condition, usually flying a different one each mission. We did fly in some G models but I don’t know if any of them were the same one we brought over.
After diligently looking at the bulletin board for about a week, the day came when Buck Sgt. Sam Hewitt’s name appeared on the list. I was assigned to fly with a crew I did not know. Although I was originally listed as Assistant Engineer and waist gunner I never flew a mission as a waist gunner. From my first to my last mission I always flew as first Engineer and upper turret gunner. The other engineer and I had the same training and from the start were looked on as equal. So myself and the other engineer took turns flying with our regular crew. Two emotions took hold of me as I read my name on the list. One was the sense of glory to finally be part of a group that was taking the battle right to the heart of the hated Germans, and the other was shear fright of not knowing what I was going to go through. We were awakened at 4 am to get ready and have breakfast. I had hardly slept the night before and to look at the breakfast only made me get sicker than I already was from fright. We had no knowledge of where we would be going and usually only found out after we were in the air. The key officers attended a briefing just before each flight and they too had no advance information prior to this briefing. On one mission, which I will describe later, the pilots were given sealed orders not to be opened until we were well into the mission.
We were taken out and dispatched to our assigned ships and I met the other crew members and the ground crew. I was particularly interested in meeting the crew chief who was my counter part on the ground. The ground crew was permanent party at the base and had elected to stay for the duration, but was not required to fly. These people were miracle workers; they could fix anything necessary in order to keep the maximum number of aircraft flying at all times. Some of the aircraft that came back looked as though they would never fly again, but they almost always did thanks to these geniuses.
During the time the officers were being briefed we made sure the machine guns were clean and well oiled, and that we had plenty of ammunition. We also made a quick visit to the latrine, one being conveniently located adjacent to each aircraft. They were in great demand by everyone as the time to leave for the mission came closer. When the officers arrived we all took our places in the airplane and began starting the engines. As an engineer I had been trained to observe the instruments very carefully and to make sure they were all within strict parameters. When the engines began turning over the instruments went crazy and none of them were within the correct tolerance. I then told the pilot, “sir you can not fly this aircraft!” He said, “why not Sgt.”, I pointed to the instruments which were still doing every thing except what they should be doing. He smiled and said “just watch me,” whereupon we began to taxi to our position in the squadron for take off. After take off the instruments began to settle down a bit and the engines sounded solid so, since no one else cared, I decided to concentrate on my duties as an upper turret gunner. Later I found out that the tech orders, so much the bible in the States, were, in the real world of combat conditions, given a prominent position at the bottom of and old file cabinet. In combat conditions there is just not time or the availability of replacement parts to follow any book. Most of the ground crew had been with the squadron from the beginning and had a vast amount of experience to call on. Proof of their ability came when they were awarded a unit citation for not loosing a single aircraft due to mechanical failure over a given period of time.
So with this unexpected and somewhat shaky beginning, I was underway for my first combat experience. Every thing was going along fine as we crossed over enemy lines into northern Italy; no flack or fighters and I began to feel quite elated at being part of this mass force dedicated to destroying the evil will of Hitler. My thinking was interrupted by the voice of the pilot telling us that his buddy who was flying along side of us in the formation was dropping back out of the group and it was his intention to drop back with him to add our guns in case we were attacked by fighters. He asked for each crew members approval which was given without hesitation. Then suddenly from no where came an Italian fighter (I don’t know what kind) he was on our tail, fired a burst at us and was gone before the tail gunner even had time to respond. Although the fighter missed, this little incident brought home the fact to me that this was not a movie or make believe; this was real, and people out there were trying to kill us! The rest of the mission went without further trouble and, as we returned home, was considered by the more experienced members of the crew what they called a “milk run” (easy mission). I would later have the opportunity to understand completely what they meant by this term and what the difference was.
We usually were required to fly about every three days. In-between times we were allowed to go into Foggia and also explore some of the smaller towns. About half of our crew were of Italian decent and one of them had relatives right in Foggia. He was invited to the house for dinner and when he returned told us that the family had invited many eligible young women there in the hopes one of them might be chosen to go to America as his bride. But alas, he had a girl waiting for him at home whom he was very much in love with. As you might have guessed, this guy was the tail gunner. Anyway most of the Italians on our crew spoke the language pretty well so we never had a problem with understanding the people.
The missions that followed my first one were of varied intensity but there were only a few “milk runs.” On one of these so called milk runs one of our good friends was killed when the squadron flew through a little tiny cloud; just about the only one in the sky. Two of the pilots became disoriented and the two B 17s collided. There wasn’t time for them to bail out because they were two close to the ground. Both crews were lost.
When I flew with my regular crew we had very few problems. Our pilot was automatically in charge, he was the kind of guy that did not need to assert his authority, we automatically knew he was the boss. He knew more about our duties than we did and was also a great pilot. He had a natural calmness and intelligence about him that allowed him to keep every one under control in the worst of circumstances. Also by the sound of our individual voices, we knew who was talking over the intercom. So that when fighters locations were called out we knew exactly where to look. I called out a lot of the fighters positions because the attacks were mostly coming from the rear of the ship. The vertical fin prevented firing aft with the upper turret so I had more time to keep the rest of the crew informed where the fighters were coming from. It was with this crew that I experienced what I consider to be the most harrowing mission of all the ones I participated in.
Our group and another B 17 group (some 64 aircraft) were sent out purposely without fighter escort to draw enemy fighters away from the main thrust of the 15th air force. This strategy worked perfectly since the target we were to bomb was a ball bearing factory in Germany and dear to their hearts. The factory was located at a point just within the maximum range of a B 17. That meant that, assuming we weren’t shot up too bad, we would still come close to running out of fuel before returning home. The plan was this: if we were successful in drawing the German fighters away from the main force (which we did; approximately 850 of them), our fighters would come to our aid and hopefully shoot a lot of the enemy down. What actually happened was, while we were still a long way from the target, the Germans attacked with every kind of a fighter we had ever heard of an some we had never heard of. Our airplane was positioned well up in the group and I had a good view of the fray that was about to take place. The German strategy became quickly apparent; they would concentrate on the B 17’s closest to the rear of the two groups and work their way forward. We were in a ‘stair step’ formation which allowed the maximum fire power to be brought to bare on the attacking fighters. But because we only had .50 caliber machine guns and they had 20 mm cannons they could stay pretty much out of effective range of our guns while firing at us. The 20 mm cannons had a type of ammunition which when fired showed up as little whitish orange puffs, sort of like freckles, that would creep up to the tail of a B 17 and nip at it like a mean pup biting at your ankle. There were German fighters everywhere and as their strategy began working the sickening sight of B 17’s going down commenced. I watched helplessly as B 17 engines caught fire, wings broke off, some went horribly out of control and into straight down dives, or spins and some just blew up. Crews were bailing out as their ships went down with some of the less fortunate being unable to do so. I saw one crew member, whose ship was on fire, pull his rip cord too soon and the parachute catch on the tail of the plane. He was hopelessly trapped as the flames crept back to the tail.
We finally got to the target with probably 10 less B 17s than we started with. We and the remaining bomber crews dropped our bombs and began the arduous trip back with the enemy fighters pursuing relentlessly. All this time the lead ship commander was calling desperately for help which were way overdue as originally planned. We found out later that some mix up had thrown our fighter escort off course and they could not find us.
By now, because of the loss of so many ships that were behind us, we found ourselves to be in the unenviable position of “tail end Charlie”! The battle was now approaching two hours, which for an air battle was rare. Our tail gunner had run out of ammunition and came up to where I was to get some of what I had left. While he was gone, in order to keep firing to the rear, the waist gunner would call over the intercom to the pilot to raise the tail so he could fire under the horizontal stabilizer. This proved to work very well and the waist gunner was able to knock down two German fighters. Apparently the German fighter pilots observed that our tail guns were not moving and came in close for the kill, but thanks to Don Betts our dead eye waist gunner, they got killed instead. However, as this arrangement continued, when the request was made to raise the tail, the pilot thought he heard “waist to tail” and failed to raise the tail while the waist gunner was firing. The result was the waist gunner shot right threw the stabilizer. We didn’t know how much damage had been done but had no time to worry about it. We were fighting for our lives. About this time I spotted 32 fighters above us at about 5 o’clock high. At first I thought they were P 51s and gleefully announced it to the rest of the crew. Then as they drew closer I had to correct my announcement and report that they were Germanys best fighters; the Me 109G. As they began peeling off to join in the attack I thought we were finished. The tail gunner was running out of ammunition again, as we all were, and the intensity of the enemy attack was growing by the minute. Then suddenly all the German fighters began running away and/or heading for the ground. I turned and looked forward and from the front of the group came P 51s, P 47s, and P 38s all in hot pursuit of the Germans. Well sir, I have taken many a sigh of relief in my time but nothing like the one I took then. The battle had lasted about 2 hours and 15 minutes and we had lost over half of the B 17s that started the mission. I do not know how many German fighters our B 17s shot down (various estimates were later given) or how many our late arriving escort accounted for; the only thing I know for sure is that our waist gunner got two of them and thanks to Dons quick thinking and the natural team work of our regular crew along with lots of luck we were all still alive and well. The tail gunner probably hit a lot of them also but he was so busy shooting there was no way he could follow them to find out if they went down.
On the way home our pilot looked back at his side of the airplane and said to the crew “I guess we didn’t get hit, the airplane is handling just fine!” No one mentioned the holes in the stabilizer. The first time the pilot saw them was after we landed and when he did see them could not believe his eyes. Miraculously we had no other damage. The two groups were given a Unit Citation for the mission, but this was little compensation to the crews that went down that day.
Note: Sam’s Bomb Group was the decoy for the raids conducted by the combined efforts of the 8th and 15th Air Forces and the RAF, as described below in the official Army Air Force reports:
680 B-17’s and B-24’s bomb airplane factories at Regensburg, Augsburg, and Furth, and ball bearing plant at Stuttgart. This mission is flown in conjunction with Fifteenth AF attack on Regensburg and with major efforts by RAF against Schweinfurt during 24/25 Feb and Augsburg during 25/26 Feb. 31 aircraft are lost.
Continuing coordinated attacks with Eighth AF on European targets, B-17’s with ftr escorts pound Regensburg aircraft factory; enemy ftr opposition is heavy. Other B-17’s hit Zara harbor and Pola. B-24’s attack Fiume M/Y and port and hit Zell am See railroad and Graz A/F. Over 30 US airplanes are lost. HBs claim more than 90 ftrs shot down”
We flew the same kind of mission a few weeks later, only this time the battle lasted about 1 hour and only about twenty B 17s were shot down. We lucked out again on this mission. We came back with no damage at all. The group was awarded a 2nd citation which again did not mean much to those who did not make it back.
On another mission I was watching the B 17 directly behind us when all of a sudden it completely disappeared; completely vanished right before my eyes! As I looked down I could only see bits and pieces of men and machine, floating down like confetti at a parade. A 1000 pound bomb like the ones we were carrying that day must have exploded.
And then there was the mission where the pilots were given sealed orders only to be opened and read to the crews after we had formed the group and were on our way to the target. As the pilot read the orders to us we were stunned. In effect the orders said: if we did not have to jockey the engines too much, and if we were not shot up too bad, we would be 15 minutes short of having enough fuel to get back to base. We were given the options of trying to make it to Russia, getting to Switzerland or ditching in the Adriatic. If we chose ditching in the Adriatic the navy would have ships available to pick up as many crews as possible.
The message went on to say if we were successful in bombing the target, which had never been hit before, it would shorten the war and thereby save thousands of lives. To fly this mission would also mean no fighter escort for some 6 hours. To me the mission, after what we had been through on the above described missions, was the same as suicide. However, as luck would have it, the mission got weathered in and we had to return to base. That night at the officers club the scuttle butt was that our copilot got drunk and took a swing at the Commanding General. He was quickly subdued by our pilot and no charges were filled against him. I did not want to ask the copilot about it so I don’t know for sure if it really happened. But I am sure there were a lot of guys who would have liked to have had a swing at the one who thought up the mission. After the war I saw the movie, Command Decision with Clark Gable, and it helped me to understand better what the commanding officers went through.
At take off on the beginning of another mission with a different crew, we blew a tail wheel tire. It sheared a special bolt and wound up turning 180 degrees facing forward. If a landing were attempted in that position the aircraft would ground loop and at best cause a lot of damage to the airplane and possibly injure the crew. The pilot conferred with me and it was decided to put several parachute harnesses together, hook them on to my harness and hang me out through the wheel well under the tire in an attempt to turn the wheel (about the size of a truck tire) back to its normal position. The copilot meanwhile was flying the airplane as slow as possible without stalling; about 90 mph. I struggled with the tire and finally put my feet on the bottom of the aircraft to gain enough leverage to move it back to the correct position. After being pulled back into the aircraft I used a spent 50 caliber cartridge to replace the pin that had been sheared. We made a successful landing with no damage except the flat tire. During this ordeal I had felt no fear of any kind, but after we stopped I grabbed a barf bucket and lost everything I had eaten that morning.
The pilot, who happened to be our squadron commander, walked up to me and asked me if I wanted a medal or money. I should have said both but said money. So in the next two months I was promoted from Sgt. to Staff Sgt. to Tech Sgt.. Tech Sgt. was the highest rank allowed by the Army for enlisted flight crews. The rules also would not allow him to do it any sooner than one step per month.
But life has a way of evening out positive and negative experiences. A few missions after our successful bout with the blown tail wheel tire I flew a mission with another crew I had never flown with. The pilot of this crew had almost been killed when a piece of shrapnel missed his head by a few inches and slammed into the armor plate behind the pilots seat. As a result he had developed a very short fuse and would easily loose his temper.
In an effort to extend the distance the B17s could fly, fuel tanks were hastily installed in the wing tips with a series of pipes and valves connecting them to the main tanks. We were given a few quick instructions on how to transfer the fuel from the wing tips to the main tanks by various valve combinations and I thought I understood how to do it. As we flew this mission the pilot asked me to transfer the fuel, and I proceeded to set the valves the way I thought they should be. However, the fuel would only transfer from the right wing tip tanks. The pilot began yelling at me and I went back again to try another combination of the valves, but this did not work either. The pilot then really blew which caused me to panic and I could not remember anything of what I had been taught. I worked with the valves furiously right up to the time we had to land but could not get the fuel to transfer. We were now down to almost no fuel in the main tanks and as we circled the field the pilot yelled at me, with insulting words, to fire a flare so that the ground personnel would know we were in trouble. I had never fired a flare before but didn’t dare let him know I wasn’t sure how to do it. Somehow I managed to load the dam thing and fire it. As we landed, because of all the weight of the fuel in the left wing tip, the pilot and copilot had to use all the strength they had to keep the left wing tip from digging into the ground. Had they not been successful we, in all probability, would have been killed. After we landed the crew chief operated the valves and the system worked perfectly. So I went from hero to goat and luckily never had to fly with that pilot again. What a contrast this pilot was from my regular crew pilot.
A number of missions were flown with escorting fighter cover provided during the whole mission. on several missions we were escorted by an all black P47 group. They really gave us great coverage even flew through the flack with us. They called us “Big Brothers”. The biggest hazard on these missions was usually ‘just the flack’ which at times were thick enough to walk on and this also took quite a toll of B 17s. The dog fights that were fought provided quite a show. Many of them took place right above the group as the German fighters tried to attack the bombers. Some of the German fighters would engage our fighters in one on one combat to deter attention while others attempted to shoot down the B 17s. The number of bombers shot down on theses kinds of missions were reduced considerably. The P 51s and Me 109s was pretty much an even match and the outcome when they engaged each other was largely determined by the individual pilots skill and experience. The P 38s were useless in a dog fight but had a superior ability to dive and climb. So what they would do is fly at high altitude and wait for a chance to dive on an unsuspecting German fighter that was concentrating on shooting down a bomber.
Note: In June of 1944 The 332nd Fighter Group was assigned to the 15th Air Force. They were one of the groups that were comprised of the famous “Tuskegee Airman” an all black unit. These brave airman were considered the best and never lost a bomber to an enemy fighter.
We were on the way back from the last mission I flew with my regular crew when our copilot turned to me and said “Sam I am going to check out as first pilot and would like to have you as my flight engineer.” I was delighted and eagerly responded “yes sir!” I never referred to him as sir because he had been an enlisted man before going to cadets and becoming a 2nd Lt.. He detested the caste system between enlisted personnel and officers. However, this anticipated new crew never took place and our copilot never checked out as first pilot.
It was late June, 1944, myself and a navigator with about the same number of missions to his credit as me, were selected to fly with a brand new crew. It would be the first pilot’s first mission as first pilot and the very first mission for the rest of the crew. We took off in the early morning greeted by a beautiful summer day. My regular crew was flying in a position forward of us and I could see the tail gunner clearly as he manned his guns. The target was one of several possible targets near Vienna, Austria.
Note: The mission was on June 26, 1944. Flying out of Lucera, Italy, the 301st Bomb Group, 352nd Squadron, joined the rest of the Fifteenth Air Force for a bombing raid in the Vienna area. This was Sam’s 19th actual combat mission.
677 B 17’s and B 24’s of the Fifteenth Air Force attacked their targets in the Vienna area, hitting a aircraft factory at Schwechat, Marshalling Yards at Vienna/Floridsdorf, and oil refineries at Korneuburg, Vienna/Floridsdorf, Moosbierbaum, Schwechat, Winterhafen, and Lobau. Fighters flew over 260 sorties in support. The primary target assigned to the 352nd Squadron was the Lobau Oil Refinery at Vienna. The aerial photo to the left is of the Lobau oil refinery as it was being bombed during this raid.
At about 1017 hours an estimated 150 to 175 German fighters attacked the formations at 4730N – 1650E on the Austro – Hungarian border south of Vienna. and and a fierce battle ensued. The heavy Bomber gunners and their escorting fighters shot down and destroyed 60 enemy aircraft. Nearly 30 US aircraft (mostly Heavy Bombers) were lost.
The position given in the lost air crew report is located over the towns of Csapod and Csepreg, county of Sopron in Hungary near Pamhagen and Oedenburg. I have recovered two old German newspaper articles from the “Oedenburger Zeitung” dated June 27 and June 28 1944 which roughly translated read as follows”
The article of June 27th:
2 USA-Bombers Crash in Sopron County10 enemy pilots captured
As reported, there was an air raid yesterday in the city and county of Sopron. The Hungarian defense went into action and was successful. As published, 2 USA-bombers crashed near the towns of Csapod and Csepreg. 2 enemy pilots were killed. 10 enemy pilots saved themselves by parachuting. They were captured near the villages of Esterháza, Iván and Csapod by police, along with the assistance of villagers.
2 villagers were injured by enemy paratroopers and had to taken to Kapuvár hospital.
The article of June 28th:
Aerial Combat in the Airspace of Sopron
MTI reports from Lövö:
Aerial combat took place yesterday morning in the airspace of Sopron County. A 4-engine bomber crashed within the boundaries of Bükk and was still burning at midday in the field. The enemy units threw tinfoil ribbons and used Brandplättchen (?) to start fires, which were extinguished. A bomber crashed in the forest of Röjtök, while several bombers crashed within the boundaries of Köszeg. Between Ujkér and Felszopor, crews of damaged crafts parachuted to the ground. 3 of them have already been captured.
Additionally, I have located two Hungarian Articles which roughly translated read as follows:
Twice was a air-raid warning in Sopron.
During Sunday night from 23.24 min to Monday at 21.00 there was an air raid alarm in Sopron. No enemy action was seen. And the 26 of June in the morning 8.45 to 11.01 was a air raid alarm. Few waves of enemy planes were noted. In the area the Hungarian Air force did shoot 2, two engine planes down. One was shoot down by the village of Csaspod , the other near Cepreg . 10 Airmen did jump out of the aeroplanes and have been captured.
Today In Eesterhaza and Fertod, a town in Ivan and Csapod some Airmen descending by parachute where apprehended. Two villagers where injured
and admitted to the hospital in Kapuvar.
After the air raid alarm the newspaper “Üj Sopronvarmegye” was told that in the area some two and possible 4 engine airplanes have been shot down by Hungarian air defense. One airplane according to a telephone message was shut down over the village of Capod and the other close to Csapreg. The airplane shot down close to Csapod started to burn in the air . The Airmen jumped by parachute from the burning plane. The villagers started to search for the parachutist and in no time found them. 10 airman have been captured and 2 airman died.
we neared one of the targets (I do not know which one) we began to encounter heavy flack some of which was uncomfortably close. We successfully dropped our bombs and had just made our turn for home when the flack bursts (mean little black puffs of shrapnel) made their presents felt right at our left wing tip and above my turret. I reported this to the pilot but he, for what ever reason, did not take any evasive action. Soon the flack bursts were appearing right above my turret. To get there they had to go through the airplane. Subsequently we lost both outboard engines. Then the right inboard engine was hit and began spewing oil. The order was given to feather it but somehow in the confusion the only good engine we had left got feathered instead. The engine that should have been feathered ran away and started violently vibrating the whole ship. At this point German fighters arrived on the scene but as yet had not fired at us. Likewise no one on the crew had fired at them. Then that B 17 really began to lurch and shake and was making so much noise it sounded as though it would blow up any minute.
The pilot then uttered the only words I heard him say through the whole ordeal “get ready to bail out!” All crews had to practice the bail out procedure regularly and we always made a big joke out of it. But on this occasion I found myself performing it exactly by the book. My job was to release the bomb bay doors so that myself, part of the crew in the rear and possibly the pilot and copilot, if they chose to go out that way, could exit the ship. With tremendous fear gripping me (fear impossible to describe unless you have had a similar experience), I crawled out of the turret attached my chute to my harness and made my way to the entrance of the bomb bay. The airplane was full of flying debris and shaking so violently one could hardly crawl much less walk. I found the red ball that had to be pulled to release the bomb bay doors and gave it a pull; nothing happened. Then the airplane gave another violent lurch and I felt sure it would blow up any moment. This gave me the necessary adrenaline to pull the ball with added strength and the bomb bay doors came open. I pulled myself out on to the bomb bay catwalk and saw the radio man standing at the other end. He still had his oxygen mask on and all I could see were his eyes which were big as saucers. Looking at him I knew that it was not only me experiencing this fear I am talking about. I had two fears really, one afraid to jump and the other afraid to stay in the airplane. As I was trying to make up my mind I looked back up to the cockpit and saw the copilot getting out of his seat, this told me the final order to bail out must have been given. Still frozen with the two fears, the airplane made up my mind for me. The noise increased and the plane gave another violent lurch. Sure that it would blow up at anytime I placed one hand on the rip cord, the other on the hand that held the rip cord and jumped out head first.
Update June 3, 1999
Last night a crew member of Sam’s original crew was reunited with Sam via phone as a result of this page. He was one of Sam’s best buddies and they had a great time reminiscing after 55 years.
Sam’s buddy stated that they had watched Sam and his crew bail out and that the pilot had put the landing gear down. They thought that Sam’s aircraft was headed for Switzerland until they saw the chutes open up.
He went on to say that after Sam and his crew were shot down the radio man on the original crew got drunk and went to the commanding General’s tent and tried to hit him. The rest of the crew restrained him thinking he would go to the brig. However, the General just patted him on the shoulder and consoled him like a father to a son.
After giving the required count and, remembering the guy I had seen caught up in the tail of the ship that was on fire, a few more counts for good measure and pulled the rip cord. As the silk from the chute went by my face I thought I had lost everything, but then the silk bellowed out and my free fall came to an abrupt stop. The next thing I was conscious of was a German fighter firing a burst to the side of me. He obviously was not trying to hit me and I took it to be a salute from one airman to another. The German flyers were very chivalrous in combat and if a bomber had wounded on board and the pilot put the landing gear down to indicate this, they would fly along side and wait for the crew to bail out without firing on them. For a moment I thought I might be in heaven. Except for the birds singing far below, there was complete silence, a 180 degree change from the environment I had just left. The sky was clear blue, the scenery on the ground was all fresh spring green, and it seemed like I was suspended in space. Then the pain in my groin snapped me back to reality and I realized the buckles on my harness were not adjusted correctly and were causing great discomfort. I grabbed the shrouds of the chute to try and lift myself up but only succeeded in dumping the silk and started falling fast again. This scared the hell out of me and I decided as the chute righted itself, that the pain was not all that bad. Somehow, although I was the lightest man on the crew, I had been issued a 25 foot chute. Also, though I didn’t know it at the time, I had been the first to jump. These two factors caused me to drift far away from the rest of the crew, whom I found out later, were captured right away buy townspeople. It seems our airplane crashed into their town which made them furious and they gave the crew a severe beating. After the war my regular crew tail gunner came to visit and said our airplane continued to fly for quite a distance before it went down. He also let me know that the copilot, who asked me to be his engineer, would not check out as first pilot after I was shot down and continued to fly with the rest of the crew as copilot. They went on to fly their 52 missions and were sent home to train other new crews in the ways of real combat.
Note: In England the bomber crews were required to fly 25 missions to go home. In Italy the requirement was 52. It was thought that the missions out of England were tougher. However, as it became apparent the missions out of Italy were just as risky, so it was decided to give the crews out of Italy credit for two missions instead of one for missions they considered were exceptionally rough. Sam had 18 actual combat flights before his last mission, and had been given credit for 32.
According to the Missing Air Crew report, the crew’s aircraft was a B-17 G -H- # 42 – 31701. The crew consisted of the following: Pilot 2nd Lt. Norman L. Gourley, Co-pilot 2nd Lt. Carson Hughes Jr., Navigator 2nd Lt. Grover C. Williams, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Edward A. Reeves, Flight Engineer T. Sgt. Sam M. Hewitt, Radio Operator S/Sgt Robert E. Ingold, Ball Turret Gunner Sgt. Carl A Seger, Waist Gunner Sgt. Marvin G. Jones, Waist Gunner S/Sgt. Harold H. Turney and Tail Gunner Sgt Robert W Whaley. The entire crew was observed bailing out and the aircraft continued in flight on automatic pilot for a considerable distance before going down.
Meanwhile I had a perfect landing in a meadow. I thought I was on some huge estate because every thing was neat as a pin and very beautiful, but this is just the way the Germans keep their forests. After removing all my heavy clothing I ran as fast as I could for some dense trees and bushes I saw in the distance. I kept running until exhaustion overcame me and took cover under some of the thick bushes. I guess I must have lost consciousness for awhile, when I awoke the reality of what had happened hit me like a sledge hammer blow to the back of the head. No I wasn’t looking at a movie or reading about some one else; this was happening to me! I expected to be found at any time so decided to move on. I looked for my escape kit, which had been in the lower pocket of my flight suit, but it was gone and there was a big tear in it. Apparently it had ripped out when the chute popped open. I knew I was about nine hundred miles from the front lines and that they were some where to the south. I started walking through the forest until I came upon some fields and could hear people who were, I assumed, working there. It began to get dark so I found a tree with a suitable trunk to sleep in where no one could see me, and spent the night there. The next morning I noticed a cart trail near where I had spent the night and then heard someone coming. As I watched I could see that it was an ox cart full of beats driven by a very old man with a long white beard. He was smoking from a long clay pipe, the bowl of which was resting on his lap. As he went by, I noticed that he had the most contented look on his face of any one I had ever seen. I watched him go back and forth for a good part of the day as I tried to figure out what to do. I remembered being briefed that when all other recourses had been ruled out, to try and find peasants working in the fields and ask them to hide you with the hope they might be able to eventually get you into the underground. Here I had the ideal situation; these people were definitely Peasants, I had no escape kit, did not know where I was, and could speak no foreign language. I considered my options awhile longer and then decided to approach the old man driving the ox cart. He soon came along with that wonderful contented look on his face and I stepped out from the bushes and confronted him. He looked horrified and as he frantically reached for his whip his pipe broke into pieces and he began to flog the oxen into a run. As he disappeared down the trail I knew it would just be a matter of time before I would be captured.
Sure enough a few hours later about eighty people from the little town, armed with pitch forks, hoes and clubs came after me. They stopped about 100 yards away, apparently thinking I might have a gun. We were given the choice of taking our 45 pistols with us on the missions we flew or leaving them home. Luckily I decided not to take one. I reasoned that since you only had one clip of bullets, after you fired the last bullet, then what. If you killed one of them what do you think they would do to you. Anyway as some of the braver townspeople came closer, I put my hands high above my head and stood there while they all surrounded me. At first it looked like I was in for a rough time, they kept saying words that sounded like “are you a German” in angry voices. I then said American! And their whole attitude changed. They broke out in smiles, gave me water and food, and motioned, without forcing me, to go with them. As we walked toward their little town they stopped and one of them by very broken English and drawing on the ground with a stick, apologized for what they were about to do. It seems that another airman, some time back, had been shot down and was helped by them to escape. The Germans found out which family hid him and killed the whole family including a little baby in a cradle. I indicated to them that I understood and we continued our walk into the town. Once into the town I was taken to what looked to be the town meeting hall. It was a large room with windows all around it. Soon a big black limousine pulled up and a large, very Jewish looking official, all dressed up in an old fashioned politician type suit came in. His henchmen made me stand in the middle of the room and the ‘official’, in broken English, began asking me questions. He put a large map of Europe on the wall and asked me where my base was. He said he needed to know so he could get me into the underground. He appeared to be as genuine as a three dollar bill, so I indicated a point about where the front lines were in the lower part of Italy and told him that anywhere from that point down would be just fine. He became very angry and I saw a gun displayed for the first time as he demanded I strip off all of my clothes. I could see that they intended to force me if I objected, so I took everything off down to my shorts. The whole town, men, women and children, had their faces glued to the windows outside and my modesty would not allow me to go farther. However the official insisted I take off the shorts also and two of his henchmen, one with the gun, moved in to enforce his wishes. What could I do! I took off the shorts.
Seeing that I was not going to give him any information willingly, I was led to the town prison and placed in a cell. The prison was a family run place with about 10 cells down the hall from the family home. The room had nothing in it except a poop bucket. There was a barred window at one end overlooking a very nice courtyard. The heavy door was locked and had a peep hole in it which was extensively used all night. Directly, they brought in my bed; two saw horses and a wide board along with a blanket. That evening I was served a bowl of very good Hungarian goulash. After a few days of the hard boards I was given a straw mattress. Then a couple of days after that I was allowed to spend a good portion of the day in the courtyard which was more like a large patio. During the time I spent in the courtyard I was never guarded as far as I could tell, and was provided increasingly good food. Then one day (believe it or not) a young and beautiful girl, I later found out was the daughter of the jailer, came and sat down with me. We could not talk much because of the language barrier but did communicate somewhat with sign language. She sewed up the tear in my flight suit and we were getting along fine for about three days, when two guards came and interrupted our relationship. They took me to a bigger prison in another town. The two guards were not Germans; they were dressed in strange uniforms and wore hats that had brightly colored feathers sticking out at the top. Our transportation was an ox cart and took most of the day to get to our destination.
The new prison was run in a more military fashion and I was interrogated regularly. When interrogated I only gave my name, rank, and serial number as we were instructed to do. My recollection is that my stay there was only a few days. These people, again, did not seem to be German soldiers but rather Hungarian or Austrian police, or some sort of military types. After a few days, four guards, with rifles, came for me. I was placed in a position with two of them in front and two in back. They marched me toward a blank wall with many bullet holes in it. As we came nearer to the wall, I thought to myself, that on second thought, maybe I could give a little more information to them besides my name, rank, and serial number. However, when we got right up to the wall the order was given to do a left flank and I was then marched to the rail station.
At the rail station I was turned over to a single guard who took down my name and purchased a ticket for both of us. Once on the train word quickly spread about my presence and soon a woman appeared who spoke perfect English. The car we were riding in filled up with people and the woman asked me many questions, interpreting and conveying the answers to the crowd. This continued during the whole trip which lasted about 5 hours. One of the questions asked was: is it true that in America all the German women are made to serve as prostitutes for the soldiers? I could not believe they could think such a thing and I am sure this reaction was clearly shown on my face. She assured me that this is what the German newspapers were reporting.
The journey ended at a Vienna train station. As I was taken off the train, many of the people that had been listening to me on the trip gave me food of all kinds; so much I could hardly carry it all. As the guard and I waited for transportation to the prison, a young blond hared German pilot about my age, approached and identified himself as a ME 109 pilot. He smoked one cigarette after the other and his hands were shaking so bad he could hardly hold them. He was able to convey in very broken English that he had been shot down five times over his home land. He was positive; however, that they, the Germans, would win the war because of a number of secret weapons his country was developing. As he left he wished me good luck and was sorry for what I was about to go through as a POW.
Soon a truck full of other captives pulled up and I was hoisted aboard with them. As the truck drove through the streets of Vienna to the city prison we were spat on and stoned by some of the people. This contrast to the people on the train caused me to believe that a great division existed in their feelings about the war in both Hungary and Austria.
When we arrived at the prison it looked like it was centuries old. It was a huge place and I am sure it must have housed many notorious criminals. . I was put in a small cell by myself which had a single barred window at one end that looked down into a courtyard. On several occasions as I looked down, I could see very old people being made to run around the perimeter of the courtyard at a fast pace. When they stopped they were being hit with a whip. The next morning the cell door opened and a Jewish girl with a baby strapped to her back, accompanied by an armed guard entered. The girl emptied my poop bucket and tidied up the cell. She was horrified that I had thrown some food I did not like into the poop bucket. She told me the only way she could keep her child was to work with it strapped to her back and that if she slacked off in her work the baby would be killed. This confirmed my thinking about the people being whipped in the courtyard; that they must have also been Jewish. The reason she was so upset about the food in the bucket was that she was only fed once a day and the only food she got for the baby had to come from her breast. After they left I felt so bad and so guilty I couldn’t eat. I was soon to learn how dear food was after the food the people had given me was gone. We were provided one bowl of pea soup with a crust of old bread once a day.
A few days later a guard came and took me to be “deloused.” This was accomplished in a large shower room where strong soap was provided to remove any bugs or other contaminants we might be afflicted with. This was a real treat as I had not had a shower since being shot down. The only other person in the shower with me was an American Captain. As we showered we began to chat and for a moment I forgot where we were. I was taking my leisurely time getting dressed when the guard gave me a stinging slap on the butt to hurry me up. This made me angry and, again temporarily forgetting my circumstance went after him with the intention of hitting him back with my fists. As he saw what I was about to do he started to pull his gun and might have killed me had the Captain not shouted in a loud commanding voice, “SERGEANT!!”. This brought me back to reality and I stopped. After the shower the guard took me back to my cell and as I entered gave me a swift kick while keeping one hand on his gun.
A few days later I was put into another cell with a second Lt. who had been a copilot on a B 17. We were together for about 5 days. We knew the cell was probably bugged and tried not to talk about anything that would be of value to them. Our caution, however, was not necessary, because when each of us were taken one by one for interrogation they knew more than we did about everything; military and otherwise. The German officer that interrogated me had been a butcher in Chicago for twelve years. After interrogation I was taken to a large room full of American airmen all sitting on the floor. In one corner of the room a guy was sitting there swearing and muttering to himself. Since there was space where he was sitting, I went over and sat down beside him and asked him what the problem was. He said he was a P 51 pilot and had been on the tail of a Me 109 when a P 38 pilot thinking his ship was a 109 shot him down. He said, “if I ever get back home I am going to find that blankity blank P 38 pilot if it is the last thing I ever do”.
Then a group of us were taken down stairs and put into a box car. It had nothing in it but straw on the floor. After a while we were hooked on to a train and began to move. My memory is bad on how long we were in the box car but I do know at night the box car was parked in marshalling yards and on several occasions we were bombed by the British. Some of the bombs came way too close; some so close we thought we would be hit any minute. We had very little room in the box car and still littler food. The first food we were given was a loaf of bread with the date stamped on it. The date revealed that it was over four years old and so hard you could hardly chew it. The sanitary situation was atrocious and we were never let out of the box car until we arrived at our destination
Note: The Official Prisoner of War Report states that Sam was held at Stalag Luft IV, Camp No: 54-16, located at Gross-Tychow, in the Prussian Province of Pomerania. There was some confusion as to whether he was at Stalag Luft IV or Stalag Luft III because the letters that Sam sent home bore the return address of Stalag Luft III. Subsequent research has revealed that there was no post office at Stalag Luft IV and all outgoing and incoming mail came through Stalag Luft III’s post office. Additionally Sam stated that he was located in a camp that was about 17 miles from the Baltic sea. Stalag Luft IV was located about 17 to 20 miles from the Baltic Sea and Luft III was about 100 miles south of there. Other information about Stalag Luft IV has been received that confirms that Sam was detained there. Sam told me that adjoining the American camp were British and Russian Camps. The new information received confirms that there were Russian and British compounds adjoining the American Compounds at Stalag Luft IV. Stalag Luft III was mainly a Officers Camp. A recently acquired letter from Col. Howard Bresee Dated Sept. 21, 1944 shown above, also states he was at Stalag Luft IV.
When we arrived at the POW camp we were greeted by a detail of guards armed with rifles. They took us into the compound where we were introduced to the commandant; a German Captain, who, we were told, had had his whole family killed by one of our bombs. Also on hand was a German enlisted man the POWs called “big stoop.” He was about 7 feet tall and delighted in picking up GI’s by the front of their shirts, shaking them and then slamming them against a wall. From this greeting we were taken to the barracks and assigned rooms. Thankfully I never personally had a run in with big stoop.
After getting situated in our rooms, life in the POW camp became pretty much routine. After counting us each morning, we were allowed to roam around the yard or stay in our rooms as we wished as long as we did not get too close to the warning wire. This was a strand of wire about 2 feet high situated about 30 feet from the main barb wire fence. Anyone caught between the warning wire and the main fence would be fired on by the German guards in the machine gun towers. At night guards with dogs patrolled around the barracks and no one was allowed outside.
The food consisted of potato or sometimes barley soup once a day and a quarter loaf of bread once a week. Once a month they would give us one quarter of a Red Cross parcel. The soup was made out of cull potatoes the German GIs did not want. The bread was not as old as the kind we had to eat in the box car but certainly was not any where near fresh. The Red Cross parcels were piled high outside the main fence where we could see them, with more coming in each day, but they would only give us the quarter parcel.
Note: One full Red Cross parcel was a box about 3″ deep and 12″ square and contained the minimum amount of food required to sustain a man for one week at approximately 1700 calories per day. In an American box were small portions of spam, corned beef, powdered eggs, jelly or jam, powdered milk, soda crackers, dried raisins or prunes, powdered coffee, cigarettes, sugar, a chocolate “D” bar, salt and pepper.
Cigarettes were the medium of exchange, and since I did not smoke at that time my bartering position was pretty good. However one of my good friends, who after the war was an usher at my wedding, was heavily addicted to cigarettes and I gave a lot of my ration of them to him.
The British were in a separate compound adjacent to ours and were far advanced in escape attempts. They and the Germans played hide and seek games all the time with the Germans trying to uncover their escape attempts and also trying to find their radio. I do not know how the British got the news to us, but almost every time the daily soup was brought around we were read the latest BBC news. This was a great help for our moral by at least letting us know how the war was going good or bad.
As non commissioned officers we were not allowed to work, they brought in Russians to do all the dirty jobs such as cleaning the latrines. The Germans had devised an ingenious device for sucking out the waist material stored in the latrine accumulation pools. This consisted of a large tank on wheels with a huge valve on top. A Russian would light a match to something near where the valve was located, then there would be an explosion and the valve would lift up about six inches, re-seat and cause enough suction to a hose at the end of the tank to suck out the entire contents of the latrine. On one unhappy occasion for one of the Russians who was standing at where the hose connected to the suction tank, the system back fired and blew crap all over him. We tried to help him by bringing out a towel and clean clothes but the German guards would not let us near him. He was made to work that way for the rest of the day.
Though I knew nothing about the philosophy I now study, I made several observations about Human behavior. Namely, when the chips are down, the order of importance to the human species is as follows: save your own ass number one, second, get food and water and last sex. We had represented in our room about every denomination of Religious belief known in America, but I saw no evidence of any of them doing a satisfactory job of providing stability and calmness during the periods of stress and doubt. The only one who did provide those qualities was a Chinese man who had been shot down flying a mission as a photographer. His name was Chickie Chin. He clamed to be an atheist but, “by his acts,” proved to practice, what I think is one of the deepest meaning of religion. He was the rock of Gibraltar and gave us hope in our darkest hours with his calm and sensible reasoning. Later on during our forced march he was instrumental in saving my life several times. After the war my wife and I spent some good times with him and his wife.
This reminds me; between the time I was taken away from the family prison and when I arrived at the Vienna prison, I was in the hands of a couple of Gestapo agents for a day or two. I can not remember the sequence as to exactly when this took place. They reminded me of Chicago gangsters; real tough guys like the ones portrayed in movies I had seen. Anyway my mother had given me a small Bible with an imitation gold shield on it. My tail gunner was Catholic and insisted I keep a picture of a Saint in the bible. When I was first captured someone took the gold shield from the bible but no one took the bible or picture of the Saint. The Gestapo agents looked at the bible and picture and asked me if I was a Catholic. I had never been a member of any church so I said no. Then they asked me if I was a Protestant and again I said no. Before I could explain, one of them pulled out a knife and said you are a Jew and started after me with the intention of removing my reproductive organs right on the spot. The violence was about to begin but the other agent prevented him from proceeding. They threw me into a cell and in a few days I was again on my way to Vienna.
As Christmas approached some of the POWs started making plans for a Christmas extravaganza to which most of us paid little attention. But when Christmas eve came and the show started we were all in for an unbelievable treat. The Germans allowed them to use a large assembly hall for the performance. The place was full to the brim with many Germans attending, including the commandant and “big stoop.” The situation we were in probably had a lot to do with it, but I think it was the best show I have ever witnessed, before or since, and at any price. They put on a two hour show that included skits; singers, dancers, choruses and stand up comedians complete with costumes and background sets. For a finale they sang ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ and you could hear the sobs all around and see guys trying to hide their tears.
The next day was Christmas and we were each allowed to have a full Red Cross Christmas parcel. The Germans also let us stay out late that night so we could slide on some ice which had formed on a shallow pond some of the guys had dug. The niceties were soon to stop however, and we would soon have to face the biggest ordeal yet in our tenure as POWs.
As the allies closed in from all directions except the north, the German high command decided to vacate the camp. With what ever we could carry we began a forced march going generally in a northerly direction. I made a back pack out of a turkish towel, took one blanket and some eating utensils along with what ever little food and clothes I had.
Note Sam saved the backpack he made and the utensils he brought out with him. The photo on the left is the backpack and the photo on the right is the bowl and eating utensils . The Bowl and utensils are photographed next to a dime to show the size of the bowl he used for his daily ration of food.
Note: When the camp was vacated, it was noticed that just out side the east fence line adjacent to the British compound the Germans had been digging a large hole that measured about 100 ft x 30 ft x 8 ft deep. The Germans claimed that they were going to store potatoes in it.
The march started out with one large group consisting of all the Americans in our compound plus some Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians; maybe others as well. We were guarded by German soldiers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. A warning was given that if we fell out of ranks we were subject to being bayoneted. I do not know exactly what month it was when the march started; probably late January or February but I know I thought it would never end. Each night we were billeted in a vacant lot, most of the time with snow covering it. We huddled together as best we could to keep warm and for food they would dump a basket full of half rotten potatoes on the ground and let us fight for them. The only water we had was melted snow or occasionally some buckets of water they put out for us. They marched us from dawn till dark and as time went on I began to get weaker and weaker. However, so did the guards, even though they were only on duty for eight hours at a time. On one rest period a very old German soldier sat down beside me, took off his rifle, and stretched out exhausted. He indicated that all he had seen in his life was war, war, and more war and he was dam well tired of it. When the order was given to resume the march I noticed he was having a hard time getting up, I helped him to his feet picked up his rifle and put it back on his shoulder. He said “Donka Shane.” (I do not know how to spell it) Note: The correct spelling “Dankeschoen”
As if we didn’t have enough trouble, about the middle of another days march a couple of pilots flying British Typhoons, decided to strafe the column; I guess they thought we were Germans. Everyone including the guards ran for cover. I joined one of the guards in a cement pig sty and as the strafing continued he said fearfully “your comrades!!”. I had no answer for him; the Typhoon flying jerks wound up killing 30 Canadians and no Germans.
Note: Subsequent investigation has determined that this strafing took place on April 20, 1945.
As the march continued I grew very tired; so much so that I refused to fight for the potatoes and went several days without food. Just when I thought I could go no further Chickie Chin, who because he was Chinese had been put in charge of cooking the potatoes, came by and dropped off some nice ones in my lap. He did this on several occasions and I was able to regain my giddy up and go again.
Then a lot of us got diarrhea and one day as we were marching mine got so bad I had to go no matter what and pulled out of ranks. As the end of the column came closer the guys yelled at me to get back in ranks, that if I didn’t I would be killed. In my condition I just did not care, so I took down my pants and started to go. I looked back and out of the corner of my eye saw a huge German Sgt. with a sub machine gun strapped around his neck right behind me. He hit me with his sub machine gun and I went rolling with poop going all over me. I got up and rejoined the ranks pulling my pants up as I went and had to march the rest of the day just as I was.
That night they broke us up into smaller groups and for the first time the group I was in spent the night in a barn. The farmer provided us with a little better grade of potatoes and water, but only enough to drink, so I was not able to clean up much. The next day we all woke up with large bugs all over us, I don’t know what kind they were but they didn’t seem to like the day light and as we began the days march they started dropping off. By the end of the day most of them were gone.
From this point on things improved steadily. We were fed better and actually had access to running water. Also the guards let us do just about anything we wanted to within reason, including going door to door asking for food. All of them that is, but one mean little guard about my size who went out of his way to do rotten things to the POWs, like spit in their food. He was a little Hitler and some how he always wound up as one of the guards in the same group of POWs I was in. I had to put up with his antics from the very beginning of the march and I developed a distinct dislike for him. The other guards just did the job like any American soldier would have done.
By this time those GIs, who wanted to, had already escaped. The guards could care less, because they now knew the war was about over. I never thought about escape because I felt, getting back across our lines would be more of a hazard than just waiting to be liberated. This decision could have been fatal. The next day a German officer pulled up in a German Jeep and carried on a serious and at times heated conversation with the officer in charge of us. Our guards were listening intently. When the visiting officer left one of our guards told us we were lucky. Hitler had given the order to kill all POWs regardless of who they were. The officer in charge of us had refused to carry out the orders.
Note: As conditions worsened for the Germans it became apparent that the High Command was becoming increasingly paranoid. Hitler had decided to use 35,000 POW’s as hostages. His instructions were for the SS to take the hostages to the mountains south of Munich and hold them while he attempted to obtain a satisfactory truce from the Allies. If this was not successful the prisoners were to be executed.
That night there was a horrific tank battle we could hear the guns booming away like thunder and the sky was lit up like a forth of July fireworks show. We estimated the action took place about 30 miles from where we were. The next morning we were still in the barn where we had slept the night before when we heard gun fire outside. Dumb me I threw open the barn door and found myself staring into the barrel of a gun held by a Canadian soldier. I yelled out “what the hell are you doing” and he said “oh a blooming yank! get a gun and help me round up these blokes”. I said “I don’t know how to shoot their guns” and he replied “you don’t have to shoot it just point it at them. This Canadian force that had liberated us consisted of one sober private who was doing all the work and a drunk Lt. who did nothing but drink from the bottles lined up on the dash, give orders to the private and drive the jeep. They were 20 miles ahead of the main force and were supposed to be scouts. Their work was done with us because our guards had surrendered and were all leaning against a fence with their guns beside them waiting, I guess, to be taken to POW camp. Seeing this, the Canadians, with nothing more to do, sped off looking for more people to liberate. Our POWs were heading for the road as fast as they could go and three of my friends were calling to me to come on. I started to run after them and then said ‘wait a minute”. The mean little bastard guard was still standing with the rest of them at the fence. I walked up to him, took his gun, and broke the butt over a fence post. I just wanted to hit him one time, but as I started to do this he fell on his knees and was begging for mercy. I barely weighed 90 pounds and no way could my punch hurt him. I guess he thought I was going to shoot him, anyway I just turned away from him and ran after my friends. As I left I looked back and could see the contempt on the other guards faces and I knew he would get what he deserved.
Note: The forced march began on February 6, 1945 and ended on May 15, 1945. ( 98 days )
As we walked along the road toward our forces we started meeting the tanks that had been in the battle the night before. The GIs manning them wore battle weary faces and looked like they were ready to kill any thing that even looked like an enemy. Part of our clothing was German and they at first did not recognize us. When we yelled at them they broke out in big smiles and threw us candy and K rations. We continued walking and came to an abandoned Volkswagen; one of the very original ones Hitler had ordered made for the common people. It was full of gas so we climbed in and started down the road until we came to an intersection full of all kinds of traffic; cars, tanks and jeeps. The traffic was being directed by a great big tough M.P. When he saw us he came over and said “why are you driving this junk? Hold on and I will get you a good car.” He booted some people out of a big limousine of some kind and we continued our journey toward home in first class style.
We could have roamed all over Europe but all we wanted to do was get home. We drove back along the road the tanks were coming from until we came to a forward command base. The CO was a Lt. Col.. He gave us some real food including the first fresh white bread we had eaten since being shot down, along with more proper GI clothing. We asked him how we could get back home and he said, “dammed if I know Sgt..” He suggested we keep driving back along the road to a more rearward base. We did this and found another base with a full Col. in charge this time. He called for a C 47 and we were flown to a detention camp at Laharve, France near Normandy.
Housed in the detention camp were misplaced persons of all kinds, military and otherwise. We had good quarters, good food and were free to go to town. We placed our names on a list for interrogation and were told it would be several weeks before they could get to our names. Although all of us had our dog tags, they explained that anyone could have taken them from a dead GI, and until they interrogated us they had no way of knowing who we actually were. While we were waiting for the interrogation we decided to spend some time in town. The thing that most impressed me about this French town was: as we were walking behind a very nicely dressed couple, I noticed they were having a normal conversation. Suddenly he walked up to a urinal provided right on the sidewalk and relieved himself with her right beside him and they never broke their conversation or showed any sign that this was anything but normal. I guess in France it is normal but it sure was strange to me.
Finally my turn came to be interrogated. After a number of questions I was asked where I was from. I told him California. He said, “do they raise oranges there?” I replied “they sure do”. Then he said, “I understand the oranges in Florida are better” I responded with an emphatic “they sure as hell are not!” He broke out in a broad grin and I was an American soldier again.
We were soon on a crowded troop ship with mostly ex POWs aboard, heading for the good old U. S. of A. The trip took about ten days without incident. When we docked we were greeted by a band and real American Red Cross girls handing out doughnuts and coffee. No one even tried to hide the tears of joy that ran down our faces since most of us, at times now past, thought we would never see home again, yet here we were; we had somehow been the ones that survived.
Without much delay we were put on trains destined for our individual homes. The trip to California was delightful. We had staterooms with comfortable births, toilet, and shower facilities and were fed delicious food in the dinning car. When the train was delayed for any reasonable length of time we could go to town and were given a time the train was due to leave. Believe me we were never late getting back to the train.
I was let off at Camp Beal in northern California. From there I was turned loose with papers giving me temporary duty at home. I headed for my brother Cliffs home. He had a boat wharf business in Vallejo and I stayed with him for a couple of days. The first night I poured out the whole story to him and we were up all night. He decided to drive me home to El Monte and the closer to home we got the more nervous I became. One of the first things I did was find my future wife Betty. She was working as a rivet gun operator helping to build C 47s. We were married while I was still in the Army. My best man was my pilot and the two ushers were fellow ex POW’s, one of which, was the guy who had the smoking problem.
The day then came when I would be getting out of the Army. The room where the separation business was being conducted had a series of stations, each part of the process of getting discharged. The last station was a table full of papers for us to fill out. I glanced at them and noticed an oath that sounded like the one I took when I came into the Army. Sure enough they were reenlistment papers. I dropped that paper like it was on fire and proceeded with great haste out the door a free man. The date was October 6th 1945. I would not see my 21st birthday till August 1946.