By LT. ROBERT L PIOLI
This is an amazing story. It was provided to us with permission from Ray Schwabe.
It brings great pleasure to share this "Reluctant Hero's" story. It is a bit long, but surely could be volumes longer. I strongly encourage you to read it all. One key section that we would like to emphasize is the following towards the end of Lt. Pioli's time under German imprisonment nearly 76 years ago to the day:
"Then, finally, the most memorable day in my entire life, Sunday, April 29, 1945. It was a bright sunny day; a P51 buzzed the camp at rooftop so close you could see the pilot wave to us and a barrage of gunfire sounded just outside the camp. We were beside ourselves, all certain this was IT! Then all hell broke loose in the camp; bullets were flying from all directions. We hit the ground terrified that we had bought it and this the last day of our war. As suddenly as the gunfire started, it stopped and the stillness was deafening. Then came the rumbling of the tanks. The most beautiful people in the world, The 14th Armored Division, their tanks came crashing through the gate. Those poor GIs, we mobbed them, they were literally covered with humanity. We were overjoyed to see their friendly smiling faces.
...And them the most dramatic and emotional moment I have ever experienced occurred. Off in the distance we could see the Stars and Stripes slowly being raised over the nearby town of Moosburg. It was indescribable; there was not a dry eye in camp. I still get emotional when I think back to that moment. The flag may just be a symbol to many, but to me it's Moosburg and that day in April. I love to see our flag flying.
The Red Cross supply lines were cut by the advancing Americans and our food supply ran out shortly after liberation. The GIs did what they could for us and tried to explain that Patton's Armor advanced so fast that it outdistanced the field kitchens and to be patient. How could we be patient, liberation day had come and I think we expected warm clothes, food and home right now, today not tomorrow. Then lo and behold, over the horizon came the man himself, General George S. Patton! He was just what one expects, shiny helmet, trench coat, pearl handle six guns and always standing in the shiny jeep. What a figure impressive to say the least, we stood in awe. He seemed to take one look at us and gave the order "Feed these boys". That's it, that's all! Field kitchens materialized out of nowhere and we had hot food. The man is my Hero."
A POW’S STORY - WWII
LT. ROBERT L PIOLI
US ARMY AIR CORP
2nd Bomb Group
15th Air Force
Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941 was a shock and a tragedy, in my mind it was all that, but I also looked on it as an opportunity to add some excitement to my ostensibly dull life. I was a High School graduate and employed in a chemical plant working for hourly wages. Higher education did not fit into my plans, our neighborhood was an ethnic "ghetto" of immigrants and first generation Americans who never considered higher education as an alternative to getting a job, marrying, having a family and settling in or near the neighborhood. I did want more out of life but didn't know what, I had little or no direction. I even attempted to enlist in the Marine Corps in the summer of 1940, but my mother adamantly refused to give her permission. After the outbreak of war I researched the branches of the service in earnest, with an emphasis on glamour. I really didn't know which way to go, my friends were leaving and I was still in the daily grind, I just wanted to go. I settled on the Army Air Corps, it looked pretty good to me. I applied for Aviation Cadet training and underwent the written and physical examination, passed everything with the exception of the weight requirement. After high school I had ballooned to 190 lbs., I was required to weigh a maximum of 172 lbs.. Two weeks later, I weighed in at 170 lbs. was accepted into the Aviation Cadet Program and informed that my appointment would be forthcoming in 6 months or longer. Too long, but I did have an alternative, I could volunteer for the draft as an Aviation Cadet and take my chances on an opening occurring in less than 6 months. My Mother would never hear of enlistment or volunteering of any kind, she understood that I would be drafted and that was the only way her son was going to war! I greatly respected her wishes but I just had to get into the war. Through much subterfuge, I volunteered for the draft. I was inducted into the Army in Buffalo, N.Y. and sent to nearby Fort Niagara. The day was October 23, 1942. My stateside Army career was fairly typical. I left Fort Niagara bound for Mitchell Field N.Y. where I waited with other future cadets for an opening in the Aviation Cadet Program. After a relatively short period we were sent to San Antonio, Texas, for classification, I thought I really lucked out. I was accepted as a Bombardier candidate and sent to Houston, Texas, and preflight schooling. Following preflight I entered Bombardier training at Big Springs, Texas, commissioned a 2nd Lt., and graduated with the class of 43-9, in June 1943. Unlike some Bombardiers, I was not a pilot reject. I requested Bombardier training for several reasons, among which are: 1. It was the shortest training period, and I was concerned that the war would be over before I could get into combat. I can hardly believe I felt this way, but I did. 2. I had a motion sickness problem and felt I couldn't accept the responsibilities of piloting or navigating. I didn't realize how serious a problem my ailment was until I began to fly the low level training missions. I was airsick day in and day out. I still wonder how I did it, but I was determined not to flunk out. Oddly, and I still do not understand, but I never became airsick in a B-17. Even today, civilian airplanes and automobiles can make me ill. After graduation I bounced around without an aircrew assignment to such bases as Salt Lake City, Utah; Mountain Home, Idaho; Moses Lake, Washington; and Rapid City, S.D. I ended up in Rapid City, S.D., at Christmas time. Since I still was not assigned to a crew I applied for and received a real plum...Christmas Leave. I was elated, I was going home, but life does have its dark moments. My leave was cancelled the day before I was scheduled to leave. I was assigned to a crew in training as a replacement Bombardier and I accepted this as just another part of Army life. But to my astonishment, I later learned that the individual I replaced had been grounded because of CHRONIC AIRSICKNESS. It was completely foreign to me that an Air Force Officer would conduct himself in this manner. Shame. My assignment was to the 483rd Bomb Group, 815th Squadron. Coincidentally the squadron insignia was a red Devil very similar to the Red Devil of my later squadron, the 96th. The group left Rapid City and completed training at McDill Field in Florida. The training at McDill was rigorous; we flew simulated bombing missions, practiced formation flying and just slept, day in day out. Rarely did I visit nearby Tampa. Up to this point in my career I was enjoying the carefree life of an Officer, reveling in the social life and basking in that debatable limelight a uniform brings to one. However, this way of life was all style and I needed substance. Now I felt I had it all, I was an integral part of the best combat air crew in the Air Force flying in the superb B17, well trained and extremely confident in my abilities. It was a heady feeling, I was ready. We left McDill field for staging in Savannah, Georgia, preparatory for overseas assignment. In my euphoric state I unthinking wrote to my parents that I was about to leave for overseas assignment. My Mother was a teenager who lived through WWI in Italy, in fact one of her brothers died in an Austrian POW camp. She knew war firsthand. That letter must have shook my parents to the core; they dropped everything and visited me in Savannah. I was surprised, pleased and concerned, civilian travel in 1944 was no mean task, but for two who had lived all their American life in Western New York, had limited funds, and only a working knowledge of the English language I thought the trip was impossible, they would never reach Georgia. They made it and it was a great visit. The scene at the train when we said our good-byes was heart rending. I thought my Mother was going to faint and my Dad fought back the tears. It was difficult for me to understand, I was riding the heights and my parents were in the depths. The aircrews left Savannah in March 1944. How dramatic, just like the movies: sealed orders to be read to the crew after we were airborne. When I learned it was the ETO I felt at last I was finally embarked on my personal crusade to rid the world of the Nazi horde. Little did I know soon this feeling would end. We flew to Europe via the southern route, stopping at such exotic places as Puerto Rico, British Guinea, Brazil, Dakar, and Algiers. It truly was a poor man's vacation, and I marveled at all those strange sights that up until now I had only read about. The world was my oyster and I could hardly contain myself. We landed on one of the many airfields around Foggia, Italy in March 1944. I do not recall when we were told to report to the 2nd Bomb Group, 96th Squadron as a replacement crew. It didn't bother me in the least, I was excited and eager to get on with it, and I was finally a member of the 15th Air Force. I can still vividly remember my first day with this veteran combat group. The B17s were returning from a mission; I saw blood and guts for the first time. I had heard of B17s exploding in midair and that "quaint" custom of counting parachutes to determine how many air crewmen managed to leave a stricken B17. At that moment, it really hit me hard; "I am not going to survive this war". I really resigned myself to the reality that I would never see home again. The "veteran" crews paid little attention to us. Outside of the polite greetings, they wanted to avoid any close friendship, since one or the other of us was certain to go down sooner or later. Hard for me to swallow but it was an accepted fact of life or death. I'm always reminded of my own situation as a replacement when I see an old war movie in which a GI looking for his buddy visits another unit in a combat zone. No one remembers his buddy, until an old veteran says, "Oh yeah, that must have been that replacement kid. He caught it during that last patrol". The GI sadly turns away and says; "They didn't even know his name". I seemed to be the perennial replacement. The morning briefings before a mission were fascinating in an eerie way, matter of fact and very businesslike. You would walk into the briefing room expecting the worst, and in the pit of your stomach wondering if this was the day. The curtain covering the huge map would be opened revealing a ribbon extending from our base to the target of the day. The longer the ribbon, the longer the mission, and the more the room would erupt with the moans and groans. I tended to discount the intelligence reports. They never told me what I wanted to hear. When they said, "Expect light anti-aircraft fire over the target", I thought - it's going to be heavy; when they said heavy, I would think they are wrong again - it surely is going to be light. Photographs of the target were shown to all, and the sighting points for the Bombardiers were pointed out. The photographs were of course aerial, and were always perplexing to me. They all looked alike. I wouldn't have recognized an aerial photograph of my hometown. I would always look over at other Bombardiers and wonder if they saw what I saw, they all seemed to be nodding and knowing where they were going. We would then ride out on the tarmac to our airplane and wait and wait for the order to get into the ship and prepare for takeoff. Meanwhile the knot in your stomach would get tighter and tighter. The mission takeoff was both awe inspiring and frightening. It seemed as though every B17 ever built was lined up, with engines revving. When the green flare went up, every B17 seemed to start taxiing in unison. I'm still in awe today when I see documentaries of these takeoffs. This was the moment when you were all alone with your thoughts. Your actual takeoff was frightening when you thought of what would happen if a bomb laden B17 would be so unfortunate to crash. You breathed a sigh of relief when you were safely airborne. The sight of hundreds of B17s seemingly milling around the sky and then orderly lining up in tight formations was something to behold. It was exhilarating to be an integral part of such an armada, bombers all around you as far as you could see, and in the far distance our beloved fighter escort. The majority of the fighter escort was usually P38s, and we liked that, for there was no mistaking their unusual twin fuselage silhouette. However, when we were under attack by German fighters, everything was split second and our gunners had no time for identification. Anything pointing its nose at a bomber was fired on. I wondered about all that time I had spent in Aircraft Identification class. My first mission was a tribulation. I do not remember the target, but I well remember that as we flew over Yugoslavia. The air suddenly filled with anti-aircraft fire, puffs of black smoke with red centers all around us. It was frightening to me, but the veterans of our mixed crew laughed and passed it off as a nuisance, not to worry. I looked down and thought, "Someone down there is firing at me with deadly intent. That is not a nuisance". I then began to set up the Norden Bombsight, feeding in all that data necessary for that legendary pinpoint bombing. I was all thumbs. The harder I tried the worse it got, I was so nervous and scared I was barely functional. Nearing the target, we encountered more anti-aircraft fire. Now it was heavy. The old saying, "So heavy you could walk on it", wasn't far from the truth. I was totally messed up and scared. I dropped the bombs on the lead Bombardier's bombs and hoped nobody noticed my performance. All that training, and I knew I was good at my job, but no one was firing at me then. Now under enemy fire I'm so incompetent. After one mission, and almost overnight, I was a hardened veteran. I was still perpetually scared, but now I seemed to accept it and keep it under control. Over the target, a rush of adrenaline would give me a high that was nothing I had ever experienced before or since. I didn't realize how hardened and callous I became until during one raid I glanced over to our wingman to see if they had dropped their bombs but they were not there. One moment there they were, and the next completely vanished. I was told over our radio that they dropped out of the formation and exploded. I felt some remorse for the crew, but not what I expected. Ten men just disappeared, and I treating it like another day at the office. There just was nothing I could do, and simply accepted it as occupational hazard. However the feeling was somewhat different when you watched a B17 spiraling out of control and counting the emerging parachutes. You felt that you were in that ship with the crew, urging them out and counting each tumbling body and open chute as a great victory. You practically shouted, "Come on, come on, get out!” and when the count reached ten, you were so relieved that everyone made it out. If the count was less than ten you felt great sorrow for those who had bought it, and were going down with the ship, and then the unwelcome guilty feeling of elation that you were still spared. I was totally spent and emotionally drained after each mission. I do vividly recall the mission to Ploesti. Gyor was a personal catastrophe, but Ploesti was spectacularly frightening. I believe our raid was the 15th Air Force's first revisit to Ploesti since the earliest ill-fated, low level raid. They threw everything up at us. You could barely make out the other formations through the anti-aircraft fire it was as dark as night. Fighters did not hit our formation but they were all over the B24s. It was joke among B17 crews that when you saw a German fighter, you held up a sign saying, "We're B17s, B24s following us", and then the fighters fearing the firepower of the B17 would leave and attack the B24s. They seemed to be doing just that on this raid. Ploesti was an enormous oil field and refineries stretching for miles, no trouble finding that target, just drop your bombs anywhere and you were sure to hit something worthwhile. We left Ploesti with huge columns of black smoke filling the sky. It really was a piece of work, but I did not want to go back to that place, the Germans were too protective of that target! I have since received the official report of my last mission. It was interesting to read the, matter of fact, military description of an event that had such an impact on my life. It was a nice sunny April day. I was thinking and hoping the mission would be a milk run. Everything looked so peaceful before the bomb run. Then all hell seemed to break loose. I beg to differ with the official report. Instead of 20 to 30 ME 109s, I thought there were 120 to 130 ME 109s. They seemed to be all over the place. Everyone in the crew began to scream obscenities and directions at the same time..."Bogeys at six o'clock, nine o'clock", and it seemed all around the clock. It was the Fourth of July personified, 20mms exploding in front of me and rockets lobbing in from all directions. The plane began to fill with smoke and the pilot spoke those fateful words, "We're going down, everybody get the Hell out". My first thought was how in the Hell does one jump out of an airplane. I never considered this possibility. The Air Force in its infinite wisdom never once told me; "If at anytime you are forced to leave the aircraft at 23,000 ft., you first.......". Physically, ever nerve in my body was quivering, but mentally I was thinking like a rocket scientist. How odd, I thought. I was also a bit relieved. One never is certain how he would react to such a life threatening situation, I was thinking that one out of two wasn't all that bad. I crawled to the nose hatch; I couldn't walk as I was shaking like a leaf in a windstorm. The hatch was already open; the Navigator left so quickly that I never even caught a glimpse of him. He apparently knew more than I did. I looked down at the ground that seemed to be miles away. I thought that diving wasn't the way to go, I would just ease myself out as we did when the plane was on the ground. Wrong, the air stream slammed me against the fuselage. I was forced to climb back in. I knelt again and dove out headfirst. This was also not the way; I pinwheeled head over backside and immediately became airsick. I couldn't stop the pinwheeling, but I thought I had better open my chute, because if it didn't open, I would have time to tear it open. I pulled the cord. What a shock, the harness was apparently a little loose, I felt like someone kicked me in the groin. I started to oscillate 180 degrees and I was getting sicker. I was like a rag doll not being able to do a thing but hang. A ME 109 circled me and I wished he would shoot and get me out of my misery. In the distance I could see the air battle and hear the bombs exploding. Then I heard - snap, crackle and pop, and I thought what in the Hell is going on now? Looking down I could make out a group in uniform and I could see flashes from rifles. I shouted, "This isn't fair. You can't do this". Then the ground hit me. Wow! My ankle popped and I lost consciousness. When I revived, a group of civilians were all over me yelling in Hungarian. I would have been a goner if German soldiers hadn't pulled them off. I was thrown into a stake-bodied truck. Civilians suddenly mobbed us, spitting, shouting obscenities and throwing things. They were understandably almost out of control. The truck finally shot out, I'm not sure we didn't hit someone. The Germans thought this was funny. As the truck drove off I realized we were headed towards Gyor. Clouds of smoke were visible in the direction we were driving. We drove into Gyor, and right alongside what obviously had been our target. There was a brick wall to our right, intact, but beyond, the wall was a shambles. Twisted steel and fire, a real mess. To our left was a residential area of sorts and it was completely intact, not a brick or timber out of place. From what we could see every bomb fell directly on target. I thought, Boy!, we really are as good as we think we are. As we drove by I saw a priest kneeling over what obviously was a deceased victim of the bombing. He rose as we passed, shook his fists and yelled at us. Being Roman Catholic, just hours before I celebrated Mass, partook of communion and was blessed by a priest. I knew God and my church were on my side. How could this Hungarian priest castigate me for doing my sacred duty? It was confusing. We were taken into Budapest, crossed the Danube River and stopped at what I believe was the Hotel Metropole. My reaction was, "How nice of them and for us. They are putting us up in a hotel!". They prodded us through the lobby and into an ornate ballroom. We were given a slice of ersatz black bread (the infamous Schwartzes Brot) and at first glance what really looked like an ice cream bar. It wasn't ice cream it was pure animal fat of some kind, we were expected to spread it on the bread. Ugh. Then, lo and behold, who walks in on us, but a Luftwaffe Pilot, preening like a peacock, and so resplendent in his bemedaled dress uniform. He pompously informed us he personally shot us down and he was going to do the same to the rest of the "Americanish Luft Bandits" as he referred to us. He was the most overbearing individual I ever met. I looked like a street person alongside him. I was covered with vomit, unshaved, dirty, and an ankle that was throbbing like your worst toothache. I told him all Americans didn't look like me and one day he would get his due. He laughed. We were in the hotel but a short time and I could never understand why this brief stop at such a grand hotel. We were then taken to a civilian jail for the night. Our cells were at one end; the other end housed civilian prisoners. They were not criminals they were political prisoners. We didn't sleep a wink. They were really working over the civilians. We heard screams, moans and groans all night. I was sure they were coming for us next, but they never came. It was awful, I don't know what they were doing to those guys, but I could imagine all sorts of vicious things. Those poor souls were really hurting! The next morning we were taken to what appeared to be a Hungarian military establishment near or in Budapest. I was shoved into a small room better suited for brooms; I was alone in an inky blackness and expecting the worst. I ran through the entire gamut of human emotions, all bad. I have no idea how long I was kept in that place. In retrospect I do not think it was more than a couple of days if that, but it seemed an eternity. I was taken out for interrogation at random times. I never saw the out-of-doors, daylight or a clock during this period. It was an eerie feeling. Alone, my mind would relive over and over again all those pleasant moments of my life, while the body seemed to float in the blackness. An Afrika Korps Major, he made sure I was aware of who and what he was, conducted all the interrogation sessions. He repeatedly asked what our army was going to do at Anzio ( how in the world would I know) and of all things my home address. I kept telling him my name, rank, and serial number as per the "Geneva Convention". I knew that this was all you were required to give your captors, this and absolutely nothing more. One time he shoved an official looking document across the table to me and said, "Read". It was titled "Geneva Convention", and this document actually stated...Name, rank, serial number and HOME ADDRESS! I brazenly shoved it back and shook my head, it was pure instinct, I was so nervous and scared I couldn't talk even if I wanted to. He really became agitated, rose and shouted, "We have ways of making you talk". I was sure he was going to pull out my fingernails and hoped he wouldn't do anything to my groin area. At one time he said "We can shoot you and no one will ever know", and pointed a Luger to my head. I was terror-stricken and could only shake my head. I just could in no way give him my home address. I thought that with this information he could and would turn my parents into sabotage agents (I truly did believe this would happen) and I was convinced my mother would do anything and everything if it meant her sons life. Almost as suddenly as it started the questioning stopped. All this time, he never once asked me about my military unit. He told me; he seemed to know everything about the 2nd Group, the Wing and the 15th Air Force. He even had knowledge concerning the physical layout of the base down to arrangement of some offices. I was somewhat perplexed, how could he have all this confidential knowledge and not know my home address? I was removed from solitary and placed in a rather small room with four other POWs. The room was bare except for a pile of straw for sleeping purposes in one corner. We seemed to be singled out and separated from all the others. We could see the other POWs exercising in the courtyard below our room, and appearing to be fed and reasonably clean. We were deprived of everything except for occasional food. They harassed us daily, bursting through the door, rifle butting us to attention, then an Officer would enter look us over and leave, never saying a word. One night the British RAF conducted a raid nearby. We witnessed a movie like night bombing raid, searchlights, anti-aircraft fire, tracers, rockets and heard the bombs exploding. It was a spectacular show and we stood at the window and foolishly cheered them on. It apparently irritated the guards outside our room; they opened up with gunfire into our room, which suddenly seemed to be full of bullets. We dove into the corners trying to get out of the line of fire. They just kept pumping round after round into the room. The firing finally stopped and the door slowly opened. The outside light cast silhouettes of the raised rifles into our darkened room and you could hear them crank another round into the chambers. I was convinced we were to be summarily executed. This time I was absolutely sure I was going to die. Not the noble combat type of death where you do have some opportunity to save yourself, I faced that, but a cold-blooded execution. Sheer Terror! Your life doesn't flash before your eyes, you pray hard. I must have repeated the Hail Mary a thousand times. Again, I was shaking uncontrollably, praying and very coolly thinking...I can't lie here like an animal and die. When they point their rifles at me I somehow am going to fight with my bare hands. I was ready to do just that, when they closed the door and left us alone. It was a miracle none of us were hit. At first morning light the door burst open, rifle butts again, followed by irritated officers asking why we attempted to escape during the night. I see it now for what it was - the initial stage of "Brainwashing". Over a prolonged period of time I would have been putty in their hands. It was just a taste of what our POWs in Korea and Nam went through. I've seen our POWs, with faces bruised, and a hang dog expression, deliver in a humiliating monotone, what appears to be a traitorous statement. My heart goes out to them. Thereby the grace of God go I. I am convinced that in expert "PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE" hands I would have done or said anything my captors requested. I thought at the time I was the cock-of-the-walk, but in reality I was a rather immature High School graduate. Son of formally uneducated immigrant parents, and away from a warm and loving home for the first time; I wouldn't have stood a chance. One morning I was pulled out of the room and back to interrogation. The Major informed me my fellow POWs were being sent to a POW camp and did I want to go with them? My home address and I was out of there. I would have given almost anything to get out of that place and away from him, but I shook my head NO. He went into his usual propaganda tirade about our common enemies, the Jews and Communists, and why was I fighting innocent Germans? He went at it for some time and then disgustedly waved me out. I was placed in a boxcar, and I felt great relief. Sitting in that boxcar, I began to wonder, "How in the world am I now going to let my mother know that I'm alive and not divulge my home address". It may seem such a trivial matter today, but I really struggled with my dilemma. If I thought I was in a quandary it was compounded when an individual wearing an official looking uniform walked into the car. He passed out POW letterforms, and informed us that we could now write home. Now what in the Hell do I do? Give them my only secret or let my parents wait until the end of the war to find out whether their son was dead or alive. My mother would never survive this cruel mental torture. I wrote home! I did not want to go back to that room. I learned after the war that this first letter never reached my mother. I'm convinced now that if I refused to write home, that Major would have surely hauled my butt out of the car and back into the room. Now with the objectivity of time, I believe I was a small part of an overall psychological plan to find ways to extract real and important secret information in the subtle manner. I still have that gnawing feeling that I did not conduct myself in a military manner, befitting an Air Force Officer. We traveled northward in the boxcar to Germany through Southern Europe; it was both quaint and beautiful country. To one who thought a trip to downtown Niagara Falls was an event, this was "National Geographic" come alive. I faced another aspect of war that was enlightening; the people in these occupied countries were hostile toward us. The Red Cross at one stop even refused to give us food. All along the route people made threatening gestures and screamed at us. I thought we were liberators and why didn't they welcome us as such, but war for any noble cause is Hell for the poor people who live in it. I can now understand their attitude towards us. We arrived in Sagan, Germany (it is now in Poland) in early May. I was a mess. My jaw was so sore I could hardly open my mouth, my kidney area ached from the pounding and my ankle was still throbbing. I hadn't washed, brushed my teeth or even taken off my clothes for a month or so. But if I thought I was in tough shape what I was about to witness made me look like Little Boy Blue. As we marched to the camp we passed what appeared to be a garbage dump. Out of all this trash came these things that did not appear human. Pitiful creatures literally clad in rags. The guards prodded us on and said, "RUSKIES, RUSKIES", as though they were less than human. These were Russian POWs! It's no small wonder the Russian POWs went berserk when they were finally liberated. I was assigned to the Center Compound, Stalag Luft III. Life in a POW camp has been documented in books and films. But one who has not experienced this life could never relate to the emotional roller coaster a POW experiences. Hunger, and not the kind when you miss a meal, but total and obsessive hunger; You fantasized food, all your thoughts were about food. Your talked about food during every waking moment. Then during the night you dreamt food. Deep depression, thoughts of family and home locked you in the depths. This emotion was the cruelest, some could not cope, they simply retreated within themselves, and shut out everything else. Numbing cold, it was always cold, bitter cold. You never warmed. I have great difficulty remembering the summer of 1944. Total boredom, you were reluctant to arise in the morning and face the prospects of another day, and grateful for nightfall and sleep which would eliminate a few waking hours of captivity. Despair that the war would never end and you were doomed to captivity forever, then anger at your captors and wishing them a most terrible death. Followed by shame, that you could have such thoughts. I learned early on that the only way to keep your emotions and thoughts on an even plane was to keep busy. I learned to play Bridge and Chess. I participated in any and every sporting event. In the summer, the parade ground was set up for softball and in the fall it was lined for football. Touch football was popular, but it was more mayhem than touch. It was an outlet for all those pent up frustrations, you hit and were hit. Every barracks had a team entered in a league and the competition was fierce. Pressure!...a four foot putt to win the U.S. Open is a piece of cake compared to third and one with a thousand screaming POWs lining the field. Each with a D Bar riding on the outcome. A D Bar was that terrible tasting, nutritional (?), semi-sweet chocolate bar we received in the American Red Cross parcels. The D Bar was legal tender in camp and could buy anything and everything. It was rumored that a D Bar was exchanged for a $100 IOU, I believed it. I volunteered for anything and everything, contrary to the old Army rule. It helped, some would just lay in their bunks and stare into space. Escape was on ones mind constantly. It was well understood that it was ones duty to escape their captors, but one did not fulfill his duty by storming the barbed wire and running helter skelter in the countryside. Such activity was not only sheer stupidity but was counterproductive to a well planned escape. It would serve no purpose and result in increased surveillance and limit privileges that were necessary for escape preparations. Under penalty of Court Martial each and every escape attempt had to be submitted in writing to an escape committee that was called "The X Committee". If approved every possible assistance was given. Germany was a police state, and as such everyone was required to have identity papers that were checked wherever you went. These papers were made available, along with civilian clothing, currency, compasses, maps, and even train timetables. Along with all this you were availed instruction on how to conduct yourself so as to blend into the civilian population. It was amazing that in a POW camp all this was available to you if your plan had any reasonable chance for success. I participated in a very small way in several escape plans, they never came to fruition, but it was exhilarating to be involved in something productive and noble. I learned straight away that I was not cut out to be either a POW or an escapee. The "Great Escape" occurred in March 1944, 80 British Officers succeeded in tunneling out of the North Compound. Four of the Officers were captured immediately, 73 were captured later and three succeeded in reaching total freedom. The time, effort, and ingenuity involved in this escape defies comprehension. The German high Command was infuriated, the Camp Kommandant was relieved in disgrace and precipitated a "Grossfalandung", the highest search order in Germany which involved 5,000,000 Germans in the ensuing roundup. Hitler was outraged and ordered 50 of the British escapees to be executed. Stalag Luft III was still in a state of shock and mourning when I arrived. It was inconceivable that the Germans would execute 50 Officers for doing what they considered their sworn duty. We were not aware of the "Holocaust" at this time. If we had been aware, we would not have been surprised that the Nazis were capable of such a barbaric act. Rumors were rampant. The SS was coming to shoot all the POWs. One in ten were to be executed, and anyone even thinking of escape was to be shot on the spot. None of the rumors were founded but they were all believable to us. Normalcy, such as it was, returned in time. "The X Committee" was again operational and escape attempts continued. The entire camp seemed to be aware of an escape in progress, it was no secret to us. The attempt was usually at night for obvious reasons, and you lay in bed with bated breath and hoped and prayed that it would succeed. No one slept, you kept waiting and hoping that you would not hear any unusual activity that would signal discovery by the Germans. When the morning came after the longest of nights, the camp was abuzz..."He made it. He made it. He's outside". There was a bounce in our step and a smile on our faces. Now it was our turn to give our Hero as much time as possible to place the maximum distance between him and the camp. The morning head count was conducted on the parade ground where the entire compound lined up in formation by barracks. It was a ceremonial ritual, after we all formed the Camp Kommandant would order the count to commence. The guards, or "Goons", would simply walk around us and count heads. If the count was correct we would be dismissed. On those special mornings we did everything possible to innocently screw up the count. You moved as slow as possible, one POW would stay in the Abort (or outhouse) and apologize for missing Appel, one would try to duck into the formation of the escapee after he was counted, it was serious game we tried to play. Count after count was taken, then the realization that someone was missing. It was as though a colony of ants was let loose. Heavily armed guards with dogs would surround us. Officers angrily shouted orders, and sirens went off. The activity in Vorlager, outside the perimeter of the wire would be furious, every piece of mobile equipment seemed to be in motion and the entire German Army seemed to be milling around the perimeter. We were all so pleased with ourselves and amused to see the Germans in such a state of consternation, it was an uplifting experience. We were held in formation for hours on end, while the counting went on and on, it was as though they couldn't believe one of us was missing and they would find an arithmetical error. Eventually a group of higher ranking, pompous Officers along with the Gestapo would roll into camp and set up an interrogation area. You were individually called by name and sent to this group. You were kept standing for a while then asked for you name, rank, serial number and Kriegsgefangenen (German for POW) number, while they compared this to a file card that also contained your photograph. If this satisfied them, you were dismissed and another POW was brought in. An integral part of any escape plan was to select an individual who closely matched the escapees facial features. He would answer to the missing POWs name and calmly stand before this group, trying to pass himself off as the escapee. It never worked. The imposter was hustled off to the Cooler or solitary confinement for a couple of weeks. Invariably, during my interview they would ask if my name was Italian, and then, why was I in the American Air Force? It struck me as very humorous that they could seriously ask such a question. Only after they were convinced that they knew the identity of the escaped POW would they dismiss us and allow us to return to the barracks, sometimes it was well into the night. Then we waited as one, hoping beyond hope that our buddy would never be brought back to camp, and praying that he was safe and would make it home. None of the escapees were successful, they were always captured and returned to camp. Word would spread through the compound like wildfire, "They got him and he's coming back". The entire compound would mass at the main gate awaiting the arrival with mixed emotions, so proud that one of us was outside the wire for a while, happy that he was alive and well, and disappointed the escape failed. The cheers resounded when we spotted the truck carrying our recaptured Hero. He would be taken to the Cooler for a period of time. On the day of his release we again would mass at the gate awaiting his return. We greeted him as though he single handedly won the Super Bowl and the World Series combined. We celebrated his safe return all that day. Our Luftwaffe guards treated us with some degree of professional respect. The luftwaffe Pilots in their ME 109s would buzz the camp and waggle their wings as a sign of kindred spirit. One day a German jet aircraft buzzed the camp and waggled his wings as if to say, "Look what we have". We stood with mouths agape, it streaked back and forth over our camp. It moved across the sky like a meteor, and I knew we did not have anything that would stack up to this phenomenon. If this was just one of the secret weapons the Germans were always claiming to be in their arsenal, this war would go on forever. That day was just one of life's dark moments. Routinely, the Gestapo, wearing full length leather coats and wide brimmed felt hats; and the SS, in their black uniforms with the Death Head insignia, would sweep into our compound. It was always in the middle of the night and the weather was always inclement. They would beat us out of the barracks and out into the night with whatever clothing you could grab. They would then proceed to tear up our quarters looking for contraband and tunneling activity. We stood in the cold and snow for hours, guarded by these SS brutes. Their eyes told you that one untoward move and you were dead. We sometimes played games with our guards, but not with these guys. You just knew they were cold blooded killers. I can only sympathize with those poor souls that were held in camps run by the SS Death Head. There are few days that these experiences are not brought back to mind. Little things in your daily routine seem to trigger memories...speech accents, smells, sounds of aircraft, loud noises, some foods, black leather, and most of all the weather. Sunny, cloudy, rainy, or snowy weather seem to bring back memories. January, 1945, was snowy and bitter cold, one just couldn't find any warmth, one just shivered and tried to endure. Despite the weather our spirits were high, we knew the Russians had taken Breslau and were within 100 kilometers of our camp. Liberation was days away, your emotions went wild, you believed, and then you just couldn't imagine in your wildest dreams that you would soon be home and warm again. It is difficult to describe the feeling I experienced, I was so happy I could hardly contain myself. Tomorrow, tomorrow was the big day and as the song goes it never comes and they are right it never came! On January 27, at about 9 P.M. the world crashed about us. The Germans gave the order, "Be prepared to leave the camp in 30 minutes. I could scarcely believe it, we were to march out on foot carrying nothing except clothing. Anyone attempting to escape would be shot and anyone falling out along the way would be shot! I can remember looking out at the horrendous weather and thinking no one could survive in those conditions for any length of time. The clothing decision was an easy one, all I owned was a leather flying jacket, wool sweater, OD pants and two pairs of footwear, GI shoes and wool lined leather flying boots. I wore the shoes and I later regretted that decision, my feet still haven't thawed out.
The Germans relented and opened the food stores allowing us to take whatever food you could carry. Talk about a kid in a candy store, but how much food can you stuff into your pockets or roll in your blanket. Little did we know that the meager amount of food you could carry was to sustain us for days. I ate as much as I could on the spot. I can recall sitting in the snow and cold, and opening a one pound can of cold, greasy Spam and downing it in one gulp. The Spam almost made me sick to my stomach but I didn't care it was a great feeling. To my disappointment I couldn't eat much more at that sitting. I understand that after being deprived of solid food for a length of time ones stomach just can't handle a sudden influx of food. I learned later we were forced to leave 55,000 Red Cross parcels of food behind. What a pity!
The order to move out was given at about 2 A.M. on the 27th of January. We streamed out of camp through the main gate between columns of armed guards, and formed up on the road outside of camp. Morale was good and most of us were optimistic that the Russians would soon overtake the column. We knew the Russians were advancing in two pincers, one to the South and one to the North towards Berlin. Just being outside the wire gave all of us a new sense of freedom, we sang and joked, despite being surrounded by more armed Germans soldiers and more dogs than I had ever seen. We were in good spirits but the guards were grim. The dogs were yelping, barking, snarling and straining at their leashes held by the Hundt Officers. The Hundt Officers seemed to delight in pretending to let go of the leashes, while the other soldiers cranked a cartridge in the firing chamber of their rifles. The rumors were true, they would shoot you if your attempted to escape or were unfortunate to drop!
As we stood on the road waiting to move to the West, a jeep like vehicle carrying four German soldiers dressed in white, hooded snow camouflage suits stopped alongside. They were headed towards the Russians and I was sure they were going to vent their anger against us. To my astonishment they asked us for cigarettes, they actually begged us. We were a bit relieved and delighted to give them cigarettes, a nice little role reversal and a sign, to us, that the German Army was Kaput-finished. Our guards apparently did not like this exchange, there was some guttural words between the groups and the jeep roared off to the East and the Russians.
An order was given in German and we started our march. Some of us were still optimistic that we were only going aboard a train, that optimism wouldn't last long.
As soon as we were out of sight of camp we encountered a stream of civilian refugees heading West apparently fleeing the Russian advance. Their meager belongings were heaped on wagons, baby carriages, and carts of all descriptions and sizes, and all hand pulled. The older men and women wore blank expression, while the younger women and children appeared confused and frightened. It was a heart rendering sight and my heart went out to the children, I seemed to have no feelings for the older refugees, the children were the innocent victims. At the same time, German combat troops roared by heading East, a tough and determined looking bunch, looking straight ahead and paying no attention to the POWs or the refugees. How could anyone be so unfeeling toward ones own countrymen. I did covet their beautiful fur lined, hooded camouflage jackets, I would have given anything for one of those jackets.
The first rest stop was near a multi-laned Autobahn, a wide open area with the sub-zero wind whistling through you like a knife. There was no kidding or singing now. I burned my log book and any paper I had to get some warmth. The log book was my prized possession, it contained camp sketches, and a detailed daily diary of camp life. I do regret not having it today, but it all went up in smoke for a good cause. Everything unnecessary for survival was now being discarded, extra shoes, papers, books and souvenirs were strewn along the way; you lightened your load in any way you could. Your feet were like two blocks of ice and your shoulders began to ache from the load and the constant hunching against the cold. After about 45 minutes we moved on.
We marched or shuffled for periods of about one and a half hours and rest periods of 15 minutes. During the rest stops you simply dropped in your tracks, the snow was deep and if you burrowed a bit it seemed to offer some warmth and a shelter against the biting wind. It took a superhuman effort to get up and resume marching. People began to drop, you passed them out stretched and unmoving in the snow and not knowing whether they were dead or alive. If they were a friend or someone you knew, you made an attempt to revive them by rubbing their hands or face and extolling them to get up and keep moving, but to no avail, they were exhausted they couldn't move. You couldn't leave them lying in the snow, but the guards threatened to shoot if you didn't move and you knew it was impossible to carry a dead weight. You were forced into an almost tearful farewell, certain that he was about to be shot. You kept looking back over your shoulder dreading to hear shots. Thankfully the shots were never heard. Those cruel rumors were just that, rumors. A horse drawn wagon was following the column and picking up the exhausted POWs. As the wagon filled, those that were somewhat revived were removed and others in worse shape replaced them. We were so relieved that no one was shot.
It snowed all night and day. The snow was hip deep and it just kept getting colder and colder. By nightfall, January 28, we reached the town of Halbau. Word was that we were to spend the night in this village and you were almost overcome with relief that at last rest and hopefully some sort of shelter.
Some of us traded the villagers cigarettes for hot water, it seemed the German civilians would trade anything for cigarettes. That cup of hot water was pure ecstasy. To this day, a cup of hot coffee gives me a perspective of life that seems to take on a simple and basic aura. At times I may appear to be blase or unaffected by life's problems, but when a cup of hot water was so vital to your existence all else seems to pale by comparison. You feel you can face anything and overcome. My life changed at that moment, as trite as that may seem. I learned later, that while we waited a German Major and Sergeant sought out the mayor of Halbau. They requested shelter for the American POWs, but the mayor refused and insisted the POWs move out. The German sergeant was our day to day contact in the Center Compound, he was elderly, sensible and respected by the POWs, his name is Wilhelm Stranghofer, we nicknamed him "Popeye". Popeye would have none of the refusal and set out to find us shelter. He found a Lutheran Church that would take us in.
We marched up to the gate of this church and it appeared so serene, so quiet, and so peaceful in the freshly fallen snow. We filled every nook and cranny of the church pews, aisles, balcony, steps and altar were filled with humanity. I had an uneasy feeling that we were desecrating this holy place, but very thankful for the shelter. The Lutheran Minister was kind and considerate throughout, he even opened the parochial school building for the overflow. The man was a true Christian, and I hope he is aware that his church holds a warm spot in the hearts of many American POWs. I often wonder if my church would open its doors to a horde of dirty, tired, cussing foreign POWs?
We marched out early the next morning, leaving t