Stories of the 485th Bomb Group
(click on the title of each story to navigate to the beginning of the story on this page)
The title: A Tragic Accident
Story by: Lynn Cotterman, 831st Squadron navigator and Don Magness, brother of John Magness
The topic: March 2, 1945 mission when two planes collided over Austria, with tragic results.
The title: Two Generations Search for Answers
Story by: Mark LaScotte, son of Eugene LaScotte, 828th Bomb Squadron nose gunner
The topic: Search for answers regarding the 6/28/44 mission to Bucharest, Romania.
Story by : Colonel Pop Arnold, 485th Bomb Group Commander.
The topic: August 27, 1944 mission to Blechhammer, Germany, POW life and the evacuation from Stalag Luft III.
The title: A Letter home-August 22, 1944
Story by: Foster Chapman, radio operator, 830th Bomb Squadron (Ken Muse crew)
The topic: Combat mission to the Vienna oil storage tanks on 8/22/44
The title: Bombing Marshalling Yards
Story by: Lynn Cotterman, navigator, 831st Bomb Squadron (Homer Cotton crew)
The topic: Bombing of the Rosenheim, Germany marshalling yards on 4/19/45 and the reason for bombing these installations.
The title: A Civilian Casualty
Story by: Glenn Hess, pilot, 831st Bomb Squadron
The topic: A pilot’s chance encounter with a civilian victim of the 4/25/45 bombing of Linz, Austria
The title: My Roamin’ Bullet
Story by: Jim Scheib, copilot, 831st Bomb Squadron (Bob Baker crew)
The topic: A story of luck that occurred in early 1945
The title: The Trip Across the Pond
Story by: Celeste Smither, daughter of William Smither and friend of Marvin Nicholson
The topic: A story of two friends in different bomb groups in Italy
This is a two-part story, with a request for assistance at the end. The first part is the story of the incident when it happened, told by Lynn Cotterman. The second part is a modern update, related by Don Magness, brother of John Magness, one of the airmen who was killed that day.
I was the Navigator on Homer Cotton’s crew in the 485th Bomb Group, 831st Squadron. On March 2,1945 I flew my first combat mission. The target was the Marshalling Yards in the city of Linz, Austria. Linz is located on the Danube River on the main rail line across Austria and was heavily defended. I was prepared to see Flak and wondered if the Luftwaffe would appear, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened before we reached the target.
We were traveling up the Adriatic Sea in a large formation of B-24 bombers, climbing slowly because our planes were loaded to the hilt with fuel and bombs. We crossed into enemy territory and started over the Alps mountains. The snowy mountains are beautiful, but desolate. There was not a visible sign of life anywhere.
We passed over the high peaks and were approaching the foothills. It was a little before 1:00 PM and we were pretty much on time. Lt Carl Langley’s plane was in the box ahead and above our box. (A box is a formation of seven or less planes that are usually from the same squadron). He was in #7 position, the last plane in the box, "Tail End Charlie". He was having trouble keeping up and was drifting back. He jettisoned two 500 pound bombs to lighten the load and moved back up into position.
Suddenly he lost a supercharger and feathered number 4 engine. Then the plane stalled and drifted back into the box to the left of us and rested piggyback just above the Deputy Lead plane flown by Lt Earl W Pooley. I watched the two planes, one on top of the other, flying so close together that it looked like they were almost touching. I wondered what they were going to do to get separated because they couldn’t fly this close very long. After a few seconds, which seemed like ages it happened. I saw the wings of the two planes collide and the propellers of one were chewing up the wing of other. Then both planes fell off on their right wings and went tumbling down behind us. I anxiously waited for parachutes to open. From my position I saw three chutes pop open, but the gunners said they saw two more making a total of only five chutes out of 20 crewmen.
There was a fire in bomb bay of Pooley’s plane and the plane broke up right after the collision. Parts of the nose, the mid section and the tail stayed together until they hit the ground. Then a fire broke out on the tree-covered slope below.
Langley’s plane broke off just behind the waist window and went into a slow flat spin at about 10,000 feet. A chute popped out, but then both the plane and chute disappeared into a cloud.
Our formation of B-24's continued on to the target. It happened so fast and there was no wreckage or visible evidence of an accident like in an automobile accident. Two B-24 aircraft with 20 men had just disappeared and only six chutes were seen. I had no idea if I would ever see any of them again or know what happened to them. I wondered how they would survive in the snowy Alps. It was the first time that I had seen a B-24 go down and I was still numb.
THE CRASH SCENE
The planes crashed about 80 miles northeast of Innsbruck, Austria. Pieces of the two planes crashed about one half mile apart in Habersauer, an Alpine valley, about 15 miles south of the towns of Walchsee and Kossen. Within 40 minutes a group of German soldiers arrived near the place where Langley’s plane went down. It was snowing heavily and it was assumed that the lack of visibility was the cause of the crash. Three bodies were found there and one was still alive! It was Lt Langley who had miraculously survived. While his plane was in a flat spin he was blown out through the windshield and lost consciousness; however, he regained his senses in time to pull the rip cord. He suffered a broken vertebra in the neck. The other two bodies were members of his crew, Cpl Doyle Sumner and T/Sgt Leegrand Koller. Because of the snow storm and the mass of snow accumulating, it was not possible to search for the other crewmen in the rugged terrain until the snow had partly melted. None of the other 20 crewmen survived. The Germans soldiers left and took Langley with them to the infirmary at Bad Aibling Airbase for treatment. After a couple weeks Langley was moved to a POW Camp. He was liberated in April by General Patton’s 3rd Army.
German records show that Sumner and Koller were buried March 6th. During the next several weeks the bodies of the other flyers were uncovered and buried by the local Mountain Recovery Team. Then the US Search and Recovery Team moved them to a military cemetery after the war ended, awaiting the burial wishes of the next of kin.
60 YEARS LATER
(A follow-up story by Don Magness)
Don Magness is the brother of John Newton Magness, who was the top turret gunner on Pooley’s crew on that fatal day. Don was not satisfied with the amount of information that the family had received from the military about the accident. After a tour in the Air Force during the Korean War and retiring from General Electric after 25 years, Don started an intensive search to find more details.
He collected information including military records for each aircraft, the mission report, Missing Air Crew Reports, etc. He bought a computer and, while surfing the internet, ran across a reference to Mr. Roland Domanig, an Austrian citizen who helps people seeking information about bomber crashes. They quickly became E-mail friends and Roland gave Don a great deal of information about the country surrounding the crash site and even visited the site and sent back pictures. Don longed to visit the crash site, but it was beyond his reach. Don tells the rest of the story:
Sue (Don’s daughter), her husband Tim and their daughter, Shannon, came to visit over the Christmas holiday of 2004. While they were here they asked if I really wanted to visit the crash site in Austria as they had worked out a way so it might be possible for Tim and me to make the trip. I recall not getting too excited as it was a trip that I had always considered impossible and it still seemed impossible to me. But eventually the details were worked out and we departed on our very exciting trip on September 8, 2005. Roland wrote that the two towns of Kossen and Walchsee were sponsoring a memorial to the two fallen crews and now that they knew when we would be there they would schedule the dedication during our visit. He also told us that the two towns would pick up the tab for our hotel and breakfast for the three nights we would be in the area. This was totally unexpected, but a greatly appreciated gesture by the towns.
Arriving in Frankfort, Germany, we took a train to Munich and then rented a car to Kossen, Austria. We arrived in the early evening and saw Roland standing outside the hotel. It was certainly a pleasure to meet him after all the correspondence we had together. He advised us to wash up as we were having dinner with him and his wife, Elisabeth, and the mayor of Kossen and his wife. After dinner we had some great conversation that was somewhat hampered by the language differences (all four of them spoke better English than we did German), but if we all spoke slowly enough we got along fine. They understandingly let us retire for the night. I can’t imagine what we looked like as at this point we were going on 30 hours with very limited sleep on the plane. We agreed to meet for breakfast and then about 9:30 we would depart for the memorial site. This we did and after breakfast the mayor of Kossen showed us his office in City Hall and gave us a book on the history of Kossen that he signed for us.
Enroute to the memorial site we drove through some beautiful countryside and wooded lanes. We came to a spot where the road was blocked off and from there on it was what we call a hiking trail. We drove through the gate as we were in company with the Mayor and he had a key. We parked just a short distance from the memorial site and walked up to the site where a crowd had started to gather. The memorial was covered with a cloth and wrapped with a red ribbon. We waited until the scheduled start time and during that time more people arrived. We were very interested to note that there were musicians in Tyrolean Costume, old soldiers in black suits and Tyrolean hats and carrying their town banners. Also present were reporters and mayors of the two nearby towns. I had expected the mayors and perhaps a small group of people and was very surprised at the turnout. It was quite a sizable crowd and even included a man and his son from the United States who had read about the memorial dedication in the paper. I had the opportunity to meet Dr Jakob Mayer with whom I had an e-mail correspondence and who is also very active in investigating WWII crashes. He and Roland worked together on a number of these projects.
The band played to open the ceremony and the two mayors and I took part in the actual unveiling. The memorial consisted of, as do all such memorials that I was told about, a piece of the wreckage, which in this case was a large circular ring (about 2½ feet), a picture of a B-24, a list of each crew with names, rank and crew positions. In addition there were two descriptions of the accident, one in German and one in English. The memorial was attached to a large rock and was decorated with flowers. The memorial was so much more than I had expected that I have to admit to very strong emotion and even some tearing. I think the Mayor of Walchsee sensed the feelings I was having as he put his hand on my shoulder in moral support that was greatly appreciated. Short speeches by both mayors, Roland Domanig and Jakob Mayer followed. These of course were in German, but Roland’s wife, Elisabeth, very kindly stood next to me and whispered into me ear what each was saying. Her action meant a great deal to me. The speeches were followed by more music and then the memorial was blessed by the local priest.
The blessing closed the dedication and then Tim presented each of the two mayors with a Florida state flag and I gave B-24 hats to Roland, Jakob, the two Mayors and to Keith Bullock’s wife (Keith Bullock started the crash investigations in the area, but was too ill to attend). Small American flags were given to the crowd as far as they would go and the rest were given the fire service items (shoulder patches) that my son Scott had given me. I think that almost everyone got something. Then, and this was totally unexpected, there was a feed of sausage, bread and beer that was greatly enjoyed by all. The band played several times during the festivities and the party was going strong when we departed.
A smaller group of us including the Kossen Mayor, Roland, Jakob, Elisabeth, Mrs. Bullock, Tim and several old timers left the party and went to Stefan’s mountain summer place which is really the center of what can be considered to be the crash site. (I am not sure of the spelling of "Stefan" and also I failed to get his last name which I regret very much). Aircraft parts have been found on the hillside both above and below the house. Tim and Roland went off into the woods looking for aircraft parts while Elisabeth and I went in another direction. We were unsuccessful in finding parts and quit after a short time as a leg problem was bothering me considerably. Tim was delighted to have found some parts and posed for a picture with them. He carried them all the way home and after arriving be gave them to me and they are now in my den.
After everyone was rested from a long day, Stefan brought out more beer and sausage and soon the old soldiers (Austrians conscripted into the German army during WWII) started singing songs and while Tim did not know the words he joined in. He remarked later that singing with the old soldiers was one of the highlights of the trip for him. I enjoyed visiting with Stefan and he seemed to enjoy me. We spent considerable time together which was somewhat unusual when you realize that neither of us could understand a word that the other spoke.
Visiting the memorial and dedication was an unbelievable experience. Summing it up the most important feeling I got from the trip was that the people of Austria really appreciated what the American forces did for them and it was obvious that the people of today still have that feeling. Many people thanked me for what the others did well over 60 years ago. It was a wonderful feeling to know that the people still care."
A few days after the memorial ceremony up in the Tyrolean mountains an anonymous envelope mysteriously appeared on the desk in the municipal Office of Walchsee. Inside the envelope was a fine 14 Karat gold ring. Also inside the envelope was a little piece of paper with the words, "This ring is from the wreckage of the Habersau" (Habersauer, the place of the crash), The next words, "Please deliver ..."
Then the ring was given to the mayor of Kossen who brought it to Dr. Jakob Mayer in Innsbruck. Jakob had the ring cleaned and polished by a jeweler. The inscription on the sides of the ring is 1941. The setting is metal with what looks like a logo engraved into it. Someone suggested it looked like hornet. Inside is the inscription "HJ ULTRA" indicating it was manufactured by the Herf Jones Company, but Herf Jones has no records before the war. It could have belonged to one of the crewman who graduated from high school in 1941 before entering the Air Force.
We are trying to locate the family of crewman that wore the ring. This precious memento would mean so much to them. If you have any knowledge of whom this ring might have belonged to or information about the Logo or setting please contact the 485th Bomb Group Historian at Info@485BG.org
SOURCES AND REMARKS:
One of the main sources of information came from the research papers of Mr. Keith Bullock. Mr. Bullock flew with the RAF during WWII and moved to Tirol in the 1960's. About 1990 he began to investigate the crashes of the Allied that went down in Tirol. He gathered a vast amount of information and located the crash sites of all the planes that went down in Tirol. He became friends with many of the crewmen. In 2001 he suffered a stroke and is unable to continue the research. Mr. Bullock’s wife, Helen, Dr Jakob Mayer and Roland Domanig are continuing his work. Jakob and Roland are responsible for building the Memorial Monument honoring the crews of the March 2 crashes. Other sources are:
1. Army Air Force Mission Report dated 3 March 1945 reporting on Mission 2 Mach 1945 signed by Major Walter Ladner, 485th Group G-2 Officer
2. Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) #12755. Aircraft s/n 42-52644
LT CARL W LANGLEY, Pilot; Lt Richard V Miller, Co-pilot; F/O William J Hafemeister, Navigator: Cpl Paul E Schultz, RW Gunner: Cpl Henry Koprowski, LW Gunner; Cpl William S Kankas, Nose Turret Gunner; Cpl Doyle G Sumner, Ball Turret Gunner; Sgt Leegrand Koller, Tail Gunner and Cpl George L Taylor, Upper Turret Gunner. (Lt Thomas Roemer, the regular Co-pilot, did not fly that day)
It has been noted that a bombardier was not on board. Since all the planes in the group dropped their bombs at the same time a bombardier was not necessary for every crew. The bombs were released by an assigned crew member when he saw the lead plane release its bombs.
3. Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) #12748 Aircraft s/n 42-52064
LT EARL W POOLEY, Pilot; Lt James Michalaros, Co-pilot; Lt George A Fuccillo, Navigator: Lt Albert C Griffen, Navigator; Lt Adam L Welgar, Bombardier; T/Sgt Charles W Jones, LW Gunner; T/Sgt LaVern R Krueger. RW Gunner; S/SGT JOHN N MAGNESS, Upper Turret Gunner;S/Sgt Walter J Kuszler, Ball Turret Gunner; S/Sgt Walter L Broker, Nose Turret Gunner; S/Sgt Peter D Lambros, Tail Turret Gunner.
The question was asked, "Why two navigators?" Pooley was flying Deputy Lead and would take over lead if necessary. The Lead planes carried three navigators; the Lead Navigator, a pilotage navigator and the radar Navigator (also called Mickey operator and Path Finder). It might have been because there was a limited amount of radar equipment and so didn’t carry a Mickey Operator.
4. Statements of crewmen who witnessed the collision: Lt Delmar L Brinkman, T/Sgt Gilbert E Thomson, S/Sgt George R Dickinson and Lt Lynn Cotterman
5. Handwritten letter from survivor, Lt Carl W Langley, to Keith Bullock May 25, 1998. Carl’s memory was a little fuzzy and doesn’t agree entirely with the MACR and German reports.
6. "Reports on the Capture of members of Enemy Forces" Report is of German origin and translated into English.
7. "Reports taken from the Police Station At Kossen, Austria" Dates March 3, 1945, March 22 and 29, April 5 and 13, 1945.8. 502 Parachute Infantry, US Army reports 23 May & 24 May 1945 A Tragic Accident.
S/Sgt. Eugene A. LaScotte was a nose gunner on a B-24 with the 828th Bomb Sqdn. His crew was one of the original crews in the 485th Bomb Group. The crew and two other crews were shot down on the June 28, 1944 mission to the Titan Oil Refinery in Bucharest, Romania. All members of the crew, except for the pilot, were captured and became POWs in Bulgaria. The pilot, John “Dud” Crouchley, maintained control of the plane, allowing the others to safely exit and was killed when his plane crashed into the mountains of Bulgaria. The following is a story submitted by Mark LaScotte, Eugene’s son, which candidly reveals the search for answers by two families and two generations, many years after the event occurred.
Eugene LaScotte (1921-2001)
In the fall of 1988, John F. Wilson, Jr. wrote a letter to my father, Eugene A. LaScotte, and to any other members of that crew he could find, requesting information regarding his own father Lt. John F. Wilson, Sr. His father was the fill-in navigator the day they were shot down over Bulgaria. John’s dad had recently passed on, and now John had a few questions that his father never really answered for him. After receiving John’s letter, my father chose not to reply. I believe he was not ready to relive the part of his life again that he was still trying to forget. After receiving a second letter from John that contained the now de-classified mission reports and MACRs, my father decided to answer John’s request. This is a re-typed copy of the handwritten letter that my father wrote back to John F. Wilson, Jr. in April of 1989, several months after receiving the first letter. My father is writing about the portion of the flight following the main air attack, when the aircraft was severely damaged and now alone, out of formation. Mark LaScotte
April 10, 1989
Dear John –Thanks for sending me the declassified mission reports. Every time I go over them I learn something new. For instance, when people ask me what time we took off to go on missions, I always said “About 7AM.” Actually we took off at 5:18 AM in some cases.
You are right about the number of missions. I had credit for 24 missions though I actually flew over the target about 18 times. In the 8th Air Force (England) you only had to go over the target 25 times and you would be eligible to go home. Sometimes their crews could get credit for a mission just by bombing the coast of France. Down in the 15th Air Force (Italy) they made us do 50 missions. If the target wasn’t too bad they’d give us credit for 1 mission. If it was tough (like Vienna-Neustadt; Ploesti Oil Fields, etc.) we would get credit for 2 missions.
I suddenly realized something about our last bombing mission that I probably should have known all along. I believe I told you how violently the plane was pitching and rolling due to one engine on fire and one run-away engine. Well, the pilot managed to get the fire out, and he cut off and feathered the run-away engine, and then the plane was fairly stable. It still rolled, but not so violently.
All the Messerschmitt 109s left except for one. He was on our port side about 8 ‘O clock level. I couldn’t get my guns back that far so I just sat there and waited for him to slowly crawl into my reticle. The two waist gunners were wounded by shrapnel (20mm) and the lower ball gunner (Johnson) had a .30 cal. slug go thru his side. The tail gunner was out of ammo, so the only guns working were mine and the upper turret.
Finally, the nose of his plane pierced the red ring and I fired a burst –only to be staring at the sun. The plane had pitched again, pulling my guns into the air. The pilot, Lt. Crouchley, said “What the hell are you doing Scotty? That’s a P-51.”
The Messerschmitt went into a shallow dive pulled up and chandelled onto our tail. His wing tips lit up with red-yellow and blue flashes as he fired on us. I told the Lt. that “It might be a P-51 but he’s shooting the hell out of us!” He said, “Well, get him then!” He dove past our right side. I had laid my guns over there and gave him a short burst as he went by, but I don’t think I damaged him. At this point he turned off and went home.
NOW! Here’s the amazing part of the story. I didn’t realize until last week that Lt. Crouchley must have pulled the left wing up to get my guns off the Messerschmitt! As I think about it now, it seems obvious, and I can’t imagine why it never dawned on me during the last 45 years I’ve been telling the story. He was a sitting duck; about 200 yards away and he had slowed down his plane to match our speed (200 MPH). I had two caliber .50s on him and they can knock down a fighter from 600 yards. Maybe if I’d have got him it would have changed the whole history of our battle. Maybe we wouldn’t have had to jump. Perhaps we ran out of gas because he cut our gas lines on his last pass. Maybe the old boy would still be alive and I would be a hero!
Well, on the other hand, maybe he was tired of the fight and wanted to home. Perhaps he was waiting for us to drop our wheels (in surrender), and was going to take us to his air field. And when I fired he got as mad as hell.
Colonel Walter “Pop” Arnold was the first commander of the 485th Bomb Group, taking command of the group as it was being formed in the United States. He was loved and respected by his men. Pop’s daughter, Kathleen Arnold, shared this story with us. It’s little wonder that Pop rose to the rank of Major General, with his ability to lead and his concern for his men, as evidenced in this wonderful historical document, written by Pop himself.
The idea for this brief history began with a conversation between General Albert P. “Bub” Clark and me. Like me, General Clark was a prisoner of the Germans during World War II. Also like myself, General Clark participated in some of the prisoner evacuations conducted by the Germans as the Allies tightened their grip on the Third Reich during the closing months of the war. General Clark asked me to document the march of 1,875 prisoners from Nuremberg to Moosburg that I commanded in April 1945 because there was no other written account of it. My account begins from the time I was shot down and taken into captivity to the day of my liberation. Major General (Ret.) Walter E. Arnold
By August 27, 1944, the Allied thrust had moved deep into France. In the north, the British I Corps reached the mouth of the Seine that day, while Canadian II Corps began to cross the Seine between Elbeuf and Pont-de-l'Arche. The U.S. XX Corps (3rd Army), with the 7th Armored Division in the lead, reached the Marne at Chateau-Thierry on its advance towards Rheims. The U.S. XII Corps advanced from Troyes, northeast toward Chalons-Sur Marne. In the south, the U.S. 3rd Division, moving along the Rhone valley, neared Montelimar. The American 45th Division pushed on from Grenoble toward Lyons. At Marseilles, the German garrison asked for surrender terms.
From bases in Britain and Italy, the Allies bombing offensive continued around the clock, the Americans bombing by day and the British bombing by night. It was on this day that 31 year-old Colonel Walter E. "Pop" Arnold, the U.S. Army Air Corps Group Commander of the 485th Bomb Group, set off on his final air raid of World War II. That mission began an odyssey that would end with him leading 1,875 prisoners of war on a 100-mile march to a safe haven where they would spend the final days of the war.
Col. Pop Arnold was to lead a group of forty-two, B-24 bombers on a raid from the group's home base in Venosa, Italy, and it would have been his 19th mission. Their mission was to bomb the synthetic oil plants at Blechammer South, in eastern Germany. Today Blechammer is called Blachownia Slaska, (Editor’s note: This area is also in the vicinity of Kozle today, a more identifiable reference point) located in Poland. Col. Arnold's group encountered little trouble from a few German J-88 fighters on the way and reached the target area on schedule. However, once over the target, the bombers experienced heavy, accurate flak, which grew more intense as they began their bombing runs. Col. Arnold was in the lead ship of the formation and suddenly his airplane received flak hits in the left wing, the left nose section, and bomb bay just seconds before they were to drop their payload.
All bombs got away on target; however, the B-24J aircraft named ‘Junior’ was heavily damaged. According to Arnold, "Flak first hit the two left engines setting them on fire, then it hit the left side of the airplane's nose, where the navigator and bombardier were. I was in the pilot's seat on the left-hand side when the flak broke all the glass and all the instruments."
At that moment, Col. Arnold didn't realize he had been wounded. "I felt like somebody hit me over the leg with a baseball bat. It felt like a charley-horse, but I really didn't mind it." He was more concerned with trying to guide his aircraft to safety, so he put the aircraft into a steep dive, losing 2,000 feet of altitude before leveling off. Realizing the plane could explode at any second, one by one, the crewmembers began to bail out. Arnold said, "All the gunners and the engineer said they were leaving the airplane. Then the navigator and bombardier came back and went out the bomb bay, leaving only myself and my co-pilot, Lt. Col. Bob Smith."
By that time, the airplane was out of control and had fallen out of formation. That was also when Col. Arnold realized he had been seriously wounded. "Bob Smith looked at me and said, ‘You're hurt pretty bad.’ I looked at my left leg and saw it was nothing but blood from hip to toe."
Col. Arnold and Lt. Col. Smith decided it was time to bail out. The two men made their way to the bomb bay, where ruptured fuel lines were spraying gasoline in every direction. Col. Arnold told Smith to jump, and once Bob was safely away, he too left the aircraft. As Col. Arnold drifted down, he watched the fiery airplane fall from the sky and crash.
Col. Arnold parachuted into a forest, where he landed several feet off the ground in a pine tree. "I knew I had to get down and stop the bleeding." He used his teeth to unhook the medical kit from his shoulder strap and dropped it to the ground. He worked his way out of his parachute harness and grabbed a smaller tree nearby. The tree bent under his weight, dropping him closer to the ground. He swung himself out and dropped down on his right side.
"By then I was losing sight. The pine needles were the same color as the medical pack, but I finally found it and opened it up. I took out a bandage and sprinkled sulfa powder into the wound and bandaged it up." The morphine tube in Col. Arnold's medical kit had been punctured, so he could do nothing to ease the pain. Meanwhile, German troops closed in on him.
At the time of the raid, British POWs had been out working in a field and were told by their German guards to take cover in the trees when the bombing began. Unknown to many was the fact that there were six British prisoner of war work camps in the Blechammer, Heydebreck and Odertal area. It was British prisoners who got to Col. Arnold first after he hit the ground, which was fortunate for Col. Arnold because by this time in the war, downed airmen could not rely on their German captors to protect them under Geneva Convention rules. A prisoner named Lance Corporal A. E. Wilkinson, taken as prisoner of war at Dieppe, Northern France, asked Col. Arnold if he had any weapons on him and if so, to get rid of them or the Germans would kill him. Col. Arnold only had a pocketknife, because he had left his .45 in the plane before bailing out. Cpl. Wilkinson took the knife plus Col. Arnold’s escape maps and hid them before the German guards arrived. With the possibility that Col. Arnold may die from his wounds, he gave Cpl. Wilkinson his mother’s address in Texas and asked him to write her and let her know what happened to him. After the war, he found out that Cpl. Wilkinson had indeed written his mother as promised. Also after the war, Col. Arnold received a package from Mr. Wilkinson and in it was his pocketknife that he gave to him that day long ago in the woods. “I don’t know how Cpl. Wilkinson managed to hang onto my knife throughout the war, or how he remembered my mother’s address, but I’m sure grateful that he did and what a nice guy for doing that!”
The Germans quickly captured Col. Arnold and took him to an old farm. While awaiting transportation to a field hospital, the Germans put him in a turkey pen for about two hours. During his wait at the farm, British POWs talked the Germans into giving them some disinfectant water. The POWs undid Col. Arnold's bandages and washed out his wounded leg. He was then transported to a field hospital, where German doctors initially proposed amputating Col. Arnold’s leg. Col. Arnold was insistent that they not do that and pressed his rights under the Geneva Convention. The German doctors complied and from there Col. Arnold was transported to a small hospital in the town of Cosel. Arriving with a dangerously low pulse rate he remained bedridden there for three and one-half months. Today the town of Cosel is called Kozle in Poland.
Once he was safely at Cosel, doctors told Col. Arnold that all but one muscle had been shot away in his left thigh. A doctor taped the muscle together and put a splint on the leg. "He told me not to move for at least two weeks. He said I would walk again if I didn't move, in order to let the muscle grow." A few days later, a plaster cast was put on his leg for 6 weeks to ensure that Col. Arnold's leg remained immobile. Although the doctors’ prognosis for his survival was good, they were not optimistic that his leg could ultimately be saved and worried about gangrene and infection setting in. They told him if he managed to walk again, he would probably have permanent damage and be impaired. Col. Arnold was determined not to let that happen and he spent many hours lying in his hospital bed wiggling and moving his toes to strengthen his muscles and keep movement going in his leg. Through his strong will, determination and intensive physical therapy, not only did his leg eventually heal completely, he was able to march 100 miles later in the war and re-qualify for flight duty after the war. Col. Arnold’s leg wound never debilitated or impaired him throughout the remainder of his life, although he carried a large 16cm x 12cm x 4cm scar on his left thigh.
FROM CAMP TO CAMP
By November 1944, reports of heavy guns could be heard at the hospital indicating that the Russian Front was moving toward Cosel. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, the Germans evacuated Col. Arnold. He traveled on a German Express train with another American POW and a German escort. First he was taken to an interrogation center at Frankfurt, where he remained for five days and nights in solitary confinement. While in solitary, Col. Arnold was interrogated under bright heat lamps, sleep deprived, and denied medical attention, in an effort to make him “crack.” He was never let out of his cell or given the opportunity to wash or re-dress his wound. After solitary, Col. Arnold was taken across town to a Dulag and given new equipment. From there he was sent to Stalag Luft III at Sagan. Months later, he was evacuated again this time to Stalag XIIID, the large POW camp at Nuremberg, and then made a final march to Stammlager VIIA, at Moosburg.
While being transported from Frankfurt to Stalag Luft III, Col. Arnold found out first hand how devastating the Allied bombing offensive was. American bombers suddenly approached the train transporting Col. Arnold. "We were in the middle of a marshalling yard, and the train came to a dead halt." The Germans quickly disengaged his car and left it standing in the middle of the yard. "The people in my car, plus my escort, evacuated and walked away, leaving me locked up in my compartment alone." During the next hour, bombs rained down, eventually derailing the car. "There was fire and smoke all around the marshalling yard. When all was clear, my escort came back and released me." Col. Arnold was shaken but not hurt and had laid down flat as he could on the floor of the car to breathe air from the cracks in the car’s floor.
British “Kriegies” (prisoners of war) met Col. Arnold at the gate of Stalag Luft III POW camp on December 3, 1944. Stalag Luft III was located near Sagan, Poland (now Zagan) and was one of five POW camps housing more than 2,000 men in each camp for a total of about 10,000 - 12,000 downed allied aviators. It was also the camp where the famous Great Escape of March 1944 took place and 50 of the 76 escaped British POWs were murdered by the Germans upon their recapture. Also of note is the then Lt. Colonel “Bub” Clark was a senior ranking officer at the camp and the man in charge of all security for escape activities in the camp as well as organizing and conducting covert intelligence operations. He was known to all POWs as “Big S” and remained a POW for 33 months, despite many escape attempts. Col. Clark rose to the rank of Lt. General and was the Superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy from 1970 – 1974. At the age of 91, he is still living in the Colorado Springs area.
Two of Col. Arnold’s flying school classmates, Colonel John Stevenson and Colonel Dick Klocko, were also POWs at the camp and he was brought to their barracks in the South Camp. Col. Arnold was still very sick, weak, had not bathed or had clean clothes all while in solitary confinement at Frankfurt. “I smelled pretty bad and was still in a state of confusion after my ordeal.” “My leg was stiff and hadn’t been cleaned, so none of the guys wanted to take me in with them!” He said, “We continued to walk down the barracks trying to find someone to take me in and finally, in Barracks 133, Room 9, at the very end of the hall were two black fighter pilots, Tuskegee Airmen, 2nd Lt. Charles T. Williams (Chuck) and 2nd Lt. Albert L. Young (Al). “They said they’d take me in and the first thing they did was take me down to the showers, wash me, re-dress my wound, get me clean clothes and made me a bed between their cots. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have asked to stay right there with those guys because they were so good to me.” Col. Arnold stayed with the Tuskegee pilots for 3 days, and they cared for and nursed him. Once Col. Arnold was in better shape, he moved in with Colonels Stevenson and Klocko in Barracks 121, Room 7.
After the war, Col. Arnold visited Chuck Williams at his home in Los Angeles and met his lovely wife. He was pleased to find that Lt. Williams was happy, had a beautiful family, a good home, and he was running an auto garage in the Los Angeles area. He lost touch with Al Young but Pop often thought of the two Tuskegee airmen and is forever grateful to them for their kindness, compassion and generosity to him, a total stranger, when his own friends initially rejected him. (Editor’s note: Al Young died in January 1945.) He considered his “little red-tailed friends” as his own guardian angels.
Col. Arnold described what life was like in Stalag Luft III, South Camp. “There was a lot of camaraderie amongst POW’s. Guys liked to play cards, especially bridge, and would hold late night card games after lock down when everyone was supposed to be asleep.” One night while they were having one of their late night games, a German guard came in and caught them by surprise. The guard cracked the door to the room, stuck his machine gun through the crack and started firing in order to scare and break up the POW’s. A bullet ricocheted off something and hit Steves’ in the kneecap. “He was sent to the hospital for surgery and after the surgery, one leg was slightly shorter than the other and because of this, Steves was unable to return to flying status after the war.” Despite this, Col. Stevenson stayed in the service after the war and rose to the rank of Major General in the Air Force. Unfortunately, Steves died relatively young from cancer. Another one of Col. Arnold’s friends at Sagan was Major David M. Jones, (Davy). Before the war, Davy was Arnold’s best friend at the University of Arizona and they were in ROTC together. After college they were in the Army reserves and both got assigned active duty for one year in an Army Cavalry unit in El Paso, Texas. Jones and Arnold pondered what to do after their active duty and Davy heard they were recruiting for flight training at Randolph Field, Texas. Jones left El Paso to enroll in flight school at Randolph Field, and Arnold stayed in El Paso, telling his friend to let him know how things went at flying school. Within months, Davy wrote to Arnold and told him “the waters were fine” and to come on down. That was all Pop needed to hear and he left his hometown in El Paso to join his friend at Randolph Field flying school, where they both graduated as 2nd Lieutenants in 1938.
During the war, Col. Arnold knew Davy had been shot down early in the war and taken POW, but never expected to cross paths with him. Major Jones was second in command of a light bomb group attacking Biserta, North Africa, when he was shot down in December 1942, and had been a POW at Sagan for over 2 years. Col. Arnold was really glad to see his best friend alive and well at Stalag Luft III, South Camp. At the camp, Davy was a principal member of the South Camp secret escape committee, and in charge of planning, reviewing and directing escapes. He also organized getting secret information into and out of the camps. According to Col. Arnold, “Davy really knew the ropes. He was one of the top commanders in the camp and commanded one of the barracks in South Camp and he knew everything.” “He was a real operator and still fighting the war from inside the camp!” Before South Camp opened, Davy headed the American team of diggers working on the Great Escape tunnel called “Harry.” He was an outstanding leader of young men and continued leading the tunnel digging team until the camp was evacuated in January 1945.
To help his friend recuperate, one day Davy showed up with some ice skates and took Col. Arnold to a small rink of ice that the POW’s had made and liked to play hockey on. Davy held Col. Arnold up and supported him as he pulled Col. Arnold around the ice. “This was my first experience with ice skating and I had a real good time.” He said, “This experience made me realize I needed to start working my leg and get it functioning again, and I asked Davy if he would help me bend it. He did, and we worked together a lot.” “I don’t think I would have been able to do the march to Moosburg if I hadn’t started working my leg with Davy. He was quite a guy.”
Davy Jones was quite a guy indeed and most notably, he was one of Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s flight commanders on the historic Tokyo Raid in April 1942 for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was the 5th bomber plane to take off safely from the deck of the USS Hornet, despite a leak in the bomb bay gas tank. He scored direct hits on a Tokyo power station, oil tanks and a large manufacturing plant. He flew on instruments until he estimated he was in the vicinity of Chuhsien and his entire crew bailed out without injury and was the first of the famous Doolittle Raiders to reach Chuhsien. He was able to escape capture with the help of the Chinese, however, Major Jones never managed to escape his German captors.
Because of the enveloping Russian Front, two months after Col. Arnold had arrived at Sagan, it was necessary to evacuate the prisoners again. Marching orders came down on the evening of January 27, 1945 during a camp theatre production of You Can’t Take It With You. However, because of his severe leg wound, Col. Arnold was among the sick, crippled and wounded left behind. Subsequently, the other 10,000 to 12,000 POWs at Sagan were marched further west in the middle of the night in freezing cold weather. "We were put in barracks and I was still pretty sick then. My leg was stiff, and I was down to 120 pounds or so." Eventually Col. Arnold's group was loaded on a train bound for Spremberg and from there they ended up in Nuremberg. The boxcars were built to hold 40 men but the Germans forced the prisoners to cram up to 60 men per car, which made even sitting down a trial. Their ordeal lasted for days which became more deadly as the days went by. "About two or three days out from Sagan, British or American fighters strafed our train. They incapacitated the engine and set fire to several box cars." The car ahead of Col. Arnold's caught fire, which began to spread to his car. "The cars were jammed to capacity. The POWs all scrambled to the small side doors, which were full of smoke. It was kind of `one for all and all for one'." Col. Arnold's leg prevented him from making a quick dash to the door. Instead, he sat and waited at the rear of the car for the rest of the prisoners to clear out. "I got stepped on and trampled in the scramble. As the crowd got thinner, I made my way out and got clear of all the explosions." Other prisoners weren’t so lucky. In the mid-afternoon on February 4th, the train came to a halt in the marshalling yards of Nuremberg much to the joy of the prisoners. The two air raids while being transported by train left Colonel Arnold with an indelible impression, one that would shape a crucial decision he would have to make two months later at Nuremberg.
BOMBING AT NURNBERG
The Nuremberg POW Camp, Stalag XIIID was located less than 3 miles outside the railroad yards which the Germans knew were prime targets of the American and British Air Forces and therefore it was an illegal camp under the Geneva Convention. Not only did the POWs have to endure hunger, freezing cold, lack of adequate clothing, poor sanitation, no medical supplies or facilities, they lived with anxiety and fear of the frequent bombing raids by the Americans by day and the British by night. Many times the raids were successive saturation raids lasting for days. During his imprisonment at Nuremberg, Col. Arnold served as commanding officer of one camp compound. It was during this period that yet another bombing raid created an indelible image in Col. Arnold's mind.
The raid by the Royal Air Force occurred during the night of February 27, 1945. A curfew was in effect and all prisoners were inside their blockhouses. Lights had been turned off and the men were preparing to bed down for the night. Suddenly, sirens sounded, warning of a bomber attack. Soon Col. Arnold could hear the sound of bombs exploding in the distance.
"The bombing got louder and louder, closer and closer. You could see fire from the explosions through the cracks in the walls and through small windows. The blockhouses were trembling and vibrating each time a bomb exploded." He arose from his bed and walked to the door at the end of the blockhouse, to get a better look at what was happening outside. "When I turned the door knob and opened the door to a slit, a huge explosion occurred, shoving the door closed, then sucking it out and me along with it." Col. Arnold quickly glanced at the guard tower. If spotted by a guard, he would be shot; however, there was no guard and the tower was empty. "The sky was bright as day with fire and smoke, and the compound was in chaos," he said.
The German camp commandant gave permission for the prisoners to leave their blocks during the raid. Col. Arnold organized his men and ordered them to dig slit trenches with whatever tools they could find. Soon, all prisoners were digging trenches, until there was a long slit trench. "I passed the word to lay low and for the men to cover their heads with whatever they could find to avoid being hit with falling debris. The sky was being lit up. You could see airplanes on fire, breaking apart. You could see parachutes coming down, some in full bloom and some in streamers, that is, parachutes on fire."
Fear, fright and panic swept through the men and Col. Arnold worked his way up and down the trench trying to bolster the men's nerve. "I saw men crying, yelling, wailing and praying out loud and on their knees in silence." While working his way up and down the line, a young airman came weaving up to him. "He was whimpering and crying. He threw his arms around my waist and fell to his knees, hugging my legs." Soon two other men came up to Col. Arnold. "They were in the same distress, completely lost and frightened not knowing what to do. They needed help, condolence, assurance, and pacifying. As the camp commander, they came to me." Col. Arnold gathered the three boys in and hovered over them. "I put my hands on their heads, hugged them in and told them that all is okay. Nothing is going to happen to you, Jesus Christ is here. He will protect us, He will help us, and we will not be harmed."
Col. Arnold's words had a calming effect on the three boys. After the raid, he found out that none of the boys knew how to pray. "They evidently had no religion. This proves that when everything is going well, there is probably no need for spiritual help. On the other hand, when a person encounters disaster, fright or possible death, and the chips are down, the average man seeks out supernatural help. He needs someone, something, a symbol, a mother, a God, to go to for protection and help."
By April 1945, the Allied stranglehold on Hitler's Third Reich was drawing tighter with each passing day. On April 1, the U.S. 9th and 1st Armies joined up at Lippstadt, closing the circle around the rich industrial region of the Ruhr, trapping Field Marshal Walter Model's Army Group B and two corps of the 1st Parachute Army. On the Eastern Front, the 3rd Ukraine Front captured Sopron, a major road junction between Budapest and Vienna, near the Austrian frontier southwest of Lake Neusiedler. As the Allies advanced into German-held territory, Hitler's armies were forced into an ever-shrinking perimeter.
Thousands of Allied POWs were caught up in the confusion of the Nazi's mass retreat. The Germans evacuated the prisoners deeper and deeper into their own territory in order to keep clear of the battle lines that were closing in on Berlin. By early April, it was apparent that the massive prison camp at Nuremberg would have to be evacuated soon.
On April 4, 1945, the prisoners at Nuremberg received word they would have to evacuate their compounds. Their destination would be Moosburg, another prison camp located 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Nuremberg.
Col. Arnold commanded one of the Nuremberg compounds and in his charge were 1,875 POWs, all downed aviators including approximately 500 members of the British Royal Air Force. When the march orders came down, Col. Arnold was asked to supervise the evacuation of his compound by his commander, Col. Darr Alkire. "He asked me if I could handle leading the march because I was wounded and had a bad leg. Because my leg was stiff, there was a question whether I could walk that far. I had lost a lot of weight, but I was healthy." Col. Alkire, concerned about Col. Arnold's physical condition, wanted to put Col. Bill Kennedy in charge of the group. Col. Kennedy, who was planning to escape, didn't want his plans foiled by having to supervise an evacuation. Colonels Kennedy and Alkire agreed on a compromise. Col. Kennedy would go along on the evacuation for one day and if Col. Arnold was physically able to handle the job, Col. Kennedy was free to make his escape attempt. Col. Arnold quickly demonstrated that he was capable of commanding the evacuation and subsequently, Col. Kennedy made his escape attempt. However, Col. Kennedy was eventually re-captured, and spent the rest of the war imprisoned at Moosburg.
REFUSING A RIDE
As commander of the compound, Col. Arnold roused and organized the prisoners into blocks (a platoon-sized group). Each block had its own commander responsible to Col. Arnold. The prisoners were to be escorted by 87 German guards and about 20 to 25 sentry dogs. The Germans provided a wagon with two horses to carry equipment for the guards. They told Col. Arnold he could ride in the wagon if his leg gave him problems; however, Col. Arnold eschewed the offer and marched along leading his command. "I gave the order to march and we marched two to three miles, then we halted. The German commander of my column, Capt. Galadovich, started talking to me and I asked him where we were going. He said, ‘We're taking the column down to the railroad station where we're going to get on boxcars, and take the POWs to Moosburg.’
Thinking back to the horrible crowded conditions on the boxcars and the two bombing raids he had endured in previous evacuations, Col. Arnold adamantly refused to go along with the German evacuation plan. "I didn't want to do that because I thought it was too dangerous based on my previous experiences. I told Capt. Galadovich our job is to get everybody to the destination safe and sound." The refusal surprised Capt. Galadovich, who told Col. Arnold he would have to confer with his commander, Oberst (Colonel) Braun, who was waiting in a town about a half-mile down the road.
Col. Arnold ordered his men off the road to seek cover under the forest while they waited for Capt. Galadovich to return. When he did return, he informed Col. Arnold that Oberst Braun wanted to meet with him in the town. "He told me Oberst Braun would be in a restaurant and for me to come in there." Capt. Galadovich, his assistant Oberfeldtwebel (master sergeant) Reilman, Col. Arnold and two assistants walked into the town. "When I got there, I told them I'm not going in the restaurant because I may not come out alive. This was understandable at the time, and doesn't need any explanation because you couldn't tell what might happen. I told them I would meet Oberst Braun out in the street."
To Col. Arnold's surprise, Oberst Braun came out. Capt. Galadovich had informed Oberst Braun that Col. Arnold did not want to transport his men in boxcars. "We went over that again, and why. Oberst Braun understood and said that marching to Moosburg would be okay because he didn't think there would be enough boxcars anyway. There would be some delays and we would be in the boxcars for who knows how long before we got moving. He agreed with me and gave us every assistance he could. He gave us maps and told us of the perils and dangers of the SS troops, who would murder anyone, and also told us about the retreat of the German Army." After the conversation, Oberst Braun and his staff got into their cars and drove away. Capt. Galadovich and his staff, who were supposed to accompany Col. Arnold and his men on the march, got into their cars and also drove away. Col. Arnold never saw either man again, leaving Col. Arnold and Oberfeldtwebel Reilman to supervise the march to Moosburg.
Although Mr. Reilman was a member of the Nuremberg staff, he and Col. Arnold had only a passing acquaintance. During the march, however, the two men worked closely together. Col. Arnold kept his men moving in an orderly fashion and Mr. Reilman did what he could to facilitate the needs of the column. "Mr. Reilman would go ahead of the column and smooth things out with the townspeople along the way. He would scout out places for the men to sleep, which was a big help to me." Each night Col. Arnold and Mr. Reilman would make sure all the men and their German guards had a place to sleep. Then they would find a place for themselves and plan the next day's march. "We shared a blanket the whole trip. We worked together well and I considered us fortunate that a man like Mr. Reilman was in charge of the guards. He was a good man."
Avoiding the retreating Germans and the aggressive American fighter pilots, who strafed anything moving on German roads, were Col. Arnold's two main concerns. "I talked it over with Mr. Reilman. I said our job is to go through the back roads, where there's forest to give us cover. I said we’d proceed at a moderate rate because we wanted to get everybody there alive. He agreed."
Col. Arnold marched the column of prisoners through a little town and found a good place in the forest to bivouac for the night. "That gave me a chance to have a meeting with my block commanders. I told them how we would march and every night we would stop before reaching a little town. Mr. Reilman would ride his bicycle into town to talk with the mayor. He would tell them who we were and assure them there would be no danger. I also wanted the men to stay in barns and sleep on hay to keep warm." The next day, the column marched approximately six miles. At the end of the day, as planned, Mr. Reilman rode into a nearby town to talk to the mayor. "He introduced me to the mayor and everything went okay. They weren't belligerent, we weren't belligerent, and we all got along fine. We moved into the town quietly with 1,875 guys, the dogs, and the German guards. The people received us and we were put up and bedded down in old buildings, barns and stables."
Two days into the march, Oberst Braun's warning about the retreating German Army and roving bands of SS troops proved to be prophetic. Mr. Reilman, who scouted ahead of the column on his bicycle, reported back to Col. Arnold with some disturbing news. "He told me at the town ahead, the German Army was retreating through. He said we had to stop the march and get the men off into the pine trees and hide. He would go back and look at the situation and I told him I wanted to go with him."
Col. Arnold, his assistant, Bob Cox, and Mr. Reilman went back to town. Just outside the town, the three men got on their hands and knees and crept up to a vantage point where they could assess the situation. "The Germans were retreating and Mr. Reilman said we could tell they were Army from the yellow patches on their lapels. Mr. Reilman also saw SS troops in the town, who wore red patches on their lapels. In the middle of town, some of the army troops were retreating; however, the SS troops were telling the soldiers to stay. The army troops wouldn't stay and suddenly we heard a lot of machine gun and rifle reports, and one group of maybe a dozen army soldiers fell to the ground. We saw a massacre, a helpless killing."
The three men hurried back to their column. They spent an anxious night waiting to see whether the army retreat or the SS troops would run into them. "We stayed in the trees and gave orders to keep quiet. We couldn't do anything but stay there." By the next day, the retreating German Army and the SS troops were gone and had missed the column. "Once they were gone, we knew the town was open and safe. We proceeded into town and marched through there pretty damn fast!"
TYPICAL AMERICAN GI
By the third day of the march, the German guards and their American prisoners realized they were in this ordeal together. "These guards were older men who had fought in the war, and now were back on guard duty. They were getting tired. Their food was getting low, and feeding the dogs was a chore."
To no one's surprise, the American prisoners soon took their German captors in. "The typical American GI is ingenious and adaptable. He is understanding and friendly as heck. It wasn't long before the German guards were part of us, and the dogs, too. We all went as a group and there were no more sentries or dogs to bother us. We were now just one big group."
Four days into the march, Col. Arnold noticed that on either side of the road were statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. Curious, he asked Mr. Reilman about the significance of the statues. Mr. Reilman told him there were a lot of Catholics among the local residents who were very religious. "Being an Episcopalian, I felt good about that." The column entered the town around midday on Sunday. The significance of the situation wasn't lost to Col. Arnold, realizing it was the Easter season. "I felt there was a need for some kind of prayer. I decided to stay in that town for the night, and told Mr. Reilman I wanted to find a church." The two quickly found a church, but the door was padlocked. "I asked Mr. Reilman to try to get the church open. I wanted to give the boys an opportunity to go to church." Mr. Reilman located two Catholic priests and brought them to the church. Col. Arnold asked them for permission to use the church, and asked if the priests would say mass. "They were apprehensive, suspicious, and wouldn't open the church. They also refused to give mass. I was disappointed and didn't know exactly what I was going to do. I told them there were many Catholics among us who would like to receive mass. I said this church was a house of God and should be open to all and they had no right to deny us the chapel and prayer. I told them it would be a sin not to open the doors and they were committed to say mass." Despite Col. Arnold's words, the priests remained reluctant. "I said, okay, if you won't give us mass, unlock the doors, open the church, and I'll give the sermon." By that time, word had spread among the column there was going to be a church service. The men began to gather around the church. "I knew I'd be a poor substitute for a Catholic priest or Protestant minister, but I felt I could give a lot of comfort to everybody once we were inside the church. It wasn't too long before the priests relented and opened the church doors. They filled the fountain with holy water, welcomed the men into the church, and offered worship to the congregation of many religious backgrounds. The men filled the church and overflowed into the courtyard. "It was a glorious day. The men felt good to be in the Lord's house, even though they were in a foreign country during wartime. Afterwards, the priests apologized and told Mr. Reilman they had never given mass to so many. The typical GIs had made their impression."
FEEDING THE MEN
Although the column did not have an abundance of food, there was never a serious problem providing the men with enough to sustain them. "Everyone knew how to handle the food situation." Midway through the march, the food situation improved greatly once the column managed to have Red Cross packages diverted its way. "We missed a couple of days of Red Cross parcels, being trucked from Switzerland on the autobahns, because we were taking the back roads. Once we discovered this, we got some trucks diverted our way and pretty soon we had more Red Cross parcels than we could carry."
The prisoners used the extra parcels to trade for eggs, fresh vegetables and such, with the local townspeople and farmers. Sometimes, the prisoners just gave the locals their extra parcels. "It created a lot of good will. From that point on to our destination, we had a lot of food."
Col. Arnold divided his time between leading the march and monitoring the progress in the middle and trailing ranks. "I would go off on the side and let the column go by," he said. "I wanted to talk to the rear point and see how the boys were doing." Near the end of the march, it became apparent that one of the men was suffering badly. "There was a navigator in the column who was really hurting. The boys had been taking care of him, but he was getting awfully tired and sick." Col. Arnold had the ailing navigator sit down on the edge of the road to rest. "I sat down with him and stayed with him, maybe an hour or so. He died right there in my arms. I blessed him." The boy's body was wrapped up and loaded onto the wagon. It was taken into Moosburg that ironically, was only one days march away. His was the only death recorded during the march.
ARRIVING IN MOOSBURG
The column reached Moosburg on April 15, 1945, after a 12 day march of avoiding allied bombers and fighters and the retreating German army. Led by Col. Arnold, the prisoners marched through Moosburg up to the gates of the enormous prison camp. "When we came to the main gate, Mr. Reilman talked with the German guards. He came back and said to me, ‘They have barracks and they have tents.’ The barracks were old, dirty and crowded so I told Mr. Reilman we weren't going to stay in those buildings. I said we wanted the tents; however, I wanted a lot of straw and hay brought into the tents. They did that and brought us large bales of hay that they distributed to each tent. We marched in and that's where we stayed until the end of the war." The American commander of the camp was U.S. Army Col. “Pop” Good. He had organized the American POWs into six battalions. When Col. Arnold’s column arrived, it was designated the 7th Battalion.
In April 1945, the war was coming to an end and prison camps in northern and central Germany were being evacuated south to avoid advancing American and British forces. Stammlager VIIA at Moosburg, Germany, was a collection point, and the camp was a large one, holding 130,000 U.S. Army Air Corps, French and British POWs. Stammlager VIIA was a disaster. It was a nest of small compounds separated by barbed wire fences enclosing old, dilapidated barracks crammed closely together. Reportedly, the camp had been built to hold 14,000 French prisoners. In the end, over a hundred thousand POWs of all nationalities and ranks were confined in the area. Towards the end of April, General Patton’s troops were getting close and the POWs at Moosburg were seeing more and more U.S. aircraft passing nearby.
On April 29, 1945, U.S. Army General George Patton's troops liberated the prisoners at Moosburg. Two days later General Patton paid the POWs a visit. Pop remembers that day as if it were yesterday. "He drove through the main gate, standing straight up in his vehicle, with two ivory-handled pistols on either side of his hips, wearing his helmet with four stars across the front. What a sight! Other combat vehicles followed and they were completely surrounded by all the POWs. Everybody was laughing and waving their arms with all kinds of happiness." The excitement in camp was indescribable. Men climbed up on the roofs of the huts and even on the wire to get a view of what was going on. When they spotted an American flag going up on one of the more prominent buildings in Moosburg, they knew for sure that the war was over for them.
A few days after Patton's troops took over the camp, an Army captain who was loaded with German equipment walked up to Col. Arnold. The American officer handed over a saber, pistols and a pistol belt, and told Col. Arnold that he had been asked to deliver them by a German guard named Reilman. Col. Arnold asked the officer to take him to Mr. Reilman, and the two set off to a gate at the far end of the camp. "By the time we got there, Mr. Reilman had already been taken away and I never saw him again. I thought it was sad that we didn't get to say good-bye." To this day, General Arnold often thinks of Mr. Reilman. "I knew he was an insurance salesman before the war, but I really didn't know much else about him. I never even knew his first name." “I was very honored that Mr. Reilman chose me to surrender to. He kept us alive on the march and I had great respect for him.” Col. Arnold gave Mr. Reilman’s things to some guys who were interested in those sorts of war souvenirs, but often wishes he’d kept some memento of Mr. Reilman’s.
LUCK OF THE DRAW
It was left to Col. Good to decide the best way to evacuate the Americans. Col. Good decided to leave the camp one battalion at a time. Col. Arnold said, "He called the seven battalion commanders to a meeting and I was battalion commander No. 7. He told us the battalions would leave by a draw of cards. He held up a deck of cards, and said the highest card would go first, the next highest second, and so on." Two British padres were each asked to shuffle a deck of cards. They placed the shuffled decks on a long table, where the battalion commanders one through seven, were sitting next to one another in numerical order. Col. Good selected one of the decks, and asked the padres to shuffle the deck and place it back on the table. Col. Good cut the deck and then took the top card and placed it in front of the commander of battalion No. 1. Col. Arnold was the last commander to get a card and when his turn came, Col. Good drew the king of spades. It was the highest card, thereby giving Col. Arnold and his men the privilege of leaving the camp first.
U.S. Army trucks started the evacuation early the next morning. They drove the troops to a small airstrip at Landshut, about ten kilometers northeast of Moosburg. From there, U.S. Army Air Corps C-47s flew the former prisoners to Paris, where they went through a U.S. Army processing center called Lucky Strike. After they had been processed through Lucky Strike, the ex-POWs traveled back to the United States aboard ship. However, with transportation routes jammed and flights backed up due to the large volume of POWs, Col. Arnold found his own way out of France and flew from Paris to London with his good friend, Colonel Irving “Bull” Rendle, a Wing Commander in the 8th Air Force in England. On May 19, 1945, Colonel Arnold, a liberated Prisoner of War sailed from England aboard the medical ship, M. S. John Ericsson, and arrived at New York, in America on May 29, 1945. God Bless America! American POWs--Lest They Be Forgotten!
Addendum to Moosburg document Dated October 19, 1997 Provided by Major General W.E. Arnold
During World War II, Col. Arnold also flew 5 bomber missions in B-17s. In 1943, he delivered 29 B-17 aircraft and their crews to Cairo, Egypt, while assigned as Commander of the Arnold Provisional Group out of Sioux City, Iowa. While there, he led a group of 19 airplanes to targets in North Africa and was frequently met by German fighters. Once he was strafed head on by a German fighter and he sustained damage to the plane, but was able to deliver his bombs and make it back to base safely. He said they flew in box formations with 5 or 6 planes in the group and German fighter planes would always pick on the tail guys or guys on the outside of the box. The Germans would also wait until the planes were on their way back after delivering their bombs and pick on the hit or wounded planes. Pop said there were probably just as many planes lost on their return trips than lost over the target.
Bill Chapman, the son of Foster Chapman, shared this letter, written by his father, with us. Foster was the radio operator on Ken Muse’s 830th Squadron crew. This crew was an early replacement crew in the 485th Bomb Group. It’s amazing this letter made it through censorship, but we’re glad the censor was a little lax on this date. It provides rare insight into the thoughts of an airman who had just returned from a mission to one of the most feared and heavily defended targets in Europe, Vienna. The letter was written just a few hours after the crews returned, when the memories were fresh.
On this mission the target was oil storage tanks. Of the 25 planes that made it to the target, 14 were damaged. One crew bailed out over Yugoslavia and two planes landed on the island of Vis. 22 planes landed safely back at Venosa. Chapman’s crew was one of these.
August 22nd 6:00 PM
My Dearest Family;
This is my second letter to you today, but I had to throw the first one away. It was such a mess that I couldn’t even read it- guess I was too nervous. It is only God’s will and the skill of a very wonderful pilot, that any of my crew are back here tonight. You always tell me that you want to know the details so I will tell you about it.
As you might have guessed, we hit Vienna again, it gets worse every time we go back there. Today we flew “Deputy Lead”; this ship takes over the leading of the group in the event the “Primary Lead” ship should go down. Lead and deputy lead are always “Pathfinder”; that’s the ship that has all the radar equipment for bombing through clouds etc. They cost nearly a half million dollars. The deputy lead Radio Operator takes care of all the communications for the entire group and it has a special radio room built into the top part of the rear bomb bay, it’s about six-foot square.
Well we got to the target and the flak was heavier and more accurate than it has ever been before. It was terrible. The sky was absolutely black and B-24s were going down all over, exploding, burning and just spinning. The sky around us was a mass of flames, black smoke and falling debris. I was in this little radio compartment with the door shut, so that I could concentrate on my work. The ship was rocking and pitching violently due to the flak and I could hear it pounding on the sides of the ship. I saw a B-24 going down so jumped up to try to get the number on it. Just as I left my stool, there was a terrific noise in my compartment that left me deaf for a few seconds, I turned around and right where my head would have been, had I been sitting down, was a five inch hole- in one side of the ship and out the other. If I hadn’t stood up just a few seconds before that, I wouldn’t be here now.
By this time the flak guns had our range perfectly and I saw huge holes blossoming all over the left wing. Finally I heard the call “BOMBS AWAY”. Those were wonderful words, as I was riding right on top of the bomb load. It wasn’t but a few seconds after “BOMBS AWAY” our ship gave a terrible lurch, shot straight up in the air and then fell off on the left wing, headed straight for the ground, right over the target. I had just sent the bombs away message back to headquarters when we went into the dive so I started right out of the compartment. You have to go out through a little door on your hands and knees. I had my chute on and, with the ship in a straight dive, I was trying to climb uphill. One of the waist guns tore loose from its mount and headed to the rear of the ship just missing Kozak (Editor’s note: Casmir Kozak was the tail gunner), who was standing by the escape hatch, then the ship started to spin, a long “flat” spin. Stuff- ammunition, radio tuning units, extra flak suites, headsets and everything was flying all over the ship. I had my helmet on and the strap buckled, it was ripped right off my head by the centrifugal force. Every one was thrown to the floor and banged up against the side of the ship and our headsets were torn loose from their connections so no one could hear directions for bailing out. There wasn’t any time for directions, we were just waiting for the (warning) bell to ring, it seemed like an eternity, but it all happened in just a few seconds.
Kozak had the escape hatch in the floor open and we were going to bail out without waiting for the bell; just then the ship went into a long glide and leveled off. All of this time of course, we were in a terrific flak barrage and all by ourselves. The formation was way ahead and we had lost over three thousand feet in the spin. We all got to our feet , not knowing what to expect next. Finally we had gotten out of the range of the flak guns.
We looked out the window and saw the cause of the spin; both of our aileron controls had been shot away and they were just hanging there. They are the controls that run along the trailing edge of the wing. We were still at 18,000 feet and our oxygen masks had all been torn off and we were all very weak. Some of us found our masks, but others had been thrown out the window in the spin so we had to drop down to 12000 feet. It was a miracle there were no enemy fighters around. We would have been shot out of the sky Ammunition belts were all broken and lying all over the ship. I evidently got hit in the face by something, as I have a cut lip, and chipped one of my front teeth; I don’t know when it happened. Lt. Muse truly saved our lives today.
We were still deep in enemy territory and had plenty to worry about. We started to prepare the ship for a crash landing, throwing out all the radar equipment ($10,000 worth), all the ammunition, the other waist gun and everything that was loose in the ship. If you crash land at 140 MPH this stuff will do a lot of damage. I never saw such a beautiful job of flying, Lt. Muse is really a born Pilot. Our A-5 (Automatic Pilot) was damaged and so he did most of the flying with elevators and rudders. We crossed the Adriatic and back to friendly territory- then came the landing.
Several planes had seen us spinning down over the target so thought we were lost. I radioed the field and told them the trouble. They had their ambulances standing by, the fire department and the crash trucks. We took off most of our clothes, rolled them into big bundles to make pads with, then sat on the floor with our legs around one another and braced ourselves. We were all afraid we would run off the “runway”- the runways are bad enough as it is, being just metal strips that lock together. We hit very hard and bounced, then we hit again and rolled smoothly along - we had made it. There were all of two hundred men waiting at the “hard stand” (parking place) when we taxied over there. I jumped out of the waist window, got down on my hands and knees and kissed good old Mother Earth. All of the fellows were shaking hands with us and all the high ranking officers of the field were there. Truly Mother and Daddy, I never thought I would be back home. I think I took twenty years off my life today, as did all of us. Well, that was today’s mission, a double (Editor’s note: “double” means the crew got credit for two missions) thank God. That gives me twenty-nine now and I hope we never see another one like that. We had over seventy flak holes.
Now for the nice things, I had a very nice letter from you, Mother dear, and two from Janet, finally. She had to gone to Lake Milacs for a few days. That picture of Jeanne is so beautiful and she looks wonderful in it. The doggies were swell too. Well, guess I had better close. The other fellows are sleeping, believe I will do that soon. Hope you’re all fine, I feel ok, except for being terribly on edge. Good night for now.
Your loving son and brother,
1st Lt. Lynn Cotterman was an 831st Squadron navigator on Lt. Homer Cotton’s crew. Lynn’s crew did not have an assigned bombardier, so he also performed the bombardier’s duties on his crew. In this story he describes a mission to Rosenheim marshalling yard on April 19, 1945, summarizing the reasons and importance for bombing these facilities.
In the early hours, a few minutes before 5:00 AM, we were in the 485th Bomb Group briefing room, waiting for the colonel to arr-----“Ten-Hut!” a voice blared out, and everyone rose as the Colonel entered the room. “At ease”, the voice called out again; we settled down and watched the drape being pulled back from the front wall, revealing the large map of Southern Europe. A route was drawn on the map from our base at Venosa to the marshalling yards in a little “berg” in Germany. A sigh of relief went across the room. It was good news that we were not scheduled to bomb one of the deadly, heavily-defended targets, such as Vienna or Linz.
The Colonel was trying to explain how the bombing of this rail junction in the town of Attnang Pucheim was going to help the war effort. We were not listening. We were more interested in the amount of flak and the number of enemy fighters that could be expected over this target. Not much opposition was expected.
Not long after we left the briefing room we were in a formation of B-24’s heading up the Adriatic Sea toward our target in Germany. We wouldn’t reach enemy territory for a while, so I had time to think about the target, these marshalling yards. Some marshalling yards were in heavily defended cities like Vienna, Linz and Regensburg and were rough targets, while others, like this one, were in small cities and routine, if any combat mission could be called routine.
The bombing of marshalling yards doesn’t sound very significant or essential to the war effort, not like destroying oil production or aircraft factories, but during the war rail transportation was the military and economic lifeline of Germany. Nearly all materials were shipped by rail. Cutting the rail lines was not effective, because the rails were repaired in a matter of hours and trains were running again. The object was to destroy the cars loaded with the materials. This is why the marshalling yards were repeat targets. We could destroy the cars in the marshalling yards on a mission and, if the same yards were filled with cars the next month, they went back on the target list. Bombing the railcars interrupted the flow of war materials, delayed war production and crippled the economy. Although the destruction of rail cars does not sound like a critical mission, it was a vital factor in the overall war effort.
“The attack on transportation….the weakest link….was a decisive factor in the collapse of the German economy and the German Army.” (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey)
The weather did not look too promising. Out the side window in the navigator’s compartment I saw the clouds were building. We passed the port of Pola and crossed the coast at the north end of the Adriatic Sea, entering into enemy territory. Our escort, consisting of 36 P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft, joined us. The formations tightened up and everyone was on the alert. The gunners were scanning the skies for enemy fighters. We flew over the snowy Alps and on into Germany.
As we reached the Initial Point (IP) and were ready to turn on the bomb run, we aborted, because our target was covered with a layer of clouds. We flew to the first alternate target and then to the second. No luck at either, as both were covered with clouds. We flew around Salzburg to avoid their flak guns, to the marshalling yards at Rosenheim, where there were a few clouds, but not enough to obscure the target completely. Rosenheim was an important hub, with rail lines to Munich, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Muhldorf.
We made our run on Rosenheim. I toggled (released) the bombs when I saw bombs falling from the lead bomber and watched them fall to the target, which was already partially covered with smoke from bombs from the group ahead of us. I wrote in my log, “It looks like we got some good hits.” The official Air Force debriefing report read: “The photos showed a good pattern of bombs covering the central and southeast end of the yards, damaging 50-100 pieces of rolling stock. Highway Bridge south of the yard was destroyed and the installations adjacent to the southeast choke point were damaged. No enemy aircraft were seen.” The formation did not encounter any flak. This was one of our better successes and we were thankful for a “Milk Run”.
After flying around Germany looking for a clear target, most of our fuel had been consumed and we still had to go over the Alps before we could descend and coast home. By the time we broke out of the clouds over the Adriatic Sea, our fuel gauges were showing empty. We received permission to refuel at a forward fighter base along the coast, near Ancona, Italy. We had no trouble landing; however, after turning onto the taxi strip, the engines began to sputter. Homer (Cotton), our pilot, was flipping the switches between the fuel tanks, trying to find fuel and keep the engines running, but only fumes were left. All four engines conked out, one after another, and we had to be towed.
If it had been necessary to circle the field one more time we would have been in serious trouble. We didn’t have enough altitude to do anything, but hope the pilot could find a place to set her down, which would have meant a crash landing. We lucked out again. Close calls seemed to be occurring regularly and it was giving me the jitters.
485th Bomb Group Mission No. 183
April 19, 1945
1st Lt. Lynn Cotterman, Navigator,
831st Bomb Squadron
Glenn Hess was an instructor pilot in the 831st Bomb Squadron. Glenn flew the 485th Bomb Group’s last mission of the war, to the marshalling yard at Linz, Austria on April 25, 1945. Glenn remained in the Air Force after World War II, finishing his career as a B-52 instructor pilot. Glenn and his wife lived in Garden Grove, California until his death in 2006. Glenn related this story at the 485th reunion in Reno in 2002. The incident occurred a few months prior.
Returning to my home one day, I fell in behind a rental motor home that was preparing to get off the freeway at the next exit. (I live in Orange County, two miles south of Disneyland.) As we proceeded to the exit I could tell by his confusion it was a tourist in front of me, unfamiliar with where he was going. At the exit he made a right turn onto Harbor Boulevard. After heading north for a very short block, he surprised me by turning right again (east) on the avenue where I live. After traveling about one hundred feet he pulled to the curb and stopped. Knowing he was disoriented, I chose to pull in behind him and wait to see if I could help.
After waiting several minutes for him to make a move I decided he might be wary and might not want help. I pulled around him and went several hundred feet on down the street and turned into my driveway and stopped. By the time I exited my car I saw he had stopped across the street. He came across the street, carrying a thick, computer-generated travel itinerary and began speaking poor English, with an accent that was German or Austrian. He was trying to determine where the motor home park was that was in his itinerary. Being familiar with the park, I was able to give him directions.
While we were occupied, his wife had left the motor home and was walking up the drive. As she got closer, my gaze was embarrassingly riveted on her deeply scarred upper lip. Immediately recognizing my wonderment, she unabashedly started telling me that she and her husband were natives of Linz, Austria and that when she was six months old, lying in a crib in their home, she was hit by a piece of shrapnel from a bombing raid, on the 25th of April 1945. What a shock this was to me! Somehow I managed to wish them a happy exploration of America on their month long visit, which included two days at Disneyland.
Upon their leaving, I rushed into the house and checked what the records I have and found that I had been the pilot of a B-24 crew that bombed Linz, Austria on our last mission of World War II; 25 April 1945.
Having lived with all kinds of nightmares since being in Italy in 1944-45 and having actively participated in the war, I have asked God to forgive me for the destruction we had been a part of, particularly to the damage done to those who were innocent. I sincerely believe this was His answer for me to open my eyes.
Captain Glenn Hess
831st Bomb Squadron
485th Bomb Group
Jim Scheib was the copilot on Bob Baker’s 831st Squadron replacement crew, and was with the group from October 1944 until the war ended. He hasn’t identified the date this incident occurred, but it happened in very late 1944 or early 1945. This story points out that there were other dangers, along with those commonly associated with flying combat missions over enemy territory.
It was customary for the Bomb Group formation, as we were climbing to altitude over the Adriatic Sea, to spread out so that the gunners could charge their machine guns. The purpose of the spread formation was that live caliber .50 rounds could be dropped overboard and that was an obvious hazard to trailing aircraft.
On this flight, our crew was flying position #4, (the slot) directly behind #1 (Leader). Before the signal was given to spread formation, the belly gunner of the leader's B-24 charged his turret's caliber .50 a couple of times and, as co-pilot, I saw a couple rounds coming at us for just an instant and I heard a sound like popcorn. As we were mentally preparing ourselves for entry into German airspace, I thought no more about it.
When we returned from the mission, Sgt Houlihan, Crew Chief of our airplane, directed us as we taxied onto the hardstand. With the props slowing down and coming to a stop, Houlihan signaled me and yelled, “You O.K., Lt?" At that point in the mission, I was kind of groggy and had to think for a second before I answered that I was O.K. He said, "Could you come down here and look at this?". I disconnected the half dozen wires, tubes, belts, etc. that connect an air crewman to the B-24 and climbed down through the flight deck to the bomb bay and out to where he was standing in front of our -24. He said, "Look at that hole". Looking up at my position in the aircraft, I saw a hole in the side of the plane just where my thigh would be while sitting in my seat. I searched the cockpit, thinking I would find a piece of flak, and finally located half of a .50 caliber cartridge. This didn't happen every day, so I put it in my flight suit pocket to look at after our crew's interrogation.
It took a bit of sleuthing to determine why half a bullet would be at my crew station. Then, it all fit together - - - one of that belly gunner's caliber .50 rounds was struck on the butt end by one blade of our #3 prop which was just to my right. That fired the primer, sent the projectile somewhere through the Group's formation, and left a deep scar on the back of the round. Then, I surmise, the spent round was again struck and cut in half by a succeeding blade of the prop. That propelled the butt half through the aluminum skin on the side of the B-24 by my thigh.
I call it my "Roamin' Bullet" experience because it happened in Italy, and I acquired a souvenir of Italy because it fell from one B-24 and entered our B-24 while we were enroute to the target.
I expect that I will tell this story at a Bomb Group Reunion and some son-of-a-gun will say, "Hey, I remember dropping some rounds overboard like that!". I will show him my souvenir.
1st Lt. James A. Scheib
831st Bomb Squadron
485th Bomb Group
The Trip Across the Pond
Two childhood friends enlisted in the Army Air Force from their hometown, Lexington, KY in 1943. William R. Smither graduated high school in January 1943 (mid-year) from Lafayette High School. Marvin Nicholson graduated Lafayette in May 1943. William enlisted in the fall of 1943. Marvin had enlisted in February 1943, but finished school before entering service in June. Both fellows wanted to fly and fight the enemy. They both hoped to be pilots. William noted that despite his great desire to be a pilot, the AAF didn’t need any more. So they washed him out with increased vision requirements. Reflecting later, he mused, “They didn’t think I could see well enough to fly the plane, but now they wanted me to shoot at the enemies?” William’s operational specialty was tail turret gunner and Marvin’s assignment was ball turret gunner.
William and Marvin did their basic training, gunnery school, B-24 “overseas” training, and crew assembly in differing locations across the nation. Marvin also completed the technical school for armament training. But when it came time to ship out in November 1944 and take the trip across the pond to Italy, they were both, unbeknownst to each other, in Hampton Rhodes, Virginia. The ship was a former French luxury liner, converted to ferry the military back and forth across the ocean. It was one ship of several in a convoy across the Atlantic. They both embarked with about 1000 other airmen, and spent 14 days on the ship, without knowing the other rode on the same ship.
The trip was long and at one point to avoid the German submarines, Marvin recalls, zig-zagging evasive maneuvers were necessary. Both William and Marvin remember that Red Skelton was on this ship. He apparently was part of the transportation corps during the war, ferrying men back and forth across the ocean. His light –hearted comical jokes made for some levity prior to the airmen going into combat in the skies over enemy territory. William said that one time he saw the officers looking down from the upper deck, and Red was down a level with the enlisted fellows. He took a scrap of paper out of his pocket, and pointed a disapproving finger up to one particular officer, scribbled a name down and said, “I am going to have get that one later” as those near by laughed aloud.
Finally, the coast of Italy came into view, the ships docked, the men had all their belongings in their duffle bags, and the crews began disembarking. William saw a familiar face peering over the rail and shouted, “Marvin Nicholson !” “Hey Bill,” he returned with a wave. They were 50 feet from each other, so the conversation was short and sweet. However there was time to get closer for a bit more discussion. Neither knew of their final destination, but each would soon find out. These Lexington, Kentucky buddies had just spent 14 days on a ship together and didn’t see each other until they arrived at the port of Naples, nearly half way around the world. William was holding up the line, and guess who peeked his head around the corner? Red Skelton said, “Hey shortie, come on now, you get off here.”
Marvin’s crew walked down the gang plank and up another one to board a second ship. They sailed around the toe of the boot of Italy to Taranto, where trucks ferried the men to their base in Venosa. Marvin was with the 485th BG, 830th BS. They arrived the next day at midnight and the officers showed them an empty field and said, “This will be your new home for awhile.” They pitched tents by flashlights and tried to get some sleep.
William’s crew hopped into trucks in Naples that drove them to San Pancrazio and they arrived after midnight. William was with the 376th BG, 512th BS. The officer’s club building was a welcome sight, as their pilot Richard S. Ritter and co-pilot Ralph G. Wilson hosted the crew for a late night snack of orange marmalade and bread. Then they all had to pitch tents and sleep, just as Marvin described. The tent cities on the airbases would later be built and customized by the men, in an effort to make them as comfortable as possible.
William and Marvin learned later that they were both in southern Italy, but at different airbases. They could write some letters back and forth. They certainly flew on similar missions, and probably on some of the same days to the same targets. Both men have amazing stories of heroism and bravery to tell of their time with the Fifteenth Air Force. These stories include a crash landing in Ancona, Italy, where Marvin helped co-pilot the damaged B-24 when the co-pilot and pilot were injured by flak, but all of the Don Adams crew survived on April 11, 1945. William’s** B-24 hit flak over its target and he and 8 other surviving crew members bailed-out over Yugoslavia. His pilot (Ritter) and co-pilot (Wilson) were unable to get out in time and perished on January 15, 1945.
When VE day arrived, Bill had rotated back home to Lexington just 2 weeks prior, sailing back without worries of German submarines. Marvin remained in Italy until July 1945, relocating from Venosa to Bari before flying back to the states on a B-24. Marvin Nicholson, Jr. was awarded the Air Medal with one oak-leaf cluster and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions on April 11th.
** William R. Smither was awarded the Air Medal.
This story was written by William’s daughter, Celeste Smither, as told to her by William and Marvin on 4/8/2015.
(Smither was in the 376th BG and Nicholson was in the 485th.)