By John D. Brady
John says that as he wrote this piece he was conscious that time had dimmed his memory and sharpened his imagination and wonders whether some of his observations will be challenged. As a relative long term prisoner of was he had a lot of time for these memories to fix them in his mind.
An aspect of the 100th’s history that has not received much attention is its share in populating the numerous "Stalag Lufts" spotted about the German countryside. John Nilsson, in his Story of the Century," lists 988 names of 100th personnel who finished the war as Kriegsgefangenen. Each "Kriegie" had a distinctive (and usually hair-raising) story about how he ended up "in the bag." There was, however, a common ending to each – captivity.
Our crew, one of the original 418th, had completed eighteen or nineteen missions and, in Flight Surgeon "Smokey’ Stover’s opinion, were ready for a little R & R (rest and recreation). We were grounded on October 8, 1943, and orders were cut sending us to Bournemouth. We were to leave as soon as the Group returned from a little outing in Bremen that day. As history has recorded, the Bremen mission was a disaster with seven ships going down and a number of others returning in such bad shape that their future was in doubt. This was the mission that tore up Ev Blakely’s crew so badly. Needless to say, our R & R orders rescinded and were kept at Thorpe Abbotts on the ready.
On October 10 we were able to patch together thirteen planes and took off for Munster. Our crew led the Group that, in itself was an indication of the condition we were in. John Egan, 418th C.O., was in the co-pilot’s seat with John Hoerr, our co-pilot, in the jump seat. The records seem to indicate that thirteen planes crossed the channel but my recollection is that one turned back and that there were only twelve as approached the French coast. This is reinforced by an equally hazy recollection of a very brief discussion with Egan as to whether we should all return to the barn. We both made the sign of the Cross and plunged forward to our unhappy rendezvous.
Everything hit the fan as soon as the Spitfires turned back and by the time we arrived at the I.P. (initial point), disaster was upon us. The net result (and I do mean net) was that Rosie (Robert Rosenthal) flew the only plane to return to Thorpe Abbotts. Meet me at the bar and I’ll give you all the morbid details!
Gene Clanton, waist gunner, was killed by flak a few minutes before the final hit and went down with the plane. Ronald Gangwer, ball turret gunner, and H. B. Hamilton III, bombardier, were both wounded but jumped with the rest of the crew. Egan and I did an "after you" act in the bomb bay until a circling German fighter lobbed another shell into the fuselage at which time we dove simultaneously.
On the ground we had different experiences. Egan managed to remain free several days before being picked up. Adolf Blum, top turret gunner, landed in the middle of a German Wehrmacht drill field. (Blum spoke fluent German and his adventures in and out of several camps during the war justify another visit to the bar for details) Our bombardier Howard Hamilton, badly wounded, was captured almost immediately and taken to a hospital. After a long sojourn with German doctors he ended up at a different prison from any of the rest of us. After several hours in the brush, I was flushed out by a group of Hitler Youth and led to the closest hamlet. By nightfall a number of us had been collected and formed into a group. The following day we were marched through the streets of Munster. The residents lined the streets – a very unpleasant experience.
After another day or two of being herded about, we arrive at a Dulag Luft (If it had a number, I don’t remember it) in the shadow of I. G. Farben headquarters in Frankfurt. This was an interrogation center and transfer camp where prisoners were assembled for assignment to permanent camps. Some, mostly pilots and navigators, were held in solitary for interrogation and the rest were shipped out as groups were assembled.
At Dulag Luft I was holed up in a 6 x 12 room populated by one iron cot with a straw pallet and thirty million fleas. My interrogator was a Hauptmann (Captain) who had been a piano salesman in Yonkers until 1936 or 1937 when he returned to serve the Fatherland. I had a session with him once a day as well as I can recall, during which the conversation was quite general, with occasional questions by him. When an answer was declined, he went to his records and invariably produced the correct information. My conclusion was that the Germans’ knowledge of the makeup and activities of the 100th was more complete than mine. Her read out the training schools I had attended, names of my crew and the other pilots in the 418th.
They were no aware that John Egan flew with us, however. Several years later, when I met him for the first time after the war (he was pushing a baby carriage down the street where we lived in DC), he told me when he was picked up the Germans gave him a hard time because his name didn’t fit into their neat little scheme of things. I believe his acquisition of some civilian clothes may have added to the problem.
A large group of us moved our from Frankfurt in mid-October via boxcar, bound for Stalag Luft III at Sagan, a town about sixty kilometers southeast of Berlin. After three or four days with minimal body comforts, we were greeted at Segan by a sizeable delegation of 100th personnel who cheered us through the gate. Howard Hamilton tells the story that when he arrived at his prison at Barth on the Baltic Sea; where we saw a group of dejected kriegies at the gate. "Any of you fellows from the Hundredth?" he asked. One of the prisoners raised his head. "We all are," he said.
There were still a lot of British flying personnel at our camp at that time. Some of them had been in Germany since Dunkirk and had acquired extra clothing in parcels from home. We were able to barter such things as watches, A-2 jackets and other non-essentials for warm clothing that was much appreciated as winter set in. A short time later the British were sent to an all-British area and we became all-American.
The camp was well organized by the American military. Camp society shook down pretty much as in the outside world. We had a privileged few (upper ranks) who were relatively better housed, clothed and fed; the junior striver who wanted so desperately to achieve the privileged status and who were shameless in their sycophancy; the great middle class who knew that all this would pass, and lastly the born losers who are always with us.
Food was our major concern. The German contribution was bread and barley or millet gruel. Subject to the availability of German transport, we also received food parcels from the International Red Cross, which really sustained us.
A major aggravation was the Germans’ seeming delight in body counts. At any time of the day or night the guards would rush in and roust us out to the parade ground for another ein, zwei, drei session. If there was any discrepancy they would start all over again. The guards were lousy counters so a lot of time was consumed by this idiotic routine.
Activities were varied. The British had left us a fair number of books, mostly ancient English novels, so we read a number of author’s that we otherwise would never have met. There were classes in a wide variety of subjects, taught by prisoners. There was an active dramatic group that was super. I remember "Juno and the Paycock" and "Arsenic and Old Lace" as being particularly well done. One of the more active people, Joe Lewis, eventually ended up on the faculty of the Drama Department of Catholic University. A group of us with some musical background played in a dance band the British had started, using instruments provided by the Red Cross. As more talented people came in the front gate, it became a first rate group. This very week I had a letter from Irv Waterbury saying that he knew a trumpet player who was an ex-POW who remembered someone who answered to my name who blew a horn in the camp band. Irv didn’t know I was a dropout from the music profession, so he wrote to inquire if I could possibly be the cat his friend referred to. The man in question, Wally Kinnan, is playing in a Big Band that Irv and others have organized. He was a powerhouse lead trumpet man who had worked in Jimmy Dorsey’s band prior to entering service.
Some people walked and ran around the perimeter path of the compound by the hour, some stayed in the sack much of the time. We had news distributors (a secret radio picked up BBC regularly), security guys who attempted to keep up with the activities and whereabouts of the guards, tunnel engineers (none ever made it out of our area), and many other specialists. Most people eventually struck upon some activity to help the time pass.
At Barth, where Hamilton was, the prisoners invented and ingenious way of restoring morale, when the Germans feed in news that the Allied drive in the West was slowed, or when a particularly large contingent of new prisoners came in and kriegie morale dropped, someone would yell "Gangplank drill!" then every prisoner in the camp would carefully and methodically pack up his possessions and get into line. One by one the men would walk up a narrow wooden plank, practicing for the day the war would be over and they would all go home up the gangplank of the boat that would take them home.
In January 1945, we had been hearing the Russian big guns in the distance for thirty days but they didn’t seem to get any closer. The BBC advised that they had pulled up at the Oder River for regrouping. Apparently the German got word that they were about to move again, so on January 29, shortly after midnight (we had been ready for hours), the whole camp was poured out into the roads headed for we-knew-not-where. As it developed the Germans had no immediate destination in mind, but they had to move us out of the path of the Russians. We wandered about for several days only to discover we had described the better part of a circle. Bad weather and miserable conditions prevailed. It was as though half the world was on the road with us; all-running away from the East. We spent some long nights in barns, some with hay or straw, most with just bare ground. We also spent several days and nights, in relative comfort of a pottery factory where the kilns burned twenty-four hours a day. It was a bad time, particularly for the sack-hounds who allowed their physical condition to deteriorate.
The Germans finally got a course from headquarter and we struck out for the city Spremburg where we boarded boxcars again and headed south. Our train was constantly switched to allow military traffic to pass and we spent three or four hours in the Dresden marshalling yards. I believe the fire-bomb raid on Dresden, which has recently come to light, occurred several days after our visit. After several more days of riding we reached Munich and were transported to a giant dumping ground called Stalag III in Moosburg. Unlike our previous camp, which had been operated by the Luftwaffe, this one was Wehrmacht responsibility. I think every European nationality was represented. Plus British Colonials from India, French Colons from North Africa, Turks and un-identifiable
On April 29, 1945, General Patch knocked at the gate with his troops.
On June4, 1945, we sailed into New York Harbor, exactly two years from the day we took off from Presque Isle, Maine.
Every effort has been made to transcribe this article exactly as John wrote it. Of interest is that John Brady was chosen as one of four Hundredth veterans to place the Group’s Wreath at The Tomb of the Unknowns in 1995.