Crew 51 - Assigned 754th Squadron - October 1943
|2Lt||Robert L Mundkowski||0735634||Pilot||06-Jan-44||REPL||Replaced by Lt Couch - Crew 50|
|1Lt||Francis V Hooven||0811385||Co-pilot||Aug-44||CT||Awards - Distinguished Flying Cross|
|2Lt||Walter L Nissen||0688987||Bombardier||06-Jan-44||UNK||Movment Orders HQ 4FA|
|1Lt||Robert J Cavanaugh||0691954||Navigator||18-Aug-44||CT||Appt Asst Grp & Sta Nav|
|T/Sgt||Robert R Mattson||16058389||Radio Operator||Aug-44||CT||Awards - Distinguished Flying Cross|
|T/Sgt||Joe Wagner||18119298||Flight Engineer||25-Apr-44||EVD/POW||Evaded / Stalag Luft 4|
|T/Sgt||Louis A Rose||18189044||Aerial Gunner - 2/E||04-Aug-44||CT||Awards - Distinguished Flying Cross|
|Sgt||Teddy Pitcock||38370887||Ball Turret Gunner||Nov-43||REPL||Replaced by S/Sgt Eugene Humbert|
|S/Sgt||William F Stuckey||18119071||Aerial Gunner - 3/E||Aug-44||CT||Awards - Distinguished Flying Cross|
|S/Sgt||Charles C Wright||38370977||Armorer-Gunner||04-Aug-44||CT||Awards - Distinguished Flying Cross|
Crew 51, under the command of 2Lt Robert L. Mundkowski, trained together with the 754th Squadron in Tonopah, Nevada during the fall of 1943. Prior to movement overseas, Mundkowski was removed from the crew and 2Lt Robert T. Couch, the co-pilot on Lt. Teague Harris’s crew (#50) was placed in command of Crew 51. Sgt Teddy Pitcock, ball turret gunner, was also replaced prior to overseas movement by S/Sgt Eugene B. Humbert. The reason for both of these personnel changes is unknown.
A member of the crew recorded their trip to the ETO in a logbook. The crew flew via the Southern Ferry Route to England. Leaving Hamilton Field with a brand new B-24H on January 19, 1944, stops included Midland, Texas; Morrison Field, Florida; Trinidad in the British West Indies; Natal, Brazil: Marrakech, North Africa: Valley, Wales; and finally on to Horsham St Faith where they arrived on February 5, 1944.
The 458th flew its first combat mission
on March 2, 1944, but Crew 51's first mission came on the March 15th
raid to Brunswick, Germany. Five additional missions followed, but the
crew seemed plagued with bad luck. Three of these five missions were
aborted due to mechanical difficulties and one was recalled. In a
one-month period, pilot Bob Couch flew seven missions, only three of
which were credited sorties.
April 1944 turned out to be a bad month for Crew 51. On the 22nd, the 458th took off late in the afternoon to bomb the marshaling yards at Hamm, Germany. The crew was stood down on this date, but Robert Couch's former crew under Teague Harris was short a co-pilot for this mission so Couch volunteered to fill in. The group returned late in the evening in the darkness and were attacked by German ME-410 night fighters. Two 458th aircraft were shot down close to Horsham, one of these being the Harris crew. While some of the crew were able to bail out successfully, Couch remained in the cockpit with Harris and was killed instantly in the crash. [See Crew 50 page for full story]
Another member of Crew 51 was lost three days later on the mission to Mannheim, Germany. T/Sgt Joe Wagner, flight engineer, was assigned as a fill-in on the crew of 1Lt John Combs (#44). The lead squadron was attacked by 20 enemy fighters shortly after crossing the French coast. Combs' aircraft suffered severe damage to the tail, losing at least one rudder, causing an immediate loss of control. The plane crashed near Vitry, France with four of the crew killed. Four other crew members evaded capture and made it safely back to England. Pilot John Combs and Joe Wagner were captured, although Wagner made it to the Spanish border before being caught. They remained POWs until the end of the war.
Taking Wagner's place was Crew 44's engineer S/Sgt Harold L. Holbrook, who eventually completed his tour. Replacing Robert Couch as pilot was co-pilot, 1Lt James F. Simes. His crew, under the command of 1Lt Stuart Goldsmith (#55), would be forced to land in Switzerland on May 11, 1944. It is not known exactly how many missions Simes flew prior to becoming the first pilot of Crew 51, but records indicate he flew 19 missions with this crew, finishing up on June 24, 1944. On October 31, 1944, Captain Simes was appointed as Assistant Operations Officer for the 754th Squadron. In addition to his missions as co-pilot on Goldsmith's crew, and as first pilot of Crew 51, he flew 15 additional missions as command pilot between November 5, 1944 and April 6, 1945. He was awarded the DFC in May 1945.
After Simes had completed his missions and moved to the squadron operations office, 1Lt Frank Hooven became the first pilot of Crew 51. It is believed that he flew at least nine missions (including two aborts) as the crew's pilot before most of the them completed their missions around July 25th. Hooven continued to fly with various crews for an additional seven missions, completing his combat tour in mid-August.
Several of the crew are only listed briefly in the 458th records, and it is not known for sure when they completed their combat tour. 2Lt Walter L. Nissen and 2Lt William W. Clark appear to have both flown with Crew 51 as bombardier, but nothing is known of their individual missions, outside of a few loading lists showing Lt. Clark as bombardier. Sgt's Louis A. Rose, Eugene B. Humbert, and Charles C. Wright are all assumed to have completed their combat tour at about the same time in late July 1944.
Enlisted Men at Wendover - Fall 1943
(L-R) Robert Mattson, Charles Wright, Teddy Pitcock, Joe Wagner, William Stuckey
(Photo: Patrick Mattson)
|Date||Target||Pilot||458th Msn||Pilot Msn||Crew Msn||Serial||RCL||Sqdn||A/C Msn||A/C Name||Comments|
|16-Mar-44||FRIEDRICHSHAFEN||COUCH||8||ABT||ABT||42-52353||J||Z5||--||UNKNOWN 049||#3 PROP GOV|
|18-Mar-44||FRIEDRICHSHAFEN||COUCH||9||ABT||ABT||42-52404||Q||Z5||--||BELLE OF BOSTON||#2 SUPER CHGR|
|22-Mar-44||BERLIN||COUCH||11||ABT||ABT||41-29273||Q||J4||--||FLAK MAGNET||LATE T/O|
|01-May-44||LIEGE M/Y||SIMES||33||3||6||42-95005||H||Z5||5||UNKNOWN 034|
|09-May-44||ST. TROND||SIMES||38||7||10||41-29596||R||Z5||3||HELL'S ANGEL'S|
|11-May-44||EPINAL||SIMES||39||ABT||ABT||42-95005||H||Z5||--||UNKNOWN 034||LOST FORMATION|
|20-May-44||RHEIMS A/D||SIMES||43||10||13||42-95005||H||Z5||8||UNKNOWN 034|
|24-May-44||VILLEROCHE||SIMES||46||ABT||ABT||42-95005||H||Z5||--||UNKNOWN 034||LOST #4 ENG|
|25-May-44||MULHOUSE M/Y||SIMES||47||12||15||42-95005||H||Z5||10||UNKNOWN 034|
|29-May-44||TUTOW A/F||SIMES||50||15||18||42-95005||H||Z5||13||UNKNOWN 034|
|04-Jun-44||BOURGES A/F||SIMES||54||17||20||42-95018||J||Z5||11||OLD DOC'S YACHT|
|06-Jun-44||COASTAL AREAS||JUDGE||56||ABT||ABT||42-95018||J||Z5||12||OLD DOC'S YACHT||J. JUDGE - PILOT|
|06-Jun-44||PONTAUBAULT||SIMES||58||19||21||42-95018||J||Z5||13||OLD DOC'S YACHT||MSN #3|
|12-Jun-44||EVREUX/FAUVILLE||SIMES||64||ASSY||ASSY||41-28697||Z||Z5||A1||SPOTTED APE||ZEBRA A/C|
|20-Jun-44||OSTERMOOR||HOOVEN||73||1||22||42-95018||J||Z5||20||OLD DOC'S YACHT||MSN #1|
|21-Jun-44||BERLIN||HOOVEN||75||ABT||ABT||42-95018||J||Z5||--||OLD DOC'S YACHT||3 TURBOS OUT|
|23-Jun-44||3 NO BALLS||HOOVEN||76||2||23||42-95096||U||Z5||17||BOMBS AWAY||TGT # 6 COUBRONNE|
|24-Jun-44||CONCHES A/F||HOOVEN||77||3||24||42-95096||F||Z5||18||BOMBS AWAY||MSN #1|
|28-Jun-44||SAARBRUCKEN||HOOVEN||81||4||25||42-95108||M||Z5||18||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|13-Jul-44||SAARBRUCKEN||HOOVEN||90||ABT||ABT||42-95108||M||Z5||--||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II||LOST FORMATION|
|17-Jul-44||3 NO BALLS||HOOVEN||92||5||26||42-95108||M||Z5||23||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|20-Jul-44||EISENACH||HOOVEN||95||6||27||42-95018||J||Z5||26||OLD DOC'S YACHT|
|24-Jul-44||ST. LO AREA||HOOVEN||97||7||28||42-95108||M||Z5||25||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|25-Jul-44||ST. LO AREA "B"||HOOVEN||98||8||29||42-95108||M||Z5||26||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|31-Jul-44||LUDWIGSHAFEN||HOOVEN||99||9||30||42-95108||M||Z5||27||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|02-Aug-44||3 NO BALLS||HOOVEN||101||ABT||ABT||41-28721||G||J4||--||DOWNWIND LEG||#4 ENG OUT|
|04-Aug-44||ROSTOCK||HOOVEN||103||10||31||42-95108||M||Z5||29||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|05-Aug-44||BRUNSWICK||HOOVEN||105||11||32||42-95018||J||Z5||32||OLD DOC'S YACHT|
|06-Aug-44||HAMBURG||HOOVEN||106||12||33||42-95108||M||Z5||30||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|11-Aug-44||STRASBOURG||HOOVEN||110||13||34||42-95108||M||Z5||31||ENVY OF 'EM ALL II|
|12-Aug-44||MOURMELON||HOOVEN||111||14||35||42-110070||K||Z5||30||ELMER / LADY LUCK|
Crew 51 Pilots
March 4, 1944 First American raid on Berlin, Germany
March 9, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 404 – Air-Sea Rescue Mission
March 18, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 341 - No. 1 Germany – Turned back at Ger. Border – Crossed France alone. 91 flak holes
March 27, 1944 Crew 53, Ship 404 - No. 2 Biarritz, France – Hit target – landed at R.A.F. base, weather
April 5, 1944 Crew 54, Ship 404 - No. 3 – France (Noball) Bombs not dropped, weather
April 10, 1944 Crew 54, Ship 404 - No. 4 – Bourges, France – Hit target – No flak, fighters
April 11, 1944 Crew 54, Ship 404 - No. 5 – Oschersleben, Germany – Hit target – Fighters – Saw 2 B-24’s & 1 enemy fighter go down. (Air Medal)
April 19, 1944 Crew 53, Ship 682 - No. 6 – Paderborn, Germany – Missed target – No fighters – Little flak
April 22, 1944 – Lt. Couch killed – Fighters followed formation to base after dark
April 25, 1944 – Joe Wagner – flying Sub with Lt. Combs – missing in action
April 29, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 7 – Berlin, Germany – Hit target – Three attacks by fighters – (Got one)
May 1, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 8 Noball [in] France – Bombs not dropped
May 1, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 9 – Liege, Belgium – Bombs not dropped. Heavy flak on both targets
May 2, 1944 - Capt. Wright presented my Air Medal to me (Cluster to A.M.)
May 5, 1944 - No. 10??? – Brunswick, Germany – [Recall]
May 7, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 11 – Osnabruck, Germany – Solid undercast – very little flak – uncertain about target
May 13, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 341 - No. 12 – Tutow, Germany Cloudy over target – 1st Section did not drop. Fighters
May 19, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 163 - No. 13 – Brunswick, Germany – Hit Target – Saw fighters, but none attacked us
May 20, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 14 – Reims, France – Hit Target – Light flak – No fighters
May 23, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 15 – Bourges, France – Hit Target – No flak or fighters
May 25, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 16 – Mulhouse, France – Hit Target – No flak or fighters
May 27, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 17 – Neunkirchen, Germany – Hit Target – No flak or fighters
May 28, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 18 – Zietz, Germany - Hit Target – No flak or fighters
May 29, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 19 – Tutow, Germany - Hit Target – No flak or fighters
May 30, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 005 - No. 20 – Belgium/France – Recall – 1 flak hole. (Cluster to A.M.)
June 4, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 018 - No. 21 – Bourges, France – Hit Target – Little flak, No fighters – Landed at R.A.F. Base – weather
June 6, 1944 Crew 51, 018 - No. 22 – Invasion Coast, France – D-Day 06:30 – Bombs not dropped – weather – Went in just before invasion started
June 6, 1944 - No. 23 – Invasion Coast, France – Hit target – Saw invasion fleet
June 20, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 018 - No. 24 – Mineral [sic], Germany – Hit Target – Accurate flak – No fighters
June 23, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 096 - No. 25 – Noball in France – PFF Bombing – Pilotless A/C Ramps – No flak, fighters
June 24, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 096 - No. 26 – Paris, France – Target covered with clouds – Dropped bombs at Conches
June 28, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 108 - No. 27 – Saarbrucken, Germany – PFF Bombing – Dirty flak over target – No fighters
July 17, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 108 - No. 28 – Noball in France – Missed Target – No flak or fighters
July 20, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 018 - No. 29 – Coblenz, Germany – Made three bomb runs – Heavy flak – No fighters
July 24, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 108 - No. 30 – St. Lo, France – No bombs dropped (weather). Light flak – no fighters
July 25, 1944 Crew 51, Ship 108 - No. 31 – St. Lo, France – Bombed German troop concentrations 1,500 yds in advance of our troops in Normandy. Bombed at 12,000 ft. Flak was inaccurate and there was no fighters.
July 25, 1944 – Capt. Hinckley presented me with the Certificate of Valor
August 19, 1944 – Col. Isbell presented me the Distinguished Flying Cross
T/Sgt Joe Wagner - Shot down April 25, 1944
Memories of a Prisoner of War
By: Joe Wagner (Interpreted & Written By: Wanda Wagner)
Copyright October 9, 2001 Library of Congress
'I, Joe Wagner was born December 10, 1919, in Plantersville, Texas. I was the fourth of eight children born to Dan and Katherine Wagner, German immigrants. I stayed on the farm until 1938, when I joined the Civil Conservation Corp, at the age of 19. I worked with the CCC about one year and returned home. I then worked a time on tugboats before working at Camp Wallace in Alta Loma, Texas, building the army camp. On June 28, 1941, I married Christine Shead.
Enlisting at Ellington Field in Texas, I joined the United States Air Force in September of 1942. I was stationed at Ellington Field until Christmas. In December 1942, the Air Force then sent me to mechanic’s school in Biloxi, Mississippi for three months. By April 1943, I was attending gunnery school in Harlingen, Texas. Gunnery school was for two months. I was then transferred to Boise, Idaho, where I joined nine others forming the 754th Squadron. Four squadrons joined to form a bomb group. Mine was the 458th Bomb Group. We trained together in Tonopah, Nevada.
I had flown four successful missions with the 458th Group. Little did I know that an upcoming change of events and circumstances would send me on my fifth mission with a different [crew], other than I had trained with, and would land me in situations where I would literally be struggling day by day, hour by hour to stay alive. By now, our [crew] had lost our pilot. In another [crew], a pilot had been killed and an engineer injured. I replaced the engineer.
The enemy fighter planes are circling. They are looking for a parachute count as to how many survive. There are two survivors, the pilot and I. Ten minutes later I hit the ground. The pilot landed near town and was captured right away. I crawled into bushes so thick you could not walk through them. There I hid for two nights and three days.
On the fourth day, I decided I needed something to eat. I had been watching a Frenchman plow the nearby field all day. I finally decided that just in case he was the “wrong” person, I could “handle” him. I presented myself and by sign language, we communicated. He signed that by nightfall, he would come for me and I was to whistle if everything was clear. He arrived after dark with a bottle of wine, some hard-boiled eggs, and some bread. I guarantee you, that was the best food I ever ate in my life. There in the small town, he took me to a lady’s house. She had a high fence surrounding her house and a very mean dog. There I stayed for three days.
The “underground” came and relocated me to another town. I joined three other American soldiers being hid at the assistant mayor’s home, right next door to the city hall. The mayor’s assistant was in communication with the Germans everyday so he knew what was going on and assisted the “underground.” The mayor’s assistant and his wife had three children. They never knew we were in the house. We stayed in a back room with shutters on the windows. When the children went to school during the day, we could move about the house. One of the three Americans hiding at this residence was Richard “Dick” Morse from Vermont. [Sgt. Richard L. Morse, 92BG. Shot down March 16, 1944] Little did I know he would become my traveling companion and a treasured friend for life. From city hall, we rode bicycles to the home of a man and wife. This is where Dick and I and the other two Americans acquired civilian clothes and food. We stayed there.
Around May 20, 1944, the “underground” decided to move us to Spain. From Spain, you would be sent home. The “underground” has a problem moving all four of us. Only three can go. We draw straws, short straw stays behind. The next morning, Dick and I, and one other American, were to be on a train to Spain, by way of Paris, then Bordeaux, France. Upon arriving at the train station, the “underground” helping us pointed out a college student who was to be our escort. We were not to talk or communicate in any way with our escort or other contacts, thus endangering them as well as ourselves.
As our escort departed the train at our destination, we also exited. A gentleman walked close to me and instructed me to follow the man he shook hands with. He walked on and shook hands wholeheartedly with a gentleman across the way. No eye contact between us. This gentleman begins to walk off. I follow. At this station, Dick and I and the other American were separated by contacts, as I did not see them that night. The gentleman led me to a hotel where his family resided. Once inside the hotel room, he shook my hand and kissed both cheeks. Both of us were relieved for a moment. But only for a short moment. The man questioned me and must have misunderstood my response, for now he believes I am a German trying to infiltrate the “underground.” An American spy was brought to the hotel to interrogate me. They finally decided I was who I said I was. Afterwards, they spoke to me of how close I came to death at that moment.
The next morning we, the American, Dick and I met at the train station in Paris. We were to be accompanied by a lady on the train ride. The only details given us was to follow the lady wearing a hat. She would lead us to our next contact. This would be a man walking with his hands folded behind his back. We boarded the train. We noticed the lady wearing a hat. We were to do what we were told, when things happened. The lady departed the train before we were in Spain. Assuming this was according to plan, we followed. Our next connection would be a man walking with his hands folded behind his back. We waited at the train station but no one showed. We then decided the lady had led us to the wrong place. The lady, leading us through, panicked and boarded the next train. We followed her. Upon going through the train, we found it filled with German soldiers. We departed company with the lady and exited the train before it left the station. While sitting again at the train station pondering our predicament, and looking again for a man walking with his hands folded behind his back, a gentleman sitting at our backs recognized that we were not Frenchmen. To us he said, “If I was you guys, I’d get the hell out of here.” We then decided to start walking to Spain with what maps we had between us. Our flight maps were printed on silk. Each of us had one.
We walked that day and into the night and came upon an abandoned house. There we stayed until morning. One of the men with us was a much older guy, about 39 years old, or at least he was much older than the rest of us. He told us he was not traveling with us anymore because we were too young. He said he was going to get an ax, walk around like a woodcutter, and walk right through France. He departed and we never saw him again. We are now Dick and I. We went on our way and spent the next night in a haystack. The third day came and we were hungry and tired. We ran into the Germans and they shot at us. We ran and lay hidden in a field until almost dark. Deciding we had better find someone to help us, we showed ourselves to a Frenchman. He told us where to wait for him to return. We waited and I fell asleep.
Sometime later, a German soldier kicked me to wake me. Machine guns were in my face. As I focused, I saw Dick surrounded by machine guns. The Frenchman had returned with the Germans. I really thought that was the end of the road for us. The Frenchman and the German soldiers took Dick and I to a restaurant in a little town not far from Bordeaux, France. This little restaurant had an entertainment stage. They put us up on the stage to ridicule us and have laughs at our expense. We knew the Frenchman had sold us out. The rest of that night was spent in a small town jail. The Germans could not believe the passports supplied to us by the “underground” were not ones they had made because they looked so real. The next morning they put us on a train to the prison in Paris, France. I had so hoped our American forces would bomb the train and we would be able to make our break but instead, we found ourselves at Gestapo Headquarters. No sunshine, no water, no new clothes, nothing but interrogation. The Germans tried to find out where we had received civilian clothing. We did not tell, as we did not know.
From Gestapo Headquarters, we were taken to a Paris civilian prison. Dick and I were separated. No contact. No knowing each others outcome. No more watching each others back. At this prison, they removed our belts, neckties, and shoelaces, hoping to prevent suicide attempts. The Gestapo would come to my cell daily and arrange for me to have a shave. I would then be transported back to Gestapo Headquarters in a paddy wagon by heavily armed German SS Police Officers. The Gestapo interrogated me every day. They were determined to find out why I wasn’t “one of them.” This was attributed to my German nationality, my appearance, and my last name. They took my watch. I knew I would never see that again. I endured this kind of treatment for a duration of six weeks to maybe two months.
When Paris fell, the Germans decided to ship us from this Paris prison to Germany. I was reunited with my traveling companion, Dick. I was given my watch back. There were twenty-two of us prisoners collected by now, Canadians and Americans and one Polish fellow. They handcuffed us two by two and loaded us on a train. The prisoner I was handcuffed to, I did not know. He told me he was an American navigator and could speak the languages and knew the country. As the Germans gave us food and drink, he told me not to eat the butter. We could use it to get out of the handcuffs and escape. Just after dark, we tried our escape. He went out the window and I got caught. The brake was pulled and the train halted. A German SS Police Officer escorting us hit me in the face and told me I would live to regret this. I never knew the outcome of the fellow who escaped through the window.
We arrived in Weisbaden, Germany. There were twenty-one of us. The prison the Germans housed us in was a building with an air raid siren on top. The Americans bombed that place every day that rolled around. I was so scared, I could not imagine how I survived. The Germans interrogated us everyday for three or four weeks. We were then sent to a transit camp. We bathed and shaved. We were fed and clothed. Our next destination was a Prisoner of War Camp.
October 1944, we arrived at [Stalag] Luft #6, a Prisoner of War Camp on the Rhine River in the Sorve Valley. “Luft” in German means air. This was a Prisoner of War Camp for air service men. Now we are a group of about two hundred prisoners in one building. We were here maybe two or three weeks when the Americans put on a big drive. With the American army putting on the push, the Germans loaded us in boxcars and sent us on our way to another prison camp in Poland.
November 1944, we arrive at Luft #4, a Prisoner of War Camp in Podborsko, Poland. This was a fairly nice place considering where we had already been. Although we still had no running water, no plumbing, and facilities, we still were better off than where we had been. At this prison camp, there were about ten thousand prisoners. At Luft #4, ten men were assigned to a barracks. Of these ten, I remember a few. Dick Morse, Hugh Wear of Salem, North Carolina, a man named Watson, a man from Brownsville, Texas, two other men who could sing like song birds, myself and three others bunked together. We slept in body bags filled with wood shavings. We were locked in the barracks at night. Our food was prepared in a large kitchen. Each barracks sent one person to pick up a bucket of food, usually soup. We had our own utensils as long as we had acquired them or made them. We would receive supplements from the International Red Cross now and then. Among the items received were cigarettes, Spam, tuna, and powdered milk. Before dispensing these items to the prisoners, the Germans would poke holes in the food containers. This was done so no man could hoard food to make an escape.
Our compound was encircled by a high fence, barbed wire, and guard towers, like most prisons. Ten feet inside the fence, a perimeter wire was strung. The wire was your warning. If you touched or crossed the wire, you were shot. While outside the barracks, you could never be in-groups. No more than two men together at a given time unless in the presence of a guard. The toilet facilities consisted of a pit dug in the ground. Our water was drawn from a shallow well by a hand pump. We walked daily for exercise. Other prisoners had smuggled in radio parts in the heel of their boots. The radio was assembled in the kitchen in one of the cook pots. News reports of the war were written on packs of cigarettes and distributed by way of the prisoner picking up food for the barracks. Among us prisoners was a Catholic British Priest. We were allowed to assemble on Sundays for church service.
Christmas Eve, that year, we were allowed to remain outdoors after dark to view the sky. We first had to agree not to try to escape.
On February 6, 1945, Russia, being to the east of Poland, put on a big drive to the west so the Germans walked us toward the British Allies’ lines. We were Prisoners of War being delivered for bargaining power. At this time, the possibility of escaping was running through our heads. We prisoners discussed it. We decided our best chance of survival would be to stay with the Germans. Gunfire and bomb shelling was to the east. We assumed the Germans had planted land mines along the routes. Our safest course would be to remain with the Germans on this walk. The Germans would be informed of where the land mines were. We walked for eighty-seven days, nearly seven or eight hundred miles. Dick and I shared the two blankets we each had between us. We slept on one and covered with three. The temperature was below freezing the entire duration of the walk. There was a time when my hands froze and Dick and Hugh Wear helped me with my pants.
The Germans had one wagon carrying their food only. They gave us none. Once a loaf of bread was stolen off the German’s food wagon. When the Germans found it missing, we were all gathered together. The one who stole the bread was ordered to come forward. None of us prisoners moved. Fortunately, no one was shot. While bedded for the night under our blankets, Hugh Wear showed the loaf of stolen bread. He shared it with Dick and me. We survived on nourishment we found along the road. We ate feed from livestock troughs and vegetation and grains from the fields. Sometimes when we bedded at night near a home, the farmer’s family would cook us a pot of barley soup. My weight diminished by forty pounds.
On the eighty-seventh day of the walk, the British allies came along, disarming the German guards. Actually, we were liberated by one armored vehicle with two British soldiers. They gave the guns to us prisoners. The British informed us not to do anything foolish; we were not in the clear yet for we needed to make it to where the British had built a pontoon bridge across the Elbe River. Dick leaves on foot, alone. I stayed with the others as a group. We started on our way, searching for transportation as we went. First, we had a Russian with a wagon haul us, then a man with a wood-burning tractor.
We arrived at the pontoon bridge on the Elbe River. We told the British we needed more transportation. A British soldier stopped a German ambulance. By firing a couple rounds, he emptied the vehicle. We took the ambulance and crossed the pontoon bridge. This pontoon bridge was built by tying rowboats side by side and decking with wood planks. All I can tell you about that bridge is that it sure was wiggly. Upon reaching the other side of the Elbe River, we needed more transportation. That evening I stayed at a British army camp. I was told of a British air base and made that my destination. I hitched rides until I reached the base.
May 1945, I arrived at the British air base and by now, the war was ended. Our only transportation out at this point were English bombers. If there had been another mode of transportation I would have opted for it, since I can guarantee you, these pilots were drunk from celebrating. The first plane attempted flight and crashed at the end of the runway. I was aboard the second plane. The Englishmen delivered me safely to Belgium. At Belgium, I met up with the American army and my old traveling companion, Dick. They treated us for body lice, burned our clothes. I was interrogated by the American army.
They wanted to know who had helped me. The American Forces needed names of the French “underground” that helped me. They would reimburse their expenses incurred. I was able to recall names. I was made to sign an oath that I would never speak of what I had heard, seen, or done. This was for the purpose of future war strategies. They put us on a medical train headed for a hospital. The doctors and nurses at the hospital told us not to eat solid or rich foods. I did not know why but all they would serve us was Eggnog, without the nog. This we ate for about two weeks. By this time, I was in pretty good shape.
Our next stop was Camp Lucky Strike, La Havre, France. At this point there were many thousands of men needing transport home. We sat, waited, and waited some more. General Eisenhower arrived to make a speech to us. He asked us if we would like to go home in style or just go home. Everyone hollered, “just go home.” He told us that everything that leaves out would have men aboard, even if it were a tugboat. I left on a liberty ship with about one hundred others. A liberty ship was used during wartime for transporting supplies. We were housed in hammocks hung throughout the ship. Being hindered a couple of times by breakdowns, our ship finally arrive at the port of New York City after twelve days. Dick did not depart for home when I did. He caught a ride a little later.
I was transported from New York City to New Jersey by way of electric railway. From New Jersey I caught a train bound for Texas. Somewhere in Oklahoma the train stopped. I decided it was now time to try real food. I bought me a chocolate milkshake and all that kind of stuff. I thought I was gonna die. I now know what the doctors and nurses had been talking about.We arrived in San Antonio, Texas. I received new clothes. From there, on to Arcadia where I knew my Christine was living. I caught a ride from a service man stationed in San Antonio. He lived in Galveston and was headed home.
They took me to where Chris lived. I was on leave for two months. Then I was sent to a resort in Florida for about a month. I was transferred back to Ellington Field. I was discharged the following November 1945. Chris and I resided in Arcadia. I took a job at American Oil. While on the job and working at the refinery in 1947, an explosion took place. This disaster became know throughout as the Texas City Explosion. It scared me so bad, I figured, there has to be a
better way to make a living. I quit the job and opened a filling station business of my own.
I was in the Air Force Reserve when the Korean War broke out and was recalled for one year. I had my papers in order, so therefore, they could not send me overseas. I worked mechanics on the old P-51 planes for pilots to train on.
Discharged again, I started building homes. There I made a living until retirement in 1975. Considering all things, I am in good health.
At the present time, I find myself traveling with Chris and enjoy visiting my relatives and friends. When I’m on the road, I’m at my best. I enjoy being in the front gallery of my motor home, watching the world roll by. In our country we have every climate and every soil. Just being out there, taking in the scenery is enjoyment. There’s always something on the side of the road that’s interesting to me. I believe there is no other place in the world like the United States of America. In fact, surviving the war makes it all worth while.
Courtesy: Jim Wagner. Reprinted here with kind permission from Wanda Wagner
Crew 51 Bombardiers
Members of Crew 51 - England, August 2, 1944
(Photo: Patrick Mattson)
1Lt Robert J. Cavanaugh - Navigator
On August 18, 1944 after completing his 30 missions, Robert Cavanaugh was appointed Assistant Group and Station Navigator. How long he remained in this position is unknown.
By Robert Mattson's sister-in-law Ivy