“Well, I guess all you sons-a-bitches are
glad to see me!”
General George S. Patton, standing on the hood of his staff car as he
addressed thousands of cheering, just-liberated Allied POWs at Stammlager
VIIA, Moosburg, Germany, on 29 April 1945.
the nearly 36,000 U.S. Army Air Force personnel known to have fallen
prisoner to the Germans in the Second World War were three current members
of Denver’s Daedalian Mile High Flight 18—Salty Saltsman, Rod Rawlinson and
Bill Hendrix—who share the common experience of incarceration at Stalag Luft
III. Located 100 miles southeast of Berlin, Stalag Luft III was one of a
handful of POW camps administered by the Luftwaffe for captured Allied
airmen. It was also the site of the infamous “Great Escape.”
Like many Allied fliers, all three of
these men escaped the fiery death throes of a heavy bomber only to face a
lengthy confinement behind barbed wire. Before being liberated just one week
prior to the end of the war in Europe, they and thousands of other POWs were
herded across Germany in harsh winter conditions to camps further removed
from advancing Allied forces. An important and often
overlooked part of their story relates to the rigors of combat they
experienced prior to their incarceration. Their story begins in Holland....
Knoke is a 21-year-old Luftwaffe
fighter pilot and a veteran of more than 190 missions when he takes off from
his base in Holland on 22 March 1943 to attack a formation of B-17s on their
way home after bombing Wilhelmshaven.
For the first time a 500-pound bomb is strapped to the belly of his
Messerschmitt Me-109. Although he is the flight leader, he is far behind the
other aircraft in his flight as none of the others is carrying such
ordnance. Knoke struggles to 30,000 feet and is above the B-17s as they pass
over Heligoland. He arms and releases his bomb, which detonates in the
center of a row of Fortresses. One of them is destroyed.
This is an experimental drop intended
to validate an idea suggested by Knoke’s best friend Dieter Gerhard on the
night of 27 February. The two pilots had worked through the night in Knoke’s
room to flesh out the concept of bombing American heavy bombers from above
before going after them with guns. The tactic they devised was to equip
their bombs with 15-second time delay fuses and drop them from an altitude
3,000 feet above the bomber formation. For the next few weeks, they train by
dropping 100-pound practice bombs on a drogue towed by a Ju-88. Gerhard
never sees his concept come to fruition as he is killed during a traditional
fighter mission only four days before Knoke’s operational test.
But the idea is well received by
Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering. Consequently, it is decided that a fighter
squadron based on the Channel coast would also experiment with bombs.
Results are generally good. When bombs happen to detonate in the right
place, they produce spectacular explosions, destroying one or more planes at
once. Meanwhile, those that do not cause physical damage are effective as
weapons of terror, disrupting the integrity of bomber formations and
demoralizing crews as they free fall menacingly between aircraft. It is
understood that this is a temporary tactic which will be abandoned when
fighters begin escorting American bombers all the way to their targets.
Nevertheless, in August 1943 Knoke’s squadron will switch from bombs to
unguided rockets launched from cans suspended beneath their wings. While the
results are hit and miss, several bombers are downed by rockets.
All told Knoke will complete 400
missions and be shot down several times in the process. But he does not come
out of the war until October 1944 when his car is damaged by a bomb planted
by the Czech underground and crashes into a bridge abutment. He is
permanently crippled in the incident, which occurs as he transfers to
another base in a desperate attempt to reconstitute his squadron.
is difficult to imagine an ordeal more terrifying for pilots than flying a
large, relatively unmaneuverable aircraft laden with high explosives through
the triple threat of enemy fighters, flak from below and bombs raining down
from above. But it has to be even worse for the rest of the crew. At least
bomber pilots have their hands on the flight controls and, when not inbound
from the IP, can attempt limited evasive action. Even so, they have only
minimal control over their destinies; it’s still a crap shoot. But except as
gunners, those not actually “driving the bus” have no control whatever.
Their fate is entirely in the hands of others—their own pilots’ as well as
In the spring of 1943 Second Lieutenant
Clifford Hopewell is a B-17 navigator in the 94th Bomb Group
based in England. He is a member of the 331st Squadron under the
command of newly promoted Major Ralph “Salty” Saltsman. Hopewell recounts
what it is like manning his position in the nose of the B-17 during his
first completed mission on 14 May: “In addition to the Focke-Wolf 190s
dashing headlong through our flight, and dodging the flak from the German
anti-aircraft units on the ground, to my horror I saw bombs dropping down
upon our formation from the sky above. One seemed to pass so close by my
left window I felt I could reach out and slap it if it were not for the
Hopewell will fly six missions—only
three of which reach the target area. During his final mission on 21 May,
his crew is shot down near the IP prior to dropping its payload. Hopewell
describes the event: “As usual, the Luftwaffe hit us head on, attacking the
lead ships and then making a pass through the entire fleet. After their
initial pass, many of the enemy would hang around the rear of our formation
to pick off the followers, especially those who had damaged aircraft from
the first pass. As Tail End Charlie, we were the object of their attention
today…in a constant battle for survival.”
“It wasn’t too long before here came a
covey of bombs dropping on our formation. It was a formidable sight to see
as they dropped between planes, so close that one could almost reach out of
the plane and swat them as they passed. After the bombs dropped, our
Luftwaffe companion peeled off to his right and started heading for our
plane, firing his guns furiously.” Hopewell then notices that the number
three engine is on fire.
He continues: “I was engaged in firing
the bombardier’s twin fifties when behind and under me there was a terrific
thud, which threw me off balance and backward through the air. We had been
struck by flak. I never did land on the floor of the plane. Apparently the
ship blew up, because the next thing I knew I was floating in space.”
Hopewell recalls what was going through
his mind as he descended to the ground: “Gee whiz. Here a few moments ago I was
in a raging air battle fighting for my life against swarms of planes and
flak. Now I am dangling in the air on the end of a parachute, 23,000 feet in
the sky and there is nothing—nothing here except me and the sky. The war has
passed me by.”
Hospitalized seven weeks with a broken
leg, he will then spend two years in Stalag Luft III, a German prison camp
for Allied air force officers.
days later -- 13 June 1943
designated targets are U-boat building yards under construction at Kiel and
Bremen in northern Germany. According to plan, the 4th Bomb Wing,
with 76 B-17s assigned, will be first to cross the English Channel en route
to Kiel. On their heels, 152 Fortresses of the 1st Bomb Wing are
to proceed to Bremen.
The Kiel mission will prove to be the
bloodiest air battle of the war to date—the
result of faulty planning, harried preparation and the imposition of an
experimental (and subsequently abandoned) bomber formation. Of the 76
aircraft assigned, only 60 will get airborne and reach the German coast.
Only 38 of those will return. The cost: 22 B-17s and 213 MIAs, 86 of whom
would become POWs.
The general who devised the new bomber
formation is overall mission leader, while Major “Salty” Saltsman leads the
second of two combat wings comprising the Kiel bomber force. Behind him are
the 94th and the composite 94th/96th Bomb
Groups, the latter led by Captain Rod Rawlinson.
“We were under heavy attack—by an
estimated 100 to 200 enemy fighters—from the time we crossed the Channel,”
says Saltsman. “Early on, I noticed Rod Rawlinson to be in distress prior to
reaching the IP. He had two engines out, vapor pouring therefrom, flames
shooting from the bomb bay and eventually from the entire airplane before it
exploded. We did not see any parachutes.”
Adds Rawlinson: “The fighting started
when we hit the German coast. Then it was one problem after another. My
plane was hit pretty good. We lost the number two engine and the fire was
spreading.” When it reached the bomb bay, “we rang the bell and told
everybody to bail out. I had my seat belt undone and the next thing I
remember, I’m kickin’ some of the skin of the airplane away—I’m out in
“So I got that kicked away from me and
pulled the rip cord. On the way down, a German Fw-190 circled me and I
thought he was gonna spill the chute. But he didn’t. He pulled his oxygen
mask off, saluted and peeled off.”
“When I came to next, I’d already
landed. Some soldiers…were pulling me across a plowed field. I looked back
and saw my chute wrapped up in a fence with four or five posts broken.”
Rawlinson describes being taken to a farm house, where he is cleaned up and
then taken to a hospital by a Luftwaffe captain.
“I was in the hospital two or three
weeks and finally got to Stalag Luft III, which was the permanent camp. One
day a month or so later, I looked through the fence at some new
“Kriegies” (Allied prisoners) and there stood Salty. Looked like hell.
He was burned, looked downhearted and depressed—what was normal, I guess. He
looked through the fence, saw me and said, ‘Now I know I’m in hell!’”
days later – July 14, 1943
is Bastille Day in France, anniversary of the day in 1789 when citizens of
that now occupied country stormed a prison called the Bastille to free
political prisoners, an act celebrated as the beginning of the French
Revolution. What better day to bomb Paris?
The actual target is LeBourget
Airdrome, where 16 years earlier, Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of
St. Louis after his solo crossing of the Atlantic.
Today’s reception will be somewhat less welcoming than the one experienced
The flight is expected to be a
“breather” with P-47 fighter escort slated over the French Normandy
coast—both inbound and outbound from the target. Major Salty Saltsman, in
“Good Time Cholley II,” is leading the low squadron. His second in command,
Captain Willis Frank, is flying in the left seat when the escorting P-47s
break off some 50 miles inside France. German fighters appear a few minutes
later at approximately 0740.
Saltsman details the action in an
account he types up while a POW in Stalag Luft III: “There was a number of
aircraft diving out of the morning sun and as they came in front of us, they
turned head on so we could see the yellow noses of the Fw-190s and Me-109s.
We held a steady position in the formation so the gunners could get a good
fire platform and already the nose guns and top-turret were vibrating the
ship with a steady staccato. An Me-109 received a direct hit from Dick
Davitt’s turret and exploded at 100 yards in front only to go tumbling
through us in three blazing sections. Willy raised the left wing and we
missed the debris.”
“In the next wave, one of the
‘Abbeville Kids’ got a sight on ‘Goodtime Cholly’ and 20 mm shells came
directly at us like a series of hot rivets. A message from those in the rear
stated that the horizontal stabilizer and dorsal fin had been hit in several
places. The fabric and metal on the control surfaces was tearing loose and
the ship had lost lateral control.”
As Saltsman and Frank struggle to
regain control the aircraft loses altitude and drifts away from the
formation. "A Jerry...had come from below and got a hit with
incendiaries. Our cockpit went up in bright orange flames as the oxygen
ignited and I immediately gave the order over the interphone to bail out. I
was unable to reach the alarm bell because of the intensity of the fire."
about reached the nose hatch when the ship made a violent turn downwards,
throwing me back in the tunnel. The next time it revolved, it hurled me
forward and out of the hatch.”
estimates his bailout altitude at 19,000 feet. “When I figured I was at a
safe altitude I pulled the rip cord and was jarred to a sudden stop as the
chute billowed out. My hands were cold. I was getting a little giddy and
gritted my teeth to maintain consciousness—but to no avail as a black
curtain fell over my eyes at about 10,000 feet. With a terrific bang I
regained my senses to find myself sitting in the middle of a tulip patch.”
He is in
the center of a big farmer’s field bounded by woods. After burying his
chute, boots and Mae West, he crawls into a nearby wheat field and covers
himself up. When he realizes his face is burned, he treats the wounds with
milk paste from his x-kit, then wraps them with his silk scarf. Over the
next several hours, he is assisted by the farmer’s family and reunited with
another downed crew member.
4:00 p.m., the French family returned with milk, raw eggs and bread. The
arrival of German troops on bicycles caused our friends to disperse in all
directions. We remained here (hiding behind a tree trunk) hoping that
darkness would arrive before the Germans. However…a squad of the Wehrmacht
appeared…and located us about 8:30 p.m. We were taken to the nearby farm…and
turned over to a Hauptmann. Our captor informed us in English:
gentlemen, the war is over.’”
Hendrix joins the fold
and Saltsman had spent nearly a year in captivity when bomber group Ops Boss
Bill Hendrix, flying in the right seat of a B-24, launched from Italy on his
fifth combat mission to attack the marshalling yards at Vienna. Departing
the target his plane took flak in the number three engine, which burned
fiercely and refused to feather. There was also a large—and rapidly
expanding—hole in the right wing’s leading edge. Time to bail.
waved me out,” says Hendrix. “I went back, dropped onto the catwalk and
looked at the bomb bay. It was nothing but boiling flames.” He then went
forward in search of the navigator and bombardier. Gone. “I looked at the
nose wheel and it was down, but I thought if I tried to go out that way, I’d
be pinned against the strut and would never get out. So I went back, stood
up and looked for the pilot. He was gone too! I felt kinda lonely about
decided to exit via the bomb bay. “Through the flames all I could see was a
little patch of light, so I dove for that. I hit my head on the bomb bay
door and my helmet came off. Good thing I was wearing it.”
descending in his chute he removed his heavy flying boots and dropped them
to the ground hoping to lighten his load and land more softly. “I hit hard
and the impact knocked the breath out of me. I was unconscious for a few
seconds. When I came to, I’d already taken my chute off and was running away
from where I landed. The back of my neck was hurting, so I decided to go
back and get the first-aid kit off the chute.”
halt, halt!” The voice was that of an Austrian man.
searched frantically for a place to hide. “There was a great big bush in
front of me, so I decided to crawl under it and hide there. Unfortunately,
my chute was draped over it and they found me in a matter of seconds.” He
was ordered out of the bush to find himself surrounded by ten or twelve
men, one of whom beat him repeatedly across the head and shoulders with a
heavy stick until the others finally made him stop.
me to a railroad station, where two or three dozen of us were kept overnight
in a baggage compartment. The next day, a train took us to the interrogation
First stop -
captured Allied airmen would be taken first to Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe’s
interrogation center and transit camp located ten miles northwest of
of POWs at the center varied markedly during different stages of the war.
Early on some were actually wined and dined by German Air Force officers,
who at the time seemed eager to convey a fraternal aviator spirit. Then the
numbers of arriving POWs began to rise, the effects of the Allied bombing
campaign were being felt and the wine bottles were re-corked. Attitudes
Nevertheless, the Germans made a science of interrogation and took pride
in seldom having to resort to overt brutality. An injured POW being treated
in the Dulag Luft hospital might be questioned quite civilly in his bed. On
the other hand, an uninjured prisoner might be thrown into solitary
confinement in a filthy, overheated cell, deprived of food and sleep, then
asked to fill out certain forms which, he was told, would enable him to
rejoin his fellow POWs and the German Government to confirm to the Red Cross
that he was alive and well. If a man refused to complete the form, as often
as not his interrogator would simply do it for him. The message: “We know
Germans were experts at eliciting what little in the way of tactical
information they hadn’t already gleaned from other prisoners. Ironically,
however, they allowed a potential fountain of crucial strategic
information to slip through their fingers when Jimmy Doolittle’s new
intelligence chief at the 8th Air Force, BG Arthur Vanaman—who
was fully briefed on Ultra—passed through the center in the summer of
1944. The highest ranking American POW, Vanaman, with his secrets intact,
would go on to become the senior officer at Stalag Luft III.
it first opened in April 1942, Stalag Luft III was comprised of two barracks
compounds and housed only a few hundred Allied prisoners. By the time the
Germans ordered its evacuation in late January 1945, it had expanded to six
compounds and held approximately 11,000 prisoners, more than half of them
Located near the town
of Sagan, Germany (now a part of Poland), the camp was built on sandy soil
in a cleared area amidst a forest of scraggly pines. It consisted of drab
and drafty barracks constructed on concrete stilts to thwart tunneling
activities and to facilitate inspections by the Germans and their guard
dogs. Enclosing it were parallel nine-foot fences topped by barbed wire with
rolls of barbed wire between the fences and guard towers placed
strategically outside them. Additional fencing segregated the various
Near the geographic
center of the camp lay the Kommandantur, the Germans’ headquarters
and barracks area. Bracketing the Kommandantur were the West, North
and South Compounds on one side and the Center and East Compounds on the
other. The North and East compounds housed British and other Allied
prisoners, while American POWs occupied the West, Center and South
compounds. An overflow compound called Belaria, situated three miles west of
the main camp, housed some American but mostly British and Commonwealth
Rawlinson and Saltsman
were consigned to Center Compound, while Hendrix was sent to West.
Plan of the day: same as
At first there was
little for the prisoners to do aside from trying to subsist on the meager
rations provided by the Germans, forming up twice a day for roll call,
learning to adapt to a crowded, communal existence in wretched facilities
and longing for freedom, home and family. That changed in time as senior
American officers took charge, formalized the chain of command, published
standards of conduct, organized various activities and assigned
responsibilities for carrying them out.
planning and preparation were among those activities, given the remoteness
of the camp, many American POWs were less than enthused about the prospects
of successful escape. Americans were also relative newcomers to the war and
may have been more confident in its final outcome than their British
counterparts. While less urgency was given to escape planning after D-Day,
a variety of escape attempts—tunneling included—had already been
undertaken. Indeed, American Jerry Sage, an Army paratrooper known as the
“Cooler King” for his many escape attempts, was one of those whose tenacity
inspired the character played by Steve McQueen in the film The Great
ill-fated “Great Escape,” which originated from the British North Compound
in March 1944, not only met with disastrous results but effectively foiled
other ongoing escape plans. Of the seventy-six men who actually made it out
of Stalag Luft III by way of tunnel “Harry,” only three reached free soil.
The other seventy-three were recaptured and, on Hitler’s orders, fifty of
them were executed to discourage similar attempts by others. The Germans
also found and destroyed a number of nearly completed tunnels.
One of the
more practical and most important duties fell to Salty Saltsman when he was
put in charge of the athletic and recreation program for Center Compound.
His responsibilities later expanded when he was named YMCA Administrator for
Stalag Luft III.
Saltsman’s job was to “kick
the men in the ass,” get them out of bed and give them something to do, to
help lift them from the doldrums of idleness and lethargy and to keep them
physically and mentally fit. He obtained athletic equipment—for baseball,
football, basketball, track, fencing, volleyball, boxing, gymnastics and
hockey—and formed leagues for competition. He also supervised the camp’s
entertainment program, acquired musical instruments, costumes and the like
and oversaw the conversion of a barracks into a theater with 240 wood-crate
seats, where prisoners put on Broadway plays and musicals.
administrator, he coordinated the shipment and distribution of art,
religious and educational materials. A sizeable library was established and
qualified POWs taught a variety of classes—so well that prisoners were able
to obtain college credits for some of the courses they completed.
credits the leadership of Col. Delmar T. Spivey and other compound SAOs
(Senior American Officers) for the success of his program, Spivey himself
recognized the value of Saltsman’s endeavors when he wrote: “…as a result of
this physical reconditioning, these men were able to complete, at a later
date, a grueling forced march, on foot, despite freezing weather, without
the loss of a single individual.”
By January 1945,
Russian forces were rapidly approaching. With camps further east already
vacated, the men of Stalag Luft III began preparing for their own
evacuation, gathering up whatever they thought they could carry. Ironically,
the play You Can’t Take It With You was in progress in South on the
night of 27 January when the compound SAO came on stage and told the
assembled prisoners to be at the front gate in 30 minutes.
Through that night and the next day, the camp emptied one compound after
another as prisoners were marched under armed guard into a relentless
snowstorm and sub freezing temperatures. It was the beginning of an arduous
trek—with little or no food or shelter to be found along the way—that would
take them ultimately to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg some 300 miles to the
Rawlinson and Saltsman
were among a group of POWs who were force-marched 55 miles to Spremberg,
then stuffed into cattle cars and transported the rest of the way by rail.
They arrived at Moosburg ten days after leaving Stalag Luft III.
Hendrix’s group was
taken initially to Stalag XIIID at Nurnberg, where they remained two months.
With Patton’s Third Army closing on the city in early April, these prisoners
were again uprooted and marched 80 miles south to Moosburg. They arrived two
weeks later. Not Hendrix, though. He’d escaped en route, hiding out for
several days in the hayloft of a farmer’s barn. When an American army
officer happened by in a jeep, he drove Hendrix and two other escapees back
to Nurnberg (now in Allied hands). The next day they boarded a C-47 headed
for Camp “Lucky Strike” at Le Havre, France. They were free.
Conditions at both
Nurnberg and Moosburg were appalling. In the end more than 100,000 Allied
prisoners were shoehorned, twelve men to a three-tiered bunk, into barracks
and tents at the Moosburg stalag. Many had to sleep on the ground outside.
The camp was extraordinarily filthy and lacked sanitation facilities. Food
That was the situation
when Patton’s tanks came crashing through the fences on 29 April 1945.
Almost immediately, the Nazi flag was torn down and the Stars and Stripes
hoisted in its place. Liberation!
Finally, the men who
had parachuted into the hands of the enemy—a lifetime ago it seemed—were on
their way home.
In the scheme of
things, American POWs in Europe stood a far greater chance of surviving
captivity than did their counterparts in the Pacific. In Europe, fewer than
two percent died during internment, while forty percent of American POWs
held by the Japanese did not survive—the result of brutal treatment and the
Japanese practice of using POWs as expendable forced laborers.
A case in point. Twelve of the eighty Doolittle Raiders became POWs,
eight of them captured by the Japanese after the raid and four later
interned by the Germans. Of the eight held captive in China, three were
executed, one died of malnutrition and untreated disease and four managed to
survive despite the most inhumane conditions imaginable. Meanwhile, all four
of the Raiders who ended up in German POW camps survived captivity along
with the overwhelming majority of their fellow prisoners.
Bill Hendrix sums up
his POW experience in Germany this way: “POW camp was not bad. It wasn’t good, but it
wasn’t bad. I’ve always said it wasn’t what they did to me, it was
what they didn’t do for me.”
His words are testimony
to the fact that Germany was unable or unwilling to provide for Allied POWs
more than the bare minimum required by the Geneva Convention. They also
attest to the quality of leadership within the American officer camps and to
the efforts of men like Salty Saltsman, whose labors on behalf of his fellow
prisoners made camp life not only survivable but bearable.