Gerald R. Smith
Shot down 17 December 1944
Stalag Luft I
Gerald R. Smith - 765th Bomb Squadron
This was written primarily "on the spot" during the liberation of Stalag Luft 1 near Barth Germany.
On 26 April 1945, the Russians finally started a drive northwestward from their long held key point of Stettin. Their bridgehead across the Oder river had been secured long before and we all remembered the blasting rumble of their big guns as we heard them 100 miles away in Stalag Luft 1. We had been waiting anxiously for them to begin their push in our direction ever since, and now it was here. First came the report that they had reached Neubrandenburg and were headed for Anklim where the Germans had an air base. Sunday, the 29th, we saw FW-190s and 109s and miscellaneous aircraft landing at Barth, and we knew that the Ruskies had reached Anklim. Sunday night we hardly slept. Monday came and some of the German garrison stationed here left. Rumor had it that the Red army was at Griesenwald and on it's way to Barth! Explosion after explosion blasted the air and rocked our barracks as the Germans blew up everything that they couldn't take with them such as the equipment at the flak school next door.
Overhead roared German planes evacuating again, only to the west this time and carrying passengers. We figured that it was probably the higher ups off for Norway or Denmark. We were still in our little encirclement of wire and still prisoners and still under guard, but we were mighty busy with tin cans and what-have-you digging fox holes for what might happen soon. This included strafing by German planes which had been done before, and possibly being caught in the middle of a bunch of bullets in case the Germans put up any resistance.
By dark the guards were still in their towers and there was no sign the Russians. The place was still noisy with explosions and rumors were flying fast. Once more we spent a restless night under the usual blackout and lock-up.
As the dawn started to pierce the darkness on the morning of 1 May, I was at the window peering at the tower where the German guard usually stood with his machine gun.
As objects appeared I saw the dim outline of a man in the tower and my hopes ebbed, but as I continued to watch it became a clearer and different picture. There was no gun. There was no long German uniform coat. There was a Kriegie hat on the man and a white arm band on his right arm. It was one of our boys in the guards tower!! It was the same in all the towers!!
Yelling and cheering, laughing and crying, we received the news from the C.O.
The Germans had left during the night, leaving the camp in the hands of Col. Hubert Zemke, our ranking American Officer. He was running around in a German staff car they had left behind, and had everything under control.
Col. Spicer of San Antonio, who had spent the last six months in the German "Cooler" (Solitary confinement) for making a demonstration against the Nazis, came swaggering into his old compound sporting a Luger on each hip.
Rumor has it that the Russians are only four kilometers away now, and we are anxiously awaiting their arrival.
Col. Zemke has asked that we stay in our usual compounds to help maintain order, but that we could roam the peninsula on the next day. He released all the available food to us and we are really throwing a feast. Value dropped on our food items like the stock in 1929! The local bergermeister is sticking close to Col. Zemke and the camp and offering his services. He knows who will butter his bread from here on out!
1 May 1945 2300 hours:
I shall never forget this night as long as I shall live! The excitement of this morning had worn off somewhat. The only German troops we saw were a handful that surrendered to us rather than evacuate. After gorging ourselves all day and listening to a few short wave radio programs broadcast over the public address system we had salvaged from the German equipment, we resigned ourselves to another blackout and night much the same as before.
Suddenly over the loudspeaker came the announcement above rousing cheers from the South Compound that the Russians had arrived! Wild! You should have seen the boys cut loose! They hugged each other, did a victory dance in the halls and cheered the Russians with the full capacity of their lungs. We were interrupted by another announcement that the German radio had just admitted the death of Adolph Hitler. We went wild! The climax came a few minutes later when the Star Spangled Banner was played over the P.A. system. I have never been more deeply stirred, and every man there felt the same way.
All were standing stiffly at attention and there were tears in more than one mans eyes. Only a prisoner of war could understand this feeling.
We spent the rest of the evening talking it over, and I am now taking time out to record this before bed. I'm coming home, Helen!
2 May 1945:
Today was perhaps the most fantastic of my life in spite of it beginning with a rain and orders from Zemke to stay in our holes because the Russians were appearing in force. About three in the afternoon we were told to pack ourselves a blanket and what food we could carry and be ready to move in two hours! The Russians were going to march us 57 miles to transportation out through Odessa! This wasn't good. However, Col. Zemke went to work on it an hour later and ended that foolish idea by ordering us to tear down the fences and do what we damn well pleased. Thereby scattering us so that an organized march was out of the question.
The three parallel 17-foot fences of barbed wire came crashing down, followed by the guard towers. Thousands of us were getting our first taste of freedom in a long time, and we made any wild college mob look sick as we wrecked everything symbolic of our old prisoner status.
I saw a group of boys chase down a rabbit and a deer, while the souvenir hunters made for the remains of the German store house. They returned laden with German uniforms, skis, swastikas, flags, guns, knives, helmets, etc.
The climax came with the invasion of Barth. Frisco and I along with a half dozen others took off for the town to take in the sights. Some of the fellows were already returning to the camp, and carried a wide assortment of loot such as bottles of liquor (half empty), live chickens and ducks, live rabbits, vegetables from German gardens, etc. Some were riding horses bareback, some on bicycles, four were driving a horse pulled hearse, some had an old charcoal burning car, and others had buckboards. We continued past this endless screwy parade to enter the town through its aged gates. Every window and every door in every house had a red flag prominently displayed. The Russians were everywhere in no particular uniform and drunk with victory. Every store was smashed in and looted. Old people, women and children were the only Germans around. The girls were flirting with the Russians and anyone else interested, while the children were taking in all the excitement not understanding what was happening. There was blood in evidence now and then where the Russians had met a little resistance.
To describe the Russian army as I saw it is difficult. There are no comparisons that would be adequate. Uniformity was completely absent. Clothing was so mixed that I saw very few dressed alike, and they were officers. The advance troops chief mode of transportation was horse and wagon and saddle supplemented by a great deal of good old American lend-lease trucks, tanks, armored cars, jeeps and trailers, not to mention the captured German equipment and European automobiles. The equivalent rank of the G.I. private in the Russian version was a mixture of Mongolians, Serbs, and what-have-you, a really tough looking individual. They all carried automatic guns and handled them like a woman throwing a cigarette around. If they saw something they wanted, they took it. I saw an American major hurriedly give his flying jacket to a Russian who made it clear that he wanted it by pointing his tommy gun! The Russian horsemen carried beautiful sabers and were well mounted. All Russians were resplendent with ribbons and medals. For the most part, they were friendly and some even gave us American salutes, but the average mentality was so low that some of them couldn't tell the British and Americans from the Germans in spite of the flags and U.S.A. markings on all of our clothing. A few of the boys were killed for that reason!!
We returned from that town with a picture engraved on our minds that we won't forget. The Germans undoubtedly deserved no better treatment than that received from the Russians, but seeing a city of human beings looted and broken and raped, with drunkenness and disorder so prevalent is a vivid sickening sight to eyes used to civilization.
3 May 1945:
We were restricted to the camp and the peninsula today by Col. Zemke because of yesterdays happenings. Ten of the boys from the camp had been killed from such things as land mines, booby traps, and Russian mistakes. About 400 of the freedom happy and more adventurous P.O.W.s had started out on their own for Rostock and other points west. Some were with the Russians and others were on their own. I saw one fellow with a bike, a bottle and a girl on the handle bars.
The day started with an identity roll call, after which we dug in and cleaned up. The water system was "kaput" and the latrines were out of order, so we rigged a temporary water system and dug slit trenches outside the broken down fence. We policed the area and then took stock of our supplies. In spite of the starvation rations, the Germans had left a well stocked warehouse in our camp in addition to Red Cross food that they had kept under lock and key. The German food consisted mainly of potatoes and barley.
We built stoves outside for cooking and gathered fuel from our abundant supply of torn down towers and fences. It seemed that the boys couldn't get enough to eat and it was a satisfying sight to watch them gobble it down (But not without penalty, for diarrhea and indigestion were prevalent). Some had chickens and rabbits that they had picked up in Barth the night before, and others had fish that they had gathered from the German nets in the weeds off shore next to camp (Mostly Flounders and Perch). Two boys had a hen that they were coaxing eggs from, and some others had mutton from a sheep they had caught. We never had fresh meat as prisoners. Life was on the upgrade for us as we awaited news.
Two concentration camps were nearby. Of two hundred prisoners in one, several were dead and several more died after they were freed. They were in a deplorable state, and our doctors did what they could for them. It is true, I've found out personally now, about German barbarity and cruelty throughout this war.
Russian soldiers have gone to work on the air strip with sappers and are doing a fine job of clearing mines. 500-pound vibration bombs were planted along the runway.
Late tonight Col. Zemke made contact with British and American forces at Lubeck and learned that our evacuation plans are in progress.
4 May 1945:
Much the same as yesterday, we heard several radio short wave programs including Bob Hope and Crosby. Also the Hit Parade headed up by a new song called "Don't Fence Me In". I guess that makes our liberation complete! Also the Russian C.O. of this area couldn't understand our not wearing black arm bands in mourning for F.D.R. so we rigged up some make shift ones to humor him more or less.
5 May 1945:
I spent the day getting my stuff in order for the trip home which appears imminent. I washed my pants, jacket and other clothes and gathered together a few souvenirs. Col. Zemke informed us that we leave in a very few days and that planes are already grouping in England for our evacuation. An American Major, two captains, and two privates arrived early today in a jeep named "Moe" to take stock of our situation and assure us a hasty departure. They took a letter back to mail for me. The Russians have been trying to keep us happy since we are still in their territory. They asked us what we wanted to eat and got "FRESH MEAT" for an answer. They drove 150 cows and 500 pigs onto the peninsula for us! We butchered them with table knives and souvenir daggers and were happy.
The Russians also tried to keep us happy and brought in entertainment. They produced a dozen front line troops who did Russian folk songs with the instruments they brought from home to war and also some folk dances.
They brought in the equivalent of an American U.S.O. show that put on a very good ballet dance, excellent singing and beautiful music, replete with costumes and three women.
Sunday, 13 May 1945:
These two weeks since the Russians came have been two of the longest in my life, but we are on our way out now. B-17s from England came into the little field at Barth and we organized into groups of 28 and walked over through town, four miles, and climbed aboard. We flew over Hamburg, and the big Ruhr valley cities to Rhiems, France. We flew low and circled most of the cities to take a look at the destruction. At Rheims we boarded trucks for another forty-mile trip to a little camp where we were fed good old G.I. chow and sacked up for the night. That white bread tasted like cake! The next morning we got in line for a delousing and shower and new G.I. clothes. Next we boarded planes, C-47s, for Le Havre where we again took a forty-mile truck ride to camp Lucky Strike. We sat there two weeks!! We got a little pay, some officer's clothing, some P.X. supplies, and saw a lot of camp shows of the U.S.O. Toward the end of May we moved to camp Herbert Tareytown on the edge of Le Havre and awaited shipment by boat. We sailed 2 June 1945 on the SS Marine Dragon for Southampton and then Boston, arriving 11 June 1945.
Where Did I Land in the Czech Republic?
Gerald R. Smith - 765th Bomb Squadron
Prior to traveling to the Czech Republic in April 1999, I studied the information made available to me in an effort to locate the small village and the small town where I spent the first seven or eight hours on the ground. Michal Sisovsky is a young man in the Czech Republic who has researched the air wars over his country during World War II, and is writing a book on the subject. Michal provided me with the crash site of the major section of my aircraft and maps of the area. John Bybee, an American author of war time stories of military aircraft operations, provided me with historical documentation of this particular mission to Poland and the Odertal Refinery. From the information provided by John Bybee, I have a close fix on my position at the time of my leaving the aircraft. He has somehow obtained the wind direction and velocity at our formation altitude. In a debriefing report by Capt. Chalmers (pilot of the only returning aircraft from our 765th Squadron that day), he stated that I had crossed back to the right and under him just before my right wing came off followed by an explosion. This provides a general final heading direction.
With this help and my memory I have deduced the most probable area of my parachute touchdown. Hopefully, with this bit of magnificent sleuthing and my following description of the people, the villages, and events of that day, all of which I have E-Mailed to Michal, he will locate these two places before I arrive next month. I sure am an optimist to think it will be easy after over fifty-four years have passed! Here is the story:
Allowing for a descent parachute rate of 13 feet per second, from an altitude of 26,000 feet, the time of descent would be about 2,000 seconds or a little more than thirty minutes. The stated wind at 26,000 feet was 52 nautical miles per hour from 260 degrees (slightly south of due west). The wind at ground level, as I recall, was negligible. Using an average wind velocity of 26 statute miles per hour, I would have drifted to the east and a bit north in my chute for approximately 13 statute miles.
Our formation had been on a north-westerly heading from a point about 20 miles east of Bratislava, CZ, en route to the next turning point at Muglitz(?) near Unicov. That flight path passed about 10 miles west of Olomouc. If I bailed out after passing Olomouc but before reaching Unicov, then my parachute landing should be north of Olomouc near Sternberk and Road No. 46. Let me now relate my recollections of that afternoon and evening. There were two towns that I was in before Olomouc. I will call the first "A" and the second "B".
The weather was very cold and though it was shortly after noon time I had no means of determining compass directions. The heavy overcast had a ceiling of only a few hundred feet. The high altitude wind velocities were almost dissipated at ground level. I came out of the cloud cover and had my first view of the immediate area. Snow covered the ground and I was drifting slowly toward an open field adjacent to a small one street village. Perhaps fifteen row houses ran down each side of the snow covered street. I would guess the population to be no more than 200 people.
A small group of about 12 to 15 people were pointing at me in my parachute and running toward where I was coming to ground. I hit the snow (about 12" deep) and rolled to a sitting position, and managed to unbuckle my back-pack chute harness while observing my welcoming committee. They were all very young people who ceased talking to each other as they approached and stopped about fifteen feet away. I spoke to them but had no response -- a language barrier.
I was painfully aware of the bitter cold. I was hatless, one shoe gone, and my flight suit was not insulated. I also had been taking inventory of my physical injuries which for the most part consisted of a separated shoulder that rendered my right arm almost useless; a ruptured right ear drum; and numerous superficial cuts and burns from my dive through the bomb bay.
I needed to get warm so begun walking through the field to the road and into the village, a total distance of about one-quarter mile. My reception group followed closely behind and as I neared the center of the town, one youngster stepped up next to me and pointed to a doorway on my right. I entered and straight ahead for a short distance and was then directed through another doorway to my left which opened to a long narrow room. The narrow end of this room had a window on the street where a few onlookers were gathering, peering in. A chair at the opposite end of a long table was pointed out to me and I gladly sat down. Using a first-aid kit from a knee pocket, I clumsily, one-handed, applied antiseptic to my cuts. The same welcoming group, with perhaps a few additions, had gathered in this room and were talking quietly amongst themselves. The end-to-end tables and chairs on both sides were made of a blond hardwood (oak perhaps), and filled the room. I assumed that the room was used by the villagers for civic assembly.
Within about fifteen minutes, a pretty young blond haired girl of about fourteen years came in. She explained in uncertain English that she had been asked to assist in communication. She was nervous and a bit frightened at first. My immediate questions had to do with obtaining help in avoiding capture by the Germans. This approach frightened her even more but she recovered soon and in time conveyed the information to me that they could not help. As much as they desired to help me, she pointed out two Nazis outside the front window. She stated that the whole village would suffer if they helped me to escape. When I asked what she expected to happen now, she informed me that men from a larger town were on their way to take me there and hold me for the German army.
Two civilian Czechs came into the room about a half hour later to warm up. They were obviously my escort and dressed in warm winter clothing. They conversed with the locals, and could not speak English. After about fifteen minutes they motioned for me to follow and exited to the street. To my amazement, here was a one horse open sleigh with a bench seat for the driver and one other. The driver mounted and his associate handed me up to the remaining seat and produced a heavy robe to cover my lap and the drivers. With the associate walking at the head of the horse, we left town "A" for town "B", traveling for a few miles through gently rolling snow covered hills. I will always remember the contrast from just two hours before and the feeling of being very, very much alone.
The "One horse open sleigh" ride to town "B" was a very strange experience, like a weird dream. Here I was in a setting more apropos of a Christmas holiday scene by Currier and Ives, traveling through an all white winter wonderland with two elderly Czech men who spoke no English. The breathing of the horse, the snow muted sound of the hooves, and the almost inaudible "Swish" of the sleigh's runners, were the only intrusion on my frantic and vivid recall of events only a bit more than two hours behind me.
From the intercom stream of information, I knew that both Howard and Abrahamson were killed while firing their single barrel fifty-caliber guns from the two opposing open windows in the waist; but what happened to Stewart and Modrovsky? Did they get out safely?
What happened in the nose? There was no communication system left after the second German pass. I had seen the nose on attack by one FW-190 score on the nose turret. Could Brewer have survived that? What happened to Klarsfeld, the other man in the nose? Could one or both of them have escaped through the nose wheel door emergency exit?
I knew that Carlson and Goldman were dead on the flight deck floor - I had to step over them at the last moment to exit the bomb bays. But where was Francisco? I had pulled him from his seat and told him to follow me. We both had shed our useless oxygen masks and had only a minute or less to get out before losing our consciousness. Vro seemed intent on exiting through the overhead hatch door on the flight deck which was virtually an impossibility, we were wearing back pack chutes. I had again grabbed his arm and shouted for him to follow me as I turned to the flaming bomb bay and dove head first through the wreckage of the bomb bay doors, losing consciousness momentarily as I did so. Where was Vro?
After quickly being revived by the rush of extremely cold air and opening my chute, my attention was commanded by a German pilot trying to kill me as I hung helplessly in the sky. This situation kept me fully occupied for the first several minutes until rescued by an unknown P-38 pilot. After he had waved goodbye on a slow pass, I scanned the skies above, below, and all around me, but saw no other parachutes - nothing at all!!
Was I the only survivor? How could that be? What was the fate of Francisco, Stewart, Modrovsky, Brewer and Klarsfeld?
My thoughts were brought back to the present as we approached another Czech town. We had traveled just a few miles from "A", intersected another road where we turned left and into "B". This town was larger than "A", appearing to have about three streets on either side and parallel to the one we were on (which I deduced was the main street). There appeared to be about six to eight streets crossing ours. We halted in front of a two story building on our left, where I was escorted to the upper floor by means of an exterior covered staircase. These stairs were on the right hand side of the building as I faced it, and the entrance to the stairs was at the building front. At the top of the stairs I turned left through a door into a hallway of the building and left again for a few feet to yet another door which opened into a large room at the front of the building. There were three men in this room sitting at a large table near the door. My escorts pointed to a hard, leather covered settee against the far side wall for me to use.
The next twenty or thirty minutes were spent quietly since we still had a language barrier. The five men were all elderly and in civilian clothes. Other than the table and chairs occupied by the men and the piece I was sitting on, there was a fairly large desk and chair in the front left corner of the room. On the wall hung the obligatory picture of Hitler and a German flag and swastika. I busied myself again with my first aid packet while my thoughts turned again to the events since noon.
I was brought back to the present by the sound of footsteps in the outside staircase to be followed by another strange and unforgettable experience! A fairly large elderly civilian burst into the room, his eyes casting about quickly. His gaze settled on me, staring for a moment, tears forming and running down his cheeks. He made his way across the room to me saying, "Mine boy, mine boy, you don't know how glad I am to see you". His eyes took in my condition and the open first aid packet, while he regained his composure. He then introduced himself, although I cannot remember his name. I seem to recall that his first name was Joseph and that is how I have thought of him to this day. Joe had been brought in to the picture as an interpreter. He told me the following incredulous story:
"He was Czech, had emigrated to the United States, and was married with four sons serving in the U.S. military. He stated that he had a saloon in Lyons, Illinois that his wife was still operating. He further told me that he had been deported by the United States Government several years before as a consequence of being framed on a bootlegging charge by Al Capone!!"
I was beginning to think that I was dreaming this day and fully expected to wake up shortly in Italy! Joe went on talking and told me not to worry; that the Werhmacht would be picking me up after dark and take me elsewhere; that it was not the Nazi SS; that I would go through time in German prisons; and that I eventually would get home; not to worry!! Well, thank goodness he was correct in that forecast. Joe confirmed what the young girl at town "A" had said about escape possibilities.
About thirty to forty minutes after Joe's arrival, another visitor came in, a young lady probably in her early twenties. Joe introduced her and instructed her to place a cloth covered tray she was carrying on the desk in the far corner of the room. She could not speak English, but Joe told me that her husband had been taken by the Germans to work elsewhere; that she did not know where, and that he had been gone for a long time. He presented the tray to me which carried breads, cold meats, and a bottle of beer, saying that this was for me only - help myself - but it had to be kept across the room so that when the German soldiers arrived later they would not make the connection. All this while the other men in the room ignored the young lady, Joe, and myself.
I carried an escape kit that contained among other things $49 in gold seal American $1 and $5 denominations. This would be useless to me now and I felt that in Joe's pocket they would be used against the German interest. I slipped the money to him with a quiet explanation and how I didn't want the Germans to use it. This was a great deal of money to Joe at that time and he insisted that I look up his wife in Illinois after the war and be paid back.
Not long after dark, I heard vehicles in the street, followed by the entry of several German soldiers including one officer, all in uniform, performing heel clicking Nazi salutes with "Heil Hitler" greetings. They paid little heed to me and concentrated on getting warm. Joe and the young lady stayed put near me and were also ignored by the Germans. After about twenty to thirty minutes, the German officer beckoned to me to follow and started down the stairs to the street. Joe and the lady accompanied me down the stairs, with her holding my hand and giving reassuring squeezes.
As we emerged from the stairs onto the street, I was chilled to the bone by the cold air. The temperature had dropped at least ten degrees since the afternoon. I looked at the open troop carrier that I was directed to enter, and I must have shuddered. This young lady then showed another kindness by reaching up and pulling a large heavy wool scarf out of the front of my flight suit which she then refashioned into a babushka over my head, reinserting the long scarf ends into the neck of my flight suit.
The small convoy started out, leaving in the direction from which I had come by sleigh. We did not turn right on the side road to "A" but continued on. The vehicles traveled very slowly and although it seemed like forever due to the bitter cold, we probably did not traverse more than 10 to 12 miles. During the entire trip I wondered why this unit, which had been scouring the country side for those who were shot down, had no other prisoners but me?? Was I the sole survivor of my crew? What about other survivors? My only warm thoughts were of the gestures and words of Joe and the young lady which gave me a measure of comfort in this weird dream.
We arrived in Olomouc, with the German officer handing me over to jailers in a very old stone exterior building where I was placed in a cell by myself. Thankfully it was warm. After a sleepless night I pulled on a cord that released a wooden clapper outside of my door, alerting the guards that I needed a toilet break. When taken from my cell and pointed through a door to a wash room and toilet area, I entered to see a singed Klarsfeld. I was overjoyed, and more so when he told me that Francisco Vro was also there!!!
That same afternoon guards walked me out to the street, a few blocks to the right, and across the street into a park where there were a few temporary small buildings erected. One building contained a small medical military unit, perhaps I should describe it as a first aid center. A medical man probed my shoulder with his fingers silently (still a language barrier). He continued moving my arm about until he had it straightened, one hand on the elbow the other with a tight grip on my hand, all holds contributing to a non-bending elbow. My shoulder had been badly separated due to my head down dive at the time of pulling my rip-cord. It was very sore and my right arm was useless. The manipulations now going on had me clenching my teeth. I didn't realize what was about to happen thankfully.
He firmly and quickly, with all of his strength, swung my arm in an arc while applying directional force with the resulting popping of the ball on my upper arm back into the socket of my shoulder. I think the German medic understood the English that shot out of my throat as my teeth unclenched! I now had a new use for my wool scarf - a sling for my arm.
After the walk back to the fortress jail house, I looked for but was unable to see or contact either Vro or Milt. In the evening, perhaps about eight PM, I was taken out to the street again to join a group of about ten prisoners including Vro and Milt. We were loaded into the back of a covered army charcoal/acetylene burning truck which transported us out of the city for a distance of several miles. When we left the truck we descended a ramp to enter what appeared to be a below ground modern jail house. We were marched single file down a corridor with steel barred cells on each side. A guard kept opening doors to the cells and directing a few men from the front of our line into each cell. Milt, Vro and myself were hanging tight to each other and found ourselves ushered into a cell that miraculously held Cliff Stewart and John Modrovsky!! What a feeling of both relief and exhilaration!!
Milt had time now to tell what had happened in the nose. He had helped Brewer out of the nose turret, and the two tried to exit from the nose wheel door opening. The emergency release failed to open the doors. Milt felt that they were probably frozen shut. They then tried continuing through the small tunnel to reach the bomb bay or flight deck. The plane exploded and the next thing Milt knew was that the explosion had blown him clear with his parachute on. Milt had no other information as to the fate of David Brewer.
Vro Francisco recalled the events on the flight deck and his reluctance to follow me through the burning bomb bay. He had turned back and opened the overhead hatch door. By this time he was getting goofy from lack of oxygen but he recalled his goofy actions. He told me that he had stuck his hand out through the open hatch and decided that the wind was blowing too hard!!
He then leaned over the center flight console, reached up with his hand and pushed all four red feather buttons to slow the wind!! As he turned back under the open overhead hatch, the aircraft exploded, blowing him out through the hatch and opening his parachute. At least five of us had magically survived with no permanent physical damage.
Much later that same night the Germans assembled a larger truck load of about fifteen prisoners and we were taken to a railroad station in a large city (I assume Prague) where we were put on a train. Our train rides to Frankfurt am Main, Obereussel: Wetzlar: Berlin and eventually to Stalag Luft I are another story to be told. There were many unpleasantries on that journey but we survived and managed to hang together throughout that winter of 1944-45 in that same POW Prison Camp near Barth, Pomerania on the Baltic Sea.
55 Years to Closure
Gerald R. Smith - 765th Bomb Squadron
This is a story that begins with the events of Sunday, 17 December 1944 on a disastrous mission by the Fifteenth Air Force, US Army, based on the Adriatic Sea in southern Italy. We were trying to put an end to the German Odertal synthetic fuel refinery in southern Poland and thus destroy Hitler's most productive remaining fuel sources. The Luftwaffe Fighter Command was equally dedicated to prevent us. My Squadron, the 765th, never got to the target, and only one B-24 Liberator, piloted by Captain Chalmers, managed to survive the intense Luftwaffe attack over the Czech Republic and return to base.
I was the pilot of Number 26, "Arsenic and Lace", of the 765th Squadron, the 461st Bomb Group and fortunate enough to survive along with four other crew members. We five sat out the rest of the war as prisoners in Stalag Luft I and compared notes on the events of that black Sunday. We had then, and for the next fifty odd years, no answers to the following:
- What happened to the bodies of the five dead crew members we had left behind?
- What happened to the dozen five-hundred pound bombs I had dropped through the doors of the burning bomb bays?
- Where did the remnants of our bomber crash?
These questions have haunted my thoughts continuously for well over five decades. This all changed beginning in May 1998, and this story is based on the events of the past year. It is perhaps how the well known radio commentator, Paul Harvey, might say:
And Now I Know the Rest of the Story
I first heard of the website for the 461st Bomb Group in May 1998 and logged in. I then learned that the 461st had an Association and that there were annual reunions. I made contact immediately, paid my dues and attended the 1998 reunion in Braintree, Massachusetts with my daughter, Claire.
Germaine to this story, that first contact with the website made reference to a young Czech author who is documenting the air wars fought in the skies over his country. Rob Hoskins, webmaster, had included E-Mail from this man, Michal Sisovsky. It is still posted. The Sisovsky mail gave me goose bumps when I read that I was one of the specific people he was trying to contact. He even referenced my aircraft by name, "ARSENIC AND LACE".
I had some difficulty making contact with Michal by E-Mail and finally used the postal service, mailing a letter to him a month before the reunion. Michal responded with a long hand written letter that I received in early October 1998. He included detailed maps of the region where most of our planes crashed on the Odertal mission that day, including mine. I was astounded by the information he has already assembled from various sources. I was dumb-struck by the old black and white photograph of a large and impressive memorial erected in the military section of the principal cemetery in the city of Olomouc, the city where I had spent my first night in a German jail.
Interred at this memorial were my five lost crewmen and seven more Airmen from a Fifteenth AF B-17 that crashed the next day, 18 December.
The photo showed a tall column erected at the head with the United States flag depicted, and a permanent top wreath. The entire memorial was covered by fresh flowers, and at the foot was another large wreath and what appeared as a ribbon woven throughout, described as parachute cord from "Arsenic and Lace". This memorial was dismantled in late 1946, when the U.S. Military exhumed the bodies for reinterrment in a military cemetery at Avold, France. Michal also told me of Memorials erected in outlying towns near Olomouc, one in particular to my friend and fellow pilot from the 765th Squadron, Tom West and the members of his crew that perished with him. I felt compelled to accept Michal's invitation to visit his country which I did in late April 1999.
I had a general description of Michal, which was not needed. When I emerged from customs at the Prague Airport, I encountered the usual large crowd but focused promptly on a young man wearing a beautiful A-2 leather flight jacket with the Fifteenth AF patch on the shoulder!!
The Last Minutes of Arsenic and Lace
I was weary, helped along by the ten-hour time difference from California. After a few good Czech beers and early dinner at my hotel I crashed for a long night. Michal is now living in Prague, and not far from my hotel. We met again for the following afternoon and evening to plan our ten-day visit. Michal presented me with a detailed artist's color rendition of "Arsenic and Lace" that included the Nose Art; Squadron aircraft No. 26; the 461st tail markings; and the actual Serial Number on the tail!! My daughter Claire, age 20, flew in from New York the next afternoon. We did some sight seeing in Prague and then set off for Olomouc in my rented Opal Diesel on 30 April.
The real story is about to start, but first let me briefly refresh your knowledge of the Czech people and their history. The Czechoslovakia that we have known is now two separate countries, Slovakia to the east and the Czech Republic to the west. Nobody seems to have a good reason why, but it seems that they were separate entities many centuries ago before falling under Austrian rule for four centuries, becoming known as Czechoslovakia.
The Hapsburg/Austrian rule came to an end in 1918 and they became a free country. Their freedom was short. In less than two turbulent decades, Hitler marched into the Sudetenland and occupied the country. Men and women were conscripted into military and forced labor.
In 1945 with the defeat of Germany, the people of Czechoslovakia again gained their freedom. This time instead of two decades, they only tasted of it for two years before falling under the Russian banner of Communism.
With the collapse of Russia and her eastern Bloc in 1991, these people are again free and under self-democratic rule. They are now a proud member of NATO and their young people, like Michal, are filling the universities, and determined to stay free.
Their Republic is only eight years old, but the history of what America and its Allies have contributed to the two past brief periods of freedom and now this third chance, has been kept alive in their households through several generations despite communist suppression of true history in the schools. They will not forget our deeds on their behalf.
Now, to get on with the story: we were flying in bright sunlight over a solid white undercast with the top at ten thousand feet and the bottom at only about seven hundred feet above ground. I lacked visual knowledge as to our exact position that day, and there were conflicting reports in post mission records. I wanted to nail down the time-line geography for that day.
We had been on an assigned north-northwesterly heading that would have us passing about eight miles to the west of Olomouc. However, our Squadron had been wide right of the single course line and we would have actually passed over the western edge of this large city. The Luftwaffe had initiated their attack shortly after our crossing of the Austrian border, about fifteen miles east-northeast of Brno. Captain Chalmers' debriefing report after the mission had placed Arsenic and Lace in the vicinity of Muglitz when he saw my plane lose the right wing following a fierce fire in the bomb bays and a burning No. three engine.
Chalmers' location did not fit, but then, how could he be sure of what was happening to five other bombers, where and when, while looking after his own plane under a heavy attack by over 100 German fighters, as stated later by the commanding general of the Luftwaffe!!!
With the known actual crash site of Arsenic and Lace on the outskirts of Olomouc I was able to rule the Muglitz report out during the next few days.
After the FW-190 Fighters' 30 mm cannon hits had fired the bomb bays into an inferno, I issued the verbal order over intercom to abandon ship. Cliff Stewart, tail gunner; and John Modrovsky, ball turret gunner, were the first able to bail out from the tail, leaving the two dead bodies of Abe Abrahamson, radio operator; and Edwin Howard, flight engineer, behind. They touched down, after free fall, several miles south of Olomouc which ties with the wreckage site. I personally had gone in a head-first dive through the burning bomb bay about five minutes later. I left the dead bodies of Art Carlson, my bombardier, and Morris Goldman, upper turret gunner, behind on the flight deck.
I had pulled Vro, my co-pilot who should have been long gone, from his seat and told him to follow me as I went head-first through the fire in the forward bomb bay. I was banging against the center cat-walk and the bomb bay doors that were partially open from the weight of the 500 pound bombs that I had previously released. I lost consciousness for a few moments before opening my chute at about five miles up. That altitude would require about thirty minutes of descent time which, with the westerly strong winds reported, should have put me at a touchdown point about eight to ten miles east of Olomouc.
Michal had the actual crash area general information, and the collaboration of the Olomouc Feature Editor of their largest newspaper. They had printed notice of my pending visit, asking eyewitnesses to the crash of Arsenic and Lace to come forward. We met on our first morning with this Editor in his office. I was told that the Olomouc edition of their paper would carry a major article replete with photos. We then reviewed the responses to the Editor's (Peter's) request for witnesses. Of the fifteen responses, which had been checked out by Peter, two were selected.
A date was set for 2:00 PM the next day for all to meet at the entrance to the huge cemetery in the Neredin suburb of Olomouc. Both selectees, a man and a woman, had been about ten years old at the time and had lived directly in the general flight path. Both were now about sixty-five, the man a newly retired medical doctor and the lady a retired widow now living in a smaller town some distance from Olomouc. We met at the appointed time in the stone paved entry to the cemetery, and while introductions were in progress I became aware of the burden on Michal Sisovsky in his role as our interpreter, and that role was to continue throughout our stay. For openers, while waiting for the delayed Editor, the Doctor got my attention, by pointing to the paving stones at his feet next to the curb of the roadway, and telling me, through Michal, that a propeller blade from one of my engines had created a five foot deep hole at that point!! Then Michal told me that the lady witness had traveled from her new home by train and bus to this meeting, carrying a bouquet of flowers for me! With the arrival of Peter, the Editor, we proceeded into the cemetery to visit the site of the former memorial to American dead in the military section. The military section is centuries old and honors all who gave their lives for Czechoslovakia.
There are graves for many foreign soldiers, predominantly Russian with a red star on each head stone, who lost their lives driving the Germans from this land. I recall seeing a few British stones, one listing the names, ranks, and date for a Lancaster Bomber crew. There was one very large and tall memorial with a tall spire carrying the Russian red star on top. The Doctor explained that the large memorial I have described earlier for my crew members, had been next to this Russian monument. We next visited another section of this vast cemetery, where Arsenic and Lace had made her last contact with earth.
To understand what I am attempting to describe, you must be able to mentally envision, as I have, how my bomber made its final approach back to earth and the succession of events. The plane had been on a northwesterly heading, after abandonment, and stayed on that course. Fire, explosions, and aerodynamic forces caused a rapid metamorphosis.
She shed her wings, engines, propeller blades, turrets and bodies. The heavy bombs had gone long before. In the end, at this cemetery, there was only the fuselage still containing the center section of the wing with its remnant load of 100 octane spewing fire and smoke. As if using the vehicle roadway between beautiful grave sites as a runway, it made its last landing (albeit a very steep approach), accompanied by a fuel explosion brought about by the impact. The Doctor stated that you could smell the fuel for a mile around; that no one was a casualty; that the only damage at this location was flame damage to a few small trees that fully recovered. The "Whump" from the fuel blast had tipped head stones back at grave sites on each side of the roadway.
The Doctor pointed out two beautiful large chapels left undamaged at each end of the service roadway, with the landing (impact) point halfway between! He also made note that the other two so far unmentioned survivors, Vro Francisco, co-pilot, and Milton Klarsfeld, navigator, had landed nearby. One actually touched down in the cemetery and the other just a short distance outside. This all fits. Milt had been trapped in the nose section, and Vro had refused to go through the burning bomb bay. The final explosion in the fuselage, probably at only about 1,500 feet, had expelled the nose turret and had also blown both of them clear of the fuselage and opened their parachutes!
The Doctor wanted me to clear up a mystery for him. He had learned the names of my crew but had retrieved from the wreckage a heavy duty flashlight that survived in working order and bore the name REGAN. I explained that Sgt. Regan was my ground crew chief who looked after my plane between missions, supervising damage repairs, maintenance, and the readiness preparation for the next mission!!
At this point we left the cemetery in a small caravan of three cars and traveled about two miles to an open field area on the final approach of Arsenic and Lace. The cemetery was visible a good mile away. The witnesses kept up a running tale of where engines, bodies, and major debris had come to rest. We then drove to a point midway between where we were and the cemetery. This was a small, old, and modest residential neighborhood. The Doctor had lived here as a child and it was from here that he had viewed that final approach from his old home. He then took us a block down the street to a corner lot where, until recently, there had stood the neighborhood beer pub. He stated that the nose turret of Arsenic and Lace had gone through the roof of the single story building, then the attic space, but had only half penetrated the ceiling. He had personally seen this turret hanging there over the beer tapping spouts. The body of David Brewer came to rest not far from this location.
We thanked everyone for their time and contributions, and said goodbye to all except the lady witness who had come by train and bus. I drove her to her new home in the hills to the east of Olomouc. It was in this same general area a day or so later, while trying to find the small village where I had touched down, that we were kissed by Lady Luck!! We had been told in a village several miles to the south of where we were, by an eye witness to the crash of Lt. Fred Capalbo's plane, that he couldn't tie any specific village to my 54-year-old description.
However, he told us that a book had been published at war's end in 1945 that recounted such events for all the communities surrounding Olomouc. He himself was a small community newspaper publisher. He had personally never seen the book, that there were few printed, but that he had heard of an older man in the area to the north who had a copy. So we put this search on our shopping list. Michal was tireless in the pursuit of this book and while I drove, he was in and out of the car asking questions of strangers. He finally came up with a possible lead to our quarry. We found the old man's house to learn that he had died. We were told that the man's son could perhaps have the book. We went to the son's home. He was at work. We learned that he ran a family business - a small lumber yard. We found the lumber yard. I was very tired and stayed in the car while Michal went in the small office building.
Five minutes later Michal came bursting out the office door with a husky middle aged man who wore a big grin on his face while waving a book on high!! Michal was so excited that his English almost failed him as he told me that this was THE BOOK! The man wanted me to have it but could not give it to me.
Local custom required that he sell it to me, which he did for $10 US.
That evening back in Olomouc, Michal and Peter, the Feature Editor, poured through the book which, of course, was written in Czech. This book shed no light on my search for the village I was seeking BUT - there were three pages, including pictures, telling of where my salvo of twelve five-hundred pounders had struck! The bombs were not armed, but with all that weight and velocity they could wreak much more havoc than wrecking balls. They had fallen together and wiped out a farm house, the usual adjacent farm buildings, the farm family garden plot, and finished in a bordering vacant field. No fire was started, and no one killed. One man was injured but recovered!
That night in Olomouc I went to bed exhausted about 10:30 PM. I awoke about three hours later, bolting straight up in bed, widely awake, almost physically feeling the mental joining in my mind of the two separate experiences, over fifty-four years apart. I now had all the answers to the long unanswered questions. I am still wide awake.
I Have Experienced an Unforgettable Closure!
Arsenic and Lace
765th Bomb Squadron
Ship No. - 26
Serial No. - 42-52025
Kriegsgefangener Gerald R. Smith. The German photographer tried to coax a smile from him with a Mickey Mouse doll, but got quite the opposite result as you can see.