Trefry A. Ross
Last Flight of Crew #14
17 December 1944
Fifteenth Air Force, 49th Bomb Wing
461st Bomb Group, 765th Bomb Squadron
Flying out of Cerignola, Italy - near Foggia
S/Sgt. Trefry A. Ross
Radio Operator, Right Waist Gunner
Written 17 December 1976. 32 years have elapsed so my narrative may have a few discrepancies; although, I doubt it, as it seems like it happened yesterday, and most of the happening is quite vivid in my memory.
"Alright you guys, outa the sack. Come on, let's go! Keerist! You wanna sleep all day - come on, let's go - Jesus, watta bunch!" My eyes open slowly, and staring at me in the dark is the orderly with his flashlight. It's 3:00 AM and time for another flight over enemy territory. I lie there trying vainly to remove my body from my warm sack; and sack it was. In order to keep warm we (the enlisted men anyway) used to crawl into our mattress covers - which in essence were sacks - this way we could keep a little warmer. The original "Italian sleeping bag" you might call it. Anyway, I'm lying there listening to "Putt-putt" get a razzing from Frank. Putt-putt is Fred Gaul, the flight engineer, and called Putt-putt because one of his jobs is to fire up the little gasoline engine (like a power mower) which powers the airplane until the engines are started. Frank Yesia, the ball gunner, is a wise guy. Frank is from Cicero, Illinois, home of the gangsters, and although Frank is far from the so-called "tough-nut", he is still held in awe by a few of us as having come from that tough part of Chicago - Al Capone's old stomping grounds. Anyway, he's needling Putt-putt, the youngest on the crew, and the "goat". We all have a good laugh and finally manage to shake ourselves loose from the sacks.
Our enlisted men's tent was comprised of six men: Thomas Diebert, S/Sgt., top turret gunner; Joe Mergo, S/Sgt., tail gunner; Roy Doe, Sgt., nose gunner; Frank Yesia, Cpl., ball gunner; Fred Gaul, Sgt., flight engineer-waist gunner; and myself, right waist gunner-radio operator. We were a close knit crew. I think we were possibly the most congenial crew in Italy. We all got along great. The officers, who lived in a separate tent in another part of the airfield, were considered by us as "regular guys". They were a good group. I know this "camaraderie" was not universal. I firmly believe we had a unique crew, and it was a shame it all came to an end this 17th day of December 1944.
So here we are, struggling into our clothes, each man dressing as he saw fit - it was an informal uniform we wore - we weren't going to stand inspection or bow before the C.O., so we chose the most comfortable and warmest clothing each preferred. I usually wore my O.D.'s (wool shirt and pants) for warmth. We later picked up our electrically heated suits, parachutes and oxygen masks at the flight line. We finally get dressed and stagger over to the mess hall for breakfast. One thing you can say about combat crews and combat flying - we never wanted for a warm place to sleep or good things to eat. It was hell over the target but, before and after, we had it pretty dammed good! So here we are, eating our eggs and bacon, plenty of it, along with coffee and toast, and razzing each other about last night. Wow! What a night that was. First, I'd like to explain how it was when we weren't flying. One night we had movies or played ping-pong. The next night the Enlisted Men's Club was open. So, on alternate nights it was either movies or the Enlisted Men's Club. The movies weren't bad, held outdoors, usually an old Betty Grable or Bob Hope movie, but anything was ok as long as it had a few laughs in it. The Enlisted Men's Club was just the mess hall - after 8:00 PM. It was a bar, period, but the drinks were cheap enough - 50ç each, or three for a dollar. Needless to say, we all ordered three at a time. There wasn't much choice - I can't remember for sure what else there was, but I know we always had 101 proof British Rum and grapefruit juice from the kitchen. It made a potent drink and, at three for a dollar, it didn't take many to relieve our frustration and anxieties. So, at breakfast this morning we were discussing the last night's events. It wasn't much - after six, nine, or twelve rum and grapefruits we were feeling no pain. Roy Doe was singing over and over, "Roll me over in the clover, lay me down and do it again, roll me over in the clover, lay me down and do it again ---". I can still see it as plain as yesterday - and hear Roy singing. It wasn't long before he was out of it, so we got the stretcher and lugged him home to the tent. Knowing 3:00 AM was going to come around quite soon, we all joined Roy and flaked out. So here we were a few hours later, eating like nothing had happened, (I wish I could do that now) and razzing each other.
Breakfast over, we had to go to the general briefing for the flight and then we went to our respective special briefings. My radio operator briefing usually consisted of frequencies for the day, and I picked up my chaff (aluminum foil) which I threw out over the target to foul up the enemy radar. Next stop, was the plane. Each man had a specific job to do - a general pre-flight.
We checked our guns, loaded them - I checked the radio equipment, etc. We put on our electrically heated suits - which were thin suits, similar to thermal underwear, laced with wiring and had a plug which we plugged into a jack on the airplane. Over the electrically heated suit we put on a heavy jacket and pants which protected the relatively thin and fragile electric suit and was heavy enough to protect one from the cold in the event of an electricity failure - even though it seemed as if you were freezing to death. So here we were, all dressed up and no place to go - as it were.
Tom Qualman, the navigator, comes by and says, "Well it looks like we're sitting around here for awhile. The magneto on #3 is kaput and we'll have to wait for it to be fixed." Before long we are wondering if we are going to make it. You'd think we'd be tickled pink to be able to abort even before leaving the ground but, as I had said before, we weren't a "normal" crew. Even when we had first arrived in Italy we wanted to fly the very next day, but training and other events took precedence over foolish actions. So, even after a good number of missions, we were still itching to fly. Finally came the order to get ready. We were going to fly! If we could get off and catch up with the rest of the group, we could go. Keerist! You'd think we were going on a picnic instead of a deadly bomb run.
We're off, climbing through the grey overcast to find the sun at 20,000 plus. Where is everyone? Jesus! - we're all alone, we'll never make it - but we try. Soon, far out over the Adriatic, we spot the rest of the group and try to catch up. We are heading for Blechhammer - the oil refineries - the dreaded target No. 2 on the list, right after Berlin. The second toughest, and the longest distance from Foggia. All of a sudden I'm feeling cold. What the hell my electric suit must be going out. Keerist! It's freezing! About this time, I look out the left waist window and see the group way off to our left. I'm wondering to myself what the hell they are doing way over there, and here we are flying tail-end Charlie when we should be right wing (as we had worked our way up) but, having left the ground late due to magneto trouble, we had to settle for what we could grab and that was into the slot at the ass end.
I couldn't help but think about what we had been through, all the previous missions, all the flack, all the tension, watching the others go down, fail to come back, working our way up from tail-end Charlie to right wing. Boy! Only one more to go and we would be squadron leader!
I recalled the first few days when I talked with some of the crews that had been here for awhile. We were talking about R&R (that's short for "rest and rehabilitation"). It was a known fact that our rest camp was on the Isle of Capri, on the far side of Italy from where we were. So, I innocently asked - "Well, how is it on the Isle of Capri - how's the wine - what are the girls like?" He laughs, and remarks, "Who knows? No one has ever lasted long enough to get their 25 missions in and go!" It didn't take long to find out what the score was. Day by day crews didn't come back - and now we were heading for the same fate, although we didn't know it then.
So here I am, freezing to death I thought, and wondering how come we're all alone - when over the intercom comes Joe's voice, "Fighters! Here they come!" Almost immediately his exclamation was followed by the sound and reverberation of his guns. I'm looking out the waist window but can't see any fighters as they were to my rear and high, it wasn't more than three or four seconds from the time Joe yelled when it sounded like rain on a tin roof, and the 20 mm shells from the fighters were ripping through the roof of the plane, missing Putt-putt and me by inches, and exploding into the forward part of the plane. The oxygen bottles on the deck near the bomb bay doors blew up and caught fire. I was encased in a sheet of flame, my clothes were on fire. The aircraft took a violent lunge upward. I was knocked flat to the bottom of the plane and momentarily stunned. You see, Putt-putt and I, being waist gunners, just stood up - we were not sitting in a seat or turret, strapped down with safety belts - so with any violent maneuvers of the aircraft we found ourselves hanging on for dear life or being thrown around like rag dolls. Now I was on my knees looking for my parachute, the interior of the plane was a mass of fire. I found my chute (it was a chest pack and I had to snap it on the harness which I was wearing). It seemed like hours - I couldn't lift it - it felt like a ton. Little did I realize then that we were in a flat spin, and I was under negative "G" forces.
I finally managed to get the chute snapped to the harness and then, just as I dove head first through the waist window, I saw Putt-putt standing there watching me and assumed that he followed. I hadn't wasted any time once I was able to move. I just knew I had to get away from the fire. I didn't even take the time to disconnect my oxygen mask, intercom, or electrical suit. In the ensuing dive through the window I just ripped everything loose as the slack in all the wires was taken up. My oxygen mask was torn from my face. Due to the centrifugal force I didn't clear the side of the aircraft and my left foot was caught on the window sill. I kicked back with my right foot and suddenly I was free - falling through the bright sunshine.
Pulling the ripcord was an involuntary act - I don't remember actually doing it. God, it was quiet - so peaceful - so still. I looked around - nothing - no chutes - no planes - the overcast was way below, no ground in sight, bright sun overhead and clouds below. I couldn't get over how quiet it was; then I began to panic - it felt like I was just hanging there. There was no sense of motion - nothing close to relate a downward drift to. I just knew I was stuck. How the hell was I going to get down! All of a sudden I found I couldn't breathe! I was in pain! I didn't realize it then, but I was suffering from lack of oxygen. It was a horrible feeling. I couldn't stand it. I wanted to end it - now! I tried to unsnap my chute. I couldn't do it because of my weight. I wanted to unbuckle my harness and free myself so I could fall free and quick to relieve my misery, but I couldn't get the harness unbuckled either - because of my weight. It was approximately 12:05 PM - at about 26,000 feet - I passed out from lack of oxygen.
The next thing I knew, I was under the clouds and coming down near a village. I could see various buildings - a church spire quite prominently. There was snow on the ground and I saw that I was about to come down in a plowed field on the edge of town. I could see some figures running to where I was about to land. I was coming down backwards. I reached up to shift the risers of the chute to try and turn around - when I hit the ground. I hadn't realized how fast I was descending and hit the ground unexpectedly, and immediately folded up like an accordion. It was probably a lucky thing as I did not brace myself, but landed like a limp rag and, therefore, did not break any bones. I lay there for a few seconds getting my breath back. I wiggled my toes to make sure my back wasn't broken - it had felt like I had broken every bone in my body. Just as I struggled to my feet I remembered the figures I had noticed running across the field. By now, they were close upon me. I could see they were German soldiers. They were shouting and yelling "pistola, pistola" and making gestures by holding their hands under their right armpit. They wanted my Colt .45 automatic pistol. We had been issued the pistol and shoulder holster, but were advised not to carry it as it was very unlikely we would be in a position to use it. Generally, the situation was such that an armed airman was treated badly by the Germans - as opposed to better treatment for an unarmed airman. Anyway, the German soldiers were having a foot race to see who could get to me and get my pistol.
I suppose I should say, at this point in my story, that I could have "John Wayne'd" it and pulled out my .45 Pistol and shot the first five or six soldiers - like in the movies - and then stood there while the rest shot me full of holes; but then I wouldn't be here writing this story - would I? You see, I had landed just across the road from a German army camp, and had literally thousands of soldiers to welcome me to their country. The first soldier to reach me was disappointed to find no pistol, so he took my helmet instead. The helmet and my parachute was all they took. I was not molested in any way.
I was then escorted to the Commandant's office, where I received a cordial welcome and had a nice chat with the Commandant - who, by the way, spoke fluent English. I had bailed out at 12:01 PM. It was 29 minutes later when I hit the ground - 12:30 PM when I had first glanced at my watch. It is now almost 1:00 PM, and the Commandant has offered me a cigarette and a glass of brandy. I'm sitting there petting his big Irish setter and feeling relaxed and free. It is just beginning to penetrate my senses that the war is over - for me anyway - selfish though it may sound. I tell the Commandant my name, rank and serial number - discuss my home and family, and exchange a few pleasantries. No military or vital security information was discussed whatsoever. After a few moments, I noticed him looking at me rather oddly, as if he were worried about something. He picked up his phone and made a short call. About this time my eyes were beginning to feel rather strange - a tight sensation - no pain, but a feeling as though I couldn't blink my eyes. A moment later - the door opened and a doctor entered. He gave me a brief examination and spoke to the Commandant in German. I did not know what he said. The doctor left in a few minutes, and no sooner had he gone when two soldiers, in full uniforms, with Schmeiser machine pistols, appeared and the Commandant said they would escort me to town. He wished me well, we shook hands and I was off. The town center was about three miles away, and we walked. We had walked several hundred yards before my thoughts brought me recollections of stories we had heard about the Germans. The farmers would stick you to death with their pitchforks -- the doctors had enormous hypodermic needles to fill you with poison - the soldiers would march you to a remote spot in the forest and shoot you - and on and on - my imagination ran rampant with all the thoughts. I was positive these two soldiers were going to kill me. They spoke no English and I no German. They would motion and point with their machine pistols the direction I was to take. Right into the woods, along a narrow and isolated path - this was it - I just knew it! At first they were alongside, one on each side; presently, they were talking among themselves and were slowly getting behind me. The slower they walked, the slower I walked. I wasn't about to let them get behind so they could shoot me.
Well, it wasn't long before the path widened and we were on a road. A few houses appeared and then the town. I was taken to what looked like a school (at any rate, it was very similar in appearance to the grammar school I had attended when a child). They took me into the kitchen - a huge area that had been turned into a makeshift first aid area. I received another brief examination, and then appeared the dreaded hypodermic needle. I swear it looked to be about two feet long and four inches in diameter. It was a size I had never seen before, but I was assured it was only a tetanus shot. Next I was ushered into the auditorium where there were about two dozen airmen, none of whom I had seen before. It was now about 3:00 PM, and I sat there wondering what would be next. About every 15 to 30 minutes, two or more airmen would be brought in. The room was slowly filling up and yet no one I knew appeared. I was beginning to wonder, "Christ! Did I jump out too soon?" It had been done before. Maybe I'd panicked and left a crew now on its way home. Then I thought back - looked at my flying suit (I was quite a sight!). My flying suit was in shreds, blackened from the fire, holes completely burned through in spots. I finally convinced myself I couldn't possibly have been burned like this and the plane still be flying.
About 4:00 PM, they brought us some black bread and coffee (ersatz) which I couldn't eat. I didn't like the taste of either, and I wasn't hungry. Later on I would have given anything to have that glorious piece of black bread - which was soon to come to taste like rich cake. My eyes were now beginning to swell shut and I could hardly see. The pain was beginning, and I was slowly comprehending that I was burned worse than I thought. My helmet and oxygen mask had protected my head and face, with the exception of the area around my eyes. My goggles were on my head, riding high on my forehead - they were too uncomfortable to wear (sound familiar?), so my eyes had been burned, and not having access to a mirror I couldn't see the extent. About 5:00 PM, an orderly came up to me and said that when it got good and dark they would put me in an ambulance and take me to a hospital. I think it was about 8:00 PM when they led me to the ambulance.
I was met by a sound I will never forget - the voice of Tom Noesges, bombardier, who was lying on a stretcher with a broken leg. It was a voice out of heaven. Not only was I among friends again, (the auditorium, by 6:00 PM, had filled almost to capacity and I still hadn't seen anyone I knew) but my worst suspicions were allayed. I now knew for certain that I hadn't jumped too soon. I believe Tom was as glad to see me as I him. I know, for myself, it was a grand and glorious reunion. We were taken to a train and eventually ended up in a hospital in Brunn, Czechoslovakia, where we received our initial treatment. I remember quite well being given a bath upon arrival, by female nurses, and not being able to see, my embarrassment was well hidden. Tom Noesges and I were in the same room with two other Americans. Shortly thereafter (about two weeks later) I had recovered enough to travel, and one of the other prisoners-of-war and I were taken to a regular POW camp for interrogation - leaving Tom Noesges at the hospital.
Prisoner of War Story
S/Sgt. Trefry A. Ross - 765th Bomb Squadron
It was time to leave. There had been rumors, but we didn't really know for sure until one particular morning. Only two of us were going. A pilot, who had been shot in the back, and I, with my burns. We were, obviously, well enough to travel. However, to look at us you'd think we were just arriving instead of leaving. We were on our way to interrogation in Germany, far from where we were in Czechoslovakia - all the way across Germany to Frankfurt on the Main - three days by train.
They brought us our clothes. Keerist! What a sight I presented - my flight jacket had been on fire at one time; it was charred and blackened and had numerous holes. My flight boots were missing so they gave me a pair of black shoes (good shoes, but they didn't quite match my olive drab uniform) which made my whole appearance just a bit more ludicrous - with a bandage around my head to cover one eye - and my burns - I was quite a sight! It was the first part of January, the 3rd or 4th, of 1945 - I can't remember for sure which. It was a typical winter day, cold, gray, ice and snow everywhere. I didn't realize how cold it actually would be outside as it was nice and warm in the hospital. I said good-bye to Tom Noesges and the others, and we left - the two of us and two guards. They would be our 'companions' for the rest of the trip. They were 60 years old, or older, and in Wermacht uniforms - the last of the old guard, so to speak.
We left the warm hospital lobby and were immediately struck by the cold icy air. I didn't have an overcoat or heavy jacket, just what was left of the outer portion of my electrically heated flight suit. We walked, the two guards behind us so we wouldn't take up too much room on the sidewalk. It wasn't too far to the streetcar. I couldn't get over the appearance of the people compared to the people of Italy - the southern part of Italy anyway. The people of Italy were poor. The houses, the clothes, the roads, everything reflected poverty, and now, here in Brunn (BRNO), Czechoslovakia, it was like home - like walking down Market Street in San Francisco. Men wore suits, the women had on fur coats, and the whole atmosphere was one of relative prosperity. I just couldn't get over the sudden change. My impression of Europe, based on southern Italy, was quite wrong I soon found out. The rest of Europe which I saw, was prosperous, as opposed to the poverty of southern Italy.
We rode the streetcar to the train station. The Czech people were friendly, smiled, spoke to the guards, querying them about us I presume. On the train we had a compartment to ourselves - nothing fancy no Pullman, no berths - we sat up or slouched the whole trip. The guards were quite considerate. It was a shame we didn't speak enough of each other's language to really converse. One of the guards shared leftover cookies his family had sent him for Christmas, and at several of the train stops they would bring us pastry of some sort. I often felt they thought of us as they would their sons, or at least had a compassion for us because of the discrepancy in our ages.
With the exception of two incidents, the trip was uneventful. We were still far enough north and east to escape the bombings and strafing that was to come later. One day I had a fever - don't know what caused it - reaction to the soft time in the warm hospital I suppose. Anyway, I was out of it for a day. I was so thirsty - all I could think of was ice cold beer, and kept visualizing pitchers upon pitchers of ice cold beer at the end of the trip. I know exactly what it is to hallucinate; that night the fever broke and I was fine. No sickness, no cold, nothing but a fever; never had it since. We stopped one night at a restaurant (a train stop, like the old Fred Harvey train stops the Santa Fe used to have; like the Greyhound Bus still has). If you want to eat, you get off and go inside - well, we did - this one night. It was a beer hall right out of a Peter Lorry and Humphrey Bogart spy movie. One expected Marlene Dietrich to come on stage and sing "Lili Marlene". The place was full of soldiers, a scattering of civilians and two POWs. (Guess who?) Jesus! It was noisy - singing. yelling, beer drinking, - lots of sausage, cheese, etc. I didn't know about "Octoberfests" then, but it was just like an "Octoberfest" - in miniature, as the restaurant wasn't very big. I felt quite conspicuous with my bandaged head and ratty uniform, not to mention being a POW, but no one paid any attention. I presume they had seen POWs before. We didn't have much time, ate our meal and left. It must have been a favorite spot for soldiers to congregate (or there were other trains) as only a few left when we did, to get back to our train.
The next day we arrived at the interrogation center where I bid farewell to the guards and to my pilot friend - as he was an officer and went elsewhere. At this point in my story, I would like to mention once again that I am writing this narrative some thirty-six years (in 1960) after it happened. I realize now that I should have done this years ago. Most of my experiences are quite vivid, some are vague, and 'by Jove' sometimes I just can't seem to recollect at all exactly what took place as to where and when. This is one of those places now. I remember a small room. It was my first meeting with a working POW. It must have been my initial approach to interrogation. I say this because there were only the two of us. It was quite early in the morning - say about 2:00 or 3:00 AM, upon arriving. We were served cups of hot chocolate and two slices of bread, with strawberry jam. 'Holy Mackerel'. I'll never forget how good that tasted! We were then issued a Red Cross suitcase each. A small black suitcase containing (and here, again, I should remember everything, but can't quite) a paperback book, a razor, soap, toothbrush, a pair of warm mittens and a black wool sweater that had been hand knit by a Red Cross worker somewhere in the New England states. It had a tag on it - that's how I knew. I put that sweater on right then and there; didn't take it off until months later. I wanted to bring it home, but by then it was infested with little friends that looked like grains of rice, but were by no means as dormant. Cooties they are called, or for the uninitiated - lice!
I was then escorted to a large barracks similar to the one I was familiar with. It would appear, at this point, that I was becoming part of a group, a number, the start of order and routine. As soon as there were enough POWs to make up a 'group', we began processing. I will use the word 'group' instead of platoon, company, squadron, etc., as there would be, later on, mixed POWs, i.e., Air Force, Artillery, Infantry - all would end up together: whereas in the early part of the war, the Air Force had their own POW camps. Anyway, after a certain number had arrived, a few each day we began the 'routine'.
Interrogation consisted of a very informal type of questioning. It was done in a very small cubicle, just enough room for the interrogator on one side of a small table and I on the other. I was seated in a chair and left alone for quite awhile. Anyone suffering from claustrophobia would have found these cubicles quite exciting to say the least - all part of the plan I must say. The interrogator came in after what seemed like hours - probably only about 15 minutes. We both played the game; I said, "I can only give you my name, rank and serial number - you know that. He said (incidentally, he spoke perfect English), "OK, you and I both know that, so let's do it this way. He brought out several thick books, about the size of a San Francisco phone directory, and said, "Look I know you aren't supposed to tell me anything so don't. Just point to the tail markings on your plane." Jesus! You wouldn't believe what he had! He knew more about the Fifteenth Air Force than I'll ever know. There were photos of all the group (planes, that is), squadrons, names of squadron commanders, locations ... on and on it went. I was astounded! Needless to say, it was quite a shock and I almost succumbed to the attitude of saying. "Hell, he knows more about the Fifteenth Air Force than I do; what little I would tell him won't make any difference", but I didn't. I did, however, stray a bit and, in light of what he knew already, divulged the names of the rest of the crew as I was very concerned about their locations and outcome. The only one I had seen or heard of was Tom Noesges.
Well, that was the so called 'dreaded interrogation' and I was out within the hour and back at the barracks. The others came straggling in. It had been rumored that if you didn't come back in an hour or so (some didn't show up for a day or two) you were talking. So all of us who ended up back in the barracks that day were of the opinion that no one had squealed - but who's to know for sure?
Now I can't quite remember where for sure, but I met Tom Qualman and Ed Kasold in a hallway (navigator and co-pilot, respectively). We met briefly and that was that. I never saw Tom Qualman again (we do now correspond however). I did meet Ed Kasold briefly in Santa Monica, California later - at R & R around August 1945; never saw or heard of him again.
In a few days enough POWs had arrived and been interrogated, and now there was a big enough 'group' to travel to our next destination - which was an intermediate camp where we spent a week or so. We were now meeting POWs from the other branches of the service. Most of them were in pretty good shape. I must have presented quite a sight with my bandaged head and burned and blackened jacket. I hadn't given it much thought, but to most of the fellows I was quite a 'character'. I hesitate to use the word 'hero' because of my inherent modesty and shyness, but you could see that I made quite an impression, and was always asked to tell 'all about it'. They didn't realize how much I held them in awe (infantrymen, tankers, artillerymen, etc.). I suppose we each had seen too many John Wayne movies and really didn't know exactly what the other person actually did. However, it made for good camaraderie, as we all respected one another and knew for damn sure some kind of action had taken place or we wouldn't have been there.
It was a good compound. I didn't realize just how good it was until later. The food was ample and, after practically nothing but black bread, jam and cocoa, it tasted delicious. There was also a library, courtesy of the Red Cross, and relative freedom to roam - within the confines of the camp of course. I remember, with humor and amusement, the air raids. Approximately at noon every day the sirens would wail - we could hear and see the bombers overhead. We then had to leave our comfortable rooms for the dark and dismal, damp bomb shelters - where we mumbled and grumbled amongst ourselves for such a useless and wasteful half hour or so. Finally, a few of us would hide under our bunks when the alarm sounded. They would always have a so called 'bed check' to make sure everyone had answered the call, and supposedly weren't goofing off. We had just simply gotten tired of running down to the air raid shelter for nothing Well, this one day the alarm had sounded - we hid - the fellow checking stuck his head in each room and passed on. Soon it was deathly quiet. One by one we snuck out of our hiding places, resumed the prone position on our bunks and commenced reading. All of a sudden someone yells, "Jesus Keerist!, this is a real one, head for the shelter." Goddam, I never saw such a flurry in all my life; I hadn't realized just how many had been ditching the shelters. You can't imagine the noise, yelling, doors being slammed open and everyone running for their life! At least we thought so at the time. The funniest sight (it was funny even then) was a poor bugger with one leg - on crutches. "Jesus", you should have seen him go! Literally flying down the hall! One foot on the ground, two crutches, one foot on the ground, two crutches - Boy! He was really making time - about 6 feet each thump. We all just couldn't keep from laughing - it was so comical and ridiculous. Needless to say, it was all for naught as it turned out to be just another false alarm.
We were beginning to choose friends and 'buddy up' as the saying goes. This is where I met Frank Powers - a tail gunner from Los Angeles. We hit it off quite well and, as it turned out, were together for the remainder of our stay in Germany. Finally, the day arrived when the 'group' had achieved sufficient proportions to warrant a full troop train to take us to our final camp - where we would stay until freed by the Russians.
The "troop train" was quite long, composed of box cars filled with tiers of bunks and a coal stove in the center. "Side door Pullmans" we called 'em. It was, of course, still the midst of winter and colder than "a bat's ass in an ice house." I don't remember for sure exactly how long the trip was, but it was close to a week with all the shuttling around we took. We were always shoved on a siding while the more important trains went by. The trip was one I will never forget due to three memorable events; one being an air raid. We had been sitting in a big rail yard on the outskirts of Berlin. We didn't know it at the time but we were only 20 miles from our destination. It seemed like we had been there for days - it had been quite a few hours anyway; then came the air raid sirens. Shit! No place to go - couldn't even run! We heard the drone of the planes; an even carrr-rumph! carrr-rumph! Jesus they're dropping 'em this time!! They were getting closer and closer - carrr-rumph! The box cars shook and rattled now. Someone says, "Aw, you don't need to worry until you hear one that sounds like a 'sssss'."
Just about that time we heard one coming - no loud whistle or screaming like in the movies, but just like a shell going over - a long mournful "whoosh" - only this was not passing overhead horizontally - this sound - this "whoosh" was coming straight down and getting louder every tenth of a second. "Son-of-a-bitch". This was it - we all thought! Everyone had the same idea at the same time - we all dove for the center of the car and ended up piled atop of one another. What a ludicrous sight we must have presented. That is the only time in my life I can say I was really scared "shitless". It had happened so fast, with no place to go. The sound was terrifying and it seemed that "this was it!" The bomb landed not far away, but for some reason didn't do anymore damage, or sound as loud, as some of the others. We sheepishly picked ourselves out of the tumble of antis and legs and quietly resumed our former positions. No one spoke for a few minutes - by then, the bombers were passing over and it grew quiet. Another event I'll never forget, and which was the cause of the ... was the manner in which we relieved ourselves. The train would stop and we were all herded outside to stand or squat along the side of the train tracks. Now, if you can, imagine hundreds of POWs about six inches from one another, squatting in the open - with their pants down trying to do their "business." You could look, it seemed, for miles in each direction to the right or left, and all you saw was lily white asses staring you in the face - and to make it just a bit more uncomfortable, you could look up - straight ahead and, nine times out of ten, you would be staring at the back yard of someone's house or farm and, most of the time, someone was staring back at you. Well, needless to say, I just couldn't do it. I wasn't the only one however, so didn't feel so bad. The infantrymen were accustomed to slit trenches, so were not the least bit self-conscious I don't know why the train always stopped on the edge of a town but, thinking back on it now, that's where the sidings were. Anyway, by the time we reached our main camp (Luckenwalde, near Berlin) I was, as the saying goes, "quite bound up". I figured it up and it had been eight days since I had a bowel movement. With the help of some little red pills, the grace of God, and a finger, I managed to clear it out. Yes indeed, quite a relief. I knew then how poor ole "Dan McGrew" must have felt. The prison camp at Lucken about 20 miles from Berlin, was not a typical U.S. Air Force compound. In the early years of the war, Air Force personnel were kept in camps of their own; the infantry and other support groups were also in their own camps. Besides the Armed Forces camps, which also consisted of other Allied countries, there were the political or civilian camps housing dissidents of the Hitler regime. These various of camps had been segregated - but now, because of the war situation, (Germany was losing and did not have the space, nor compounds to keep everyone apart), as Germany retreated to Berlin, so did the POWs. Consequently, I ended up in a camp near Berlin which was composed of soldiers from all branches of the service, plus political prisoners, most of whom were Russians, with a smattering of Yugoslavians, French, etc.
I will describe the camp and the daily routine, and then tell about some of the memorable events that made life in a POW camp quite interesting - to say the least. The camp was probably an Army post at one time. It contained many good sized buildings, permanent made of brick, and reminded me of any typical old Army post in the U.S. - Presidio of Monterey, Fort Ord, etc. However, we were housed in barracks made of wood - temporary structures which were like the war housing in the U.S. They were long, low, one-story. There were bunks, three high, in rows, one row along each side, then an aisle, then another row, (always three high) then the main aisle, and then more of the same thing - another row of bunks, an aisle and the last row of bunks on the opposite wall. So, there were four rows of bunks, three high, extending the full length of the barracks. There was a pot-bellied stove in the center which didn't do much good - so we stayed in our sacks much of the time, to keep warm. The bunks were wood, with 1x6 wood boards for 'springs'. Each man was given a long gunny sack which we stuffed with straw. This was our mattress. It would eventually mat down and then you felt the boards - so you would dump it out and re-stuff it, and then you were all set for another week. The latrine was located in a separate building about 50 yards from the main barracks. We had showers, etc. If you were really fastidious, you could manage to find a faucet somewhere and take a freezing cold wash towel bath. For the most part, the majority of us would wait for our monthly shower.
The daily routine consisted of nothing - really! We usually just stayed in our bunks, trying to keep warm, talking about food. Food and warmth. It was still winter and snow and ice were everywhere. We had two meals a day - not much!! The first was thin soup and a piece of bread. Later on in the day we had more soup, bread and, if we were lucky, two or three potatoes about the size of golf balls. I lost about 35 pounds during my stay. We were always hungry and talked incessantly about food. That is about all we did talk about - that and what we were going to do and eat when we got home. One fellow, a little more perceptive than most of us, made the remark (after we had spouted off about the fantastic and enormous meals we were going to eat) "you guys are nuts. Hell, it won't be two days after you're home - with your guts full - and you won't want anything more. He just about got killed - here we were starving to death - we thought - didn't think we would ever have a full gut again, and he's telling us the truth. Anyway, at the time, it didn't go over very well and he was not a very popular person for awhile. For some strange reason, we never talked about sex, or thought about it. I never thought I would not have an interest as that's one thing I've thought about since I was around four years old and found out what my 'dickie' was for. Anyway, none of us thought about it here in prison camp for we were just too darned hungry. I know no one was thinking about it because no one said anything about it. Now get two or more men together for five minutes and if a sexual innuendo or statement doesn't crop up - you know you're either in church or the minister's in the crowd. So this was our daily routine, just lying around in the sack trying to keep warm, and talking about food. Braving the cold air to walk from the barracks across 50 yards or more of snow covered ground - always 'holding it in' and waiting until the last minute so you wouldn't have to make too many trips to the latrine. You see, most of us were just 'poor ole city boys' and weren't used to the "outhouse" that so many rural folks used, and of course - the POWs from the rural areas couldn't understand our attitude.
The weather finally broke and one day we found it was actually spring!! Being from California I was not familiar with seasons - so it was quite a revelation and a distinct change. The day broke sunny and became quite warm by afternoon. Everyone was affected by it. Windows were opened. A few cold showers braved - clothes and bedding hung out - people began to stir, walk around, exercise; it was the beginning of a new life. Of course we had a few more dismal days of bad weather, but 'spring had sprung' and from now on the weather would be beautiful!
This was about the time an announcement had been made for all those in need of clothes to sign up and state what you would like or need. It would appear they had received a shipment of clothes - all kinds - probably from the dead.
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civilians, etc. Anyway they were clean, and more important,
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as fate would have it, there was a most surprising
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was lying in my bunk after signing up (not long
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calling"Ross, Ross - hey! Where's Ross?" I, of
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dged my presence. It turned out that the fellow
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rl Groshell - from my home town, "Richmond",
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he had been about three back in line when he
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We had also written our home towns down - for
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mber - so when he saw "Richmond" he came
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was a warm and grand feeling to meet someone
from home and we began to jabber. The interesting part was that we both had grown up in Richmond, went through the same high school, had numerous mutual friends, our parents both worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, etc., but we had never met as Carl was a little younger and a class or two behind me in school. We talked for an hour or so - reminiscing and comparing notes - then decided to stay together. As I have mentioned earlier, in the previous camp we POWs had made friends and chosen who to buddy up with - so now there were three of us, Frank Powers, from Los Angeles Carl Groshell and I, from Richmond. We would remain together until liberated by the Russians - at which time Frank and I would take off on our own. About this time Red Cross food parcels began to arrive. Ah! - Yes! - I'll never forget!! It was to change our whole way of living. Keerist! I can't remember for sure whether they came once a week or once every two weeks, but once started we received them regularly. They were in cardboard containers approximately one-foot square by about eight inches deep. They contained meat, cheese, powdered milk, coffee, sugar, chocolate, cigarettes and a few other minor items the above mentioned were the important ones because they were not only the goodies: but became our 'money' - or means of barter.
The Russian soldiers were in a compound next to us. We were separated by a chain link fence about eight feet high. I never heard any Russian speak English or any American speak Russian - our method of barter was to hold up a pack of name brand American cigarettes, not necessarily a full pack, but just to show what we had, then we would show a number of fingers to signify the amount of cigarettes we would be willing to give for the article the Russian had. It usually was an item that could be used for cooking and eating; a small metal pot or spoons, knives, forks, etc. Some of the more enterprising ones of our group would show a pack of Camels, Lucky Strikes or Chesterfields and then insert the required number of cigarettes agreed upon - however, instead of putting good American cigarettes in the pack they would put in some inferior and strong (I mean strong) Turkish, Russian, Yugoslavian or Hungarian cigarettes and then throw the pack over the fence - the Russians would throw the knife, fork, or whatever over the fence and the exchange was concluded. The poor Russian catching his pack of Camels or whatever, finding he had been duped, would rant and rave in his language. We couldn't understand what he was saying but we didn't need to understand the language - the obvious result if he could get through the fence left no doubts as to the outcome.
You may wonder why we wanted cooking and eating utensils, the Red Cross parcels we had received contained several tin cans in each and among our group were several tinsmiths or sheet metalworkers. They would take the cans and, for a number of packs of cigarettes, would make you a blower. A blower was a miniature forge - about 18" long and 6" wide - it had a small fire box and crank to turn. You would put a few small bits of wood in the firebox light up and turn the crank. The fan in the firebox would then blow air on the fire and it would produce an intense heat - one could boil water in a few minutes! Our favorite dish was a 'Stalag pudding'. We would take brown bread, sugar, chocolate and powdered milk, mix them together in an empty powered milk can, bring it to a boil on the blower and then let it set. It was sure delicious at the time. I was always going to try to duplicate it here at home but never got around to it. I may yet try it one day. The first result of our puddings and rich food from the Red Cross parcels was a continuous line of men running from the barracks to the latrine. We soon learned to take it easy and, as our appetites were satiated, the 'skoots' problem resolved itself.
Since many of the POWs didn't smoke, before long a good number of packages of cigarettes were available. We used them as one would use money. You could buy sugar, chocolate, etc. One fellow set up a dice table and held nightly 'games'. Some of the lucky ones had close to a hundred packs of cigarettes at a given time.
At this point in my narrative you may begin to think we were having a pretty good time - however, in spite of the better living afforded us by the arrival of the Red Cross parcels, several incidents made life quite exciting, to put it mildly. The British had their night bombing raids while the Americans had their day bombing raids. For some reason the Americans didn't drop any bombs close to our compound during the day - however, the night bombing raids by the British were a different story. Whether the British targets were closer than the American targets, or because of inaccurate night bombing (I don't know which.) - on several occasions we held 'front row center seats' to some fiery spectacles. The lead bomber would drop a Christmas tree' over the target and the rest of the bombers would drop their bombs on the 'Christmas tree'. (The 'Christmas tree' was a brightly lit bit of apparatus which was parachuted to the ground from the lead bomber.) We would watch from the windows and several times had to open them to keep the glass from being broken by the concussion from the exploding bombs. Close man - close! One day we were strafed. Having been a flier I had never been exposed to strafing before and, quite naively, didn't really know what the hell was happening. I thought someone was upon the roof fixing it - pounding nails with a hammer. But the ground troops knew damn well what it was and yelled, "Keerist, we're being strafed". You should have seen the group hitting the floor - fortunately, no one was hit. Looking back on it I might add it probably would have been an amusing sight for some onlooker to see such a scramble but, at the time, it wasn't funny, - to be sure!
One day the fliers (and only the fliers) were told to line up outside for a special roll call. None of us fliers had been prisoners very long and hadn't acquired knowledge of any of the German language - so didn't understand what was really happening. Some of the infantrymen in the barracks had been prisoners for several years and spoke fluent German. They told us, later on, what we had been through. It seems Hitler had become incensed over the success of the Allied bombing raids and had ordered every airman prisoner of war shot! So - here we were standing there in blind innocence, not knowing how close we were to being executed. Fortunately, the Commandant of the compound refused to obey the order. It was near the end of the war and the utility of the order, and fear of reprisal kept the Germans there from executing us. I presume the word was soon received by Hitler that no one was going to carry out his order and, after standing in formation for an hour or so, we were dismissed to return to the barracks - where we learned from the infantrymen the reason for our special lineup!
Another special lineup was held on another day - someone with access to a radio had learned of President Roosevelt's death. One can only ponder as to the Germans' bewilderment and surprise as we all filed out of the barracks, formed a precise formation, and stood there silently paying our last respects to our Commander-in-Chief.
Once in awhile we were taken for a shower. It happened so infrequently that I can't remember the intervals (monthly I think). What I do remember is the place. It was a huge room with a concrete floor, having numerous drains and overhead sprayers. We were marched to an anteroom, about 100 at a time, where we stripped, and then proceeded to the shower room. One had no control over what happened - once we were all inside, the doors were shut and the water turned on - so you had a shower whether you wanted one or not. Looking around all one could see through the steam was asses and elbows trying to soap up and get rinsed off before the water quit. I learned later that this was the way many Jews were innocently led to their deaths - hoping for a shower, they would be met with deadly gas instead of water from the overhead plumbing. To this day I often wonder if the room I took a shower in was ever used for such a purpose.
Day passed into night - and night passed into day - and we slept and ate and thought and listened. Listened to a soft 'crump, crump'. It was far away and sounded like a very distant thunder boom. Each day it sounded closer and louder. Speculation ran rampant. We had no news so could only surmise what the sounds were. At last we knew!! "The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming". (Sound familiar? - the name of a very funny movie made some years later than the time of this story.) As the sounds became more frequent, louder, and closer, the German guards became very apprehensive and nervous - then it happened! One night the Germans disappeared - just up and left! It was an eerie and strange feeling we had. By now, we could see the flashes from the Russian artillery and tanks - and when morning came, the Russians came. They hardly slowed down - right through the fences they came, picked up their Russian POWs and continued on. It was such quick, methodical and professional maneuver one hardly knew they had come and gone. Then - quietness and happiness, relief and bewilderment, wonderment and speculation - but no shouts or hurrahs, clapping of hands, or any show of emotion. At last, "it's all over" we thought - but oh, how wrong we were! One last thought I had as the Russians departed was, "Goddam, I am sure glad they have left." I was expecting some surly, mad Russian to come looking for the son-of-bitch that gave him some foul tasting cigarettes.
Well, the Germans are gone, the Russians are gone, and we all thought - "tomorrow we'll be gone". Like hell we would be gone! I don't know what we were thinking of but tomorrow came and then another tomorrow, and another - and we still weren't gone! Rumors were again running rampant - the Americans were coming in trucks to take us out - the Americans were flying in to take us out - we were going to march out - and on and on. Then we were prisoners again - or at least we thought so. The ranking officer took charge, formed platoons, issued orders for guard duty, KP duty, etc. Hell, not only were we POWs, we were back in the army again!
Well, it didn't take long for the disgruntled ones to begin to make plans. A week passed and no American troops came to the rescue. We had full run of the camp now - so to alleviate our anxiety and boredom we took daily sorties among the other buildings previously not accessible to us - the German barracks and mess hall, the officers' quarters, the lazzarette (hospital) and the executive offices. We were able to acquire numerous souvenirs - among which I found a German rifle in mint condition. However, one night we were rudely awakened and (with panic in his voice and actions) one of the non-coms in charge was screaming, "there is a patrol of the dreaded SS in camp, and anyone caught with souvenirs will be shot". Keerist! - here we go again I thought. The proverbial line from barracks to latrine was formed as in haste, frustration and undisciplined scurry we disposed of the souvenirs - and yet one more crisis was faced. About now - a week or so after our 'liberation' by the Russians - and no action from the Americans - a few of us decided to take off on our own and go to Odessa, on the Black Sea, to try and catch a ride home on a Liberty Ship. Plans were formulated and one dark night we slipped through a hole in the fence and silently wended our way through the darkness to - what? The two of us, Frank Powers and I, were among the ones leaving. Carl Groshell elected to remain as he had a bad leg and didn't think he could make the trip. Frank and I had managed to acquire a map (for several packs of cigarettes) and so we had some idea as to where we were going. It had to, be east, for heading west meant crossing the Russian front through untaken German terrain and finally crossing through the German front to reach the Americans - a foolhardy and very impractical maneuver at best. So, it was with mixed emotions that Frank and I left the relative safety of the compound, the many friends we had made, the warmth and comfort of a familiar place - to embark on a new and exciting adventure - eastward!!
Across Europe - Homeward Bound
S/Sgt. Trefry A. Ross - 765th Bomb Squadron
It was dark as the inside of a blacked-out room with the lights out, or so it seemed when we slipped through that hole in the fence. Having not the slightest idea of which way to go, or how to get there, we started walking. We didn't have to worry about the Germans as we were now in Russian occupied territory. Daylight finally filtered through the pines alongside the road and we saw the stirrings and heard the rustlings of people getting up from their make-shift camps of the previous night. Fortunately for Frank and I, English being an almost universal language, we were always able to find someone to converse with and soon acquired some directions. I remember one place where we stayed. Frank and I were surrounded by people of diverse backgrounds. Many ethnic groups were represented, ages varied greatly, and many spoke English, some quite fluent, some barely understandable. They all had one thing in common; they were so proud to be able to speak English, and we would talk for hours. They would ask over and over how they were doing. Of course we would reassure them that they were great and it was wonderful to see them break out in big smiles when told that. You'd think they had accomplished an enormous feat of some sort; and in retrospect, I guess for them it was. We soon found that, due to our appearance, people knew we were Americans; something we hadn't thought of. So far we hadn't run across any other Americans.
You can't imagine the various modes and types of conveyances we managed to acquire or find usable. Sometimes we would catch a ride on a truck, then we would hop a freight. We even were picked up by some Russians, gentry I presumed, in a carriage. A carriage right out of the movie "Gone With the Wind". Hell! I had never even seen one of them thar contraptions' before. I can only speculate upon the background of the owners of the carriage but, from their mode of dress one would be led to believe they 'had money', as the saying goes. I might dwell a few moments here as to why one found a carriage in a war zone. You see, the Russian army (or I should say, the Russian army's rear guard) consisted of the soldiers families and civilians on the move. They knew they were going to Berlin, and they knew Berlin was far away - and in between where they were coming from and where they were going was plenty of land and other goodies' to be taken. So the 'front' army moved fast to kill the Germans, and the 'rear' came slow to take over. Thus it was that we came across the conglomeration of people and conveyances of various sorts - as we wended our way to Odessa - or so we thought. We soon met our first Russian resistance. You see, the roads and byways were almost always filled with refugees, people of all Eastern European countries - that had been mostly political prisoners - all trying to get back home. Well to alleviate the chaos, looting, etc., the Russians established in each city, town, or village a central mess hall where you could get a nice warm, filling meal. Lodging was also provided for the night. The only catch (and catch it was); you were usually escorted by Russian soldiers to an interrogation center where your identity was established and upon completion of the interrogation ceremony you were assigned a room or dormitory to await transportation to one's home country. It didn't take Frank and I long to figure out what was going on - about one night! The Russians didn't have much of a guard or restriction on movements, so each morning after a good meal and warm place to sleep, we would nonchalantly wander off to the nearest road and continue on our way. Needless to say, once we were aware of this situation, we knew we had a meal and bed awaiting each evening so we would conveniently let ourselves be 'captured' at night - and the next morning we would be on our way to our next 'capture'.
Another interesting and, bordering on hilarious, situation was Frank and I posing as officers. It was one evening after our 'capture' and while eating with the general populace - we noticed a table at the head of the hall seating a dozen or so people. They all had various insignias representing their rank - obviously from different countries, noticeable of course, by their uniforms. Well, Frank, not being one of them there slow ones says, "Well, Tref, tomorrow night after our capture you and I will be eating at the head table". "What the hell are you talking about Frank? You saw all the brass, and we're only sergeants". "Shit", says Frank, "it only takes a few minutes for us to change from sergeants to officers". That night during our proverbial capture and interrogation (and don't forget now, each capture and interrogation is in a different city or town, a hundred or so miles down the road) Frank is a Lt. Colonel and I chose to be a Major. The Russians never doubted our stories, our clothes were the remnants of uniforms, flying uniforms, and we had no insignia. There was no doubt we were fliers and Americans, so the Russians took us at our word. That night we were escorted to the head table. "Son-of-a-bitch,'' I said to Frank, "look at that joker who's sitting there!'' It was an American Captain, among others of various rank. "Keep your cool man," quips Frank, "he's not a flyer and he hasn't ever seen us before, nor will he see us again after tonight."
Well the evening passed uneventfully - you'd have thought we were having dinner at the officers' club. Frank and I by this time were quite adept at prevarication and I'm sure would have been elected honorary members of any 'liars club' in existence. The next morning as Frank and I slowly 'escaped', we bade fond farewell to our 'fellow officers'. Frank and I often wondered what ever happened to the people that stayed in the cities and towns. One interesting fellow we met one night was a General from Yugoslavia, Romania or some other country. He had been at this particular place for sometime, said the Russians were going to give him a car and wanted us to stay until the 'car' arrived and he would take us to his villa and then see that we would be flown home. We had a few reservations about the outcome for many reasons - and I don't think I have to mention what his reaction would be upon finding out we were not the members of society we pretended to be.
One day while walking with quite a group of displaced persons (as we were now called) - as usual, strung out single file on both sides of the road, we saw up ahead people suddenly diverting their direction of travel and diving for the seclusion of the shrubbery alongside the road. It was almost comical and the reaction was instantaneous and unplanned - also, it reminded one of a row of dominoes falling over. Frank and I were at first unaware of the cause but soon heard the low flying aircraft and the splaying of bullets. "Goddam!" I yelled at Frank, "Hit the dirt" Keerist we were being strafed!! - as far as I know no one was hit and it was all over in a few moments.
A few days later, (Frank and I were alone at the time) we were stopped in mid-day. This was somewhat unusual, but after chatting with the Russian officer for awhile it was apparent we were getting a little too far East for the Russian's comfort. We didn't know if there was something they didn't want us to see or what. Anyway, we finally convinced the officer we were just trying to get to Odessa and he wrote us out a pass. Of course it was written in Russian and for all we knew it could have said, "take these damn fool Americans out and shoot them", but evidently the pass was legitimate for it helped us through what appeared to be a couple of nasty situations. Speaking of nasty situations, Frank and I were probably the original 'babes in the woods', or more like it - 'babes in the deserted towns'. Little did we know Russian soldiers had been left behind to kill looters and thieves.
We would nonchalantly walk into a town and go into a store and rummage around. We didn't take hardly a thing. I don't know why, but I presume it was a subconscious act knowing we could carry only so much and then the agony of the choices to make. It seemed hardly worth the while. Occasionally we saw some soldiers but they paid scant attention to us. It was while on one of our 'so called' forays we met two other fellows - not of European descent I might add. One was a Britisher and one was an Australian. A couple of the most ingenious fellows you would ever want to meet. We four made quite a group, and decided to travel together. Not one of us, luckily, were apprehended or approached for being in town, let alone, being in the stores.
By now the weather was beginning to get a little warmer. Summer was almost here and it was a warm sunny day when we approached a typical German village. It had a strange feeling about it. Not many people about; it looked as if they had all just left - leaving what few there were behind - for what reason I do not know. Well, the few that were there were people like us, displaced persons looking for food and a night's lodging. As presumed, the original inhabitants had just up and left. Apparently the Russians hadn't given the Germans much warning and so the Germans fled in panic, leaving everything behind. The apartment we chose was completely furnished - with place settings on the lace tablecloth - clothing, pictures on the walls, and cupboards and - dresser drawers filled with personal items. Needless to say, we made ourselves right at home - and so did numerous others. It was almost as if the village had come back to life. Sundays were an idyllic interlude from the daily routine. With the exception of Frank and I, Americans, and the Britisher and Australian, the rest were Europeans and had to have their Sunday afternoon soccer game. It was almost as if there was no war and we were in suspended animation living in a small world all our own. So it was - Sundays we went to the park for the soccer game, and afterwards sat around and talked in English with our 'ardent admirers'.
It was on one such day we were just sitting around listening to the radio. Yes, our apartment even had a radio! What a spot to ride out a war, eh? - fully equipped apartment, Sunday soccer games, 'teaching English' to fair damsels and other things - and even a radio. Well, everyone, it seemed let out a yell almost simultaneously, for over the radio came word that the war had ended! That is, the war in Europe. "Gee Frank, you know what this means don't you?" Frank replied, "Yea, I guess the party's over and we might as well head back West. The hell with going on to Odessa." So, the next day the four of us packed what few belongings we had and headed back west. We weren't so much fired up for dallying and sightseeing now, so instead of picking our way along the back roads, we went in search of an autobahn (the forerunner of modern freeways in America). Much to our surprise they were practically deserted and we made no progress as far as getting some transport. The Aussie, who had been captured by the Germans in North Africa and had been a prisoner-of-war three years, more or less, spoke fluent German and he decided to acquire some bicycles. We didn't get them all at once, but as some poor innocent farmer rode by on his prized possession, he was suddenly confronted by four scroungy looking 'civilians' who wanted to abscond with his 'bike'. I can't vouch for the exact exchange of verbal insults or aggressive language, but in the end we all had a bicycle to ride and the poor farmer had one more possession to chalk up as 'missing in action'.
We topped a hill late one afternoon and saw off to our left, in a secluded valley, a small village that had all the trappings of good meals and a warm night's lodging - plus. We pedaled on down and, much to our surprise, found it relatively untouched by the war. The Russians had used the autobahn and in their haste had overlooked this small village. Obviously, the Russians had much bigger prey in mind, and by then were on their way to Berlin. Anyway, we were standing on a corner wondering what to do next when we were approached by a middle-aged man who spoke perfect English and introduced himself as "Wally Lange"; and all of a sudden we had our lodging for the night. The meal was an experience all of its own - but first, about Wally Lange. He had immigrated to Australia a number of years before, where he had become a carpenter. He had saved some money and decided to return to Germany for a visit with his mother. He couldn't have picked a worse time, for during his visit war broke out and Wally Lange was virtually a prisoner in his own country. Anyway, he invited us to his home - where we met his mother - and they offered to put us up for a few days. His mother began to prepare a meager meal. It was quite apparent they hardly had enough for themselves let alone enough for four 'starving road-runners'. The ingenious Australian who had been traveling with us remarked, "Let's go see what we can scrounge." - and telling Wally and his mother to wait awhile, we took off. It was time for a lesson in the German language and 'POW diplomacy', meaning - "Too bad assholes, we're here to take what we want and tough shit ole buddy buddies." We didn't have far to go before we came upon a farmhouse with a number of chickens running around in the front yard. The Aussie, speaking fluent German evidently asked politely if we poor ole ex-POW's could have a couple of chickens. The response was obvious - not only in tone of voice but by the menacing gestures. At this time 'ole Aussie' said, "Come on lads, grab a chicken and haul ass." No further instructions were needed. We managed to get three chickens before the lady of the house, screaming and with raised pitch-fork, rushed from the house. Back at Wally Lange's I asked 'ole Aussie' what the lady had said and he replied, "She said things to me in German that would make a whoremonger blush." - and that was that. I didn't ask him to elaborate. We had a simple but ample meal that night and also the next morning.
Our original plans were to stay a few days resting and seeing the sights. That morning after breakfast we were wandering about the village and had an almost simultaneous meeting with two of the most diverse people that one could imagine. (Which, by the way, would have a most profound effect upon our immediate plans.) First, as we stood on a corner, a Jeep appeared, almost it seemed, out of nowhere - an American Jeep that is! It had a small American flag flying from the radio antenna and was being driven by a solitary figure dressed in civilian clothes. At the same moment the Jeep was sighted, a most gorgeous blond specimen of German femininity was also sighted - however, at much closer range. So it was a most confusing spectacle for any observers. I was yelling at the Jeep to "stop, stop" - (I can't describe how excited I was to see an American flag). Frank was yelling "stop, stop" to the blond. Each of us, of course, had a quite different motive in mind. Well, as mentioned previously, here were the 'diverse two'. The Jeep stopped and the blond stopped - and there we were. The driver of the Jeep was a Red Cross official on a short holiday. He was, of course, an American, and was looking for his parents whom he hadn't seen or heard from for years. The blond was a local village girl and seemed to be quite intrigued with Frank - and so we had two lively conversations going on at once and, as it turned out, a 'whole new ball game', as the saying goes.
Up to this point, Frank and I had been together approximately five months. Now we would separate. The Jeep driver was on his way back to the American lines (I don't know why I use the term "Jeep driver" instead of "Red Cross Official", or some other description, but I guess ''Jeep driver" seems more personal - for that's what he was more than anything else). He was in a hurry and said he would take us to the American forces at Leipzig, but we would have to leave in a few hours. He was on his way to a nearby village and would return shortly to pick us up. It didn't give us much time to 'contemplate our navels'. I didn't need any time - I was on my way home and was ready to depart! Frank and the Australian elected to stay behind as they were by now firmly entrenched in the blonde's life', and also with the blonde's girl friend. So, it was with mixed emotion that the Englishman and I bid 'fare thee well' to Frank, the blonds, the Australian POW, Wally Lange (the other Australian and our host) and his mother. I exchanged addresses with Wally Lange and subsequently learned that after the war he was able to return to Australia where he married and resumed a normal life until his death some years later.
Jesus! I never experienced such an antsy three hours before the Jeep arrived. I don't think I budged an inch from the place where I had first spotted the Jeep - not even to take a leak. I wasn't about to miss my ride! We didn't go directly to the Americans, but had a night's lay over across the river from Leipzig. The Jeep driver spoke fluent German and had made a number of contacts and acquaintances (I presume during his official business). We were to spend the night with one of these acquaintances - a German family. The Englishman and I didn't really know for sure what was happening. The Jeep driver wanted to know if we could scrounge some food from the mess hall of an American troop detachment guarding the bridge near the river at Leipzig. It was our first encounter with American troops since our departure from P0W camp and we felt like 'assholes' asking for a handout - but the mess sergeant was quite considerate and gave us a good assortment of 'goodies'. We were then taken by the Jeep driver to a house to meet the German family.
It was quite an emotional experience. Even to this day I don't know exactly what the Jeep driver's motive was for taking us to the German family. It was evening when we arrived - the family consisted of the old mother and father, a daughter about the same age as I was (then 23), the daughter's friend, a girl a little older, and a small child (the daughter of the friend). We were to have dinner and stay the night - as explained to us by the Jeep driver. He would "be back in the morning to pick us up", he said, as he departed - and so we began our evening. The daughter's friend spoke passable English and the Englishman spoke passable German. My contribution was passable 'pig-latin'. Anyway, after a few glasses of wine we began to relax and enjoy ourselves. It was at the end of the meal, after several hours of 'fraternization' that it hit me! Here we were having dinner in the enemy's home - only days after cessation of hostilities! What the hell were we thinking of? The answer was not long in coming. Our enemy? - were we not their enemy also? - and what had the evening's conversation revealed? I had been a prisoner of war, the daughter's friend's husband (father of the little girl) was at this very moment a prisoner of war of the Americans'. Something in common? During the meal, the mother goes to the fireplace and takes down a picture from the mantle. It was the picture of a young German soldier in uniform - she is showing it to us and babbling in German. I don't understand what she is saying but it is all spelled out in her emotions. She's very upset, crying and quite disturbed. It's apparent the young soldier in the picture is her son, brother of the daughter of our hostess - and is dead. We share an intimate feeling. I can't help but think - that could be my mother wailing over me. What is so different the world over? - nothing - we are all flesh and blood, we all feel, think, eat, sleep and most of all, live. So what's this all about? It's about war and how no damn good it is, I'm thinking. This warm, friendly, good smelling room could be my room back in the good ole USA - she's my mother, I am thinking - she's crying over me. Nothing's different! Why, oh why do people have to fight? The picture slipped from her fingers, crashing to the floor - snapping me out of my moment of 'hallucination' - then deathly silence - everyone looking at everyone. The spell is broken by the little girl saying, in a universal language, "Momma, momma, I have to pee-pee."
The mother by now has calmed down and we resume the evening, in strained silence for awhile. Finally, the dishes are cleared from the table and the table pushed to one side. Wow! This can mean only one thing. Back home when the table is pushed to one side, it means dancing, or trying to. Hey Ma! Look, I'm dancing! What the hell's going on, I'm wondering. We've had a nice meal, a nice visit, the old folks have paid their respects and departed for bed, the little one is also in bed! I'm beginning to get ideas. Aw, no Tref I'm saying to myself, this is getting too good to be true. Records miraculously appeared, to be played upon a 'gramophone' which also had appeared. According to the 'word' of someone whose name fails me at the moment, a pairing of males and females occurs spontaneously, fortuitously and (most of the time) agreeably to the parties concerned. I got the young one and Englishman got the older one. The evening proceeded predictably - we danced - it was great! We had a little more wine - great! We even had some leftover cheese - also great! - and some Spam - not so great! Needless to say, time passed rather swiftly in this mode (as opposed to the 'dinner at the table' mode). Now comes the inevitable moment when one's thinking, "Jesus, I'm getting pooped. Where the hell am I going to sleep?" Mentally I'm counting rooms, people, beds, and the more I count and the more I see, more and more the conclusion is that it is going to be more than I could hope for. Could it be true! Yep! It was!
The Jeep and the Jeep driver appeared the next morning, as promised, right on schedule. We bade farewell to our 'gracious and charming hosts' (as the saying goes), clambered into the Jeep and roared off towards the west. We crossed the river at Leipzig and were deposited at the end of the bridge. At last we were 'back home' - this was American occupied territory and now we were on the last lap. I remember asking an American soldier for a cigarette and he gave me a half pack of Lucky Strikes. The Englishman couldn't believe it. A whole half pack of cigarettes? He said he probably would have gotten only one cigarette from his cohorts. I find that hard to believe, but at the time he sure seemed elated over our gift, but at the same time quite embarrassed and wanted me to return all but two of the cigarettes. I told him, "forget it mate, they've got lots more". Perhaps he was right - maybe the 'Limeys', God bless their souls, weren't as fortunate as we were. Anyway, we sure enjoyed them thar smokes. I didn't realize it at the time, but sitting there enjoying our smokes was our 'swan song' so to speak, or 'arrividecci, hasta luego, or so long ole buddy'. Whatever language you use, it was 'good-bye'. We were sitting along side of the road contemplating the spirals of smoke and wondering what was next. Anyway, before I knew it he was gone; just like that! Couldn't hardly believe it - but he was! As we were sitting there, a lorry (or truck as we call them) stopped. He no sooner stood up, said good-bye - and he was on the lorry heading for England. Keerist, had hardly time to get to my feet before he was gone - no hail and fond farewells - no exchange of addresses or bon voyage ole Englishman!
Before I knew it, he was gone! I was taken to an abandoned German airfield at Halle. (It was a collection point for American POWs and, when enough POWs were assembled a troop train was formed and we were transported to Le Havre, France.) The trip from Leipzig to Halle was an event I won't forget. It was my first flight in an aircraft since I was shot down! I really didn't have much time to think about it - which was good I suppose. I don't know if I would have done anything different than I did - which was merely to walk out to the aircraft climb aboard, sit down and wait for whatever would happen - which, of course, was nothing out of the ordinary. However, it did seem rather strange to be in an aircraft as a passenger and not a crewman. The trip itself was uneventful - not even rough air - and upon landing and departing the aircraft I thought, "That wasn't so bad after all. I might even try flying again some day".
Missing Air Crew Report and Stateside News Stories
S/Sgt. Trefry A. Ross 765th Bomb Squadron
The aircraft of Crew #14, a B-24 Bomber, Fifteenth Air Force, 49th Bomb Wing, 461st Bomb Group, 765th Squadron., flying out of Cerignola, Italy (near Foggia), was shot down by enemy fighters over Troubky, Czechoslovakia at 12:01 PM, 17 December 1944. Upon being hit by enemy 20 mm cannon shells, from either FW-190 or ME-109 German aircraft, it immediately caught fire and within minutes exploded. The main portion of the aircraft, with six bodies, crashed near the to village of Troubky. Four airmen were able to parachute to safety.
Those who gave their lives were:
West, Thomas K. -- 1st Lt. -- Pilot
Diebert, Thomas E. -- S/Sgt. -- Top Gunner
Mego, Joseph G. -- S/ Sgt. -- Tail Gunner
Doe, Roy L. -- Sgt. -- Nose Gunner
Gaul, Frederick H. -- Sgt. -- Waist Gunner/Flight Engineer
Yesia, Frank C. -- Cpl. -- Ball Gunner
They are buried in a mass grave near Troubky, Czechoslovakia and have a marble monument with a bronze plaque, donated by the villagers of Troubky, to commemorate the day these American boys gave their lives so that Czechoslovakia could be free.
The four survivors are:
Kasold, Edward -- 2nd Lt. -- Co-pilot
Noesges, Thomas -- 2nd Lt. -- Bombardier
Qualman, Thomas -- 2nd Lt. -- Navigator
Ross, Trefry A. -- S/Sgt. -- Waist Gunner/Radio Operator
These men returned to the United States following cessation of hostilities in Germany in June 1945. They are now living in various parts of the United States. Tom Qualman is In Georgia; Tom Noesges is in Illinois; Trefry Ross is in California; and Edward Kasold's whereabouts are unknown.
From Duluth Newspaper about 1946
A monument dedicated to the memory of a Duluth youth and five of his companions will show the world that Czechoslovakian patriots have not forgotten how American soldiers died for them. The Duluthian, Sgt. Roy L. Doe, the late son of Mr. and Mrs. L. K. Doe, 128 South Sixty-third Avenue West, will be one of the dead heroes honored on 15 August 1946, when the monument is unveiled in the village of Troubky, Czechoslovakia. When the war department released the meager information regarding the death of their son (copy of paper unreadable ) rectory of Father Nepustil. The Germans ruthlessly stripped the dead fliers of all valuable personal possessions and equipment, and orders were issued to bury the six bodies in a ditch beyond the cemetery.
IT WAS AT THIS POINT that Father Nepustil and the Czech patriots vowed to show their appreciation for the sacrifice the Americans had made for them.
After urgent pleading by the townsmen and the village priest, the German command relented and gave permission for a military funeral for the six fliers. Obtaining the willing help of the local casket maker, Father Nepustil had individual coffins made.
From a Volin, So. Dakota Newspaper approximately 1947. (There was a picture of the monument, i.e., a large upright marble slab, upon which is a bronze figure of Fred Gaul depicting the way he was found on the ground - which has not been reproduced for this book.)
THIS MEMORIAL DAY PHOTO taken in Troubky Czechoslovakia, was received recently by Mrs. Waiter Koon of Volin, from Colonel William H. Bowers, air attaché with the American Embassy in Prague. Col. Bowers and his wife, accompanied by his assistant, T/Sgt. Bobrovicz and his family, visited the community cemetery in Troubky to lay a memorial wreath on the grave of Mrs. Koon's son, Lieutenant Thomas Kurtz West, and his crew members who are buried there. The Czechoslovakian Air Force furnished an honor guard of airmen for the occasion, and Col. Bowers and Sgt. Bobrovicz placed the wreath on the grave as representatives of the U. S. Government and U.S. Air Force. The small Moravian village is about a six-hour drive from Prague. The Colonel writes: "The grave is very well kept and continuing care is provided to it by the cemetery caretaker and the people of Troubky who take pride in the memorial to your son and his crew mates. Flowers are planted on the grave and a candle is frequently kept burning."