During World War II 9,949 American bombers went down over German held territory. One
of them mine. Even after twenty one years, the experience of being shot down
and captured by the Germans remains vividly with me.
was falling through clouds 18,000 feet above German Austria. I could see the
ground and was fully conscious. Then at about 8,000 feet I pulled the ripcord,
as the parachute opened and the forces sent the air from my lungs. There was a
wonderful silence for now the sounds of air battle were far away. It was unreal
being shot down, it is something that happens to someone else, never you! Only
moments before I had been a part of a seasoned bomber crew my mind flashed
back to the briefing
Our Group Commander said, "Our target today
is Wiener Neustadt." The groans of those who had been there before went up
our target was a heavily defended industrial city near Vienna, Austria, a long
five hour flight from Manduria, our base in the heel of the southern Italy. An
ominous came over me that this would not be an ordinary mission. The 450th
Bomb Group, "The Cottontail Group" was to lose eight aircraft this day the 25th
of May 1944.
The Attack As
the formation turned at the initial point, about 15 miles southwest of the
target, nine German ME-109 fighters began making passes through the formation.
Suddenly our plane was hit, there was a loud, metallic thumping noise and the
craft shuddered. My navigation table disintegrated behind me. One fighter was
damaged by our gunners and went spinning earthward.
We were out of the formation now and as
additional enemy attacks were pressed, the plane sustained heavy damage.
Windows and gun turrets were shattered and one of our engines was on fire. The
first pilot was severely wounded and unknown to me at the time three of our
gunners in the rear of the plane had been cut down. There was a stinging
sensation in my back. Enemy machine gun and 20mm cannon fire had done its job,
we were helpless. The order to bail out was given.
As I moved toward the bomb bay to bail out
someone said, "Drop the bombs!" (It was our group's practice to have the
navigator drop the bombs) Since the hydraulic system was destroyed, the way to
open the bomb bay doors and permit crew members to bail out was to smash the
doors off by releasing the bombs. I dropped them and the bomb bay doors were
gone. I crawled up to the flight deck and found the co-pilot still at the
controls of the ship. I motioned for him to come and he nodded and started to
get up then the ship made a violent maneuver and I was thrown out of the ship.
The Landing The
ground was plainly visible now, I had descended through two cloud layers. The
tingling in my back was a wound the blood felt cool and wet. I was dropping
down into a forest. The shock of landing stunned me momentarily. Luckily the
landing was in a small clearing and the chute had dropped obediently behind me.
I quickly unbuckled my chute and concealed it.
I ran to the top of a ridge about 200 yards
away and hid in the undergrowth. I could see armed civilians looking for me. I
dressed my wounds and surveyed my possessions; maps, some German and British
money, a candy bar, a first aid kit and a knife. I was fully confident of
walking out of Austria and reaching the Yugo Slav partisans. When it was dark I
ventured down to a small road and started to walk southward. At one point some
civilians rounded the corner of the road and there was nowhere for me to hide
so I walked towards them whistling. It worked, they passed without comment.
I began to ponder what was ahead, alone, in
an enemy country at least 150 miles from friendly partisans. After five hours
of walking, I crawled into some underbrush and quickly fell asleep. During the
next two days I chose to move south and east through forested and mountainous
areas, where there was no food and often no water. Hunger was starting to
weaken me. In three days I had traveled about 30 miles on less than 500
calories of food.
I spotted a remote farm house. Intelligence
officers had indicated that if help was available in Austria it would likely be
given by peasants I approached a farmer and asked him for food. He provided
milk and bread; and a one way to a prisoner of war camp! My luck had run out!
Two armed civilians came through the gate and informed me that I was their
"For you, the war
is over." I gave the local Burgermeister my name,
rank and serial number. An English speaking teacher asked how many men were in
my plane. I refused to answer. The Burgermeister later threw four sets of
burned identification tags on the table. He said the tags belonged to Americans
who had been found dead in the wreckage of a bomber. I picked them up and as I
read the names Jones, Hendrickson, Mikoloyjczyk, and Bilik, a wave of grief rolled
over me I recognized the names of my fellow crew members.
The next morning two black uniformed S.S
troopers handcuffed me to the St. Polten Gestapo headquarters. Civilian
interrogators started their questioning by accusing me of sabotage and criminal
acts against the German government. They tried to take my identification tags
and when I resisted they threatened to shoot me.
I joined several other American flyers. We
were taken to St. Polten Luftwaffe base and quartered with some Russian infantry
prisoners who became very excited when informed them we had bombed the Germans.
I had my 20th birthday and a German Major remarked, "You have been
We left St. Polten by train and arrived at
Frankfurt/Main which had been both recently and severely bombed. While waiting
for the train to take us to nearby Dulag-Luft which was the Luftwaffe
interrogation center for allied Air Force prisoners, a crowd of Germans tried
to lynch us, but our German guards beat them off with rifle butts and threats.
As we moved to the boarding platform of the train, a uniformed teenager of the
Hitler Youth organization started kicking prisoners as they marched by, until
one of the prisoners caught the kicker's foot and dumped him neatly in a pool
Interrogation Even at
night Dulag-Luft was a formidable sight. A high security camp, complete with
barbed wire, guard towers, machine guns, fierce police dogs and searchlights.
After being searched, my watch and flight
jacket were confiscated by the 3rd Reich and with Prussian
efficiency I was given an official receipt, my captors placed me in a small
room with a bed but without light or windows. For two days prisoners and guards
moved in small groups in one direction. No one ever seemed to return.
Intermittently, bursts of machine gun fire occurred. Could it be prisoners were
Finally I was taken down the hall and into
a room with a Luftwaffe officer who, said he, had been educated in New England.
He provided a "Red Cross" form to be filled out. The form called for all manner
of military information. I inserted my name, rank, and serial number and
returned the form to him. He said, "Come now, Lieutenant, we know more about
you than you may think." He proceeded to recite details of my Group, it's recent
targets, promotions, and where the base was. The only information he really
seemed to want was confirmation of the number of personnel we had carried.
After giving him my name, rank, and serial number several times he became
abusive. I continued to resist and he suddenly offered me a cigarette. I told
him that I didn't smoke. This ended the interrogation.
About thirty of us were taken by train to a
collection camp, some 30 miles distant, near Wetzlar, Germany. I recall the
introduction to the term "Luft Gangster" used by a German Lufwaffe major who
complained of our attacks on Germany. The next day, we boarded a train
complete with window bars and armed guards. We refused to give our "parole" not
to escape, so the Germans took our belts and shoe laces.
Stalag Luft III After
a two day train trip across Germany, we arrived at Stalag Luft III, literally
translated, "Air Camp III" which was located about one hundred miles south and
east of Berlin. The camp was near Sagan, in a town near the old Polish border.
The camp consisted of the North (British), East, South, and West (American)
compounds, which by the end of 1944 held over 10,000 Air Force Officers. The
camp was surrounded by a twelve foot double barbed wire fence. At intervals
along the fence were observation towers complete with lights, machine guns and
guards who proved on several occasions they would not hesitate to shoot. Our
guards were Luftwaffe personell often accompanied by vicicus dogs.
The barracks were crowded, dismal and cold.
Twice a day the Germans would count us at formal "Appels". German security was
keen because a few months earlier 76 British Airmen had tunneled out the North
Compound in a massive break and fifty were shot upon recapture. Many British
and Americans had sewn black diamond patches on their uniforms as a memorial.
The organization of the camp was under
strict military discipline complete with Saturday inspections by the Senior
American Officer. We carried out escape activities and harassed the guards to
the greatest extent possible. The high point of our prison life was the BBC
news which we received over illegal radios.
Food was at a premium. Without the Red
Cross, it is doubtful if many men in Stalag Luft would have survived. Rations
were cut in half and cut in half again as winter approached. Hunger became a
We were lined up and counted twice a day,
it was usual for our Colonel to call us to attention and the German Captain and
our Commander would exchange salutes. In July, 1944, very shortly after the
attempt on Hitler's life the German officer gave the arm extended Nazi salute
instead of the regular military salute; the Colonel just stood there, he would
not return the Nazi salute.
The Germans put up posters which read,
"escape is no longer a sport." The poster went on to state that prisoners who
were captured in "undefined zones of security would be shot." Rumors of
Hitler's order that we were to be shot raised doubts in our minds of reaching
In November the first snow fell upon Stalag
Luft III. I recall how cold it was we all slept with our clothes on and were
still cold. However, we were soon to remember how well off we were in Sagan.
Just before Christmas the Major in charge of our barracks remarking at drab
conditions said, "Things can't get worse!" How wrong he was!
The Evacuation By mid January, 1945, Russian armies were
smashing into eastern Germany. Rumors of liberation by the Russian Army and
German capitulation swept the camp. However, the allied camp commanders
anticipated evacuation by Luftwaffe westward. We were ordered to exercise by
walking several miles a day around the perimeter of the camp. This exercise
saved many lives.
On January 27 we heard the sounds of battle
on Janiary 28, late in the evening, 10,000 Allied Air Force officers with two
hours notice were marched out into the blizzard, the temperature well below
zero. As we passed the gate we were thrown a Red Cross Parcel. As the hours
dragged on, the prisoners threw away what could not be carried or eaten. It was
ironic to see discarded cans of food lying on the line of march when hunger had
been such a constant companion for so long. There was the sound of low flying
aircraft and as the craft crossed over the column, the prisoners scattered and
the Germans started shooting at the prisoners. Several men were hit.
Before noon we stopped in a small village
about 18 miles west of Sagan; we rested in the snow without warmth or shelter
until 5 p.m., then began the worst experience of my life. The cold was bitter,
the wind cut through my clothes. After eight hours of marching men were
beginning to collapse in the snow.
6 more kilometers
to go The cold was unbearable,
tears froze upon my face. I told myself if I could make the next minute, the
next hour, the next mile that perhaps I would make it home. Down the column
came the message over and over, "Only 6 more kilometers to go!" More men were
falling now, motionless in the snow. At 4 a.m. a group of us were herded into a
barn. How grateful I was to God for the privilege of lying on the hay and
closing my eyes. Six hundred prisoners died that night; our route the same
that Napoleon had taken, the weather the same that had taken his army.
The next day we marched a short distance to
Muskau, a small town with a warm brick factory. After a two day rest we marched
to Spremberg where we were loaded 60 men to a car into cattle cars designed to
hold 40 men or 8 horses. The Germans provided water once during the three day
train ride to Murnberg. The new camp was filthy and run down. But the worst was
the bombing. The Americans bombed by day, the RAF by night.
Food was now down to bare subsistence
levels. I had lost fifty pounds by March, 1945.
Early in April we were evacuated
couthwestward towards Munich. One tragic event took place, a U.S. fighter
straffed our column killing several prisoners. We arrived at Moosberg in mid
April, 1945, the camp was crowded yet we knew our imprisonment was nearly over.
A message from BBC informed us to burn the barracks if the Germans tried to
move us again.
Liberation During the night, there were sounds of heavy artillery. In the
morning a small U.S. observation plane drifted casually over the camp.
Suddenly, the German guards were missing and sounds of small arms fire were heard.
Several hundred yards away in the town, the German flag fluttered to the
ground, and the Stars and Stripe went up. Men from a dozen countries cried
troops from General Patton's 3rd Army swarmed into the camp. A few
days later I was headed home. The German Major had been correct I had been
H. E. Cook
Transcript Provided by Paul Bauman