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2nd Lt. Harold E. Cook Jr.
722nd Squadron

Picture courtesy of 450th Bomb Group (H) The "Cottontails" of WWII and Turner Publishing Company

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.

I Remember…     I 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 prisoner.

"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 born again".

     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 of water.

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 being shot?

     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 constant companion.

     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 home.

     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 born again.

H. E. Cook

Transcript Provided by Paul Bauman

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