Notebooks

“That Little Boy of Ours” by John J. Alexander, Jr.; B-17 Waist Gunner and POW in Stalag Luft VI; Stalag Luft IV and Stalag Luft I

(Posted: April 9, 2012)

The following poem is taken from Jay Joyce’s notebook.  There is a chapter in my book about the visit by my Mother and me to Bea Joyce’s residence in Pennsylvania.  Bea’s husband, Jay, was the radio operator on my Father’s B-17.  I was fortunate to locate Bea in my research and she thoughtfully invited me to her home so that I could peruse Jay’s memorabilia that included his POW notebook.  I knew that whatever information that Jay had would be relevant to my Father’s story. Bea gave me permission to scan the notebook pages.  There wasn’t time for the entire book but I managed to capture many of the treasured writings.  Some of them are even poems written by my Father that are also in Dad’s books.  This was an indication to me of just how close these crewmates and fellow POWs remained throughout their WWII experience.   The following  poem riveted me.  It was written by  John J. Alexander, Jr., as he went off to war not knowing  when he would see his precious boy again.  The verse  captures poignantly the emotions stirred by the memories of the tender moment that lingered with him of his last view of his baby boy.

I remember how moved I was when I read it.  I could almost picture the sleeping baby and the tearful exit that his Father was forced to make.  How surprised that I was when I came across this picture of “That Little Boy.”  I believe that he is as I pictured him.  His picture as well as the writing on the back of it are shown on this page after the poem.  You will notice that the photo shows “Stalag Luft III.”  All mail in the Camps I believe was routed through Stalag Luft III.  You will also notice Stalag Luft VI and that is the first Camp that Dad, John Alexander and Jay Joyce were held in.  How my Father ended up with it, I’m not sure.  Perhaps John wanted him to have it as a proud Dad.  He may have given it to him after liberation knowing that soon he’d be reunited with his son.  That seems the logical explanation.  So many questions like this surface and unfortunately those who would know the answers are no longer with us.

that-little-boy-of-ours-john-j-alexander-jay-joyce-edit_

03-22-2012-014158pm_1

03-22-2012-014402pm_7

Stalag Luft VI and Stalag Luft IV Notebooks – “Miss Liberty!”

(Posted: July 31, 2011)

Here she is – Miss America – and “Miss Nude America” at that.  It had been a long time since Dad had seen a woman and sketching one is as close as he could get at that moment to viewing one.  My Father was definitely looking towards freedom when he sketched her.  He had to be thinking of his return to home with the American Flag and the Statue of Liberty shown in the background and I notice that this beauty is drawn in the center of a “V” – “V” of course for Victory.   There were definitely signs of liberation in this sketch and Dad was looking into the future putting 1944 behind and looking forward to 1945 – the year he would anticipate freedom and never look back at his experience as a Prisoner of War.  Home sweet home was on the horizon.

Stalag Luft VI and IV Notebook – Kriegsgefangenen Harris

(Posted: July 29, 2011)

 

I’ve seen this poem written in several places but the title has been “Kriegsgefangenen Kelly” rather than what my father has written of “Kriegsgefangenen Harris”. I haven’t seen the name of an author and could think that my father was the author and the others just changed it to Kelly. It is hard to say but one thing for sure they were all together. My father was with a William B. Harris so more than likely he is the Harris in this poem. It’s a rather humorous poem and it sounds like Harris or Kelly had been without food for so long that now with the ample parcels he had a hard time tearing himself away even if the War was over and he could go home. How could he abandon this beautiful food? His life had changed in a number of months and the poor fellow was probably afraid of the adjustment he would have to make and was just satisfied to stay with the precious Red Cross parcels that had been so sparse for so long. He would no longer have to be hungry or have to share. He was listening to his stomach. They were his – all his – and he was content to stay with these lovely rations rather than set sail with the others. Perhaps some day he would want to return home but the sight of these parcels was too alluring to abandon. This is another example of the great imaginations that these fellows had. Because food had been so scarce for so long I’m sure that every one of them for a fleeting moment hated to leave these Red Cross Parcels behind. That’s why even though it took great imagination to write such an outlandish story, the idea of it made so much sense.

Note:  “Kriegsgefangenen” is German for Prisoner of War and it was shortened also to “Kriegies.”

Stalag Luft VI and IV Notebook – “A Lovely Hand”

(Posted: July 26, 2011)

One of the popular activities in Camp was playing cards.  I’ve seen this poem duplicated so my father may not be the author.  It is another cleverly written poem that deceives you into thinking in the first paragraph that it is about the writer’s experience holding a lady’s hand.  His heart was bursting with joy and beating wildly.

And in the second paragraph the truth comes out with the line “four aces and a king”.  I imagine that my father did play cards to help pass the time.  He may have played for cigarettes or food as I have read that many of the men did.  I can visualize him playing and would be willing to bet that it was another activity that he was accomplished at.  I guarantee that he would play wisely though and not squander his valuables which were essential for bartering for survival. 

I have heard that the cards were also utilized in the distribution of slices of bread.  They would draw cards and take their turns at selecting the slice as it was difficult to cut each slice exactly the same and this seemed quite fair.

Stalag Luft 6 and 4 Notebook – B-17 “Flying Fortress” Sketch

(Posted: July 17, 2011)

According to Lawrence Cook, the pilot on my father’s crew, he was not aware of a name on any of the B-17’s that they flew.  They did not man the same bomber every mission.  This drawing could make you think that their plane was “Baby” and that dad was just referring to it as a “big ass bird” which it certainly was.  There was nothing that he drew more often than this B-17 that he was so fond of.    It looks as if he has a couple of escorts along with “Baby”.  The serial number on the tail is not an accurate tail number but seems a number that he just made up.  He probably didn’t know what the serial number was on his plane.   I don’t quite understand the 2 markings that look like question marks on the nose area.  It could have been that he was trying to recall the last plane that they flew in on that fateful mission and maybe he didn’t get a chance to examine the nose to see if there was nose art as was so common on these machines.  That would explain the question marks.

During one of the few times that my father spoke about his role as a B-17 ball turret gunner, he told of their plane leaving the formation and dropping altitude after they were hit.  They were deciding if the plane was lost and they should bail out when my father looked out and a German pilot was flying along side and looking over at them.  My father commented that he didn’t know why he didn’t circle around and finish them off in the air as he easily could have.  The pilot flew along side them for a while and then just flew off.  I wish I knew the pilot so I could thank him.

My father certainly appreciated the “Flying Fortress” and I think that I have inherited his love of this aircraft.  I am partial to the B-17 because of my father’s role.  I seize every opportunity to read or view a program or see it in person.  My interest in my father’s history as an American Airman has amplified my fondness of the “big ass bird”, the magnificent B-17.

Stalag Luft VI and IV Notebook – “T.S.”

(Posted: July 14, 2011)

I know that my father was the author of this poem.  It was also in Jay Joyce’s (his radio operator) notebook with my father’s name written as the author.

It seems that my father enjoyed the training and the “phases” that he had to go through to become a ball turret gunner.  It also appears that there were those who tried to discourage him from flying.  He states that he was flying high and mighty until the FW 190’s ended his mightiness and he discovered that “flying is for birds”.  He now is appealing to those who say they want to be a gunner advising they “will regret these words”. 

Dad didn’t enjoy the combat and who would but it sounds like the training and flying was great fun while it lasted and besides there was no sense complaining as it was “over and done” with.  

It sounds to me like my father credits the FW 190’s for shooting down his plane but in the Missing Air Crew Report it was recorded that their aircraft was hit by flak causing the loss of their plane.  Dad saw the fighter planes but as he told in later years they could have finished him off but didn’t for some reason.  

I am assuming the meaning of “T.S.” which is a common expression still today.

Stalag Luft 6 and 4 Notebook – Stalag Luft IV Sketch

(Posted: July 13, 2011)

The boats* (see previous Notebook post “Hold of Boat”) docked at Swinemunde and what relief it must have been to be in the fresh air after the stale stench and heat in the overcrowded conditions in the hold of the boat for two days.  But what would be next?  The only positive was that they were all in this together and they had the support of each other – the stronger and healthier helping their weaker and unhealthy comrades.  There would be moments of strength and weakness for all involved and they more than likely took turns encouraging each other to hang on. 

One can only imagine the feeble state of these men herded like animals without food or water and nowhere to relieve themselves at a time when dysentery was running rampant and their bodies were infested with lice.  They rode together in total discomfort for two days and they would be marched to be loaded into boxcars crammed together once again to continue their journey still fearing the unknown.

They realized that the potential to be bombed by their allies was a possibility as the cars weren’t marked.  They were locked into these boxcars without moving for hours, finally proceeding to their destination.  The mental, emotional and physical torment had to be unbearable.  They finally arrived at the Kiefheide train station, shackled together in twos, for their next harrowing experience – the run for their life two miles up the road to their next home, Stalag Luft IV in Gross Tychow (present day Tychowo, Poland).

The men were forced to continue in their deteriorating conditions.  They were double-timed up the hill at bayonet point with vicious dogs attacking anyone who fell behind.  There are many heartwarming and heroic stories of the more able bodied individuals helping those who faltered.  Many, in order to make the trek up the road, had to lighten their load by giving up their meager possessions.  The men would have been shot if they tried to escape and the brutal treatment by the guards was meant to incite just that action but fortunately the men stuck together well aware of the waiting machine guns.  An ex-POW, Oscar (Mick) Wagelie, who was involved in this frightening and cruel exhibition has written that he credits their camp leader and elected “Man of Confidence”, Frank Paules, for saving many lives by encouraging the men to stay cool and keep together and no matter what not to try to escape as they would be shot.  He perhaps saved my father’s life. 

It is also a possibility that my father was responsible for saving someone’s life.  It seems that when he arrived home from the War and spoke to his sister, Helen, of his particular experience in the “run” that he mentioned that the man he was chained to was unhealthy and weak and that he had to help him.  I believe that.  I only wish I knew the name of the man he was with.  It is most likely one of the names listed in his notebooks.

When the men arrived at their destination, Stalag Luft IV, Gross Tychow, on July 18, 1944, most of them had lost their belongings.  Many of them had multiple bayonet wounds and dog bites and were given little or no treatment.  I have read that they spent their first night or possibly 2 nights right where they were in the open and they were housed in tents for a few days until they were assigned to their barracks.  Another statement of this event by “Mick” Wagelie is the fact that he knew that one of the prisoners expired due to the wounds that he had suffered in this outrageous march.  My father would certainly have known of this death and perhaps would have known the victim.  This “Heydekrug Run” as it was called was another of the events involving the brutal treatment of the POW’s that would be addressed in the War Crime Trials after the War – another of the tragic occurrences that my father was part of.   And again, it was another happening that he put behind him.

 

This sketch of a Guard Tower at Stalag Luft IV could have been made as my father sat on the ground waiting to be assigned to a barracks or as he sat outside his barracks passing the time or perhaps it could possibly have been a view out of his window.  There’s no way of knowing but it is definitely a sketch outside the buildings as it obviously only encompasses the guard tower, the guard, the fence and the trees in the background outside of the complex.  This would be a view that the POW’s witnessed day after day after day dreaming of someday being free to walk outside the complex among those trees.

*The two freighters that the POWs were transported in from Stalag Luft VI to Stalag Luft IV over a two day period were the “Masuren” and the “Insteburg.”

Stalag Luft 6 and 4 Notebook – Stalag Luft VI Sketch

(Posted: July 12, 2011)

Lager E most likely would have been where my father spent February 21, 1944, to July 15, 1944 as a POW in Heydekrug, East Prussia, now Silute, Lithuania.  I say this without hearing it from him.  It is an assumption that I make because he has printed it as if it was his way of remembering the building he resided in.  It shows me that he had hope that he would some day look back at this notebook and contemplate the days he spent in Lager E at Stalag Luft VI certainly relieved to have it in the past.  What must he have thought when taken to this desolate wooded area?  He had to wonder just what he was in for.  According to written reports and various accounts of life as a POW, the Americans were held in Lager E.  Dad would have been one of the first to arrive, only 2 weeks after his camp leader, Frank Paules, had arrived. 

 This sketch appears to be aerial view of a large portion of the camp.  This was his first home as a prisoner of war.  This camp was inhabited by RAF airmen who had already learned how to adjust to life as a POW as well as learning what you could get away with and what you couldn’t – which officers you could get along with and how to deal with the more difficult.  Many had been POW’s for a very long time.  This was a new experience for my father who would spend his 21st birthday behind barbed wire.  I wonder if he even acknowledged it – if he even told those fellows that he was with “today’s my birthday”.  He may very well have just let it pass unnoticed.  It would not mean much to him in a prisoner of war camp with so many other worrisome thoughts entering his mind.   There would be no celebration under the existing conditions.  Being shot down, captured, interrogated and incarcerated would overwhelm the mind.  On that day he may not have even known it was February 23rd and if he had what difference would it have made anyway?  He had begun a new and foreign role to him and had to wonder what the future held.  He would do everything possible to survive.  If he did recognize his birth date the question of how many birthdays he would see as a POW would surely arise or worse yet the grim possibility that he would never see another birthday was not out of the question.

I’ve often wondered when I’ve read of the tunneling that was done in the camps to try to escape if my father was involved.  I tend to think that he may not have been.  It would have been such a big risk that I don’t think that he would have wanted to take.  I don’t believe that it would have been his way of trying to survive.  I am thinking he would have been trying to think positive about liberation contemplating that the end of the War was near.  I have no way of being sure what thoughts of ways to survive would have entered his mind.  It seems to me that he mentioned to my daughter years ago that the guards knew that there was tunneling taking place but they didn’t do much about it because they knew they were going nowhere so it makes me think he didn’t participate in those activities.  I’ve heard that the ground was very sandy so there was not much of a chance for success. 

 

My father was one of the earliest Americans brought in so he would have most likely taken part in the election of the “Man of Confidence”, Frank Paules, whose name he mentions in his notebook and notates “Camp Leader” by.  It doesn’t appear from what I gather that things started out extremely bad.  The Guards seemed to listen to the needs of the prisoners.   It is written that supplies were very limited but that in the group my father was with, a POW by the name of Bill Krebs could speak German so he effectively communicated with the guards combining efforts with Paules to obtain some of the badly needed necessities.  His name, too, is written in my father’s notebook.  I am certain my father was right in the thick of things because he had arrived in the Camp as early as he did.  The names of those so involved in organizing and lobbying on behalf of the prisoners are all among the names in my father’s notebooks.  I find it most interesting as when I read the interviews of the now deceased POW’s who I know my father was interned with, I feel I am learning about my father’s experience as well.  There had been 3 deaths in Stalag Luft VI while my father was there.  Those killed may have been friends of his.  He may have witnessed their tragic deaths.  He may have seen their place of interment.  It is possible that he may have even been involved in the burial of these fallen heroes.  These are more questions that will never be answered by my father.

Stalag Luft 6 and 4 Notebook – “Hold of Boat”

(Posted: July 8, 2011)


I had no idea what this meticulous drawing might be of until I showed it to other ex-POWs. They thought it to be the hold of the boat that my father and hundreds of others were transported in from Stalag Luft VI at Heydekrug to Stalag Luft IV in Gross Tychow on July 15, 1944. It was apparent and inevitable to the men that they would be evacuated from Stalag Luft VI as they were in the path of the Russian’s as they advanced the front. The gunfire could be heard in the distance. The men had secretly been preparing for their exit fashioning backpacks out of shirts and trying to hoard any food items possible for their next venture into the unknown. Food had never been plentiful and holes were poked by the German guards in the cans to make sure that the prisoners didn’t hoard them for a planned escape.

One could never be free of fear of what the future held in store. No one could plan for the ambiguous journey faced by all. Could this be it – could they be on the road to imminent execution? They had to wonder every day if it would be the day that they would die. And now they were on the move to where? Would they be exterminated? The threat of the loss of life was constantly looming. They were well aware of the execution of 50 POW’s who had escaped from Stalag Luft III in Sagan. Warnings had been issued to deter any future escape attempts and the treatment of the POW’s would take a turn for the worse. The guards in charge of the escapees from Sagan were punished and the guards now wanted to make sure they did not have to face any punishment because of any prisoner’s escape. They would teach the POW’s who was boss. The elected “Man of Confidence” would no longer have a voice in governing the camp.

The route of the inmates began at the train station where the men were loaded into the infamous 40 and 8 boxcars and were taken to the Port of Memel in two different groups. One group of Americans was loaded into the hold of the old coal cargo ship Masuren and the British and the remaining Americans were transported in the Insteberg. I cannot be positive which old steamer that my father would have to board. I know that it is stated in his notebook that he left camp on July 15th and I have read conflicting reports as to which boat left on which date. What I do believe is that the conditions were no better in one than the other and the men were subjected to the same hardships. They did not depart from the port too many hours apart and they experienced the same discomfort and concerns regarding the possibility of the boats triggering mine explosions from the mines that were known to have been dropped in those waters.

The men descended into the dark dismal hold down a ladder. They were on top of each other. They would cry that there was no more room but the guards kept herding them down on top of the others. A single bucket was lowered for their waste which could not accommodate the numbers and it was believed that the same bucket was lowered with water. Consequently, they were given no food or drinkable water during the boat ride. Many of the men became sick and all were subjected to the heat and stench of the crowded bunkers. It has been told that on board one of these boats one of the severely depressed prisoners who could no longer tolerate the extreme conditions jumped overboard and was immediately shot by the guards. I’ve no way of knowing if my father would have witnessed this tragic end to the life of one who was obviously mentally disturbed and driven to such a suicidal act by the present situation and fear of the future. The deplorable conditions and brutal treatment of the prisoners who were transported so inhumanely from Heydekrug was additional physical and mental torture for this group of men who at this stage were enduring treatment as less than animals. This Baltic cruise took two arduous days before they would arrive at the port of Swinemunde.

Surely dad would not have been able to sketch this finely detailed picture while cramped in the overcrowded miserable atmosphere engulfed with dysentery and lice infestation. I imagine that staring for two days at this space would imbed the image in your mind and that is what appears to have occurred in my father’s case.

This transfer by boat of the prisoners from Stalag Luft VI to Stalag Luft IV is one of the very notable incidents experienced by this particular group of POW’s. The very presence of this sketch in dad’s notebook is indicative of this.

Stalag Luft 6 and 4 Notebook – “A Good Pilot”

(Posted: July 6, 2011)

 

 

Who would have ever thought after all these years that I would be able to find my father’s pilot, 2nd Lt. Lawrence Cook?  As it ended up, I was so fortunate and it was just by chance that I found his daughter, Laurel, and called her and found that her father was alive and well.  She told him about me and asked if he would mind speaking with me.  He was more than happy to share his memories of my father and their missions together. 

I could not believe that finally I found someone who knew my father in his role as a ball turret gunner – someone who knew him during the lifetime that I was seeking.  Lawrence was so forthcoming with information.  I was drawing memories from him that had been stored away for decades.  It couldn’t have been more special when I asked him what he remembered about my dad.  They trained together briefly but he remembered him as a “prince of a fellow”.  They were together for training in Nebraska where their crew picture was taken and in Ephrata, Washington.  Their flight to England, the home of the “Mighty Eighth” was not as a crew.  They, however, were reunited in England.  Lawrence flew his first flight with another crew as Co-pilot.  This was a common practice to break the pilots in before soloing.  He explained some of the unsettling events that transpired during his flights that as ball turret gunner my father more than likely witnessed from his position on the aircraft. 

I found out that Lawrence didn’t talk about his experience as a B-17 pilot to his family.  He had put it behind him until I came into the picture.  He opened up and explained that he had harbored guilt all these years because he found out after liberation when he met one of the crew members that he had not been the last to bail out of the plane.  He was the last in the front and thought he was the last of the entire crew.  He had called my father out of the ball turret to make sure he could get his parachute on.  The interphones had been shot out and he was afraid dad wouldn’t get the word.  He couldn’t say positively whether the bail out bell was sounded or not.  He said he had tested it earlier to make sure it worked but in the confusion due to the lack of oxygen he could not say positively exactly what transpired.  Things happened so quickly. 

I was saddened to think that this man who was a hero to me – this person who most certainly saved my father’s life – was ashamed for 60 years to talk about his role as a pilot.  He did all that he could looking out for the welfare of his crew and the proof of that is in the fact that they all made it out of the aircraft.  There was one fatality.  The navigator, Donald Caylor, had been hit in the plane, parachuted out, but sadly died a few days later in a German Hospital.  Donald was the first to jump, then I believe Emmett Bell, bombardier; John Booth, Top Turret Gunner; Robert Bangs, Co-Pilot; and Lawrence.  I can’t be sure about the order in the back of the plane but Thomas Mikulka, Tail Gunner; Milo Blakely, right waist gunner; John Alexander, Left Waist Gunner; Jay Joyce, Radio Operator; and my dad, John Kyler, Ball Turret Gunner, all landed around the same area. 

If nothing else, I am in hopes that I have released Lawrence from his needless guilt and I believe that I have because he began to freely talk about his missions.  He is so humble.  He didn’t look at himself as a hero and I enjoyed every opportunity to reiterate my feelings about his heroism.  If it wasn’t for his action in calling my father to don his parachute things may have been very different.  I would not be writing this. If they had lost electricity, as Lawrence was afraid may happen, my father wouldn’t have been able to get out of the ball turret and he would have gone down with the plane.  Lawrence had to make the snap decision and judge whether he thought the plane would make it back to England or not.  It would involve quick thinking under extreme duress and had he not given the word to bail out they may all have gone down with the plane.

I sent this poem that my father wrote to his “Good Pilot” Cook.  I wanted him to see that he was obviously admired by my father, his ball turret gunner.  When dad wrote this poem he would have been basing it on his experience and the only pilot that he flew missions with was Pilot Cook.  This is one of the poems that is definitely written by my father as it is also in Jay Joyce’s notebook as “by John R. Kyler”.  The line “to him his crew’s welfare is foremost in his mind” says something about my dad’s respect for his pilot.  This I would think would release any doubts that Lawrence had about himself in his role on the crew.  He was the cream of the crop and remains so today.  He has led a remarkable life and has been a major contributor to society.  As he ages, of course, his capacity becomes more limited but he continues to be a positive influence to those around him in the way that he has lived his life. 

 I found him to be one of the kindest and most giving people that you could ever meet.  I called him my father # 2 and I was his daughter # 3.  He has 2 daughters.   I treasure the special relationship that we developed and if my father could only have been here, how grand that it would have been to listen to the two fellow crew mates talk about their time together.  Over 60 years later I hold Lawrence Cook in the highest regard just as my father did then.  I appreciate my relationship with him just knowing that he knew my father during the lifetime that I am pursuing.  My dear friend, Lawrence, may well be the only person that I will find after all these years that knew my dad and can remember him.  I’ve thanked him many times for the concern that he showed for my father during an unimaginable emergency situation that no one could have been prepared for.  How brave and talented he was in assuming the responsibilities of the pilot position after witnessing many tragic events and knowing full well the tragedies that could and did happen.

I haven’t talked to my wonderful friend in quite some time.  I’ve learned from his daughter that his health is failing which includes confusion.  I am so happy that I found him when I did.  I treasure the conversations that we shared and I will never forget them.  The last time that we talked, I sensed that it would be the last time.  He told me that he was slipping and he told me how glad that he was that we met and I expressed the same sentiments.  I think that we both realized that it wasn’t likely that we would be having the conversations that we had so enjoyed.  I am grateful for the times that we talked and especially for our meeting.

 My father very adequately expressed his views of “A Good Pilot” bearing witness to the deportment of his own pilot, 2nd Lt. Lawrence Cook.