The Shoe Leather Express – “A Crippled B-17 “

(Posted: January 25, 2012)

Each day presented a new challenge and a new and different experience.  Our inner sense told us that liberation was now just a matter of time.  Certain signs, especially the relaxed attitudes of the   guards, gave us the impression that a defeated Germany was inevitable.  But this was still a reality and we were still coping with the same conditions for survival; nothing much had changed except the weather.  We could now maintain some sort of cleanliness by washing without soap and without the freezing cold.  One tragic but a significant sign that the war was terminating was a lone crippled B-17 and one German fighter plane.  Also our daily marches were shorter which meant our stay at the farms were longer and more time for the rest for the sick.

The clear blue sky enabled us to witness the downing of a crippled B-17 by a lone German fighter plane.  The crippled B-17 was alone, flying at a low altitude and headed back toward England.  The target must have been some distance away because we never heard the bombing or flak.  The fighter plane made several passes at the B-17.  We could hear the machine gun fire from the fighter and the return machine gun fire from the B-17.  Two airmen bailed out of the B-1-7, both parachutes opened.  The B-17 continued on course and out of sight with no signs of fire.  We do not know whether the B-17 made it or not.  The reality and anguish of war had more of an effect on the German people than the POWs.  As we were watching the sad fate of the B-17 a German woman standing outside the kitchen door of the farmhouse was brandishing a large butcher knife.  Her motions led us to believe that she would either behead or castrate us.  The guards prevented either from happening.

A large trigger happy P-51 pilot disrupted the tranquility of a normal POW day.  He strafed us.  Apparently he took us for German soldiers and decided to hasten the end of the war.  Fortunately his first strafing attempt was premature and the damage was limited to a row of kohlrabies.  The German guards fired a few departing rifle shots but did not deter the P-51 pilot from attempting a second pass.  Meanwhile the Germans set up a ground machine gun in anticipation of the second pass.  I know a second pass was made, I heard the P-51 firing.  I also heard the return fire from the German machine gun.  No damage was visible on either side.  My reaction, after the first volley from the P-51, was to dive for cover.  The P-51 was traveling east to west, so I positioned myself face down on the west side of a two foot thick, three foot wide stone pillar inside of the barn.  I would have sustained less injuries if I remained next to the machine gun rather than the so called safety of the pillar.  I had at least three layers of POWs on top of me.  Fortunately, they were all underweight; otherwise I would have been crushed by the mass of their bodies.

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