Friday, September 17, 2010

FELDMAN >> POWs recall their world war ordeal

World War II veterans make stop in Jacksonville and share their stories.

The former POWs who were shot down over Romania during the Second World War arrived at the Jacksonville Museum of Military History in their tour bus a little after 11 a.m. Thursday.

Nearly 1,200 of them were held in captivity in Romania, where they had bombed the oil refineries over Ploesti and the huge rail station in Bucharest.

They talked about their experiences, including their dramatic rescue from the POW camps in August 1944, when U.S. planes airlifted the men to Italy. They were shipped home from there that fall.

Hundreds of them used to attend the reunions—Friday was National POW and MIA Recognition Day — but their numbers are dwindling. Just over 100 of them are still living, and only about a dozen are well enough to travel and attend their reunions anymore.

They were staying at the Double Tree Hotel in Little Rock, where one of the former POWs fell and was having hip surgery while the group visited Jacksonville.

They were here to honor the memory of the late Russell Huntley of Jacksonville, one of their fellow POWs who passed away several years ago.

Maurice Braswell, 87, the outgoing president of the Association of Former POWs in Romania, said although their number is dwindling, the veterans still enjoy getting together and reminiscing about their experiences.

“We share memories,” said Braswell, a retired judge and prosecutor from Fayetteville, N.C.

“We had 1,877 POWs who came back on the boat into New York Harbor,” he recalled. “Just 113 of them are still alive and only 13 can travel now.”

The oil refineries just north of Bucharest fueled the Nazi war machine, so the Germans were desperate to hold on to them and kept producing oil until the summer of 1944, when the relentless bombing effort and the advancing Soviet Army finally broke them.

Hundreds of B-24s flew over the Romanian oil fields and the Bucharest rail yards from the summer of 1943 to the summer of 1944 and were met by Messerschmitts and heavy artillery fire.

When hit, they had 15 seconds to get their parachutes and jump before their planes exploded and then hoped the enemy didn’t kill them.

They flew over Europe in their 20s and now are as old as the Civil War veterans who were still alive when these veterans were born.

The former POWs are in their late 80s and early 90s now and came from all over the country. Many of them get around pretty well and their memories are still sharp, but a couple of them were in wheelchairs.

Despite heavy losses — casualties were nearly 40 percent — the 10-men crews kept pounding the oil fields for a year. The bombing was so fierce, five airmen received the Medal of Honor for heroics in one day.

Dr. Jim Ware, a 90-year-old retired dentist from Berkeley, Calif., was a co-pilot who was shot down in May 1944.

“Three of our crew got killed,” he said, sitting in a wheelchair in front of an exhibit at the museum. “The Messerschmitts got us. We were on fire. The windshield was blown out. There were bullets coming through the floor. Two engines were out and our plane exploded.”

Ware said a thick seat was what saved his life. He reached for his parachute and ejected.

“There was a piece of aluminum in my leg,” Ware said. “As we were coming down, a German pilot circled around me. I thought he was going to kill me. Instead, he flew off.
“The kindness of the enemy was what saved me,” Ware said.

He landed near a group of German soldiers. “They ushered me to their cabin and had me lie there. I was in a state of shock and shivering. This German soldier saw I was shivering, and he threw his coat over me.

“I’m very lucky,” he said.

Ware, who graduated from the University of California after the war, has been married 67 years, but his wife didn’t go to the reunion. “She doesn’t like airplanes,” he said.
Lynn Chinn, 88, of Bella Vista, was at the reunion with his wife, Catherine. A tail gunner, Chinn was shot down in May 1944.

“We had just dropped our bombs and got hit by flak. We all bailed out and the plane blew up,” he said, standing with a walker. “I flew 13 missions in France and Germany. This was the first one over Romania.

“We have 23 candles for people who died this year,” Chinn said.

Glen Funk, 91, is still a cutup, even though he, too, was in a wheelchair. Funk, a B-24 pilot, was on his 11th mission when his plane was hit over Ploesti.

He couldn’t find his parachute at first because he’d changed planes for the mission.
He found a parachute that let him jump out of the plane before it blew up.

Most of his crew ejected safely, but he says, “I’m the last one still alive.”

The Kansas native said, “I was shot down on D-Day. I didn’t even know we’d landed in Normandy.”

Ken Barmore, 87, of Santa Cruz, Calif., was another pilot. He was shot down on his first mission in May 1944.

“We were shot as we were trying to go home after we dropped our bombs,” he said.
In the POW camp, he and Ware became friends. When they were airlifted from the camp in September 1944, the pair formed a jazz band on the boat back to the U.S.

Lew Sleeper, 87, a retired investment banker from Tucson, Ariz., was on a mission over the Bucharest rail depot when he was shot down.

“It was the third largest railroad yard in Europe,” Sleeper recalled during the reunion luncheon at the museum. “We had 15 seconds to get our parachutes and get out. Five of our crew were killed.”

The survivors were held in an abandoned Red Cross building near the rail yards, which the allies kept pounding almost weekly.

“There were 18 of us in the building. Five 1,200-pound bombs went off in the next room, but the walls were so thick, we survived,” Sleeper recalled.

The Romanians capitulated in August 1944, and the Germans were on the run. A Romanian officer flew to Italy with a U.S. colonel to tell the Americans about the POWs, who were quickly airlifted out of the country.

The POWs were spead out all over the area — some were staying with Romanians in their homes — but everyone was accounted for and took off in the huge airlift — 22 of them in one plane.

There was a memorial service Saturday for the airmen who’d passed away, including Russell Huntley, whose family had invited the group to visit the Jacksonville museum.
In a few years, the survivors will be in their 90s, and only a handful will make it to the reunions then. But if you’d been at the military museum on Thursday, you would have heard their stories first-hand and seen the legends they call the Greatest Generation.

May they live to be 100.