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Whitney Simon

April 19, 2012

While growing up I knew that my grandfather was a prisoner of war during World War II. I had seen the letter the Army had sent his parents informing them of his disappearance, I had seen the articles about his returning home, and receiving a purple heart. I also knew that he was terrified of dogs and that it was war related, but not much else was known. He would never talk about it, not to his wife, not to his children, and definitely not to his grandchildren. It was a past that he wanted to forget and never think about. I am not completely sure how the written story came about, but a few years before his death, someone convinced him to write down his story of the war. I had never known of its existence until now, and after reading it, I now know why my grandfather never spoke of the war. Even in the journal, you could see it was hard for him to write, and several times he admitted that he omitted details because they were too hard to speak of.

Here is a little bit of his story.

Born October 21, 1921, the third oldest of eight children. He was born and raised on a cotton and rice farm, and grew up working on the field. During the fall and winter he would go to work cutting sugar cane and working in a sugar mill. He grew up during the depression, so his family could not afford many luxuries. He graduated from Judice High in 1938.

After Pearl Harbor, he considered going into the service. Many of his older friends were being drafted or volunteered. On a Monday morning in June 1942, instead of going out to pull weeds in the rice fields, he surprised everyone by telling them he was going to join the service. So he traveled the fifteen miles to Lafayette by wagon and bus. He joined the Air Corps and was sworn in June 6th, 1942. After six weeks of basic training, he went to radio school, then gunnery school. After finishing gunnery school he was promoted to Staff Sergeant and assigned to fly a B-17 as an armored waist gunner. In May of 1943, he was sent off to be stationed in Chelverston, England.

He noted one mission he was on was a rather long mission, and low on fuel. The pilot thought they were not going to make it to the base, so he ordered them to throw out anything that could be discarded. Everyone thought they were going to land in the English Channel, which was said that no one could live in the frigid water longer than 30 minutes. Finally the pilot spotted land, the crew braced themselves for a rough landing. The pilot managed to hind a small airfield at the last moment and made a smooth landing. They tanked up and went back to base. When they finally arrived, the ground crew chief gave them a hard time about trashing his plane.

August 17th, a day he will never forget. Hm and his crew went to the briefing room to find out their new mission. The briefing officers told them they were not going on a “milk run” this time, and most of them were not coming back. They were informed that if the mission was a success, the war would be shortened by at least six months. The target was Schweinfurt, a ball bearing factory, the deepest penetration in Germany by allied planes so far. It was a foggy morning, and they were late getting started. They began on their way to what was to be my grandfather’s last mission.

My grandfather’s plane had a fighter escorter with them, and the German’s left them alone. Finally the fighter plane had to turn back because it was limited on fuel, and they were left to fend for themselves. As soon as they were alone, the enemies attacked with everything they could put in the skies. They were able to hold their own and get through, but the exploding balls left heavy smoke in the air. Shell fragments went through the shell of the plane causing bodily harm (my grandfather had the scars to prove it). They made it to their target, dropped the bombs and peeled off the target run, but they were too late. One engine had to be shut down, slowing the plane down. Enemy fighters were waiting, they were busy shooting at fighters when they heard the pilot say “Lost another engine.” Then the dreaded words “Prepare to bail out.” He tried to open the door, but it was stuck. He went to kick it out when something hit him on the back and shoulders and knocked him out.

When he came to, he found that he was going down at a fast rate of speed. He thought he was already dead and heading in the wrong direction. He finally realized he was alive and pulled the rip cord. When the cord came out in his hand he thought he was going to splatter into the ground. He decided he was dead when all of a sudden his chute opened up. As he was floating down a fighter kept circling him. He had heard of fighters shooting holes in parachutes and killing airmen, but the fighter was not shooting at him.

Him and another man landed in a plowed field, and they both knelt and thanked God for sparing their lives. Then after their prayers, they began tearing up their chutes as they were taught so the enemy could not reuse them. A German solider started coming towards them yelling in a foreign tongue they did not understand. A young lady nearby very slowly asked them if they spoke French. My grandfather replied that he did, and she told them “the soldier says ‘Raise your hands above your head or he will shoot.'” He raised his hands quickly and told the other man to do the same. After the crew had been accounted for, three had been killed. The pilot and copilot had died in the plane, and an engineer who had the back of his head blown off before he made it to the ground. Two men were put in the hospital, and my grandfather was treated for superficial wounds.  Later the men got together to figure out how the got out, but no one knew. One man said he thought someone pushed him out, but the figured they must have all just been blown out.One gunner, Baker, said he saw daylight and jumped.

They were taken to a Belgian prison, and on the way is where my grandfather saw his first of many encounters with German brutality. A man had given a victory sign to the prisoners, my grandfather and the other men. The German officer say this, stopped the car and kicked the man until he was unconscious. He was placed in a cell, and one of them men was dressed in civilian clothes telling a story about how he hid his uniform and how the German’s were threatening to kill him if he did not tell them where his uniform was. My grandfather believed this man to be a German spy placed there to get information out of the men. He only spoke of the present situation and how he wished God had let him died.

The next morning he was given one-sixteenth of a loaf of bread which was thirty percent sawdust. He ate this bread for the next two years. There was also red herring that he did not eat and threw away. When he finished, the guard indicated that he bring his bread with him, and he sound found out that was the only thing he would be given to eat that day. They then sent him on to Frankfurt. The Germans gave him a suit of English clothes and shoes. They took his expensive wristwatch, and told him to remove his class ring. He could not take it off because his fingers had grown since graduating and was stuck. One guard looked at his finger and made a motion like he was going to cut it off, and then walked away. He explained that Germans had a very warped sense of humor.

They put him in solitary confinement in an underground concrete cell, six by six by eight feet tall. Only one foot was above ground, it had a small window that the Germans would feed him though. Britons waling above ground would slip him cigarettes and matches. Once a day they would take him to a German who spoke English very well for questioning. After several days of interrogation, they finally let him out of his dungeon. After only a few days, all the Air Force men were marched to a train depot loaded in and shipped to Munich.

After arriving at Munich, his clothes were taken from him and they issued him a pair of pants made of grass or wood, but was given a GI suit after a while. The compound was an encampment encircled with a barbed wire fence about eight feet high. About ten feet inside of that fence was another identical fence, and twenty to thirty feet inside of that was another strand of wire. If the so much as touched the wire, the gaurds in the towers at the four corners of camp had orders to shoot and ask questions later.

There were two sides of the barracks with a washroom in the middle. The only things in the washroom were sixteen spigots of ice cold mountain water that emptied into a horse trough. The water ran for thirty minutes in the morning and at noon, and then from eight to ten in the evening. Although sometimes they had no water at all. He describe being shoved in a delouser completely naked, prodded on with the riffle butts of the German soldiers. Then a concrete door was slammed shut. He was scared out of his mind because they were not sure whether they were being executed in a gas chamber or not. (He learned years later in 1998 when he returned to Austria that the only difference  between his bath house and the gas rooms were that gas was piped into the shower lines).

In the winter of 1943-1944 was terribly cold in Europe.. The Germans would make the prisoners stand in roll call two to four times a day, and the prisoners did not get much to eat. They had no fat left on their bodies. At this point, the Germans were still pretty confident that the would win the war. That December the prisoners at the camp were at an all time low. My grandfather described hearing the song “White Christmas” for the first time, and the Germans would play it on the intercom in camp.  Some of these prisoners could not take it. One jumped through a window, and the Germans put him in a straight jacket and carried him away to the hospital. One guy had gone crazy and made a break for the fence, the tower guard shot and killed him. My grandfather felt he had hit rock bottom, and he thought there was not much of a chance of him ever seeing USA again for a long time, if ever.

The SS were Hitler’s elite troops, very mean and had no problems shooting you. They had German Shepherds and Dobermans on leashes. One day a Frenchman upset one of the guards, so the guard released the dog, and it went straight for the mans crotch. This led to my grandfather’s fear of dogs for the rest of his life. The SS guards would often tear through the barracks and bunk beds. Sometimes they were looking for someone, and sometimes they were looking for things like radios, materials to escape with, and food. The soldiers would save their headsets.

On October 12th, my grandfather and several other men were loaded into a boxcar and shipped to a new camp. They were unloaded at Krems, Austria which was six kilometer from the camp they would stay at. My grandfather accidentally bumped into a German soldier sitting on a stump. The guard wanting to make a point started beating him the the butt of his riffle, hitting him in the right kidney a few times and knocked him to the ground. An officer said something to the man and quit. The prisoners continued on, finally arriving at a big double gate made with barbed wire, eight feet tall, and chained and padlocked. The knew barracks were infested with lice a bed bugs, and even though they were tired no one could sleep.The risk of contagious disease was always on their mind because of the vermin and lack of water to bathe in. At one point a bunch of Americans began digging tunnels under the barracks closest to the fence. One instance, the guys had dug all the way out of the camp and were ready to go. The problem was that the Germans caught on and had a soldier waiting on the other end of the tunnel with a machine gun.

Their daily ration was one-eighth of a loaf a bread split among five people. The bread was half sawdust, and was very heavy and sour. At least it was something to put in their stomachs though, so they ate it anyway. They would receive three potatoes the size of large marbles. There was also a half-cup of soup made with wormy cabbage a day. At first the would push the worms aside and eat the watery broth, but after a while they would eat the worms and all. The would heat up things on their homemade oven made of a empty powdered milk can. It had an opening on the side to put in small sticks and a grill to hold the pot. They used this “oven” to mostly heat up water for their instant coffee.

During the winter of 1943, they were issued to blankets the size of baby blankets and very threadbare. The barracks had large cracks and their was no heat. The food was also getting scarce. The prisoners were becoming thinner and not very strong because of the lack of food. One of the guards’ dogs disappeared. My grandfather said he did not know what happened to it, but some of the prisoners had fresh meat in their stomachs. The Germans were even more cocky because the war was going in their favor. The future looked bleak for the prisoners, and suicide was on most of their minds. They were given shovels to dig their own trenches which they used when planes flew overhead.

They had a few visitors during the summer of 1944. One of them was Max Schmeling, a heavy weight boxing champion until he was defeated by Joe Louis. He told the prisoners that they should switch sides because the Germans were going to win the way, and got several boos. They were also visited by some of Hitler’s youth. They boys were about twelve to fourteen years old, too young for the regular army. They carried no guns, but had a dagger in their belt. The prisoners had to stand at attention for the young men as they inspected each man one by one. One spit of my grandfather’s shoes, and all he could do was just stand there. What little self-respect the had left was being hurt by the humiliation they faced from their enemies.

They were able to send letters home with a special form from the Germans, but the forms were very scarce. In one of the letters, my grandfather wrote “Pray for me.” His mother said she knew he was in trouble because he had not been a very religious man when he left for the service.

The had homemade radios consisting of a crystal, a coil of wire and a pair of earphones. June of 1944, the men got word over their radios that the invasion of Normandy was finally taking place. They began noticing changes in the German guards. They became much more serious, and much more on edge. The Red Cross parcels became even more rare, and the prisoners had used up their reserve. No dogs were coming into the camp for them to eat. The hardest part that my grandfather would never talk about he decided to put in writing, but to forget about and never think of again. There was a cat who had come into the camp and the men had took care of it and it’s kittens. They decided they needed the food, and butchered the cat and cooked it. A friend of his brought him back a hind legs, which he ate and enjoyed. It was the first time he had fresh meat in over a year.

During the winter,they listened to the BBC and heard the war was turning in their favor. They started making plans to escape. They began hearing rumors of the Germans killing prisoners or taking them to the gas chambers down the road. They decided they would put up a fight, they had chosen leaders and has spies. Planning seemed to bolster their moral, and perked them up even though they were hungry and losing both their weight and strength. In March they began hearing a rumor that Hitler ordered every foreigner on German soil killed. He later found out that this rumor was true, but many top officers did not pass the orders down to their subordinates.

On April 8th, the Germans told the men to get ready and bring all their belongings. Rumors spread that they were heading for a gas chamber. The SS troop, Hitler’s hand-picked soldiers, were going to be traveling with them, so the men knew something was not right. The marched for ten hours, and stopped on the side of a hill. The next day they marched for another four hours and camped outside a monastery. They were still twenty miles from Krems. The Germans were having troubles of their owns. The guards’ food was being rationed, and there was a lot of grumbling.

On April 11th, they traveled another eleven hours. On the 15th of April, the SS soldiers disappeared, and several men were getting sick with dysentery, and the next day all food supply had been exhausted. At one point during their march, an American fighter plane roared over them. Some of the men had made an American flag, and quickly spread it out on the road. The pilot pulled up abruptly, waved his wings and took off. They continued to march every day until they reached their destination April 25th, which was Braunau, the birthplace of Hitler. There was shooting going on inside the city, so they men camp outside in a nearby forest.

They camped there for nine days. On the third day a Red Cross parcels caught up with them. They had to share a parcel among three or four people, but at the point it did not matter. They were just trying to survive until the Allied troops were able to reach them. By the end of April every one had dysentery. On May 2nd, only being guarded by a few Germans, they surrendered to an American captain. The mean guards had already left for the countryside. They left out what little food they had left for Russian POWs that were in worse shape than they were. They knew food was not too far away. They were sent to an aluminum factory on May 5th, and then left in army trucks to an airfield. May 9th they left Germany and landed somewhere in France, but everyone was to sick to know or care where they were.

They took GI trucks to Camp Lucky Strike where they sere stripped and their clothes were burned. They sprayed the men with DDT and then sent to the showers. They had plenty of hot water and soap, something he had not experienced in nearly two years. Some guys passed out from being so weak, and the hot water made them even weaker. They were given new clothes and food, but they wouldn’t allow them to have too much food at once. He stayed in this makeshift hospital until May 18th, and then left for La Harve where they stayed for three days. They then boarded a liberty ship to South Hampton and stayed there overnight., the next morning they set sail for the USA. It took nine days to travel back to the United States, and when they arrived in New Jersey on June 3rd, they kissed the ground and waved to the Statue of Liberty. There were able to eat whatever food they wanted, and even got to go to a beer garden.

He wanted to go home so bad, he did not even tell the doctors that he was very sick and hurting. He took a train from New Jersey to Camp Shelby, Mississippi. There he received money for his ribbons and stripes of Technical Sergeant, and a couple of summer uniforms. He then took a bus to his hometown Rayne, Louisiana. He arrived on a Sunday morning, and the whole town was empty because everyone was at church. He was lost, and two men took him to his uncle’s house, which was two miles from his parent’s house. One of those men he later found out was the mayor.

When he arrived home, his legs gave out. He burst out crying uncontrollably, something he had not done since he was a baby. He became reacquainted with the family. He went out on the town, but felt out of sync. Everyone wanted to talk with him about his experiences, but he did not want to talk about his POW days. So he started drinking. He spent sixty days trying to get adjusted, but he could not. He was able to gain weight though. After his leave, he was assigned to Miami, and then Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana. He put in for a fifteen-day leave, and went home to buy a car. This was not an easy task because manufactures had not started building cars since the war started, and those who had cars were not selling them. This is where he met Elsie Lou, my grandmother.

He reported back to base, where they told him to get ready to be processed for discharge. He had to go to a physical, which consisted of him saying that he was OK to a physician. There were two lines one to be processed, and the other to check into the hospital is you felt ill. The line to the hospital was of course empty, and many like my grandfather wanted to go home so badly they were not going to admit to any pains or illnesses.

After he got out, he drank so much he said he must have been trying to kill himself. Even his family realized this, but felt there was nothing the could do to help. At the beginning of 1946, he asked Elsie to marry him, and they were married April, 7th, 1946. He straightened out, and began working at an oil refinery. He fought his nerves for most of his life, nightmares, and even rushing to the hospital because of a panic attack.

Whitney S Simon

Army Air Corp, 8th Air Force Unit

WWII: captured in Belgium 8/17/1943 (age 21) liberated 5/5/1945

He passed away at the age of 82 on March 11, 2003.

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One Comment
  1. Bill Wilson permalink

    I am in the Missouri Air National Guard. I will be having the pleasure of meeting Elsie next week at the dedication of the Jefferson Barracks POW/MIA Museum and dinner later in the week. Thanks for the great story. We eternally grateful for your grandfather’s sacrifices.

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