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Swope:

This is the oral history of World War II Veteran Harry P. Guinther. Mr. Guinther served in the U.S. Army Air Corps, 386th Bomb Group, 55th Squadron. He was a radio operator and a waist gunner on a B 26 and his highest rank was tech sergeant. I'm Tom Swope and we've recorded this at Mr. Guinther's home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, on June 18th of 2001. Mr. Guinther was 78 at the time.

Guinther:

I entered the service in the spring of 1942. I had -- of course, at that time everybody knew if you were young and if you were relatively healthy that you were going to end up in the service because we were at war and all indications were that it was going to be a long war and a difficult war because we were in that war in Europe and in the Pacific. And at that time if you -- if you enlisted, you were to a great degree allowed to pick the branch of service in which you served. While if you waited to be drafted, you were assigned a branch of service. And I really didn't want to be assigned to the infantry and I had always been interested in flying so I decided to enlist maybe a few months before I would have been drafted, but that way got to choose the Air Force, which I really wanted to do. I liked flying right from the time of being a young child. I built model airplanes and went out to the local airport and watched the airplanes fly and even took a couple of flying lessons in little Piper Cubs before I joined the service. When I joined the service I was sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, Indiana, just as an induction -- a service induction center, and then on to Keesler Field at Biloxi Mississippi, for basic training which was about six weeks of marching and learning all the things you needed to know about existing in the military life. How to make a bed, and how to get up at 5:30 in the morning and all the other things that were pretty new to a teenager. I was 19 years old at the time. But we learned pretty quick. Biloxi was on -- is on the Gulf coast, a very small town of only -- at that time only about 8,000 people and at Keesler Field we had about 35,000 men, which made social life a little difficult. It was pretty hard to get a date on Saturday night but we got our training done. And during training we were evaluated for potential list of going to technical schools and I qualified for either A and E, which is aircraft and engine mechanics or radio operator school. So I decided to become a flying radio operator. And they sent me to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a lovely city in South Dakota, with very friendly people. And I spent about three months there in radio school, learning Morse code and also learning how to do simple repairs to radios, how radios worked, which radios to use for which purposes. Radio direction finding for navigation and so forth. And then, because I was going to be a flying radio operator, I had to be taught some aerial gunnery. And to do that they sent me to Fort Myers, Florida, to a field called Buckingham where we trained for another five weeks in the principles of aerial gunnery and in actual air to air shooting practice, plus a lot of shooting practice on the ground. From there I was sent to McDill Field where B26s were the main training plane being used in McDill and it was a little bit of a difficult time. B26s had a bad reputation for safety. In fact, the popular saying of the time was one a day in Tampa Bay. They also called the plane in fact Harry Truman who in fact was the vice-president at that time, titled the plane the widow maker. And it also had other very uncomplimentary sort of nicknames but the plane always treated me very well and I will touch on that later. I was then sent to Barksdale Field, Louisiana, for overseas training, and it was there I met my crew, five other young guys, a pilot from New York, a co-pilot from California, and three others and we were very compatible. We trained together, each training to do his own job, learning it well, flying all over southern and western part of the United States. And by May of 1943 we were able to go overseas. We flew to Savannah, Georgia, where we were assigned an airplane. We named it. We named it Yankee Doodle Dandee and took off for Bangor, Maine, and then flew across the northern route with the first stop after Bangor in a place called Goose Bay, Labrador, then Greenland which is the very, very southern tip of the huge island of Greenland and then on to Iceland on to Prestwick, Scotland. I remember being in Greenland on the 4th of July of 1943 and we were very, very fortunate because of flying over in the middle of the summer, the weather was very, very good. We had no problems with weather and we flew on our own. We were a replacement crew so we were not flying in formation or with other airplanes, but we had perfect sunny blue skies for the entire trip which we were very fortunate to experience because some of the guys did not, and we lost a few airplanes going across the northern route, mostly because of weather and some because of mechanical failure. When we arrived in England, we were assigned to the 386th Bomb Group which at that time was stationed in Colchester in Essex just north and east of London, about 40 -- maybe 45 miles. We joined the group in the last couple of weeks of July and although we were a replacement crew, the group had not yet known its first mission. So we joined in the training that was going on, and the group flew its first mission on the 30th of July and we flew our first mission on the 3rd of September. That was the first mission of 55 that I eventually flew. During that time, we were in the 9th Air Force -- I'm sorry, we were in the 8th Air Force because we were flying in strategic type of missions. However, in October of 1943 we were transferred to the 9th Air Force and started to fly tactical type of missions. Our missions were primarily marshaling yards, air fields, railroad bridges, across rivers, and so forth. In some cases once or twice the submarine pens in Holland. And later on during our term of missions, we flew quite a number of missions of what we call against no ball targets which were rocket launching sites on the coast of France which were being prepared by the Germans for the firing of the V1 weapons which created devastating havoc on London in late 1944 and 1945, no, in late 1944 I should say.

Swope:

What made the B26 so difficult to fly?

Guinther:

Well, the B26 was a twin engine airplane. It was an airplane that had relatively short wings, so it had a -- what the aeronautical people call high wing loading. It would take tremendously high speed for it to get airborne, and it flew at only a few miles per hour over that speed and then land at a very high speed because there just wasn't a lot of margin between the speed where the airplane would stall and the cruising speed. Now, the airplane could fly at about 300 miles an hour but it used so much fuel at that speed that we didn't fly it at anywhere near that speed. We usually flew it somewhere around 200 or 210 miles an hour. But even at that, it was still a much faster airplane than the B17 or the B24, the ____, which were operating out of England at the time. The main difference was that our range was much shorter. We could only fly about four hour missions, therefore, all of the time that I was flying, which was from May -- I'm sorry, from September of 1943 until May of 1944, our missions were entirely in Holland, Belgium and France, because we did not have the range to reach Germany. After the invasion and after we conquered most of France, the group moved to France and then we were able to make missions into Germany with ease because we were so much closer. But flying from England we stayed in the occupied countries. During the fall or during the winter and early spring of 1944, many of our missions were in preparation for the invasion. We knew that -- we could tell that because we were bombing railroad bridges, we were bombing marshaling yards and just knowing that we were doing this to inhibit the German's ability to move troops toward the -- what they thought would be the invasion area. And also our bombing of the air fields tremendously helped the mission of the heavies, the B17s and the B24s because we effectively drove the Luftwaffe back into Germany, which meant that when the heavies took off from England, they had a couple of hours of freedom from fighter attack because the fighters did not have the range to fly toward the heavies as they were approaching Germany so they waited until they hit Germany and then the fighters attacked so our destruction of the airfields in France and Belgium and Holland really had a -- was a great help to the 8th Air Force in that they lost far fewer planes. And of course, when we bombed the airfields we also destroyed their airplanes, and their ability to launch massive fighter attacks decreased as the war proceeded. And in fact, in the last months of the war, the fighter attacks by the Germans were negligible. There were still some and, of course, they developed the ME262, the first jet fighter the world had ever known, and they were showing those off but they were very short missions. They only had enough fuel to make one or two pass-through formations, and so our missions were primarily tactical, as I have described, and we were successful in our mission to do that. We accomplished our job and we're very proud of that. And my particular group, the 386th Bomb Group, we were also known as the Crusaders, received a Presidential Unit Citation for the highest bombing accuracy record of all the medium bomb groups from July of 1943 until July of 1944. Incidentally, the commanding officer of our bomb group, Colonel Lester Maitland, is an interesting guy, he is the man who received the second Distinguished Flying Cross ever awarded. The first one was awarded to Charles Lindberg for his nonstop flight across the Atlantic and the second one was awarded to my commanding officer, Lester Maitland, because he flew the first nonstop flight from the mainland of America to Hawaii. Although he flew with a co-pilot and a navigator in a trimotor Volker airplane. And he did that just two weeks after LindbergLindberg made his nonstop flight, therefore he got practically no publicity because all of the publicity was for Charles Lindberg as it well should have been. But he was an interesting man, a fine commanding officer, very demanding and as a result of his expertise and his ability as a commanding officer our group was the only B26 Marauder Group that did not suffer a single mortality in training. We had a couple of little accidents but nobody was ever killed in training and all of our men killed were killed in combat. My experience on 55 missions were I guess normal. Not -- we had some very difficult missions and we had some -- many very, what we call milk runs, very easy missions. I do want to say that the airplane itself, the B26 Marauder, the much maligned B26 Marauder as far as I'm concerned was a fine airplane, for in the 55 missions that I flew on, we never once had to abort from a mission for mechanical difficulties. Now I think that's a great tribute to the airplane and a great tribute to the ground crew, the mechanics, the armorers, the engine mechanics, the hydraulic guys, all of the guys that kept those airplanes flying. And I want to, if anybody ever listens to this tape, I want them to make sure that they know how much I really appreciate their efforts because they saved a lot of lives. They did marvelous work and got very little credit for it. We got all the rank and we got all the medals, and we got, if we were lucky, the ability to go home after a certain amount of time. The ground crew got none of that but they certainly deserved a great -- deserve a great deal of platitudes from all of the guys that flew the airplanes they maintained. May of 1944, on the 27th to be exact, it was a Saturday, beautiful Saturday, we were assigned a mission to bomb a railroad bridge at Satrouville, which is a small town northwest of Paris, a town right on the Seine. And the railroad tracks go directly through the center of town and then cross the river and on the other side of the river is a Chateau called Maisons-Laffitte or the House of Laffitte which is a very historical, very beautiful Chateau and grounds. Our mission was to bomb that bridge that day because this was May the 27th and as everybody knows now although we did not know it then, the invasion was to be on June the 7th, so we were only about 11 days ahead of the invasion and if we could knock out that railroad bridge along with other railroad bridges along the Seine, we would certainly inhibit the German's ability to reinforce troops on the coast and to move supplies, ammunition, soldiers and so forth, tanks and weapons, to the invasion area. So it was an important mission. The City of Paris was extremely strongly defended by German flak guns. We were told by intelligence officers that there were 1000 guns surrounded in a circle around the City of Paris. And in order to get to the bridge that we were bombing we had to fly through the western quarter of that circle. And so we knew we were going to get extremely heavy flak. And it made it all the more easy for the Germans that it was a very, very clear bright sunny day, although this was relatively late in the evening and they could see us very easy. Now, the Germans had just started to employ a new tactic in their antiaircraft defenses wherein as before each one of the 1000 guns surrounding Paris, each one would have an aimer and would track the airplanes and fire independently of all the other thousand. Well, there would be a lot of flak up there but it would be of a different sort and the Germans decided to try a new tactic. And what they did was aim all of the guns from a central point and they aimed them so that they filled a cubic mile of sky with flak and fired all the guns at one time centrally controlled. So that incidentally it took about 9 seconds to reload and refire a German 88 millimeter flak gun, which meant that every 9 seconds a cubic mile of space in the air would literally explode and that's the kind of flak antiaircraft defense tactics that we were facing that day. The first time we had faced that, our intelligence officers briefed us on that and we knew what we were facing and quite frankly we were quite nervous about it. Well, on our bomb run, on any bomb run, it is necessary to fly for several minutes straight and level. You cannot take evasive action because the bombardier has to sight on the target and if the airplane is maneuvering with evasive action he can't get a good constant sight on the target so he would fly straight and level. This gives the antiaircraft people a beautiful opportunity to target in on you and which is what they did. And the aircraft fire we encountered on that day was just incredible, as bad as I had seen in any of my previous 55 missions. When we dropped our bombs, the bombardier would usually say into the intercom bombs away. And I remember that he got the word bombs out, didn't get the word away out, and we were hit hard in the left engine. We -- the fuel tanks were ruptured and fuel was spewing from the rear of the wing and ignited so there was flames trailing the wing, there was flames inside, we were burning. It was obvious that we were going down and going down fast. I checked the -- I was flying on the ways guns in the rear of the plane. I checked the tailgunner and saw that he was backing out of his tailgun position and reaching for his parachute and I checked the top turret gunner who I had seen had dropped to the seat and had dropped out of his top turret and was also reaching for his parachute. I pulled off my flak suit and tried to reach the pilot by intercom, however, the intercom was not operative but was shot out and so I rolled out of the waist window abandoning the aircraft, followed by the tailgunner and the top turret gunner. And in knowing what we were up against as far as the cubic mile of flak, exploding every 9 seconds, we all had told each other beforehand, if anything happens, be sure not to pull your rip cord until you fall at least halfway to the ground. So we were flying at about 12,000 feet when we were hit, and I don't know how long I waited but I waited long enough that I was free of any flak shells exploding around me and I pulled my rip cord. I shortly after that looked around and I saw two other parachutes which I took to be my tailgunner and my top turret gunner, their chutes, as mine was, were safely opened and we were floating down towards the earth. As I got closer to the earth I could recognize objects and I saw that I was coming down in what looked a literally forested area. It turned out to be a park like area on the outskirts of Paris. And I could see a road going through the park and on it was a truck followed by a Jeep like vehicle and soldiers were in the back of the truck and they were aiming their rifles and shooting at us and I could hear little zings going by me. But I was a pretty skinny kid and fortunately they didn't hit me. When I hit the ground, I fell sideways and sprained my ankle pretty badly but I started to scoop up my parachute thinking I -- our training was to hide your parachute, and then try to find a hiding place for yourself. I scooped up my parachute and tried to hide it under a bush and then I stood up and started to run and as soon as I stood up I fell because of my sprained ankle. At that time I heard a someone shouting in German and I turned around and I saw a soldier about 30 yards away from me but he was pointing his gun in another direction and shouting, and I assumed he was pointing at one of my crew members so I started to crawl on all fours trying to get into some deep underbrush and I got about halfway there when I heard the German shout again, and this time obviously much closer and I turned around and faced him and there he was about 15 feet behind me. With his Lugger pointed right at me and I think he was more frightened than I was because his hand was shaking badly and I thought he is going to pull that trigger and not even know he did it because his hand is shaking so badly. So I simply put up my hands and said that's it and they came up behind me, another German soldier came up and they put handcuffs on me and although I had to limp I was in great pain from my sprained ankle, they walked me to the Jeep and put me in the back of the Jeep, all the time screaming at me in German which I couldn't understand. There was other activity around and it was obviously the fact that my other two crew members were going through the same kind of experience I was but the two men who captured me put me in a Jeep and drove me away. And they drove me to, I found out later, the town that we had just bombed and drove me into a central square in the town and the air was filled with dust and smoke. There were houses burning around us. I found out also later that we had hit the bridge, however, unfortunately just before we hit the bridge a train had pulled into the station which was located directly on the edge of the river, and it also was hit and destroyed and more than 400 people were killed. And the people of the town, although they were our allies, they were French, some of them were collaborators with the Germans, and although I was handcuffed they stood me in the center of that square and a number of young Frenchmen begin to beat me up. And did a pretty good job of it until the Germans stepped in between them, between they and me, and finally turned their guns on the Frenchmen and told them to get away and then they put me in the back of the Jeep and I was bleeding pretty badly from being, you know, split lip and a bloody nose, and so forth. And put me in the Jeep and started to drive me in towards Paris. I will always look back on that beating that I took at the hands of the Frenchmen with some the degree of disappointment and sadness because I was risking my life to help these people free themselves from the occupying Germans and here they did this to me. However, I found out later, as a matter of fact, only a couple of years ago when I visited the town that the people were very, very grateful of what the American forces did in liberating their country and in fact, the -- one of the -- the town, one of the town's historians took me to their local museum where they have in the museum a picture of our crew and a model of our airplane and the story of the raid that day and surrounded by both American and French flags in a place of honor in the museum. So they do really appreciate the fact that we lost a lot of guys helping to liberate their country from the Germans. As we drove in towards Paris, one of the soldiers stopped and made a telephone call and when he got back to the Jeep he excitedly talked to the other soldier and I couldn't tell what they were talking about but shortly we were into the center of Paris and we drove into a court yard of a large building. It was maybe only four floors high. It was not a tall building but it was large. It probably covered a whole city block and there was a court yard through iron gates that we passed. They opened them for us and then closed them as we got in there. There were soldiers marching around it inside and it looked like officers of some importance scurrying around and it looked to me as though it was the headquarters of some type, although I really didn't know. And they took me out of the Jeep and walked me into the lobby of the building, up a flight of stairs and in through a very ornate entrance to an office and as I walked or limped into the office with the two soldiers with their guns pointed right at my head, I saw behind the desk in the office a German officer who I assumed to be a very high rank from the way he dressed. He was dressed -- his uniform, his decorations and the grandeur of his office, it was all mahogany paneled and a beautiful oriental rug, and obviously a very high ranking officer. And I said to myself, Oh, no, what does this mean? The two German soldiers clicked their heels together and raised their hands in a smart Heil Hitler salute to the general who had now stood up behind his desk. The general raised hisarm, although I sensed that he had raised it rather limply, sort of halfway above his waist and below his shoulder and rather limply said Heil Hitler. And then he said to the soldiers something in German which I didn't understand but the soldiers looked at me and then looked perplexed, and looked at each other and questioned -- I could tell by the tone of their voices -- questioned what the general had said to them and he screamed at them again, repeating the order that he had given. They then proceeded to take off my handcuffs and leave the room. I couldn't believe what had happened. There I was by myself in this room with the general and they hadn't even searched me. I could have had a .45 in my pocket and they didn't even know it or wouldn't even have known that I didn't have. I was not armed. The general looked at me and said -- motioned for me to approach his desk. It was a very large office. I did, and I -- by the rules of the Geneva Convention and military law I saluted him because you must salute rank regardless of whether it's the enemy or friendly, rank always is to be rerespected. So I saluted him with a traditional American salute. He returned the salute in a traditional way, not Heil Hitler, but saluted like I saluted. And I said to him, without being asked, I said, Harry Guinther, Tech Sergeant, 15102451. Sir. And he smiled. And he said would you like to sit down. And I really appreciated that because I was hurting. And there were two very large and comfortable easy chairs across from his desk and I sat down in one and he looked at me and said rather thoughtful, he said, well, young man, he said, I'm sure you have had a very difficult time. But he says now for you the war is over. He said if you behave yourself, and incidentally he spoke flawless English. He said if you behave yourself you will live to see your parents again. He said to me, you do have parents, don't you? And I said, sir, but by the terms of the Geneva Convention I can give you only my name, rank and serial number. He said I understand. And he looked at me and studied me and then he said to me something that completely flabbergasted me. He said would you like some wine? And I hesitated for quite sometime because I was so shocked. I said, no, sir. And he walked over to a sideboard where there was a crystal decanter and four crystal glasses and he poured himself a glass of red wine. He carried it back to the desk, sat down, swirled the wine and took a little sip of it and said to me, again, well, you look like you've had a difficult time and I thoughtto myself, this general, and he was impeccably dressed with an iron cross around his neck and in the center of the iron cross looked like possibly it was a diamond. And on his right pocket was the traditional German eagle, and a number of decorations over his left pocket. His trousers have a broad red stripe down the side. And he wore beautifully shined black leather boots and a belt and a small pistol at his -- on the belt. And he said to me, your name sounds German. And I said to him, well, my father was German, and my mother was Scottish. I said, but in America we don't think of those things, we just called ourselves Americans. And he smiled again rather wryly as though -- I felt, well, he got the point that I was trying to make that I'm an American and it doesn't matter what my nationality is. He continued to make conversation. He did not ask me anything about our mission. He did not ask me anything of a military nature. He seemed very concerned for me. And I just couldn't believe what was happening to me. I couldn't -- I had seen movies and I knew that Nazi Generals beat up American prisoners and yet this man was being almost fatherly to me and very, very kind. And he continued to drink his wine and he said again, if you behave yourself, you will get home all right. And he said this war may be over sooner than you think. It may take some surprising turns. And I was again dumbfounded, why was this man saying these things to me like this. Shortly, he said, well, it's time for you to go now. He said you will go to a prison camp in Germany and he said again, behave yourself. He reached under the side of the desk, the edge of the desk and evidently pushed a buzzer because the door opened and in came the two soldiers who had captured me and they started to put the handcuffs on me and I said to the general, sir, may I ask you a question? And although he didn't answer me, he said, or he nodded affirmatively. And I said why did you have me brought here? And he looked as if he were about to say something but thought better of it and nodded to the soldiers who proceeded to put the handcuffs back on me and I saluted him again before they had handcuffed me again and he returned my salute again in another traditional manner and then as the soldiers left they Heil Hitlered and he Heil Hitlered back and they took me out. That experience I thought was bizarre. Why did he select me? Here I was -- the night before I had been at a dance in London with my girlfriend, now here I am a bloody prisoner of war in the office of a high ranking German officer in Paris and he's not even beating me up. He's not even threatening to shoot me. He's not even calling me a Luft gangster. And I just was fascinated by the entire experience. And as we drove across I was able to -- as we drove across the city towards the prison where they were taking me, I was able to get across to the German soldiers the question, asking who was that man? And they said to me in broken -- very, very broken English but we were able to finally decipher it that he was the commanding general of all of the occupying German forces in France. And which made me even more astonished at the experience I had been through. And that was the last -- although I thought about it constantly during my time as a prisoner of war, that was the last that I knew any details about what had happened to me. However, after the war, I found out who he was. And his name was he was a General Karl-Heinrich von Stuelpnagel and who was, as I said, the commanding general of all the German forces in France. Less than 10 weeks after I was in his office, General von Stuelpnagel was arrested by the Gestapo because he was one of the major plot terrorist of Operation Valkyrie, the death plot against Hitler which took place in July. And shortly thereafter he was taken to Berlin, was given a very, very short perfunctory trial, was found guilty, was hung from a meat hook and strangled to death. And it was filmed for Hitler to watch later and to gloat over as he did many of the several hundred people he executed as the result of that attempt on his life. The experience I had with the general had obviously no major impact on the war but I thought it was very bizarre and very interesting what happened, and to this day I really and truly regret that I did not share wine with that man because he was trying to do something to end the terrible war we were in. I was taken to a prison in Paris called French prison, and I was finally searched and they took away my escape kit and they took away a fountain pen and my wrist watch and then they escorted me into a cell in the prison. It was a really old, old prison, probably built in the 1800s but very much like you picture an old prison. Maybe eight floors of cells with a large atrium in the center and they put me on a very high floor and all the time I'm wondering how about my crew. I knew that probably Jerry and Henry, my tailgunner and top turret gunner had survived but I didn't know about the pilot and the bombardier and the co-pilot. It wasn't until after the war I found out that the bombardier and the co-pilot did survive but our pilot was killed because he finally lost complete control of the airplane as they got to a low altitude and was then unable to escape before the plane hit the ground. The French civilians who lived near the place where the plane hit were able to find a few small fragments of his body and pulled them out of the airplane after the plane had burned for more than three days and they buried them in a woods nearby. Took a piece of one of the propellers and used it as a temporary kind of a tombstone and put a wrought iron fence around the grave. And they, after the war, forwarded a picture of that to my pilot's parents which was quite comforting to them to know that at least some of his remains were there and they were able to inform the American Graves Recovery Unit which recovered them and buried his remains in the National Center at Epinal in France. After several days in the prison in Paris, I was taken out and put together with two other American prisoners and put on a train of -- a regular civilian train to go into Germany to an interrogation camp at Frankfurt. We were in a compartment with the three GIs, all of us fliers, and two German soldiers fully armed. And as we rode into Germany and crossed the border from France into Germany, the destruction of the cities became very, very apparent, very horrible. Many of the villages that we went through were just absolutely leveled and the two guards who were guarding us both broke into tears when they saw the level of destruction. Now, they were really doing double duty, they were guarding us but they were really on their way to a leave. And it was very emotional for us to see their reaction to the destruction of their homeland. As we went through some of the major cities on the way where the buildings were just leveled, it was quite a horrifying experience. We obviously didn't know whether they might lose it and decide to take it out on us or any of the other people on the train for that matter. We finally arrived in Frankfurt and in Frankfurt, at that time at least, I don't know if it is true today, there were two stations, either an east and a west or a north and a south, I don't know which. We arrived at one station and had to walk about 10 blocks to the center of the city, to the other station to catch the commuter train to the little village outside of Frankfurt where the interrogation camp was. At that time, there were probably 20 American POWs, maybe a few British but mostly American, who had converged at that arriving train station in Frankfurt and they gathered us together. We had two more guards, so there were four guards and they started to march us through the center of Frankfurt. Well, as they did, and incidentally one man had what I think was a broken leg, he couldn't walk, he had a cast on his leg so some of us had to carry him, were walking down the Main Street and I saw only one building standing. This in the center of one of the largest cities in Germany. And on the front of the building was a huge Nazi flag and it obviously was the headquarters, the only building standing. But we marched on by and a crowd started to gather. Mostly old people, all the young people were off fighting. But one old lady proceeded to beat on us with her umbrella, calling us Luft gangsters and I don't know what else in German. And others started to do it and some of them threw coffee on us as we got along and by the time we got to the second station, the crowd was obviously -- it had grown to maybe 50 people and was obviously getting out of hand. And for the last block the German guards who had been -- had their rifles pointing at us had turned around and were now pointing their rifles at the German population to keep them away from us. And as we got into the station, we knew we had to get to safety quickly or it was going to be all over for us. And there was an iron fence inside the station separating the ticket area and the assembly area of the waiting room from the track boarding area and we took the poor guy with the broken leg, our GI, and lifted him up over the iron fence and just dumped him over and then we started to climb the iron fence and finally some of us went there through a gate and they closed the gate and then we were safe from the crowd. But they put us on a small train and took us just a few miles outside of Frankfurt to the interrogation camp. There, they put us all in separate cells, it was -- they were obviously recently constructed for that purpose. There were no iron bars or anything like that. It was just cheap wooden construction with -- each cell had a window although the windows was frosted glass and it was locked shut but there was some light in there. And a cot, with a straw mattress on it, and no toilet facilities. That was down the hall, and the door. And there we sat and I was there for 7 days in solitary wondering what was going on. Finally, after about 5 days, they decided or started to question me and they called me into an office where there was a German officer sitting behind a desk and he welcomed me, asked me to sit down. And he said are you hungry, and I was because our rations were very, very meager. There was just a bowl of some kind of porridge in the morning, two pieces of bread at noon with some ersatz coffee, and one boiled potato at night, and that's all we had to eat. Also he buttered a piece of bread and put marmalade on it and shoved it on a plate across the desk toward me and said help yourself. So I did. I started to eat it. And he said you have to fill out some forms so we can inform your parents that you are a prisoner of war and he handed me a regular 8-1/2 by 11 white sheet of paper with a large Red Cross printed at the top of the form which asks for my name, my rank, my serial number, fine so far, then my father's name, my mother's name, our hometown, the name of our bomb group, the target, so on down a whole list of obviously that we by training said we cannot give. We can give only our name, rank and serial number. And I said to him, I can't give you that information, I says I've given you my name, rank, and serial number. I had filled that out and returned it to him and he handed it back to me and says you have to fill out the rest of it. And I said, no way, you know better than that. I says you've interrogated probably hundreds of guys like me, we can't give you that information. I said, in the first place, I don't know most of that information. I said I'm just a tech sergeant. I'm not a general or something, I don't know any military secrets. I said why are you wasting your time. He said, well, if you won't cooperate with us, he said we don't need to cooperate with you, because we don't know if you are a member of the armed services. We don't know if you are a soldier. We don't know for sure if you are a flier, could be a spy. He said, how do I know that you are a soldier if you won't give me the name of your unit so that we can check our records. And I said, well, I said, I know the rules of the Geneva Convention and that's where it is. He said, well, we don't have to cooperate with you and he sent me back to my cell. So I sat there for another couple of days and they called us out again. And at that time after I was in there maybe a minute in his office, another German officer came in, and raised his arm in a Heil Hitler salute and then smirked, and the officer interrogating me also said Heil Hitler and also smirked. And I said to myself, what's going on here? And I finally decided that they were trying to give me the impression that they really weren't on Hitler's side, that they were really nice guys. And it would be all right for me to converse with him. Well, I still didn't and, incidentally, the man who interrogated me had until 1939 lived in the United States and had been the manager of an F.W. Woolworth store in New Jersey so he spoke perfect English. And I thought it was interesting that there he was in a Nazi uniform and he had formerly been a Woolworth store manager. Well, they returned me to my cell and then after about an hour, the guard came in and unlocked the window and opened it and said to me would you like a couple of books to read? And I said sure. So then that indicated to me that it was over with. And I would soon be going on to a regular prison camp which I did. And I think the next day they sent me to a small camp in Wetzlar, Germany and then on to Stalag Luft IV in Pomerania, which is in an area which is now Poland, at that time northern Germany, right upon the Baltic Sea. It was there I spent the next few months -- can you put that on a pause for a second?

Swope:

Sure.

Guinther:

So adjusting to life in the prison camp was a little difficult. We -- the camp was a fairly new camp and it was built on soft sand in pine forest in northern Germany. There was no chance to tunnel because when you would dig, the sand would cave-in and that's why the site was selected, this was specifically for a prison camp. We were fortunate in that our guards were Luftwaffe guards. And there is a certain amount of respect that air men give to each other regardless, and that was one of the things that Herman Goring did and I don't think much of Herman Goring and his tactics but one of the things he did which I approved of and appreciated was convince Adolf Hitler that the Luftwaffe or the German Air Force should be the ones who guard Air Force prisoners, Air Force men taken prisoner rather than having the infantry or some other of the German forces guard Air Force men. He insisted that Air Force men guard their own. So we were appreciative of that and the guards were for the most part relatively benign as far as we were concerned. Now, they had their disciplines. We had our early morning and late evening roll call and they were very exacting and very demanding and but, generally speaking, the guards were not cruel or they did not cause us a lot of problems. Now, there were -- I was placed in the first compound of this prison camp it eventually became four compounds but this was very early the prison camp had only been occupied for a couple of months when I got there, and I was as a matter of fact in barracks one and in room one of compound A. And each barracks had 10 rooms which held 24 men each in a space 24 by 24. There were bunks three high on almost all four sides of the room. There was space for a window and space for a door. Other than that, the bunks covered all of the walls, three high. The mattresses were what we then called gunny sacks filled with wood shavings which were not very comfortable because the beds had just six 1 x 2 slats across them and this sort of mattress placed across that. So it was very, very uncomfortable, later to become very, very lice infected. With 24 men in a room you would think there would be problems of men getting along but I think there was an atmosphere that they are all in a big kettle of fish here, we were all in big trouble together. And in the months that I was a prisoner, I never once saw an altercation between our own guys. Now, there were 10 barracks like ours, 240 men to a barracks, so there were 2,400 men in the first compound. There was also a kitchen, and a pool which was used was filled with water in case of fire, where they could pump water from, and there were wash house facilities, there was running water, no hot water and no facilities to heat water and at the end of each barracks was an open pit latrine. When you put 2400 men together, there you will find that you have a lot of talents. We had guys who had been studying in divinity schools, we had guys who were trying out for major league or minor league baseball teams and football teams. We had professors from colleges, teachers from high schools, we had barbers, we had the businessmen, we had people with musical talent or singers. So when you have all of that together, you find -- you are I guess forced to make a life for yourself. So after a while, we had a school going where you could take courses in accounting, literature, history, all sorts of things. We had a little theatre group that put on plays, Christmas shows, a spring show, any chance they could get to put on a show. We had dancers. Some of them were dressed up as girls. And we had chorus lines. We had comedians. A lot of amateurs, a lot were pretty bad but it was pretty good entertainment for somebody who -- you know, when you are in a prison camp you just can't go down to the corner movie theatre for entertainment. So generally speaking, we had a good time and a lot of humor came out. We would play tricks on the German guards. Innocent things. For instance, we would accumulate sand in our -- in the legs of our trousers, we would tie a string around the cuff of our trousers and load our trousers up from the waistband with sand, and then walk in the back door of a barracks and walk out the front door and pretend to be sneakily disposing of the sand in the compound. Well, the guards would spot this and they would say, Oh, oh, they are tunneling. They are tunneling and soon there would be a whole force of German soldiers come in to search the barracks and look for the tunnel. Well, we did this sort of thing constantly to amuse ourselves and I think after a while even the Germans started to get a big kick out of it. One of our tricks was to take a piece of paper and a prisoner standing out in the compound, in full view of one of the guard towers, would read the paper, and fold it up but hand it to a person near him who would read the paper and nod to the first person, fold it up again and hand it to another person as though a secret message were being passed around. Well, shortly a guard would come in and walk over to where the paper was being passed around and the GIs with the paper would start to -- on a fast walk. The guard walking fast behind him. Pretty soon they were into a run and then into a dead run and all the time passing the piece of paper because this had all been planned. Pretty soon the guard would catch us. We would let him catch us and the guard would open up the paper and on the paper we had written Hitler is a son-of-a-bitch. So that's what -- we did things like that to occupy our time. Our room one time decided -- and I'm sure that other accounts of prisoner of war life will talk about some of the nastier things but I will speak about some of the fun things. Our room at one time decided that we would open up a gambling casino so we took one of the tables and turned it upside down and drew out a crap table on it. And some how one of the prisoners had some dice and we sat up blackjack tables and we couldn't roulette tables because we didn't have the mechanics. But our crap table and our blackjack table and our poker tables were all functioning and as soon as the barracks were locked at dusk each night the gambling casino would open for the 240 men in the barracks. Well, nobody had any money so the currency that we used was cigarettes because that was the things that we had that had the most units to it. Because we would get several packs of cigarettes a week and each one had 20 cigarettes in it so you may get eighty or a hundred units that could be used like currency and pretty soon everything in the campus was priced in numbers of cigarettes so people would gamble cigarettes. Well, within a few weeks our room was rich because we had taken cigarettes from everybody in the barracks. So we decided to move to the next barracks and we traded rooms with prisoners so that we could open up our -- well, we had a lot of money. Then low and behold the American Red Cross delivered a lot of cigarette parcels or a lot of food parcels which contained cigarettes. And we had an immediate inflation where the value of cigarettes was obliterated. But we did a lot of things like that. We had religious services because we had people who had been in divinity schools, some various religious organizations. We had singing. Generally speaking, it was -- it was a very, very bad experience because you were not free, but we had -- we certainly didn't have enough food. We were hungry. We sort of got use to that to some degree. Everybody lost a lot of weight. But we got along, and we were able to survive. We had two or three of the incidents where in one case a GI was shot because he disobeyed a rule. We had a number of rules. You could not jump out of a window. You could only use the doors of the barracks. You couldn't enter or exit the barracks by going out of a window. And one GI forgot about that and jumped out of a window one day and a German shot him dead. We also had a little railing around the fence about 10 feet in from the fence and you were not allowed to touch that railing, not allowed to go near it. And one day a group of GIs were standing next to the fence having a conversation, and one of the guys completely forgot and evidently got a little tired and he sat down on the warning rail and he was shot through the head immediately. So there were some ugly things like that that happened. But on the other hand, one day a German maintenance man was working on the electric wires coming into the camp and all of a sudden there was a flash and he was electrocuted and all of the GI's gathered around and started to watch and, of course, they immediately cleared the compound. And so there was a lot of, you know, very, very unpleasant memories, but all in all we got along and low (sic.) and behold in February we started to hear the guns of the Russian Army from the east. And it was at that time that rumors started to spread in the camp that we were going to be marched out. The Germans, we surmised, felt that if the Russians took control of our camp, all they would do would be issue rifles to us and have us fight a alongside their own men. The Germans obviously didn't want this to happen so the rumors were that the Germans would evacuate the camp and we would be put on marches towards the interior of Germany as the Russian forces from the east and the American, British and Canadian and French forces from the west closed in around Germany proper. Well, lo and behold, this was what happened. And early in February, we got notice that we were going to be leaving the camp the next day, marching towards the interior of Germany. They issued all of the food they could to us, which was not much. They told us to dress as warmly as possible. Incidentally, this was one of the coldest winters in German history and we had had some horrifically cold days and so we were told to dress as warmly as possible but to take all clothing items that we could and change of clothing as much as we could carry, because we were probably going to get wet and we were probably going to be on the road for a long time. Well, the next morning we left and in a long, long line about four abreast. Now, our compound left, which was 2400 men, and four abreast makes quite a long column. And about 7:00 at night we stopped marching and they put us in an open field, and that day the weather was terrible. It was one of those days. It was probably in the low 30s or very high 20s. We had no way of knowing what the temperature was but precipitation was falling and it was half sleet and half rain. And we had to spend the night in an open field. Well, it was really, difficult because the field was muddy, it was wet, it was uneven. So there were puddles all over and most of the men spent most of the night standing up because they didn't want to get their clothing wet. The next morning we started off again. Well, this went on for several days. One night we would be in a barn, another night in stables. They would try to find shelter for us wherever they could but they couldn't always and as the march went on and it was about, as I recall, around the sixth or seventh day, the men were getting extremely tired and footsore and our guards, the same thing was happening to them. Most of the guards were older men. And as this happened, we started to get stragglers. The guards had dogs. But even the dogs got tired and sort of inattentive. And as we walked, the line began tostretch out because of the straggling and because some men were starting to limp and were walking more slowly, some men were falling, and their buddies would be by them and try to urge them on. But as the line spread out, the line of guards also spread out, and I suddenly realized that there was maybe a 150 to 200 feet, sometime 300 feet, between guards. And we were walking on narrow, two lane roads through these pine forests of northern Germany and we came across a curve or came to a curve and I looked ahead of me and I could see no guards and I looked behind me and I could see no guards, and just to the right of me was the edge of the road and five feet in from the edge of the road were dense pine forest and I said to myself, go for it, and I did. I jumped into the forest and unfortunately I only got about 6 or 8 feet into the forest, I fell and the strap on my -- the pack that I had on my back, a strap on my chest caught on a root and I couldn't quickly get loose so I laid there until the rest of the column passed by and then I stood up and walked into the woods. Not realizing -- maybe I realized but I didn't care -- that I really wasn't prepared for what I had done. I did not have much food. I was wet, my clothes were wet, I was cold. But I said maybe I've got a chance. If I can get to -- some of the farms in the area had mostly polish/slav laborers working for them in the fields. Now, there weren't as many in the fields in the wintertime as there were in the summertime but there were still some around. They were used to shovel manure and do all the things that you have to do around a farm, even in the wintertime. And after two days when I was really cold and I was out of food, I came to a farm and I saw four men and a girl standing outside one of the barns. And I said to myself, they must be Polish, and so I went up to them and I said to them Americanski. One of them pulled out a gun, turned out to be a German, and I was recaptured. It was that simple. It was very quick and he simply took me into the next town and they put me in a jail and held me there for about a week and a half and then sent me on to another prison camp. But at least I had escaped from the march. And the horror, I was no longer with Americans, I was with British and eastern Europeans of all kinds, Serbs, and even some Indians, and some soldiers from New Zealand and also a number of Canadians, and I spent quite sometime there. And as the war started to wind down, discipline in the German forces became quite loose. I shouldn't say discipline became loose, it became disorganized. And we had -- I volunteered to go on work parties because if you would go on work parties you could manage to maybe steal a little wood or maybe something to eat. One day we were told we were going to move coal from one railroad boxcar to another railroad boxcar. And although this is spring, it was still sometimes quite cold, and I said, well, we can get some coal for the stove. And we could fill our overcoat pockets and come back for some coal. Well, when we got to the boxcar, I found out that coal was actually cabbage, which was -- and coal is the German word for cabbage, and we were moving cabbage from one boxcar to another. Well, I managed to steal a number of heads of cabbage and get them back and so we had a little more food. And so this kind of living went on and finally on a work detail one day, we talked to a young lady who walked by and the Germans let us do it, we said to her when the war is over, can we -- would you shelter us until we can make contact with the Americans. I was with two Canadians, and she said yes, she would do that. And she pointed out where she lived. So on the work detail next day as the Germans were not looking -- that we had one guard to maybe 15 men -- the Germans were not aware exactly what we were doing. They were distracted, the three of us, myself and two Canadians, walked away from the work party and went to this girl's house where she admitted us and, sure enough, gave us a bedroom. Now, the German population at that time knew the war was over and they knew that they had lost, there was no doubt about it. And they knew also that it was to their advantage to make points with particularly Americans. They were very fearful of the Russians and they had every right to be. The Russians were very, very vicious, but this girl, her name was Maria, which I thought was rather strange for a German girl to have a name of Maria, but any way, she herded the three of us into a room where there were cots, three cots, and a table. And she brought in a little tin we could use for a bathroom in case we needed it during the night because she said in the next room there were soldiers because that was the rule in those days, if they were traveling, German soldiers, they could knock on any residence in Germany and the residence had to give them shelter for the night and food. So she had German soldiers in the next room so we went to bed and the next morning there's a vicious pounding on our door and gutteral German voices and we all looked at each other and gave ourselves a signal to be quite, and pretty soon the shouting and the pounding on the door stopped and then 20 seconds or 30 seconds later pounding on my window, which is right above my bunk, and I pulled the curtain back and sure enough there was a German soldier all outfitted in his helmet and his rifle on his shoulder and screaming at me. He didn't know who I was. He was pointing to the table in the center of the room and on the table was a sweater, so I got out of bed and picked up the sweater and opened the window and handed the sweater to the German soldier and he raised his hand and said danke schon, thank you very much, and he left. And I was pretty relieved to say the least, and then I realized that I had answered the window and opened the window and handed the sweater to him and at the time I was wearing my U.S. olive drab GI underwear and if he would have recognized it I could have been really in big trouble. About seven or eight days later we were able to make contact with the Russian forces and we did that. We sewed American flags to our uniforms. We no longer had American coats and trousers and jackets and shirts and trousers, we had Serbian uniforms on but we had made small American flags and sewed them to the breast of our jackets and hid in the woods and when we thought the sound of the fighting had passed over us, we went out to the road, which is maybe 50 yards away from where we were hiding and started to walk east towards Russia. And within 10 minutes we came across a Russian patrol walking along the road all with tommyguns. Their leader must have been 6 feet, 6 inches tall, and he had a big fur hat on with a red star in the center of the fur hat. We put our hands up and started yelling Americanski, Americanski, Americanski, over and over, over and over again, and the Russian looked bewildered, and then he threw his tommygun down on the road, put his arms around me and kissed me full on the lips. Well, I was so he relieved that I got to confess, I kissed him back I was so relieved but they took us back to their unit headquarters and they, in honesty, I've got to say they treated us royally. We told them we were American airmen. Now, two of the guys were Canadians who had been captured in the DF raid which was the famous raid that had gone bad. Sort of a trial raid before the invasion that was conducted by the Canadians on the coast of France and many, many, many Canadians were killed. It was an absolute disaster and many were captured and these two fellows, Canadians that were with me, were captured in that raid. But we were fearful the Russians wouldn't understand what a Canadian was but we knew they knew what Americans were so that's why we all decided to assume the identity of Americans. And when they found out we were fliers, although it was a lie in the case of the two Canadians, they really treated us well because they told us that they felt that the American fliers had done more to win the war than any of the other allied forces so we were treated very well, very royally. Given the best of food, everytime they would have a party, we were at the head table along with the big officers and the generals, but it was quite an experience being with the Russians. Although I will say that we were pressured constantly to go on into Russia. Well, I wanted no part of that because I was fearful that -- in fact, there had been talk in the prison camp that the war may not even end, that after the Germans are defeated the adversaries would become the allied forces of the west as opposed to Russia and Japan. And I was somewhat fearful of that and I wanted to stay as close as I could to the front lines and knowing that they would eventually meet up with the American forces or at least some other western allied forces. But one of the guys, Charlie, one of the Canadians who was more or less a soldier of fortune type of guy, he didn't have a family, he didn't have an immediate or close family, and had no particular ties, he was older, he was probably in at that time in his early 30s, he decided to take them up on their offer and he decided to go to Russia to see mother Russia as they spoke of it. Well, he took off one day and we waived (sic.) good-bye, shook hands and so forth and wished each other luck, and Charlie obviously had never been seen or heard from since. In checking with the Canadian Legion, they have no record of him, he's still missing. However, eventually, the war ended and the Russian forces that I was with met up with the American forces in a town called on the Oder River. And then we started to run into some problems. The Russians all of a sudden started to turn a little cold on us and they would not allow us to cross the bridge across the Oder to the American forces. And we didn't know what to do. The guards at the bridge said no, no passing. Said even though we said we are Americans, Americans, Americans, they would not allow it. Although I did have dog tags and we started to plan the possibility of swimming the river at night, which some Germans were doing every night because they wanted to get under American control as opposed to being under Russian control because they felt they had a better chance and they were right, they did. So we decided to swim the river. And then just by chance, I heard that the American General of the -- from the American Infantry Division on the other side of the river was coming across the next morning to confer with the Russian general and I decided to try to intercept him. And sure enough, about 10:00 o'clock the next morning, here comes the convoy of American trucks and Jeeps and out of one of them steps the general and a major and a master sergeant and starting striding up the steps of the City Hall where I had stationed myself where I had been told the meeting was going to be held. And as he walked up the steps I stepped in front of him, sir, general, may I have a word with you, and I saluted. And he said you speak good English, and I said I should, sir, I'm a tech sergeant radio operator from the 386th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force, and I said I was shot down. I've been a prisoner for almost a year and these Russians won't let us come home. And the general turned around to the major and said, major, check this out. And the major turned around to the master sergeant and said, sergeant, check this out. So the sergeant says okay, tell us your story, guys. And I did, Charlie and I, I mean Eddie and I. Charlie had gone to Russia. And we told him our story and he said as soon as the general comes out, he said be by one of the trucks and he said get back in the back of the truck. And we did. They lowered the curtain and we drove across the river and we were back to the American forces. So that's what it is like. That's what it was like in World War II.

Swope:

Now, you said you flew 55 missions. Didn't you have enough points to go back at 50?

Guinther:

I did. I had completed--that's right, when we originally went over, the tour of missions for medium bombardment was 35. And then it was raised to 50. And when I completed my 50th mission I walked into the orderly room and I said to the guys, hey, I'm done. I finished. I get to go home, and they all stood up and congratulated me and we shook hands and so forth. And then they said, by the way, we are short of radio operators, so we're going to arrange transportation right away but while you are awaiting transportation, you have to keep flying. So I was awaiting transportation. I could have been going the next day, I don't know. But that's the breaks of the game.

Swope:

And you flew five more missions?

Guinther:

Well, I had to keep flying until they arranged transportation and they got me on the 55th.

 
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