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Interview with Stephen Swidarski [5/21/2004]

Thomas A. Swope:

This is the oral history of World War II veteran Stephen Swidarski. Mr. Swidarski served in the Army Air Corps with the 15th Air Force, 376th Bomb Group, 515th Bomb Squadron. He served in the European Theater, and he was a prisoner of war. His highest rank was staff sergeant. I'm Tom Swope, and this interview was recorded at Mr. Swidarski's home in Maple Heights, Ohio, on May 21, 2004. Stephen was 84 at the time of this recording. Where were you living in 1941?

Stephen Swidarski:

In 1941, I was living in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

And that's where I started from.

Thomas A. Swope:

Do you remember -- do you have specific memories of December 7th, 1941?

Stephen Swidarski:

I don't -- I don't have any particular memory of December the 7th, but I do recall the -- the bombing and reading about it and seeing about it and hearing about it, and I was devastated also.

Thomas A. Swope:

That was your reaction to that?

Stephen Swidarski:

That's -- my reaction was that -- pretty bad. I thought that they were -- it was a sneak attack, it should never have happened, and they had two -- two representatives here in Washington saying that it wouldn't happen. So, it was quite a catastrophe.

Thomas A. Swope:

How old were you in 1941?

Stephen Swidarski:

In 1941, I was 21.

Thomas A. Swope:

Any temptation at all to go out and sign up after you heard that news?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, not particularly, because I went to the Merchant -- I was going to go to the Merchant Marines, and I had already enlisted, and, eventually, I went there, but it turned out that I went to the Air Force instead, Army Air Force instead.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

And --

Thomas A. Swope:

So, did you enlist then?

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah -- no, they took me -- they took me -- they were waiting for me. And, so, I went into the -- into the service. I was inducted. And I was fortunate enough to get into the Air Force, because I really didn't want any of the Army. I had a brother that was in the Army Air Force, and I didn't want to go through what he went through.

Thomas A. Swope:

When did you go into the -- the Army?

Stephen Swidarski:

I went in 1942, August the 17th, and that's when I went into the service.

Thomas A. Swope:

Was it a tough adjustment when you first went into the Army, adjusting to guys from all over the country and training?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, I think we were all in the same boat. We were relatively from poor families, and we didn't think anything about the money end of it. We were thinking of pursuing what happened. And those of us that were fortunate enough to go to the Air Force -- I say fortunate enough to go to the Air Force, because I really, really liked the Air Force very much. And most of my life there was happy, and it wasn't as strict as the Army or any of the other reserves. So, I have to say that I was quite happy to be there.

Thomas A. Swope:

What can you tell me about your training?

Stephen Swidarski:

Oh, my training. Nah, I can't quite say much about that. But we -- however, we went to Florida. I think it was St. Pete. Took some training down there. And I can re -- recall peeling potatoes.

Unidentified Speaker:

You were out West.

Thomas A. Swope:

Eventually you went out West?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, when we got our crew -- when we got our crew together, we went out West. We weren't together as yet, no. We were still taking some training out in California.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

Santa Monica I remember very well, because the sun was setting, and it was beautiful out there. And I love the water, and it was going down behind the water. And I -- I have to say, it was very beautiful.

Thomas A. Swope:

Anything unusual happen during the training time that you remember?

Stephen Swidarski:

No, not that I recall. I don't think that I -- I don't think there was anything unusual that happened during the training period. We eventually got together, the ten of us. We formed a crew, took some training here in the states, all kinds of flying, night flying and stuff, and we took some -- we took some training, target practice down south there. Panama City, I can recall one city -- place. But I can't recall too much more.

Thomas A. Swope:

What was your crew position?

Stephen Swidarski:

My position was a waist gunner. I was assistant to the engineer, and I was a waist gunner. But I got shot down as a nose gunner.

Thomas A. Swope:

Was that your first choice, to be a gunner, or did you want to be a pilot or --

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, I -- I didn't have the qualifications to be a pilot, because we had a couple people in our crew that wanted to be pilots and they ended up different positions. So, I didn't have the qualifications.

Thomas A. Swope:

When did you go overseas? I don't need an exact date.

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, I -- I can't recall when we went overseas. But we went over in boats. We didn't fly over. Some crews flew over, but we went over to -- on ships. And we landed in Casablanca. I can recall that. And we -- whatever they did -- had for us, we had to stand guard a couple times and marched, but it was mostly training in -- in -- in the ships until we went to Italy, which was our base. We flew -- we flew -- we -- we went by ships to Italy, and then we started to fly from there. They'd give you a couple training missions, and then you started to go into the battle formation.

Thomas A. Swope:

Now, I'm guessing then, you probably went overseas sometime in 1943?

Stephen Swidarski:

That's it. 1943 is when we went overseas. I can remember Christmas over in -- I think it was Casablanca, but I can recall that. And I have no re -- regrets at all about joining the service. I think it was a wonderful opportunity for people of my position. We'd go to training, and we started to fall in -- fall into a rout -- routine of things going on. We had a wonderful crew. And -- and -- and we flew a few good missions, and we came back, but we eventually got shot down.

Thomas A. Swope:

What was your group and squadron?

Stephen Swidarski:

We were 15th Air Force and 15 Bomb Squadron.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh. 15th Bomb --

Stephen Swidarski:

376, I should say.

Thomas A. Swope:

376th Bomb Squadron?

Stephen Swidarski:

Right. Squadron. And the group was 15 Air Force.

Thomas A. Swope:

Right. That was the overall.

Stephen Swidarski:

Right.

Thomas A. Swope:

Do you remember your first combat mission?

Stephen Swidarski:

I -- no, I -- I can't say that I remember any of them, but I do know that we went over Angio a couple times, and that was local, really, because we were flying from Italy.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

And, eventually, we made some long trips -- they called it over the hump -- and that's going into Germany there.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

So we made a couple of those. And I can remember our last one, because it was on February 23rd, and it was Ash Wednesday.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh. 23rd of 1944?

Stephen Swidarski:

'44.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

And we got sh -- as it is, they -- they still had a good air force, and they shot us up a little bit going into -- towards ___ Austria, and they got us coming back. And, eventually, we -- we crashed. There was -- from what I understand, there were three people that got killed, and seven of us evacuated. And I, at the time, was in the nose. And I had the bombardier -- his duty, before parachute -- parachuting out, was to make sure that I -- I was free, that we had a toggle bolt there in the back that bolted us in, and we could not get out. Matter of fact, I didn't know this, being my first time there. I had tried everything to get loo -- free of the turret. I couldn't. So I started to pray. And I have to say that this man, pilot -- John Burns was his name. He was a bombardier. He was down in the nose with me. He did his jo -- as he said, he did his job, and they pulled the toggle bolt, and I fell out ba -- I mean, I come out backwards, and both of us went out of the ship together. And -- and everything was shot up there. The number two, I understand, was -- propeller had the pilot pinned in. And they had their experiences up there, and we had what we had in the nose. It was -- in all the excitement, I think you forget the fear itself. You try to get going to what you were trained to do. And I thank God that this guy pulled the -- took time to pull the -- shoot the bolt and I got free. Otherwise, I'd have been down in the plane too.

Unidentified Speaker:

Did you tell them about the waist gunner?

Stephen Swidarski:

And the waist gunner -- matter of fact, they shot up the middle -- middle of this plane. The waist gunner who took my place was killed. The pi -- the -- the radio man was killed, and the ball -- ball turret man was killed. Three people there in that area were shot up. That's the middle of the plane. And they were killed. So, I was quite fortunate, being up in the nose at the time, that I got free.

Thomas A. Swope:

What kind of plane was this again?

Stephen Swidarski:

A B-24. A Liberator. And they were -- they always compared the B-17s against the B-24s. Well, I never flew in a B-17, so I can't say anything there. But I was quite happy with the B-24.

Thomas A. Swope:

Well, what mission was it that you were shot down on?

Stephen Swidarski:

They -- I think it was the ninth mission. I think -- I thought that it was more, because I thought they gave you two missions for the one if you flew up into Germany area, but ___ so we flew nine missions. So, that's the one that I can recall, and it was supposed to be a milk run, sort of. You know, it wasn't supposed to be bad at all. But they shot down a few -- few of us that day.

Thomas A. Swope:

What was the target on that mission?

Stephen Swidarski:

___ mission.

Thomas A. Swope:

___+

Stephen Swidarski:

It's a -- a gear --

Thomas A. Swope:

___+

Thomas A. Swope:

What happened to you then after you bailed out?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, when I bailed out of it, I landed in a pool -- in a stream. It was two sides. I guess they had a factory there, right close to it, and I landed in a stream. One side of it -- it was divided. One side was deep. You couldn't see bottom. But the other side -- they had stones and all -- you could see the bottom. So I was fortunate enough to land into the -- one that was less deep, was the lesser deep of the both. And there was servicemen up on the top of the hill. They were all -- it's sort of a bank -- embankment.

Unidentified Speaker:

Germans.

Stephen Swidarski:

And they had guns ___ and they says you surrender, or whatever it is they said. It was a lot of hollering. And they took me into -- I thought it was a bomb shelter but hear it was a factory. So they took me in there. And it was February 24 -- 3rd, and as I said, it was cold. And I don't know if I was shaking from fear or from being cold. I'd like to say being cold. But, anyhow, they took us from there, and they took us to the jail, the jail in town. This was in town. Walldorfen (ph)

Unidentified Speaker:

Waydoffen (ph) ___

Stephen Swidarski:

Waydo -- whatever -- and they brought some guy -- they brought some of our crew members in that landed safely and they captured right away, because we were wide open on one area. The plane had sort of circled around there and eventually crashed in the -- in the neighborhood. So, they -- they got about four or five of us there, and then we stayed there a day, and the next day they took us -- first, they started by trucks. They took -- and we carried -- they might -- made us carry their ammunition to the thing, to the truck, and we went up the hill to pick up the other people. And, eventually, we had to walk, and we got to the area where they were. And I think they spent the nigh -- a night in -- in a big -- I thought it was a barn, but it wasn't a barn. It was near there. And we stayed there the night with these people, with the rest of our crew. And then the next day, they took us down. And there weren't many people around at all, just -- except for me, where -- where I was captured, because they were all using this place for a bomb shelter. But they were coming down, and each of them were captured by one man or something, and they had rifles, and they eventually -- we eventually ended up down below the hill -- at the hill at the police station again. And the people -- they kept the people from us or they didn't come around much. They -- they were just -- wasn't bothering much with us that I could notice. And they finally took us to a jail in town, and we were near a station, a train station. Eventually, we -- we got -- we were ordered to go to this train and we were to board it, and the people by then were getting hostile, and they were trying to get at us. And I will have to say that these were all the men that were guarding us, and they made sure that we were in the train and safe. They stayed there and they keep -- kept the people from us, because I thought they were going to come out after -- they were going to get us. But they didn't get us. They -- we eventually left on a train, and we eventually landed in Franklin on the Rhine. It's a station where they take all prisoners of war and they interrogate them, and then they send them onto their destinations, wherever they go. And the -- the officers were sent up to -- up to Stalag Luft I and III, I believe it is, and we were sent to Stalag Luft VI, which is up in East Prussia. And when we got there, I will have to say that the British, they come from Africa and all, they were well organized. It was amazing to me that they could be as organized as they -- they were. But talking a few people, they said to escape, you have to go to the escape committee. They had committees for everything. And there was a man, Paulus (ph), he was American, who was fighting -- well, fought for the British, but he was American. When he -- when he became a prisoner, he was sent in this camp, and he took over the American camp. Paulus. He had some experience there. And I have to say he was a good man. He would go up and talk to the commandant and they would do whatever they had to do. Whatever our gripe was or whatever his gripe was, they would talk it out. Anyhow, I have to say, they -- they -- the British had this place well organized. Matter of fact, I can recall, they had a small medical station place in there, that I got sick one time, and they took me there, and they had cots. We didn't have any doctors. Just the people that have training in that facil -- in that area took care of you. So, anyhow, I went back -- I was okay. I don't know what it was with me at -- at the time, but I went back to my stati -- back to my compound, which was divided. And the Americans were in one compound, British were in another, and -- and they had the Russians and the Polish, a mixture, in another one. So I have to say that the treatment there was much better for the Americans than for the Polish and Russians or whoever else they had. It -- it wasn't bad. It wasn't -- I have to say, it wasn't bad because I was in pretty good physical condition when I got shot down, and it takes a while before you start going downhill. And, so, this was -- this was the case with me. But, of course, whenever you start-- get in there, you start getting the rations, all the weight starts coming off you. And we walked -- we did an awful lot of walking. It was -- it was a few people trying to escape. I can recall one incident where a latrine -- they had dug a hole from the latrine to the -- it was close to the gate, and they were going that way, but we had a -- they came in and syphoned the waste -- human waste out, and they went in with this wagon, horse drawn, and they parked right on top of the area that they were digging. And when they -- they vacuumed the -- suctioned. That's how they got it out. So, I can recall this day that they did that, and the weight transferred from the waste area to the wagon, added the weight onto the wagon, and it caved it right where they were digging. So, nobody was hurt, but for a few of us, it was -- it was a little bit fun there. And the -- the guy -- nobody was in at the time. Excuse me a minute. I knew a few of the guys who were digging, and that just stopped them for a little bit. They found another place. But, anyhow, I have to say that the American -- it's -- they -- the -- the -- it must have been a little ___ outfit there because they took -- I can't say they took good care of the officers, but the officers were -- I -- I -- I believe better treated than us, and we were a little bit better than these people from Europe. I can recall that, and we -- I was there for six months before we had to evacuate. And in meantime, they had a news -- they got the news, and it -- it -- it was somebody ___ read it to the people, different barracks. They had to come at different hours to the barracks and would post guards, and they would read the news. So, we were -- I -- at that time, we were pretty well up on the news, whatever it was that they gave, and we ___ And they had us fall out every morning for formation. And after a while, a couple of the guys were sort of trying to foul the Germans up, their counts. They would move from place to place, position -- the position, I would say. I don't know how they did it, because I wasn't one, but one guy -- I forgot how it was. One guy gave it to -- they would talk and whatever it is, and he gave the -- the guard an answer that the guard didn't like, and the guard hit him with his bayonet in the face. But that -- that was one of the incidents, and I guess it was just some -- some more. There was different camps and somebody went haywire, or whatever you say, and tried to go over a fence and they were shot. And we -- we came down. Then we were -- eventually we were evacuated from there, because one of the -- what we understood is the Russians were coming from the north. This was after Germany and Russia got into it. And they were coming down, and they -- they were -- they had gone through an awful lot, and they were doing what they had ___ But, anyhow, we had to leave there. And we left by boat on the Baltic Sea, and from what I understand, one guy -- they put us in a hold, all in a holds, and he was sitting on top, you're standing on top each other. And I thought it was a couple days, but somebody tells me it was one day that we were in the boat. And for our waste, they would take it up in a bucket. I guess dump it into the water. What they did for another bucket, they'd send another bucket down. Someone had to have water that we drank, and we didn't know what we were ___+ taking in. You know. Anyhow, I have to say that I had started to lose weight from then, because, eventually, we were receiving Red Cross parcels. They would divide one to six guys, and you would have to -- that was funny, because you'd have -- you'd stand and watch this guy, whoever cut the bread into six loav -- pieces was the last one to get his pick. And everybody's standing there watching, and they would get that and then get some soup, if you were lucky, and have a little few solids in it. And in the night, we had a night bucket in the back room, and two guys were assign -- two different guys each day assigned to empty it in a day. They had shutters on our -- on -- which were closed at a certain hour. And our -- our beds, we had plank -- planks -- about six planks to a cot, and it was three -- some have three decks and some had two. And, eventually, some of these planks were being burnt to get some heat there. Then, eventually, we left there, and we went, like I said, by boat. Landed in Stettin. I don't know if -- it's southern Baltic, whatever it is. It's a base -- a dock, whatever. And they took us by train to this other camp, which was more south, maybe northern Poland or something like that. Chowkoe (ph) -- Chowkau (ph), I believe was the name of the place that they took us. They took us by train to this area, and we -- we had to stay -- we were -- everything we did, we were crowded. They -- they had -- I guess they had to do it their way because to use less trains and boxcars, whatever, and they would ship you that way. We landed in this -- I don't know where this area was, but it was -- Stalag Luft IV was the next camp we went to -- I went to, and it was a ways, and it was a path leading up there. And we learned during the -- after a while that they had guards with dogs, and they would hurry you along or prod you a little bit with their bayonets. Dogs would -- whatever they had to do. They were there prodding you a little bit too. And there -- it was one incident of a guy -- he's from here in Cincinnati. Don Kirby is his name. This guy, I forget his name -- see, some of these. Anyhow, he couldn't run and he was having leg problems and whatever it is. He picked him up. He's a big -- Don Kirby is a big guy. He ended up a state trooper here in Cincinnati. He picked him up and half carried him, half dragged him up to the camp. And years later, his son came. We met him in New York, and he -- he said his dad told him about it. I --

Thomas A. Swope:

That's okay.

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, anyhow, most of mine were good because it got -- everything got progressively worse as -- as the time went on. I guess while they were winning or holding their own, whatever it was, the Germans, they were treating us pretty good. As it got worse, they got worse. And we finally ended up at camp, and we sat outside, and they had tents out there waiting for us. And then they put us in -- in the compound. We went to different area -- different compounds and different areas. And we stayed there. And this -- this -- this camp was not -- nothing like the other one, because that -- that was -- this was a newer one, and they hadn't gotten it started, and I don't know if the commandant was as -- if we -- they were fortunate as us to have a commandant that was generous. What do I wish to say? Kinder. And my dad is from Europe, and I'm glad that he came to the states. And I keep think -- I kept thinking about my dad. These guys that were taking us were up in his age, 60, 70. They were having as much trouble as we had. And it was cold. A few of us -- a few of us broke ranks and went to these farms, or whatever it is, and seen what we could get to eat and stuff like that, and then they would bring -- they brought milk down to the road, these farmers did, for people to pick it up to take to dairy, and we used to get into those and -- anything to help you along the way. But this was during our travels, during our walks. Eventually, like I says, we had to leave Stalag Luft IV too, and some of us were -- had tied up pants at the bottom to carry stuff with us. People were doing whatever they had to make -- a couple guys couldn't eat They made gloves and stuff like that. They were ___ Then we even -- eventually had to leave. But, you know, I always thought it was one big outfit, but I learned that there ought to be about three. Some -- it was -- some walked all the way. Others, we rode -- we rode and then we passed the area we were supposed -- I can recall passing. We had to come back and -- but we walked. And I -- I have to say that those people that were walking, conditions they were walking, they -- they had to be strong. And while we -- we eventually come back to Camp VII-A. This was where we would liberate. But, by then, more of us were daring, or whatever. We would break ranks, and we would go up to a farm house and beg for food. And some would get -- and then bring it back to the people, you know, to the guys that were marching. And people were -- they were losing, I guess losing the war and all, and they knew it, so they were more generous. And, also, later on, I learned, after we got in VII-A, we went -- they were more -- guards were less strict, or whatever it is. Maybe ___+ whatever -- for whatever reason, we got out and we -- we walked to these -- I know I did. I'd speak to myself. I went to a couple of these farm houses and begged for food. I found a bike. I asked them if we could have it. Ah, yeah. I road up and down on a bicycle, trying to get some food. Anyhow, we were scavenging, I guess you would say. And, eventually, Patton's Third Army got there and liberated us, and that -- that was -- that -- we woke up one day and all the guards were gone, and pretty soon you could see the tanks coming, you know? And it was -- it was happiness for everybody, because they figured that this would be it. This -- we've had it and peop -- a lot of people have lost a lot of -- a lot of weight along the way. It was a couple, I guess, trying to escape. But you don't know where to go. You don't even know where you were. And, so, I -- I don't know. It was a bad situation, and we tried to make the best of it. And I have to say that they did. There was a lot of people had a lot more bad -- I -- I always figured that somebody had it worse than myself, and so I could handle this, you know. And whatever came my way, I handled it, and so did the people around us. And we were fortunate because, at one time, they had these German youth guarding us. They were a lot rougher than the -- than the regular guards. I can remember -- I can remember one time, they came on motorcycles, one of these young guys, and he talked to the German guards, and after they were gone, they -- they thumbed their nose at their own -- of course, they were out of vision, and they thumbed their nose at them and -- they -- I guess they had it too, because, it -- it was getting rough. And I guess there was a lot of people like me that parents came from Europe and were thankful that their parents came to U.S. And this is about the whole of my life. In between, it's good and bad. I can't -- I'm -- I'm -- I came back. There's a few things wrong with mo -- all of us, I guess. And we can be thankful for the -- the few bad memories we had and be thankful for the good memories we had too. But that's -- that's about it, I think.

Thomas A. Swope:

Stalag VII-A was in Moosburg; is that right?

Stephen Swidarski:

VII -- no, Moosburg -- which --

Thomas A. Swope:

___ where the camps were?

Unidentified Speaker:

This is VI and IV.

Thomas A. Swope:

Okay. VI was -- that would be --

Stephen Swidarski:

East --

Thomas A. Swope:

The first one you were in was in VI?

Stephen Swidarski:

East Prussia. Yeah.

Thomas A. Swope:

That was in East Prussia. Looks like it's near Konigsberg.

Unidentified Speaker:

___

Thomas A. Swope:

Stalag IV is -- I guess the closest city would be Dan -- Danzig; right?

Unidentified Speaker:

Well, they call it Gross Tychow or ___

Stephen Swidarski:

Gross Tychow. Gross Tychow, yeah. That was in Poland.

Thomas A. Swope:

___ you were in Luft I, too?

Stephen Swidarski:

No, that's the officers.

Unidentified Speaker:

That's the officers.

Stephen Swidarski:

I and III.

Thomas A. Swope:

So, basically ___+ the microphone -- The -- the trip --

Unidentified Speaker:

Shut it off ___+

Thomas A. Swope:

-- trip on the Baltic -- Nah, that's all right ___ -- the trip on the Baltic took you to where and then you had to march --

Stephen Swidarski:

Stettin. That's down here some -- that's --

Thomas A. Swope:

No, you're okay.

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah.

Thomas A. Swope:

All right. And then you had to march from Stettin --

Stephen Swidarski:

To IV. Towards IV. We -- we rode boxcars that direction.

Thomas A. Swope:

Okay, to IV. And then where did you end up then? What did you say? Stalag VII?

Unidentified Speaker:

VI. Oh, VII before that.

Stephen Swidarski:

IV, and then we ended up in VII. That's --

Thomas A. Swope:

Okay, IV. VII is --

Unidentified Speaker:

VI.

Thomas A. Swope:

That's VI.

Stephen Swidarski:

That is ___+

Thomas A. Swope:

Here is VIII. Here's VII-A. But it was -- it was --

Stephen Swidarski:

VII-A. That would be it.

Thomas A. Swope:

Okay. Then that's very close to Munich. So that march, was -- was that a distance?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, some of the -- some of the -- we rode -- we walked down here to some place down -- I forget where it's at, and we had to march back, but some of them were marching all this -- up and down. Yeah. I thought they were marching us back and forth to get ___+

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh. When you were first captured, was there much of an interrogation?

Stephen Swidarski:

When I was first captured, I -- I don't really -- I can't really recall about that, but I know there were a lot of people in the -- in the shelter. That's why I thought it was a bomb shelter. And they were there. They tried to -- I was by myself. They come in. They tried to -- friendly, you know, try to interrogate you, and all we were supposed to tell them is rank, serial number, and, of course -- your rank, serial number and you -- you were supposed to have dog tags, but I didn't have them. I don't know -- I can't recall why I didn't take -- maybe -- we -- we didn't take them on missions. Whatever. I don't know. But I -- I -- I think the people there might have been as -- as afraid as I was whenever I was captured. They were afraid because they were in bomb shelters themselves. And I think that we were the only plane that was ever in that area, was shot down in that area.

Unidentified Speaker:

It was, in Austria.

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah. And I have to say that they could be as -- as frightened as I was. I think I was scared. I don't know. But I know I was shaking. But I didn't know if the weather or what. I -- I couldn't blame it for anything.

Thomas A. Swope:

Did you end up seeing any of your crew members in the other -- in the camps?

Stephen Swidarski:

There was Max Rasmussen. He was the engineer. And -- and we had an extra man because he was taking the place of the tail gunner. His name was John Pazello. He was taking his place because his toes were frozen. But John Pazello and Max Rasmussen ___ I think -- I think that's it. Four of the -- yeah, that's it. That was -- that was -- who was the other guy?

Unidentified Speaker:

Where did Burns go?

Stephen Swidarski:

Burns, he was an officer. He went with the officers. Burns, Walter Price --

Unidentified Speaker:

Just you and Max then.

Thomas A. Swope:

You were probably a sergeant?

Stephen Swidarski:

Oh, that's it. I'm not counting my -- counting myself.

Thomas A. Swope:

Right.

Stephen Swidarski:

John Pazello, Max, and myself. We were in the same camp together. And we -- the first camp we went to, VI, they were putting us in barracks by alphabetical order. I was the first one to go into the new -- new barracks, and Max R, and I'm S, he went -- he was the last one to go, or whatever. Him and Pazello went in that. And during the course of the lifetime, most of -- I was over with them in their barracks all the time. I got to know the men better than I knew the men in my barracks. But they were with us, and -- oh, what can you say? I know Ma -- I know Max was -- had a shoulder wound, but that's about all that I can recall.

Thomas A. Swope:

Now, you talked about getting news. Did somebody rig a radio to get the news? Is that how that --

Stephen Swidarski:

They -- this was in the first camp. They had the radio -- actually, the British, they were there for years, and they were having the information -- they had the broadcast. However they had it, however they got it, I don't know. But we had one -- one American, I think his name was Tex, and he went from barrack to barrack and he told us the news of the day. That's how we got our news, and that's all I can remember about that, because --

Thomas A. Swope:

What was the reaction when they got the news about the D-Day invasion?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, that's -- this is long before that, so they didn't -- we didn't have the radio that --

Thomas A. Swope:

You didn't -- couldn't get that ___+

Stephen Swidarski:

No. Once we left VI, we -- we lost all contact with radio. That's where they had it. And that's about it.

Thomas A. Swope:

Did you get many Red Cross parcels in any of these camps?

Stephen Swidarski:

They -- they stored them some place in the camps, and they'd get our guys -- they'd allo -- you know, how many you were allotted and would distribute them, like one through six guys. They knew how many people they had, so they'd take that many. From what I understand, my -- my -- mine is always hearsay. Whenever we left, they had a lot stored some place and they couldn't take them, so we were given whatever we wanted, and we took for them -- in the march, you know, stuff that we thought we'd use. So, that's about all. No, I couldn't tell how many were distributed, if they had much, or what.

Thomas A. Swope:

Anything else about POW life? Any details that you remember?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, I think -- I -- I -- for me, I think that they -- they -- the Germans respected rank, and the pilots were special to them. And I guess it just filtered down like that. And I -- I can't -- I was in a prison camp, and I -- I had to be -- matter of fact, I -- I thought that they would be torturing you or beating up on you after they interrogated you and they found out whatever they wanted to, they'd let you be, and they didn't torture like I thought they -- I thought they would be torturing you, just mean all the time, but they weren't. They were -- I guess, a lot -- I lot of them told you stories about their sons or daughter, have family here in states, you know, and they talked about that, and they -- they even said that they might even be fighting against them, so.

Thomas A. Swope:

How long was it before your family found out that you were captured?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, I'll tell you the truth. I don't really -- really recall that. I do remember when I come back home that they said they eventually got news that we were ca -- prisoners of war, and that's all. That's all that I can remember.

Thomas A. Swope:

When did you get home after you were liberated?

Stephen Swidarski:

Oh, I can't recall. I can't recall, because we were in Germany. They had different stations that they took them -- they took them to the boats or -- I came home by boat also.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

And they -- if they flew them over, they flew them over. I don't know.

Thomas A. Swope:

Did you go to Camp Lucky Strike?

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah ___ Chesterfield Lucky Strike --

Thomas A. Swope:

___ cigarettes ___

Stephen Swidarski:

Cigarettes. Right. Right.

Thomas A. Swope:

And then --

Stephen Swidarski:

I will have to say one thing. I didn't smoke, which was a blessing, because cigarettes were the dollar, and you would trade -- trade with anybody you could if you wanted something. And I -- I used to give them to my -- Max. He smoked like a fish. I'd give them to him, and he'd smoke them. But anybody had cigarettes to trade, that was a dollar. The more cigarettes you have, the better you are.

Thomas A. Swope:

And what would you trade for them? Food?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, if you're trading with the Germans, you would trade with whatever they had. And if you'd trade with Americans, whatever -- some Americans had stuff -- it was going on all the time. You were trying to -- trying to trade, or trying to find somebody that had something you wanted and stuff like that. But I -- I was -- like I said, I'd give it to Max, and I wasn't into the trading business. So I can't tell anything about that.

Thomas A. Swope:

What would you do to pass the time in the camps? Did you try to make your own entertainment or something?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, that's it. Like I said, the first camp we went to was organized.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

And as it -- as it got longer, everything degraded, went down. First, we walked around -- who was able to walk would walk around camp, just inside the wires, and you'd talk, and you'd find out about everybody you knew, whatever you could. And then we did have sports. We had -- matter of fact, some of the first things they shipped over for the Red Cross was sporting equipment. So they had baseballs and stuff like that. And we had football teams.

Unidentified Speaker:

And they'd put up a rink.

Thomas A. Swope:

A rink?

Unidentified Speaker:

He was a boxer.

Thomas A. Swope:

There was some boxing, huh?

Unidentified Speaker:

Well, he was a boxer in camp. Why --

Thomas A. Swope:

You were?

Unidentified Speaker:

Yes, my goodness, why not? ___ story. Somebody, they built these, and they had a big boxing match. There's nothing wrong with that. That's a -- the part of the story, for heaven's sake.

Stephen Swidarski:

___ I was in good shape at first, so the British had their champ, and they had -- they had matches, and they built a big -- matter of fact, they built a -- a show theater, and it was amazing what they did with nothing. And they had plays. And Americans had their type of musical. The British had plays. Anyhow, getting back to this boxing, they got sporting equipment, so they had a barracks where they had haircuts, in that area, and I went in there and trained a little bit ___+ Well, I guess one of these guys thought that I could fight. Well, I -- I was pretty good. I was just an amateur. I was no pro. And they finally dug up this -- fixed this deal up that I would go against this guy that's supposed to be a champ and -- British. Sean Tracy is his name. And we were supposed to have a -- it was -- and they had publicity. It's -- it was amazing, because the Germans were into this. They were -- they had people at the meeting, and we had people, American ___ British had people. And they finally come up with a contract. And I'd lost it along my march. I lost the con -- I had. Anyway. We had this match, and I was fortunate enough to win. And this guy was supposed to be a champ at his camp, so. And they bet cigarettes. That was it. They bet all -- the Americans never saw me, don't even know me. You know, they bet all the cigarettes. It's crazy. It turned out very favorable for us, and we were fortunate to win and get all these cigarettes. And it was -- this John -- this Don Kirby, he -- he was a big guy, big guy. He was the heavyweight. He fought in a match. I can only remember us two. I guess -- I know there were a few others, but these two I recall. So, anyhow, that was it. That was our story. But it's amazing, because this has never been told, except the guys at our --

Unidentified Speaker:

He won't let me tell.

Stephen Swidarski:

-- our meetings. They -- they talk about it. You know, a lot of guys you find out were there, saw the fight, and whatever happened. You talked -- you know, you'd talk to these people you think you know. Eventually, you might ___ pick up bits and pieces that you knew about. That's about all I can say. And, eventually, as I said, it got worse and worse and worse. And, well, I suppose a lot of us lost a lot of weight.

Unidentified Speaker:

___ about the pilot, the -- Lamar.

Stephen Swidarski:

Lamar, a copilot.

Unidentified Speaker:

Copilot. Went back to Austria one year and met all these people, and all the crew members and the wives, we all went back, 49 years later, and they showed it, because it was only one time, and they showed us in the town where each one of them had landed. They didn't know who it was, but they could tell you where somebody landed, because it -- it was only townspeople there, and it was quite a trip. Quite a trip.

Stephen Swidarski:

And one of the ___ one of the farmers, when we went back, he said his dad used -- they had Russ -- they had guards guarding this plane. Matter of fact, it was -- it was there after the crash, you know, and it stayed there until -- whatever. And when we went back 49 years later, you could see the imprint of where the --

Unidentified Speaker:

___+

Stephen Swidarski:

-- in the ground.

Unidentified Speaker:

___+

Stephen Swidarski:

And this farmer, his dad was dead now, he -- he says -- he was telling tales that his dad used to go out -- sneak out to the ship and syphon gas, and he would use it at home. You know, he would -- he was doing this, and the Germans were supposed to be guarding that. So that was --

Thomas A. Swope:

So did the -- somebody eventually crashland that plane or --

Stephen Swidarski:

No --

Thomas A. Swope:

-- did it just land pretty much intact?

Stephen Swidarski:

-- that's where the -- right in the area where we land -- where most of us --

Thomas A. Swope:

Bailed out?

Stephen Swidarski:

-- bailed out and landed. The pilot bailed out too. And these -- there was -- matter of fact, one of these -- a professor, well, he says he was -- skis -- he was 12 years old or something like that. We met him during this trip. He was one of -- the organizer. And he said that he watched the guys coming down, and they were skiing. And he watched, he says, and he saw where the plane crashed and everything like that.

Thomas A. Swope:

Any other vivid memories that come to mind when you think about this?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, I would say nothing but the -- the marches and stuff like that, because that's when a few of us left the lines to get the -- well, we would go beg for food and bring it back. And the marches itself was in bad -- bad weather. We -- and nobody was -- nobody was fit for this or -- or dressed for it. I think a lot of guys lost fingers or toes or something like that, because, you know, you didn't have shoes or stuff -- you only had what you had on --

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

-- and that's it.

Thomas A. Swope:

Was this march, what, like January or February of '45? Is that right?

Stephen Swidarski:

No, no, not '45. We were released in '45. '44. '4 -- ___ you're right ___

Thomas A. Swope:

___ you were shot down in February of '44; right?

Stephen Swidarski:

Right. February of '44 ___+

Thomas A. Swope:

But this march was --

Stephen Swidarski:

___ '45, yeah.

Thomas A. Swope:

Must have been '45. I might have talked to a guy that was also on that march.

Stephen Swidarski:

We were -- matter of fact, I think we -- we were on -- when we heard about --

Thomas A. Swope:

F.D.R.?

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah, we were on the march.

Thomas A. Swope:

Oh, really? So that would be April of '45 then.

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah, I -- I -- I can remember that. That's who I learned about the president.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Unidentified Speaker:

And that had to be one of the coldest winters ___+

Thomas A. Swope:

In fact, that was the Battle of the Bulge winter, yes, '44, '45. Right. This was the worst in decades there. Yeah. So you finally -- when you did finally get home, what was your reunion with your family like?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, I'll tell you the truth. We stayed in most -- you know, we just stayed in the house and people could -- who knew you'd come in and talk to you. It was joyous. Everything was joyous, happy. I have a brother that was a prisoner too, but he wasn't home when I was home. And the family, some were married now, you know, and gone.

Unidentified Speaker:

When did he get

Stephen Swidarski:

When did he what?

Unidentified Speaker:

When did he get home?

Stephen Swidarski:

I don't know. That's the trouble.

Unidentified Speaker:

It couldn't have been too long after --

Thomas A. Swope:

And he was also captured in Europe?

Stephen Swidarski:

He was captured in Africa. He was in Infantry.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

He was captured in Africa. And all the -- we never -- we never talked about it. For one reason or other, we -- we didn't sit down or whatever, like on a Sunday or whatever, and talk about it. We just ignored it. Matter of fact, you ignored everything. We -- we -- I did. I -- I didn't want to think of anything. But, anyhow, I didn't talk to him about it, and he didn't talk to me about it. So we have -- have -- each have something that the other don't know about, and today he's back in Pittsburg. Well, I have to say that those were rough days and thank goodness and I hope they're over forever and ever and ever. It's -- it's just hard to believe. You know, it's like somebody asks, you know, about memories and stuff like that, would you sell them. What would you sell them for? I mean, you know, they'd be no good to anybody else. And what you went through, you -- you found a lot of people that you grew fond of. Matter of fact, we were with another crew. I think the pilot was Shannon. He was from ?Dorm I? or some place. But, anyhow, they were friends with our crew, and we got close to their crew in the states. We went through training, and we got sent over ___ we went to Casablanca together. We -- we flew together. We got shot down the same mission, and we were in the same camp. It's just hard to believe. Hard to believe.

Unidentified Speaker:

Still see those people at the conventions.

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah, we see them at conventions ___ and see how they do and stuff. Matter of fact, we have dinner -- we -- we have dinner with them, don't we? We -- you and I.

Thomas A. Swope:

Uh-huh.

Stephen Swidarski:

We -- we have dinner with them, with their outfit. And they are getting sparse too. You find out, you know, nice people. Every -- everybody's nice now.

Thomas A. Swope:

Did you say you had some trouble adjusting to civilian life when you first got back?

Stephen Swidarski:

Well, you know, the music had changed. Mairzey Doats and Dozy Doats was one of the prominent songs, and that was a different type of mu -- music that we -- and I used to -- we used to, in the city, you know, you'd -- you associated with your age group, and I didn't -- I don't know. I -- I have to say yes and no, because I was a loner, I guess, and -- and we didn't talk about it. They didn't ask questions and we didn't talk about it. The only ones you did talk about it is the -- when you went to the conventions or you went to these meetings we'd go to and you'd start talking and find out where they're from and who -- you know, where they were at and stuff like that. But, civilian life, you didn't talk about it, and nobody asked about it. So, that was it. They -- they -- I -- they were in the service too and they went their way or whatever, so, and that's about four years we didn't see each other, so, a lot had changed.

Thomas A. Swope:

Think that covers it?

Unidentified Speaker:

___+

Stephen Swidarski:

I hope. So, unless my wife comes up with something.

Thomas A. Swope:

Any more reminders?

Unidentified Speaker:

___+ other than they put him in that nose and he wasn't supposed to be there, so somebody was watching over ___+?

Stephen Swidarski:

Yeah.

Thomas A. Swope:

___+ some kind of lucky break there, huh?

Unidentified Speaker:

___

Stephen Swidarski:

You know, it's funny, too. Whenever we were shot down, I had done everything I thought I could do. I was sitting there, waiting for the eventuality. I prayed a lot. But there was an awful, awful quietness. I -- I couldn't hear anything. It was complete silence, until the door opened, of course. And then, that's it. But I -- I'll -- I'll have to say that I prayed a lot. I prayed a lot. And I'm -- I'm not much one for praying. Well --

Unidentified Speaker:

After that, how about a cup of coffee?

Thomas A. Swope:

Sure. That'd be fine.

Unidentified Speaker:

___ did a lot of

Stephen Swidarski:

You know, this -- we'll disconnect it before --

Thomas A. Swope:

Sure.

Stephen Swidarski:

You know, I mean I'll put -- I'll put it over here.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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