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"Once you're shot down, the first thing you hear is, 'For you the war is over.' And if you're a good soldier, the war isn't over. It's just beginning." (Audio Interview, 1:02:38)

   Charles Christopher Huppert
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War: World War, 1939-1945; Cold War
Branch: Army Air Forces/Corps; Air Force
Unit: 486th Bomb Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, 9th Air Force
Service Location: United States; North Africa; European Theater; Stalag Luft III, Germany
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
POW: Yes
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Going to school in California in the early 1940s, Charles Huppert, a trained pilot, tried to join Britain's Eagle Squadron, which was recruiting American pilots in days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. But he was persuaded to join the Army Air Force. One of his first missions in a B-25 was over North Africa, and he had to crash land near Tunis after taking heavy enemy fire. As a prisoner of the Germans, Huppert made several stops (including one escape attempt) before reaching his ultimate destination, the POW camp Stalag Luft III, site of the Great Escape in March 1944. He details how plans were hatched for this intricate operation, maintaining that POWs had their own kind of war to fight, even if they were no longer armed with guns and bombs.

Interview (Audio)
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Download: audio(2) (114 min.)
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»Wings of War
 Audio (Interview Excerpts) (10 items)
Trying to join the Eagle Squadron; persuaded that he could not live on the pay, so he joined the U.S. Army Air Force; training in combat tactics in anticipation of shipping out. (04:44) Picking up new B-25s in Michigan and taking them to Florida; given an envelope with instructions to be opened up two hours over the ocean; discovered they were taking southern route through South America and Ascension Island to Africa; close call coming in to Ascension; gazelle hunting in Africa with natives; sleeping on a hotel roof in Khartoum; landing in Cairo. (07:10) After arriving at base, found mission had changed; torpedo racks removed from planes and they were assigned to skip bombing: attacking ships at low level, releasing bomb just as you reach the ship, pulling up at last moment; moved on to more conventional missions from different base; not keeping track of how many missions they had been on, assuming HQ would, and they did not. (04:49)
Day he was shot down; target was air field; took off twice, called back once; shell exploded in mid-air just below them and blew them out of formation; he was still able to fly the plane; determined to finish the bombing run, though it was clear they would have to ditch; trying to crash land on beach, but there were huge boulders, and he hit one of them coming in; tending to crew's injuries; German lieutenant coming to crash site; it was his artillery shell that had done in Huppert's plane; offered to have Huppert checked over by a doctor. (12:09) Interrogation; officer dismissed guards in the room; told Huppert he already knew everything about him they needed; Huppert later found out that he was not the only one this had happened to; he was a professor who wanted to talk about geology and asked Huppert if he had been to Canada; he said he thought the war was nearly over and the Germans were going to lose; called Hitler crazy; wanted to get the war over so he could get back to teaching. (04:30) Taken to airport to help a JU-52 pilot get across the Mediterranean; night before, Germans had lost 100 planes to U.S. fighters; Huppert advised pilot to fly close to the water; in Frankfurt; put in solitary confinement, stripped and given a pair of wooden shoes; cell was primitive; a heater made it too warm; escape attempt; guards found him in their latrine; transferred to prison camp they claimed he could not escape from: Stalag Luft III. (11:08)
Put in north camp with British prisoners; fighting Germans to the end by working on escape plans; though security was supposed to be better in this camp it also held a big contingent of escape attempters; new prisoners interrogated to make sure they weren't German plants; once okayed, your skills were put to use in the escape plans; British officer Roger Bushell came up with idea of tunnels; using everyday materials to help execute the various tasks; 700-800 people involved; exchanged information in "Kriege," a code language; Germans suspected something was up but had to catch them first; meeting the head of camp security at a reunion 25 years later. (13:55) How they got rid of the dirt from all tunnels; hiding it in sacks inside their pants to empty out as they walked around; Germans finding one of the tunnels, "Tom;" the others were Dick and Harry; work on Dick stopped when Germans built a new camp near its exit; it became home to many of the camp's working shops; Harry was the Great Escape tunnel; shoring up tunnels to prevent collapse. (09:09) Great Escape: exit was short of what was planned; men backed up in tunnel; 76 people got out; of that number, 50 were captured and executed; Huppert and many Americans had been transferred out of camp, Germans figuring they were instigators; March 24-25, 1944 was when it happened; only three of the escapees made it back home. (04:47)
Readjustment to civilian life was hard for him; had both physical and psychological problems; nightmares every night; delayed release from military; working with a British film crew for a TV program about the camp; film gives Americans more credit for the planning of the breakout. (13:00)  

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  October 26, 2011
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