John H. Chaffin
Part I: Alone, Apprehensive and Afraid
Part II: Events Experienced Before Settlement at Stalag Luft III
Part III: Kriegie Stories
Part IV: The Worst of Days
Part V: Stalag VII A Moosburg
John Chaffin: Memories of World War II by John Chaffin,
Pilot: B-17, Eighth Air Force, 95th Bomb Group, 335 Bomb Squadron. 1996.
Reproduction kindly permitted.
Alone, Apprehensive and Afraid
By Flight Officer John H. Chaffin
Note: After I arrived at Stalag Luft III, I acquired a bound, blank paged book in which I recorded data regarding my last mission, trying to escape from Germany and events which transpired between the time when I was captured and arrival at the prison camp. That material is simply a record of what happened; written in third person. This present short story attempts to portray the mental struggle which occurred in the mind of a twenty-two year old bomber pilot, after having to bail out of a crippled war plane, during the first twenty-four hours when alone and the subsequent twenty-four hours following capture. Notes for this essary are recorded in my War Log Book.
In reading this story one is reminded, and should always keep in mind, that it involves may life as it was in the summer of 1943. At that time, the most important people in my life were my parents, brother, Eldon Broman, with whom I shared more than most two men could ever share, and a seventeen year old college girl named Ruth Walker. I had courted Ruth by correspondence and in person from January, 1941 until I returned home in June, 1945. I loved her and she had said many times in her letters, in person and in phone calls that she loved me. I expected to marry her. I mention this only that the reader may understand why it was natural that so much of my thoughts during the forty-eight hours that this story covers should have been about her.
"How strange this is." I'm in a parachute, drifting downward at a thousand feet a minute toward German territory. My left boot came off when the parachute opened, my helmet, goggles and oxygen mask are gone. I can hear the sound of machine-gun fire fading away into the west.
"Well, damn, there is a P-47. - You guys are a few minutes too late."
Just a few short minutes ago I had been fighting a roaring inferno in the cockpit of our B-17, "Fritz Blitz," and Broman pulled my arm and pointed down. Our communication system was not working, our oxygen system was feeding the fire and, although the plane was still flying, it was time to leave before it blew up...
"Think, now. I remember fastening my chute on my harness and tugging at it to be sure it was secure. I remember thrusting my feet through the nose hatch and falling - falling and pulling with both hands at the sides of the chute pack to be sure that one of them pulled the "D" ring. - And that is all...
"And now, here I am at twenty-four thousand feet minus a little. It is 1635 and I hope to hell that a German fighter pilot doesn't use me for target practice. I wonder what happened to the other guys. - These damned buckles are digging into my groin and hurt like hell."
The parachute harness has two large buckles which end up right against my groin - each side. The upward pull of the parachute riser lines forces the buckles, painfully, into my groin.
"OK, now, just take ahold of the harness straps and pull the buckles out away from your body. There that is much better. - What-thu-hell, now I'm swinging back and forth and it is getting to my stomach. That's odd. I've never been airsick before. OK, let go the buckles, raise your arms up over your head and pull on the risers. Good! That stopped the swinging...
"Darn, I wish I hadn't lost my boot. My foot is about to freeze. Pull it up and rub it a little! Oh, hell, I've got to do something with those damned buckles again. Maybe this time I won't start swinging."
A pattern was established. Rub my foot, lift the buckles for a moment and then pull on the risers to stop swinging. This will continue for twenty-four minutes.
"Damn, but it is quiet. Not a sound. No sensation of falling. I can't see another parachute anywhere; no planes now. This is about as alone as I have ever been in my life. My life! What am I going to do...
"They have told us that we must try to escape if we are shot down. Try to get into the hands of the underground. How in the name of hell do I do that? Can't speak German. Don't know where I will be or which way to go...
"I wonder if there will be soldiers waiting for me to hit the ground? What if there is no one? What do I do? Hide? What if I can get away and I do somehow get into the underground in Belgium or France? It will be months before Mama and Dad know that I am alive...
"They will be told in a few days that I am missing in action, but they will have no way of knowing that I am alive and not seriously hurt. They are going to be so worried. Ruth will be worried for awhile but she is a college girl and shouldn't have any trouble finding some one else...
"Gawddamn the luck anyway. Only three more missions. We should have gone to the rest home. Get off that, you dummy. Bro and I agreed that we wanted to keep flying...
"What am I going to do. I guess I will try to escape. Hell, I don't even know how to go about giving myself up. I will have to find a place to hide."
The German countryside was beginning to come into sharper focus. I could see the groves of trees, the fields and finally I saw a little barn.
"Ah, there's a hiding place. Not good. They have told us that a barn is the worst place to hide because it is the first place the Germans will look. But damn! I can't see any other place. That will have to be it. Looks like I am going to hit pretty close to it. I had better get ready to hit the ground. I'm going to hit right by that grove of trees."
Whoosh! Bam! Suddenly with a roar of wind in my ears, I am on the ground. My parachute caught in the pine trees at my side. The ground is soft sand but I have hurt my ankle - the one with the boot; not the bare one.
"Come on, now. Get that chute down. Get the Mae West off and hide them. You've got to hurry. There are a bunch of people coming down that road. Hurry! Hurry! Cover this stuff up with leaves; now run. The barn is there across the road, about two hundred yards from here. You once ran two hundred and twenty yards in just under twenty-three seconds, now run like hell for the barn. Never mind the bare foot nor the ankle. - Gawd, it hurts...
"Here, I made it. Damn sure not a good hiding place but there is no where else. Get up in the loft. Its full of hay. Crawl down into the eve; cover up now - all the way down.
Just in time, there are people down below. Didn't take them long to get here...
"Be very still. One of them is here in the loft. He is walking all around; kicking the hay. He can't reach me. Gawd, I wonder if he can hear my heart. I'm not even breathing but my heart is pounding like a drum. Now, what?"
Down below, one of the pursuers was poking a sharp stick or rod of some kind up between the joists. (small tree trunks placed two or three inches apart to form the floor of the loft) They were sure that I was hiding in the barn and thought they might find me this way. Suddenly my mind was filled with thoughts about a movie I had seen many years before.
One scene of this movie involved a small Christian boy being smuggled out of Rome in wooden-wheeled cart filled with cabbages. The soldier, who inspected the cart before passing it on through the city gate, plunged his sword into the cabbages and into the leg of the little boy. The little boy remained silent.
"What if that bastard down there sticks me with a sword or a bayonet? Will I cry out? Now they are leaving. I wonder if they left a look-out? I'll stay where I am for awhile."
The searchers were gone for about ten minutes and then returned. The stood down below, talking. They must have been really puzzled for they knew that they had watched me come down in the parachute. I'm sure they found the chute so they knew I must be near and yet I seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
Finally they left and I was alone. I could not be sure; however, that they had not left someone to watch for me, so I remained under the hay for another hour. When it began to get dark I decided that I could not lie there any longer. I was all alone.
"Now what do I do? I at least was not captured immediately, but what now? Well, first, take stock of your resources. Look at the escape kit...
"OK, it has a map, a compass, some money (French francs), a knife, a rubber bag for water, some chlorine tablets to purify the water, some pep pills, cigarettes and chocolate. They said not to take the pep pills unless we just had too and to have a hiding place within about six hours for your energy would be completely used up. I don't need those...
"Its dark. I'll just start walking southwest and for now try to put as much distance as possible between me and this spot. Glad I was a Boy Scout. Look at the stars - there that is Polaris, that's north. OK. Guess I had better stay off the road. Earl Flynn did this in a movie and he went across the country side. That's what I'll will do. Poor Mom! She will be so worried. And what about Ruth. Will she forget me now?"
I started out intending to stay off the roads, although there did not seem to be any traffic at night. I would stay in the country, however. Then I learned that German farms are not like farms in Texas. They are very small. I would travel for a short distance and dogs would begin to bark signaling that I was approaching a farm house. Change direction and go around.
"Boy, this damn sure ain't like Earl Flynn. Dew has fallen and my foot, which has nothing but a sock is soaking wet and cold. Careful now, you are about to walk right into an irrigation channel or little river. Get out the rubber bag and chlorine tablets. I want a drink. It has been a long time since two-o'clock this morning...
"All right, let's try this way for awhile. Ah shit. Now what have I stepped in? Cows must be out here in the daytime and I just found where one went to the toilet. Had to be my damned bare foot too. To hell with this. I'm giving up this Earl Flynn stuff and am going to walk out in a road. If I get caught, so be it. I almost want to be caught. I don't know what I'm doing anyway."
It was about ten o'clock at night. I had no idea how far I had walked, and certainly no idea of where I was. As I walked along the road at one point, I passed a farm house. The owner had just come out to close a barn door. I waved at him and kept walking. He waved back and said something in German, which I did not understand. I kept walking on down the road. I came to an intersection and was surprised to discover in the center of the intersection a crucifix: -
"What is this? By golly, it a statue of Christ on the cross. I thought Hitler closed all of the churches and destroyed all of the icons. They must have missed this one out here in the country. If I was a good Catholic I would ask him to help me out of the mess I'm in but I don't think God really has any time for someone like me any more than he has for the German fighter pilot that shot us down. - Come on, keep walking."
I walked until about two o'clock in the morning. By then I was very cold - the A-2 jacket is more for looks than for keeping the wearer warm - both my feet hurt. One was cold and wet and the other was throbbing. I must have turned it pretty good when I hit the ground.
Finally, I discovered a small pine forest, or woods. I thought I must have walked ten miles or more and decided that, If I could find a hiding place, I could rest and make plans for the next day. In the moonlight, I found a small clump of bushes over into the woods aways. German forest and not natural. All of the trees are in perfect rows and there is almost no underbrush. I found the only bushes in the whole area. It was not much of a hiding place but it would have to do.
"Can I sleep like this. So cold. I've slept on the ground before but it has been a long time. Can I make a shoe out of the top of my boot? What am I going to do for food? Can I steal something? - food? maybe a pair of shoes? from a farm house? Probably not. The damned dogs won't let me get close. Will I ever see Ruth again? I wonder what she did this Sunday afternoon when we were getting the hell shot out of us? Well, I'm alive anyway and, now, just have to wait until tomorrow. I must sleep a little...
"Daylight! Guess I slept a little. Wish I could get up and stretch a little. I'm stiff as a board from sleeping on this cold ground. I can't do that, though...
"You sure picked a helluva place to hide! It sounds like there is a farmer right over there plowing in a field. Sounds like he is working a team. Damn! I'm going to have to stay here all day."
Looking around, without getting out from under the bushes, I could see through the trees a big farm house about one hundred yards away in one direction. I could not see the man plowing in the field off to the north but I could hear him all day. I was, in a manner of speaking, trapped. All that I could do was lie there all day wishing I could smoke and wishing I had some water. My sprained ankle hurt. I pass the time making idle plans about how far I might walk when it got dark again. I pass the time thinking about home. I wonder about Broman and Fowler and Guiteras and about Chuck Forney. This was bad luck for him. He wanted to get back on flying status with a crew of his own. Too bad.
About four-thirty I was beginning to feel much better about my chances. I still had no idea what I was going to do except walk, but at least I was still free. - Miserable, hungry, thirsty, cold and afraid of the unknown, but I was still free. And then my freedom came to an end.
Three men were walking through the woods hunting squirrels or rabbits. Only one of them had a gun and he walked straight up to my bushes: -
He shook the bushes a little as if to scare a small animal out. He had an old double-barreled shot-gun. And then he saw me! His eyes widened and he started raising the gun. He was not too sure just what he had found.
"No shoot," he responded and lowered the gun.
I crawled out from under the bushes, stretched and keeping my hands up over my head, moved over to him.
He was a nice looking blonde haired man who appeared to be about forty-five or fifty. He did not look as if he wanted to shoot me. He started to search me for a gun: -
"Pistole? Kein pistole?
"He seems surprised that I do not have a gun."
"No gun," I answer, and shrug my shoulders.
He motions for me to go with them - the other two had joined him soon after he found me under the bushes. We went to the big farm house and then, surprisingly, he gave his gun to one of his companions, picked up an old bicycle and motioned for me to go with him.
It was a beautiful fall day. The azure sky was cloudless, there was no wind and I could hear birds singing as we walked along a little narrow road through the trees. After a couple hundred yards we came to a bigger road. He knew enough English for us to talk and once in awhile I could understand a German word which was similar to English.
His home was in Emden and had been blown up by a bomb, which is why he was living on this farm. He showed me a large, ugly scar on his left arm, -
"Welt krieg ein!" and he smiled. "Wohen ist ihre heim?" - Live?
"Oh, you mean where do I live. I live in Texas."
"Texas, ja! Big ja? Married?"
I was wearing my pilot graduation class ring but naively, had turned it over so that the big setting was in my palm. This made the plain ring resemble a wedding band. He pointed to his own wedding ring.
"No. No wife. Just a girl I will make my wife some day."
"You have money?"
I took the francs out of my escape kit and started to give them to him. -
"What the hell, I didn't need them and he looked like a nice guy."
There were people working in the fields very close to the road. I know that he wanted the money but he was afraid that one of them would see him so he held up his hands, refusing to take the bills.
I nodded and said yes, I was hungry. It was about five PM Monday evening and I had not had anything to eat since two AM the day before.
"Am I hungry? I should be but not as much as I would expect. Excitement must be why."
He yelled at some people in the field. I could understand enough to know that he was telling them who I was and where he found me.
We walked about two miles and came to the edge of a small town. The town policeman's house was there on the edge of town. This was his destination. He explained to the policeman where he had found me, told him that I was hungry and he should give me something to eat. He shook my hand and: -
"Good luck. For you das kelt ist uber!
The policeman took me into his house, his wife took me into their dining room and brought me bread and a glass of milk. They had a little girl - about nine, I guessed. She came and tried to talk with me. She was studying English in school and did right well. I offered her chewing gum and she did not know what it was. She refused it.
When I finished my bread and milk I left the table and told the policeman that I was finished. He had me get on a little motorcycle behind his back and off we went into the town and the local jail.
German military officers and their police officers carry their pistols in a holster high up on their hip. It would have been very easy to have taken this officers gun from his holster during the first few minutes of our ride, for I was sitting behind him with both my hands resting on his shoulders. Suddenly he remembered the gun and almost turned us over as he anxiously grabbed the holster and pulled it around to his abdomen. I just laughed to my self: -
"What can I do with his gun? I'm no Earl Flynn. I damned sure can't shoot my way out of this town - hell, I don't know how to ride a motorcycle. Have only been on one twice before in my life. - Bob Ballard bought an old Indian when we were at Ellington and he took me for a ride on it - only once! He was a wild man!...
"Besides, I couldn't shoot this guy after the way he treated me. I guess I am just a little relieved that my running is over. I didn't know what-in-the-hell I was going to do anyway."
The policeman took me to the town jail. It was a very ancient look, large, stone structure. The cell was about eight feet by six feet with the ceiling at least ten feet up from the floor. The door was solid steel with a small--about eight inches by eight inches - window. Hung from one wall was an iron bunk with a thin mattress. The concrete floor was just a little damp - probably because it was cold and the air was quite humid.
I was not there in the cell more that about fifteen minutes when a small crowd of local citizens gathered outside the cell door. They were murmuring to themselves and taking turns at looking through the window at the "kriegsgefangenan" - a luft flieger! One old looking man talked the guard into letting him into the cell with me for a closer look. He noticed my ring: -
He pointed to his own wedding ring. I could guess what he was asking. I just shook my hear. The guard then made them all leave."
"Alone again. What a relief. I was afraid they might want to lynch me. Now what is going to happen. They gave us a lecture once about what to expect if we were shot down but it was not like this. I guess I'm not afraid to die. For awhile when the fighters were coming in so close on us and so many I thought that I might. I thought those villagers might want to hurt me. So far though I am all right...
"Never before in my life have I been so totally blank about the future - the next hour, tomorrow and beyond? I've heard of prisoner-of-war camps but how do I get from where I am now to a prisoner of war camp. What will they do to me. They told us that we could expect to be interrogated and that all we could say was our name, rank and serial number. Will they believe me. I have no insigna and didn't even wear my dog-tags around my neck this time. I can't prove who or what I am...
"Have Mama and Dad been notified. They will be so worried. What will Ruth think? What will she do? Oh, God! How I wish I was back at the base waiting to fly the last three missions. Fly? Will I ever fly again. I wonder where Allan is, and Robert and Dayton and Sparky? I've never been so alone before in my life."
After another hour passed, Luftwaffe personnel came for me. I was put in the back of a truck in which there was two or three other captured airmen. They were as apprehensive as I was. We would not even look at each other. One of them might be a spy - a German put in with us to hear what we might say: -
"Talk to no one and say nothing but your name, rank and serial number."
That was our only certain instructions.
The truck made several stops and picked up a total of about twelve airmen. Another mission had been flown that day and a lot of planes shot down. Some of these men were also from the Munster mission the day before.
We were taken to a fighter airbase and put in the base guard house. I was put in the cell with another pilot - a second Lieutenant who was also from my squadron. I had not met him previously. It took us at least fifteen minutes of eyeing each other before we began to identify ourselves.
We were given a bowl of cabbage soup. It was thin but hot and delicious. A guard brought me some hot water which had something in it that was supposed to help my injured ankle. By now my whole foot was a dark purple color.
The next morning, I was taken to the office of an officer. I guessed that he was the fighter group commander because he wore pilots wings and seemed to be in charge. On his desk was the remains of my escape kit. There was only a few crumbs of chocolate left, and most of the cigarettes were gone from the opened package. -
"Oh, God, how I would like to have one of those."
I was placed in front of the desk facing this officer. I saluted him and he returned the salute and then: -
"What kind of plane were you flying?"
I shook my head and told him I was not allowed to tell him that.
"What was your target, and did you drop your bombs."
Again I shook my head.
"What shot you down. Was it one of our fighters or anti-aircraft fire?"
"Sir, you know that all I am allowed to tell you is my name rank and serial number."
He signaled to one of the soldiers waiting there and told him to take me to a large closet and search for some boots.
In the closet was all kinds of material that had been taken from shot down B-17s. In all of it, I finally found a pair of American fur lined flying boots. These boots were intended to slip over regular shoes and not designed as walking boots but at least they gave me covering for each foot. I would wear these until I reached the prison camp.
After a couple of more hours a group of us were placed in the charge of a young corporal to be escorted to Frankfurt - a two day trip by train.
Forty eight hours had passed since we took off from our base in England for our twenty-second mission. I was totally alone for almost all of the first twenty-four and a captured airman for the next twenty-four. I had no idea what he future held - either the immediate future as I was in transient to a prison camp, or what being a prisoner of war was going to be like or what the more distant future would hold for me. But now I was alive and thought that I would surely survive. Mama, Dad and Ruth would learn my situation some day and only time would answer the big questions.
I was on my way to becoming kriegsgefangenan number 3032.