On May 10, 1944, a B-17 bomber named “The Memphis Belle” took off from England on its way to bomb Nazi Germany. Ten minutes later, the plane was attacked by German fighters and began to catch fire. The crew baled out of the burning plane but one man didn’t make it–the pilot’s best friend, Ralph O’Hara.

The stalag 383 prisoner list is a compilation of the names of prisoners who were held in stalag 383. It includes the date they arrived, where they were from, and their rank.

After his one and only mission with the 95th Bomb Group ended in tragedy, Bill Livingstone can still clearly remember his time as a POW.

IT WAS THE MOST EXTREMELY DISAPPOINTING NIGHT OF MY LIFE.

I’d bailed out of a flaming B-17 somewhere over Germany only hours before. Ole Worrybird’s crew had lost one member, another had leapt out ahead of the others and disappeared, and our copilot had fractured his leg and been dragged away by German troops. The remaining six of us sat in a horse stall, shivering and exchanging terrified looks. It was almost hard to sleep. We were kept awake all night by German soldiers stationed outside the door. We lamented our misfortune, thinking of the rest of the 95th Bomb Group returning to England and the comfort of their barracks. 

After attacking one of Germany’s most feared targets, the highly defended Leuna oil refinery near Merseburg, Germany, Ole Worrybird was the bomb group’s sole fatality on November 2, 1944, when he was wounded by flak and subsequently shot down by a Focke-Wulf 190 fighter. We had to collect our parachutes and march down a rural road to a tiny garrison because we were surrounded on the ground by German troops. Our kidnappers took everything precious from us there, including the watch my parents had bought me as a high school graduation gift. Our fleece-lined flying suits were also taken away, leaving us with just flight boots and our normal olive-drab wool outfits. They also took away one of our two dog tags that we wore around our necks. Then we ate cabbage soup for dinner (cabbage would become a staple for the next six months) and slept in the horse stall where the horse (and only some of his droppings) had been just taken.

We left early the following morning, escorted by two armed guards, on a five-day tour of wartime Germany, traveling by bus, rail, streetcar, and foot until arriving at our destination: the Luftwaffe interrogation facility, or Auswertestelle West (Evaluation Center West) near Frankfurt. To await interrogation, we were put in solitary confinement cells. I inquired if I might have anything to eat just before a guard shoved me into my cell, but he behaved as if he didn’t speak English. Later, I discovered that the guards spoke English well but were told not to interact with the inmates, instead listening and reporting any useful information.

Of course, the goal of solitary confinement was to tear us down and force us to reveal all we knew about the 95th Bomb Group. Then I realized, “Well, this is a wonderful opportunity to simply sit and think about things.” And I did a lot of it.

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans Bill Livingstone, the author, was imprisoned by the Germans for the last six months of the war. (Photo credit: Bill Livingstone)

THE GUARD OPENED MY CELL DOOR ON THE FOURTH DAY OF SOLITARY AND INSTRUCTED ME TO FOLLOW HIM TO AN ADJACENT OFFICE BUILDING. Before the guard knocked on one of the locked doors, we went through a few others. “Herein!” shouted a voice from inside (enter). My security welcomed me inside by opening the door and directing me inside. There was a big desk in front of a curtained window with pleasant sunlight streaming in. A cheerful Luftwaffe officer, dressed immaculately, sat behind the counter. He was a well-built man in his fifties who looked to be in his fifties. His light brown hair was neatly brushed back. The guy was a movie star—an actor in a Nazi uniform—in comparison to dirty, unwashed me. 

As soon as I went into his office, he walked around his desk, offered his hand to me, and said, “Ah, Sergeant Livingstone, please sit down.” He offered me a strong handshake and a fatherly slap on the back. He then went back around his desk and sat down, a warm grin on his face the whole time. He reached into a desk drawer and took out a printed form of some kind, along with a fountain pen, after giving me a cigarette.

My name, position, and army serial number were among the information he requested. Except for my rank, all of that information was on my additional dog tag, which was sitting on his desk. But I guess he wanted to make sure I was the rightful owner of the tag. Then he went off the rails, asking me what bomb group and squadron I was assigned to. I informed him that all I had to provide him was my name, rank, and serial number.

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans The big “B” on the tail of 95th Bomb Group B-17s at Wilhelmshaven, Germany, made them readily identifiable. (IWM EA 10750) (IWM EA 10750) (IWM EA 10750

“That’s all right, we know you were in the 95th Bomb Group,” he grinned again, this time with a smug superiority. They did, of course. On the tail of our B-17, the block letter “B,” the 95th Bomb Group’s insignia, was eight feet tall. It was impossible for the Fw 190 pilot who shot us down not to notice.

“Please tell me what your objective was the day your aircraft was shot down,” he said next, still smiling. “I can just give you my name, rank…” I replied one more. 

“Sergeant Livingstone,” he stopped me off as severely as my own commanding officer, “I don’t know how long you’ll have to stay in solitary confinement, and you won’t be allowed to go to the pleasant camp until you cooperate,” he said. He was now frowning. I was in the same boat.

He went on to ask more questions about the 95th Bomb Group’s military strength, and he warned me that I’d have to remain in that six-by-ten cage until I gave him what he wanted to know. After approximately 15 minutes, he pressed a button on his desk, and the guard entered the room again. The officer spoke to him in German and motioned for me to accompany the guard outside and back to my cell.

I was brought back to the same officer two days later. He was a little more terse this time. He asked me all the questions he didn’t know the answers to and told me that until I helped him fill out his paperwork, I wouldn’t be moved to the “good camp.” He got no further information from this interview, which lasted just around five minutes. Nonetheless, my crewmates and I were sent off to the promised camp, approximately 45 miles north, that afternoon, after five days in solitary confinement.

The International Red Cross operated the transit camp, which had no German guards on the inside but was watched over by Luftwaffe soldiers on the outside. We changed from our dirty uniforms, some of which were ragged and bloodstained, into new olive-drab winter uniforms, new G.I. shoes, new underwear, knit fatigue caps, heavy overcoats, and wool scarves knitted by some dear ladies back in the States, after what turned out to be the last shower I would have for almost six months. For the following several months, through one of Europe’s harshest winters, that brown wool scarf and I became good friends. 

We only remained for six days before departing by rail on November 19 for what turned out to be Stalag Luft IV, located near the Baltic Sea in what is today northern Poland. During the four-day journey, our train came to an abrupt halt, and we watched the crew jump off the engine and dash into the nearby woods. Approximately half of the guards also escaped there. We could hear planes roaring over the rails at the same time. When they flew up to strike a neighboring village, we could see them—American P-47 fighters. The train was not strafed because it carried a big “POW” emblem on the top of one of the carriages, but we could hear antiaircraft weapons fire nearby. 

We crossed an at-grade highway later, as I was looking out the window on the train’s south side. I saw a little sign with an arrow pointing north beside the road. “Merseburg — 10km,” it said. That’s approximately a six-mile distance. Merseburg had been our objective since the Worrybird had been shot down nearly three weeks earlier. I looked out the north side of our bus and saw the shape of the oil refinery over a flat plain in the distance. I could see bomb holes beside the road. I wondered whether some of them were the result of the bombs I had detonated from our B-17. (I was the nose gunner and the “togglier,” which meant I was in charge of the toggle switch that dropped the bombs.) They missed by a long shot, whatever they were.

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans Captured Allied airmen are escorted to the Luftwaffe interrogation facility outside Frankfurt, where they would be questioned. They’d be put in solitary confinement cells to promote collaboration; the artwork below is by Second Lieutenant Paul Canin, a B-24 navigator. Hanns-Claudius Scharff (Courtesy of Hanns-Claudius Scharff)

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans (b-24.net)

OUR TRAIN FINALLY STOPPED ON THE FOURTH DAY AT A TINY STATION IN Kiefheide, near Gross Tychow (now Tychowo, Poland). My fellow POWs and I marched two kilometers to our new camp, which had been constructed just six months earlier.

The camp for American and British airmen NCOs, Stalag Luft IV, was made up of four double barbed-wire walled complexes, or lagers, A through D, with guard towers spaced approximately 200 feet apart along the fence lines. A caution wire was placed on pegs approximately two feet above the ground about 20 feet within the barbed-wire fence. When guards saw you crossing the caution wire, you were fair game for being shot. Nearly 8,000 US Army Air Forces POWs and approximately 900 British Royal Air Force POWs were held in the camp. Ten huge barracks stood in military array in each lager (I was in Lager B), each with ten 20-foot square rooms. Each chamber held 25 soldiers, all of whom had served their time in the war and could only wait for it to finish.

We were free to wander the complex during the day, but our guards kept us confined in our barrack at night while they patrolled the area with guard dogs. The straw-filled mattresses in the double-deck bunks quickly became flat and harsh on the boards after being fluffed up. My room, Room 10, featured knotty wood walls that matched those in my Santa Barbara home’s den. The guards closed and secured one casement window with outside shutters every night. Bright lights filled the premises from outside the closed windows. Anyone discovered outdoors late at night would be shot on the spot.

We burnt pressed wood and coal dust pellets the size of golf balls in a potbellied burner near the entrance. We carefully rationed this fuel since we were only allowed a limited quantity, and we only used it during the day to keep the house semi-warm throughout that bitter winter. Because the floors were constructed approximately four feet above the ground, they were constantly chilly. This was to enable the guards and their dogs to search under the building for anybody attempting to tunnel out. We slept completely dressed beneath a single German army blanket at night. 

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans At Stalag XVIII-A, inmates play cards (Bundesarchiv N 1578 Bild-013-08 Foto: Berg, Erik)

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans The Red Cross parcels that came in camp (as well as at Stalag XVIII-A, above) supplemented the POWs’ limited German food rations and supplied money in the shape of cigarettes for betting on card games (below). Berg, Erik (Bundesarchiv N 1578 Bild-013-08)

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans (McDermott Library Special Collections, United States Air Force Academy)

In the camp, we were given two types of food: Red Cross packages and German food—usually some kind of soup—prepared in the camp’s central kitchen. The Red Cross food was packaged in one-foot-long, six-inch-high cardboard cartons. The 10-pound packages supplied a week’s worth of food for one guy; we each got approximately a third of a parcel each week. 

If heat was available, all of the Red Cross food could be consumed raw or cooked. Along with cheese, powdered milk, dried fruit, crackers or cookies, and that all-time favorite, a quarter-pound bar of Hershey’s chocolate, there were cans of good old Spam, beef stew, and something called “reconstituted butter,” as well as cheese, powdered milk, dried fruit, crackers or cookies, and that all-time favorite, a quarter-pound bar of Hershey’s chocolate. Small bars of Swan soap were also included in the packages, which were helpful for “spit baths” in our rooms and much more valuable since their wrappers were our sole supply of writing paper.

We also got mental sustenance thanks to the Salvation Army: the well-used library in our complex included several hundred volumes given by individuals in the United States and Great Britain. Without them, there would have been nothing to read save the odd German newspaper, which would have been incomprehensible to the majority. Playing cards was another popular way to pass the time. A popular game was “Red Dog,” in which the POWs gambled with cigarettes supplied in Red Cross packages. 

Christmas in Stalag Luft IV was particularly memorable. We made a kind of Christmas cake in Room 10 by melting our chocolate bars and mixing them with crumbled graham crackers. We ate it while singing Christmas songs and remembering our families back home. When we all took a piece of our cake and realized this was it, it was a weird, otherworldly moment. For the 1944 Christmas season, that was all. This was the moment when the Christmas presents were unwrapped at home. With family gathered around, we had our Christmas turkey, goose, or ham meal. This was the time of year when we thought about our mothers, fathers, sisters, siblings, and sweethearts. We were all certain that we’d be with them for Christmas the following year, but we also knew that this bittersweet moment would stay with us forever. 

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans At Stalag VII-A, inmates congregate around a makeshift stove. POWs from several Allied countries were held at the massive camp in southern Bavaria. (Photo courtesy of Ben van Drogenbroek/Museum of the United States Air Force)

WE STARTED HEARING ARTILLERY BURSTS FROM THE EAST NEAR THE END OF JANUARY 1945, AS THE SOVIET ARMY PUSHED THE Wehrmacht BACK INTO GERMANY. On January 30, we received news that we would be transferred to another prison camp the next day. The Germans tried all they could to prevent any of their POWs from being released; in the end, Hitler intended to use us as a negotiating chip. Our guards gave each of us a complete Red Cross food package the following morning. The whole complement of Lager B—roughly 1,800 men—marched out of Stalag Luft IV to a neighboring train siding at Gross Tychow, where we got onto rickety old boxcars, to the crunch of icy snow beneath our boots.

Our boxcar’s hard wooden floor was covered in a thin layer of straw, which did nothing to keep us comfortable or warm. Our toilet was a five-gallon pail. The Germans crammed 25 of us into each cramped train car. Then we all sat with our backs on the sidewalls and our legs stretched, sole to sole, our feet meeting in the middle. We had to walk over and between a floor full of legs and feet to get to the pail.

As unpleasant as it was, I subsequently learned that we were the fortunate ones: Lager B was the only one to be evacuated by train; the other lagers were forced to march 500 kilometers in one of Europe’s worst winters. It was dubbed the “Black March.”

On February 2, after dark, our train drew into the Berlin railroad marshalling yard and came to a halt. I’m not sure why—perhaps to give the crew a break. We were all sound sleeping until the air raid sirens woke us up at 10 p.m. My pulse raced; I knew we were sitting ducks for the Royal Air Force in that train yard at night. We trembled in our boots as we heard the drone of planes and the explosion of numerous bombs, expecting a direct strike. The attack appeared to go on forever, with the stench of smoke and dust in the air. The aircraft quieted, and a “all-clear” alarm sounded after a half-hour of thunder from the bombs. The following morning, at dawn, our train left the station.

On that journey, one incident stands out in my mind. One of the inmates in the boxcar ahead of ours got a fever and became very sick after we went through Berlin. Only aspirin was available from the train’s lone doctor. He died that night, according to reports, with an aspirin still in his mouth. The train came to a halt in a quiet rural location the next morning, and the guy was taken to the top of a grassy hill approximately 100 yards from the railway track on a homemade stretcher. A half-dozen of his friends buried him under a chilly cloudy sky, while the rest of us looked through the gaps in the sides of our boxcars. We were in a really unhappy place at the time, filled with despair and resentment. 

Our train arrived in the barbed-wire-enclosed Stalag XIII-D near Nuremberg, Germany, almost 300 miles southwest of Berlin, after eight terrible days. On a bright, springlike February 8, as we marched from the train to the camp, we encountered a column of approximately 500 American G.I.s heading out. We exchanged greetings, and they pleaded for food and smokes. We discovered they had been taken in what is now known as the Conflict of the Bulge by chatting back and forth as we passed each other—a battle we were unaware of since we had no, or limited, access to combat news. 

Unlike our last camp, Stalag XIII-D was for ground troops rather than air forces. There were no leisure facilities, a library, or sports equipment available. When compared to Wehrmacht troops, German Luftwaffe pilots had better facilities and pay; this disparity was mirrored in the treatment of their respective POWs. It didn’t matter, however; the spring weather was lovely. We were on the move again two months later. On April 4, with the sound of American gunfire approaching from the west, my party of approximately 500 guys marched out of Stalag XIII-D and went 75 miles south to Stalag VII-A. We marched throughout the day and slept in barns seized along the route by our guards.

One of my friends approached me as I sat on a barn floor in a tiny village in west-central Germany, munching a piece of rough brown bread, and said, “Hey Livingstone, you heard the newest rumor?”

“Where do we go from here?”

“President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away.”

“Of course, and we’ll be freed this afternoon,” says the narrator. It seemed impossible to be true. 

“I doubt it, but a Jerry [German] guard informed him the president died yesterday,” someone remarked.

In the pouring rain, we marched out that morning. As we trudged down the muddy rural road, my fellow inmates didn’t say anything. All of us were thinking about the president and our loved ones back home.

My party came to a stop around 12 p.m. when the route twisted around a little hill. I recall seeing the backs of two POWs as they struggled up the hill, knee-deep in the spring grass that made the Bavarian landscape so lovely. A bugle was carried by one of them. Even after the rain had ceased, the sky remained slate gray. The scent of wet soil and grass pervaded the cool air.

Finally, the two gentlemen came to a halt and turned to face us. “I have been informed, and I have no reason to disbelieve, that President Roosevelt died yesterday, April 12,” one of them, an officer, stated loudly enough for everyone to hear. The sergeant will play taps every now and again, and then there will be a little period of silence.”

The sergeant blew his trumpet and played the saddest tune I’d ever heard on his horn. I’m sure it could be heard for kilometers surrounding that little hilltop since the sound was clear and clean. Tears streamed down my face, and I wasn’t the only one.

We all stood quietly with our heads down when the sergeant spoke, and I heard the unashamed sobbing of a soldier somewhere among us. Then we continued marching. 

He Jumped Out of a Burning B-17—And Into the Hands of the Germans The author’s last POW camp was Stalag VII-A, but he had to wait more than a week after its release on April 29, 1945, to leave. Berg, Erik (Bundesarchiv N 1578 Bild-0106 Foto: Berg)

We were weary and relieved when we finally entered the massive, forlorn-looking Stalag VII-A on a rainy April 16 afternoon. This would be the conclusion of the march, and we would no longer be spending nights in Bavarian small-town barns. The 85-acre camp didn’t seem to be in terrible shape at first sight, but upon closer examination, I discovered it was dilapidated and overcrowded. My gang made big tents out of our bedding.

The camp had been constructed as a Polish POW camp for 10,000 inmates near Moosburg, approximately 30 miles northeast of Munich. However, as the war drew to a close, the Germans began to relocate POWs from all across Germany to the area in order to prevent them from being freed by the approaching Allied forces. According to some estimates, there were as many as 110,000 POWs on the island, including 30,000 American troops, sailors, and airmen. It was by far Germany’s biggest prison camp at the conclusion of the war.

The 14th US Armored Division’s Combat Command A invaded the camp on April 29, 1945, and liberated it. We’d been hearing artillery for a week and most of the guards had already left, leaving just a skeleton staff, so we knew our time as detainees was coming to an end. POWs flocked around the first American tank to arrive, but the camp went crazy when an emaciated but determined-looking POW shimmied up the flagpole, tore down the Nazi insignia, and replaced it with the old Stars and Stripes.

However, we weren’t going anywhere for a while. “Expect to stay here all summer, ha. ha,” I wrote in my journal on May 6. Finally, on May 8, we got up at 4 a.m., packed onto the backs of US Army vehicles, and drove 10 kilometers northeast to Landshut. A Luftwaffe facility with a large airfield located around 10 kilometers beyond Landshut. My party of 30 soldiers waited for two and a half hours while hundreds of American and British ex-POWs were flown out of Germany on sturdy old C-47s to Le Havre, France. Finally, it was our time. The four-and-a-half-hour trip, which was hampered by headwinds, was the most difficult I’d ever taken—absolutely white-knuckle time for all of us. We found out after landing at Le Havre that Germany had surrendered while we were in the air. What a wonderful sensation. We were finally free, really emancipated.

It’s not only about being free to go; it’s also about being able to return home.

THE INTRODUCTION


The first half of Bill Livingstone’s war tale, “Worry Aboard Ole Worrybird,” was published in the October 2022 edition. It’s called “The Day a B-17 Gunner’s First Mission Became His Last” on the internet.

This story appeared in World War II’s October 2022 edition.

The b-29 superfortress is a plane that was used during World War II. It was specifically designed to be able to carry heavy bombs and fly at high altitudes.

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