My World War II POW Experience
As told by Walter J. Nachtwey
Second Lieutenant Walter J. Nachtwey
We begin this month with the first part of a six-part series featuring the recollections of the late Walter J. Nachtwey, a WWII veteran from North Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Walter was a B-17 pilot who was eventually shot down over Germany and spent nearly two years in Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner of war camp made famous by the film The Great Escape. Not too long ago, Walter’s family donated artifacts to the EAA AirVenture Museum which placed the pieces in an exhibit about prisoners of war. That piqued the interest of Warbirds member Patrick Gaffney who looked further into Walter’s story and found the following narrative compiled by his sister Olive Langlois and his daughter Mary Bond, based on recordings made by Walter in 2000.
You’ve got to start with “there I was” in order to get there in the first place. So there I was, 26 years old and fresh out of flight training in the B-17E at Wendover, Utah. It was early in 1943. We completed squadron training at Mitchell City, South Dakota, and flew to the replacement depot at Sioux City, Iowa. This is where we were loaded for combat. We had all the guns and ammunition, records, and stuff like that which belonged to the squadron. From there, we went on to Michigan, then Bangor, Maine.
At Bangor, the number three engine was burning oil, so while we returned to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, for an engine change, the rest of the group went on ahead. After the repair, we flew the northern route from Bangor to points north, and from there we were supposed to go to Greenland. Well, Greenland was socked in – clouds all the way. So we headed for Iceland and landed at Reykjavik on three engines. Number three engine was still eating oil. We put down at Reykjavik, had the mechanics mess around with the engine, and we took off for Prestwick, Scotland, the next day. From there, we were supposed to fly to a place called Bovingdon, England.
Bovingdon was a replacement depot for the 8th Air Force B-17s coming into England. At that time, the United States had not been flying too long out of England. The British had been flying missions for a couple of years, since 1939 or 1940. The first raids that the Americans flew were from the 100th Group, and that was in the latter part of 1942. So there we were in the first part of ’43, and we didn’t know anything about combat flying. Of course, none of the guys did when they first got over there. We knew how to shoot machine guns and how to fly formation, which was all there was to it as far as we were concerned.
We flew around England for a week or two trying to position ourselves on the island, because England, at that time, was nothing but a series of landing fields. A takeoff landing strip would lead on to the landing strip of the next airdrome. It was pretty hard to tell one apart from the other – all these little towns with their landing strips.
The place we were assigned to was called Kimbolton. It was sort of a quaint little town like you see on Christmas cards. The houses with thatched roofs, the church steeples, narrow roads – stuff like that. Of course, I didn’t get into town but one time. Most of the time we were flying in order to accustom ourselves to finding where we were. We had to do this because when you came back from a mission you wouldn’t necessarily come back in formation. Guys would straggle back, and they would have to find their home base. To me, one home base looked just like the other from the air. That was sort of up to the navigator to know this stuff. Of course, if the navigator was shot, you could land at any field and they would take care of you.
The radar that was used then was real primitive. We had heard about it, and believe it operated like this. The British had a system where they would send a directional radio beam from one end of the island and another directional beam from the other end of England. Where the two beams crossed would be right over the target. So all you had to do was fly out one beam, and when you ran into the crossbeam, push the button. Theoretically, this is the way it worked before modern radar.
We were flying raids at between 25,000 and 30,000 feet. When you got up above 14,000 feet, you had to be on oxygen all the time. Even in the summertime at that altitude, the temperature was down around 60 to 70 degrees below zero.
Nachtwey during a training flight
The B-17s were open aircraft. The waist guns were large open windows with machine guns sticking out. There was also an opening up top with another machine gun, and then the radio shack. There was no cabin pressure, so when you got up to altitude, the reduced pressure on your stomach would pull the gas right out of you. There was only one place for it to go, and that was down and out.
Needless to say, it was cold. We wore heavy sheepskin-lined flight suits – like bib overalls that came way up to your chest with zippers down the side. These were about an inch thick with wool on the inside. We also wore big, heavy boots that pulled on over your shoes and several pairs of gloves. The first pair was made of silk, then knit gloves over that, and then leather gloves over that. All the guys wore goggles, and the oxygen mask covered what the goggles didn’t.
The oxygen supply was called a “demand system.” We didn’t have pure oxygen all of the time. You would breathe some air, and when you needed oxygen, it was supplied. There were big oxygen tanks located beneath the floor where the pilot and copilot sat.
We wore fleece-lined leather helmets with built-in radio receivers. The oxygen masks also had what they called a “throat mike.” This was a microphone that strapped around your throat, and there was a little button located on each side. You didn’t need to pick up a microphone with your hand – all you had to do was push a button on the control column and talk. It would go into the rest of the airplane, or if the radio operator had the channel open, it would go out over the radio to the other aircraft. You weren’t supposed to do that, though – break radio silence, that is. The Germans could check the directional beams from the radio and tell how high we were, and stuff like that. Once in a while, guys would talk back and forth between airplanes, but not too often, because if the commander of the group knew who was doing it and you made it back to base, you would be sure to hear about it. There were usually 10 fellas in a B-17 – four officers and six sergeants. The officers were the pilot, copilot, bombardier, and navigator. All the rest were enlisted personnel…sergeants.
The B-17E, the same model flown by Walter Nachtwey
There was an engineer who was also the top turret gunner. He was in charge of seeing that the engines ran smoothly on takeoff, and when we got into combat, he was in charge of the top turret guns. This was a Sperry gyroscope controlled turret, which could traverse 360 degrees around over the top in any direction except down. He had two .50-caliber machine guns – which were rather large guns.
There were two waist gunners, one on each side of the aircraft. The ball turret gunner and the radio operator were located toward the rear of the ship, past the bomb bay where the big bombs were kept. And of course, the tail gunner was at the tail of the ship. Each plane had 11 heavy machine guns.
We could carry as many as 10 500-pound bombs. These bombs had little propellers on the front of them. The bombardier would pull a small wire that activated these propellers, so that when the bombs dropped through the air, the propellers would turn arming the bomb. This procedure wasn’t done until just before it was time to drop the bombs over the target. Sometimes, a bomb or bombs would get hung up in the bomb bay, and then they had to be carried back to base. The plan was to drop them in the English Channel on the way back, but if they were still hung up, we had to land with them on board. That’s when we all held our breath.
The bombardier had a Norden bombsight that you may have heard of, which was supposed to be a top-secret thing. It was arranged so that in case we had to land with the airplane intact in enemy territory, we could flip a switch and this bombsight would blow up so that it didn’t fall into German hands. I’m pretty sure that the Germans had more than one working American Norden bombsight, along with the blueprints on how to build one long before we were even over there. I’d bet my bottom dollar on it.
The Norden bombsight. Courtesy: John Hayden, EAA Chapter 182.
I was in the copilot position. My pilot was Captain Dollarheide, an ex-Cavalry officer. When I came for training in a B-17 at Wendover, Utah, I had already been through training for single-engine fighter planes. I kind of got suckered into training in the four-engine. I had never even seen a plane with four engines before. So we had to learn real fast. That was in January of 1943. By April of ’43, I was expected to fly in combat situations.
There were 24 B-17s in a group, in four squadrons of six. The lead squadron was generally led by the commanding officer of the group, usually a colonel or lieutenant colonel. I was a second lieutenant, and my pilot was a captain. The pilot would fly during takeoff since this was the most hazardous time of the flight. There are other groups all taking off – maybe six or eight groups of 24 planes each – all taking off at about the same time. And it was dark, not even sunup yet.
You had to get up about 3:30 or 4 in the morning, and get into your gear. You didn’t shower or shave – you did that the night before. What you tried to do was get a little bit of sleep, wake up when they hollered at you, and get all your stuff ready, get down to the mess hall – if there was one. You tried to eat some scrambled eggs made out of powdered eggs, or maybe some oatmeal or both, and maybe some hot coffee. Some guys didn’t feel like eating because your guts are kind of – you know – you don’t really know what’s going to happen to you.
Then you headed over to the briefing. All the officers gathered in this big Quonset hut. And the colonel got up there near a big map, and he said, “Today we’re going here.” He would point to the map and tell which direction we’d be coming in and all the technical stuff on how to get there, and so forth. The four officers of the crew attended the briefing, because if the pilot got shot, the next guy had to take over, and if he got shot, the next guy would take over, and so on.
This actually happened in one instance that I know of. A guy from North Fond du Lac, Wisconsin [Hanford Erickson’s brother], the top turret gunner, was the only one left able to take over. The pilot was killed, and the copilot was wounded to the point where he couldn’t do anything. This kid came out of the top turret and flew the plane. Every once in a while he’d get back to man the top turret, and then back down to the controls. He would switch on the automatic pilot and it would stay on heading. And he actually landed his plane safely! He died about five or six years ago [approximately 1994].
You can always tell who’s in your group because on the huge tail of a B-17 is printed your squadron identification. My squadron was the 379th Bomber Group identified with a triangle “K” printed on both sides of the tail. Our 24 planes of the group had the same symbol. After takeoff, some of the guys would fly pretty close to one another. They would maneuver around – circle and wait and wait – then others would come up and form on them. You knew where you were supposed to be within the group. We were staggered and would cover each other.
An example of a Quonset hut. These are at Royal Air Force (RAF) Cammeringham (formerly RAF Ingham) and were used by RAF bomber command from 1940 to 1945. Courtesy: Wikipedia.
This was our group’s third mission. It was June of 1943. I was actually flying the plane on this raid because the copilot sat in the seat on the right and our ship was positioned way to the left. Captain Dollarheide was a little guy, and we were flying a little bit higher than the plane on our right wing. Dollarheide couldn’t see over the top of me or around me to see out my window. So I did the flying since I could see the plane on the right of us.
When the lead squadron of the lead group had to take evasive action, all the other planes in the squadron had to move in sequence. These things didn’t move too fast, not like a fighter. You had these heavy bombers loaded with tons of bombs, and they sort of just lumbered along. A bomber didn’t have the speed. A fighter could go three or four hundred miles per hour. Wide open, the B-17 could go maybe 170 or 180 downhill.
After we got into formation, and the group and the squadrons were pretty well lined up, we headed east over the channel. It was now starting to get light, and you could see the other side – the land. The closer you got, the more the palms of your hands began to sweat. You didn’t know what the hell was going to happen – when, if, how, or why. You got real nervous! When we got over land, we knew we were in enemy territory. Then nothing happened! Where was everybody? What did these guys look like?
Well, you found out soon enough! The Germans had a pretty good general idea of where we were going, because there were certain types of factories, like the Ruhr Valley, for example. Our raid was the farthest inland that American bombers had to fly up to that time. Our target was a synthetic rubber plant. The way it worked was that the navigator had to know where we were going. The briefing told about all of this. The target might be over here, but the whole group would fly off in the other direction. They would come over a town that may have been designated as “the initial point.” We turned on that initial point, and from then on to the target, you had to fly very straight and level – no maneuvering – not a bit. This is when the bomb bay doors were opened.
From five miles up, if we were just slightly off, the bombs would be way off target. That’s why we couldn’t do precision bombing. We didn’t have smart bombs that’ll go right in the window of a house like they have nowadays. It was a sort of semi-saturation bombing of an industrial area. Some bombs would land in the cornfields, some would unfortunately hit people’s houses, but most of them would go where they were supposed to go.
The lead bombardier had a bombsight with a telescope. When he was straight and level and everything lined up, he threw a switch, and the pilot couldn’t fly the plane then. The bombsight flew the airplane – actually, it took over the flight of the plane. When he got to a point where the crosshairs on his scope intersected, he pushed a button and the bombs dropped out. In all the other aircraft, the bombardiers were watching the lead airplane, which was usually positioned up higher. When each one saw the first bomb come out, he hit the button in his airplane. So all the bombs from all 24 B-17s [eight or 10 bombs from each] all dropped out at the same time.
Junkers Ju-88. Courtesy: Wikipedia.
After the bombs are dropped, the aircraft would lift in the air slightly because it had just lost several tons of weight. If the target area was industrial like ball-bearing factories and synthetic rubber plants, the city would be heavily fortified. They had gun emplacements that could shoot more than five miles into the air. There were maybe hundreds of them all around the area.
Some of their airplanes, like the Ju-88, would fly up to us as we were coming in. They’d stay a couple hundred yards to one side, but at the same speed and altitude. Then they would radio down to the gunners on the ground and be able to give them our speed and altitude. That’s when all hell broke loose. The air was filled with what looked like black puffs of smoke. These were actually bullets or flak. What we had to fly through was about six inches in diameter and 18 to 24 inches long. Hundreds of these guns were all fired at the same time.
If the Germans were “on,” things would get rough. It took some time for them to get our positions and for the bullets to get from the ground up to our altitude. So after you did the straight and level stuff and dropped the bombs, you took evasive action to get the hell out of there. Evasive action of several squadrons of B-17s wasn’t easy to accomplish. If we headed off in one direction and they missed us, the next time we would fly into that area. It was sort of how well you could outguess them.
The German 88-millimeter antiaircraft gun. Courtesy: Wikipedia.
Along with the flak came the fighter planes. They flew in formation way out off to one side and then pulled out ahead of us since they were much faster. Then they would turn in on us because they had to aim their airplanes where they wanted to shoot. Our gunners could swivel their guns around, but the fighters had fixed guns – six machine guns on the wings and a 20-millimeter cannon out the nose. They came right at us – head on!
One fighter came swooping at us, and the guy was in the cockpit grinning. Usually when they got near us, they’d flip over on their back and pull down because they had armor plates under their sets but nothing up front except the engine. Those guys must have been brave – or crazy. They would fly right into our group of 24, all of which were firing back at them.
That’s when they got us – just after the bomb run.