My World War II POW Experience - Part 2Evade and capture
As told by Walter J. Nachtwey
A B-17 on fire after an encounter with a Bf 109. Courtesy: Aviapedia.com
A local newspaper report of Nachtwey’s MIA status.
This month is Part 2 of the recollections of the late Walter J. Nachtwey, 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. Walter finished flight training in early 1943 and was flying combat missions out of England by June. As his bombardment group was flying its third mission things started to unravel, right after the bomb run, just after they started for home.
Our place in the squadron was way over on the left, which was called the “Purple Heart corner.” To my amazement, the oil pressure on number three engine read zero! It started smoking and then caught on fire, and the propeller started to turn real fast! This was called “running away.” We tried to feather it and that didn’t work. We closed the cowl flaps, pushed the extinguisher button, and it didn’t do a damn thing! The fire was squirting out all over. This was right alongside me on the wing. It looked like it was melting the wing.
The group kept going and we fell back. When I looked over to Dollarheide, I could see that number two engine was also on fire. So now we had two engines both squirting fire like mad! That’s when “Pappy” Dollarheide said to me, “Get out!” There was a button he pushed to sound the Klaxon throughout the plane. “Bail out, bail out, bail out!”
In between the pilot’s and copilot’s seat was a hole in the floor that led down to where the navigator and bombardier sat. There was an emergency escape door located near them. I got down that far, and the airplane started to spin down. The centrifugal force was strong; I was grabbing oxygen pipes trying to pull myself toward the escape door that was wide open against the airstream.
I tried to jump out headfirst. I got halfway out, and the seat pack of the parachute caught on the top of the door! There I was, hanging halfway out, halfway in, and the plane was going “ass over teakettle.” One time it would be real hot, and then it would be real cold. I think this was because number two engine was right there – burning like mad!
Then it felt like something was kicking me in the butt. I don’t know whether it was one big kick or a series of kicks. But I was trying to pull myself back inside so that possibly the chute would fall against my body and give me enough room to drop through. I asked a local parish priest [Father Berringer] if it could have been possible that an angel was kicking me. He said, “Anything is possible.”
Anyway, next thing I knew, I was out. I knew that I was falling on my back. The wind was hitting part of my face, making tears come to my eyes. I didn’t open the parachute right away because S-2 intelligence had told us they heard that German fighter pilots would use us for target practice. I kept looking down and over my shoulder. When the trees started looking like grass, I pulled the ripcord and the chute popped open.
There was burning junk falling all around me. The plane must have lost its wings. When the parachute snapped open, I think it knocked me unconscious momentarily. I came to, and my tongue felt funny. I think maybe when the chute opened, I must have bitten my tongue, because some blood was coming out of my mouth.
So I was hanging in the parachute, drifting down. I could see that the area was wooded countryside like farmland in Wisconsin – patches of bushes, woods, and open areas. I was sort of drifting backwards – I didn’t know how to steer the thing. You didn’t get to practice jumping. They just told you to pull the cord and hope it worked. If it didn’t work, you’d get your money back, I guess. Mine opened, and so did most of them that the guys used.
Over to one side of a patch of woods was what looked like a haystack with a bunch of men around it. They were pitching some kind of stuff onto this horse-drawn cart. I was drifting toward the other side of the woods, so when I landed, the woods would be between them and me. On the way down, I could see the body of an airplane without the wings. It was burning fiercely, and I could hear “bang, bang” banging like guns going off. All of this happened real fast. I didn’t have time to cogitate and consider about what I was looking at, or anything else for that matter.
A first aid packet issued to airborne forces in 1943. Courtesy: The Alain Batens Collection
The seat pack parachute is sort of a seat, actually, that you’re half-sitting in with straps coming across your thighs and across your chest. Hanging above your head is the parachute. Since I was drifting backwards, I didn’t know it but I had lit on top of a pole that was wired to an old fence post. I hit that pole with the seat of the parachute, and me and the pole and the post and the parachute just flopped down to the ground. Sort of slowly – it wasn’t hard or fast. I didn’t land on my feet; I landed on my back. Immediately the parachute crumpled near me on the ground.
I didn’t know what to do next. I knew that I was in enemy territory. There was ol’ Wally, all alone in Germany, and I didn’t know how to “sprechen sie Deutsche.”
I got out of my fuzzy flying pants and flying jacket real fast. Underneath that I had on a pair of olive-drab coveralls. They had pockets all over them – on the thighs and lower legs. You carried your emergency escape kit in whatever pockets you had. This kit has some malted milk balls, some fishhooks and line.
There was a glass vial with a needle in it. It you were wounded real bad, you’d break off the tip, stick the needle into your arm or thigh, and squeeze it. It was filled with morphine or some kind of dope that would make you quit hurting. I threw this away because I wasn’t wounded.
There was a heavy rubber bag, so if you came upon some potable water, you could fill that up and carry it with you.
I also had a sheath knife. The plane carried a rubber dinghy (an inflatable rubber raft) that would inflate as it was released from the plane. If you pulled the right lever, the boat and the men would flip out of the airplane in case we had to land in the channel on the way back. The theory was that the last man out was supposed to cut the nylon cords that held the now inflated dinghy to the plane. Otherwise, the plane and dinghy with it would sink. I was supposed to be the last man out, so I carried the knife.
U.S. Army Air Force B-3 flying jacket. Courtesy: Old Pictures and Photo Images
I unbuckled the chute real fast and took off this other gear. Then I ran along the fence beside the woods in the direction away from where the plane was burning – about a block away. I came to another fence that I jumped over. It was along a country road, a cow path almost. Across the cow path there were bushes. I think they were raspberry bushes. They looked about a foot or two high, thickly grown, a bunch of them, right alongside the road. I jumped over those as far as I could and was going to crawl in underneath the bushes because I could hear people yelling. I didn’t know what they were saying because I couldn’t understand their language. There were little kids yelling and motorcycle engines popping and dogs barking.
When I got into the bushes, I found that they were growing over the decaying trunk of a tree which must have fallen and been uprooted years later. Underneath the back of the tree trunk was a big hole with the bushes growing over the top of it. That’s where I went – into that hole. I hunkered down in there and immediately rolled over to take a leak. I dug a hole on one side, and when I filled that one up, I turned over and dug another hole on the other side and filled that one up, too. My bladder must have been nervous as hell, because I never had to pee so badly in all my life.
Then I lay down and kept looking up through this screen of bushes. Along came a woman from across the field, with a kid. They couldn’t have been any further than 10 feet from where I was hiding. I thought sure that woman had looked me right in the eye, but apparently she didn’t. It must have been my imagination. Then things got sort of quiet. I could hear what sounded like guns shooting. I assumed that it was the machine gun ammunition exploding on the plane that was burning.
I learned years later that ours was the only plane out of the group on this mission that went down.
It was about 10 o’clock in the morning that all of this was happening. I laid down under the raspberry bushes all day. On into the evening, I was finally able to calm down. I took out a silk map of the target area and its surroundings. This was given to the crews so that we could orient ourselves in the event we were shot down. I had several little compasses on me. One looked like a button that was sewn to my shirt. If I cut it off, there was a little phosphorescent dot painted on it that would point to north.
This was a year before the invasion on the continent, and I assumed that if I walked south, and a little southwest for about 300 miles, I’d get to France. But after I got to France, then what would I do? You couldn’t go up to a door, knock, and say, “Hi. I’m an American. I’m against the Germans. Can you take care of me?”
The French, who were probably on the Germans’ side anyway, would immediately shoot you. There were probably some good people who would take care of you, but how did you know which ones?
It was night by then, so I started walking. The British bombed at night. They would fly a single bomber overhead, at 5-minute intervals, all night long. The lead plane would use incendiary bombs and would hit the target that started huge fires. The following planes would bomb on that light.
I saw one such raid – I don’t know what the name of the town was. I think it might have been Düsseldorf. At night it was just like the 4th of July. When a plane came over, all the rockets would fire up into the air. You could tell when a plane was hit – boom! I felt so doggoned sorry for those guys! It was dark and way below zero up there. I could imagine a guy getting injured and having to bail out. It’s blacker than pitch, and couldn’t see where he was or where the ground was or anything else. That must have been real frightening. But, it’s all part of war, I guess.
Example of an escape map. Courtesy: Bruce Gunn
As I was walking through the middle of a field, I found a concrete water trough with a pipe that had water coming out of it. It must have been an artesian spring or something. The water tasted so good! So I filled the rubber bag from my emergency kit and kept going. I came to farms where the dogs would bark at me, so I tried to move away from them. Sometimes you could see a house in the darkness. There wasn’t any moon – maybe the moon didn’t shine over Germany in those days – it was black all the time and overcast.
I walked by a huge building. There weren’t any lights in it. It looked like it was made out of concrete and was real high. I didn’t know what it was. Maybe they had anti-aircraft guns on top of it – I don’t know.
Then I came near a farmhouse. There was a garden there; I could see vegetables growing. I pulled out some little carrots, about 3 or 4 inches long, pulled the green tops off, and stuffed them in my pocket. I didn’t know when I was going to eat next. I had those malted milk balls, so I ate a couple of those.
Twice I waded through canals that were about chest deep – not very wide (about as wide as a road). When it started getting a little bit light out, I headed off into a field with some kind of standing grain that was about 3 feet high. I laid down there, and it was starting to drizzle. It was cold and miserable, and I wished I wasn’t there.
If somebody had seen me, I planned to pass myself off as an itinerant civilian who didn’t know what he was doing. At the end of this field there were some mounds that looked like sand. I dug into those, and there were sugar beets. That’s the way they preserved them, I guess, for over the winter or something. I sliced some of those and sucked on them. They weren’t too bad, really. They looked like regular beets, only they were a little bit sweeter. Anyway, I lay down in that field and went to sleep. I was bushed!
A couple of people came by on the road, and I hid behind this mound. I didn’t stick my head out very much – just to see where they were going. They walked right on by. There was a man, and later a lady came by. They were walking toward a town that was up ahead.I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t spot my location on this emergency map. So I thought maybe if I walked toward that town while it was still twilight, I might see a sign with the name of the town, and I could figure out where I was. I wasn’t sure what I should do. I thought that maybe I could walk through town, get to the other side and into another field to hide until dark, and then keep going on.
I got out onto the road and started walking. Well, I didn’t get very far along the road toward the town, which I could see down in a valley. There were trees and a church steeple sticking up. An old guy came out of a farm riding a bicycle. He looked like a typical Dutchman. He stayed even with me, and yelled something at me. I motioned to him and kept walking.
Just at that time, up from this village, came two other guys on bicycles. They had uniforms on – kind of beat-up ones. I found out later that they were the “home guard.” One of them had a pistol on his belt. They kept pedaling on by me.
Then the guy on the bike near me yelled something at them. They stopped and turned around real quickly and pedaled back to where I was. This guy pulled out his pistol and held it up at me. He said something that I figured to mean, “Hands up.” So I put my hands up. They said something else, and I indicated that I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said, “Kum.” They walked along with their bicycles, all the while telling me to “kum.”
The old guy – I don’t know where he went. He must have been a loyal, square-headed goon – that’s what he was. As we went toward the town, kids about high school age came along with books, dressed in drab clothing. I remember thinking that the boys all had long, greasy hair.
They took me into the center of the village, not a real small village. There was a house with big columns on the front of it and a big flag with a swastika. One of the guys ran inside and came out with a fat guy wearing a leather helmet with a metal eagle on it. He wasn’t in uniform, so I figured he might have been a “burgomeister” – the mayor or something. He said, “Englisher?” and I said, “No. American.” “Oh, American! Tsk, tsk!”
Then the three guys took me further on about a half block and across the street. There was a squat building made of stone with bars on all the windows. They took me inside to a dank and dingy corridor, opened up a cell, and said, “In.” So I went in. The door was thick with a hole in the center. There was some dirty straw in one corner, and there was nothing else. The window was barred with no glass in it. It was sort of like a dungeon, and I figured, “Oh boy! The duration plus 6 months I have to spend here!”
Nachtwey was likely transported in a vehicle like this: a Volkswagen Type 87 Kommandeurwagen. Courtesy: TheSamba.com
I went to a corner and sat down, not on the straw because that didn’t look too good. The guys left. I went to the door and stuck my arm through the hole in the door. I could reach down to where the lock was, but I couldn’t do anything about it – it was locked. Anyway, I thought that if I could have worked my way out I’d just get out to the street and somebody would probably shoot me.
In about half an hour, I could hear bustling in the corridor, and in came the fat guy along with about four others. One of them had on a long leather raincoat with the collar turned up and a leather fedora-type hat. The others would bow and scrape to him, snap their heels together and shout “Sieg, heil!” He must have been a Gestapo agent or something like that.
He questioned me, saying “– something – luft.” I knew that “luft” meant “fly,” so I said, “Yeah, American luft.” Then he told me to kum with him, so I went.
Outside they had a Volkswagen Beetle-type car. It had only two doors, and they held one open for me. I was supposed to get into the backseat alongside a young kid who was holding a gun pointed at me. I told the guy with the leather hat that, “I won’t go anywhere until you tell this kid to put the gun away before it goes off.” He must have understood exactly what I said, but he hadn’t shown that before. He said something to the kid, and the kid put the gun away.
We went along on the road and down about some 10 miles. I saw a sign that read, “Dusseldorf ___ km.” After awhile, we came to a city that was a sort of ruin – it must have been bombed out. There was an airfield that had camouflage over it so you couldn’t tell what it was from the air. There were some planes around, and they took me to the building at the entrance, which was their stockade. There were soldiers, like GIs were in the United States. One of them came up and sort of put his arm around me and said, “Comrade.”
I don’t remember what the hell I said. He had a piece of bread with what looked like strawberry jam on it, and he gave it to me. Then a big, heavy cup with what looked like coffee. So I ate the bread and drank the coffee. The coffee was chicory or something. Anyway, it went down; I was really hungry.