Written by Purvis Christian
The toughest experience of my life was when I was shot down during World War II, and held as a POW by the Germans for 11 months and 17 days. I was a waist gunner on a B-17, headed for Liege Belgium, on 11 May 1944. We had strayed 20 miles off course and flew over a German Air Field and took two direct hits from anti-aircraft guns, one under the co-pilot and one in the nose of the plane. The box of flares in the crawl space to the nose of the plane caught on fire. The pilot and co-pilot were killed and the engineer was burned and had some flack in him as well as the Navigator. The engineer went to the radio room and motioned for us to get out. Part of his clothing was burned and his face was burned.
I took him at his word and I bailed out. I counted 7 parachutes beside my own, so I knew that 8 of the crew had got out.
We were right over the German airfield and they had it camouflaged so I though I was going to land on a haystack but it was an aircraft hanger. I landed about 20 feet from the corner and a German came up out of a bomb shelter with a pistol and another one came down the taxi strip with a rifle before I could get my chute off. I couldn’t speak any German and they couldn’t speak English so we did signs. They picked me up in an old Chevrolet van and went on to pick up the engineer and the ball gunner. The ball gunner broke his leg when he landed on the runway.
They took us to the guardhouse, put us in separate cells and wouldn’t let us talk to each other. After they picked up the others, they took the navigator , bombardier, engineer and the ball gunner to the hospital, and the rest of us to Headquarters to question us the best they could.
The next day they put us on a train and took us to Amsterdam and put us in jail for 5 days, then moved us to Frankfurt Germany and put us in Dulag Luft for questioning. There they said we would have to stay until we answered all their questions. I could hear what sounded like someone being beaten and they were hollering. That made me think my time would come. I talked a little to some a pilot that was in the room next to me and he had been there 41 days. He was one of the first P-47 pilots they had shot down and they wanted some information about the plane.
In a couple of days they took me out and put me in a camp across the road, where they held prisoners until they got enough to take to a Stalag, where we would be housed. They had some Red Cross Food packages that had some coffee, cigarettes and food. That was the first coffee and cigarettes we had since we were shot down.
After a few days they put a bunch of us on a train. This was no passenger train. We were put in boxcars 40 prisoners to a car and were fenced in at each end of the car and the German guards were between the doors in the middle of the car.
The trains were prime target for our fighter and when the air-raid signal went off the guards would stop the train and they would get in shelters or hide in the woods and leave us locked in the boxcars. We were lucky and didn’t get shot up. We saw many engines on the sidetrack in some of the railroad yards that had been shot up.
Five days on the train was a long trip to the Polish Corridor near the Baltic Sea. The camp wasn’t complete but they had 6 barracks complete and some machine gun towers around three sides and guards at the end where the workers were working. Each barracks held 160 men and the windows and doors were covered with large shutters at night and locked on the outside. There were no windows only opening for windows. The Red-Cross didn’t know there were any prisoners there so they didn’t get any food packages to us until the 28th of June. We had been there 28 days and the only food they gave us was two bowls of dehydrated cabbage soup a day until we had 160 men so weak they would pass out when they stood up. The guards thought they just didn’t want to line up for head count. They got a German doctor to check some of them and he said these men are starving to death. Then they started giving us 3 potatoes a day and that helped some. The 28th of June we got some Red-Cross food packages and got half of a package each.
I thought I was going to starve to death and couldn’t do anything about it before the Red-Cross packages. The men were put in rooms with 4 – 4 dicker beds with 6 slats and a sack full of wood shavings for a mattress. There was no water in the barracks and a 6 holer at one end of the barracks. We had no way to take a bath. In 11 months and 17 days I had one bath. We had lice. The Russians were about to over run the camp, so the Germans lined us up and gave us a Red-Cross package each and marched us out on the dirt roads back to Germany. Once they put us in a camp for (Hindo) prisoners for about a week. While we were there I traded one of them a pack of cigarettes for a large bucket and used it to heat water and take a bath and boil my clothes to get rid of the lice.
The first 14 days the Germans didn’t give us any food. When they broke up the large bunch into small groups and would put us in buildings in a burg, which was a farm. They would have a barn or two and they would lock us in the barn for the night. Some nights we weren’t where we could get to one of these Burgs and we had to spend the night in a clearing where the guards could walk around and see that we didn’t walk off. Three men got away one time and after a few days one came back and said the other two had got killed.
He said it was safer to stay with the group as the front lines or battle lines were every direction. We walked 600 miles to near the American front then back to the Russian front then back to the American front. We were put in barns most of the time but a couple of nights we walked all night. We were surrounded and the French and other slave laborers told us the American were on 3 sides and were waiting for the Russians to come on across to meet them. They had pulled all of the guards off and sent them to the front and had put some old German soldiers guarding us and they knew the war was about over. We were in a small town for 3 days and nights.
They marched us out one morning. We had gone about 5 kilometers when we began to see signs that the Americans were or had been here. A couple of kilometers further and we came to a town and there were Australian soldiers and then we saw an American MP. We knew then we were getting free. A Captain came along in a Jeep and asked if anyone couldn’t walk to the river. If any one had trouble walking to sit down on the side of the road and they would get some transportation to haul them to the river. The Americans had got up to the river and were waiting for the Russians to meet them there. They had blown the bridge out so the refugees couldn’t get into the American held territory. They had about 3000 prisoners to get across, so they made a walk-way across the part that was blown out and let us walk single file across. They put us on a college campus and had three trucks with K-rations. One had breakfast, one lunch and one dinner. I went through all three lines and sat down under a tree and ate all three. That was the 26th of April 1945.
The Red-Cross brought a club mobile up to where we were and was giving coffee and doughnuts, one of the ex prisoners ate 18 doughnuts and died. From then on we couldn’t get a large helping of food. They put nurses on the food serving line and wouldn’t give us but a small helping at one time. I would go around the building and get back in line and go through the chow line again and again. They gave the old men that had been guarding us the last days a choice of going back or surrendering and about half of them came across the river with us and were taken prisoner.
That night we drank coffee and visited most of the night. There were some scales in the basement and I weighed on them, with a full uniform and an overcoat and two wool blankets, I weighed 119 lbs. The next day we were moved back to Halle, Germany for a few days. From there they took us to Reims, France and sprayed us with DDT, then we stripped and took a shower and were sprayed again with DDT and issued new uniforms. They burned the old clothes. From there we went to La-Harve, France where they held us in a tent city to fatten us up before we came home.
They had eggnog, chocolate milk and orange juice in large cans and we could get all we wanted any time. I stayed with the eggnog most of the time and I gained about a pound a day.
The 3rd of June we got on a Liberty ship headed for New York. The 16th we got to Fort Dix, New Jersey and ate lunch. Then we got new uniforms and caught a train to Camp Shelby, Miss. We there the 18 of June. We processed in and were issued a complete issue of clothes and were given a 60 day TDY at home. Four of us got a taxi to take us to Jackson so we could catch a train, as the bus drivers were on strike. I got to Ruston, LA. in the afternoon of the 19th and from there I got a taxi to take me to my wife’s parents’ home where my wife was.
We all held the rank of S/Sgt. when we were shot down and were promoted to the rank of T/Sgt. after we were returned to the states.
I was home from the war.