Unit: 447th Bomb Group, 710th Squadron , Air Force
Family: Married more than 60 years with three sons.
War fronts: European Theatre, flew nine missions over Germany, shot down on his 10th. He was a POW for one year and 11 days.
His words: "I had a German guard and a Czech guard. We got along fine. The hardest thing to get across was hunting. He would ask, 'What is moose?'"
When the three men walked into Stalag Luft III POW camp outside of Sagan, Germany, none had shoes and one could barely stand, too ill to talk. Their heads were shaved. Their skin stretched thinly over their ribs. All three wore very little despite the cold, winter air.
Capt. Milton “Bud” Esterline first mistook them for Russians, asking if any spoke English. The healthiest one told him they all did, they were American officers.
They'd been in a German concentration camp after a woman tricked them into parting with their dog tags. Allied soldiers normally went to POW camps, not concentration camps. But without identification, German officers threw them in a camp with even fewer basic necessities than their fellow soldiers received.
After months, one of the officers convinced a visiting German airforce captain of their real identity. The captain transferred them into the POW camp, but not before the concentration camp took its toll.
Esterline was one of their first contacts in their new camp.
He flew in the 447th Bomb Group in the European Theatre. On his 10th mission bombing Berlin in a B-17 he was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He lost his first engine but still made it to his target. Esterline broke formation, worried if and when his injured prop fell off it would hit another plane. They knew they couldn’t make it to England and were headed for Sweden when three German planes, ME-109s, came down on him. His men brought two of the German planes down but not before they obliterated his right wing with their canon fire.
Down to one engine, he told his crew to bail.
He waited for each man to jump, opening their parachutes and landing near waiting German soldiers. Esterline decided to free fall. He hoped if he opened his parachute at the last minute it wouldn’t alert the Germans.
“The Air Force doesn’t let you practice parachuting. One guy said in a training, ‘When the leaves on the trees are large in the mind’s eye,’ that’s when you pull the cord. But there weren’t any leaves on the trees in Germany.”
He fell from 11,000 feet. He pulled his cord when he thought he saw leaves on bushes, and it stopped him for a second before he hit with a thud in a freshly plowed field.
A doctor later told him if he’d landed on anything harder he would have died. The spur on his neck and three compression fractures in his back serve as a daily reminder of his jump.
German soldiers weren't waiting for him when he fell, but farmers watched him land.
"I think I scared them more than they scared me."
He thought he would escape, running for the forest as one farmer shot after him. Capture was inevitable, so he buried his escape kit with a map of Germany, money and a compass and waited. The farmers and a German soldier soon found him, searched him, took his cigarettes and he began one year and 11 days as a captive.
In POW camp Stalag Luft III, Esterline's official job was distributing clothes to new arrivals.
Secretly, he filtered newcomers, helping each receive as much help as possible.
When the three emaciated American officers arrived, he told the men quickly to say nothing but their age, rank and serial number. He was always aware of nearby German soldiers. He gave them a towel, soap and clothes and went to the "escape officer," a lieutenant colonel in camp.
There, Esterline and the lieutenant colonel decided each of the men should be distributed into separate, large rooms. Other prisoners of war then fed the men by small spoonfuls of their American Red Cross food packets. Each offered bits of his own meager food to help the starving ones.
Esterline fears the sickest man didn’t make it. The other two were transferred with Esterline and others to Mooseburg, Germany. They lived to see the day American tanks liberated the camp with 103,000 prisoners.
Even in a prisoner of war camp, Esterline and others knew the importance of information. They formed an intricate network to ensure each man or woman would be cared for.
In Stalag Luft III he reunited with four other captives from Casper, including several in his Natrona County High School class. Some he remained close with through his transfer to Mooseburg and their liberation on April 29, 1945.
He still remembers most of the people he met in prison, many of them were men and women he'd known before. He's writing a book with all of his stories.
More than 60 years after his capture, Esterline still works to make sure his men, and their families, receive the honor they deserve. He’s applying for medals not only for those veterans still living, like his bombardier now living Memphis, Tenn., but also those who have died.
His top turret gunner's grandson in New York wants the POW medal his grandfather earned so long ago.
He believes the medals are honors those men deserve.
They Served With Honor
Some have said that 1,000 World War II veterans die each day in United States. History dies with each one.
"They Served With Honor" is a special project by the Star-Tribune to collect stories from Wyoming World War II veterans. We will feature one story each week, from Veterans Day to Veterans Day.