From the nose of the plane, the navigator could see everything: a sky full of flak and planes, some shot through and falling. At those altitudes, temperatures could plummet to 20 or 30 below. Airmen had heated suits, but they often came unplugged.
On Sept. 11, 1944, 2nd Lt. Judson H. Whitman was flying with a nine-man crew over Merseburg, Germany, targeting an oil refinery. It was his 13th mission.
Their B17 was shot soon after turning around. It flew crippled for a while before Whitman realized it wouldn't make it. He told the engineer he had to go, he had to jump. The engineer didn't want to leave the pilot and co-pilot. The plane exploded as Whitman shoved him out, burning the hair off Whitman’s head.
Four of the crew jumped. Five didn't make it.
Whitman doesn’t remember pulling his parachute cord, but he remembers landing in the plowed field and the four German farmers, armed with rifles, waiting for him.
It marked the beginning of his seven months as a prisoner of war.
The farmers didn’t mistreat him, Whitman remembers. They just took him to a little town with a one-room jail and locked him inside.
German soldiers came soon after and took him to a military hospital. Doctors dressed his wounds. He and two other Americans, whom he'd never met, were transported to Frankfurt. What had became of the survivors of his own crew, Whitman didn’t know.
Three German guards paraded the Americans through Frankfurt's town square. The civilians weren’t happy to see American pilots, who, by then, had been bombing German targets more and more. When two of the guards went to the saloon, they left just one guard to protect the Americans against the growing and angry crowd.
“That was the scariest moment of the whole thing,” Whitman said.
He was taken next to the Dulag Luft, as Allied airmen called it, in Oberursel, Germany, one of the largest interrogation centers in Europe. Whitman was then transported to a satellite camp at Wetzlar, opened near the end of the war.
He was locked in solitary confinement 24 hours a day, with nothing to do and no way to count the hours. The Germans were trying to soften him up, he says. They fed him "every once in a while."
One day, he was taken out of his cell to an office. The man at the desk knew Whitman’s name, where he was born, where he went to school. He knew how many missions Whitman had flown.
“It was surprising that they knew so damn much,” Whitman said.
The German started asking questions. He wanted to know logistics -- how many people were stationed in England. Whitman didn't know the answers.
Around Oct. 1, 1944, Whitman was one of about 45 Americans taken by freight train to Stalag Luft 1 at Barth, Germany, near the Baltic Sea. The camp held thousands of prisoners, organized by military order. One side housed Allied airmen, the other side housed Russians.
What does he remember? The tall fences and the armed guards watching those fences, the murmurs of those who said they would escape. He’d hear about escape plans and tell scheming prisoners they were crazy. In four years the camp operated, Whitman once heard, no one escaped.
“They tried, but they were shot.”
On a decent day, prisoners walked the perimeter. Or they played baseball or volleyball with equipment provided by the Red Cross. The agency had also delivered food, but the men rarely got it. Whitman, though, had little weight to lose. He went in skinny and came out about the same.
Prisoners lived 10 or more to a room in rooms built for four. Twice a day, they stood at order to be counted.
Occasionally a book would come, and the men passed it around until its pages tore. Some of the men taught classes and some of the men attended, because what else were they going to do?
Mail came sometimes, and prisoners were allowed to write once a month. It was highly censored, and Whitman got to tell his mother little more than that he was alive. The Army Air Force sent his Air Medal and one oak leaf cluster to her.
On April 30, 1945, the German guards left. Just turned out the lights and went. The Russians came the next day. Liberation.
It took a couple of weeks to evacuate everyone -- nearly 9,000 airmen were interned there during the war. Whitman remembers opening a warehouse and finding thousands of Red Cross parcels of food for the prisoners. The Germans stored them instead.
Whitman went to Camp Lucky Strike in France on May 15, 1945. It was one of several camps named after popular cigarettes -- valuable bartering tender -- used to process liberated American prisoners. Whitman was given clean clothes, food and a three-day pass to Paris. That pass was a big deal at the time.
Whitman never made a big thing about his service. He answered questions when asked, but didn't bring it up. His war stories weren't who he was -- he was a father, a husband, a geological engineer who worked in the Shirley Basin uranium mines.
“It doesn’t bother me to talk about it, but I don’t make a practice of it," he said. "It was something they wanted you to do, and you did it."
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.