SGT. ARCHIE M. THOMAS 18118735|
That Fateful Easter Eve, April 8, 1944
Our take off time was delayed from 07:00 a.m. to 09:00 a.m., due to a very heavy fog. While waiting for take off the officers were gathered at the front end of the B24 whereas the six enlisted men were gathered at the tail end of the aircraft. During this wait, on of the enlisted men stated that, "If it is my time to die, I am ready to die for my country." One by one, four of the remaining crew made the same statement. I, alone, had not spoken, and at this time I stated, "I am not ready to die for my country, but rather I am ready to LIVE for my country."
After loading on the aircraft my intercom was out and as a result, I missed out on some of the conversation. The radio operator took care of this problem before we got over enemy territory. After breaking through the fog, we had a beautiful spring day. We test fired our guns and the assistant engineer transferred fuel. At one point, we had to take evasive action to avoid colliding with another aircraft. We could see a little anti-aircraft flak in the distance near the Zuider Zee.
Our preliminary checks were all made over the Channel. We were now entering enemy territory. As we proceeded over enemy territory, we kept a close lookout for enemy aircraft and gunfire. We were joined by one Allied Fighter Escort who stayed with us for some time. After they turned around and prior to our second Escort group joining us at approximately 13:00 o'clock, we spotted German fighters at a 3:00 o'clock position. They proceeded to move ahead of our formation and they attacked from directly in front of us, coming through our formation firing their guns. I am quite sure these were ME 109.
Our aircraft was hit on this first pass, caught fire and went into a spin. I was at the right-hand waist gunner position with Don Logan flying left waist gunner, Roger Newton, ball turret, and Burk in tail gunner position. We received word on the intercom stating, "We are hit. GET OUT!" This order was made by the pilot. I pulled the cord to my flak suit and it fell off. By this time, due to the spin, the weight of our body had increased several times, and everything was fairly well held to the floor.
I grabbed my parachute and was the first to get to the escape hatch, which was also known as the camera hatch or main entrance hatch on the B24. I made an attempt to open the hatch alone and had planned to jump holding my chute as I figured the plane would probably blow up in a few seconds. It would be better to try to hold onto the chute and put it on as I was on the way down, rather than face certain death in an exploding aircraft. This attempt failed and I managed to put the parachute on. By this time, two other crewmembers, Logan and Newton, had managed to get to the escape hatch, one at each end and I at the center of the door where it opened. We managed to get the door opened approximately eighteen inches and could open it no further due to the spin.
I looked at Burk in the tail, unable to get out of his turret. Beads of perspiration was on his face and a look of fear, even death was on his face. I looked at Logan and Newton, neither in a position to jump. I thought if I try to exchange places with either of these men, no one will get out of this plane alive. I laid down and tried to get under the low opening of the door. Finally, after what seemed a long while, I felt my body hurled from the force of the spinning aircraft. I reached for the ripcord and thought I had missed it somehow. At this time I said, Oh, Lord, I'm gone." As I uttered these words, the tumbling stopped. I glanced up and there was my chute. I glanced down and the pine treetops were just below my feet. The ripcord had caught on the door as I squeezed under it. Thanks to God and my crewmates, I was able to eject from the aircraft seconds before it dashed into the ground.
I figure had my stay in the aircraft been extended as much as one-tenth of a second, or even less, I probably wouldn't be here today. One has to wonder about the remarks of the other enlisted crewmembers who all perished at this time, as well as the officers on the plane. The aircraft crashed about 100 yards from where I landed, and exploded seconds later. Just prior to the explosion, I disconnected my chute, which was hanging in a tree and attempted to get out of the area. Of the crewmembers left in the aircraft, the Germans were able to identify all the bodies with the exception of the copilot who, I believe, was probably hit by the exploding shell that brought our ship down.
I was not captured until approximately one hour later. Two German enlisted men had gone out to inspect the wreckage of our aircraft. On their return to the village near by, they found me in the woods, where I was attempting to keep hidden to avoid capture. One said to me, "For you the war is over." This was spoken in English. I was taken to a small German village and there, another captured airman was brought in. His name was Jack Freeman from Tocomo, Washington State. Soon we were asked to go with our guard to identify another flyer whose parachute had failed to open. Only two or three days before, I had gone to Norwich England with this airman and we had gone to the theater together. I failed to recognize this individual, but Jack Freeman being on the same crew with him recognized but refused to identify him to the Germans.
We returned to the village and spent some time awaiting the next train. We were placed in a passenger car with one of our guards and rode for some time. The train stopped near a Luft Waft Base that night and we exchanged our car for a night in the Brig, at this German Air Base, possibly Hanover. The next day we were put back on a train which took us to Frankfort. Upon arriving at Frankfort we began to see many captured airmen. We took a streetcar to Dulag Luft, the interrogation camp. At one stop we had to be protected from the German civilians by our guards who had to hold the mob back at the point of their guns. A short time later we arrived at the camp. Tired, two days without food, with burns and other injuries we were put into a room for the night. Here we experienced our first air raid as a prisoner, locked up with no place to go. The next morning we were given our first meal. It was a cup of imitation coffee and a slice of bread with jelly so thin I couldn't guess what kind.
As stated earlier we were assigned to the 67th Bomb Squadron, one of the four squadron in the 44th Bomb Group, which was located at Shipdham, England. We were a part of the 8th Air Force and on the eighth of April, 1944 I have heard we put a thousand planes over Germany. Our intended destination was Brunswick, Germany. As I stated before it was a beautiful spring day. The sky was cloudless and our visibility was excellent. According to the missing crew report we were last sighted at 14:00 o'clock in the vicinity of Lagenhagen Airdrome 52 degrees 28! N 09 degrees 42' W. (Information on location taken from copies of German reports and the printing was smudged and may not be exactly as originally written or typed.) We were flying a B243 AAF serial number 42-I 10083 with 4-RI 830-65, Engine serial BP 436009. BP 436307, BP 436431 and BP 436414. There were ten fifty caliber Browning machine guns on board. Two guns installed in each of the four turrets, nose, top, bottom and tail plus two waist guns one on each side.
The crew consisted of a pilot: Robert 11. Mayes, Second Lt., service number #0742181 from Texas; Co-Pilot, James F. Russell, Second Lt. #0812315 from Asheville, N.C.; Navigator: Roben P Russell, Second Lt. #0-797076 from Asheville, N.C.; Bombardier, Edmund M. Plaszczykowski, Second Lt. #0-688396, Chicago, Ill; Radio Operator, Paul O. Siegert, S/Sgt. #17175511, Kansas; Top Turret and Engineer, Charles E. O'Neal #13104794, from Maryland; Left Waist Gunner, Donald 3. Logan, Sgt. #35584011 from Indiana; Right Waist Gunner/Assistant Engineer and Cameraman, Archie M. Thomas Sgt. #18118735, Palestine, Texas; Tail Gunner, William I. Burke, Sgt. #14091412 from Alabama and Ball Turrat Roger 3. Newton, Sgt. #31254221 from Burlington, Vermont.
Shipdham was located in Northern England not far from Norwich England.
On German records the time of my capture was 15:30 o'clock at Luneburg, Germany, 8th of April 1944. They also underlined on their report, Crashed and EM Landing. The Aircraft was shot down and crashed in a wooded area According to German records 1 was transferred to Cherareal which is probably the place we spent the night at a Luft Waft Base. From this Base we were transferred by train to Dulag-Luft and, according to German records, was there on the 12th of May, 1945. I do not remember the date, but am quite sure we arrived on the evening of the 9th of April, Easter 1944. We spent several days there, the departure date I am unsure of I believe we spent at least five days in a box car when we transferred to Stalag 1713 at Krems, Austria.
The German civilians at Luneburg seemed to be far removed from the war and showed an indifference to the newly captured airmen. The airman who lost his life due to parachute failure had been placed in a building, and while we were there a German civilian passed by us with a gun over his shoulder. He probably had been out scouting for other airmen possibly in the area. He said nothing to us and we didn't try to communicate with him.
Upon our arrival at Frankfurt, Sunday, April 9, 1944 we found the people were very hostile. They formed a mob to attack and possibly kill the captured airmen. The people had been bombed and considered the Americans as Flegar Gangsters, or flying gangsters. I was surprised that the Guards would lower their own arms on their own people to protect their prisoners. We made it safely to Dulag-Luft where we began a process of being checked for injuries and assigned a room.
I had received burns on my face and my foot had hit the door opening as I left the aircraft. The foot had been relieved of a nice piece of skin covering the top of one foot. As one of the injured I was taken ahead of some of my comrades to see the medical doctor before being assigned a solitary confinement room. The doctor looked at the burns and abrasions and said, you have stuff in your blood that will take care of that." This was the only time I saw a doctor for this condition and all the treatment provided for my injuries.
From the doctor I was taken to a room with four or five American airman from my bomb squadron. They began to ask questions concerning my crew and the mission. I cautioned them that the room might be bugged or monitored. Their reply was, "No it wasn't." They said they had already checked it out. It seemed strange, because in a few minutes I was removed from the room, and others, all from the same crew, were left in the room together. l felt that I was placed in that room for the purpose of the Germans gathering information, and when I didn't talk, was removed and placed in an empty room.
The room was small with a single bed and I believe a chair. I laid down to try and get some rest. Numbed by the events of the past two days, hungry from not eating since about 3:00 A.M. on the eighth, I could hardly think. Sometime later the air raid warning began to sound. I said to myself, "You haven't any business being here," and then went to sleep.
When it was morning, a guard brought to the door the bread and drink I mentioned earlier. Shortly later a tall and very polite German officer entered the room, or so it seemed he was polite. I stood at attention as we had been instructed to do. He spoke to me in very good English. "At ease Sergeant," and instructed me to be seated.
He had a form that he would like for me to look at and fill out for him. While I was filling in the form he was talking to me. I don't remember what he had to say, but I began filling out the form. I wrote my name, rank, serial number. They had already taken my dog tag of identification, which had my home address. This being the case I entered my home address on the form. After this section there was another section for each crewmember, their position on the crew, name, rank and serial number. For the crewmembers I knew hadn't escaped the plane I furnished names along with killed in action. Next there was space for Bomb Squadron, Bomb Group, Air Force, Location of Base ammo dump and etc., all of which I left blank. I returned the form to my friendly guest, where upon he lost his cool, jumped up and said, "Come Sergeant, you must, you must."
I looked at my guest and stated, I am a Prisoner of war. As a Prisoner of War I am required to give you my name, rank and serial number only. If you were the prisoner of war, you would be required to give your name, rank, and serial number. with this statement he returned to his quiet, but persuasive self. I was not threatened or struck in any way by this officer. I have often wondered if he might have been a double agent working for both the Germans and the Allies. There was information that reached England on a statement I made and entered into our squadron records. Someone in Germany would have had to send the information about this time, and I don't believe anyone else had access to the statement. The families of these lost men did not receive much information concerning their loved ones until German records were located after World War II ended.
This was the morning of the 10th of April, 1944 when the German Officer left my room. I was again alone except for the guard who would come and let you go to the rest room and for bringing my rations, such as they were. I arrived at this camp Easter Sunday, April 9th, 1944, but according to German records was still there April 12th. We departed sometime after this. I am not sure of the date, but departed for Staling 17B near Krems, Austria, in a boxcar. I believe this trip took about five days, I'm not exactly sure.
We had half the boxcar for a considerable number of prisoners. The conditions were crowded. The guards had the other end of this same car. I remember one guard who had studied to be a concert pianist, and I have often wondered if he survived the war to realize his dream. He sat at a board bench and practiced as if he had a keyboard while on the trip. This enabled him to maintain his skill. At times, when the train stopped, the American POW's would be allowed to get out of the boxcar to relieve themselves. I was surprised how often this was done in public along the tracks, not only by POWs but by the civilians as well. No one seemed to notice or be concerned. I believe at other times we had a bucket in the boxcar that we would use and empty whenever the train stopped along the tracks.
When we arrived at Krems, Austria, a small town on the Danube with a number of sidetracks, we left the boxcar. This was a fair sized marshaling yard as I remember. When we were unloaded, we were formed into a group to walk to the camp. The camp was several miles from town, and on the way out of Krems we passed what appeared to be an old castle. It seemed to be getting well into the day when we arrived at the camp. They took our picture holding a number for identification, and processed us for assignment to this camp. This camp was a large camp holding over four thousand Americans. Its total strength was approximately 18,000 counting Russians, British, Aussies, and Americans.
I will include the U.S. Government Report on this camp as well as Dulag Luft at Frankfurt. After being processed in, we went to one of the older barracks where we were assigned for a few days. Then I was moved to a new section of Stalag 178 that contained four barracks. These barracks had formally been a part of the Russian sector. I have heard that considerable effort went into cleaning up this section for the newly arrived POWs. The POW's who were already in this camp were responsible for the clean-up job. When we arrived, the Americans in camp, some of which had already been POW's for 12 to 15 months or longer had many questions to ask. They wanted to know about the war effort and how everything was going in the war. We soon found out that we were less informed concerning the war effort than they.
While we were in this camp we had a daily news report. It was brought to the barrack and read almost every day without exception. The POW's were able to make radios and were able to pick up on the news of not only the Germans but B.B.C. and the surrounding countries around Germany. Thus the American POWs were often better informed than their captors. The barrack in the new section where I was assigned, was 31A and I remained at that location until the camp was evacuated the 8th day of April, 1945.
During this process of becoming a prisoner and being assigned a camp, I met a number of people and made friends. One in particular over the years has stood out as a best friend with no equal. Often crewmembers become as family and lasting friendships are formed. I had no crewmembers left and Robert V. Black has filled that place. Both in camp together, and the years to follow, he was a special best friend. Without him in camp, a person to walk with and talk to, certainly life would not have been the same. Thanks Robert for being there when you were so badly needed.
Of the twelve months and twenty-eight days held as a prisoner, almost twelve months were at Stalag 17B. Here we settled into a routine of wake up call by a German Guard "Rouse with you, Apell, Apell." With this we would go out for roll call where each barracks would line up in columns of five to be counted. At times one column would shift to confuse the Germans. After roll call we would get a cup of hot water for breakfast. Our morning was pretty much our own. Sometimes we would walk and talk, weather permitting.
At noon we would receive a number two can (size English peas come in) of some type of food from the Germans. It might be boiled barley, potatoes, carrots, sometimes raw or dehydrated sauerkraut. The evenings again were much like the mornings with a roll call each evening. Our evening meal on alternating days would be a number two can of what we had for lunch, and the next day a can of hot water. To supplement the food that the Germans gave us, we were issued a small carton of food once a week that we called American Red Cross parcels. At times these were in short supply, especially near the end of the war when one parcel had to last two weeks or more. Food was really short during the forced march of 325 kilometers as well as our camp out in the woods. To make sure no Americans stored up any food, the Germans opened each parcel when issued, and with a bayonet punched a hole in each can of food.
Stalag 1713 was a non-commissioned officer's camp or sergeant's camp. As such we were not required to work. On at least one occasion we were taken for a shower and delousing. The days dragged on like an eternity. After it was over it seemed like a bad dream. On occasion someone would be missing for roll call and perhaps escape. This would call for extra roll call and on one occasion we were outside the better part of three days, while the Germans searched the barracks. They checked picture I.D. and so forth, and still couldn't find their man.
I understand this man, along with several others marched out of the camp when it was evacuated and was never detected by the Germans. Prison life was one of uncertainties. We never knew if we would be here tomorrow. On the occasion of the attempt on Hitler's life, I understand he ordered all POWs executed. We know of a group of civilians that were closed up in a church. The Germans set fire to the Church and machine-gunned any who tried to escape. While in prison I would lay in the sun with my face exposed to the sun. Gradually the Burn scars disappeared. Each day as the time increased I would say, "We've been through too much for something to happen now and not make it back home."
During the winter months 1944, 1945 we received one bucket of coal per day for our barracks. The men wore most of their clothes to bed to keep warm. Our beds were triple deck, double wide and double length with the lower deck not used. We slept on a big burlap bag with a small amount of wood shavings inside. After the first night you could say you were sleeping on a board. Despite the condition of the camp, for the most part morale remained fairly good. Most remained in fair health while in camp. While in camp, we experienced at least two air raids. The rail yard in Krems was bombed one beautiful clear day. We watched the bomber approach, open the bomb bay door and drop their bombs. After the bombers left the fighters strafed and from the reports I heard did more damage to the river traffic and rail yards than did the bombers.
Sometime prior to this mission the British came over by night and the lead plane dropped a flare at the four corners of our prison camp as a bomb target. When the flares drifted down and they saw their mistake, they located their target a short distance away and properly marked it. This was an underground airfield near by. When the British planes arrived a short time later we could hear gunfire from German fighters, but saw no planes go down. I did see an American Bomber go down on another occasion and only one chute and a German fighter ran into a hillside near our camp.
I believe it was the 8th of April 1945 when we marched out of Stalag 17B for a 325-kilometer forced march. I have forgotten the number of days the march lasted. According to records, the march lasted 18 days. At this time of year it was still quite cool, especially at night. We would march until you felt you could not pick up a foot and put it in front of the other. You dared not give up because of fear of what the Germans would do. The Russians were shelling Vienna and we could see the flares from the fires at night. Vienna was about fifty miles down river from us and the Germans told us they were moving us because it wouldn't be good for us should the Russians take our camp. There were a few airmen still in the camp when the Russians took it. They managed to get back all right, but this was not always the case. I understand not all Americans in Russian bands have ever been accounted for.
We finally completed our first day and I don't remember if we slept on the ground or in a barn. The officer in charge of our group managed to find a farmer with a large barn. At least two nights of our march we did not have to sleep on the wet ground along the roadside. On crossing over the Danube at LINZ I noticed the bridge wired with explosives in an attempt to keep the allies from taking it. Not far from this point on our march 1 noticed several bodies along the road covered with blankets.
On the hill above was a large German work camp. One of the guards near me told me the strength of that camp was 100,000 and the life expectancy after a person arrived in that camp was one hundred days. Our forced march was through a scenic part of Austria and Germany but the conditions ruined the trip for us. Many of the villages were a traveler's dream, as well as the hills, roads, rivers, and streams.
Our food supply was critical and we were growing tired and weak from our ordeal.
Finally we arrived at Braunau, Austria, on the Inns River. After marching through the town and several miles into the countryside we arrived at a wooded area where the Germans had decided to make camp. They had cleared the trees from the perimeter of the area and had provided trenches for a rest area. The Inns River was down the hill from the camp and we were allowed to go to the river to get drinking water. Our food situation had not improved. There was no shelter. Our bedding was wet and it rained almost every day. We were sleeping in the open on the wet ground, usually on wet bedding. I don't remember how many days we were in the woods. Soon a large percentage of the men had dysentery and had not this stay been cut short, no doubt many would have died, not unlike Andersonville. By this time I had dysentery and my stomach still bothers me to this day as well as my bowels. I have arthritis of the spine that probably started as a result of this experience. On the 4th day of May, I believe, we looked across the Inns River at a village and could see white flags. Because of this we knew the Americans were near, and the Germans didn't intend to put up a fight.
The next day, May 5th, 1945, a man whom I believe to be a camp leader went to Braunau and located an American officer, an enlisted man who drove to our camp in a jeep. They told us we were free men, then got into the jeep and drove back into town leaving the German guards still in charge, for our protection, I suppose.
I remember about this time an American reporter coming around taking names, and saying he would have them put on the radio. This he did because some of my friends heard my name at this time. The next day several Americans returned to the camp, had the Germans stack their arms and marched them off toward town. A short time later we were marched out of our wooded camp and into town where we were placed in a factory building. At least we now at last felt like we were free again. Here we were given a little to eat and at least we were off the wet ground.
I don't remember much about the factory building stay, but it seems in several days the corps of Engineers had laid a pontoon bridge across the Inns River. G. I. trucks began to arrive at the aluminum factory to take us to the airport across the river. At the airport we saw C47's waiting to load us and take us to France. The only view I had of Paris was from this C47. We landed near Laliarve and again was loaded into a G. I. truck and carried to Camp Lucky Strike. Here we were fed our first real good meal. We were issued new clothes, showered, assigned a tent and I believe interrogated. I'm sure there was some processing in, and paper work done on each POW. Most of the events of this camp have been forgotten. We were all happy to be back in American hands. I don't remember how many days I was at Camp Lucky Strike.
Our next move was to the harbor, where we boarded a Liberty Boat, "Martin Luther" for our return to the U.S.A. On board we ate well. Stopped off in Liverpool, England for a few hours, as best I remember. Sailed with the last convoy from England to the U.S.A. About two days out of Boston we broke convoy. We landed in Boston where we were greeted by only a few folk. From Boston we took a train. Stopped about an hour in New York City. From there I came to Texas where I was given sixty days temporary duty at home for recuperation. After this stay I reported to Miami Beach, Florida for reassignment to active duty. I reported to Chunete Field in Illinois for about two weeks. I next reported to San Angelo Air Force Base where after several months I returned to Ellington Field just out of Houston, Texas for discharge.
Added information provided by - Jack Cameron
2568 Cypress Point Circle
Navarre, Florida 32566-6715
23 August 2002
The information which you sent helped me locate Archie M. Thomas, the gunner who was the sole survivor of the plane piloted by Robert Mayes which was lost over Germany on April 8, 1944. Archie wrote me that the crew picture (which I sent you a copy of) dated February 1944, was taken in Topeka, Kansas. Archie told me that the crew was in West Palm Beach, Florida, briefly before heading overseas via South America. Archie'' address and phone number are:
Archie M. Thomas
4209 Fm 315
Palestine, TX 75803
When I talked to Archie Thomas on the phone, he told me that he had visited the parents of Phil and Frank Russell in their home in Canton, North Carolina shortly after the end of the war. He told me that the Russell brothers had two sisters, and he later mailed me their addresses, which are as follows:
Mrs. Betty Russell Hurd Jean Russell Adams
132 Hurd Road PO Box 1347
Canton, NC 28716 Lake Junaluska, NC 28745
I called Betty Hurd a couple of weeks ago and discussed the Phil Russell's letters and pictures which I had found. Betty told me that the Russell home in Canton, NC, which is near Asheville, had been in the family for eight generations and that Betty and her husband had recently moved back there from Michigan.
In your e-mail of July 29, 2002, you mentioned that you were compiling a database on Roll of Honor men of the 44th Bomb Group. Betty Hurd gave me the following information regarding Phil and Frank Russell, which may be of interest to you in that regard.
Phil Russell was born November 1916, the first child of Robert and Edith Russell of Asheville, North Carolina. Phil had an interest in literature, and as a youngster would follow Thomas Wolfe around if he saw him in town (Thomas Wolfe was the author of "Look Homeward Angel," a novel which depicted life in Asheville).
Phil graduated from the University of North Carolina and went to work for the publisher Reynal and Hitchcock of New York. Betty said that she graduated from college in 1941, Phil gave her a trip to New York, where he lived, as a graduation present. Phil traveled to many college campuses as a representative for the publisher and Betty said it was Phil's recommendation that influenced her to go to the University of Michigan for graduate work.
Phil was drafted in 1942 and after training as a navigator, he was sent to India and flew "the hump" under the Air Transport Command. After completing his tour in India, he returned to the states and requested assignment to the B-24 crew with his brother Frank, who had just finished flight training.
Frank Russell was born in Asheville, North Carolina in 1924. He attended the University of North Carolina. He received a draft deferment as long as he remained in college, but in his sophomore year, in 1943, he joined the Army Air Corps.
As noted above, the crew picture was taken in Topeka, Kansas, in February 1944. The letter of March 15, 1944 from Phil Russell, the navigator, to Kay Kniesche indicated that the crew had just arrived in England. Phil said that he got what he wanted, which was to be on the crew with his brother Frank, the co-pilot. The next letter, dated March 25, 1944, stated that the crew had just been assigned to the 67th Squadron of the 44th bomb group. As you know, the plane was shot down over Germany on their first mission. I understand that 11 of the 27 planes of the 44th Bomb Group were lost on that mission.
I sent Betty Hurd the originals of the crew picture, the picture of Frank Russell, and the two v-mail letters from Phil Russell to Kay Kniesche. I also sent her a copy of each of those items made using my scanner so she could share them with her sister, Jean Adams, who lives nearby. Betty called me and thanked me for the pictures and letters, and told me that she had found a picture of Kay dated September 1938. Betty offered to send me a copy of the picture, but from her description (Kay was standing in front of an airplane wearing jodhpurs), I determined that I have a copy of that photo.
I took photos of the pictures and letters before sending them to Betty, and just got the prints back yesterday. They came out okay, so I am sending you a photocopy of the pictures and letters.
Perhaps, I am giving you more information than you want, but I figured better too much than too little.
In your letter of July 30 you mentioned that you found the official summary of the mission, which is several pages long. I would greatly appreciate it if you could send me a copy of that summary.
Enclosed is a contribution to the 44th Bomb Group Organization. Thanks for your help.