by Wayne W. Livesay, August 1990
Perhaps all veterans of military service remember specific dates and events which occurred during their tenure of duty. Each of us remember the classic battles, narrow brushes with death, heroic actions of friends, and the times when life seemed uncertain and suffering became a matter of fact.
The date of August 10, 1944, stands out in my book of memory as the one time when I really believed my life had reached the point of termination. The anxiety, fears, anger, and utter hopelessness I felt at that time cannot be expressed in words, but from time to time, I find it necessary to reflect on that moment of 46 years ago.
I was the navigator of a B-17 in the 8th Air Force. After completing one tour of duty, I returned to the States for a 60 day R&R, and then went back to my base at Polebrook, England. During the bombing missions of my first tour, I experienced attacks from German fighters, constant flak barrages from German anti-aircraft positions, and a few narrow escapes due to mechanical problems, but although I recognized the involved danger, I never really thought that any of the adverse action would befall me.
However, my second tour soon convinced me that I had been living in a fool’s paradise. On August 9, nine days after returning to England, our plane was shot down over the Dutch coast, and I parachuted to safety on a small island off the mainland. Since a garrison of German soldiers was stationed on the island, I and the other members of the crew were captured within three to five minutes. We were moved to a jail in a small town on the mainland, and I was placed in a cell hardly large enough to accommodate the straw mattress I was to sleep on.
Around daylight the next morning, I was awakened by a rifle butt against my ribs and a soldier motioned for me to go outside. He directed me to a truck in the parking lot where four other soldiers and a German officer were waiting. Not a word was spoken by any of them as I was pointed to the back of the truck and directed to climb in. Three of the soldiers then entered the truck and motioned for me to sit with my back against the cab. Each of these three was equipped with a weapon which appeared similar to a Thompson submachine gun. The German officer and the other soldier entered the cab of the truck.
As the truck engine started and the vehicle began to move, a myriad of thoughts filtered through my mind. I thought of my family, my girl back home, the men at the base, ant the others who had been captured along with me. Underneath these thoughts was the distinct possibility that I was making my last ride and that these silent men were intent on just one thing – to finish me off and leave me somewhere in the countryside. The three soldiers with the guns were sitting on a bench just inside the tailgate, and they kept their eyes glued on me the entire journey.
I had always pictured German soldiers as professional and neat in appearance with an inbred attitude of military discipline. The three characters I was facing were just the opposite – unshaven, with uncombed hair, and dirty uniforms which appeared to have never been cleaned. The officer and soldier who drove the truck looked somewhat better but far below what I expected.
We rode for approximately twenty minutes at speeds from five to fifteen miles per hour. Since the truck was covered by a foul-smelling canvas I could not see outside, but judging from the way the truck was bouncing up and down, I was convinced that we could not be on a road but were pioneering a path through open country replete with rocks and gaping holes. We seemed to reach a downgrade and the truck picked up speed only to come to a sudden stop as if we had struck a barricade. Two of the three soldiers were thrown off their seats and one almost dropped his weapon.
After a few seconds, the tailgate was lowered and I was motioned outside. As I jumped to the ground, my heart skipped a beat of two as a thought of utter dismay came to mind. I turned to my right and there about fifty feet away was a rudely constructed rock wall which appeared to me as an ideal background for a firing squad action.
The wall was about eight feet high and had been built across an open field for a distance of about 150 yards. Since it did not branch off in another direction so as to enclose a given property location, I figured it must have been a designated boundary line. Regardless of its original purpose, there appeared to be no doubt as to its present intended use.
One of the three armed soldiers indicated that I should move over to the wall. After I complied, the officer approached, and without saying a word offered me a cigarette. I took a cigarette from the pack which, ironically, was the identical pack of Camels that had been taken from me when I was captured. The officer furnished me with a light and I stood there “enjoying” what appeared to be my last cigarette.
In the meantime, the three armed soldiers positioned themselves approximately 25 feet from me and about ten feet from each other. The officer moved to a spot on my left a few feet from them while the truck driver stayed in the cab of the vehicle.
As I stood there looking at the scene, I started to speak but no words came out. The cigarette was almost burning my fingers, but I hesitated dropping it to the ground. My emotions at that time were a mixture of anger, prayer, and regret as I thought of the many things I should have done in the past as well as numerous things I should not have done. Only one who has experienced a similar situation can truly empathize with my feelings at that moment.
Finally, I dropped the residue of the cigarette and fixed my eyes toward the weapons in the hands of my tormentors. At this point, there was no doubt in my mind as to what was about to happen, and my final decision appeared to be whether I should look or close my eyes. I thought about running but knew this would profit nothing, so I decided to assume an erect position as if someone had called me to attention.
I stood there for what seemed like minutes, but in reality, was no more than ten of fifteen seconds. Suddenly, the officer raised his hand and motioned for me to go back to the truck. I did not wait for a second indication as I hurried to comply with his instruction. About twenty minutes later I was placed back in my cell and given breakfast which consisted of a slice of black bread and a cup of barley coffee.
Subsequently, I was a prisoner of war for nine months. During that time, I experienced the bitter cold in Poland, the march in the snow from Sagan to Spremberg, the three-day journey in a 40x8 box car to Moosburg, and bouts with malnutrition and pneumonia pleurisy. All of these are listed as times of suffering, but none of them approached the magnitude of what I endured during those few minutes with my back to the wall in Holland.