The Luft IV 550-mile Forced March, February 6, 1945 to May 2, 1945
Many of us remember Jack Godfrey as partner-owner of The Little Weekly, The Burg's sometimes slightly scandalous and unfailingly interesting hometown newspaper. Jack's partner was Doral Chenoweth. Both photographers-writers-reporters were escapees from a larger Columbus newspaper. The local paper that they published filled a big gap for those of us who enjoy unexpected humor, social news, and the miscellany that fills our everyday lives but might have passed unremarked without those two to put it into print for us.
Jack moved his family here in 1956. He and his wife Irene served their town in many ways. Fifty-year members of the United Methodist Church, they were traveling volunteers for Special Olympics, began the Civitan Club, and were instrumental in starting Meals on Wheels here and the Life Center at Wesley Ridge. It was Jack who set up an entire print shop at their church. Jack was Senior King of the 1996-1997 Tomato Festival, a position he did not seem pleased to find himself in. Irene was a bank teller at their marriage, worked in The Burg's village offices in 1957, a few years later became one of Bank One's first female officers. They got things done.
We would not usually think of Jack as a WWII radio operator and gunner in the US Air Force, or as a prisoner of war. His plane, a B-24 Liberator four-engine heavy bomber, was shot down on its 18th successful mission, within an hour after his crew had successfully blown up a large oil refinery in Pardubice (Par-du-BEET-see), Czechoslovakia. The smoke from the hit rose 8,000 to 10,000 feet. All ten of the crew were taken prisoner by the Germans. All survived to meet annually until ill health or death prevented it. At his last reunion, Jack was 85.
Jack was injured by shrapnel in both legs, but never received more than offhand medical attention even after German doctors examined him. He suffered from severe pain and swelling that on their famous 500-mile, 80-day (February 8 to May 2) forced march to freedom often compelled him to ride on a wagon pulled by other prisoners. These conditions not only endured for the remainder of his life, but created additional problems for him.
John J. Godfrey was born in Skaneateles, NY, March 24, 1921. He enlisted in the Air Force in May 1942, was taken into active service that October at Fort Hayes, Columbus, and rose to Technical Sergeant at discharge October 1945. He married Irene Langel July 10, 1944. They had been married 64 years, 2 days, when he died July 12, 2008. Their two daughters are Pamela and Margi.
Wanting them to understand how glamourless war could be, Jack wrote about his experiences for his six grandchildren. Here, taken from his own words, is the rest of the story.
From Fort Hayes Jack was sent to Nashville, TN. There he passed several tests and qualified for pilot training. At primary flight school he trained in a Stearman PT-17s, a biplane. (Biplanes, mainly early 20th century use, had a pair of major wings, generally one above the other, connected by struts.) "Loads of fun to fly," said Jack. "Easy as riding a bicycle," said the instructor. Jack soloed after 8½ hours of dual time, flew about 52 more hours solo time. Flying solo was "a tremendous experience, looping, tail-spinning, and the various maneuvers one had to learn to pass the flight tests." Stationed briefly in Courtland, AL, Jack had six hours of dual flights and three check rides -- and was eliminated from pilot training. He was sent to Greensboro NC, then to Sioux Falls, SD, for training as a radio operator. Six hours every day he listened to the "dit-dahs" and knew he never wanted to hear that again.
There his oldest brother, whom he had never seen, visited him. AND Irene came also. "What a great boost to morale that was . . . ." Jack had intensive gunnery training at Harlingen, TX, and spent "one of the most miserable Christmas days of my life" out on the range when a terrific nor' wester came through. Along with related subjects they learned to take the 50-caliber machine gun apart and reassemble it, sometimes blindfolded. They had training on a 30-caliber machine gun mounted in a rear cockpit. Target: a tube being towed by a B-26 bomber, usually being flown by a WASP "lady pilot." Some of the wilder gunners hit the tow planes, by accident or design was not confessed.
After a 10-day furlough home to see his family, and Irene, Jack took the train to Salt Lake City. There he was assigned to Crew 3430. Jack was radio operator and second waist gunner.
Assigned to B-24 combat training at Casper, WY, the crew got a lot more ground school and a heavy flight schedule, many flights being cross-country, so the navigator could learn more about his job. Plus, gunnery practice in the mountains from turret and waist positions. The commanding officer ordered that anyone shooting at elk would be court-martialed. Jack said his records showed 104 hours' flight time at Casper.
Not all was ground school and flying. On June 10, 1944, Jack Godfrey and Irene Langel were married in the Casper Base Chapel. Irene stayed for 10 days, then returned to Newark. Jack' s next station would be overseas. First the crew was sent to Topeka, KS, to pick up a new B-24J, the latest model of the big bomber. The airman in charge who signed two separate receipts, one for the B-24J and another for four Pratt & Whitney engines, said, "I sure hope they put these things together before we leave!"
A mere few hours' flight to calibrate their instruments and become accustomed to the new plane and the crew was told to head out to go "over there." Once in the air, an officer opened the sealed orders to discover they were headed for Italy. But first they went to Bangor, ME; to Gander Bay, Newfoundland; to the Azores Islands; to Marrakech, Africa; Oran in northern Africa; then across the Mediterranean Sea to Joia, southern Italy. For a couple of days, for the first time, they lived in tents, then took off for Venosa (anciently, Venusia), Italy. They were to stay in Venosa a while.
Their B-24 was assigned to the hard-stand formerly occupied by Flak-Shak 11. It had been terminally damaged on a mission but got home and was retired for use as parts to repair other 24s. Generally, a replacement crew was assigned to an old plane. The ground crew chief pleaded with the commanding officer to let him keep the new 24 and Jack' s crew had the grand good luck of being assigned to it.
They flew several practice missions around southern Italy to give their pilots some experience flying in the close formations necessary for bombing missions. For their first combat mission, the crew was separated and flew with an experienced crew. On August 2, Jack and Bob Rector, engineer and waist gunner, flew to Genoa, Italy -- and got their first bath. The briefing officer (who told the crews what to expect when they flew over the target) said there would be no enemy fighters aloft, and only low and inaccurate flak (antiaircraft fire).
Odds one out of two ain't so hot. No fighters (correct there), but headed home the No. 2 engine (inboard, left wing) took flak in a direct, crippling hit. The propeller was turning erratically, and the pilot could not turn the blades straight into the wind. Rector managed it; but with one engine dead they had to drop back from the formation, and they were losing altitude. Another B-24 came back with them to offer protection. Their pilot was worried about some mountains they could not avoid and had to clear on the way home to the base. He gave the remaining engines full throttle, clearing the mountain by a couple hundred feet. Jack thought of a gunner instructor's words: the life expectancy of a gunner in combat is about 15 minutes.
From August 2 through August 24 the crew as a unit flew mission after mission, bombing sites in France, Roumania, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Length of the shortest mission (Yugoslavia) was 4 hours 25 minutes, the longest (Germany) 8 hours, 45 minutes. One time the cloud cover was too thick to see the target, so the colonel in charge ordered the group back to the base, WITH 10,500 pounds of bombs still in the bomb bay. Jack commented, "Going in to land and seeing those bombs hanging a mere five to six feet from you is a very scary experience."
For the mission to Pardubice Jack's crew started as an extra plane to complete the formation in case one had to drop out. One B-24 crashed on takeoff, so the crew moved into his space -- into their last mission. About an hour after their successful mission, a flight of 12 to 16 German fighting planes, in less than five minutes , shot down four B-24s. US bomber gunners knocked out four German planes, but Jack' s was in shambles: two engines on fire, a broken oxygen bottle whose flames were directly on the rubber hoses of the fuel transfer system, a hole under the waist window where Jack's machine gun was located, the tail turret a disaster area of broken plastic and burning hydraulic fluid . Jack tried to contact the pilot, but the intercom system had been destroyed.
Another man managed to get the escape hatch door open and dived out. Rector jumped out the window on Jack' s side. Jack got his parachute on but thought of the man in the ball turret -- which just then was wrenched open, the man came out, and Jack jumped. He saw eight parachutes, only finding out later that they were from other shot-down US planes.
As he was descending to earth, one of the F-190s that shot the planes down circled him several times. It was known that some German soldiers would shoot at parachuting airmen, and Jack was fearful that this could be his fate. The pilot circled close one last time -- gave him a salute, and flew on. One more bullet dodged. But Jack wasn't exactly trouble-free. Both his knees were bleeding heavily. He tried to stop the flow of blood by pressing his thigh higher up, but that cut off circulation to his arms -- and the ground was coming fast toward him.
When he lit (the jolt, he said, was about that of jumping out a second-story window) he snatched and rolled up his parachute and hid it and hid himself a distance away. A man he had seen walking toward him came back but didn't find him. Jack hid and walked and rested briefly all night, during daylight reading his New Testament, which comforted him greatly. Having heard on his radio command-frequency station that the Allies had captured Roumania, he began walking toward that country. Deer, crashing around in the underbrush, raised the hair on his neck until he discovered what they were. He had a map but did not realize how far it was. The map was in his escape kit, fastened to his parachute harness. The kit included the radio and map, hardtack cubes (caramel-type squares) money, a plastic water bag, and water purifying tablets . All he had to eat for more than a day was those cubes. Then he stumbled on a cabbage field, cut off a cabbage with his pocket knife, and at last had a sort-of meal.
The next man he encountered saw him. Jack showed him his map and tried to find out more, but there was a huge language barrier. Finally, Jack pointed to his bleeding legs and the man said, "Ja, kum." At the house two German soldiers arrested Jack and took him to jail, but fed him something warm and filling that could have been soup. He slept. From there he was taken to a youth camp then a hospital in Budweis (yes, the place of origin of the beer), Czechoslovakia, where he was given a tetanus shot -- and some black bread that gave him hives. A kind youth brought him some white bread and warned him to keep it hidden. The bumps left.
Eventually Jack landed at an interrogation center at Wetzler, Germany. It was called Flea Center because of its fleas, lice, and other hungry cooties that ganged up to attach themselves to all. He was questioned intensely, about anything he might know. But Jack, following Geneva Convention requirements, answered only his name, rank, and serial number. He and many others were transported out in Forty and Eights -- train boxcars designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. (In a Bill Maiden's WWII Willie and Joe cartoon, one says, "They oughta hire a homme to clean up after them chevauxes.") At least 60 men were crammed standing into Jack's car, with no food or water, and a pail in the comer -- if anyone could get to it -- as a toilet.
In Berlin they heard air raid sirens, but the target was far away. The cars took the men to Gross Tychow, now part of Poland. Their camp was known as Stalag Luft IV. (stalag [German] = prisoner of war camp; Luft = location. So, Prisoner of War Location IV.) It was extremely cold, mountainous country, flu and pneumonia and hostile wound country, at the level of Norway and Sweden. The men were forced to run, with dogs at their heels and guards eager with their bayonets and rifle butts, the four miles from the railroad station to the camp. This camp, designed for 6400 men, was never finished because of Allied air raids, even though the Germans worked at it whenever they could.
It was not -- was never intended to be -- a decent place. Jack and others lived in tents for three weeks, then were moved inside a newly finished compound. There were ten barracks buildings, five on each side with two latrines total, and an administration building at one end. The camp was sited in a forest clearing about 1½ miles square, with two 10-foot barbed wire fences around it. Additionally, a 10-foot fence and a corridor surrounded each compound. Guard towers, the guards armed with machine guns, stood at each end and in the center. No one was allowed near the fence. The machine guns were a strong deterrent.
Rooms held 20 men, each of whom was given a few inches of straw to make himself a "bed," and one blanket. Men slept, shivering, with their clothes on. Room ventilation was poor, there were no bathing facilities, and scarcely any water anyway. A center open space was meant for exercise and games -- except that sports equipment had been confiscated. Though POWs were not forced to work, they were otherwise treated harshly. The single window was boarded over each afternoon at dusk and the single outside door was locked. Each compound held about 2500 men, to make 10,000 total. Considering its never-completed condition and its intended capacity, you could call it crowded.
They were not given enough fuel to keep a fire going in the one potbellied stove. It did have a cleanout door, and when he was outside every man carried whatever would burn back into the barracks, and hid it. A supply wagon came around now and then. A prisoner gleaned whatever fell off the wagon plus some that didn't. When the secret stash of fuel and food was sufficient, the prisoners created a souplike concoction and boiled it in a pound-sized Klim dried milk can over a fire on the cleanout door. They were cautious with fire, for if guards saw smoke, they came barrelling in, doused the fire, seized the soup, and threatened to take the stove.
Regular German rations, averaging 850 calories, were black bread, fake coffee, and a watery mixture of vegetables. Red Cross parcels (often withheld, then divided between two men) held powdered milk, coffee, sugar, Spam or sardines, three packs of cigarettes (a vital trade item), an enriched chocolate bar, and always, prunes. Average daily calories: 1200, suitable for weight loss and persistent hunger. Needed daily calories: 3500. Men talked about, dreamed about, yearned after, food. Jack saved and roasted kernels from prune pits which, when mixed together with saved chocolate, provided a snack. Irene sent him packages and letters, but none reached him.
A sense of humor never deserted them. The POWs frequently arranged to foul up the twice-daily roll call. One man pretended to have a dog, leading it on a leash and making it sit beside him in the formation. Guards frequently entered the rooms, looking, thieving, looking. Jack said to one, "Hey, Joe, how about some Schnapps for Christmas?" Surprisingly the guard answered in English, "You wouldn't want Schnapps. Seagram's Seven and 7-Up would be much better." He talked with the men for several minutes. He had lived in northern Michigan for years, and upon his return to Germany in the late 1930s to visit family, the Nazis gave him no choice but to be in their army.
In early January 1945, artillery fire and the appearance of old tri-motored planes told them that Russians were coming. On February 6, the POWs were marched out of camp in groups of 500, wearing what they could and carrying selected belongings. The men were to march 18-20 miles that day -- into a blizzard, into the worst German winter in more than 50 years. After about 15 miles they found a barn and slept there, exhausted, freezing, desperately miserable. It was the same for two weeks, then they had to sleep in a new-cut forest with no protection from the extreme cold and wet. They were afraid to take off their shoes because their frostbitten feet might swell too much to get the shoes back on. They had eaten the rations from the stalag and were existing on a little black bread and sometimes a potato given them by their captors.
For 80 days they marched, losing a daily average of 37 men, every day like the last. Jack fainted, and the guards put him and another man on the "sick wagon," pulled by POWs. They rode for a few hours then, seeing other POWs worse off, got down from the wagon and grabbed the back of it, letting it pull them. Water was scarce and had to be boiled, or you got dysentery. One crewman lost three pairs of pants because he couldn't make it to the outdoor latrine in time.
Near the end of March their guards changed, younger Nazi men being posted to military duty elsewhere, men 60 and older trying to keep up but ending by riding the wagon most of the time. In a small village, whose people seemed to be celebrating, they learned of the death of President Roosevelt. In mid-April they saw a freight train, then a flight of American P-47s that strafed the train to bits and waggled wings overhead to let the marchers know who they were. The men were waving and yelling at the planes, and when someone started to yell, "All is Kaput. Hitler is Kaput," soon every man joined in. In a day or two they saw American soldiers and military police, and ran to greet them. At the end of the march, captors and captives alike had trouble standing, or moving at all. They were starved, cold, injured, dull-minded with exhaustion and depression -- and yet relieved and happy to be at the end of their war.
A chance conversation with a man who lived near Jack' s sister in Cleveland led to picture-taking and to a later visit to Jack at home with the presentation of the pictures. A raid on a warehouse -- which they got to on bicycles " borrowed" at gunpoint -- yielded tasty food for many. A poultry yard raid brought them a dinner of roast goose and dumplings. Men from another division caught them and said they wished they were eating that well. The crew traded a visit to the delousing chamber and some new clothes for a similar meal for their benefactors.
The crew went by train to Lucky Strike, a huge area at Le Havre, France. There they and their B-24 pilot all surprised one another by being alive. Free to go home, Jack boarded the S S Admiral Benson, a liner that had been converted to a troop ship. Three hours out of port they heard gunfire. The gunners were busy disabling some mines in the shipping lanes. This took time, but it was done, and the ship was underway again. Five days later they arrived in New York Harbor. From there they were sent to Camp Dix, NJ, then to Camp Atterbury, IN. From Atterbury he called Irene.
8,000 men started marching. 5,000 finished. Jack Godfrey came home.