Charles Anderson served as a tail gunner in the 15th Army Air Force, 463rd Bomb Group, 772nd Bomb Squadron during World War II. On February 13, 1945, his plane was shot down, and he spent the rest of the war as a POW in several camps.
by Leslie VanderMeulen
Part 1: My Grandfather's Story
Charles Waldo Anderson, my grandfather, served in World War II, a war that altered his life forever. I have never had the privilege of meeting this man, but have been told his story many times. Gentle, shy, intelligent, fun loving, easy-going, a good sense of humor are words and phrases that characterized my grandfather’s personality before the war (VanderMeulen). Unfortunately, his experiences during the war had lasting effects, and after returning home he was not the same. I am not at all surprised that he changed in light of his time in war; many men with many different stories changed after they faced war.
A young Charles planned to enlist in the Army on a Monday in 1942. It is fortunate that he wanted to join, because he received enlistment papers before he went down to sign up (Niederer 4-5). He departed for St. Louis, Missouri, only twenty-one and recently married. For six months he went through basic training in St. Louis, then (in February 1943) he went to Las Vegas, Nevada for gunnery training. In May of that year he joined his flight crew and departed for Sioux City, Iowa where they underwent combat training. After graduating from combat training, his flight crew picked up their plane in Nebraska and proceeded to their final destination: Foggia, Italy, which remained their home for the duration of the war (Niederer 5).
In Foggia, and anywhere troops are stationed during wartime, the soldiers lived in humble quarters, to say the least. All soldiers of every rank slept in tents on the ground at camp. However, my grandfather’s crew used their ingenuity and made their stay as comfortable as possible. One night they took the rations of whiskey, which they received periodically, into town where they sold it and bought basic building supplies. When they returned to camp they built a small house, and when everyone woke up in the morning, they saw this little building in the middle of camp. Simply built of brick with a roof on top, it was a humble house. Nevertheless, my grandfather and his crew had the best sleeping quarters of any of the soldiers (VanderMeulen).
Though the crews tried to make the best out of life in the camp, wartime certainly did not consist of fun and games. My grandfather’s flight crew performed many missions during their time in Foggia. The crew was part of the15th Army Air Corps, specifically in the 463rd Bomb Group, 772nd Bomb Squadron, where my grandfather did his job as a tail gunner on their B-17. A tail gunner’s job is to shoot from the rear of the plane. Their final mission took place on February 13, 1945. This mission included bombing Vienna, Austria (Anderson), and proved to be quite unsuccessful. The plane received a shot in the fourth engine, causing the third engine to catch on fire. This sent the plane crashing down in flames, and the entire crew bailed out at 15,000 feet (private documents). The report sent to my grandmother regarding the crash stated “plane sighted going down in flames – no parachutes sighted” (Niederer 5).
My grandfather experienced a stroke of luck that day which saved his life. After he bailed out of the plane he landed in a tree, while his crewmembers landed on the ground. When Viennese civilians found six of the crew members, my grandfather watched them lynch his friends right there. The civilians took this action because German soldiers had convinced them that the Air Corps planned to bomb their villages and homes, thus they were very angry at these soldiers. [Note: Charles Anderson disclaims this lynching account.] German soldiers did find my grandfather’s extra pair of shoes that had fallen off his belt when they went to look for survivors. However, seeing no footprints in the snow, they concluded that this man must be dead. Lucky for my grandfather, they did not look up to see him sitting there in a bare tree (Niederer 5).
In a report taken after the war, my grandfather stated that he evaded capture for three days, but a farmer turned him in, and he was then taken to Weiner Neustadt Airfield, Austria. Held there from February 16 to March 5, he then encountered interrogation for two days (March 8-10). After the interrogation, he was transported to three more camps. From March 12 through 16 he stayed at Dulagluft, March 18 through April 4 held at Nuremberg, and from April 4 to 29 at Moosburg (private documents).
My grandfather never spoke to his children about the treatment at the camps. All that he did say is that they were given very little to eat, so that they would be too weak to fight back. Most imprisoned soldiers involuntarily participated in prison detail, which consisted of any hard labor that could be found to keep the prisoners occupied. Most of this work was done outside the camps, thus the Army Air Corps could not participate. Airmen could not perform prison detail because of the angry civilians, who attempted to harm them. If the men in the Air Corps attempted to work outside the prison, civilians tried to throw stones and such at them (Anderson).
Civilians also abused soldiers during their marches between camps by throwing stones and rocks at them. The walk to and from camps or railcars must have been terrifying. Not only targeted by civilians, my grandfather and fellow soldiers incurred bombing by their own men in a few instances. While on a 100-mile march to Munich, they feared for their lives as their own planes dropped bombs on them. The soldiers faced more bombing by American planes when held locked in boxcars for three days in the Nuremberg Rail Yards. In this situation, the men stood cramped in the small cars with no room to sit, no food, water, or sanitation (Niederer 6). The soldiers probably faced more danger between camps, whether walking or on trains, than actually in the camps.
The treatment that my grandfather and his fellow prisoners received was certainly inhumane. The situation did improve in a few instances, however, and that is how they knew the end of the war neared. Food rations increased, and the prisoners began to receive better treatment from the guards. The prisons also removed some guards from their posts who previously mistreated prisoners. This occurred because when the war ended and U.S. troops came in, they asked the soldiers who had mistreated them. These guards got taken out and immediately shot (Anderson).
Luckily for my grandfather, his plane was shot down towards the end of the war, therefore was only held as a prisoner of war for a short time. After the war ended, he headed for Camp Lucky Strike in France, where he would be sent to London, and then home (Niederer 6). However, he caught the mumps in France, hence he was detained in the hospital for three weeks (Niederer 6). By the time he was on the way home, my grandmother finally received word that he had been accounted for. On July 11, 1945 he returned home for good (Niederer 6).
Honorably discharged from the Army on September 25, 1945, my grandfather received several medals including a Prisoner of War Medal, an American Campaign Medal, a World War II Victory Medal, and a Purple Heart (private documents). Hearing all of this, I wonder how he felt about his experience in the war and how it ended. Since he rarely talked to his kids about it, all I can guess from is the ways in which his personality changed after he returned. Instead of easy-going and gentle, he became a man with an unpredictable temper, not much respect for authority, and a bitterness about him (VanderMeulen). Obviously this change stemmed from his time during the war, perhaps as a result of seeing and enduring too much in not very many years.
Part II: The 15th Army Air Force & the B-17
A major aspect of combat in World War II included air warfare, which established lasting change in the way the world conducts war. Many American men in the Army Air Force courageously flew all over the world during the Second World War. Armed with their B-17s, my grandfather and many other men flew bravely across Europe, contributing to the eventual defeat of the Axis powers.
The Army Air Force entered the war with 25,000 enlisted men and 4,000 aircraft. As the men and their planes proved themselves worthy of battle, the air force grew rapidly. During the peak of the war, the air force counted 2,411,294 officers and enlisted men, and 75,000 aircraft. These men and their planes proved a huge asset to the war effort, but unfortunately many sacrificed themselves for the endeavor. The air force lost 229,544 aircraft from July 1940 through August 1945, while 52,173 of the 115,382 men injured in combat died (Pixler). The AAF lost more planes than men injured because many airmen survived the plane crashes. Many men whose planes crashed ended up as prisoners of war. Though the army suffered many casualties, the Air Force definitely did their part in the war effort.
The B-17, one of the primary Army planes used in WWII, had its birth shortly before the war. Boeing, in 1935, had just finished up a prototype of the B-17, an advanced bomber. A Seattle newspaper covered the story and the editor, Richard L. Williams, chose the caption “15-ton Flying Fortress” for the picture (Freeman 8). The name stuck, which is why “B-17” is interchangeable with “Flying Fortress.” The plane, originally designed for long-range ocean patrol to protect the U.S. coastline, caught the Army’s eye. Though expensive, the Air Force bought the Fortress in 1939, with the B-17B model (Freeman 9).
Of all B-17s used in WWII, the B-17G model proved to be the most advanced. The B-17 turned out to be one of the most successful aircraft in the Army. The Flying Fortress included models ranging from the first, a B-15YB, to (what my grandfather flew in) the B-17G introduced in September 1943. The G model added superior technology over the other models, and it was therefore dubbed the supreme Fortress model. Thus, 8,680 of the 12,731 B-17s produced were model Gs (Freeman 54). These B-17s were used primarily in the 15th Army Air Force.
In November 1943, four Bomb Groups in North Africa and the 12th Air Force combined under direction of General James Doolittle to create the 15th Army Air Force (Freeman 55). The 15th AAF moved to Foggia, Italy where they targeted Southern Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Balkans, which could not be reached by the 8th Air Force located in England (Mendelsohn). Stationed in the “Mediterranean theater” as they called it, the 15th AAF did not perform long-range bombing but strategic bombings, such as destroying supply lines (Schaffer 44). The 15th Air Force began operations on November 2, 1943, attacking the Messerschmitt factory at Weiner Neustadt (where my grandfather was first held as POW). The most important feat of the 15th AAF was destroying oil fields at Ploesti during July and August of 1944 (Mendelsohn). “Chiefly in Europe, in the hostile skies over Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich the Flying Fortress would become legendary” (Freeman 9). The 15th did major damage to Germany and the Axis powers, contributing to the Allied cause.
The men in the 15th AAF armed with their B-17s became a powerful asset for the allied forces during WWII. The B-17s flew at very high altitudes, and they could actually target “not just enemy factories, but parts of factories” (Schaffer 29). This spectacular combat weapon became a major threat to enemies. Bluntly stated, “the B-17 was not built for leisure, but for the most dangerous of professions - total war” (Wise). These heavy bombers made their presence known through their bombs. Also called “Queen of the Skies,” the B-17 dropped more than 640,000 tons of bombs in Europe. This is more than the 452,000 tons dropped by B-24’s and the 436,000 by other American aircraft (Wise). Early in 1945 sections of Europe targeted by the Army Air Force had been reduced to “near impotence” by lack of supplies “due in no small part to the strategic bombing offensive against Germany carried out by the 15th AF” (Mendelsohn).
My grandfather was one of those men. Stationed in Foggia, he flew as a tail gunner in the 15th Army Air Force, specifically in the 772nd Squadron. He fought in “the 463rd Bomb Group – including the 772nd, 773rd, 774th and 775th Squadrons – who, during World War II helped liberate Europe and defeat the worldwide threat of fascism” (Mendelsohn). The victory of the Allied powers in World War II is due to many men and women who fought courageously to overcome the Axis powers. Having done extensive research and learning about men like my grandfather I realize how much the Air Force contributed in World War II. I truly feel that “all WWII Veterans . . .but most importantly the men of the 463rd Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, the greatest Flyers of their time” boldly brought the Allied cause to victory (Mendelsohn).
Part III: Life as a Prisoner of War
My grandfather, Charles Anderson, did not talk much about the war, and he certainly refrained from talking about his experience as a prisoner of war. My mother, aunts, and uncle had very little information about this particular area of their father’s life. This made me a little frustrated because, out of his time in the military, I especially wanted to explore his experiences as a POW. Nonetheless, I have learned about his time in POW camps the best way I could. I learned about several men who not only served in the Army Air Force, but also were POWs during World War II.
“World War II in Europe saw an enormous number of soldiers, sailors, and airmen fall into their enemy’s captivity” (Vance 341). More Americans became POWs during World War II than in any other war involving the United States. More specifically, there was over ten times the number of American POWs during WWII at 130,201 than in every other war (concerning America) combined at 12,056 (“American Prisoners of War”). These statistics certainly have great importance, but as I read the individual stories of so many men, numbers began to seem very insignificant. Numbers are so cold and unemotional; they do not tell stories and experiences. A story is more significant than a number.
Although I came across countless stories of American prisoners of war, I chose to focus on three men whose military experience appears very similar to my grandfather’s. These men include James Dowling, Joseph P. O’Donnell, and Lloyd Kilmer. All three served in the Army Air Force during World War II. Dowling served in the 445th Air Wing of the 8th Air Force (Brokaw 47). Kilmer, also in the 8th Air Force, was a B-24 pilot in the 448th Bomb Group, Squadron 712 in the 2nd Air Division (Brokaw 62). The 8th Air Force, stationed in England, was very close to the 15th Air Force (located in Foggia, Italy), in which my grandfather operated. Joseph O’Donnell also flew in the 15th Air Force, 483rd Bomb Group, 815th Bomb Squadron (O’Donnell 1). I chose to write about these men because they all served in the Air Force and became POWs; their stories must somewhat resemble my grandfather’s.
Many parts of the men’s stories are quite alike. Each of their crews got shot down while operating bombing missions to Germany. O’Donnell’s crew was actually bombing the aircraft factory in Wiener Neustad, Austria, where my grandfather was first brought after being captured as a POW. Germans eventually captured the men after each of them bailed out of their respective crash. Joseph O’Donnell saw trees and rocks as he descended after his bailout. He thought about the little training he had gotten and remembered he needed to keep his legs crossed if he thought he would land in a tree. He ended up landing in some bushes, but I wonder if my grandfather’s thoughts resembled O’Donnell’s after he bailed out, as he did land in a tree. After his crash, O’Donnell came upon a freshly plowed field while deciding his best route to escape, but was detected by a German plane. A short time later he found a German soldier waiting for him (O’Donnell 4).
After his crash, James Dowling reunited with his crewmembers only to be captured. They then loaded into boxcars for a ride to a POW camp. Riding in the boxcars seems to be an experience every prisoner of war went through. This is actually one of the situations my grandfather survived that I actually have knowledge about. My grandfather told about how the POWs were bombed by their own men while stuck in the boxcars. This is something that Dowling also experienced. On a long 300-mile ride he and fellow POWs experienced bombing by U.S. planes. Unaware that Americans were in the boxcars, the U.S. bombed them (Brokaw 48). O’Donnell also noted that they had no food, water, or toilet facilities in the crowded boxcars (O’Donnell 7).
After riding in the boxcars, but before they “settled” into camp, prisoners of war faced interrogation. During interrogation, POWs were threatened if they did not supply information. O’Donnell received a right hand chop to his ear because he would only give his name, rank, and serial number. Later he was asked to provide some maps he had in exchange for food. He eventually surrendered the maps when the Germans threatened to shoot him (O’Donnell 6).
Lloyd Kilmer also tells an interesting story of his interrogation experience. Kept in solitary confinement for days, he refused to repeat more than his name, rank, and serial number (like O’Donnell). As a result of his “stubbornness,” the Germans pressed him at gunpoint for information concerning the 8th Air Force. When he declined to inform them, a German officer came to have a word with him. He decided that because Kilmer would not disclose anything, he would show him what they knew. The officer proceeded to show a book with information regarding Kilmer’s bomb squadron, bombing reports, and biographies of the crewmembers. He said to Kilmer, “You think we’re pretty smart, don’t you? We know ninety-five percent of what’s going on in the American Armed Forces. However, your government knows ninety-seven percent of what’s going on in the German Armed Forces” (Brokaw 64). Hearing these stories, I cannot imagine what my grandfather encountered, especially because he never talked about it.
My grandfather did comment a little about how the Air Force men were despised by civilians outside camps. Because of this, the airmen were not allowed to do forced labor outside camp. This is something that O’Donnell recounts. After his interrogation, a truck with a German guard took him to the camp. He told the guard that he did not need to be guarded; that he would not escape. The guard replied that he did not guard him from escape, but from the civilians. He said if civilians found out that he was an airman they would hang him without question because he had just destroyed their town and killed their families. Joined by other airmen on a train in Vienna, they experienced this hatred first-hand. He said, “they knew we were air corp and violently vented their anger. Fortunately for us, their only weapon were a swift kick, a deliberate punch, or a wad of well aimed spit in the face” (O’Donnell 7). Any time air core POWs went outside the camp, they would be subjected to this abuse.
Though they could not participate in forced labor, POWs did not have an easy life in the camps. My grandfather never talked much about it, and I could not find very much on the life inside the camps. However, Kilmer is one of the few former POWs who did talk a little about life in camp. He remembers how he watched many other inmates get shot when they attempted to escape. He also comments on how the meals only included watery cabbage or turnip soup, and they spent cold nights with only a thin blanket. He lost sixty pounds in his time at camp (Brokaw 64).
These men merely survived in camps until the end of the war. Only Kilmer commented on his experience at the end of the war, and I took great interest in that part of his story. When the war ended, he resided in Moosburg Stalag 7A, the same place my grandfather was at the end of the war. On April 29, 1945 Kilmer attended a POW church service when the men heard an explosion of small arms fire. Soon a U.S. tank came through the German barbed wire. Their time at camp was over! He told about the wonderful sight when the American flag replaced the Swastika (Brokaw 64). I really enjoyed reading his story about April 29, because I just cannot help but imagine this is possibly the sight that my grandfather saw that day.
James Dowling, Lloyd Kilmer, and Joseph O’Donnell have brought my family and me a gift without even knowing. As I read each man’s story with great interest, it gave me insight into a piece of what my grandfather may have gone through. He did not speak much about life as a prisoner of war, but I cannot help think it had a tremendous affect on him. Through these men I have taken bits and pieces of their stories, and imagined what he must have experienced. It is truly fulfilling just to know a little more about what he faced, and I have been granted that through these men’s stories.
“American Prisoners of War.” Infoplease.com. 2002 Learning Network. 3 March 2002 http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0778677.html.
Anderson, Lawrence. Interviewed by Leslie VanderMeulen. 27 January 2002, 6:00 P.M.[telephone interview].
Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. New York: Random House, 1998.
Freeman, Roger A. B-17 Fortress at War. London: Ian Allen Ltd, 1977.
Mendelsohn, Art Jr. “463rd Bomb Group.” 3 November 2001. 2 March 2002 .
Niederer, Patti L. “My Parents’ Story.” 1978.
O’Donnell, Joseph P. “An Arrogant Airman.” 15 May 2000. 4 March 2002 . http://www.angel45-2b.com/lifeasaprisonerofwar.html
Private Documents: 1) Statement or Report of Interview of Recovered Personnel 2) Enlisted Record and Report of Separation, Honorable Discharge, WD AGO . Form 53-55
Pixler, Dennis R. “The United States Army Air Forces in World War Two.” 4 July 1997. 2 March 2002 .
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Oxford University Press, 1985.
Sterba, Lt. R. L. “The B-17.” 4 March 2002. http://www.geocities.com/Pentagon/Bunker/5431/Page_1x.html
Vance, Jonathon F. “WWII- Western Europe.” Encyclopedia of Prisoners of War and Internment. 2002.
VanderMeulen, Pamela. Interviewed by Leslie VanderMeulen. 7 January 2002, 12:00
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Wise, John K. “B-17: 50 Missions.” 2 March 2002 .
See Leslie VanderMuelen's source article with additional pictures at http://www2.gvsu.edu/~vandelej/