Near the end of the war, I was one of a crew ordered to fly POWs out of allied held Germany. This crew was made up of two pilots, one engineer, and one navigator. We carried no ammo or bombs. We flew a stripped down B-17 so we could take out as many POWs as possible and complete this mission.
Fighting was still going on around Berlin. We navigated over friendly ground North and located the POW camp. The flight was uneventful, no fighters to harass us and no flak for the first time after many combat missions. We flew at a low altitude, I think about 8000 feet.
There was no runway at Stalag Luft 3B, only a very large empty field. The POW camp buildings were in the middle. There was a high wire wall around the camp. Even if a prisoner tried to escape, there was no cover for him in this very large empty field.
Upon landing and taxiing toward the camp buildings, I could see a few groups of men. After deplaning, we were looking at what must have been a miserable life for so many POWs. The buildings were also enclosed by a high wire fence. They looked like a bunch of run down single story barracks.
Somebody in charge gave the go ahead to one of the groups and they all started running toward us. We were mobbed, hugged, kissed, and lifted up as if we were angels from heaven. I heard crying and hysterical laughter. No one told these poor men to board. Many kissed the B-17 while they climbed aboard.
When we got ready to take off we had eight men sitting on the bomb bay doors (none looked worried that the doors could open and they become human bombs), four in the cockpit area, three in the nose, and the rest in the waist and tail section. All in all we picked up 36. That meant that there were 40 aboard and a very heavy B-17.
Engines started, taxiing to the very edge of this small field, we noticed that this take off was far too short even without this additional weight. But we were on a mercy mission, full throttles, brakes off, overboost on setting 8, we started to roll. Not enough speed, so I slipped the boost to 10. Engines straining, we hoped that the power system could take the added strain. The plane got just enough airspeed to clear a field fence by about ten feet. Gaining altitude was a fingers-crossed event.
At about 8000 feet everything went smoothly. All of the POWs were Air Force Officers. One major told me he had been shot down from a P-47. He asked me for permission to take the pilot seat for a while. Can you just see a major asking a lieutenant permission. Naturally, his request was granted. He had been a POW for a couple of years. He was like a kid in a candy shop, he cried.
Another was a bombardier who had to bail out and was captured by German civilians. His head was beat up badly by a pickax handle. All of his front teeth were knocked out. Before the crowd killed him, German soldiers rescued him from any further beating. Looking at this gaunt face he had a great big toothless grin.
During the flight over Germany, and without our knowledge, almost all the rescued POWs were taking turns relieving themselves over their enemy. I guess that this was one way to get even with all the pent up anger. There was a lot of yellow rain that day.
As soon as we had crossed over into France, our navigator passed the word that we were no longer over Germany. The joy stopped immediately.
Ordered to fly to an airfield north of Paris, we flew over the Eiffel Tower but I did not see it; too busy trying to find the landing field. Field spotted, it must have had hundreds of repaired runway bomb craters.
Upon landing we cut the engines at the end of the runway. The POWs scrambled out and many of them kissed Frances ground. Hugging and handshaking again all around.
Mission was over; we flew back to Nuthampstead, never to see these men again.