12 Days a German Prisoner
By Lieut. Vonnerlin Wernecke
As follows is a transcription of an article
by Vonnerlin Wernecke related about 1945 for a Boeing magazine publication, where he worked after the war. On August 8, 1944, Lt. Vonnerlin Wernecke, Navigator, 398th Bomb Group, 603rd Squadron was on a mission in the lead aircraft that day
to assist the breakout of ground troops stalled near Couvincourt, France.
His aircraft was piloted by Flight Commander Captain Robert Hopkins with Captain M.C. "Buddy" Wagner, Jr., 603rd Squadron Operations as the Commander of Aircraft (CA) for the 398th and the 1st Combat Wing of the 1st Bombardment Wing of the 8th Air Force. They had been directed to fly along the long German lines rather than perpendicular to. This caused numerous possibilities for being hit by German flak. Four 398th Aircraft went down that day, including the lead Hopkins aircraft. His story below begins just after he jumped from his disabled aircraft.
12 Days a German Prisoner
By Lieut. Vonnerlin Wernecke
As told to Fred Hamann
When you are certain you are going to die the next minute, you can view things with a peculiar detachment that makes them stand out clearly. Yet none of it is real, somehow. That’s the way it was with me last August as I swung above the green-gray patchwork of fields, roads and villages near Caen.
I was coming in on a ‘chute and a prayer. It was a pretty poor time to be dropping in on the Nazis too. The invasion of France was three days under way and the Jerries were in a desperate killing mood. The roads below swarmed with them; reinforcements moving to the front.
A few moments ago I had been a navigator of a Boeing Flying Fortress one of a thousand sent over to silence Nazi gun batteries. The flak broke around us so thick we could have sunk an iron mine in it. A chunk had hit me in the leg. And then I had gone hurtling out the nose hatch of the doomed fort with smoke and flames following me.
I had not much more than collected my senses from the shock of the flak, the bail out, and the jerk of the parachute when I realized that bullets were making whistling noises past my ears. The Jerries were still punching with automatic weapons fire which was tearing holes in my ‘chute. I was going down faster, faster than anybody ought to fall.
Now small arms fire mingled with the machine gun fire. I could see the Germans down there, scattered around the fields, like gesticulating ants running around on their hind legs and pointing rifles up at me. There seemed to be no chance that they could miss me all the way down. And even if they did, the speed at which I was dropping would kill me when I hit the ground.
But the seemingly impossible happened. First the rifle and machine gun bullets missed me. By an even larger miracle my ‘chute snagged in the top of a poplar tree. Dangling there, I cut myself loose from the bullet nicked shrouds and dropped into the grass in a field near an old mill. I started to crawl away as best I could through the grass and bushes, but the Nazis patterned the field with machine gun fire to keep me pinned down. One stream of lead threw dirt on me as it passed. I pressed myself into the ground and waited. The earth seemed to be something alive that thumped against my chest.
Suddenly I heard someone call, “hey Joe!” It was a low friendly call, repeated several times.
It’s hard to know what to do in a case like that. You’re wounded in enemy territory, and you never needed a friend any worse in your life. But you don’t want to be a sucker either. It doesn’t take much English or much acting for a Nazi to sound friendly with a “Hey Joe.”
I decided not to offer my head as a target. Friend or foe, they could come find me. If they didn’t I’d try to contact the French underground.
After a while I heard the searchers approaching. I lay still, hoping for the third miracle-that it was really friends about to discover my hiding place.
Then they stood over me and I was looking up into gun muzzles. My luck for the day had run out.
As they rolled me over, I noticed the soldiers wore clean uniforms, so I reasoned I had landed in a new outfit that was just moving up to the front. Later I learned that if I had landed closer to the front among battle-hardened Nazis, I probably would have been shot on the spot. But these Nazis seemed to be overcome with curiosity about an American flyer. They kept staring at me and talking in German. Finally they carried me to a field aid station. My luck was holding out after all.
A German medic examined my leg and found that the frag had gone clean through. He wrapped the wound with paper bandages that looked something like Kleenex only coarser. I could see wooden slivers still embedded in the texture of the paper. After that, I was given a double normal tetanus shot-a shock dose. In a few hours I was running a temperature and my body became covered with big lumpy welts.
After that, I was put on a motor transport and taken to an evacuation hospital at Putanges. There were other Americans there and in the hospital I met the first French people. They looked ill-clothed, ill feed, and ill-treated. They were doing all of the dirty menial work scrubbing, cleaning and mopping. Here too, I saw the first real Nazi hardheads who lorded over the French.
DUCKING THE INVADERS
As the Allies fanned out over France after the break-through at Falaise gap, the Nazis put us on trucks, bedded us down with hay and transported us by degrees to Paris. Everywhere on the way I saw evidence of the effective strafing and bombing of the Allied planes - smoking lines of supply trucks, burned out tanks, shot-up trains and abandoned vehicles of every type. There seemed to be no German rolling stock left that didn’t have red crosses on them. Every time the Nazis heard an Allied plane overhead - and the sky was full of them - they went slightly crazy.
In Paris, the Germans took us to the Nazi general hospital south of the Seine in the heart of the city. About all we had to eat was our sour pumpernickel bread with half rancid lard or oleo.
From then on we were in Paris for a while never beyond sound of the Nazis’ heavy-booted feet. One day we found ourselves watching as tragedy came marching on those feet. It was only a small incident, as war goes, just one of thousands of similar episodes that have been going on wherever the Germans have sunk their heels into Europe. But it was one of the few to be witnessed by an American and it wasn’t very small to us.
At night a Nazi guard was killed in our district. Next day during the busiest hour, a detachment of German soldiers marched into the area, bristling with rifles and automatic weapons. Out in the front stomped a Nazi officer, stiff haughty. He barked a command and the soldiers snapped to attention.
The street was filled with civilians, most of whom paid little attention to the demonstration. They’d seen it all before.
And then came the part they hadn’t seen.
The officer barked another command. His men rushed to each end of the block, sealing it off. They swung into passages and doorways blocking every avenue of escape. Only then did the people on the street realize what was in the making.
They scrambled in all directions, and the street echoed with shouts and women screaming for their children. I could see the kids trying to hide in the hopeless protection of their mothers’ arms and men trying ineffectually to shield both of them. Then the sub-machine guns started to chatter.
All up and down the block I could see them falling - the men, women and the children. I learned something then about the Nazis quality of mercy; victims who stood still and faced it were given a quick death with bullets through the head; those that ran or protested were shot in the stomach and left to lie on the street, writhing in their pain until they died. No one dared to touch them.
It was a hideous nightmare… something that couldn’t happen in a modern civilized world. It was one of those things that you read about but can scarcely believe.
That night the Paris underground declared open war upon the Germans and the war was still raging when U.S. troops reached the city.
So far as I am concerned, nothing can be said about the Nazis that is bad enough, and no stories about the heroism of the underground can be exaggerated. Hollywood’s ingenuity for brutality and for bravery cannot touch the things that go on in Europe. And you can tell that to Cecil de Mille.
- This article was pubished in an Boeing Magazine shortly after Vonnerlin Wernecke began work at Boeing. The actual date of publication is not known. However, he does refer to the events of "last August" and the bailout was on 8 August 1944. Thus the publication was probably in 1945, shortly after the events described.
- The original publication states "last June" instead of "last August". It is well known the date of the bailout as 8 August 1944, and thus the transcription above used the correct "last August."
- Vonnerlin Wernecke was the original Navigator with the Leroy Lassegard crew, but he occasionally flew as Navigator with the Bob Hopkins crew, another Flight Leader. Vonnerlin Wernecke was with Bob Hopkins crew on 8 August 1944 when their lead aircraft was shot down and from where this story begins.
- Re-capture of Paris 24th August, 1944
- 398th Mission Page: 8 August 1944: Couvincourt, France
- Lassegard's Crew - 603rd Squadron - April 1944
- Hopkins' Crew - 603rd Squadron - 28 May 1944
Personal History Information
- Veteran: Vonnerlin Wernecke
- Position: Navigator
- Squadron: 603rd
- Date of Personal History: about 1945, see Notes above
- Author: As told to Fred Hamann by Vonnerlin Wernecke
- Transcription by: Vonnerlin Wernecke's grandson, Matt Wernecke in September 2008
- Submitted to 398th Web Pages by: Vonnerlin Wernecke's grandson, Matt Wernecke in September 2008