The last mission of our crew was May 13th, 1945. We flew into Barth, Germany, which had a prisoner of war camp to pick up recently released prisoners and take them to Paris. We were a skeleton crew: Robert Nolan, pilot; Howard Findlay, co-pilot; Vern Helms, navigator; Harry Dover, radio; and Ralph Will, flight engineer.
No one knew what condition these men would be in. They might be sick, starved or diseased. Our base supplied all sorts of food, candy, cigarettes, delousing powder, blankets and other things. Barth had a fighter airfield with short runways, making it difficult for B17s full of people to lift off. When we arrived we saw Allied prisoners lined up on the side in platoons of 30 to 35 men. We had been briefed on distributing this load. The bomb bay had been floored with planks and most of the men sat there. No problems. We stopped, loaded started the engines and taxied to takeoff position. The pilots held the brakes, Nolan revved up the engines, pulling 48 to 50 inches of mercury on the superchargers, brakes were released, and we were off, clearing the trees at the end of the runway.
We were amazed at the good condition of the men. No lice, no problems. From what they said the Russians had liberated them. The ranking prisoner of war officer refused to let the men out of camp. He said he was in control and he didnt want the men to run off all over the place. So the Russian commander lined up many machine guns and said, Open the gates or we shoot. The gates were opened. Some of the men went with the Russians, mostly Russian POWs and probably some Polish or other eastern Europeans. Others ran off to the local town but hurried back to camp when they found out we were coming to liberate them.
The prisoners didnt accept much from our food and supplies. They had broken into the warehouse at the camp and ate well, gaining back much of their weight. They even had duffel bags of fudge, which they offered to us.
The US airfields around Paris were named for cigarettes Lucky Strike, Camel, Chesterfield. When we started our landing pattern at Chesterfield, our right main landing wheel would not come down. We pulled out of the pattern, while I started to crank that wheel down. Those guys in the bomb bay were wide-eyed. They figured something was wrong. They were probably thinking of their last flight, which was a bailout or a crash landing. But all worked out well. We landed, and the ex-prisoners were taken in trucks to be processed. We went back to Nuthampstead. Total flight time: 9:30 hours