World War II Experiences
"Timeless Voices" Oral History Project
Donald M. Menard, 398th Bomb Group Radio Operator
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
Interviewer: Marilyn Gibb-Rice
Interview conducted at the
398th Bomb Group Annual Reunion
Austin, Texas, September 12, 2009
The 398th has been interviewing its members as part of the Timeless Voices of Aviation project. More information about the project and a current list of video interviews can be found at 398th Timeless Voices Interviews. In addition to the video interviews, some of the interviews have been transcribed to text.
Donald M. Menard, 398th Bomb Group Radio Operator
603rd Squadron, Eighth Air Force
MGR: Interviewer, Marilyn Gibb-Rice
DM: 398th Radio Operator, Donald M. Menard
Time of Interview: 01:16:58
MGR: My name is Marilyn Gibb-Rice and today is September 12, 2009. We are at the 398th Bomb Group Memorial Association reunion in Austin, Texas. Would you please introduce yourself?
DM: My name is Donald M. Menard.
MGR: And what squadron were you in?
DM: I was in the 603rd Squadron.
MGR: And your position?
DM: I was a radio operator.
MGR: And the crew?
DM: On the Roy Sheely [Lt. Roy M. Sheely, Pilot] crew.
MGR: Can you tell me what you were doing before the war?
DM: I was a college student and—with a part time job, and my father was a co-owner of a creamery, and I had a job; a milk route, delivering milk house to house. And the rest of the day was in class.
MGR: Were you—did you grow up in Louisiana?
DM: I grew up in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. It was in the outskirts of Lafayette, Louisiana.
MGR: What college were you going to?
DM: At that time, it was the Southwestern Louisiana Institute which is now the University of Louisiana, Lafayette.
MGR: Were you following the war?
DM: Oh yes! Mm hm. I was—I was really interested from early on from—I think, when I entered the fourth grade, we started taking geography, and I was very, very keenly interested in that and then, of course, the following year I think we took history classes, so I was very keen on what was going on at the time.
MGR: Did you think we would become involved?
DM: It appeared—I could—I could see it coming because, although when the war began I was not quite of age. I was born in 1924, so that put me at about age, when the war started, at about—when Hitler attacked Poland, for example, I was about like maybe 14 or 15 years old, yeah, but, I could see it. We read the papers, and my dad just barely missed WWI. But he was really abreast of all this, and I was the oldest of the family, so he and I would get together and talk about it because his brothers had been in WWI, so I was really cognizant. I was not quite as keen—mentally keen—keenly involved in the Orient or in the Pacific as I was in Europe, because all this was taking place early on.
MGR: Do you remember D-Day? I’m sorry, not D-Day, Pearl Harbor.
DM: Oh, yes! I was not in the service yet because I was still only 17 years old. And as a matter of fact, I enlisted on the first anniversary [of Pearl Harbor] December 7 of ’42. So, yes. I was back home after my milk route—it was either a Saturday or Sunday, so I didn’t have classes—and I was laying in bed, and my mother woke me up and told me about Pearl Harbor.
MGR: And your reaction?
DM: Uh—by that time I had gotten—been aware that there was a lot of—a lot of friction going on between Japan and the United States. We had cut off their oil. We had cut off their scrap iron, and I knew there were negotiations going on in Washington, at the time, to try to solve whatever dispute there was. But I had no idea that it may lead to war immediately, so I was as surprised as much of the country was.
MGR: Mm hm. Tell me about enlisting.
DM: Well, the enlistment part or the—by that time, I think, all of us in our age, like in our high school group, knew that we were going in because the guys that were a little older than me were already. There were some 17-year olds, for example, in high school with me, and they dropped school and gone into the Navy. And we were—we were—we were mobilizing, by the way, a lot earlier than people realized, because as far back as ’39, I mean, you know, they were laying ship bottoms in anticipation of trouble.
And the draft came on, so they were enlisting, and as early as 1940, even before I enlisted, there were the Louisiana Maneuvers [U.S. Army training exercises] in ’40 and ’41 and we were a—we had some property. We were a dairy farm, and in our immediate area, around the house, grew a huge yard and we had bivouacked there that summer an anti-aircraft battalion from Fort Bliss, Texas [Fort Bliss U.S. Army Post, El Paso, Texas], that took place in the maneuvers, and they were an anti-aircraft battalion. And just adjacent to our property was the airport in Lafayette, and, obviously, there was some airplane activity going on. And watching these mock dogfights fascinated me and I knew then, this is the branch I had to go in. And then, of course, even before Pearl Harbor in the summer of ’41, the same group reappeared and had the same maneuvers. So we were mobilized, partly mobilized before ’41. I mean—yeah, before December 1941.
MGR: So, where did you have to go to enlist?
DM: Right there in Lafayette.
MGR: And once you did, how long was it before you actually left?
DM: About 90 days—60 days, something in that range.
MGR: And where did you go?
DM: I went to—my first base was Sheppard Field [now Sheppard Air Force Base], Texas, here up in northern Texas.
MGR: Did you know, at that point, what you wanted to do in the Air Force?
DM: Oh, yeah! Yeah. I wanted to go for pilot training, yeah, and that was in the Aviation Cadet Program. And, at that time, they had a program where those that had four semesters of college could go in, and they would take us and send us to a contract college to get very accelerated additional—additional schooling. And those top—those subjects were primarily history, and science, and math—American history, and science, and math. Very thick. Very accelerated, because, in a matter of a—in a matter of eight or nine months, I had already done about two semesters, I mean four semesters, of work. But we went to—we went to class every day of the week, except Sunday, from 7:00 to 5:00, and this was all—this was all lectures and things, so we were very accelerated. And at that time, at this particular—in that part of the curricula was in order to keep our interest in the flying, we were able to accumulate about 15 hours of flying time, and most of us were able to solo. And that was to keep our interest up, that we didn’t this—didn’t like college. So even by the time we got to classification we already, most of us, had already soloed, you know.
MGR: And so, you went [for] your first training, and this is where you took your classes?
DM: Well, first of all, at Sheppard Field, we were there only like two weeks for very accelerated basic training and inoculations, and things of that sort. Then we were immediately sent to this contract college up in Iowa; Iowa Wesleyan College, and we were there for several months, as I said, and then onto Santa Ana, California [Santa Ana Army Air Base], for classification.
MGR: And what did you do there?
DM: Well, when I went there you took further testing—
DM: —and you actually went to—even though I had had about four physicals before going there, when I got there they decided that I could never be a fighter pilot, or a pilot, because I had a depth perception problem which I didn’t realize I had. So, that put a quietus immediately on my pilot ambitions. And I had a choice; at that time the—I wanted—I would—I would have liked navigator training. That was closed. But I had a choice of bombardier, flight engineer or radio operator, so I picked radio operator. I figured later on—you know, I was interested in electronics anyway, so this is what I did and that’s what ended up to be my position.
MGR: And where did you go from Santa Ana?
DM: From Santa Ana I went to Scott Field, Illinois [near Belleville and O’Fallon]—in Illinois, for radio training. From there I went to Fort Meyers, Florida, Buckingham Field [Buckingham Army Airfield], for gunnery training, because every—every crew member, except the cabin crew, had to go to gunnery school; even the bombardier, navigator. But the two pilots didn’t have to go. The rest of the crew, everybody else, had to go to gunnery school, so regardless of your position, except the cabin crew, you were qualified as gunnery. And from gunnery school [Buckingham Field, Ft. Myers, FL] I went to Platt Park, Florida [Don meant to say Avon Park, Florida], for a crew assignment, and I was assigned to the crew that I eventually went to England with. And then we had to take OTU, operational training unit, as a crew, on B-17s, right there in Tampa, at Drew Field. That was before going overseas. We did that for three or four months.
MGR: And you got together with your crew; did you, after that training, then go to England?
MGR: And how did you get there?
DM: Well, we went to—we went by train to Savannah, Georgia, at Hunter Field [Hunter Army Airfield], and we were ordered to ferry a B-17 over to England. And, ironically, the day we were to leave, we were, at two ‘o clock in the morning, awakened up and says, Everybody, get up and fly these planes—there were 200 planes there—fly them west and keep flying until we tell you where to land. There was a hurricane coming and we had to evacuate the coast! So, we took off and flew and then I get a call, when we got up about mid-country, to land at Fort Wayne, Indiana [Baer Field], and we spent a few days there. And then went to the port of debarkation which was at Bangor, Maine [Dow Army Airfield]. I forget the field there, but it was at Bangor, Maine. And then from there, by way of the northern route, we flew over the Greenland cap and then ended up landed at the Reykjavik, Iceland [Reykjavik Airport aka RAF Reykjavik], for overnight or, actually, ended up spending a couple of days, and then had to bring the plane into Valley, Wales [RAF Valley, Anglesey, Wales]. And from there, by train, we went to—to Nuthampstead.
MGR: Oh. You did not get to keep the plane that you brought over?
DM: Oh, no! The plane was just a ferry plane. They had to stay—the plane had to be equipped with some British equipment, you know, so that we had—we had the same channels of communication as the RAF [Royal Air Force], and so on. And some few little modifications they had to do to it [to make it] suitable for the 8th Air Force assignments.
MGR: What did you think of England when you arrived?
DM: Uh—I don’t know, but it didn’t surprise me too much. I had heard a lot about, you know, about it from returning crews, and so on, so I wasn’t really surprised. Uh—I can’t remember, you know, that it had any adverse effect one way or another. I was just—I was just going to a group and more interested in that than the landscape, you know.
MGR: What time of year and what year was it?
DM: It was 1944, in July. [Don was mistaken, it was most likely late August or September]
MGR: Oh. So, tell me, do you remember your first mission?
DM: Ohh, yeah! (chuckles)
MGR: Yeah? Tell me about it.
DM: Our first mission—our first assignment was to Brüx [the German’s name for the city of Most], Czechoslovakia [This was 398th Mission #95 to Brüx on October 7, 1944] and, at that time, you flew with a—the co-pilot was a trained pilot, kind of to coordinate the—break you in, you know. [The experienced pilot who flew as co-pilot on Don’s first mission was Lt. Jack Brandstatter]
MGR: Mm hm.
DM: Well, we went and dropped our bombs over the refinery and, almost immediately after we left the city, we got hit and lost an engine immediately. And we had a long ways back to England. What? Eight hundred miles, I think. And we—we, uh—with three engines you can sustain altitude; you can’t climb. So anyway, we—we started jettisoning equipment—like the ball turret; it weighs about 850 pounds, so we immediately detached that! And then dumped all the ammunition, and anything of any weight, out of the aircraft to help us. And, don’t you know, that a little bit later on we got this engine that started acting up, so we were really on prayer, you know.
So we—but we went on and, of course, we had started out with about 30,000 feet altitude, inching down all the time as we went, and as we approached the—as we approached the—the—you know, that part of the country—the continent, we were just entering into—entering into Belgium. And so the—this is in—this is in the summer, now, and the—after a while, the bombardier says, “I think I see some planes on a—on a steel strip wrap [Marston Mat]. You know what that is? They had the—it’s a large steel mat that they can unreel and act as a temporary runway on fresh ground. Well, that’s what this was, and this guy recognized the RAF markings, so were able to communicate with them. And we told them that we had a serious problem; that we had one wheel that was up and one down, and both of them were frozen. So, that we’d like to come in. They said, Okay.
And we knew we’d be coming in on that mat in hazardous conditions, so we asked them if they had a foam truck, you know, [to prevent a] fire. They said, Yes, they did. But anyway, by the hardest we finally got the right wheel cranked up which mean we had to make a belly landing. So, we hit the mat with sparks flying all over—metal to metal—flying all over. They kept us foamed all the way in so, fortunately, we—we were able to walk out of the plane. Then we spent—I mean, the Germans were three or four miles away, I mean, you know? They had just been liberated the day before and they had unreeled that mat just hours before we got there!
MGR: You guys were really lucky!
DM: It was a blessing! So, we—and of course they didn’t want us there. I mean, that’s the last thing in the world they needed was an airplane caving in and saying hello. So we—they really didn’t know what to do with us, so they took us into a warehouse. And I will never forget it. It was right across the street from the large cathedral, the Catholic cathedral, in Brussels. So we spent—they would come back—they sent back a truck to feed us and then bring us back, you know.
So, one day, about the third or fourth day, there was a C-46 transport plane, RAF, that had come in to retrieve a glider that the British troops had used to—they were glider troops and it was just almost yards away from that little base, and they come back to retrieve it because it was still flyable, you know. So, we pleaded with them to take us back to England, just anywhere in England, and—which he did.
Then we got back to our base finally, after a day or two, and we got there, and of course, our—our huts had been ransacked! Well, not only that; had been evacuated! I mean we weren’t there anymore! Our clothes and everything were gone! And, fortunately, they were still in—they were—I’ll never forget—they were in [Col.] Hunter’s little house out there. He still had a little house where his headquarters were.
MGR: Right. Hm.
DM: And we found out that the 8th Air Force, in London, had been advised of our MIA [missing in action] status, but it had not made it to Washington, so our families were not advised that we were missing. Well, we come back and we had an order that Col. Hunter wants to see us. He said, “You guys look a little nervous.” (laughs) So, he gave us a 36-hour pass to London to kind of calm us down a bit. So, we used it all to sightsee and it was very pleasant. So, that was the end of our first mission.
MGR: How many missions did you fly?
MGR: Do you want to tell me about the second, third and fourth?
DM: Okay. The next iconic one was October 15th [the 398th mission to Cologne, Germany, was on October 15, 1944—target: Marshalling Yards]. We were flying the lead box and Charles Khourie [1st Lt. Charles E. Khourie, Pilot] was flying Lead. And, I don’t know—so—so on takeoff, we were right behind him, you know? We were like a diamond, you know? We were right behind him and, all of a sudden, we hear all this commotion of metal hitting our propeller and the body of the airplane, and everything. And we could never figure out what—what was wrong! And then we go into—the way we would form to—to group up to—we’d go over a signal and then we’d form around that, you know. Well, when we got there, that was all out of sequence, I mean you, know? We knew something dreadful had happened, but we didn’t know what.
So, went on our mission that day to Cologne and—as a matter of fact, we were talking at the table about it because a pilot had been on that mission with me—and it was—the mission itself was fairly uneventful. We went to bomb a Ford Motor Company plant in Cologne. So, we come back that afternoon, that evening, and I—I got to see—I got to go to Anstey and see what all this is about! I get on my bicycle headed that way, and then I look out towards the runway and there was this big gathering up on the other end of the runway. And there was a B-17 parked out there, you know? And all these people in jeeps and such. Well, what it was, was Lt. DeLancey’s plane, on that same mission, had got the nose chopped off. And, as a matter of fact, the bombardier, George Abbott [S/Sgt. George E. Abbott, Waist Gunner] went with the nose and was killed.
MGR: Mm hm.
DM: So, that’s where all the attention was, and nobody was paying attention to Anstey. So, that was it. And I had never—I had always wondered, you know? And I had always wanted to go back to—to that site, so—in, was it two years ago? We had a service at the Anstey church [St. George’s Church] and everything—and I got to see it real well, and so on. So, that was—so that was, like, October 15, and then I made a couple of missions again; Brunswick [the 398th mission to Brunswick was on October 22, 1944--Target: Automotive Works, Tank Factory and Communications Objectives. This was 398th Mission #100] and Berlin, I think.
Then—then on—from the 28th of October—28th of October, yeah; our target is Munster [the 398th mission to Munster, Germany, was on October 28, 1944] for Marshalling Yards. And we were—we were flying lead, and we had with us a Captain Scott [Captain Talma A. Scott, Jr.], which was not, you know, our crew member. That’s what went—on the lead crew there would be always an Administrative Officer, or something, to fly with you, so we had Talma Scott as the Commander of Aircraft; what they call Commander of Aircraft. He was commanding the group, in other words. Well, immediately right over the target, I mean, we got banged.
MGR: And when you say that, this is by flak?
DM: By flak. Yes, by flak. We lost the number four engine and I had to feather—kill it right away. And there again, we—we had to—we left the formation and, you know, I called the—I called our wingman to take over. Well, he gets hit and—so, as a matter of fact, that day the 398th lost three of us and they were, let’s see—there were three killed and the rest were all POWs.
MGR: Out of three planes?
DM: Out of three. Three killed—and three were killed in one plane, and then the rest of us were all POWs. So, we all left the formation, obviously, and we tried to make it back to—in the meantime one engine catches fire. That left us with two, so we didn’t—we had to fight like heck to try to make it over the Rhine River because the Rhine River had been liberated by the British. And it didn’t happen, you know. We just—we just didn’t make it. By the time we got to the river, we were down to 2,000 feet. We’d have made it except for we got attacked by a bunch of German 20 mm cannon, and then we knew we had it. So, we had to give up ship and we got captured immediately, just about. Well, immed—I did, immediately and—well, within a half hour, anyway. The rest of them at least overnight. Some of them spent the night in the woods, or something like that. Eventually we were—we were all collected.
MGR: What was it like, jumping out of the plane, and the parachute? What was all that like?
DM: Well, I was worried about coming down safely. My biggest concern was, I had a windmill with the sails turning on one side of this road, and a power line on the other side, so I had to jig and jag and to try to avoid both—either or both. And I, finally, just barely made it over the power line, but I ended up in a tree. And, in a word, my—my—in order—it was either the tree or the power line, so I had to—I chose the tree, and I got hung up there. And coming down I—I fell, actually, and fractured my ankle. But I saw—I’m getting down on the ground, and I’m looking down the road and I see this Jeep coming, and I says. “Oh, my God! We made it!” But it was a captured Jeep. There was a young lieutenant and four cadets, he called them, all dressed up in black. There were—they were S.S., you know? Storm troopers. There was a tank—a tank outfit that had been pulled back to Holland. They had been battered on D-day. They had pulled them back to regroup, so that’s what they were doing there. That’s how they ended up with the Jeep, there. So, anyway, that was my—so we were, obviously, we were all captured.
MGR: What was that like, when they first captured you? Guns out?
MGR: Did they have guns out, pointing towards you?
DM: Well, this guy was in—this lieutenant was in a Jeep with about five little cadets, I said, and, yeah, they had all their guns drawn. But I had—I had already—when I saw them walking towards me I threw my—I just threw my pistol down, you know. What else could I do?
MGR: Right! So, what happened at that point?
DM: Well, they gathered us up and they put us up in a little school house. It’s still there. I revisited it.
DM: And I guess we were there a week because they wanted to gather—see, we were only, like, 17 miles from the German border—German frontier—and they gathered us up and, as I recall, besides us, there was—I remember a Canadian captain, an English major; there was about maybe five or six British—U.K. people. And then—then I was hobbling, and they told us that we would have to walk to the border, so my guys took some window frames and made me a somewhat of a crutch. So, we walked 17 miles to the border. Took a half a day to get there, but then took—went by train to—the trip to—by train was to Hamburg, and it ended up we were sent to the wrong camp. We were sent to the—the—the air crews, or air service people, were all attached to the Luftwaffe camps. The Luftwaffe had camp only for fliers, for air crews. Old Goering had seen to that! That the—so we went by train overnight to Hamburg, and then way up in northern Germany, and get over there and we didn’t belong there! We were at a, like, an infantry camp, you know? So they put us back on a plane [Don meant to say “train”] and took us to the Frankfurt area for orientation and assignment at Dulag Luft, right outside of Frankfurt.
MGR: What did they do at orientation?
DM: Well, they put us in a cell, prison cell, and you were alone in the dark. And they would call you in and try to bleed information out of you. And, in the morning, they would slip you a little bowl of porridge, or something. And then we were there—I was there, probably eight or ten days, and every day or two, they’d call you in and see if they could pump you out of more information. And then, finally, they took us out of there, and then sent us to a permanent camp. The permanent camp was Stalag Luft #4 into Gross Tychow, which is now in Poland, you know. It was on the border of Poland, and that slice of Germany was granted to Poland after the war.
MGR: Mm hm. You went there, again, by train?
DM: Uh, yeah. Mm hm.
MGR: And tell me about life there?
DM: It wasn’t easy—(laughs) it wasn’t easy. It was cold. Very cold, and I—I was assigned to a British barracks and we were 16 to a room. And there was, you know, all Commonwealth people. I mean, I had South Africans, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Scotch, English; I was the only American in the room.
MGR: Oh, wow! And were you still, at that point, all air crew?
DM: Oh, all of us were air crew.
MGR: Oh, okay. Everybody in the camp?
DM: This—like I said, this Stalag Luft—luft means air—this is an airman’s camp.
MGR: Okay, okay.
DM: Yeah. And we stayed there until the latter part of December. And they were still looking at my leg, from time to time. Even though they’d go look at—couldn’t do much about it. Then, in December, I guess it was late December, or maybe early January—of course, the Russians were advancing all this time, and they realized that they would be—they were having—they were going to have to evacuate that camp. So, unknown to us at the time, what they were doing is planning to march everyone out of that camp. But then they were—what do they do with the ill? There were still people that were actually sick, and so on, and those that were, like in my case, could not walk very long or far. So they gathered 1,500 of us, and put us on a train, and sent us west and, yeah, west and north to Barth; Stalag Luft #1, which was only about—maybe a hundred and—I think about a hundred and twenty miles away. So—but that took five days to get there by train because, by that time, their transport was being attacked and we’d be parked on a siding for two and three days at a time before we got to Barth. And then, shortly afterwards, the rest of that group of 8,000 guys, they were marched for 84 days, all the way down to the south of Germany, in the hard winter. In the worst—through the worst winter that Germany had had in a hundred years.
MGR: Mh hm.
DM: So, we made it to Barth, and that was a relief to get there, you know. But, you know, life was not any different than it was at the other place really.
MGR: When you were in the prison camp, were you constantly locked up, or could you go outside? I mean, I know it was winter but—
DM: You could go outside of the house—out of the building—
DM: —but not outside of the fence.
MGR: Right. Right, right.
DM: Yeah, you could go outside of the building.
MGR: So, what was a typical day like when you were—
DM: Boring and hungry.
DM: By that time, the transport—had demolished a lot of their transport. I mean, the aircraft had demolished a lot of their transport, and what food, what supplementary food we used to get early on from the Red Cross, had been cut off almost completely by aircraft, and so on. And because these Red Cross parcels came out of neutral countries, like Switzerland and Sweden, and both of them, of course—we were almost locked out from them.
DM: So, what parcels, what few parcels there were, instead of, like, maybe one parcel a week per, would be like one parcel a month. And that didn’t go very far, so you were always hungry and you were always bored, you know?
MGR: Yeah. What did they feed you?
DM: Well, their—their diet to us was mostly, I would say, bread and potatoes—would be about the two things they contributed.
MGR: Were you able to have coffee or tea, or was it just water?
DM: No, it was just water that they had. I don’t know if I ever remember them furnishing us coffee. Now, we’d get coffee from these packages, you know, that we’d sparingly use, but it was—it was a meager diet really, you know, that they furnished. Less than probably, maybe, 700, 800 calories a day.
MGR: So, if you weren’t already thin, you got a lot thinner?
DM: Oh, yeah! I went from my average—I was light. I’m a small person. My average weight was 145 to 150 and I was 105, I think, when I got out. Something like that.
MGR: Could you do any, I mean, you didn’t have anything you could do during the day? I mean—
DM: Well, we had—there, again, came from the YMCA—there was a collection of books, and things, that you could check out, but I mean, you know, they were not that—there wasn’t enough to go around ever, but I mean, you know, there was something to—we did a lot of walking around. I mean, just walking around the perimeter, like a caged animal almost. (laughs)
DM: There wasn’t much to do.
MGR: Were there any lights? Like, once it got dark, did you have lights?
DM: Oh, they turned the lights off real early. I mean, I forget what time it was, but it was very early. You didn’t have lights up very late.
MGR: And you were just up early in the morning? Wow! Did you ever think about trying to escape?
DM: No. We—Eisenhower had told us after, you know, about—we had a clandestine radio. So, Eisenhower had advised us, after about the previous January, “Stay put.” You know, don’t move. Particularly after that incident in—at Stalag Luft #3 where they had, you know, shot the British guys? You know? The Great Escape; you’ve heard of that movie?
MGR: Mm hm.
DM: Okay. After The Great Escape they asked us to just hold still; that, you know, the war was in sight—the end of the war was in sight. Well, it lasted another year but still, you know, it’s not worth it.
MGR: Right. And were you with your crewmembers at this point?
DM: I’m sorry?
MGR: Were you with your crewmembers?
DM: Oh, no. No. We had been separated—well, from the beginning, part of our crew went to Stalag Luft #3 in Poland, and another place in Poland. And, no, I didn’t see my crew members again until after we were liberated.
MGR: Hm. So, did you—you didn’t have any idea of knowing that they were alive or not?
DM: Well, I suspected they were alive, yeah. I had no reason, I mean, you know—(shrugs)
MGR: Because you had made it and you thought—
DM: We had made it down on, yeah, so—
MGR: Did they try to interrogate you there, or you were just kind of left alone once you got there?
DM: No. No, after the interrogation, that was all the interrogation we had. You know, we had ten days of pure—as a matter of fact, interestingly enough, our chief interrogator, after the war, moved to California. He died not long ago.
MGR: Oh! So, how did you find that out?
MGR: That he moved to California?
DM: Oh, his name is—his name was very, very well-known and—and in the papers, and everything; and the POW Bulletin and Flak News, and stuff like that.
MGR: Hm, okay. All right. So, did they ever do anything with your ankle, or did it just—
DM: No. It—it eased up and it kind of healed on its own.
MGR: Can you tell me about your crew members?
DM: Uh—there’s only two of us left. They have—they have just passed away, one by one.
MGR: Mm hm. Okay, so while—because you only had the five missions, did you ever have Flak Leave?
DM: Ever have a what?
MGR: Flak Leave.
DM: No. I didn’t get to that point. You had to go half of your tour to—
MGR: Oh, to get that?
DM: So, I never had Flak Leave.
MGR: So, did you ever—
DM: I had—we had that 36-hour break, is about the extent of the—
MGR: Between missions?
MGR: Did you ever get to London?
DM: Oh, yeah!
MGR: Oh, did you?
DM: Well, when l—when he gave us that 36 hours, you see—if you—or you’re familiar with it—see, at Royston, you’re only 26 miles from London, so you can be in London in an hour.
DM: And, that’s what we did.
MGR: Yeah. And what did you do when you were in London?
DM: And we spent the two nights—yeah, two nights there. And, boy, we made every minute—I don’t think we got an hour’s sleep in the whole 36 hours. Well, it was mostly sightseeing and everything, I mean, you know. Now we did go to a—we did go to, for a little while, to a Red Cross Club, you know, and, while we were there it was a madhouse! If you could imagine a gymnasium, and then pack it all up with troops from all over the world, all dancing shoulder to shoulder—you held (holds arms up as if holding a dance partner)? That’s what it looked like. Hundreds of guys on the floor at the same time. I don’t know where they got all the girls, but they were there! (laughs)
MGR: So, what was—was that the only interaction you had with the English people? Was at places like that?
DM: Well, no. As I told you, I lived with—I was housed with the British crewmembers, so I got to know all of them. I mean, I had Canadians, Scotch and English, and of course, the Scotch and the English would battle each other all the time. And then the Canadians were battling all three of them, and then back and forth. As a matter of fact, one of the cutest things I ever heard, there was a guy by the name of McFadden, whose father was Scotch, and his father had immigrated to Canada, and his father had fought in WWI, you know?
MGR: Mm hm.
DM: So, one night, we’re all laying there sleeping, and McFadden says, “You know what we’re going to do with you Limeys? We’re going to tie a rope around your little old island and then float you up the St. Lawrence, to keep you out of trouble.” (laughs)
MGR: (laughs) Would you get into, like, a lot of mischief during the day, or when you were in the prison, because you didn’t have anything else to do?
DM: There was no mischief. (laughs) I mean, you couldn’t—you couldn’t—you couldn’t be very mischievous. Oh, you’d try to bribe the guards, and everything, like, take a Red Cross cigarette—and that’s where I learned my first German. “Vollen Sie ein Zigaretten fur ein Stück Brot?”
MGR: Which means? DM: Would you like a cigarette for a slice of bread?
MGR: Ahhhh. Would they do that?
DM: If he’d see nobody’s watching, yeah. Well, yeah, he kept some in his coat pocket, and I kept some in my pocket. (laughs) But you had to be careful. If you were caught doing that, you were—you’d go to the, I forget what the term was now. Anyway, it was a little dark room. (laughs)
MGR: Were you ever there?
DM: No. No. I tried to stay away from that.
MGR: Oh, oh! When you were back at Nuthampstead, were you ever in the Woodman Inn?
DM: When I was at—you know, when I was on duty there, yeah.
DM: Yeah. I went there once or twice. That was about it. I was not a—when I was in the states, like in Florida, in training, yeah, I did drink beer at the PX [Post Exchange], and everything, because it was so hot, and everything. But I was not a—I was not a big drinker, really.
MGR: So, there was no reason to go to the Woodman?
MGR: What were your living conditions like at Nuthamstead, before you—before you were—
DM: Well, it was fairly, fairly modest. I mean, you know, we lived in a hut and we had a double stack of beds. I think we lived—I think the whole crew lived in the in the same hut. All the enlisted men stayed together.
MGR: But you were considered an officer?
MGR: You were an officer.
DM: No. No.
MGR: No? You were enlisted?
DM: I was a Tech Sergeant; a Staff Sergeant.
MGR: Oh. Okay. Okay.
DM: A radio operator.
MGR: Right. Okay, did you receive a special medal because of being a prisoner of war?
DM: Yeah, there was a POW medal issued after the war, yes.
MGR: And did you receive it?
DM: Oh, yeah!
MGR: You got it? So, what happened—tell me about being liberated, or when you were able to leave the prison.
DM: Well, we were liberated by the Russians.
DM: And we knew they were—we could hear their artillery, so we knew they were approaching us.
MGR: Mm hm.
DM: And, you know, we had—we had a military command within the camp; a set-up of, you know, a provisional-type organization. Col. Zemke [Col. Hubert “Hub” Zemke, Commander 56th Fighter Group/Senior Allied Officer, Stalag Luft #1], who turned out to be an ace—an ace pilot, was our senior officer.
DM: Anyway, he—when it—when it appeared to be that the Russians were within a short distance, we had no knowledge of whether they—because, see the—see the—here’s a case where the Germans had violated the Geneva Convention—the camp was not marked, you know. Supposed to have had a big red cross on the top. It wasn’t marked, so we had no idea whether the Russians realized we were there or not. And before they would advance by ground, by foot, they would blast the place over with artillery, you know? So what Col. Zemke did, he picked up amongst the 8,000 and thing—he found a lot of—he found some Americans that spoke Russian and some that spoke German. He sent a crew of about three guys out there to meet the Russians and to forewarn that we were there. Which was good, because they didn’t know. They admitted later, they did not know. So, by, within 24 hours, they were there at the camp. Now the Germans—Col. Zemke told the Germans that the British—the Germans didn’t want to be caught by the Russians. They didn’t want to be captured by the Russians.
MGR: Right, right. Yeah.
DM: So, the British were to the east of—to the west of us, just a few hundred miles, you know, like, maybe a couple of day’s march.
DM: So, he told the—he arranged with the—and he knew the Russians would be in by night—by then. He would—because some of our guys had met the Russians and come back—he knew they would be in within 48 hours, so he told the Russians [means Germans], he says, “Gather up your guards, and everything,” and he says, “get out of here and head for the thing.” So, at midnight of April, whatever, 30th I think, they left. They left by horse, by car, by bicycle and whatever; and they marched toward the British. So, they had a two day’s advance to get out of there.
MGR: Right. Right.
DM: So, then—by then the Russians came in and, of course, by then they knew we were there.
MGR: Mm, and were you immediately taken elsewhere, or did they just kind of show up?
DM: Well, they just opened the gates, and everything, and then we had the free run of the—but then our own people kind of put some limits onto what we could do, you know, because of the danger.
MGR: Right. Right. Yeah.
DM: We could go to town.
MGR: And what town were you near?
MGR: Oh, okay.
DM: A little—little small town.
MGR: Okay. Yeah.
DM: We could go to town, and—but we had to behave like gentlemen, you know, and—
MGR: And did you have any money?
MGR: Oh, okay. (laughs)
DM: (laughs) No money.
MGR: So, what did you do when you went into Barth?
DM: Looked around and—
DM: —and, well, I have to hand it to the Russians; they went all over the countryside and absconded some pigs and cows, and butchered them. And we had—we had big barbecues, boy, I’ll tell you!
MGR: It was good?
DM: Yeah! And they took over the bakery, and we had bread—the little bakery up town—so they did make sure we were fed, that was for sure.
MGR: Okay! That was nice!
DM: But there was the beginning of a problem. They wanted to take us, and put us on rail cars, and take us to Odessa on the Black Sea—
DM: —and then send us back to the states by ship. Well, Eisenhower would hear nothing of it, so there was a lot of haggling back and forth. So, finally, Montgomery [Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, British Army], who was to the west of us, and the area commander, Rokossovsky, Russian [Marshall of the Soviet Union, Konstantin Rokossovsky], and Montgomery had a meeting. And they finally got agreement from Moscow to allow aircraft to come to get us—Allied aircraft to come to get us, with a 2o—a 20—mile, not a mile, they don’t call it a mile—anyway, a 20-mile width, you know, a path, a kind of an alley, to come get us.
MGR: Oh, okay. And what kind of planes picked you up?
DM: The 398th, the 381st, and the—the 91st—the first wing—
DM: —came and got us. Isn’t that ironic?
MGR: Yeah. Yeah. (laughs) In their B-17s?
DM: Yeah, all B-17s.
DM: Well, I say that—that’s not completely true. They sent C-46 medical aircraft to pick up our wounded, and we had sick people and wounded people, so they sent that, with a half of dozen nurses, to pick up the—that the first afternoon. So, eight or ten of those planes carried our sick and wounded out.
MGR: So, you said that was the first afternoon. How long did it take to get everybody out?
DM: That afternoon, a full day, and then a half a day. Two half-days and one day; close to 9,000 people.
MGR: Wow! And where did they fly you to?
DM: To France. Laon, France. L-a-o-n. And that was a—that was a forward airfield, an American airfield, there in France. And then we got trucked to, I forget the other airbase. There was another airbase down the road, and we were flown then by—that was in our case. Some of the guys were trucked. And we were flown to Fécamp, F-e-c-a-m-p, in France—that’s near Le Havre—to what’s called Camp Lucky Strike. It was a gathering place of all POWs. There were thousands of us there!
MGR: Yeah, I imagine.
DM: And all this took place, from Laon to Camp Lucky Strike, it was only a matter of, maybe, 48 hours, you know, took to get us over there. And, by that time, we had a big tent city and a gathering for—guys came from all the continent, I mean, you know, there were—I know that Camp Lucky Strike alone, when I was there, was something like 20,000 POWs.
MGR: Hm. Geez. So, did they take you back to Nuthampstead?
DM: No. We went straight to—back to—no, there were—the POWs there were from all branches and air bases, and everything else.
DM: Now the British component, there at Lucky Strike—the British, from what time we landed in France, I frankly don’t remember where the British guys went to—I’ve no idea. They didn’t come to Lucky Strike with us. Lucky Strike was just Americans.
MGR: Oh. Did you find your crew at that point?
MGR: Did you find the rest of your crewmembers at that point?
DM: I ran into—yeah, I ran into some, but out of 30,000, you’re going to have a hard time finding them. I mean, yeah, I found two or three of them.
MGR: Good! So, from there where did you go?
DM: From there, well, I spent 18 days there waiting for transport back to the States, so that was near the port of Le Havre. So, I came home on a fast Navy transport. As a matter of fact, we made it from Le Havre to New York in four and a half days.
MGR: You did quite well, huh?
DM: Yeah, did real well. And we landed at New York, New York Harbor. As a matter of fact, we landed between the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth. They was disgorging troops and we went across the river to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey [U.S. Army Camp], for clothing because there’s no—no khakis in Europe, you know, obviously—
DM: —all woolens, and this was in the middle of—well, by then it was June and July, so we were issued clothing. Then, from there, by train, to Camp Shelby, Mississippi; at Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where we got pay, additional clothing, and inoculations, and medicals. So, we spent a few days there. Not—not many. Then, from Hattiesburg, in my particular case, they sent me by bus to New Orleans, and by bus from New Orleans to Lafayette.
MGR: You got your pay; was that the pay for the whole time you’d been a prisoner of war?
DM: Oh, yeah!
MGR: Yeah. Mm. Were you married before you went over?
DM: Oh, no! No.
DM: I was still only—I was still only between 20—between 20- and 21-years old.
MGR: And were your parents notified that you were a prisoner of war?
DM: Well—oh, yeah. Well my mother—this was like October. My mother didn’t find out my status until January—the middle of January—
DM: —that I was a—that I was a POW.
MGR: Yeah, yeah.
DM: That’s how long it took the Germans to give the information to the Red Cross and the Red Cross advise the War Department. I think it was January 20th, or something like that. It was three months later.
MGR: Mm hm. Mm hm.
DM: And she was pregnant!
MGR: Your mother?
DM: Mm hm.
MGR: Oh, wow!
DM: Yeah. See, I was the oldest of seven kids—
DM: —so she was only, like, 41 years old, but she was, surprisingly, pregnant. As a matter of fact, there’s a cute story there. Before I was shot down, I get this V-mail letter and she says, “Guess what? Aunt Paula and”—I forget the other one’s name—Aunt Paula—oh, “and Aunt Agnes” —they’re both 40 years old—“we think they’re pregnant! Ha! Ha!” (laughs) They weren’t, but she was! (laughs)
MGR: (laughs) Oh, man!
DM: But I didn’t know that. And I did and not know that.
DM: So, I got home; I had a six-month old sister. Didn’t know anything about it.
MGR: (laughs) So, did you write—well, could you write when you were in the prison camp?
DM: Yeah, but it didn’t get anywhere. They never got the mail.
DM: They let you write a card. They gave you a particular kind of card, you know? They’re formal. Yeah, I wrote and told them I was okay, I mean, that’s all I could—but they never got it.
MGR: Oh, wow.
DM: They never got it. The first she heard was from the—was from the War Department telegram that—that—well, she—she—they got a telegram a couple of weeks after we were shot down, that I was missing in action, but from October ‘til January, she didn’t know if I were dead or what.
MGR: Yeah. Did you get the—your clothes, or whatever you had, that was in Nuthampstead? Did that get shipped home to your parents?
DM: Uh—I don’t think so.
MGR: So you didn’t get anything?
DM: It was all military issue anyway, I mean, you know?
MGR: Right. So, you would have had to turn it back in?
DM: No. No. I don’t think so, but they—they didn’t bother to—after they knew that I was a POW, they didn’t—no, they didn’t—they didn’t send me any. Now, what they did do, they gave—they gave my, whatever belongings I had, like letters and things, they gave that to the Red Cross and the Red Cross sent it to my mother. But, then, that didn’t get home until—I got home before that. You know, like I had Short Snorter Money [money signed by other airmen that must be produced upon request; if not, then you had to buy the requestor a drink—a “short snort”], and stuff like that. Yeah, I finally got that from the Red Cross and that—I was home by the time that came back.
MGR: Hmm. Well, that’s good. So, did your parents know before you got home—
MGR: —that you were—
DM: Well, I called them. I called them in New York. I sent them, by Army telegraph, that I was—that I was out of—I was in the right hands. That I was in France and I had no idea how long I’d be there, or anything, but, you know, “Hope to see you soon.” and so on. And when I got to New York, I called and I said that I was there, but then I’d probably be out of touch with them, you know, until I got home. And I was—because it was a good ten days before then, by the time I got home.
MGR: Did you take the train?
DM: Uh, yeah. I took—well, I took the bus from New Orleans to Lafayette, and I had to—I had—I kept them—when I was at Camp Shelby, I called them, again, and told them where I was, and that I’d be in in the next two-three days, so when I got to the bus station, they were there.
MGR: Oh. With your new little sister?
MGR: So, how did you hear about the bombing of Hiroshima?
DM: Uh—I was there. I was home
MGR: Were you?
DM: Yeah. I got a 60-day leave, by the way, after I got home, so I was home that summer, pretty much.
MGR: Mm hm. Well, that’s nice!
DM: And it happened at that time, so I wasn’t—I wasn’t too surprised.
MGR: Mm hm. And do you feel it was necessary?
DM: I’m sorry?
MGR: Did you feel it was necessary, the bombing?
DM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. No—I knew because it had been in the news that, at that time, they had no other place to go. They had already got Okinawa. They had gotten Iwo Jima, and all that, so the next thing was Japan. Were they going to invade? And, already, they were saying that the losses, by ground, would be 100,000. So, yeah, I wasn’t surprised at all, and frankly, I applauded it. Yeah, I hate to see that many people a killed, but they didn’t seem to care before how many people they were killing, so that’s the way I was viewing it. I didn’t—I didn’t—I hate to say it, I wasn’t very sympathetic with them, I mean, you know. They were calling the numbers and we gave it to them.
MGR: Right. Right. Did you use the GI Bill after you got back?
DM: Yes, I did. Mm hm.
MGR: Did you finish college?
DM: No, I didn’t. Well, I went back to school. I—I didn’t finish in getting my degree, but I did go to—yeah, I went to—what is now Lamar University—I went to Port Arthur College. And I had gotten interested in electronics, and everything, so I took two semesters of electronics engineering, and stuff, and then I got my broadcast engineer’s license, and I went to work.
MGR: Broadcast engineer?
DM: Yeah. A radio station had to have an engineer on site. Well, that’s what I was after, you know?
MGR: Oh! Okay.
DM: And I had the background and the taste for electronics, so that’s what I got.
MGR: And did you do that work?
DM: I did that work for about two years, and then I got interested in—right down the street from me—my job—my engineer’s job at the broadcast station let me off about three o’clock in the afternoon because I went to work early. And, by that time, I was a Ham operator, and stuff, so was I milling around this electronic parts distributor. And, anyway, they sucked me in and asked me to get in to run their sales department. So, that’s what I did for many years. And, in 1974, I set up my own company, doing the same thing.
And we have most of my stock turned over to the kids now, you know. Mellisa, and all them, they all own it. Well, actually, they’ll inherit it. I—it grew—we grew, I mean, you know, we opened up a branch in New Orleans, and we got one in Houston, one in Freeport. And, then in—when I turned 65 in ’89, I sold the—the stock to two of the boys; the whole thing. And I kept my job on the board, as the chairman of the board, and stuff like that, so that’s where I’m at now. And, so, they own it, technically, but I still work there! Until my wife—my wife is—I was working a full day until this last hurricane hit last July, or whenever, and she got very ill, and—right about that time. So, I stay with her in the afternoons. I go home in the afternoons.
MGR: Mm hm. Have you been back to Nuthampstead?
DM: Mm hm. Actually, I went back to Nuthamp—back in ’70 —’69, ’70, ’71. I had another daughter; Mellisa’s older—Mellisa is the baby. She’s the youngest of the children. She’s got two older sisters, and one of the sisters, she and her husband had moved to France to work for a friend of mine who had a business there, okay? A Frenchman who had a business there. And they spent two years there, so anyway, while they were there, my wife and I went there twice; to France. And one of those trips we flew back to London, and got a car, and went to visit Nuthampstead; but there is absolutely nothing there. The only thing I remember is the—you know, you really had to look to see where—
MGR: Where the runways were?
DM: —where the places were. The pub was there. I’ll never forget; we went to The Woodman (laughs) and they had just painted the parking stripes, you know, and they had a little sign in front—“Please park prettily.” (laughs)
DM: I swear to God! “Please park prettily.”
MGR: That was good!
DM: And, then, I didn’t go back again until—I didn’t go back again until two or three years ago.
MGR: Mm hm. Have you been back to the prison camp?
DM: Mm hmm.
MGR: And is it still standing?
DM: Oh, no! No! No.
DM: It’s a corn field now.
DM: Yeah. Mellisa and I went in ’05. I’ve been in touch with the German—with the—believe it or not, they have a support group for us.
DM: Oh, the Germans have been very, very, very, very, you know, they’re very anti-Nazi, you know? They—they—so, they’ve been very kind to us. As a matter of fact, they set us up a little museum there.
DM: Mm hmm. And, at the time that we were there, there was a little concentration camp for the—some Jews, right next to us, and you ought to see the—the—the memorial they’ve got there for that camp—where that camp is. As a matter of fact, when Mellisa and I were there, in ’05, there was some kind of a—a—a cele—not a celebration, but a recognition; a memorial. I mean, there were flowers all over the place in recognition of those people that had been in that camp.
MGR: Yeah. When you were—as a prisoner of war, did you know what was going on in the concentration camp?
DM: Absolute nothing! I didn’t know it until afterwards. It was all very on the quietus. I don’t think anybody did, to be honest with you.
MGR: Yeah, yeah. Well, that was good—
MGR: —that you didn’t know.
MGR: Yeah. Have you been back into a B-17 since?
DM: Yeah. Mm hm.
MGR: Yeah? Have you flown in it?
DM: Mm hmm!
DM: I flew the “Texas Raiders”. On my 70th birthday my kin bought me an hour of flying, five hundred dollars-worth of flying (laughs), in the “Texas Raiders”, in Houston.
MGR: Yeah? What did you think of the plane?
MGR: What did you think of the plane, once you were back in it?
DM: Oh, I felt at home.
MGR: Did you?
DM: But the guy—the guy made me sit in my old position. And then, of course, I’ve been inside the—in England, you know. I’ve been inside the—I’ve been inside in more than one, like these planes that will fly around, you know? Tours and things? And I’m not talking about the Aluminum Overcast, too, because it’s never been back in Baton Rouge. But, every year or two, there’s a, like a B-24, B-17, and something else, that will fly in for a week, or something.
MGR: Right. And you can go and tour?
DM: Yeah. I go ahead and take my grandkids and show them.
MGR: Yeah? Yeah. So, do you—well, how did you hear about the reunions?
DM: What reunions?
MGR: Our reunions.
DM: How did I hear about it?
MGR: Uh huh.
DM: (sighs) Well, when the—okay, back before the—before the reunions were organized in, oh what, ’84?
DM: Okay, about that time.
MGR: Mm hm.
DM: The year before was the umpteenth anniversary of the Boeing B-17, or something like that, and they contacted a lot of crewman. Somehow, I got overlooked, or our crew got overlooked altogether, but one—one of the guys went, and then he heard about this group being set up. And then we had the Colorado Springs set up, so they were all… and we all went... We all went.
MGR: Well, that’s good; all your crew?
DM: So, from then on, of course, I’ve missed only—I missed Nashville because my pilot died the day before, so I had to cancel. And, then, I’ve missed the last two. Last year because of the storm. Last year, I was all packed to go! And then I missed the one in Michigan because it was right after a trip in England, or somewhere, and I, you know, I was up to here (puts hand under chin) in trips. So, I’ve missed—I missed three out of—out of the 20—uh, what did we have? Twenty-one?
MGR: Uh, this one is the twenty-seventh, I think.
DM: Twenty-seventh, yeah, or whatever.
MGR: Or twenty-sixth, yeah.
DM: So, I’ve been to all of them, just about.
MGR: So, do you have anything else you’d like to tell?
DM: Uh—not really. Uh, not really. Life’s been good to me. I’ve, you know, managed to stay fairly healthy, so—but I’m always glad to be back with old friends and such.
MGR: Well, as part of the second generation, I get to to thank you for your—your time and your service to the, or for the 398th.
DM: Well, thank you. And I’m really delighted that you guys are taking over; that there, you know, will be some perpetuation, and I can go to my peace and know that it’ll be continued, you know? And it’s in good hands. And not every group is blessed like that because I’ve got friends in other groups that have—they’ve cancelled everything, I mean, you know? Like, my POW group has diminished to almost nothing. I had a chapter with about 24 POWs, that I was the commander of for eight or nine years, and we’re down to about 12 that still go, and that’s about it. I have only one Baton survivor still alive, out of about six or seven, that I have in the chapter. The rest of them are mostly air crew. (laughs)
MGR: Mm hm.
DM: I had two Battle of the Bulge veterans that were POWs, and I see that group is going to—because there were little to no—because there was only 600 prisoners during the Viet Nam War, so there’s not going to be many—it’s going to have fall apart, I mean, you know, break up.
DM: Whereas, this group, I can see continuing, you know?
MGR: That’s our plan.
DM: And I feel blessed by it. And I thank you all very much!
MGR: Thank you for the interview!
MGR: Thank you!
DM: Thank you.
[TIME OF INTERVIEW 01:16:58]
- Sheely's Crew - 603rd Squadron - June 1944
- 398th POWs
- Return to 398th Timeless Voices Interviews to view and listen to the interview.
- S/Sgt. Donald M. Menard was the Radio Operatory on Sheely's 603rd Squadron crew.
- The above transcription was provided by Nancy Partin (daughter of Richard S. Hosman, 601st SQ pilot), May 20, 2016. Nancy is a volunteer transcriber
- The transcription was obtained from a video file.
- Punctuation, grammar and minor word changes may have been made to improve readability.
- Additional information may be shown in brackets [ ].