Billy Woodell's 10th bombing mission from Peterborough, England, to Berlin, Germany, was his last. Woodell, a B-17 gunner, was over Hanover, Germany, en route to Berlin when his plane was hit hard, and was going down.
"The pilot rang the bell to bail out," Woodell said, "and five of us did." The pilot then got control and turned around and made it back to England. "Woodell and five other crewmen of "Hairless Joe," which was named after a character in the comic strip "Lil' Abner," were left parachuting at an altitude of 15,000 to 18,000 feet, on a beautiful day in April, 1944, and the wind was gusty.
When Woodell landed near Hanover, he was separated from the other four members of the crew. He landed in an open field close to the woods. He unhooked his parachute and headed toward the woods, hid the parachute under brush and buried his escape kit and continued on.
"I was in the woods an hour or two when I heard dogs and whooping and yelling," Woodell said. "The faster I ran, the closer they'd get. I heard "Halt," and saw several German soldiers. I put my hands up and they searched me." The German soldiers led Billy out of the woods and gave him his parachute, which they found, to carry. The group walked toward Hanover, which was about 2 miles away.
"People started coming out of shelters and moving in on me," Woodell said, "and the soldiers pushed them back." He was taken to a building near the railroad tracks in Hanover. Lt. Spidell, the crew navigator, had also been captured and taken into custody. Woodell and Spidell were then taken by car to what appeared to be the local Gestapo Headquarters. Sgt. Jefferys and Sgt. Reid were there, also.
"They were "Heil Hitler-ing" and all that sorta stuff, " Woodell said. "It started dawning on me then what was happening." All four of the crew members were put in separate cells for the rest of the day and that night were moved by truck to an air base and taken to an underground room. They had no idea why. Woodell discovered from Sgt. Jefferys, that the fifth crew gunner who had bailed out of the plane, Sgt. Ingersall and landed in a high tension line and was electrocuted.
"While talking to Jefferys, one of the German guards said something to us, and I kept on talking," Woodell said. "He (the guard) hit me in the back of the head with the butt of his rifle and I fell to my knees. I asked Jefferys what he had said and he said, "I think he told us to shut up." I told him next time to let me know in advance."
The next morning the group was taken by truck to the train station and put on a passenger train, guarded by German soldiers, and sent to the Interrogation Center at Frankfurt, Germany. This was a Dulagluft, where all American airmen who were captured were interrogated, processed and then sent to permanent camps. Here Woodell and the other three crew members were put into individual solitary confinement cells, measuring 4 feet by 8 feet.
Each morning at the Dulagluft was the same. The prisoners were given a piece of bread and some water and then questioned. Intelligence officers would interrogate the prisoners and try to get as much military information as possible. But the airmen had been instructed by their own intelligence officers on what to expect. They knew that by the Geneva Convention they were not required to give the Germans anything but name, rank and serial number, regardless of anything they would ask. They would shout and threaten, "and one time they told me that my family would never hear from me again," Woodell said.
"It got repetitious; they would ask silly questions with no military bearing and then gradually on to what size bombs do you use? "
On about the fifth day at the Dulagluft, Woodell was told the next day Gestapo agents would interrogate him and that they knew how to get answers. He didn't sleep too well that night. However, he was not questioned the next day but, along with 20 to 25 other American airmen, was put in a railroad box car at Frankfurt and headed toward Kerms, Austria, and Stalag 17-B. The Americans were on the train for about three weeks. To pass the time away the airmen started singing. "It was the first time I had heard "Don't Fence Me In," Woodell said, "and that's all we sang."
When the airmen arrived at Kerms, they were marched into the Stalag and processed by the International Red Cross. The Red Cross then notified the U.S. Government of their capture and imprisonment. The Red Cross played an important role in the lives of the prisoners of Stalag 17-B. In 1944, with war only a year away from being over, the Germans had no food to feed their own troops, much less the prisoners of war. "We subsisted mainly on Red Cross parcels," Woodell said. "It was the only thing that kept us alive." The parcels contained highly fortified food and five packs of cigarettes, but not nearly enough of either.
Not only hunger, but the bitter cold and boredom are the things that marked Woodell's stay at the Stalag. Even though the Americans had it tough, the Russians were worse off. Not being part of the Geneva Convention, they were required by the Germans to work in the fields and they didn't receive Red Cross parcels. During the winter of 1944, typhus broke out in the Russian compound. "They started carrying the Russians out in burlap bags," Woodell said. "It got to be so many that they carried them out by the wagon full."
When Woodell first got to Stalag 17-B, a gunner by the name of Jim Tyler, from Winona, came to meet him. Tyler had been badly wounded when he bailed out of his plane. At that time the Swiss would take wounded POWs and exchange them for Germans. Tyler left the next day for Winona. After getting there he went by to see Woodell's parents in Greenwood to tell them that he had seen Woodell and that he was all right.
As the war was drawing to a close in March, 1945, the prisoners in Stalag 17-B could hear the Russian guns in Vienna, Austria. As the fighting got closer, the Royal Air Force flew over the camp and dropped flares, lighting the camp up so that the bombers would know the camp was not a target.
Then on April 3, 1945, the German guards announced the camp was going to be moved, so the Russians would not be the ones to liberate the prisoners. The prisoners marched some 318 miles, for three weeks, mostly following the Danube River to Branau, Germany. The march was unplanned and there was no arrangement for sleeping or food.
"We slept on the ground, any place. Once we slept in a bombed-out factory, some nights in barns, but mostly in the open," Woodell said. "I don't even remember what we did for food." By the end of the war Woodell had lost 30 to 40 pounds, which was average, but some prisoners lost up to 50 pounds.
While on the march, Woodell saw Jews and other people, possible prisoners of war, that had been left for dead along the side of the road. At this time, SS troops were wandering around, shooting anybody. Hitler had given orders that when it became inevitable and the war was lost, all American airmen were to be killed, but no one paid any attention to the order. The Germans were looking out for themselves by this time.
When the prisoners reached Branau, all they found was a clearing in the woods -- no shelter, no food. They had camped in Branau for several days when they heard there was an American captain in the camp with a pistol strapped on. "We knew then that we had been liberated," Woodell said. "We didn't do anything, really, when we found out. We were really nearly starved to death, so we didn't go crazy."
A day or two later, the American airmen were flown out of Germany to France, to Camp Lucky Strike. At the camp the nearly emaciated ex-prisoners were started on a feeding program of egg custard and canned turkey until their bodies were built back up.
It took about one month from the time of liberation for Woodell to return home to Greenwood. When returning home, he said many of the ex-prisoners had trouble readjusting to civilian life. "I readjusted OK myself", he said. "I was brought up to believe that God had a purpose for me in life and I had fulfilled part of that plan. I'm just glad that part is over with!"
When a person thinks of Germans, stalags and prisoners of war during World War II, they inevitably think of the comedy television show, "Hogan's Heroes." "I love watching it," Woodell said. "I knew it was a good, funny show -- funny, but ridiculous."