Mr. Ed Bender was a POW who responded to my flyer which was sent out as I attempted to find living former POWs who survived World War Two. When fire forced his Flying Fortress down in enemy-occupied France, Ed Bender was captured by Nazi recruits from Hitler’s Youth Corps. He spent a year as a prisoner of the Third Reich. He was confined to camps in Sagan, Nurnberg, and Moosburg. He partook in the bitterly cold forced march in the winter of 1945 when Stalag Luft III was evacuated ahead of the advancing Russian Army. He was eventually liberated by General Paton’s Third Army.
Being Shot Down
Mr. Bender was a B-17 bomber pilot. A crew on a B-17 consisted of the pilot, the mission commander, the navigator, the radio man, the group navigator, the group gunnery officer, the ball turret gunner, the engineer/top turret gunner, the bombardier, the waist gunner, and the observer. Mr. Bender’s story about his experience as a POW inaugurates when his plane was shot down. Bender shared, “Suddenly I realized that I was on my back, and all I could see was the sky. I needed to see the ground before I could make any decision about opening the “chute.”” In this moment, he was reminded of a voice from some far-distant lecture, “Stick one arm out to turn over.” He tried it and it worked except he held his arm out for too long and ended up spinning. He stuck his arm out and pulled it right back, and although the spinning stopped, he ended up on his back again. With a little more experimenting, he was able to look down. He pulled the rip cord. The parachute opened with a bang. His GI shoes, which he had tied to his chest pack flew up and hit him in the chin and nose. Once he was on the ground, he saw two soldiers. The instant they saw him, they began shouting, “Hande auf! (Hands Up).” Both soldiers had handguns and long knives and Mr. Bender was unharmed. He believed that both soldiers were around sixteen or under. He noted, “It was obvious that the Germans were having trouble filling their recruitment quotas.”
The soldiers did a lot of shouting and blew a whistle. Almost immediately, they were answered from the direction of the trailer. Mr. Bender was then marched back to the trailer with his hands in the air, to find that three German soldiers had two Frenchmen and the boy in custody. They were backed up against the trailer. One of the captors kept saying, “Wo ist der Fallschirm” (Where is the parachute?). As they passed the wood pile and the brush pile where he had hidden his parachute, it dawned on him that the captor was asking about the location of his parachute. The captor kept asking the question as they marched up a slope to the top of a ridge, getting louder with each repetition and punctuating his words with jabs to Mr. Bender’s back with the barrel of his Lugar. As the jabs got harder, it hurt. Mr. Bender began to worry that he might accidently pull the trigger. He got little solace from the memory of lectures emphasizing that a Lugar would not fire if there was pressure on the front of the barrel. As they neared the top of the slope, he made a big mistake. Responding to the man’s jabbing and questioning, he answered, “In der Wald,” (in the woods), and with his hands still behind his neck, he used one finger to point back down the slope. At the time this action brought relief, but he was to regret it later because he was able to see and translate a phrase at the bottom of their records on Mr. Bender: “Officer speaks and understands German.” The NCO motioned for him to move to the right of the barn. Not twenty feet away and sitting on a mound of earth, was his crew’s ball turret gunner, S/Sgt. Mike Woyurka.
The NCO motioned for him to sit, but by holding his index finger in front of his lips and whispering some German word, he managed to communicate that Mike and Mr. Bender were not to talk. Mr. Bender remembered, “Mike was a sight! He had no eyebrows or eyelashes, his cheeks and nose were red and blistered, and a large blister on his chin had broken and was bleeding.” Mike’s smile on seeing Ed assured that, while he obviously was uncomfortable, he had no disabling injury. Mike pulled his rip cord as soon as he cleared the plane. He made only one swing and landed in a tree less than the length of a football field from the burning wreck. It was the fact that the parachute caught in the tree that saved him, because as he hung there his feet were less than five feet from the ground. Mr. Bender shared, “God was watching over Mike too.” Mr. Bender’s conclusion about Mike’s injuries was reinforced a few moments later when Mike motioned that he should look on the other side of the mound. He saw that they were sitting on a pillbox, and he could see the muzzles of twin machine guns protruding on the other side. There didn’t appear to be any entrance, so Mr. Bender figured there was a tunnel system of some sort under the whole area, or that it was a mockup for use in training German ground troops. They had been captured by recruits being trained for service in the Adolf Hitler Corp, which was in France for rehabilitation after a long and costly campaign on the Russian front. Each Soldat (soldier) wore a skull-and-crossbones insignia on his cap, and the unit was called the “Crack-Babies” because its performance was always superior even though its personnel were so young. The plane crash had interrupted the afternoon’s training.
The next diversion began when a man in a blue uniform ran down the hill at a fast trot. When he was within ten feet of the German NCO, he stopped, clicked his heals, extended his right arm forward and up at a forty-five degree angle, and shouted, “Heil Hitler.” The NCO arose, snapped to attention, and responded with a similar, “Heil Hitler.” The one in blue (a member of the Luftwaffe – air force) then walked to within a few steps of the NCO, and the two exchanged hand salutes. Each then took a step forward, extended his arm, and they shook hands. Mr. Bender was to be treated to this bit of formality numerous times during the next few days.
After a short but spirited conversation, the NCO shouted a command and waved his arm in a circle above his head. Upon hearing the command, each soldier repeated it at a shout, and soon every soldier in the area came, on the run, to quickly assemble around the pillbox. The Luftwaffe “unter offcer” (“under officer” – the German equivalent of U.S.’s non-commissioned officers) began to hold up military items from the pile of stuff that had been collected around the crash site, explaining what they were. Then he began to do the same for the contents of the escape kits taken from Mike and Mr. Bender. He showed them the comb and how its back could be broken to disclose a small saw; he squeezed the tube of fortified, condensed milk, took some himself and put a bit on the fingers of some for them to taste; he unfolded the maps, and while they all crowded around to inspect them, he slipped the escape money out from both packets and eased it into his pocket. After holding up the compass and passing out samples of the emergency rations, he waved goodbye and trotted back over the hill in the direction from which he had come. Mike and Mr. Bender looked at each other and smiled wryly. Mr. Bender commented, “I imagined he was thinking, as was I, what a good time that guy would have with our money the next time he went on liberty.” The German NCO must have also taken his pen-knife because he never saw it again.
Mr. Bender and Mike were loaded into the rear of the military truck under the guard of one of the officers. They went up the road and turned to the left. Mr. Bender started to memorize the route they were taking, but after a few turns and crossroads, it hit him that he didn’t know where he was, where he had started from, or where he was going. Since his only view was out the back of the truck, noting the landmarks along their route was probably an exercise in futility. He questioned, “Why would I want to go back to this place anyway?” The truck turned into a lane that led to a large house. Mike and Mr. Bender were herded into an outbuilding and their escort reported to a Hauptman (captain). The captain was all smiles and good cheer as he took his cigarettes from the pile of belongings placed in front of him, lit one, and then magnanimously extended one to Mike and Mr. Bender. Mr. Bender whispered to Mike that now he owed him one.
The two captured Americans sat while the captain placed his feet on his desk, leaned back comfortably, and called someone on the telephone. He was reporting to his superior. Soon the two stripped to their underwear, and stood facing a wall while the driver went through their clothes. He did a thorough job. A small needle compass, which Mr. Bender that morning had slipped in behind a stiffener at the waist of his pink trousers, had been removed before his clothes were returned to him. They were then locked into what looked like a reinforced horse stall now doing duty as a guard house. Several people they took to be French getting off from work came by, for a look; there were friendly smiles, but with a guard nearby, no comment.
They were loaded onto a couple train cars on a siding, which were then connected to the end of a train waiting on the main line. As the coupling was completed, the train took off. Moving around at any time, or even standing up when the train was stopped, was strictly “VERBOTEN” (forbidden). The West Compound of Stalag III was surrounded by two, 12-foot fences. There was a distance of about six feet and rolls of barbed wire between the two fences, except on the north end of the compound where Vorlager (administrative buildings) was located. They stopped in the Vorlager, and each man was handed a big cloth sack. In groups of ten, and under guard, the prisoners were led to a big straw stack on the side of the building and were told to stuff as much straw into their sack as they possibly could. When Mr. Bender had his full, he began to pull the draw string but was stopped by the man next to him. “No! No!” he said as he took his sack threw it on the ground and rolled on it. “You’re going to sleep on this for God knows how long, and the straw will break up under pressure.” Mr. Bender filled and squeezed that sack until the guard made them quit for the next group.
Time to leave Stalag III
On Friday, January 26, 1945 they began to hear a muttering in the northeast, and on the evening of the 27th the Germans advised the camp staff that the Russians had established a bridgehead over the Oder River at Steinau. The Russian spearhead was within 30 kilometers of Sagan, marching toward Berlin and Hitler’s headquarters. Since over 10,000 Allied POWs represented a valuable bargaining chip for Hitler, he announced that they should be moved to protect his “investment.” They were ordered to pack and be ready to walk out on an hour’s notice. “Adjutants Call,” their emergency signal, came at 20:30 on the 27th. They lined up outside in the cold around 21:30. They remained there, stomping their feet and swinging their arms in the cold until about 23:30. Heavy snow, high winds, and falling temperatures combined to make a full-blown blizzard. Mr. Bender described resting right in the middle of the road. He disclosed, “There was no traffic, and just being to lie flat in the snow was a luxury in spite of the temperature.”
Mr. Bender’s Legacy
Mr. Bender quoted the 13th century Dominican friar, philosopher, and theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas. As Mr. Bender put it, Saint Thomas Aquinas said it well, “Those who wage war justly aim at peace ….. we go to war that we may have peace.” Mr. Bender’s concluding words resonated with me as I am sure that they will resonate with you,
“Sharing my story is part of my legacy to my children and to their children. Those of us who took to the air to fulfill our dreams to fly and to fight for freedom during WWII will be all gone all too soon. Our stories will live on in the hearts of our children and those who believe in the importance of what we accomplished. I pray that our country may never have to suffer under the type of tyrants my generation fought against, but I know that if we do, the stories of those who gave their all during WWII will doubtless be an inspiration to those who must fight all future enemies.”
Mr. Bender perfectly described why I do, what I do: complete WWII interviews. These stories from the WWII generation are an unequivocal inspiration for us all.