I was taught at an early age to love and respect my country. I had a 19-year-old uncle who just months before I was born was killed in action in Italy during World War II. I felt my family’s anguish.
Also, my dad was a POW in Romania during that time. As a child I was told to never talk to him about the war. I remember waking at night to Dad’s screams because of the nightmares.
In honor of Veterans Day, and of my dad, I will share some of his story.
For 64 years my dad remained silent about World War II. My sister Karen and I began taking him to POW reunions in 2008. We attended these gatherings until he and the other former POWs could no longer travel. It was at those reunions that we started to hear the stories from him and the others. A lot of tears were shed on those trips, but we also had some good times.
Dad was drafted in 1943 at the age of 20. He said that he didn’t want to be a foot soldier, so he was assigned to the Army Air Corps. He was sent to Kingman Army Air Corps Flexible Gunnery School in Arizona for training to be a ball turret gunner. His position was inside the belly of a B-17. He said there was barely enough room in that hole for him, his air chute and a chest pack, and the small space was hard to get out of — he had to crawl out through an open gate at the top.
After gunnery school he went to Tampa, where they chose crews. Dad was assigned to the 341st Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, as a corporal. The crew picked up a new B-17 at Hunter Field in Georgia and flew to Foggia, Italy — with fuel stops in Trinidad, Brazil, Tunisia and French Morocco — from where they flew missions.
They bombed mostly railroads around Bucharest. Dad said it was very cold inside the airplane — about minus 20 degrees. They had electric suits, but they burned out before they completed their mission. Sometimes his gun wouldn’t fire when flying at high altitudes. Even though everyone wore oxygen masks, it was hard to breathe. Many of the missions were doubles.
The planes flew at 24,000 feet, but descended to bomb. The flak from anti-aircraft guns was always heavy. A group of planes would fly together, but they didn’t all return.
“When we came under enemy fire, you would see some of the planes just blow up in mid-air when they were hit by flak,” Dad told us with tears in his eyes.
After each mission the 21-year-old pilot would receive a small bottle of whiskey. He always shared it with the crew.
Mission 8 — May 7 1944 — the Flying Fortress lost all four engines. Losing an engine was common, but never all four at once. The plane crash landed in the Adriatic Sea. The crew was in the water for an hour and 20 minutes before being rescued by the British Air Rescue. The men were bumped and bruised, but all survived the crash. The next six days were spent in a hospital in Russia. Dad received a Purple Heart.
Mission 12 — June 11, 1944 — Mission completed, they were on their way back to Italy when their plane was hit by enemy fire. The pilot and a photographer were killed. Dad had to climb out of his position in the belly of the plane to bail out. His parachute didn’t click, but he jumped anyway. As he jumped he heard the click. That was his first jump — no practice jump for him. He watched as his plane crashed and P-51 escorts arrived and shot down the German ME 109s. Dad said it was quite a sight.
An hour after he hit the ground he was captured. He was interrogated and taken to a Romanian base. From there he was taken to an abandoned hospital in Bucharest that was being used for American POWs. He was not tortured or treated badly, unlike prisoners in the German camps. He remembered eating a lot of cabbage — fried, boiled, raw, in soup. His captors would cook a 300-pound hog and make soup out of the leftovers. Sometimes he would find an eyeball or some other part floating in his soup. The bread was baked with grasshoppers inside. The whole time he was incarcerated, the Americans bombed the facility by day, the British by night. There were tunnels in the yard where he spent a lot of time sheltering.
On June 28, 1944, Dad’s mother received a telegram saying that her son was reported missing in action over Romania. “If further details or other information are received, you will be promptly notified,” it said.
Then, on July 20, 1944, a letter came addressed to her from the commanding general: “The Flying Fortress where your son was a turret gunner had experienced some difficulty with its engines for it lagged behind the rest of the formation, and became an easy target for Nazi fighter planes which intercepted it. As the ship went down, six parachutes were seen. We have no way of knowing whether your son was one of the survivors. The job of a gunner on a B-17 is a difficult and dangerous one, and only men of exceptional courage and ability are qualified for it.”
This gave the family and my mother, who was engaged to him, some hope.
On July 24 another telegram arrived: “Report just received through the international Red Cross states that your son Sgt. James Trout is a Prisoner of War of the Romanian government.”
This story will continue next week.