Today, we honor those Americans who have suffered at the hands of their enemies as prisoners of war or death.
I’ve written stories about both groups. They are always a challenge as to be a part of these unique groups would be terrible. But it’s necessary for every American to know what they experienced in the name of freedom.
I’ve interviewed eight men who were captured by Axis power members during World War II.
They are featured in my book ‘Captured! Stories of American WWII Prisoners of War.’
There were only 120,000 men held prisoner during World War II which had a total of 16 million Americans in the military.
In honor of these special people who served their country so valiantly, I’m featuring an excerpt from my book about Doctor James Fall.
He is also mentioned in my book, ‘D-Day: Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen Tell about Normandy.’
He was a pilot over Normandy on June 10, 1944 when his plane was shot down.
Thanks to Doctor James Fall and all of our veterans for their service to our country.
On Saturday, June 10, 1944, 21-year-old Second Lieutenant James (‘Jim’) Fall crossed the English Channel in his P-47 Thunderbolt. He was flying a ground support flight with the 391st Fighter Squadron, 366th Fighter Group, 9th Air Force, based out of Thruxton, England.
The P-47 sported eight 50-caliber machine guns with 2,000 rounds of ammunition. It carried a 108-gallon belly tank, 1,000-pound bomb and bundle of rockets under each wing.
Fall observed Allied forces far below – American, Canadian and British — fortifying the beaches of Normandy following the invasion that had occurred on June 6, also known as Operation Overlord, or D-Day. Fall had flown that day and was thrilled with the opportunity to advance on the enemy.
The Allied pilots targeted train yards, bridges, ammunition dumps and airfields, anything to deter combative efforts of the Nazis.
By June 10, 1944, Fall had flown 20 combat missions. In the St. Lo area he encountered heavy flak. Upon approaching Caen, he felt an alarming thud. Suddenly, his plane lurched to the right.
Inspecting the aircraft through the window of his cockpit, Fall saw flames licking the left wing and a large, jagged hole. He had been hit by anti-aircraft ground fire.
Making a quick radio call to crew members that he was leaving the formation of four fighters (he found out later the call was never received), he gave the wounded bird full throttle to keep it in the air.
The P-47 continued to take hits and the cockpit filled with suffocating heat.
Full of dread at the thought of burning to death, Fall squatted on the seat and put his right foot on the stick and kicked his body as hard as he could away from the tumbling firestorm.
His body flew clear of the burning plane. Fall reached for the chute’s ripcord and gave it a tug, thankful when it opened.
When his body slammed into the ground, pain shot up his left leg. Fall felt something snap, he guessed his fibula.
Opening his eyes, he saw stony faces of young boys, each one holding a gun aimed at him. Fall was no longer a pilot but a prisoner of war.
The Nazi teens marched Fall to a house that served as a Luftwaffe headquarters. Fall was searched and interrogated by high-ranking Luftwaffe officers. According to the rules of war in the Geneva Convention, as specified of POWs, those were the only pieces of information Fall was obliged to share and he refused to divulge more.
For several days Fall was kept in solitary confinement. He was given little water and no food. His left leg throbbed at the break. Between spasms, Fall thought of his family and fiancé.
On June 30, Fall entered Dulag Luft, the Luftwaffe’s infamous information center for Allied Air Force officers located near Frankfurt, Germany. Fall was kept in a cell for seven days and nights.
His daily diet consisted of one slice of goon bread (nickname the prisoners gave bread served by German guards) and one cup of smelly water. Only one trip to the toilet was allowed.
Despite the deprivations, Fall continued to offer only his name, rank, and serial number. At times his emotions threatened to uncoil and his sanity seemed fragile. Then Fall felt a hand on his shoulder. “You will be all right,” a voice said. “It will not be easy but you will get back to your family and fiancé again.”
Fall believed the words and presence at his side were from God. Though he had been raised attending church, he had fallen away in the service. Now the promise sustained him and would continue to do so through countless trials during the next several months.
STALAG LUFT III
On July 10, 1944, Fall and a handful of other POWs were transferred via train to Stalag Luft III near Zagan (then Sagan), Poland.
The camp was divided into compounds, each one enclosed by two 12-foot barbed-wire fences. These fences ran parallel with six feet between them, the area inside filled with tangled barbed wire. About 25 feet inside the barrier running parallel with the fences was a small wire supported by stakes low to the ground. This wire was known as the ‘Warning Wire.’
The camp with 12,000 POWs, mostly Americans, contained enlisted and officers, usually housed separately.
In an act of defiance the Allies called themselves ‘kriegies’ – an abbreviation of the German word for prisoner of war: Kriegesgefangenen.
Each barracks with around 180 kriegies had a stove and limited coal ration. Each combine had a chief cook and kitchen patrol. These positions rotated among the members weekly. Combines adhered to strict use of the stoves.
Occasionally, the kriegies’ inadequate diets were supplemented by packages from the Red Cross. A typical packet may contain a carton of K-2 biscuits, a carton of processed American cheese, bar of chocolate, soluble coffee, tin of corned beef, carton of dried prunes, liver paste, whole powdered milk, oleo, jam, pork luncheon meat, salmon, sugar, 100 cigarettes, soap and Vitamin C tablets.
The parcels were packed to provide one man proper nourishment for one week. At Stalag III the packages were often kept by the guards.
Despite not always receiving the parcels, Fall developed a high regard for the American Red Cross. “If it were not for the food parcels and medical supplies the Red Cross got to the POW camps, I would not have survived,” he said.
Despite the miserable conditions, Fall and the other men endured their captivity as rumors of American troops in the area gradually leaked through.
Then on April 29, 1945, a P-51 circled the camp at low altitude. When the plane turned to make a final pass, performing a roll, that was the signal. Small arms fire, machine guns and mortars erupted from outside the camp. A group of P-47s and P-51s attacked targets in the area as the lead tank of the 14th Armored Division of General George Patton’s Third Army lumbered over the horizon.
Men inside the barbed wire cheered wildly as tanks charged through the barbed wire fences and into the prison compound.
The jubilation of the liberated men was especially poignant when the hated Nazi swastika flag was ripped down in the camp to be replaced by a large, star-spangled American flag. “Every man had tears in his eyes,” said Fall. Ten months after his plane had been shot down, he was now a free man. “We all knew we would soon be going home!”
It was two days past his 22nd birthday, but he would always count it as the best present he could have received.
(You can purchase ‘Captured! Stories of American World War II Prisoners of War’ here.
Back in Indiana, Jim Fall was reunited with his family.
On November 15, 1945, Fall was promoted to First Lieutenant and on December 16, he was discharged from military service.
James Fall was married on June 28, 1945, and he and his wife became parents to three children.
Using the GI Bill, Fall earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree at Indiana University. He worked as a dentist in Marion, Indiana until retiring in 2001.
He does not regret his time as a prisoner of war. “It is a great honor to have engaged in combat in defense of one’s country,” he said. “My service ratings attest to my proficiency and dedication as a pilot. I am very proud that regardless of circumstances I served my country with pride, dignity and honor. During those woeful days of my imprisonment, I felt the hand of the Lord as He spoke to me. He did not forsake me.