POW pens his memoir for posterity

At 83, Robert "Bob" Fillman's decision to complete an autobiography was prompted by a void he'd discovered in his family's genealogy. Bob's descendents could be traced to the 17th century, but the records left little or no information on the fami...

At 83, Robert "Bob" Fillman's decision to complete an autobiography was prompted by a void he'd discovered in his family's genealogy.

Bob's descendents could be traced to the 17th century, but the records left little or no information on the family members' everyday lives, their joys and sorrows, their adventures.

"Once in a while I would find a person with a little information, telling me something about him, his occupation or some incident in his life," he wrote as a preface to his 80-page memoir.

That "exciting" glimpse of his forbearers left him longing for more, prompting his own gift to posterity.

The World War II B-17 navigator, who'd become a prisoner of war for a time, determined it was time to complete the autobiography he started while imprisoned in Germany.


"My only regret is that I waited so long to begin," he said of the work he completed this spring.

Off to London

Bob graduated from high school in Iowa in 1942, "and immediately faced the problem of what to do about draft laws. It was a sure thing I would be in the service."

The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor; the country was at war.

While weighing his options - being drafted or enlisting - he took a job at a bakery.

A radio commercial on opportunities to become a flier in the US Air Corps captured his attention. He headed to the recruiting office to learn more. The idea of flying - compared to ground war or life on a ship - was appealing. He passed physical and aptitude exams, but was sent home on reserve.

"Apparently there were more eligible recruits than the facility could handle," he surmised.

But in January 1943 he reported for active duty, bound for Nashville, TN. His Pullman train car passed a loading dock where his dad was working, the pair waving farewell.


By August, he graduated, having attained silver wings and second lieutenant status. He was assigned to a B-17 base in Washington state, where training continued, day and night.

By December 1943 he was bound for England.

Bob was assigned to the 549th Bomb Squadron of the 385th Bomb Group, Great Ashfield, near Elmswell, England.

"After a few missions, our crew was selected to be a lead crew and we were put in for promotions," Bob recalled. A benefit of the distinction was not being called for missions unless there was a "maximum effort."

Sojourns to London via train became commonplace, a Red Cross station their hostelry. They frequented London theaters, Helen Hayes engaging the audience.

The servicemen were frequent pub patrons, meeting their counterparts from around the globe.

"There was always singing," he recalled, "some raunchy, but enjoyable."

Air raids were frequent. "But we paid no attention to them as the Germans were bombing the industrial areas of London," he said. Bob and his cronies were in London's western perimeter.


'Lot of fight left'

Bob's first venture into enemy territory was Jan. 29, 1944.

"I was somewhat fearful, but anxiously looking forward to doing my share," the mission navigator recalled.

"After all the bombing that had taken place, the Russians advancing, Africa lost and half of Italy gone, it seemed apparent Germany could never win," he surmised. "Apparently they did not think the same way. They had a lot of fight left, as I was to find out."

On his first mission into France in February he witnessed a single fighter plane spiraling up out of low clouds to shoot down a B-17. He would learn it was one of a group of bold German fighters stationed along the coast of France, known as the "Abbeyville Kids."

His chronicle reflects the routine - daily meetings with officers and crew, who were always hoping for a "milk run;" checking guns, ammunition and oxygen masks and manually turning propellers to start engines.

The next few missions would take him to France, Germany and East Prussia, German fighter planes attacking.

"I was beginning to realize this combat flying could get dangerous," he recalled.


On his eighth mission, Feb. 29 to Brunswick, the bombardier followed "usual procedure," which would allow bombs to drop automatically from the plane.

But the "bombs away" declaration was followed by a shout from the back of the plane. The bombs were released after the bomb bay doors had closed.

"According to all the rules, it was impossible for bombs to be released with the doors closed," Bob said. "I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, thinking that we were goners."

The bombs on one side of the plane knocked the door open and they fell out. But on the other side, the door was slightly ajar, bombs lying against the door.

The spinners had come off the bombs, leaving them ready for explosion if hit. The bombardier grabbed an emergency oxygen bottle and headed to the bomb bays, where he and crew members "cleaned up the mess."

They reset spinners and threw the 100-pounders out the door. But a half dozen - lacking spinners - were manually disarmed, accompanying the crew back to base.

"This was my first experience with real fear," Bob recalled. "It was the most horrible feeling I've had in my entire life."

It was a foretaste of things to come, including the next three "extremely taxing" missions to Berlin.


'Out I went, head first'

"Thursday, March 16, 1944 started for me about 2:30 a.m. We were awakened to go on a long mission," Bob recalled. "We had been alerted the night before so we stayed out of the officers club lest we drink too much."

The briefing officer told them they'd be flying to Augsburg, in southeastern Germany.

"I'd never heard of Augsburg, but would never forget it," he said.

Their 12th mission was to bomb an aircraft factory. They'd been selected as a lead crew, flying a new B17G with the latest navigation aids.

"Just before sunrise, we started down the runway," he recalled.

The mission was uneventful until they flew into France, when several waves of German fighters attacked, coming at them from directly ahead. The crew could see the German pilots' faces, "but their machine guns and cannons look a lot worse."

After each attack, the co-pilot or pilot, depending on who was flying the aircraft, asked crew members to check for damage or injuries.


After a few minutes' respite, the attacks ensued, swarms of twin-engine ME 210 fighters, ME 109s and single engine FW 190s, the attacks by the German aircraft more pronounced.

No damage was reported after a crew check of the plane.

"But to this day I believe we must have taken a hit in number two and possibly number three engines to cause the trouble that followed," Bob said.

Upon reaching the initial point - the beginning of the bomb run - engine trouble began. Number three engine began smoking and making noise, soon followed by engine two, oil gushing from the engine. The plane was at an altitude of 25,000 feet.

The aircraft began to shake and make "awful sounds," then engine two stopped. The extreme vibration ceased.

"Then came the dreaded word: Fire." Engine three was on fire. The pilot issued the bailout command.

Bob attached his parachute to the harness. The altimeter read 16,000 feet, so he dropped his oxygen mask.

Bombardier Bernie Wasserman was motioning for him to go.

"Out I went, head first," the parachutist recalled, his flight quiet and peaceful.

"I must have been childish, or just crazy, but my mind was telling me that I might never have the opportunity to do some of the things I was told about falling through the air."

He stuck out an arm. "Sure enough, it acted like a weather vane and I fell with that hand up." He extended the other arm, and fell the opposite way, righting his position with both arms extended. Then he curled up and did a somersault.

He floated through the snow-filled clouds, viewing the small village of Egling below.

He hit the ground, strong winds dragging the chute across the snow. He pulled the cords and the parachute collapsed. Hoping he'd not been seen, he began stuffing the chute under a bush. He could see a wooded area a quarter mile in the distance.

But armed men in white uniforms quickly apprehended him.

"The men on skis arrived carrying the longest rifles I had ever seen," he said.

They headed back to the village, Bob with chute in hand, tossing his navigator wings at first opportunity to avoid having them question him about the bomber crew.

Bernie soon arrived, the pair seated in opposing directions to avoid any communication.

"The situation did not seem threatening and the place was nice and warm," he recalled. Women were talking in an adjacent room, every now and then one peering in at the pair.

"I felt like a monkey in a zoo," he said.

An intense feeling of relief

Just before sunset, guards dressed in civilian clothing arrived, likely Gestapo. He was taken to the backseat of a car, and left alone for a minute.

"Immediately, a boy about 12 ran up to the car and said, 'I am Dutch, I am obliged to you.'

"It sure made me feel good," Bob said.

Bernie was seated beside him. A guard aimed a pistol at the two while the other drove "like a madman, much too fast for the snow- packed roads."

The journey took them past people leaving villages after the bombing raids, carrying their belongings, just a few with carts.

"I wanted to hide," he said, empathizing. "If I saw the enemy, I would have wanted some revenge."

They arrived after dark at military headquarters to undergo interrogation, but to no avail.

Guards were called to transport the two by train to Frankfurt and, after a night's rest, on to Dulag Luft in Oberusel, there to undergo further questioning.

Bob's reply of name, rank and serial number rankled the German officer, who threatened to turn him over to the Gestapo.

He was taken to a small cell replete with a window and cot.

"My only communication with the outside world was a cord near the door, which, when pulled, would drop a flag and summon the guard," he said. A clock chiming on the quarter hour kept him apprised of the time, until it was silenced by an air raid.

"I really wanted out of that place," he recalled. His underwear, socks and clothing were filthy. The cells were cold and the inhabitants were poorly fed.

"My twenty-first day started as a usual day of hunger and boredom when Hauptman Vollman sent for me," Bob wrote. The German interrogator began berating him and told him he had no choice but to turn him over to the Gestapo because he could not prove Bob was a not a spy.

Vollman then surprised Bob by drawing a square with the letter G inside, his group's insignia. Vollman wrote 549th Bomb Squad and Major Brenner and looked squarely at his captive.

Bob remained silent and was returned to his cell.

"He had it right," the navigator said. "I was in the 549th Squadron and our squadron commander was Major Benner, not Brenner."

The following day he was removed from solitary confinement at Dulag Luft.

"It was like a kid's last day of school or getting a hit in the ninth inning to win a baseball game - only 10 times more exhilarating," he said of his interrogation and solitary internment coming to an end. "It was an intense feeling of relief, even better than when the Russians came to free us from the POW camp."

Barrage of queries

Bob and other prisoners boarded railroad cars just after Easter, 1944, bound for Barth in northern Germany.

Coming through the gate, the newcomers were bombarded with questions from the "kriegies" - American prisoners, an old friend from navigation school, Tom Dillingham, among them.

When will the war be over? When will the invasion be? And - paramount, perhaps - what's number one on the hit parade?

Bob savored the first shower he'd had in a month, "the dirt rolled off and the smell with it."

After delousing, he was issued a shaving kit and toothbrush and assigned to "camp," which included members of a British medical company, complete with a surgeon.

He was taken off to meet his new roommates, who teased him about bailing out of the plane without just cause. He was soon to be reunited with Bernie.

"I was glad to see him... At that time we knew nothing of the rest of the crew," he said.

Some of the members of the Royal Air Force (RAF) had been imprisoned at the camp four years, the nationalities including African, Dutch, Polish, Czech and others.

The guards at the camp, under control of the German Luftwaffe, spoke fluent English. Many had lived in England and the US before the war.

Bob's barracks were replete with indoor toilets, basins and showers - but the water was about 50 degrees.

Books addressing the life of POWs stress extreme hardships, Bob said. "POW life in Stalag Luft I was not the horror story some may think. I expected it to be much worse."

Having grown up in a poor family may have prepared him for adversity, he reflected.

"But there were a number of problems to deal with," he said. Food was sparingly rationed. Keeping warm in winter was a concern, dominated by the ever-present uncertainty. "When would we be free? How would we get out? The Russians were a long way from us.

"After D-day, June 6, anxiety increased."

The POWs learned of the Battle of Normandy via a contraband radio, cigarettes traded to guards for parts. They also became aware of the Western Allied effort to liberate mainland Europe via German radio. Speakers in hallways broadcast Hitler's speeches and German news and music.

The Germans minimized the impact of the invasion "but it turned out to be a major success."

Tunnel project 'donation'

Meanwhile, Bob learned to play bridge. Packages arriving from home holding cards were a welcome sight. Cigarettes were tournament entry fees, winners well stocked for the next few days.

Books, in short supply, were devoured by the avid reader.

The RAF prisoners entertained with soccer and football games. Americans, pale in comparison, were the audience.

With time and talent aplenty, the POWs performed plays, musicals and orchestra concerts - instruments provided by the YMCA. Germans, officers were members of the audience.

His first parcel from home arrived Oct. 10, a letter from his mother Oct. 15. She assured him all was well on the home front. Food parcels began arriving in November, timely given the scarcity of food.

Meanwhile, the camp was becoming crowded. Bob was prisoner number 4,193. By "the end," nearly 10,000 POWs would arrive. The 16 men in his room increased to 23. Showers became a monthly, not weekly, event.

Food rations were cut dramatically in November, changing the topic of conversation from women to food. But by April 1945, Red Cross parcels began arriving to supplement.

"Escape and home were always on our minds," Bob said. Tunnels were constantly under construction, but soft sand and surveillance by German guards and their dogs generally curtailed progress. "There were ditches all over our compound where tunnels had collapsed.

"We needed boards to keep the tunnels from caving in," Bob said. "One afternoon on a bright sunny day, Lt. Jim Stone and I borrowed wire cutters and cut a warning fence in two places."

Undetected by guards, they returned to the barracks, slid the barbs off the wire and created webbing for their beds.

"The bed boards were our donation to the tunnel project."

Several escape attempts were made, including a gymnast who made a mighty swing and landed outside the fence, but few, if any were successful.

Free at last

In February 1945, the Russians and Allies were making rapid progress across Germany. "We could hear the rumblings when the Russians were crossing the Oder River," Bob said.

By the end of April, the POWs began digging foxholes, some of the kriegies making fun of the initiative.

April 29 the men heard a number of loud explosions, the Germans blowing up equipment at a school and factory adjacent to the camp. That night, the Germans headed west, hoping to surrender to Americans.

"We were free, but did not know it until morning."

The POWs woke to find US and British flags flying over the camp. "We were free, but still confined."

May 1 was his 21st birthday. "I had spent my entire 20th year as a POW in Stalag Luft I." Although they were given more freedom to roam, the POWs remained at the site.

May 13 he boarded a B-17, bidding farewell to men he'd come to know. "We were out of Germany and headed for home."

Bob landed in Rheims, France, soon to board a train for Camp Lucky Strike, a collection center for servicemen until they could be transported back to the US.

After delousing and a shower, they underwent a brief physical exam and were given clothes, a raincoat and two blankets. They slept on the floor, chilled by the proximity to the English Channel. "The next week was miserable."

When Bob was offered a leave to England, he "jumped at the chance," London's Red Cross Club, the theater district and pubs his destination. While there, he picked up his flying records and missing crew report.

"To my surprise, I found promotion orders. I'd been a first lieutenant since April 1944."

'Great to be back'

Bob boarded a ship to head home a few weeks later. They were greeted with a heroes' welcome in Boston harbor, "bands and pretty girls on barges" heralding their return.

"It was great to be back in the good old USA."

After receiving compensation, orders for 60 days of recuperation leave and a night of celebration, he caught a flight to Des Moines. A stewardess woke him to tell him it was to buckle up for landing.

He attempted to hail a cab, but all were taken. Two passengers in the cab invited him aboard. Upon arrival in his driveway, they assured him the fare was paid.

His father spotted him and came running. "When we reached the door I realized he was terribly out of breath and not well. Mom was crying and so happy. While I was missing in action, she was the only one who would not admit I might be dead."

And his little sister, Louise, had evolved from a "skinny little kid to a blossoming teenager."

He spent the rest of the day telling his story, his mother showing him letters from the pilot of his crew after his escape from internment in Switzerland.

The engine that had been burning froze and the fire went out. The rest of the crew made it to Switzerland.

Angels working overtime

Bob re-enlisted in the Air Force as a master sergeant, retiring as a chief warrant officer in 1963.

He had no contact with the aircrew after the war but in 1948, while working as a weather forecaster in Illinois he saw Larry Lawler, who'd been the co-pilot. Their conversation was abbreviated, but they exchanged addresses.

In 1982, while perusing the South Bend Tribune, he saw a notice asking members of the 385th Bomb Group to make contact.

He was soon to be reunited with pilot Vince McLaughlin and Larry. They met in New York to relive their experiences. Bob was to learn of their perilous flight into Switzerland after he and Bernie had exited the aircraft.

When the fire went out, crew members aboard the B-17 jettisoned everything possible to maintain altitude. But they continued to lose altitude and were just above stalling speed.

As they neared Austria from southern Bavaria, they were hit by a German flak, causing extensive damage. An anti-aircraft missile had gone through the radio room and out the top without exploding. There were numerous holes, wires and cables broken.

Larry told Bob if he and Bernie had remained in the nose, and not bailed out, they'd likely have been killed or badly injured.

Meanwhile Vince, the pilot, was keeping the plane aloft by using both autopilot and manual controls. Engine one was operating at half power, engine four at full power but they were still losing altitude.

The crew was throwing out everything possible, breaking the bolts on a ball turret and sending it off to hit an Austrian hillside.

After heading over a valley and barely making a pass at treetop height, they decided to exit. Three engines were inoperative, the fourth failing rapidly.

Again, faced with who goes first, the pilot shouted, "Let's get the hell out of here!"

The co-pilot landed in a tree and broke a leg. The waist gunner sprained an ankle. But they were overjoyed to learn they'd landed in Switzerland, by just a few hundred yards.

The plane flew on about 10 miles, crashing near a church.

"We call each other every March 16," Bob said. "Considering everything that happened to this crew, it is clear to me that our guardian angels were working overtime for us that day."

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