AN AMERICAN AIRCREWMAN REMEMBERS STALAG 17 by Walt Sehnert

The following is an article written by Walt Sehnert about Joseph P. Bruckler, WWII B-24 gunner and POW in Stalag 17B. It was first published in the McCook Daily Gazette on April 2, 2001. Following the article is an email from Barbara Ehmann, daughter-in-law of Fred Ehmann, who was a gunner on the same plane as Bruckler.

 

 

When Joe Bruckler, now of McCook, entered the Army Air Corps, shortly after Pearl Harbor, he ended up with a job he knew very well, from his civilian experience, that of a draftsman, making engineering drawings to be used in the maintenance work on aircraft. This was an important job, also safe–but so terribly dull, while others were off fighting the war. When he saw a bulletin, which said that gunners were needed for bombers, he made an inquiry. Within three hours he was on his way for gunnery school, and within a short time he found himself as a gunner on a B-24 in the 51 2th Squadron, 376th Air Wing, stationed in Egypt.

 

At first, his unit provided bombing support for the British and American units who were driving Rommel out of North Africa. When the war moved north the unit took part in the Italian Campaign, where they were involved in bombing strategic munitions factories in Germany and oil refineries in Romania. This was a time of intense bombing activity, by the Americans during the day and the British during the night. Casualties were extremely heavy, much more so than reported in the news accounts of the day–sometimes as many as 600 planes were lost out of 1000.

 

In December of 1943, on a bombing raid of munitions factories and railroads over Northern Italy, Joe’s group came under fierce attack by German fighter planes. A number of the bombers were shot down, including Joe’s plane. Five of the crew of ten were killed, either by enemy bullets or the fire which engulfed the plane. Joe’s parachute had been pierced by shrapnel and didn’t open at first when he pulled the rip-cord. When it did open he could see that the metal had caused long gashes in the nylon fabric, causing him to make a faster than normal descent. He was told later that had the chute been made of silk, as most parachutes were prior to that time, it would have ripped to pieces in the wind and been of no use at all. As it was, he had a rough landing, which resulted in shoulder injuries and a broken disc in his lower back.

 

As soon as he hit the ground he was surrounded by armed enemy soldiers. Fortunately, he had the help of a German nurse, who assisted him, both in getting truck transportation, and later, in admitting him into a hospital. At the hospital he was attended to at once, with what he considered good medical attention. His only real complaint at the hospital was a lack of adequate ventilation in his room, a complaint he made to the nurses at every opportunity. Then one night the hospital area was hit by British bombers. The area around the hospital was flattened, and the outer wall of the hospital was blown away. Joe’ s nurse came into his room to inquire if he was at last satisfied with the ventilation. He marveled that at such a time the nurses could still make a little joke.

 

When Joe was able to travel, he and a number of other prisoners were transported to a prison camp along the Danube River in Austria, some 40 miles from Vienna. The name of the prison camp was Stalag 17, which became famous as a popular movie, starring William. Holden, and later in the long running TV series, starring Bob Crane.

 

Joe’s ability to speak the German language proved to be an invaluable asset inside the prison camp. He was able to intervene on behalf of the other prisoners, and at times blunt some of the unreasonable directives, which came from the camp authorities.

 

At Stalag 17 there was a tremendous difference in guards. Some were tyrants, and petty, but some were fair and under other circumstances would have been friends. With these guards there developed a kind of camaraderie, and with the inducement of items from the Red Cross packages, mainly cigarettes, Old Gold especially, these guards could be counted on to perform little favors for an individual, or the entire barracks.

 

Under the Geneva Convention, prisoners were to receive 7 cents per day to buy necessities, toothpaste, razor blades, etc. from the PX. Since there was nothing to buy, one Christmas, Joe persuaded his guards to use the prisoners back pay to bring in a fir tree for each barracks, so that the men could have a Christmas tree. After a certain reluctance was overcome, they were provided with trees. Decorating those trees, with items scrounged from the camp, provided a boost of morale for the men.

 

Filling idle time was a major problem for Joe and the other prisoners. Joe (and others) wrote poetry, covering all phases of his life, his home before the war, the people he’d left behind, his military buddies and the bombing missions they flew, life in the Stalag. They also wrote down the words to songs and poems they’d known before, and they would recite these poems and sing these songs in the evenings. Some made drawings and paintings, both serious and of a cartoon nature, of their life in the prison camp and the life they yearned to get back to in the USA. Sometimes the Kriegies (pronounced Kreegies) (from the German word for prisoner, Kriegefange) would play little jokes on the more agreeable guards, such as hiding in the rafters, or imitating Hitler or the camp commander.

 

Adequate food was a constant problem. The usual fare was one meal a day, consisting of some sort of soup (often virtually inedible) and bread (sometimes containing sawdust for filler). It must be said that the German civilians in the area were not eating much better. They were constantly scrounging for food in the fields and woods surrounding the camp. Ideally, Red Cross packages were delivered to the prisoners once a week, and with these gifts from home the men were able to supplement their camp rations and fared OK. However, in the last months of the war the German trains were very erratic and it was sometimes weeks between the Red Cross packages.

 

In the camp, food was prepared in a central kitchen, with the assistance of the Kriegies. Then the food was delivered to the various barracks. Once, Joe was on duty in the central kitchen. He noticed some enormous flies, which were beginning to bother him. He caught one in his hand. Then, on impulse, using a thread from his shirt and a bit of toilet tissue, he tied that bit of paper onto the fly’s leg. When he let the fly loose it flew, not very fast, but made it up to the rafter, and proceeded to fly from one rafter to another. Then other men began to catch flies and equipped them similarly. Soon there was a veritable squadron of flies with paper attached to their legs flying from one rafter to another. The guard in charge became very alarmed, fearing what the Commandant would say if he happened to come by. Just then the Commandant marched into the kitchen. He took one look at the flying paper carriers, gamely limping from one rafter to another, struck his side with his short whip, and said, (in German) “Ach, you Americans are all crazy!” Then he turned and stomped out of the room.

 

But very little in the prison camp was fun and games. Conditions were harsh. And the men, by the Geneva Convention, were bound to escape if they could. Maps were smuggled in with the Red Cross packages, or by the guards, as were small compasses, no bigger than a fingernail. There were always escape attempts in various stages of execution. Tunnels from the barracks to locations outside the fence into the woods, were the most common. Most of these were not successful, but the men kept trying.

 

One time Joe was in a group, which planned to escape via tunnel. The tunnel was completed, destinations were chosen, with maps showing how to get there. The men went, single file, into the tunnel. Two men went ahead. The plan was that when they were safely away, Joe, in the second group would follow. When the first two were out, instead of crawling into the woods, they began to run. The guards noticed and quickly rounded up the two escapees. The rest, waiting their turn in the tunnel, tried to get back inside the barracks as quickly as possible. The result was a terrific logjam in that dark, close passage. It was a terrible experience, which Joe still dreams about. It was really worse than the solitary confinement, his punishment for the “crime”.

 

Finally, in the spring of 1945, there was a flurry in the camp. The prisoners were herded out, in groups of 500, with an escort of German guards. Joe was enlisted as an interpreter for his group. The war was winding down. The Germans preferred capture by the Americans, coming from the west, to capture by the Russians, who were advancing from the east. What followed was two weeks of chaos, living in the open, under rude bough covers–gathering food in the fields, but more often going without. Civilians were fleeing from their homes. Confusion was all about them.

 

Near the Inns River, in Austria, they at last met up with the advancing Americans, at a former aluminum factory, in which they had set up headquarters. Joe approached tentatively, but was warmly greeted by the company cook who supplied him with food, a ration kit designed to feed 10 men. Within moments he had consumed the entire quantity himself. But it was too much for his shrunken stomach and he quickly lost that meal in the bushes. When he went back to the tent the cook suggested he start out with a couple of oranges and work up to a full meal. “Go on back and get your buddies. Tell them we’ve got food for you all”.

 

Soon after that all of the prisoners were herded into trucks, then planes, for the trip back to France, where they were processed for their return home. Home! What a wonderful word. For them the war was over. They were going Home! At last!

 

—-

 

Dear Mr. Batty,

I have been sitting here late at night in Pennsylvania editing my father-in-law’s wartime memories, including the time he spent as a POW in Stalag 17. Checking facts is a long and tedious process, particularly for someone familiar with only the basic details of WWII, but completely on a whim, I searched “Joe Bruckler.” Imagine my joy at finding “A P.O.W. View of Stalag 17b During World War II” among the stories on your web page.

 

My father-in-law, Fred Ehmann, was the right waist gunner on the same plane as Joe Bruckler when they were shot down. In fact, he was the one who alerted Joe that the plane was on fire and helped him out of the ball turret. My husband thinks that he may have kept in touch with Joe, but we don’t know for sure. It is only during the last 5 years or so that he has begun to talk about that part of his life. At the age of 89 he has conquered the computer (in his own way and not without considerable and frequent assistance ;-)) and is writing down events as he recalls them. Unfortunately he hasn’t yet mastered the internet nor discovered the wealth of information and nostalgia that is there for him.

 

I will be seeing Fred Sr. tomorrow for Easter dinner. I can’t wait to see his reaction when I tell him that I read about Joe tonight and hand him a copy of “A P.O.W. View of Stalag 17b During World War II”.

 

Is there any way to get in touch with Walt Sehnert, the author of Joe’s story? It would be helpful and fun to compare notes.

 

Thank you for your assistance and for your wonderful web page. When time allows, I look forward to reading the other stories. The older I get, the more I realize the importance of the stories of our lives.

 

Sincerely,

Barbara Ehmann