On May 29, 1944, while returning from a mission over Poland, 22- year-old 2nd Lt. Speer and a fellow pilot spied a German airfield. They dived toward it in their P-51 Mustangs.
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We came roaring across the field with guns blazing and hit several twin-engine bombers on our first pass. We were going more than 400 miles an hour, 3 feet from the ground.
The advantage of coming in low was that the Germans had to fire low. They were on both sides of us, so they were shooting toward each other. Their aim was distracted because they had to keep their heads down for fear of being hit by their own gunners.
They were firing 20 mm and .50-caliber machine guns, and I could feel the bullets hitting my plane. We turned and made another pass, hitting more of the Heinkel 111's and observing other ones on fire from our first pass.
My Mustang shuddered from hits by the enemy gunners. I knew I wouldn't make it back to
. My engine was dying, and my airspeed was so low, I couldn't get high enough to bail out. So I stayed as low as I could, hopping over trees for about a half-mile. Then I saw a small opening in a wooded area between the airfield and a farm village, and managed to crash-land in it.
It was a desperate landing because by that time, my Mustang had no power at all. I was only thinking about what I had to do: Get the plane down, get out of it and get moving.
On the ground, I felt fear. There was a mob coming out of the village toward me, carrying clubs and pitchforks. On the other side was the airfield with the German soldiers. I was caught in the middle.
Too tall for cockpits
As a young farm boy, I was fascinated with airplanes. My imagination soared with the adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, two futuristic characters in the comics and movies. I became an avid reader and was enraptured by tales of
pilots such as Eddie Rickenbacker and the Red Baron.
The cost of learning to fly was prohibitive, but when World War II was thrust upon us by the Japanese
, the need for military pilots offered me an opportunity to fulfill my dreams.
The path was beset with obstacles. I had not graduated from college, had two missing wisdom teeth and was married, each of which was a disqualifying feature. As the need for pilots became more pressing, and the supply of fully qualified applicants was not adequate for the demand, such irrational standards were waived, and I became eligible.
They told me in the beginning, "You'll never be a fighter pilot." At 6 foot 1, I was too tall for the cockpits. But they managed to squeeze me in, and in the fall of 1943, I graduated at the head of my class and fourth in aerial gunnery.
Almost immediately, I was shipped to England and assigned to the 4th Fighter Group, 8th Air Force. This group was formed from the Eagle Squadrons, the American citizens who flew for the British Royal Air Force and transferred to the U.S. Army Air Corps when we entered the war. They had flown British Spitfires and Hurricanes and U.S. P-47 Thunderbolts and were now being introduced to P-51 Mustangs, which were to become the greatest propeller-driven fighter planes ever developed.
By the time Ralph Kidd Hofer and I dived onto the German airfield in May 1944, I had destroyed two German planes in the air and one on the ground, and had 90 hours of combat flying.
My plane was the "Turnip Termite," a name I got from the Li'l Abner comic strip. The people of Dogpatch lived on turnips, and every year the turnip termites came by the millions and devastated their crop. I figured I'd devastate the Germans.
I flew as wingman to Hofer on our mission to Poznan, Poland, to escort B-17 bombers. It was uneventful. On the return trip, Hofer, who was a maverick, decided he wanted some action. My butt was sore after five hours in the air, so I welcomed any activity that would break the monotony.
Hofer and I broke from the group formation and found the German airdrome with a number of planes dispersed around the field.
That's when my Mustang got hit.
The wrong map
It was after 2 p.m. when I crash-landed. I ran into the woods away from the mob of villagers, far enough that they couldn't see me, and quickly shed my parachute,
life preserver and inflatable dinghy. I was wearing my flight suit and leather jacket.
I ran for about a hundred yards to a stream and crawled into a clump of bushes about 50 yards from the village. I hid there all day while the villagers hunted me. After searching all afternoon, they returned to their homes.
That night, when all was quiet, I crawled out of the bushes and headed in the direction of
, about 500 miles to the northwest. My plan was to stow away on an ore boat to
, where, although I would be interned, the citizens were friendly and would treat me well. This seemed a far better fate than sweating out the war in a Nazi prison camp.
While hiding in the bushes, I had taken stock of the contents of my escape kit, designed to help us evade capture if we were downed over enemy territory. It contained a .45-caliber pistol with ball and bird-shot cartridges, fish hooks, a machete, compasses, money, and a map of the area over which we were to be flying.
Unfortunately, my map didn't cover northern
and Sweden, but southern France and the Pyrenees. This left me with only a general memory of the area between me and Denmark, so I set off with only a compass to guide me.
I found a country road that headed in the direction I wanted to travel. I had no idea what I would find around the next turn. Every little noise was cause for alarm. Every dog that barked was frightening. The sound of a German soldier staggering out of a barroom with his date raised the adrenaline level.
It seemed that danger and capture lurked in every shadow. Thank God for the darkness.
As dawn approached, I found myself in an area of farms and small woodlots with hedgerows between fields. The cover encouraged me to keep traveling during the day as well as at night, and I was able to work my way around the small villages I encountered.
After a couple of days, in the late afternoon, I found myself walking parallel to a river that I would have to cross. It looked deep and swift. I saw in the distance a small bridge that appeared to allow foot traffic only. I came as close as possible to see what the routine was.
At dusk, as I lay in the grass observing the pedestrian traffic, I saw that there was a dim light at the end of the bridge and a civilian guard who was indifferent to the passers-by. I waited until dark and fell in behind a small group of villagers about to cross. The first person greeted the guard, and the others just nodded to him as they passed. I, at the end of the line, nodded and walked by without incident.
As I expected, I discovered a small village at the opposite end of the bridge with a one-lane dirt road down the middle. I lagged back from the group I was following, and with extreme trepidation, walked right through the village and on down the road, with no one becoming suspicious. Again, I thanked God for the darkness.
A most delicious soup
This is the way it went for eight days and nights for about 400 miles. I had no food, no sleep and constant fear. Only adrenaline and determination drove me on.
Though I felt I had to get something to eat, I didn't want people to see me. The third or fourth day out, I saw a man planting potatoes, and waited until he got to the other end. I dug up a couple of potatoes, peeled them and ate them, but they made me deathly sick. After that, I didn't make any effort to scavenge.
Exhaustion and lack of food caused me to become completely disoriented. I sat down, leaned against a tree and became unconscious. I don't know how long I slept, but suddenly it was daylight, and I was being prodded in the head with the muzzle of a rifle in the hands of a German soldier, while another kept me covered with his rifle. They had not been hunting me. They just stumbled upon me as I slept.
I was led to a barracks where I was locked in solitary confinement, given a bowl of what seemed, after a week of starving, to be the most delicious soup I had ever eaten, and I fell asleep as if dead. Soon I was taken on a terrifying trip by train, shackled to a guard, through the center of Berlin in the middle of the day. I had to endure the stares and insults of the angry civilians, as well as the fear that our bombers might choose that day to unload on the city. The crisis passed, and I entered the interrogation center for captured airmen, Dulag Luft. It held a whole new set of threats.
Considered a spy
A Luftwaffe captain who spoke impeccable English tried at first to make me feel comfortable by appearing friendly. "Lt. Speer," he said. "Why, with a name like yours, are you fighting us?"
He tried in a conversational manner to get answers to military questions. When I replied with my name, rank and serial number, he tired of his approach and handed me an official-looking paper with
emblazoned on it. The questionnaire appeared innocuous, but after asking name, rank, next of kin and address, it wandered off to questions such as mission, base, type of aircraft and call signs. I left these blank.
This led to another, less friendly encounter with the captain.
"Lt. Speer, you refuse to give us necessary information with which to notify your next of kin. Since you were captured in civilian clothes, we must assume you are a spy. You will be placed in solitary confinement for a week in order to reconsider, and if you still refuse to give us the necessary information, you will be shot as a spy."
(I was wearing my flight suit and jacket when I was caught, but they weren't considered a uniform.)
I spent that week alone in a small dark room with no outside contact, believing my life would be forfeited. After that, I was allowed to shower and shave, and again I was conducted into the presence of the interrogator. I still refused to give the appropriate answers and was again harshly reminded of the consequences.
Apparently tiring of the game, he summoned the guard and ordered him to put me on the shipment with the others to Stalag Luft III near Breslau. I was nearly ecstatic.
Bayonets in the hay
There followed 11 months of near starvation, with dysentery, lice and pain our constant companions. During the winter of the Battle of the Bulge, a Russian advance suggested they might repatriate us. The Germans, not wishing to lose us as a bargaining chip, decided to move us in what became a death march.
We set out in a blinding snowstorm in subzero weather. We were marched for 77 hours, with only a short break every hour in which we could sit down in the snow to rest or die. We had no food, no water and were poorly clothed. The Germans'
were gone within 12 hours, their paws frozen, cracked and bleeding.
Our final destination was a POW camp at Nuremberg. It was filthy, beset with lice and vermin and near a railroad constantly under bombardment by both British and American bombers.
Gen. George S. Patton's thrust across Germany threatened to release us, and again we were moved, south and west toward a camp at Moosburg. During the march, my buddy Nelson Kennard and I contrived to escape.
Their way of moving us was to have a guard every 50 feet on each side of a column that was four POWs wide. Most of the Germans had guard dogs. I could see up ahead that our column was coming to a little village and making a 90-degree left turn, but the road went straight up through the village. I asked Nelson, who was a bomber navigator, if he was willing to try something, and he said, "Yeah."
"Well look, when we get to that corner, we're not gonna turn. We're gonna just go straight. Don't change your pace, don't look back, don't do anything strange."
So we just walked on, and kept going, and nodding to the people who came by, and we got away with it. The Germans, at least the ones we encountered, had this mindset: If you were doing what appeared to be what you were supposed to be doing, they weren't going to question it.
We walked down the road in the dark and saw lights coming from both directions. We ran off the road and tumbled over a small cliff. In the morning, after picking ourselves up and finding all of our provisions were lost, we decided this was a bad deal and gave ourselves up.
Nelson and I saw another opportunity to escape. When we'd come to a barn, the Germans would put a bunch of us in there for the night and put guards around it. They'd roust us in the morning and walk through the barn, sticking their bayonets in the hay to make sure nobody was hiding there.
So at one barn, we dug down deep enough that they couldn't hit us. The next morning, after they poked the hay and marched off the others, we took off and went down a road for some distance. Some French forced laborers came along, and I hailed them because I heard them speaking French. They hid us in the two-story farm building where the Germans locked them up at night. But one of them ratted on us, and we were captured that night and returned to the line of prisoners.
That same night, Nelson and I hid in the hay of a different barn. We escaped again the next morning and joined the same Frenchmen. This time, we let them know that if we got turned in again, one of them would be dead. The leader of their group explained to them that if we didn't kill them, he would.
During the day, the Frenchmen went out and worked in the fields under German supervision, while we stayed hidden in the building. They were stealing food and bringing it to us.
"For you the war is over'
Several days later, a contingent of German soldiers moved into the barn next to where we were, about 50 feet away. The next day, all of the Germans left except one, who was guarding their equipment. We observed this German, and I recognized him as one of our more friendly guards from the prison camp.
I said to Nelson, "I'm going out and talk to him." I walked up to the German, who made no attempt to bring his firearm into position. He probably thought I was a forced laborer.
We could hear Patton's guns coming closer. In my pidgin German, I used the sentence the Germans always used on us: "For you the war is over." The guard said, "Ja, ja."
"When the Americans come," I said, "if you give me your pistol, I'll see that you get good treatment."
"Here," he said, and surprised me by handing me his pistol and also his rifle. "We have a lot more in [the barn] if you want them."
Nelson and I were now armed and went back into our building. Soon there was a knock on the door. It was a German soldier who wanted to surrender, because his buddy had told him about us. Next thing you know, there was another couple Germans surrendering to us.
The fighting was getting closer and the French were coming in out of the fields so they wouldn't get killed. We started arming them with the Germans' guns.
As the Germans came back, we grabbed them and put them all in yet another building, without their weapons. After we had 24 of them, I said, "There's something wrong here. They don't have 24 German soldiers running around on the loose without an officer someplace." So we questioned them and found out where he was.
His headquarters was in a house nearby. The Frenchmen surrounded it, and I was elected to confront him. Nelson went in with me as a backup, trailing me to make sure nobody got on my back.
The officer stood up to greet us. He was in his formal uniform, had his saber and gun lying on his desk, and wanted to surrender formally. He apparently had heard that all his men had gone. We put him in the building with the rest of them. When Patton's troops came, we turned the Germans over to them.
But not knowing for sure who Nelson and I were, Patton's men put us in a one-room schoolhouse with a guard out front. We were in the midst of a gun emplacement. When a firefight started, we fled out a back window and headed back to liberated territory.