“The DAY of Aug. 17, 1943 was to be, perhaps the most important and certainly the most eventful of my life to date,” the late Martin Fetherolf of Punta Gorda Isles, Fla. wrote in his “War Log” from Stalag Luft-3 in the heart of Germany during World War II. It’s where he spent most of his 20 months and 12 days as an American prisoner of war.
He was a 19-year old 2nd lieutenant navigator aboard a B-17, “Flying Fortress,” called “Sitting Bull.” It went down on its first mission over Schweinfurt, Germany during a raid. Their targets, the ball-bearing factories that kept the German war machine going. Fetherolf was a member of the 305th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force based in England.
The day their bomber was shot out of the sky scores of B-17s were headed for Nazi Germany. Enemy resistance from Messerschmitt-109s and Focke-Wulf-190 fighter planes was deadly and flak from German anti-aircraft batteries was equally fierce.
“It soon became evident the Luftwaffe had been expecting us. There were German fighters attacking each group. Before the day was over we were to admit loss of 60 B-17s, although we could count crews from 100 bombers, not to mention those that had not survived. The Germans lost approximately 275 fighters,” he wrote.
Their plane was hit first by flak from a German 88-anti-aircraft gun. It was finished off by fighters.
“Sure enough, … we were hit under the right wing by a burst from the next barrage. The No. 3 engine (right inboard) had to be feathered. During this process we stayed in formation and dropped our bomb load with our group. The group turned right and headed toward home, but we could not keep up on three engines,” he said. “The group slowed down for us … “(but their plane was losing altitude and speed and couldn’t keep up).
For a solid hour their lone bomber took a pounding from a succession of ME-109s and FW-190 fighters as they tried to fly back alone to their base in England.
“I had my flexible .50-caliber machine gun in the nose constantly in action. Between fighter attacks I tried to keep a log and make navigation entries,” Fetherolf wrote. “… I hit numerous aircraft, one ME-109 in particular. I remember watching my bullets entering the plane’s belly as the pilot broke off his pass. An instant later, as he left my view behind the left wing, a waist gunner shouted, ‘I got one.’ I still believe that was my kill.”
Their tail gunner was hit in the head by a .20 millimeter projectile. He died instantly.
“The fighters continued to attack as we eventually lost two more engines. A .20 mm shell entered the nose and exploded 18 inches from my head. I had my steel helmet on, (but) I was thrown against the right side into my log. I looked down and my left hand and left leg were bleeding through the glove and pants. About that time we lost intercom. Most of the ammunition was gone. My oxygen pressure was reading zero, we were in a 280 mph dive passing 12,000 feet at my last reading. Two, three and four engines were gone and I understood a small fire with smoke was coming from the right wing.”
The word was passed through the fatally damaged bomber to abandon ship.
“There I was — quiet — clear daylight, the earth swinging back and forth below. My left hand was bleeding. The flow of blood turning to drops and disappearing below,” he wrote. “I heard machine guns …. An ME-109 passed by and the thought occurred to me, I may be the target! I waved to the pilot. He acknowledged with a wave and left me alone. As my life flashed before me, I began to sing ‘A Mighty Fortress is my God.'”
Fetherolf landed in a farmer’s field. He was captured immediately after hitting the ground by a German soldier riding a motorcycle.
“I spent my first 24 hours in the Koln-Hohenlind Hospital by sleeping the most sound sleep I can remember. Here I received good treatment by Catholic nurses,” he noted.
After recovering in the hospital for four weeks Fetherolf was sent to Dulag Luft in Frankfurt for interrogation. Then he was put in a 40-foot-by-8-foot small boxcar with barbed wire-covered windows and a couple of German guards with carbines guarding them. It was a three day train trip to their new home at Stalag Luft #3.
“Time dragged on. Summer went and winter came. One day was like the next. The only important question on our minds were unanswerable: When are we going home? How are our folks at home? Faith and hope were our only comforts,” Fetherolf explained in his log.
The American bomber crews in the POW camps consumed lots of hours dreaming up ways to occupy their time while in confinement. Fetherolf kept this wartime log, even though his German jailers would edit it by ripping out pages they thought were detrimental to their cause. He also spent a lot of time reading: “This is Murder,” Earl Stanley Gardner; “Good-Bye Mr. Chips,” James Hilton; Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (twice); “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Betty Smith (twice); “The Robe,” Lloyd C. Douglas” (twice); “Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen (twice) and on and on, book after book, hour after hour.
In his log were recipes for favorite dishes cooked by members of the crew: “Chocolate Pie for 14 by Thompson,” “Pumpkin Pie for 14 by Fetherolf,” and “Thanksgiving (1944) Fruit Cake.”
“After much anticipation, on the 14th of Jan. (1945) we were pleased greatly to learn of the new Russian offensive. Daily we watched the advances on our maps,” he wrote. “Jan. 27th (Saturday) … we were notified to be packed for evacuation in one hour. About 4 a.m. we fell out, passed thru the gate, were counted and picked up Red Cross Parcels. The snow was about four-inches deep and still coming down. By noon of the 28th we reached Haban, 17 kilometers, from Sagan (where the POW camp was located).”
After walking for 12 days in the cold and snow through Germany the POWs finally reached Moosburg. There was a huge POW camp there that contained tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war.
“The war news from the ‘Western Front’ became better and better. Spring brought good weather and plenty of air raids. We often saw B-24s flying over. P-38s and P-51 (fighters) flew over low and strafed nearby,” Fetherolf wrote in his book.
“On the 29th of April (1945) we were liberated! A battle took place all around (our camp) all morning. At 12:45 p.m. the American flag rose over Moosburg,” he concluded. “On the 1st of May Gen. (George) Patton visited us.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, May 9, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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