“We caught it on our third trip. All three of our flights were over Berlin,” James Estrep of Englewood recalled.
Sixty years ago this month he was the left waist gunner in a Flying Fortress that was part of the 381st Bomb Group, 532nd Squadron of the 8th Air Force flying out of southern England.
“On that flight we almost got to Berlin when our B-17 lost an engine. Our pilot feathered the prop on the engine that was acting up. By the time we got the problem straightened out our squadron had left us.
“So our pilot decided to stay with the B-24s flying in formation behind us because they were normally slower than we were, but they passed us by, too. At that point we were by ourselves, so he did a 180 and headed home. Just about then, flak from a German 88 shell missed us by a few feet.
“We dropped down on the deck and started hedge hopping,” recalled Estrep, 80, talking about his last raid on March 8, 1944 in a B-17. “As we flew along 50 feet off the ground we saw a train. Our nose gunner shot at it going in and our tail gunner got it coming out. You could see the engineer jump out of the train and run down a little embankment.
“Moments later we flew over a hill and there was a ‘Jerry’ airfield. We flew over the main runway just off the ground,” Estrep said. “Two fighter planes circling high above us. We thought at first they were (American) P-51 Mustangs. They weren’t. They were ME-109s (German Messerschmitt fighters).
“One of the Messerschmitts made a pass over our left wing. Our nose gunner hit him and blew him up. The second German fighter connected with the gas tank in our left wing and set us on fire. The fire was right at our flaps and we were almost flying at ground level.
“Our pilot told us he was going up to 1,500 feet and we were all to bail out because he wasn’t sure he could continue to fly the plane, he said. The ME-109 just sat out there at a distance watching us. He apparently thought he had wasted enough bullets on us because we were going down anyway.”
All 10 members of Estrep’s crew escaped unscathed. They parachuted into Nazi-occupied Holland.
“I hit the ground and people were running from all directions to greet me. They brought me sandwiches and milk to drink,” he said. “A man came down a nearby road on a bicycle and told me in good English: ‘Come with me. I’ve got some more of your boys down at the barn.'”
Estrep followed the Dutchman on the bike the farmer’s barn. The farmer told him to climb up through a trap door into the loft where he found George Cassady, the engineer aboard his B-17, and Bob Burrows, their radio operator, hiding. A few minutes later, Bill Bull, their tail gunner, showed up. The other six members of the crew were hiding elsewhere.
“Within an hour after bailing out we were dressed in civilian clothes and bicycling someplace else,” he said. “We got to a little town about 10 miles away and moved in with a family. From there we switched hiding places frequently in various Dutch Underground members’ homes.
“We finally reached Liege, Belgium where we stayed in a home located near a German anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Occasionally we would do a little gardening outside the house,” Estrep recalled. “The German soldiers at the gun emplacement watched us all the time with their binoculars.
“One morning I heard someone knocking at the front door. I poked my head out the second story window of the house. I looked up and down the street but didn’t see anyone,” he said. “So I leaned over the sill and looked down. I saw a German soldier standing at our front door.”
They caught all four of the B-17 aviators along with the couple who lived in the house.
“They took us downtown in a ’38 Buick to interrogate us. When we arrived at the second floor office we found Milton Stern, our navigator who happened to be Jewish,” Estrep said. “One of the German soldiers doing the interrogating started slapping him around. He told the others: ‘This one’s mine.’
“What we learned later was that the German interrogator beating up on Milt was putting on a show for the other Germans. He was actually helping Americans escape on the side.”
After relieving the six crew members of their watches, rings and any other valuables, they were sent by train to Stalag Four in the northeastern part of Germany. The POW camp held 20,000 American and British enlisted men.
It was September 1944 when they arrived. The Yanks and the Brits were separated, 26 prisoners to a barracks with a shower and a toilet in each building.
Most of the time they ate coarse black bread in small loaves and potato soup. Estrep said conditions in the camp weren’t too bad, but that was about to change radically.
With the Russian Army closing in on their POW camp from the east the 20,000 POWs and their elderly guards began a three-month odyssey across Germany. They walked 730 kilometers in the cold and snow.
It was Feb. 6, 1945 when the trek began. They marched here and there all over Germany until late April dodging hordes of Russian soldiers along the Eastern Front closing in on them. The POWs might walk two or three days without any food. They did their best to scrounge potatoes or rhubarb from farmers’ fields as they passed.
Just before reaching Allied lines, Estrep spotted a German Army rifle leaning against a tree where its previous owner left it. He appropriated the Mauser and stuck it under his coat. He wanted to take it home as a war souvenir.
“‘On April 26, 1945 we finally marched the Yank lines at Bitterfeld, Germany, along the Elba River,'” Estrep wrote in his diary. “‘We got K-rations to eat. It was the best meal I ever ate. On March 28 we were interrogated by Allied investigators.'”
He and the other members of the crew spent several months getting fattened up at an American run special POW camp along the Elba River. While in German custody he lost 30 pounds. Estrep went from 150 to 120 pounds.
Several months later, when he sailed into port at Newport News, Va. aboard a liberty ship, he was fat and happy. He weighed 170 pounds by eating steaks, chicken, hamburgers and lots of ice cream — anything he wanted — with every meal. The war was over and he had survived.
Sixty years later he still had the Mauser rifle he appropriated as a war souvenir on the battlefield just before reaching Allied lines during his final day’s march to freedom.
Etched in cursive on the wooden stock of the German Army rifle was: “James C. Estrep 35622.” It hangs in a place of honor in his Englewood East home. The old airman cut his name and Army Air Corps serial number into the dark brown wood with a magnifying glass and a lot of perseverance while still in Germany recovering.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, March 21, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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James C. Estep Jr.
29 Feb. 1924 – 2 April 2011
JAMES C. ESTEP, Jr., 87 of Englewood, Fla. died April 2, 2011. He was born on Feb. 29, 1924 in Coal Grove, Ohio and came to this area in 1987 from Springfield, Ohio.
He was an Aircraft Mechanic and Electronic Technician with Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. He was Past Master of the Masonic Lodge #455, Ohio Chapter 8th Air Force Historical Society, American Legion Post #526, Past Worthy Patron of the Order of the Eastern Star, member of the First United Church of Christ all in Ohio. He was a member of the VFW Post #10476 in Rotonda West and the B.P.O.Elks Lodge #2378 in Englewood. He was a Veteran and a P.O.W. in WWII, serving in the USAF.
He is survived by his son, James, III of Port Charlotte, Fla.; daughter, Carol (Jim) Alexander of Evergreen, Colo.; two sisters, Marjorie Mattfeld of Bridgewater, Va. and Irene Mustard of Springfield, Ohio; four grandchildren, Benjamin (Jenn), Jonathan (Sarah), Christopher (Kelli) and Jennifer; three great grandchildren, Rhoan, Christian and Nathaniel. He was predeceased by his wife, Virginia, in 2007.