Paul's Sentimental Journey
Black Thursday October 14, 1943
The morning of October 14, 1943 was to be the largest air strike done against the Germans. When Paul and the rest of the crew came out of briefing they were met with fog so dense that the ceiling was zero zero. The air hung heavy with moisture. Paul was so clammy from the dampness that the only thing that he could get on was his flying coveralls. He ended up carrying his bomber jacket because he could not even get that on. The briefing weighed heavily on everyone’s minds as they walked to their respective planes.
The minutes slowly marched by on that gloomy English morning as the crew was milling around their B17 “Big Moose” waiting for a go. “Big Moose” was a loaner from the 546 squadron, ten days earlier their other plane “Ruthless” ran out of fuel on the return flight and was sitting on the bottom of the North Sea. With the weather and visibility so bad Paul didn’t think that they were going to take off. Needless to say he left his cigarettes back in the barracks and for whatever the reason he didn’t have his 45 side arm. As they were standing by the plane someone gave Paul a cigarette then all of a sudden, they heard the other planes warming up. The crew looked to the officers to see what to do next, but they were waiting for a signal to shut down. Then someone saw the green flare from the Tower. Kauffman, the pilot said, “Well...I guess that’s a go.” So they crawled into the plane to take their stations. Just prior to getting into the B17, Paul happened to look up at underside of the nose of the plane. Someone had painted the initials T. S. Paul just hoped that didn’t stand for Tough Shit and that anything that would happen to them would be just T.S.!
As Paul was getting situated he glanced out one of the ports and saw a surreal sight; all around them were smoky swirls created by the props. The crew watched as one by one the B17s lumbered off to the runway, to be quickly obscured by a gray curtain of dense fog. Finally it was their turn to take off. “Big Moose a.k.a. T.S. started trundling along down the run way. She was loaded with 3000 gallons of 100-octane gas and 6000 pounds of bombs. The old war-horse was bouncing along down the runway like a Clydesdale horse. Most of those B17s taking off that morning had seen a lot of action and were pretty beat up. A lot of the guys joked that the only thing holding the planes together was spit and bailing wire! However the men respected those big lumbering leviathans of the sky. Those planes would be missing noses, wings, engines and have more holes in them than Swiss cheese but they brought their crews home. “Big Moose” continued to cut through the fog to reach the sky. Paul gave Junior a lot of credit, you couldn’t even see the tip of the wing much less what was in front of you but he continued to roll on a straight path. Finally the bouncing stopped and they were airborne. Those B17s were slow and heavy and it took them a long time to reach their cruising altitude of 15 to 25 thousand feet. Paul hoped and prayed that in that pea soup they were flying in that the other planes stayed straight, going in the same direction and would not turn into them. Finally they popped out of the cloud cover. It was like coming out of dark murky water. With the gray soup underneath them they could see all around them black dots popping out all over. It was the other B17s coming up out of the cloud cover. Then the planes jockeyed into position and made their formations. There were so many planes in the air that day that they seemed to melt into the horizon.
By the time Paul’s plane got to the English Channel they were cruising at about 20,000 feet. Paul bundled up his flight suit and wrapped his “new” silk scarf around his neck. The silk scarf was actually a piece of parachute. A ball gunner from their sister crew got hold of a parachute and he cut it into panels. On the last mission Paul’s chin had become frost bitten where it wasn’t protected from the cold due to the high altitude they were flying. In fact Paul wrote home to his mother to find him a silk scarf. In the mean time he would use that piece of chute. He didn’t have time to cut it so he wrapped 7 feet of silk around his neck. Later on in the mission that piece of silk almost proved to be his undoing.
The squadrons were taking a beating by the flak and the fighters trying to get to their target. The German Luftwaffe came at them like a swarm of angry bees. Paul and Peter were doing a coordinated dance at their gun positions defending their plane. All the B17s in the air that day fought valiantly to get to their target. Paul’s waist gun ended up jamming and he had nothing to fix it. So with no gun to fire he went back and forth to the radio room to keep Pete in ammunition. At one point Paul looked out and saw a long black streak of smoke coming from their number one engine and thought to himself, Oh, Oh, this is it... were done for. But by the grace of God and having a good pilot (Kauffman) and copilot (Hap), they kept “Big Moose” flying to complete their mission. However others were not so lucky. Sometime during the chaos Paul looked out the gun port and saw a B17 sliding down at them. They were so close Paul could see the pilot and co-pilot the whole front end of the plane was on fire. Paul was trying to hit the toggle to let them know up front that a dying B17 was coming at them. But before he could tell them Kauffamn or someone else must have seen that plane because all of a sudden the plane pulled a hard bank to get out of the way. Paul almost went overhead over heels. The burning plane managed to right itself and then one man bailed out from the nose another one from the waist then another. Paul heard one of the guys counting 1,2,3 there were no more… Even with the heavy casualties that day our forces still managed to rain bombs over Schweinfurt.
After they dropped their bombs Kauffman veered away from their target, Kauffman said to the crew, “There’s Switzerland over to the southwest. You guys want to head that way?” One by one over the inter-com they all answered no, let’s try to get home. In 20/20 hindsight maybe they should have headed toward Switzerland, at least they would have been interned. So Junior made a left instead of making a right. Junior had to feather the prop to drop the oil pressure and keep the prop edgewise if the pilot doesn’t the prop starts turning the opposite way around and it will either tear the motor off or rip the wing apart. The fighting in the air was fierce. We were suffering heavy causalities. Our planes were taking heavy hits from ground fire and German Luftwaffe fighters. Then another one of Big Moose’s engines flamed out. Reminiscent of 10 days earlier, the crew was again flying on two engines, there was no way now to keep up with the rest of the squadrons. Soon they were alone in the sky.
Paul disconnected from radio communications to go back up into the radio room to get more ammo for Pete. When he got there he saw Beck taking off his earphones and putting on his parachute. Paul quickly turned around and looked aft, there by the rear door was the ball gunner, waist gunner, and tail gunner. Paul thought to himself, aah phooey on this, we have to bail out! No one wore their parachutes on a mission unless they needed it. So Paul picked up a parachute and headed to the back. The parachute he picked up was an English one and it had a different locking mechanism than the American chute. Paul hooked the chute up to his harness on the round circle by his chest. He looked down trying to read if he had it locked, but he wasn’t sure. Paul didn’t want to open the whole harness because everything would flop off. If he hit the circle the whole thing disengages and Paul was too afraid to hit it. He figured if it’s not locked and if he hit it and the harness fell off he’d be too scared to put it back on right so he stayed with it as it was.
Jacob (Jake) Martinez the ball gunner was the first of the men who was in the aft section of the plane to bail out. The men had little training in bailing out and the use of their parachutes. That was probably why Jake in his panicked state didn’t close the door when he went to pull the wire on hinge pins of the emergency hatch. Because of that it jammed the door. So with the hatch only partially opened the outside pressure sucked Jake out and the slipstream held the jammed door against his legs. Jake was just hanging out there along side the B17. The men were paralyzed for a second looking at Jake while the plane was on fire and shaking apart around them. This galvanized the men into action. They were standing by the door and Paul pointed to Beck, “lets dive out the waist window”. In retrospect, they could have but they were afraid they would hit the tail of the plane. They didn’t realize that when you jump you drop down, you don’t just float in one place.
The men were determined to open the escape hatch and release Jake. Stanley Ruben “Rube” the tail gunner started pulling on the door to get it open, it wouldn’t budge. Rube a Native American was not going to let that door get the best of him so he started kicking it hard… it paid off, the door swung free along with Jake. Rube was a man of few words but just like in the movies he looked at Paul, Jules and Pete and said… No he did NOT say Geronimo! His parting words were “ample scotch, ample women and I’ll see you in New York!” Then in a blink of an eye he was gone. Peter went next. With three men out, Paul was next to go. By this point Paul was really scared to jump. He was looking out the hatch with the earth way below them. They were flying at an altitude of 25,000 feet and they could see a river down below from their perspective, the river looked like a string thrown on the ground. The plane was on autopilot and it was pointed in the right direction… HOME. For a fleeting second Paul entertained the idea of staying with the plane. However the plane made the decision for him, the B17 was literally shaking apart all around him. Paul then grabbed the D ring on the parachute and tried to say something witty but came up with the same line as Rube “Well Beck see you in New York”. Then he jumped out but he made a big mistake...
Paul grabbed the D ring tight in his right hand. He grabbed his nose with his other hand and dove out head-first. Boy was that a mistake! During the morning when Paul put his harness on the straps had worked loose sometime during the flight. With all that was going on he had forgotten to tighten them. At first he felt like he was just hanging there in the air. In flight school they told the men to delay pulling the ring as long as possible. But Paul thought to himself, what if he delayed too long and the chute would not open. So he pulled the D ring and he was looking at it and nothing happened. He thought, Aha shit! This parachute is defected. He kept looking at the D ring with a stupefied look on his face when all of a sudden the chute opened. In that instant he shot up in the air, the loosen straps around his thighs became taunt as piano wires around his groin. That jolt took his breath away and the force of the ascent ripped his right zippered boot right off his foot. At first he thought that he had parted company from the chute. Then he looked up and the harness was still there and it became real quiet.
He watched their B17 “Big Moose” flying away from him into the sun as she was shaking and burning. A Luftwaffe fighter got up right behind her and Paul could hear the boom, boom, boom, of the 20’s from the German cannon. He watched the cannon shell strikes as they were exploding on her. That old girl had a lot of heart and refused to buckle under the onslaught of enemy fire. With her autopilot on she just kept right on flying home. Paul thought to himself, that that had to be one mad Kraut. “Thought you could take her down did ya?” Years later, Paul had talked to his engineer and he said that, “Big Moose” continued to be airborne for a while before finally crashing into the ground.
As “Big Moose” was flying off into the sunset Paul looked down and thought he saw a chute below him. He was trying to figure out who it was when he became distracted when a Luftwaffe fighter buzzed by and took a potshot at him. Paul thought to himself, what the hell I got this far… he didn’t feel any pain so he thought good I’m not hit. The fighter veered off and Paul resumed his search for the chute below him. He saw the canopy of the chute it was either Jake or Pete he couldn’t tell. Paul looked above and he saw Beck, he knew it was him by his slight built. He looked at Jules and thought… such a small guy looks like he was going to float up into orbit instead of coming down.
Paul continued to survey
the ground below him. All he saw was open land –that’s good he thought I got
a break. The first thing that came into his mind was his parents especially his
mother. It didn’t matter who you
were, when a boy is in trouble like that he thinks of home and his mother. With
a sense of urgency he thought to himself that he had to get back to England. He
should have only been about 450 miles away and he didn’t want his parents put
through the agony of getting a missing in action telegram. As he continued to
drift toward earth, Paul kept thinking how he should proceed.
A person can cover a lot of area before landing. Paul kept changing his plan of action as he drifted over a lake, open farmland, big stands of woods, a town, then back over a lake. For a day that was to be called Black Thursday in the history books the day turned out to be a nice clear day with not a cloud in the sky when they were shot down. It was the complete reverse of the pea soup weather they left behind in England that morning. He continued his descent worrying if he stood out like a neon sign. He was debating whether he should aim for the lake or the farmland. However, Paul really didn’t have much control over where he was going. He was literally riding on the winds of fate.
As he grew closer to the ground perhaps several hundred feet he started drifting over farmland again. In the distance Paul saw two men with horses plowing a field. As he floated lower he realized that he was going to land on them. Paul started yelling to get the men’s attention. They looked up at him with fear on their faces. Paul continued to yell and gestured to get the horses out of the way. He was afraid that if the silk of the chute covered the horses they would panic and trample him to death. Then Paul heard a pop! He looked and there a short distance away on a slight ridge was a soldier his arm up in the air holding a little pistol shooting at him! Again Paul was taking inventory of himself and everything that God gave him seemed to still be in place. He was thanking God that he was still in one piece when he heard a loud Boom! There, standing next to the soldier was a civilian with a shotgun. He fired once, Paul didn’t feel anything and then the man fired again. That was when Paul realized that the civilian was trying to hit his chute. He was coming down fast enough without any help from that farmer. Next thing Paul knew was that the ground came up to meet him. It was a strange optical illusion knowing he was the one falling but seeing the ground come up to slap him in the face.
As Paul got a few feet from the ground he continued to yell and patted himself looking for his gun. Shit! No gun. So he put his hands up in the air and he was drifting sideways from the men. Then with a thud Paul landed first on his heels then fell onto his back. The chute started to drag him across the ground and all of a sudden there was heavy pressure around his throat. He was choking! His parachute scarf got caught in the harness and as the wind was pulling the chute away the silk created a garrote around his neck. Paul was young and fit so he rolled onto his stomach and pulled the bottom of the chute. He knocked off his harness and started to take off for cover. However, the freshly plowed field thwarted Paul’s escape. His feet sunk into the soft earth. Also it didn’t help that he only had on one boot the other had only the inner slipper lining. He didn’t get 10 feet from the chute when he heard HALT!!!!!
Paul stopped and turned around; there on a bike was a German soldier. The soldier must have been home on leave and probably was hunting when he saw Paul’s parachute coming down. In his arms he held a beautiful hunting rifle. With everything that had happened to Paul that day from battling the Luftwaffe, bailing out of a burning plane, being at the mercy of the wind and most of all having multiple people taking shots at him his mind took a time out. It’s strange what the mind will do for self-preservation of the psyche. Subconsciously Paul knew that he was in dire straights. However his mind took a brief vacation from reality. He thought to himself, war stop right now. I’m going to have me a souvenir (the hunting rifle).
Paul was rudely brought back to reality by the sounds of arguing. All around him were the farmers, a couple of soldiers and the little piss pot with the small gun that had shot at him. Paul thought they were arguing about who was going to get credit for capturing him. He had heard that the German government gave them money or food for helping capture the enemy. As they continued to argue Paul heard something knocking and he realized that it was his knees banging away inside his jumpsuit. But he also recognized that they were just as frightened him. The man with the little gun came close to Paul and his gun hand was shaking! Paul had his hands in the air and he said, “Hey… point that thing the other way!” He knew they didn’t understand him but he talked anyway just in case they did. Paul was afraid that someone might bump that nervous Nelly with the gun he would get shot! They surrounded Paul and led him to a barn. They put him in and locked the door. Strewn inside the barn were empty red-cross parcels. Paul sat down and wished for a cigarette. He kept wondering what they were going to do with him. He went over in his mind the things that happened to him that led him to this place. He wished that before he bailed out that he had grabbed the escape kit. It had cigarettes, malted milk tablets, different kinds of money and silk handkerchiefs with maps of Europe printed on them. However wishing and having were two different things. The German soldiers posted one guard in front of the door. Paul could hear him pacing back and forth. He sat there on the floor hour after hour contemplating his situation trying to figure out a way to rap the guard on the head and make for the woods. As Paul was getting up his nerve to implement his plan he heard a rustling by the door. The door opened up and who walks in, his tail gunner Stanley T. Ruben. Paul greeted him with, “Hey Rube they captured you too!” Ruben joined Paul on the floor. He offered Paul a Camel, Paul hated that brand but when you don’t have any of your own any cigarette will do.
Finally the soldiers came for
Paul and Ruben. They marched them plus another prisoner into a small town and
took them into a store. Most of the windows in the store were broken out whether
from air raids or looting they were not sure. The men could hear the locals
muttering Luft Gangsters – Air Gangsters. They thought Paul and the others were gangsters that got paid
by commission for each flight. Paul happened to look down at his hand and saw
the ruby ring his mother had bought him. He discreetly turned the ring around to
look like a wedding ring. In his breast pocket he had a ring with a black stone
and the prop and wing on it that he bought in a PX. As a German corporal was
searching Paul he found the prop and wing ring. In broken English the guard
asked Paul “You got this from German Airman? Paul said No, that he bought it
and that a German airman couldn’t afford it. That was the last time Paul saw
After a light search of the POW’s was done they were loaded into a truck. Paul and the others were shot down in a place called Alcase Lorraine this area had been in dispute between the French and Germans for many years. Along the truck route people were yelling things at them, the French were yelling Viva La Americans! The Germans were not so nice! During the ride Paul had some gum, he took out a pack and started chewing a piece. He offered some to the other POW’s. One of the guards was watching them with keen interest. So Paul gestured to him “Hey you want a piece?” The guard asked, “Vas is das?” Paul replied, “poison!” The guard took the gum and started chewing it. Paul asked him “Good poison?” With a smile on his face the guard happily replied, “Ya, ya good poison!” The other guys thought it was so funny they wanted Paul to give him another piece to see if he would say the word poison again.
From the truck they were transferred to a train, which took them to Frankfurt Germany. Frankfurt was the interrogation center for POW’s. The men were placed in solitary confinement for 5 days. The small room that Paul was placed in was no more that 8X8 cell with a built in cot. No blanket, no food, no nothing… The first day went by without a soul coming to see him. He was so cold he couldn’t sleep. He paced the cell hour after hour not a sound could be heard except for his own voice calling out through the small window yelling for anybody. No Rube, no Beck, no Dannaman, no nobody. The only thing to keep him company was the writings on the wall. Many RAF had passed through that cell, some left notes for future POW’s. They wrote keep your mouth shut, don’t tell them anything, name, rank and serial number only. Don’t tell them anything Yank. Let them find out for themselves.
The second day a guard brought him some kind of hard bread with a sweet substance on it. With each passing day Paul became more troubled. The third day Paul heard a rap on his door. The door opened and there was a guard standing there, Paul was able to look out into the hall. Two doors down from his room was a guard with a cart. On the cart were a bowl, a spoon and a pot of something. Paul watched as the guard served up one potato and one boiled onion then he put some kind of gray juice over it and a piece of bread. He handed it to the prisoner in that room. He waited until that man handed the bowl and spoon back. Whatever was left behind by that man was left in the bowl the guard just added to it. The guard moved down to the next door and repeated the process. Same bowl, same spoon for everyone.
On the 4th or 5th day they finally brought Paul outside of his cell. He was first taken to another room where there were other POW’s. From there they were taken into another room to be interrogated. As he walked into the room he saw Beck. They were standing around waiting for their turn to be interrogated when Beck turned to Paul and said, “ You know, I’m worried, you know I’m Jewish, I heard they were doing a lot of things to them.” Paul replied, “ What the hell, don’t worry about them, they hate all of us because we’ve been bombing the hell out of their cities. But, I’ll tell you what, take off your dog tags. Throw them up there in the corner. When they ask you where are your dog tags say you lost them and then tell them you’re a Baptist.” Later on Beck told Paul an incredible story. When Beck went in to be interrogated the German Lieutenant asked Beck his name. He answered, “Tech. Sergeant Jules T. Beck serial number…” The German paused and said “Ahhh Beck… my name is Heinz H. Beck.” From then on as far as anyone was concerned Beck was a German Baptist!
Finally it was Paul’s turn to go. They sat him at a table across from a good-looking German Luftwaffe Lieutenant. The German officer introduced himself to Paul and was very polite. The officer asked, “May I ask your name?” Paul answered, “Yes sir, Staff Sergeant Paul Spodar 35518619.” “Where were you going Sergeant?” Paul replied, “What do you mean where were we going?” The officer then asked him “Well what type of aircraft were you flying?” Paul said, “I don’t know.” “You don’t know?!” queried the German. “No I don’t know” Paul countered. The German officer was not to be deterred by Paul’s vague answers. He repeated, "where were you going?” Paul stated “I don’t know, they told me to get on I got on.” Paul was trying to imply that he was a spare crewmember. The officer continued with a few more questions before calmly telling Paul that they could have him put to death for being a spy. Paul replied, “I’m no spy, I’m in the Air Corps.” The German officer said “Yes, but your not dressed, you have no markings on your clothes.” Then the German Lieutenant threw Paul for a loop. Very casually the Lieutenant said, “Sergeant, where is Lt. La Croix?” Paul Said “who?” The German officer started to open a big black book, and said “I am just trying to confirm things.” What was in the big black book stunned Paul. There in the book was the 384th Bomb Group insignia beneath it were the 544,545,546, and 547 squadrons as well. He had a list of all the squadron leaders people that even Paul didn’t know about. The German looked up at Paul and repeated his question, “Where is your bombardier Lt. La Croix?” Normally La Croix would have been with them, however he was grounded that mission due to dysentery. La Croix went on with another crew and completed his 25 missions. Paul continued to deny that he knew La Croix; finally the German officer dismissed Paul.
After the interrogations were done the POW’s were loaded up on small boxcars called 40 and 8s. The POW's traveled in those cars for about 4 days. The cars were cold and drafty with nowhere to rest, just wall-to-wall men. Mile after mile the train cars trundled on, the men wondering where their final destination would be. Every time a military train came by, their cars would be pulled over to let the other train pass. One night they had stopped just outside of Nuremberg. The RAF was on a bombing raid of city. The boxcars shook from the explosions. Inside the men were scared that this train was going to be their final resting place. Several hours later they resumed their journey. Once or twice a day the Germans stopped the train to let the men out to relieve themselves. Sometimes many many hours would pass before they would stop. This one instance Paul had to desperately relieve himself. There was a crack in the door several inches wide, Paul jockeyed for position by that door. He had to go so bad, however every time he was ready to start a stream someone would bump into him and he would stop cold. This went on for a long time, l they seemed to be slowing down, but Paul was too intent in his effort to relieve himself to notice. Finally he started to go, the stream arcing out through the opening. As Paul finally relieved himself of a full bladder they were slowing to a stop. He heard a lot of commotion outside and wondered what it was about. They had just passed a train station; Paul had inadvertently sprayed the people standing on the train platform! It would be nightfall by the time they got to their final destination.
After a long and arduous
journey the POW’s pulled into a small train station in Krems Austria. It was
dark and cold, the men were lead out of the train cars and placed into columns.
The Germans marched the weary prisoners a few miles into the night. At the end
of their march the POW’s were greeted to harsh floodlights and a foreboding
landscape of Stalag 17B. The prisoners were quickly processed in and assigned to
a barrack. When Paul got inside his new barrack there was no place to sleep. The
floor was full of mud. With no mattress, no blanket, no nothing, Paul spent that
first night on top of a door.