BENNINGTON -- From encounters with "Big Stoop," a German prison camp guard, and the time a few liberated prisoners of war fired off rockets in the basement of a Panzerschreck factory for fun, a Tuesday morning was hardly able to contain the stories swapped between two former POWs held at the same camp during World War II.
Richard H. Hamilton, 91, of Marlboro, is the commander of Vermont Chapter #1 of American Ex-Prisoners of War. At a recent meeting of his fellow former POWs, Hamilton learned that Arthur Crowe Jr., 96, another POW, resides at the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington. Hamilton decided to meet up with Crowe and trade information and he invited the Banner to their conversation.
Both men served in the Army Air Corps on separate bomber crews. Hamilton was a radio operator while Crowe was a tail gunner. On May 12, 1944, Crowe's bomber was hit by machine-gun fire from German fighter planes before being blasted by a 20mm cannon. Crowe bailed out and did not see his bomber again until 2000, when Claudio Becker, of Sinn, Germany, sent him an email containing photographs of the downed plane, showing how close the cannon shot came to the tail gunner section.
Hamilton's plane was shot down just a few months later on July 20. Both men ended up being sent to Stalag Luft IV, a German prison camp in what was then called Gross Tychow, Pomerania. It's now just called Tychow and is part of Poland.
Crowe said that his time in the Civilian Defense Corps had prepared him for a life in the wild, plus his blond hair would have allowed him to pass for German provided he did not have to say much more than "Hello." He was captured by a German man wielding a pistol, which was just as well because the man turned out to be a good conversationalist, he said, and the nearest friendly area was 300 miles away across a war zone.
In a letter to Hamilton, Crowe writes, "Also, due to the fact that I was 26 years old, and had worked in a tough construction camp in the forests of Oregon for two and a half years, and had been in pilot training as an aviation cadet, I really did not find the POW experience that frightful."
Crowe's time at the POW camp was not without difficulty, however. Crowe said while he never encountered "Big Stoop," a German prison guard who would lift inmates off the ground by their hair, he did run afoul of Oberfeldwebel Reinhard Fahrnert, who sentenced him to 15 days solitary confinement for not saluting a German officer.
Crowe's bomber group also suffered heavy casualties.
After leaving the camp, Crowe and the group he was with was not picked up right away and they sought refuge on a farm where the farmer fed them and hid them in a barn.
"Early in the morning about 100 S.S. troops came into the barnyard, and we didn't know. We were in the loft. One of the farmer's sons came up there, and he was white as a sheet. He said, "S.S!" Because the S.S. killed everybody. He got us buried down in the eaves so the Germans wouldn't be digging in the straw or anything," said Crowe. "So we stayed over, and eventually they moved out. I was looking at these S.S. troops below me, and there were women there with bazookas. It was a tough-looking crowd."
A large tank battle had taken place, Crowe said, but the British tankers did not stop to pick anyone up, and in fact were quite dangerous. "A tank came up the road, and he was machine gunning haystacks and everything," Crowe said.
"He'd just fire into them?" Hamilton asked.
"Yeah, just in case there were Germans with bazookas in them," said Crowe. A bazooka is a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher used to destroy tanks. The German version was known as a "panzerschreck."
Crowe said one day he looked out the barn door to see a group of about 10 children coming toward the farm, thinking it was safer than where they'd been. "This tank was still firing at everything around us, bullets would come into the barn and bounce around us. We didn't know what to do with these children, he said.
They hid them in a stairwell that led to a potato locker. "I'm standing behind a chimney and tracer bullets are bouncing off the walls all around me, and pretty soon I feel somebody tugging on my coat. Two young children had come up the stairway, they were hanging onto me, and I said, ‘You don't know it, but I'm as scared as you are.'"
He said the farmer suggested they go out with a white pillow case tied to a stick to stop a friendly tank, but Crowe nixed that idea. "I said, ‘If I step out the door, your house won't even be here.'"
After leaving the barn, his group stayed in a factory that produced the German version of the bazooka. For fun, he and some others went into the basement and fired the weapons into the wall.
"It's a wonder we didn't get killed," Crowe said.
"I don't wonder why your ears are impaired," joked Hamilton after Crowe told the story.
"It was pretty loud," Crowe replied.
Hamilton, who lost much of his crew when his bomber was shot down, said near the end of his experience the German guards began to act more as guides to American prisoners, fearing the captor/prisoner relationship would soon be reversed.
Hamilton said he ended up being liberated when he decided to fall back from a march with some stragglers because his feet had developed blisters and become infected. He ended up in a town where he was able to get fresh milk from a farm.
"While I was staying in a farmhouse, I had a knock at the door one night, and we didn't think we had any lights showing to the outside," he said. "I opened the door and there I faced a gun barrel, and here was this, I knew it was a German insignia on these caps. They came, nine heavily armed, German fellows, came in, and they were dirty and trying to get to the American lines to surrender. They did not want to be taken over by the Russians."
The Germans wanted to go with Hamilton and the others across the Elbe River the next day. "They wanted to change clothes and walk with us, but I said, ‘No, no, no.'"
The Germans went into the farmhouse's storage area, took and ate some salt pork and molasses, then left.
Shortly thereafter, Hamilton and the others crossed the Elbe, found an American Jeep, and came across an issue of Stars and Stripes featuring pictures of the liberated concentration camps.
Crowe said his sister was a nurse in Europe at the time and had been assigned to the liberated concentration camps. One job given to the nurses was to sort the prisoners beyond saving from those who could be helped.
"They were supposed to look at these people and determine if they were going to live or die," said Crowe. "My sister said, ‘How could we tell whether they were going to live or die?' Some of them had diseases and everything else, but they made an effort. Those they thought were going to live they took out of there and put into hospitals, but the others they just left them there until they died. They gave them water, and that was all. It was quite a horrible place. Nurses weren't supposed to do things like that, it was supposed to be officers doing that."
Near the close of their meeting, Crowe gave Hamilton a copy of a book he wrote between 1993 and 2005 detailing his wartime experiences. Crowe said he wrote it mainly for "family consumption" and that it may be too detailed for a general audience.
"Well I appreciate that, and I feel honored to accept this," said Hamilton.
Hamilton is a proponent of veterans, especially World War II vets, telling their stories. Given the advanced age of that cohort, opportunities to hear them firsthand are becoming rare.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.