Published on Saturday, 01 December 2012 14:45
Written by Jean Doran Matua, Editor
These words from nearly 70 years ago ring again in Lawrence Huschle’s ears. Not because of haunting wartime memories. But, rather, because he finally was awarded the Purple Heart he earned when he was injured June 13, 1943, when his plane was shot down and he broke his back parachuting out of it.Troy Huschle spent two years fighting for the long-overdue award for his grandfather. He took over where Lawrence’s brother Ray left off. They were told it was impossible, but they didn’t stop. Only one member of Huschle’s crew was still alive, Ed Dostie. He wrote a letter that served as testimony to the plane being shot down. That was the key evidence that turned things around. Lawrence’s Purple Heart injury could not have been proved at the time, as he was a prisoner of war for just short of two years. The fracture in his spine was not discovered until medical examination in Texas many weeks after his liberation from the Germans. It was caused by his parachute as he was twisted and jerked after baling out of his plane. A chip of bone still floats somewhere in Huschle’s spine.By May 24 this year, it seemed that all the requirements for a Purple Heart had been satisfied. Thursday, Nov. 8, Huschle received a package by mail that contained a folder with two Purple Heart certificates (one a duplicate), and a case with the Purple Heart medal. No fuss, no fanfare.
And so it began … Lawrence Huschle of Eden Valley enlisted in the Army Air Corps at Fort Snelling March 18, 1942. This was barely three months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States. In 1988, Huschle wrote down his memories of his military service. Eleven typed pages document those three-plus years. Huschle completed boot camp in Mississippi, then trained for nearly a year in California, Nevada, Idaho, Washington and Utah. In Texas, his crew of nine men was assembled. Huschle was one of two waist gunners. In Kansas, the crew got their airplane, a B-17E triple 6. They flew to Maine for a week of plane modifications before flying to England by way of Newfoundland and Iceland. One of the pilots flew to Germany instead of England, Huschle writes; he was a traitor. They arrived at Thurleigh Air Base in England in April 1943. They were part of the Eighth Air Force. On their fourth bombing mission, over Keil, their plane was hit by a lot of flak, anti-aircraft cannon fire, from the German Fliegerabwehrkanone. The other waist gunner, John Jessup, was wounded, “right across his butt cheek,” said Huschle. Jessup was temporarily out of the show, but fought out the rest of the war after treatment. The rest of Jessup’s crew wasn’t as “lucky.” Cpt. Charles Patten, their squadron adjutant, had replaced Jessup as a waist gunner. On their next mission, 151 B-17s were dispatched against Bremen, a German U-boat yard. There was a lot of flak and, crossing the target at 28,500 feet, the plane was hit. Controls and electrical power were cut. Huschle wrote: “When the order came to bail out, [Patten] opened the door, but sat down to go out. His chute caught under the steps and I had to push him out. Then I cranked the ball turret so the ball turret gunner could get out. By this time the only ones left in the aircraft were the pilot and me. We gave each other the high sign and bailed out.” The plane was in a flat spin, Huschle wrote, cutting circles under him. The Germans continued shooting at it, and the exploding shells caused Huschle to go upward for a bit before continuing his float to earth. The Germans finally shot down the abandoned plane.
Huschle and Pitts, the navigator, landed in a swamp not far from each other. They could see they were surrounded by Germans, so they just waited. “Two German Navy guys came with a Veep, and the first thing they said, ‘For you, the war is over.’” Along the road, they saw other members of their crew walking ahead of farmers pointing pitchforks at them. They were all taken for questioning by the Gestapo, for eight days on bread-and-water. It was here that they learned their co-pilot (Van Troyen) and bombardier (Carvalho) were shot as they parachuted from the plane. Ball turret gunner Loveland would later escape from a POW camp. The men were then put on a train for Munich, in stock cars. Along the route, they saw Royal Air Force and British fliers “hanging from their telegraph poles.” On arriving in Munich, they again were told, “For you, the war is over.” “We were lined up, searched, given a number (my number was 112560) and our picture taken. We went to get our hair cut and a delousing shower, and were then assigned to a barracks,” Huschle wrote. Camp life begins
Life in the POW camp near Munich, Stalag 7A, was not pleasant. Each barracks held 150 to 250 men, 12 to a bunk on three levels. No hot water, no windows, but endless cold wind blowing through the walls. The men spent about nine months there before being loaded again into stock cars and sent to Krems, Austria, to Stalag 17B. The barracks there were the same as the previous camp.
Men were given a burlap sack filled with wood straw as bedding, and they were issued a single blanket. The bedding was full of lice and fleas, so Huschle burned the wood straw for heat and slept on the bare plywood of his bunk. Prisoners were issued wooden shoes to wear, and only the barest of essential clothing. At night, Huschle wrote, each man would put on every stitch of clothing he had just to keep warm. The barracks had a brick-type stove, but the coal they received was “not enough to do any good” so there was really no heat in the barracks. Food, by any standard, was disgusting and woefully inadequate. In the morning, they received hot water or burned-barley tea. A small portion of soup, rice and barley or cabbage, was the noon meal – complete with worms and sand. Twice a week, they were given about a 1 1/2-inch thick slice of bloody and wormy summer sausage. Also twice a week, they got bread: one loaf split between six men. They occasionally received margarine, which they used to make candles. As Huschle wrote, the margarine candles burned better than they tasted. Supper was two or three small potatoes, one of which was usually half-rotten. The Red Cross sent books, Huschle writes. But the POWs received parcels about once every six months. The parcels contained a box of C-rations, two packs of cigarettes, a can of corned beef or Spam, a small can of instant coffee, one D-bar, a can of jam, and possible a bit more. The French, he wrote, received a box nearly every week. POWs were encouraged to write letters home. Huschle told us he frequently was given a paper form with German writing at the top. He and the other prisoners would fill the papers with letters home. They would later watch the German guards toss the papers into a burning barrel. Very few of their letters ever made it home. Prisoners received some mail from home, but letters were heavily censored and parcels were always opened. In Huschle’s case, it was about six months before his family knew he was alive; they still didn’t know where, or under what circumstances. In the meantime, his family had been told he was dead, and a commemorative flag was delivered to his parents. That flag sits in a place of honor in his daughter’s home today. Daily life Each day started with roll call. If everyone was present, some of the men were allowed to fetch the hot water or tea for breakfast. If anyone was missing, they all stood outside in the yard while the barracks were searched with dogs. Sometimes that took a half day, and they stood in rain, snow, whatever the weather was. After roll call, prisoners were allowed to walk around, read, play cards, or count the barbs on the fence. They had a softball, but not much room to play. One of the risks was when the ball landed under the “warning wire” and they had to get a guard’s permission to retrieve it. At noon was soup for lunch. Around 5 p.m. they got potatoes for supper. After dark, they were not allowed outside the barracks unless there was an air raid. Then they were allowed to go out to the ditches until it was over. Huschle wrote that not everyone in camp was who he seemed to be. There was an FBI man who had compasses and maps which he provided to anyone who wanted to escape. The FBI man also kept records on what went on in camp. There also were those who would report to the Germans anything going on in camp. Huschle wrote that “a person had to be careful of what you said to whom.” He added, though, that “word would get out who they were and they would get the treatment.” Snitches were dealt with by the POWs. Hygiene was difficult. No hot water. A bath and haircut only about every six months. But lice and other bugs were a constant problem. And medical care was almost non-existent. There were medics who helped with daily illness and injuries, and three French surgeons in the camp who performed life-saving operations in the crudest of conditions. If ever someone tried to escape and was spotted, the Germans would shoot him and then randomly shoot into the barracks. Once, Huschle wrote, he thought they wounded four or six men that way in their bed. “We had a group that liked to put on plays and they did a good job of it. We also played a lot of cards: sixty-six, bridge, cribbage, and any other game that we could think of.” The theatre was called the “Cardboard Playhouse.” They also had a radio that someone had traded cigarettes and D-bars for. One person would listen to the British Broadcasting System and write down any news, then go from barracks to barracks to read the news. Some also had crystal radio sets. “Life was a guessing game,” Huschle wrote, “so I learned to live from day to day. You never knew what the Germans would dream up next, and at night the air raids came awful close. Huschle met and made one strong friend in camp: Ben Longworth. They stuck together and shared adventures all through their camp time and beyond. He also met and befriended Ben Phelper, prisoner number 113204, while in the second camp, Stalag 17B. Phelper had been an illustrator for Disney Studios before the war. He was shot down Aug. 17, a day that saw 60 B-17s shot down. After liberation, Phelper and another former prisoner wrote the screenplay for the Broadway hit “Stalag 17” which later became the movie “Stalag 17” and later still the TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.” Phelper traded cigarettes for a small Italian camera in camp, and took notes in whatever worked as ink. He published these memoirs in a book Kriegie Memories. Some of the photos here are from that book, published in 1946. The end is near The war was starting to go bad for the Germans in April 1945, and the Russians were getting close to Stalag 17B. At one point, the POWs calculated that the Russians were three days away. At night, they could see the flashing of the big guns.
The Germans finally decided to evacuate the POWs. They were told what they could take with them, and they were marched westward, deeper into Austria. They left camp April 8; it would be 17 days of marching before they reached their destination. Just days after they left, the POWs heard that the Russians had bombed Stalag 17B. Each night, they bedded down near a river. They existed on water or soup for lunch, and an occasional stolen chicken. Near Lentz (Linz), Austria, their forced march was delayed because of a group of Hungarian Jews being marched to their death. “There was a bulldozer digging a big hole,” Huschle wrote. “We wondered what it was for; we soon found out … .” They also passed a political prison camp that was a salt mine. The only part above ground was a guard tower, and a pile of bodies of dead prisoners. They passed Mauthausen concentration camp. Along the march, Huschle got sick and he was allowed to ride for two days. His fever was so high, he wrote, that his hair came out by handfuls even though it was short. They finally arrived in the foothills of the Alps, in a heavy pine forest. About 4,500 prisoners included Americans, French, English, Serbs, Russians and Poles. They were allowed to break off tree branches to make beds and build shelters. They stayed there, in the rain, for many more days. Phelper wrote that the Germans gave the POWs food only three times during their time in the woods. The Russian POWs received none that whole time. The closer the Americans came, the less attention the POWs paid to the German guards and their orders. “In May, General Patton’s 13th Armored Division liberated us and they were surely a welcome sight. They rounded up the German guards and took them to Burno [Austria].” From there, they were taken to La Havre, France, by another long, slow train. On arrival, the Red Cross was there handing out coffee and doughnuts. Two men actually died from eating too much, and some others had to be taken to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped. Huschle wrote that, at this point, they got lost in the shuffle. Many others were being sent home on ships while they waited and waited. One of the prisoners sent a telegram to General Eisenhower. One day, Huschle and about six or seven others, were waiting in the mess line, complaining about the long wait to go home. “What are you all complaining about,” said a loud voice. It was none other than General Eisenhower. He told the men they would leave for home in two days, and they did.
The boat they were sent home on chose not to go with the convoy. It left about 12 hours later from South Hampton, England, after some “engine trouble” and they arrived at New York ahead of the convoy. The former prisoners of war were given 60 days leave to go home. “I went out every night except one,” Huschle wrote about his leave, “and that was because the axle broke on Dad’s Buick. I had to wait a day for the axle.” Huschle then reported to Miami Beach, Fla., for examination. They thought he had tuberculosis so he was sent to San Antonio, Texas, for treatment. This was where they discovered his back injury from bailing out of his plane in June 1943. After 30 days in Texas, they determined that he had TB while in the POW camp and that he got over it. He was discharged and sent home. Huschle adds that his pay during this time was $21 a month. His total time as a POW was 23 months and 21 days, just short of two full years. Huschle is now 91. He lives in Richmond with his wife. When he returned home to Eden Valley after the War, he got on with his life and raising his family. One evening in 1988, waiting at a deer camp for his hunting companions to arrive, he wrote down his memories of his time in the military and as a POW. Their seven children (Dorothy, Lana, Lucille, Grace, Tom, Dale and John), 19 grandchildren, and 22 great-grandchildren, all are very proud of Lawrence. So are we all.
His family hopes there will be a more formal presentation of the Purple Heart to Lawrence, perhaps in January.
(This is a continuation of the story beguni n the Nov. 15, 2012, Tri-County News.)