Remembering our POW/MIAs: The Wartime Saga of Lee McDuff

On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the Redhawks salute the wartime service and sacrifice for our nation made by Lee McDuff, by other POWs and MIAs of the 371st Fighter Group/142nd Fighter Wing, 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron/123rd Fighter Squadron and all of America’s Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.  May we always remember and honor them.

On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the Redhawks salute the wartime service and sacrifice for our nation made by Lee McDuff, by other POWs and MIAs of the 371st Fighter Group/142nd Fighter Wing, 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron/123rd Fighter Squadron and all of America’s Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. May we always remember and honor them.

Portland Air National Guard Base, PORTLAND, Ore. --
Wham!

Without any warning the nose of 2nd Lt. Lee McDuff's P-47 Thunderbolt exploded, sending hot shrapnel and broken aircraft fragments flying all about--through the firewall, knocking off the canopy of the Razorback Thunderbolt, and knocking out Lt. McDuff.

It was September 20, 1944. In the preceding summer months, fighter pilots like McDuff played a key role in the rapid Allied advance across France. Lee's outfit, the 405th Fighter Squadron of the 371st Fighter Group, provided cover for General George S. Patton's Third Army in its sweeping movement from Normandy.

McDuff had been in the thick of the action, and just days earlier had safely returned in a flak-ridden ship; 103 holes in his P-47, after a mission supporting the Allied airborne landings in Holland.

But on September 20, McDuff was knocked unconscious by this sudden blow to the nose of his aircraft. He was flying as number four at the outer edge of his flight's combat spread formation as the squadron flew at 8,000 feet just above the cloud cover, en-route to a target in Bonn, Germany.

Skirting too close to the flak concentrations at Koblenz, the squadron drew unwanted attention from alert German flak gunners below, who with the help of radar, tracked the squadron. The anti-aircraft gunners gained a lucky direct hit on their first salvo, hitting Lee's P-47 fighter without warning.

As his damaged fighter descended, nearing the ground in the area of Boppard, south of Koblenz, Lee awoke from the initial blow to hear the voice of his flight leader 1st Lt. Barton over the still-operating radio "...bail out, bail out!"

A quick glance out the cockpit showed McDuff his plane had reached a valley and was about even with hills on either side - he quickly decided to abandon his stricken aircraft and managed to jump out just in time. His parachute had not even completely opened when he slammed into trees on a hillside and was knocked out again.

He awoke to find himself suspended from a tree some 15 feet off the ground, with angry German civilians beneath him shouting at him to come down.

"They had shovels, but no pitchforks, and that was good," he remembered. Sighting a couple of German Soldiers approaching, McDuff unclipped himself from the parachute harness and dropped to the ground, only to be beaten by the civilians and knocked unconscious again.

The next thing he saw as he awoke was trees, and he was being dragged along a road by a couple of German Soldiers that may have "saved" him from the irate civilians. Conscious again, the Soldiers stood him to his feet and marched him off to captivity.

The next day he was taken for detention to a castle in Koblenz, and experienced a thundering aerial bombardment aimed at an adjacent railroad marshalling yard. Afterward, McDuff was moved to the Luftwaffe interrogation center at Oberursel, just north of Frankfurt.

After a week in solitary confinement, he underwent a thorough questioning by Otto "Canadian Wild Bill" Englehardt, one of the Luftwaffe's expert interrogators, and assistant to Hanns Scharff, the Luftwaffe's Master Interrogator.

"He didn't have any luck talking to me, so he sent me back to solitary confinement and I stayed there another number of days," McDuff said.

McDuff was then whisked away to Luft Stalag-1, near Barth, Germany, on the Baltic coast a hundred miles northwest of Berlin, where he joined 9,000 other imprisoned airmen--all officers--mostly American. The trip was in an unmarked boxcar and at one point RAF Mosquito light bombers strafed the train pulling his boxcar. No one was hurt in this incident, McDuff recalled.

When he first arrived, McDuff thought the old "Kriegies" (short for Kriegsgefangenen, the German word for prisoner of war) were nuts, out of their minds. At the time he couldn't appreciate this evidence of their mental survival skills being displayed.

"We learned to make light of everything," McDuff recollected, "You had to or you went crazy."

After about four months, McDuff came to think that the new arrivals were strange.

Luft Stalag-1 had four compounds within the camp, and McDuff's barracks was in south compound of the camp. He was quartered in barrack 7, room 7, in 18 square feet with 23 other Kriegies.

"Roll call was held every morning, McDuff said. "Every block had to report and the Germans counted us off."

The barracks were not great accommodations. During the winter of 1944-45, one of Europe's coldest winters on record, McDuff said that a pitcher of water at night would freeze solid.

In addition to the roll call, some other things soon revealed themselves as routine.

"The two worst things in the stalag were not having enough to eat, and not enough to do," remembered McDuff.

"We joked that the Germans used sawdust to flour their bread pans, and that we could use the bread crust for shoe soles. The major problem was that there just was not enough food," he said.

As for the lack of work, McDuff said the Germans treated the prisoners according to the rules of the Geneva Convention, and would not work the officers.

"So we sat around a lot and talked," McDuff said.

Thanks to the enterprising efforts of some inmates, the Kriegies did have something to talk about, with regard to war news. A clandestine team in the camp gathered news from a variety of open sources, including German newspapers and propaganda broadcasts, as well as BBC radio news from a well-hidden radio, and produced a daily paper called the POW - WOW: Prisoners of War - Waiting on Winning. It was carefully circulated amongst camp members. Lee remembered that the rule was to only read it in groups of three.

Mail and packages sent through the Red Cross were important morale boosters, but arrived infrequently for the prisoners. Though his mother wrote to him, McDuff never received any mail while he was a POW. In spite of the relatively brief period he was in captivity, as the severe war damage and dislocation of the transportation system within Germany prevented McDuff from receiving her correspondence.

Escape from Luft Stalag-1 was problematic for the Kriegies, at this camp on a peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea.

"Sand and water were an issue for tunnels there," said McDuff. "And the Germans found them all."

Lee recalled there were about 1,000 British POWs at Barth. "One of them was a prisoner since the first day of the war in 1939," he remembered.

There was also a smaller group of prisoners from the east.

"All of the Russian prisoners were housed in one barracks," he said. "The Germans forced them to do the worst jobs in the camp, cleaning out the latrines by hand. The Germans enforced a rule that all the barracks windows must be closed during darkness. During the night very large and vicious attack dogs were released in the compound," McDuff recalled.

"One night a guard discovered an open window in the Russian barracks. He released his dog and commanded him to enter the open window. Immediately, all hell broke loose within the barracks. The guard waited and waited for his dog to return. After some time the guard called for his dog. Within moments, the skin of the dog was tossed out of the barracks and the window was closed. It was learned the next day that the Russians had skinned and eaten the dog. Those Russians were really tough," McDuff said.

Adjacent to the camp was the college of Barth which was being used as a Luftwaffe technical school for radar and anti-aircraft training. Military students attending this school gave Lee the "nearest thing to torture I had while there," he said.

Every day female members of the Luftwaffe marched outside the fence along the camp perimeter on their way to and from the technical school. "They looked like Marilyn Monroe to all of us," McDuff remembered.

McDuff said the last three months in Luft Stalag-1 were tense. The Luftwaffe was replaced by the SS, and rumors went around that the Germans planned to kill off all the POWs. he said.

"They used any excuse to shoot prisoners, and we had to try not to get shot. If an air raid occurred, with bombers going to Berlin and passing nearby, they would shoot at anyone outside the barracks," McDuff said.

At the end of April, 1945, as Russian forces approached the camp, the Germans suddenly left, and the newly free Kriegies were left to fend for themselves. When Russian forces arrived the next day, the camp's senior officers engaged their erstwhile liberators in efforts to return home, but the Russians seemed disinterested in anything except for bureaucratic accountability paperwork.

Fortunately a former commander of the 56th Fighter Group was a fellow kriegie in the camp.

"Hub Zemke was our ranking officer," McDuff said. "We were lucky to have him because (he) had spent time in Moscow as a military attaché before the war. And it was good we had him or they would have marched us all the way to Odessa when the Russians came in."

With the uncertain situation, McDuff and his fellow captors knew there had to be some sort of organization or the prisoners might escape into Germany.

"Our barracks was chosen by Zemke, among others, to be MPs," said McDuff, who helped with supervision of the former POWs.

"We made them stay in the camp so they could be evacuated...so they wouldn't get into town and into martial law areas with the Russians," McDuff said.

In his MP role, McDuff sometimes worked with the Russians. Though he didn't speak any of their language, between them they both used a little German to achieve at least some communication.

Eventually General Dwight D. Eisenhower intervened in the former POW handling impasse with the Russians, and nearly two weeks after "liberation," groups of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers based in Britain arrived at nearby Barth airfield to return the liberated American and British airmen to freedom. The Luft Stalag-1 portion of this "Operation Revival" took place May 12-14, 1945. Because of his MP duties McDuff was one of the last to leave.

McDuff returned stateside and was discharged after the war ended. He went to Texas Tech and became an engineer with a successful 42-year career at Transco, developing energy pipelines across the eastern United States.

He reflected on his time in the service, as a POW, and said, "I think I am probably the luckiest person you've ever seen," he said.

McDuff wistfully remembers his combat buddies.

"Your combat buddies are closer than anybody else to you, closer than immediate family. All my heroes are my combat buddies that didn't make it back. It's been...years and I still think about them every day," he said.

On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, the Redhawks salute the wartime service and sacrifice for our nation made by Lee McDuff, by other POWs and MIAs of the 371st Fighter Group/142nd Fighter Wing, 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron/123rd Fighter Squadron and all of America's Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. May we always remember and honor them.

Sources:

Hanns Scharf, accessed 12 September 2012 at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanns_Scharff

Jordan, Crystal, "Global Strike Heritage: a mission to save 9,000," Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs, accessed 18 September 2012 at:
http://www.afgsc.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123255394

McDuff, Lee, "World War II Experiences of Lee McDuff P-47 Fighter Pilot - Transco Retiree's Luncheon, 8-1-2007," CD audio.

McDuff, Lee, Telephone conversations with Terrence Popravak, September 7, 13 and 18, 2012

National POW MIA Recognition Day, accessed 12 September 2012 at:
http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/pow-mia-recognition-day
and
http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/pow_day/

Robert Peterson's Memorial page for 2Lt Robert D. Peterson, Jr., accessed 12 September 2012 at:
http://users.psln.com/pete/pow.htm

Robert Peterson's webpage for Lee McDuff, accessed 12 September 2012 at:
http://users.psln.com/pete/pow_journal_1944.htm

Stalag Luft I Online - A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I, accessed 12 September 2012 at:
http://www.merkki.com/

"The 91st Bomb Group in Operation Revival," accessed 12 September 2012 at:
http://www.91stbombgroup.com/91st_tales/07_operation_revival.pdf

"The Interrogators," at Stalag Luft I Online - A collection of stories, photos, art and information on Stalag Luft I ccessed 12 September 2012 at:
http://www.merkki.com/new_page_2.htm