Ed Stapleton, born in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1923, is currently a docent at LyonAir Museum. This World War II veteran’s harrowing experiences as a pilot andprisoner of war (POW) in Germany during the war is remarkable for the extremeviolence he endured, as well as some unusual personal encounters.
In 1942, Stapleton volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC), theforerunner of the U.S. Air Force. As an aviation cadet, he went to Lakeland,Fla., for primary flying school and Greenwood, Miss. for basic flying school.He then went to Stuttgart, Ark. for twin-engine advance flying school and wascommissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943. He was sent to Salt LakeCity, Utah, to learn to fly P-38s, but received a transfer to heavy bombardmentand learned to fly Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomberaircraft. Assigned to the European theater, he and his bomber crew were sent toEngland.
On his ninth mission, on May 29, 1944, Stapleton was piloting the plane whenit was shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf 109 (often called Me 109), a German World War II fighter aircraft. Two of the bomber’s crew were killed outright andthe rest suffered shrapnel wounds, but managed to bail out. Stapleton landed ina tree and sprained his ankle dropping to the ground. Limping and wounded withshrapnel in his face, head and left leg, he nonetheless managed to evade theGermans for two days.
After his capture, Stapleton was sent for interrogation to Frankfurt, Germany, located on the Oder River on the German-Polish border. At the interrogationcenter, he was questioned by a German officer who spoke English with whatPhilly native Stapleton recognized as a New Jersey accent. It turned out thatthe German and his family had emigrated to the U.S. following World War I andhe had lived in northern New Jersey for a number of years, thus his accent.When the German native had returned to Germany to try to get his mother outof the country, his passport had been revoked and he had been conscripted intothe military. And that was how the Philly Kid and the Jersey boy ended up onopposite sides of a table at a camp in Germany during World War II.
Stapleton was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III (Stammlager Luft, or POW Camp forAirmen #3). The camp, a Luftwaffe-run POW camp that housed captured airforce servicemen, later became famous as the setting for the 1963 film The GreatEscape. Stalag Luft III was located in the German province of Lower Silesia nearthe town of Sagan (now Żagań in Poland), 100 miles southeast of Berlin.
Later, Stapleton was confined in another camp in Upper Bavaria in the southernpart of Germany near Munich and Dachau, a town best known for its proximity tothe infamous Dachau concentration camp. Built in 1933 by the Nazis, the campwas the scene of the murder of tens of thousands of prisoners.
Having survived wounds, hunger, forced marches in freezing cold, and a seriousblood condition, Stapleton was liberated along with 72,000 other POWs in May 1945.
Ed Stapleton lived through his wartime ordeal and returned to the U.S. adecorated hero with the rank of first lieutenant. Married to wife Rosemary, hegraduated from college, earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’sWharton School, raised a family and had a long career in the corporate world.