“We had some tough missions and close calls, but had been lucky” remembers Lyon Air Museum Docent Ed Stapleton of his time spent piloting B-17 heavy bombers over Europe in World War II. “On my second mission to Kassel in Germany, I was flying in the right seat as co-pilot. We took some heavy anti-aircraft fire which damaged our landing gear. We had to make a crash-landing at our base back in England, which we all walked away from unscathed, except our pilot. On that mission he locked up and could not perform his duties. When we returned to base he was removed from flying status and they gave me command of the ship.”
On May 29, 1944 Ed was flying his ninth mission in a B-17. Their primary target was the German city of Kottbus, 75 miles southeast of the heavily-defended capital of Berlin. Despite a constant barrage of anti-aircraft fire, they managed to bomb their primary target and cleared the area with no damage to their ship or casualties to the crew.
“We breathed easy for a few minutes, but we knew we still had a long way to go from being out of danger. Then, about eight minutes after dropping our bomb load, while turning north along the Polish border we spotted a group of 15 German FW-190 fighters coming in from ten o’clock.”
In no time the fighters were swarming the B-17, firing round after round into the aircraft, penetrating the aluminum fuselage with searing pieces of shrapnel. Feeling an intense burning sensation, Ed felt blood running down his face and realized he had been hit, though he had no idea of the severity of his wounds.
After the wave of fighters had passed, Ed quickly surveyed the situation. The top turret gunner, bombardier and left waist gunner had been killed in the attack, and shrapnel had destroyed many of the gauges and instruments in the cockpit. Despite the damage, Ed was relieved to find his ship still airworthy, though they had begun lagging behind the rest of the squadron. While struggling to catch up, a second wave of 12 FW-190 fighters attacked them, relentlessly firing into the wings and engines in an attempt to bring the aircraft down. One of the German fighters fired a salvo into the left wing fuel tank between the number one and two engines. The resulting explosion of fuel and air vapors destroyed both of the engines on the left wing, leaving them ablaze between a gaping hole several feet in diameter. “The hole in the wing was large enough to fit a living room couch through” Ed recalls.
With only two running engines, a large burning hole in the wing and the fuselage riddled with shrapnel, Ed knew they could not stay airborne for much longer. Eventually the fire burning in the left wing would cause it to separate from the fuselage, sending the aircraft out of control. He gave the order to bail out, and exited the aircraft through the bomb bay. Hitting his head on one of the bomb bay doors flapping in the wind, he momentarily lost consciousness, coming to as he was slowly descending into a heavily-forested area of Germany near the Polish border. None of his other crew members were anywhere to be seen.
Ed’s parachute became entangled in a tree, and he found himself dangling fifteen feet off the ground. With no other option, he released his parachute harness and hit the ground below hard, badly spraining his left ankle. Rummaging through his escape kit, he found a map that went only as far as Berlin, and did not include the portion of the German-Poland frontier where he had landed.
Ed figured his best hope for escape was to make his way north, to the Baltic Sea, where he could try and stowaway on a freighter bound for Sweden or another neutral country. However, the sound of German troops searching for him caused him to temporarily abandon his plan and instead take cover in a thick patch of foliage.
That night, using additional elements of his escape kit such as a small compass for guidance and bits of concentrated chocolate bars for nourishment, Ed began his trek north towards the coast. When day broke he once again took cover, patiently waiting for darkness. The next night he found a quiet, rural dirt road that headed north and began following it.
After walking all night the sun began to rise, and Ed knew he had to find cover again. “Wo gehst du hin?” (Where are you going?) Was the question posed to him by the armed German Förster (Forest Ranger), who appeared out of nowhere. Having learned conversational German in school and from his German grandmother, Ed quickly replied “Ich binin den Norden Deutschland werde meine kranke Mutter zu besuchen“ (I’m going to northern Germany to visit my sick mother).
“Well, he knew instantly that I did not belong there, and before I knew it I was looking down the barrel of his gun. He confiscated my fur-lined flying boots and marched me to the home of the local Bürgermeister (town Mayor or council member), who called the closest Luftwaffe base to come get me.“ While Ed was waiting to be picked up, the wife of the Bürgermeister picked bits of shrapnel from his nose, cleaned off the dried blood and made him breakfast, acts of kindness he has never forgotten.
Ed was picked up by the Luftwaffe and taken for interrogationin the city of Frankfurt am Oder. While giving his name, rank and serial number to the German interrogator, Ed could not help but recognize a familiar accent. “He had lived in Jersey City, New Jersey for 14 years!“ Ed remineces with a laugh. “Like many Germans living in the states at the outbreak of hostilities, he returned to Germany to help in the war effort. I explained that my German grandmother lived in New Jersey, and we both got a big kick out of that.“
After interrogation Ed was taken to Stalag Luft III, where he met up with his navigator and co-pilot. “We were at Stalag Luft III until January of 1945. By that time the Russians were getting very close to the camp and the Germans did not want the POWs liberated. To prevent that from happening, thousands of us were forced to march southwest, away from the advancing Russian forces.“
The POW marches that occurred throughout Germany in January and February of 1945 were so inhumane that they resulted in charges of war crimes after the war. Approximately30,000 Allied POWs marched hundreds of miles through the coldest German winter in 50 years. Estimates are that over 1,000 American POWs perished during these marches.
“We marched in deep snow, with little food or rest. The Allies were still bombing, and one night they bombed a railroad marshalling yard right next to where we were sleeping. It was a close call.“ After marching for over a hundred miles in deep snow and freezing temperatures, Ed and the other prisoners ended up at Stalag Luft VII-A in Moosburg, Bavaria with 80,000 other Allied POWs.
Unable to hold off the Allies any longer, Stalag VII-A was liberated on the morning of April 29, 1945 by elements of General Patton’s 3rd Army, exactly 11 months after Ed was shot down and taken prisoner. Due to the sheer number of prisoners to process, it took Ed several weeks to leave the camp. After he left Moosburg he spent several months in various hospitals in Europe and the United States, ultimately receiving a Purple Heart for wounds received in combat.
After his repatriationand recuperationEd left the service and used his benefits from the GI Bill to attend college, earning his MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He eventually retired after a long and distinguished business career.
Today, Ed can often be found at Lyon Air Museum, talking to young school children and other museum guests about his experiences, and conveying the overwhelming sacrifices made by so many Americans for the causes of freedom and liberty in the world.
Article Written by Docent, Dan Heller