George Emerson had to make a decision, and he had to make it fast. The 19 year-old farmer from Boise, Idaho was running for his life through a muddy field, bullets whizzing past his head, an angry mob on his heels. He dove behind a small berm for protection, and peered over. There were approximately 40 civilians running towards him, armed with guns, shovels, rakes and other instruments that could be used as weapons. Scared, outnumbered, unarmed and alone, he figured that his only chance of survival was to raise his arms above his head and surrender. They could very well shoot him on the spot, or hang him from the nearest tree. However, to keep running away meant almost certain death from a bullet in the back. He calmed himself the best he could, and prepared for the inevitable fate that awaited him.
On February 9, 1945 George and his crew had left their base in Molesworth, England for a bomb run against one of the most important targets remaining in war-torn Germany – the synthetic oil factory near Lutzkendorf. For the critical mission the 8th Air Force had selected the 303rd Bomb Group, also known as the “Hell’s Angels.” Thirty-six B-17 fortresses took off that cloudy Friday morning, along with a large contingent of P-51 Mustang escorts.
George and his eight crewmates reached their target, and prepared to drop their bombs from over 25,000 feet. Although there were no Luftwaffe aircraft in the skies over the target, flak fire from the ground was heavy and relentless. In the back of the plane, aft of the tailwheel and through a narrow crawlspace, George manned twin rear-facing .50 caliber machine guns. In the seconds just before the bombs were released the fortress shook violently, followed by the sound of twisting metal. Then, it all went black.
Nearly 50 years later, in 1993, George met the Navigator of the fortress Pogue Ma Hone, which had also been on the mission to Lutzkendorf that day. It was the first time he heard, in detail, what had happened. “A burst of flak hit the right wing of Pogue Ma Hone, the fortress that was flying directly above us in close formation, taking out one of their engines” George recalls, “as a result their plane lost altitude and descended down onto our B-17. Their rotating prop sheared off our tail and I went spinning away from the rest of the aircraft.” The collision also severed George’s supply of oxygen, which caused him to lose consciousness. His next memory was opening his eyes as he slowly drifted towards the ground, his parachute open. “I don’t recall exiting the tail or opening my parachute. Somebody was definitely looking out for me that day.”
Ironically, George did not normally wear his parachute. Like so many other American airmen, he found that wearing the bulky and cumbersome parachute made performing his duties difficult. “You wore your parachute in front, fastened to a harness on your chest. It was so big that it was hard to man my guns with it sticking out in front of me. That day, I happened to clip on my parachute, but not to my chest but rather up near my shoulder. Had I just kept it close to my station and not attached to my body it would have been lost in the collision.”
The rest of the men on George’s B-17 were not so lucky. The collision had resulted in the loss of both the vertical and horizontal stabilizers, causing the fortress to enter a nose-down, nearly vertical dive straight into the ground, taking the lives of the eight crewmembers still onboard; George was the only survivor from his aircraft. The Pogue Ma Hone went down as well, though 4 crewmen managed to survive and became fellow POWs.
The armed civilians held their fire as George stood up from behind the berm and walked slowly towards them, his hands held high in the air. They began shouting at him; however most of their words were in German, which George did not understand. He did understand the words “Chicago Gangster.” As it turns out, the Nazi war machine had released propaganda stating that American bomber crews were hardened criminal gangsters from Chicago. The Germans kept their weapons trained on him as they repeated this phrase and gestured for him to remove his fleece-lined flying suit and boots, leaving him in only the bare necessities for the trek to the nearest detention facility.
George was marched to the town of Eisenberg, where he was thrown into a police holding cell. As night began to fall he could hear loud footsteps outside his cell. The door began to shake as attempts were made to pry it open from the outside. As there was no window on the door and George did not understand German, he began to fear that a mob had come to get him and extract revenge by killing him, as had been done to other Allied airmen captured by the Germans. Eventually somebody came and chased the people away, and the door ceased shaking. A short time later the group returned, tried to force his door open, and once again they were chased away.
It was within a few minutes that George heard clamoring from outside a window at the top of his cell. A small loaf of bread appeared, which was lowered from a rope. Despite his best efforts, George could not reach the food his body was craving. He came to the realization that the people trying to pry open his cell door were not there to hurt him, but to try and help him.
The next day George was taken to Oberursel for interrogation. He remained there for approximately nine days, undergoing intense questioning every day. While only providing name, rank and serial number, George was offered extra rations of food if he gave more information. He refused, and was eventually put on a train and transferred to a Dulag Luft camp near Wetzlar (Dulag Luft camps were temporary POW camps captured Allied airmen were sent to before being assigned to permanent Stalag Luft camps). During his interrogation at Wetzlar George was caught staring at a picture of Adolph Hitler hanging on the wall. The interrogation officer asked him his opinion of the German leader. “I was smart enough not to answer that question!” George recalls with a laugh. From Wetzlar George and other POWs could hear distant Allied artillery barrages, boosting their hopes that liberation would come soon.
After several weeks George and other Allied POWs were loaded into train boxcars, 75 men per car, and transferred to Stalag Luft XIII-D near Nuremburg, where on April 1 George marked his 20th birthday from behind barbed wire and guard towers. “At the camp in Nuremburg we received Red Cross parcels, which contained items such as chocolate bars, powdered milk and cans of spam. Each parcel had to be shared by two men, so we were careful to ration, to make things last because we never knew when or if another parcel would arrive.” These parcels not only helped the POWs stay nourished, but also provided valuable in bribing German guards for other items.
Some POWs managed to sneak in a radio they had acquired during an outside work detail. “I think they got it during a farm work detail, though I don’t know how. They kept it well hidden so the Germans never found it, but with it we were able to find out how things were going in the war” George remembers. The news from the BBC was that Germany was on the edge of defeat, news that was gleefully passed around the camp prisoners, providing confidence that the end of the war was indeed very near.
Beginning on April 4th the prisoners of the camp were marched some 120 miles away to Stalag Luft VII-A near Moosburg. The marches had actually started several months prior, in January of 1945. POWs from Stalag camps all over Germany and German-occupied territories were forced to march hundreds of miles during a brutal, relentless European winter to keep them from being liberated by rapidly advancing Allied forces. Thousands of lives were lost from disease, exhaustion, hunger and hypothermia “We marched during the day, and took refuge in churches or barns at night. We were packed in tightly, one man right against another.”
After nine days at Moosburg the POWs could once again hear distant artillery barrages that seemed to come closer with every passing hour. On April 29, 1945 elements of General George Patton’s 3rd US Army entered the camp, liberating over 100,000 Allied POWs. Several weeks later George and other liberated POWs were flown to an Allied processing center known as “Camp Lucky Strike” in Le Havre, France. A few months later George arrived back home in Boise, Idaho, only 20 years old and a survivor of the bloodiest conflict in human history.
About three years ago, George was contacted by a man from Holland who said he had a picture he wanted him to see. Much to George’s surprise, he received the booking photo the Germans had taken of him when he was being processed at Oberursel; a large gash visible above his nose. It was the first time he had ever seen the picture, nearly 70 years after it was taken.
Today George generously donates his time to Lyon Air Museum, where he helps educate school children and other museum guests on the service and sacrifices which won the war for the Allies. He is always eager to show guests the POW photo taken by the Germans of a young man from a farm in Idaho, who selflessly answered the call of his country for freedom and liberty, and who continues to pay everlasting tribute to those fellow brave souls who never made it home.
Written by Lyon Air Museum Docent, Dan Heller