Ed Stapleton, born in Philadelphia, Pa., in 1923, is currently a docent at Lyon Air Museum. This World War II veteran’s harrowing experiences as a pilot and prisoner of war (POW) in Germany during the war is remarkable for the extreme violence he endured, as well as some unusual personal encounters.
In 1942, Stapleton volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC), the forerunner 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 was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943. He was sent to Salt Lake City, Utah, to learn to fly P-38s, but received a transfer to heavy bombardment and learned to fly Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bomber aircraft. Assigned to the European theater, he and his bomber crew were sent to England.
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 and the rest suffered shrapnel wounds, but managed to bail out. Stapleton landed in a tree and sprained his ankle dropping to the ground. Limping and wounded with shrapnel in his face, head and left leg, he nonetheless managed to evade the Germans 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 interrogation center, he was questioned by a German officer who spoke English with what Philly native Stapleton recognized as a New Jersey accent. It turned out that the German and his family had emigrated to the U.S. following World War I and he 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 When the German native had returned to Germany to try to get his mother out of the country, his passport had been revoked and he had been conscripted into the military. And that was how the Philly Kid and the Jersey boy ended up on opposite 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 for Airmen #3). The camp, a Luftwaffe-run POW camp that housed captured Air Force servicemen, later became famous as the setting for the 1963 film The Great Escape. Stalag Luft III was located in the German province of Lower Silesia near the town of Sagan (now Żagań in Poland), 100 miles southeast of Berlin.
Later, Stapleton was confined in another camp in Upper Bavaria in the southern part of Germany near Munich and Dachau, a town best known for its proximity to the infamous Dachau concentration camp. Built in 1933 by the Nazis, the camp was the scene of the murder of tens of thousands of prisoners.
Having survived wounds, hunger, forced marches in freezing cold, and a serious blood 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. a decorated hero with the rank of first lieutenant. Married to wife Rosemary, he graduated from college, earned an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, raised a family and had a long career in the corporate world.