Shot down in WWII, a former POW remembers

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Assigned as a copilot on a B-17 "Flying Fortress" in World War II, Lee James, 85, of Albany remembers times of near death, capture and liberation.

"We didn't get shot down until our ninth mission, but there was considerable risk each time we went out on a mission," James said. "Three incidents had a lot to do with my life's outlook."

James doesn't mention courage in his talk at his Albany ranch home. His outlook remains more down to earth. He looks at his emotions as remaining unafraid during trying situations. This does not mean he was unconcerned.

"I found that I learned the difference between fear and concern," James said. "Fear will get you in trouble. Being concerned is about how to get out of trouble."

In later years, jet pilots and then astronauts would probably include him among the pilots Tom Wolfe wrote a book about as having "The Right Stuff." That later-day lingo among pilots conveyed the understanding that a pilot had unshakable nerve to get the job done under the worst conditions.

The first test of James' stuff came in the air over Munich, Germany while he was on his second mission. The antiaircraft fire was merciless. An explosion took out the wires controlling James' plane.

The pilot gave the bailout signal. The tail gunner was the first one out. As he drifted to the ground in his parachute he saw a B-17 explode. The gunner thought his crewmates were goners, James said.

But in a stroke of luck or genius the pilot shoved the throttle into full. It took the plane out of its dive and the plane maintained altitude. But it had no controls.

"As we flew the crew took off shoestrings and any wire they could find to repair the controls," James said. "I handled the elevation and the pilot did the direction of the plane."

The gunner survived and met James and other B-17 crew members at a reunion in 1992, James said. That is where James found out the gunner thought the plane had been destroyed by antiaircraft.

Although there was heavy antiaircraft shelling on his other missions, James called them "milk runs." That is until the fifth mission, over Karlesrue, Germany. James found his stuff tested again as death passed him by.

James' pilot had an eye problem. He could not make the mission. A substitute pilot took the seat next to James.

"He was a stranger. I don't even think he told me his name," James said. "He was on his last mission. After that mission he could go back to the states."

After the bomb drop, enemy antiaircraft flak continued to burst in the air near James' plane. A shell fragment came tearing through his window, nicked his flak helmet and cut clean through the pilot's skull.

"It took off the top part of his head," James said. "Two inches higher and it would have missed him."

An engineer and other crewmen took the still breathing pilot off his controls. They put him out of the cockpit on the floor.

"The crew kept him alive until we got to the (English) Channel and then he died," James said. "I couldn't think of much at the time. I had a plane to fly back. My concentration was to get the plane, him and the crew back to the airbase."

For that mission James was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Cross is awarded to "any person who, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight," according to the Web site afpc.randolph.af.mil.

On his 10th mission, over Marburg, Germany, James and his crew's luck ran out. Exercising a maneuver to clearly bomb the target, James' plane had two engines hit.

The plane began going down. The pilot and James managed to level the plane off at 1,000 feet while doing 100 mph. everyone bailed out.

James wore his flight jacket inside out to avoid looking like an American pilot. He walked along a back road that had a German truck convoy headed right for him.

"I waved at them," James said. "They waved back."

His luck did not hold when he encountered a farmer armed with a pistol. He was taken to a village jail.

The German interrogator at the jail drew his pistol and stuck it in James face. The big German officer gestured at James dog tags. He wanted them.

"I gave him, name rank and serial number," James said. "If I handed over my dog tags I could be shot as a spy."

The German pushed the pistol against James forehead. Name, rank and serial number was all James gave him.

James also had a Cracker Jacks' trinket attached to the chain his dog tags were on. He didn't even think about that trinket. It was a screw and a ball, screwball.

A German woman who spoke English explained the big German wanted James Cracker Jacks' screwball trinket, not the dog tags.

After his encounter with the big German, James joined other American prisoners at the jail. They were all taken to Stalag Luft 1 in Barth, Germany, near the Baltic Sea.

"I was there (Stalag Luft 1) for eight months. They really didn't mistreat us," James said. "The food was starvation rations but it was no worse than what the Germans had to eat."

In May, 1945 the prisoner of war camp was liberated. The war had ended in Europe.

"We were liberated by Russians who came riding in on horseback," James said. "Men and women with machine guns strapped across their chests."

The prisoners were flown from Germany two weeks later to a camp called "Lucky Strike" in France. From France it was back to America, discharge as a first lieutenant and civilian life.

"I had to find a job," James said. "I took one as a tax assessor in Gulfport Mississippi. But I didn't want to stay because I didn't want to have my life tied to politics."

Following the path of normalcy, James married a woman from Gulfport. James joined a financial services company and was moved according to the company's need.

"We married in 1946," Palma, James's wife said. "Our families knew each other. We had six moves in 12 years each with a promotion and raise. But we settled in Albany in 1963 and raised three children."