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Albany man looks back on time in German prison camp

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- One meeting is all it takes to realize that Charles McGee has quite an exuberant personality. However, the 89-year-old doesn't find it very easy to open up about the time he spent as a prisoner of German forces during World War II.

"I don't know why," he said, as Big Band music from the 1940s played in the background in his Albany home.

Like so many veterans from his generation, McGee is just not comfortable sharing the intimate details of the eight months he spent in a German prison camp. But when asked, he will give general facts about the experience. Facts such as the date of Aug. 29, 1944, when McGee and his fellow U.S. Army Air Corps pilots in the 15th Air Force bombing crew were captured by German forces headed from Italy toward Hungary.

"I was a co-pilot on the crew," said the married father of two grown children.

The mission went awry when a gap of space was left between McGee's squadron and the B-51 planes that were supposed to escort the crew.

"They went on ahead," McGee said of the B-51s.

Doing so left McGee and his seven-airplane squadron vulnerable to attack. And the German forces took advantage, shooting down 100 Americans.

"Forty-one were killed," the second-youngest of seven children said. "Four escaped, and 55 flyers were captured."

McGee was among the 55 captured after hitting the ground.

"The day we were shot down, we crash-landed," the grandfather of three said.

When McGee landed in Hungary, he didn't immediately realize he would be seized after being found by an old man and young boy.

"I thought they were going to help," the Ohio native said.

That's because the Hungarian pair took McGee to a house and fed him buttermilk and goulash. Then they turned him over to German forces, who had also captured others from his unit.

"They put us in a jail," McGee said. "We spent the night in a jail, and the bed bugs ate us up."

From there, he was transferred to a prisoner-of-war camp for air servicemen, located 100 miles southeast of Berlin.

"I was eight months in prison in Stalag Luft III," he said.

Fortunately, the 2nd lieutenant was not tortured during that time. He credits that to the fact that he was an officer.

"Four of us were officers," McGee said.

Instead, they were allowed what might be considered a good bit of freedom when they were given charge of their portion of the compound.

"We ran it like an Army base," McGee said.

He was even allowed to maintain his hygiene.

"I got a cold bath every day," McGee said. "Once a month, we got hot showers."

But the pilot did take some weight off the 160 pounds he held before joining the service.

"I had lost 10-15 pounds before I was captured," McGee said. "While I was in there (prisoner-of-war camp), I lost another 10 pounds."

That's because his diet wasn't very filling.

"Mostly, they brought us barley soup or potato soup," McGee said, explaining that meat was scarce. "Once in a while, they would kill livestock or a horse."

Plus, the sleeping arrangements weren't ideal.

"There were 13 of us locked in a room," McGee said. "The beds were stacked three-high."

Bed bugs were once again an issue, as was keeping warm in the winter.

"We just slept in our clothes," McGee said.

Fortunately for the officer, the threat of torture didn't become an issue as a prisoner of war.

"I never was worried about it," McGee said.

Except once.

"The Russians came into the camp," McGee recalled.

When Russian forces descended upon the camp in the middle of winter, McGee and his fellow prisoners were sent on a four-day march to another camp in Moosburg, Austria.

"Several (prisoners) didn't make it," he said.

Finally, in April 1945, McGee and his fellow prisoners were liberated by U.S. forces.

"The (German) general went out to see (Gen. George) Patton with the white flag," he recalled.

Patton turned down the surrender, as German forces tried to maintain control of the camp as a condition of surrender.

"The (American) tanks came in," McGee said.

Upon taking possession of the camp, U.S. troops immediately began guarding McGee and his fellow prisoners "and wouldn't let us out of camp," he recalled.

However, some prisoners were so anxious to be free, they cut a hole in the camp fencing and headed into Moosburg.

McGee was among those to do so. But he returned soon afterward.

"What I saw there when I went into town, some of the POW's were doing things they shouldn't," he said.

From there, McGee and his fellow prisoners were taken to liberated France.

"I got on a liberty ship and came home," he said.

McGee, who describes his time as a POW as "boring," isn't bitter about the experience. Instead, drawing on his Christian faith, he's glad to have made it through the experience.

"You take the good of life and try to forget the bad," he said.

But McGee does regret not being able to take part in missions those eight months he was imprisoned.

"I never did anything wrong to get captured," he said. "But the only thing I see is it's like a game of football. The coach tells you to go sit on the bench. But you wanted to be able to contribute to the game."

After World War II, McGee remained in the Corps, which later became the U.S. Air Force.

"I enjoyed flying for 21 years," he said. "I enjoyed the service."

McGee's service brought him to Albany after the Korean War, where he was stationed at Turner Air Field and met Ira, his wife of 55 years.

It was here that McGee, who went on to work in civil service, bonded with other Albany World War II prisoners of war.

"We have a POW chapter here in Albany," he said. "We started out with 30 or 40."

But time has taken all but a few members.

"Now it's down to four," McGee said.

While being shot down and taken prisoner is not something the long-time Albanian relished 65 years ago, he now appreciates how his life turned out.

"I've had a good life," he said.