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KSMU is profiling local World War Two Veterans throughout September, leading up to Ken Burns' epic seven-part documentary "The War", beginning September 23rd on Ozarks Public Television. Here are the expanded interviews produced by Mike Smith, with Ralph Manley, paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, and Chuck Huber, B-17 co-pilot, originally broadcast September 11, 2007.
Chuck Huber is 83 years old. A resident of Springfield, Huber was born in St. Joseph Missouri. On December 7th 1941, Huber, then a high school student, was in the middle of his second game at a St. Joe bowling alley when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor broke. "I had 15 spares in a row," he says, "and when I heard about Pearl Harbor, I threw a strike."
14 months after the attack, Huber joined the U.S. Army. He says "They lowered the age to join as an Army Aviator to 18, so those of us who were sitting on the sidelines, signed up for pilot training immediately."
By the summer of 1944, 19 year old Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Charles Huber was co-pilot of a B-17, conducting bombing missions over Germany. "They would wake us up at some un-Godly hour, usually early in the morning, to brief us on the mission. An officer would remove a cloth draped over the map showing us where we would be going and what the objectives were. The crews would either cheer or groan, depending on where we were headed. Mostly there were groans."
On September 22nd 1944, groans from the flight crews of the 487th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, Army Air Corps were heard when that days target was announced. A military industrial complex in Kassel Germany. It would be Chuck Huber's last bombing mission of WWII.
"We had to be on the same track as the missions lead navigator, (in another B-17) and he was about 2 minutes late in making a scheduled turn. The mistake took all of us over German anti-aircraft guns and we began to take hits. We didn't make it to Kassel as the plane caught fire, was missing part of a wing, and one engine was out. Smitty, our pilot, asked the navigator how long before we can get back to our lines. He said 10 minutes. Smitty said too long, Bail out!"
After a safe but scary landing in a German forest, Chuck Huber was re-united with his navigator and bombardier. The trio of Army officers then found the body of their pilot. "We wrapped Smitty in his parachute, put him in a clearing so someone would find him, and took off heading west." They headed toward France and the Allied lines.
Huber and his fellows would spend the next 8 days evading capture by the Germans.
They would travel only at night, avoiding towns. "If we heard dogs barking," he says, "we'd go another direction. It was miserable, it was cold and rain was falling. We drank out of streams and were occasionally able to find some turnips."
On the 8th day after their parachute drop into enemy territory, the American Aviators westward migration was stopped at the Mosel River. It's deep, swift waters and steep slopes would make swimming across it nearly impossible. The men decided to chance a covert crossing of a nearby bridge. Unknown to the Americans, the Germans stationed a sentry on the bridge, and when they crawled up unto the undercarriage of the bridge, the German soldier started shooting at them. "Needless to say, we were done." Says Huber.
The Army Aviators were now prisoners of war. Huber was taken to Barth Germany where he joined 9,000 other Allied POW's held in Stalag Luft 1. He would remain there until the end of the war, 8 months later.
Huber says an average day simply consisted of "Killing time really, there wasn't much to do. You could walk around the inner compound only at certain time, and if you were there in the wrong time, or ventured into a no-mans-land at the perimeter, you'd be shot."
Sanitation and food were both lousy, but when we did have food, we talked about women. When we didn't have food, we talked about food. If the Red Cross would visit the camp, all of a sudden we would get a flood of Red Cross packages with goodies in them that we all appreciated."
The Allied POW's had a radio hidden away, and were listening to war reports on the BBC. They knew the Germans were losing the war and felt freedom was not far off. The Germans were also listening to the BBC, and to the sound of heavy guns getting closer and closer to Kessel and Stalag 1. On May 1st 1945, the POW's awoke to an un-guarded camp. The Germans had quietly departed in the night. That day, elements of the Russian army "liberated" the camp. "I don't think we did anything other than hoot and holler when the Russians came in. Huber says, "We really didn't know what was to become of us, and felt like pawns of the Russians, Brits and Americans." It seems that high level negotiations were underway about the fate of the former POW's. The Russians wanted to transport the POW's to a Soviet harbor to be loaded onto ships for the journey home. The Americans and British wanted to air lift the former prisoners directly from Kassel to Freedom. As it turned out, the men would remain under Russian control until the joint American-British air lift began on May 12th, one week after Germany surrendered. It took 3 days to get all 9,000 former prisoners out of Germany.
Today, Chuck Huber says he doesn't dwell on his status as an ex-POW, and says he learned some valuable lessons from the experience. "It's part of my life, and I survived it. Living with so many other men 24 hours a day, taught me concern for others. If we found ways to better live with each other, we'd be in a hell of a lot better shape than we are now."
For KSMU's Sense of Community Series, I'm Mike Smith.