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From POW to freedom

February 28, 2013
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville Daily News

The following story is the final in a series about how Edward S. Wodicka survived getting shot down in his B-17 over German territory and his subsequent internment as a prisoner of war. The story is from an interview by Jerry Penry.

Howard Croner of Estherville received the information in the mail earlier this month from Carol Wilcox, cousin of 1st Lt. Charles C. Young, Jr., pilot of the B-17, who was killed in the crash.

When the door was opened, it pushed me off to the side and brought surprised stares from the people inside. The place turned out to be an interrogation location for freshly captured airmen, but by this time it had been six months since I had been shot down. They put me inside a very small cell, where they constantly made the lights go on and off in an attempt to disorient, anger and confuse me. I then heard Morse code being banged on the wall adjacent to me which I thought was probably just another German attempt to confuse me. The loud banging continued coming from the room as if someone was being tortured, but again I thought it was probably just a trick being played out by the Germans to mess with my mind.

I was inside the room for three to four days before a German officer arrived with a handful of records. He said that they had been waiting for me for a long time, and he brought forth papers of my entire crew and bomb group. He knew everything about me and even things I didn't know about some of my crew members.

I played dumb and said that I was unconscious when I arrived at the hospital after the crash, and that my dog tags were those of someone else given to me at the hospital. The German officer later returned with an 8X10 photo of my plane that had been taken at the base in Deopham Green! I could see that this plane was our usual plane because of the name "Star Eyes" and the tail number!

The picture startled me, but I maintained my composure and stuck to my story. The fact that the German officer had obtained a picture of my plane taken from our own base was a complete mystery. I was later taken to a POW camp that I believe was somewhere southeast of Berlin. When the Russian army came too close, we were tightly packed into railroad cars like sardines.

I believe that we were on this train for two days and two nights before we arrived at a station and were allowed to get off. All of the POWs, after two days of captivity aboard the cars, immediately began to relieve themselves in full view of the German people standing on the station platform. They yelled "schwein" at us which means "pig" in German. I and the other POWs were then boarded back upon the cattle cars and taken to a POW camp near Neurenberg which had been occupied by rebellious Italians.

This camp was filthy and infested with lice, fleas and rats. We soon found out that the bugs would tend to bite any part of our body that was clean, so it was often better to stay dirty. Several times the Allied bombers got very close to the POW camp and bombs exploded so close they literally threw us out of our bunks. The guards refused to let anyone leave the barracks during bombing raids.

When the Allies again came too close, we were forced to march day and night for several days with only short moments of rest. Many weakened prisoners fell to the ground out of exhaustion and were shot by the guards, who claimed that they were trying to escape. I sensed that I was very near the edge of not being able to go any further since I was still limping, and knew I had to try to escape. An opportunity presented itself one very dark night when we were marching down the road. The German dogs would go up and down the line, and I picked up a few commands that the guards were using on them. When one got close to me, I spoke the command in German, and he went back the other direction. I then made my escape and walked off into the darkness perpendicular to the rest of the group. I came to a burned-out building with a smooth concrete floor and lay down and slept for a long time.

When I awoke, I walked back to the road and saw a milk wagon pulled by a horse coming down the cobblestones. I believed that the man aboard the wagon was a French or Polish enslaved worker. The man offered me milk and also answers as to where he was located. I traded the man a few cigarettes which he was very glad to obtain. Later I got a rabbit from someone, and also came upon an old couple who spoke a language I could not understand. Somehow we both began to communicate in broken

German, and I figured out they wanted my shoes. I refused to give up my shoes, but traded them cigarettes for 13 eggs. I found a tin can and began to boil the eggs as three American servicemen came running nearby. They saw me and told me that the SS men were coming, and that they would shoot me first without asking questions. I started to eat the eggs as quickly as I could and started to run after them. After eating several of the eggs, I passed out from the strain it had put upon my body after having so little food for such a long time. Sometime later workers driving a Red Cross truck found me lying in the road. An American doctor among them was able to wake me with smelling salts. Since the war was just about over they said I might just as well go to the nearby POW camp. They took me to a POW camp located at Moosburg, where I stayed a short time until I was liberated by Patton's army. I had always felt that Captain Oxrider was a great guy, but I also feel that he condemned us when he forced us to fly that redlined plane on a mission that fateful day.

Since the crew was assigned to fly their usual plane that day before they were made to switch planes, the Air Force mistakenly reported that their usual plane was the one that blew up. This is wrongly listed in the Missing Air Crew Report, and some other crew continued to fly the plane that was reported to have been destroyed. The eventual fate of their usual plane "Star Eyes" is unknown and cannot be tracked since it was wrongly listed as being destroyed.

Edward S. Wodicka died Dec. 24, 2002.

As he reflected on Wodicka's interview, Howard Croner recounted that his bombardier, James Chance, of Greenville, N.C., was the only other crew member still alive from his own crew. After the war, Chance went on to law school and served in the Pentagon, representing the U.S. in Iran and Libya.

As for himself,

Croner showed three books where his name is listed.

In his bomb group there were 61 evadees - those whose aircraft where shot down and managed to escape. Another 625 were taken as POWs.

Croner himself tells a harrowing tale of how his B-17 was bombed and strafed by German airplanes at a Soviet airbase at Poltava, Ukraine.

Croner and his crew caught an Air Transport Command flight to Tehren, Iran, Cairo, Egypt, Casablanca, Morocco and finally back to England.



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