At 9,000 feet over Germany, with his B-17 in trouble, two crew members dead and two more wounded, 95th Bomber Group navigator Melvin Spencer bailed out. From the roar of engines and machine gun fire, he fell into dead calm.
“The first sensation was one of total silence and peace,” Spencer said. “It was the total opposite of what you've just been through on the plane.”
Guido Ferlo already had been in Germany for several months serving in the 16th Mechanized Cavalry under the command of Gen. George Patton. Ferlo went to war with his five brothers and all six saw combat. Against all odds, all six made it home safely to their home in Rome, N.Y., after the war.
Combat operations in World War II ended 67 years ago today when the Japanese formally surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri. More than 16 million Americans served during the war. Though their numbers continue to decline, those still living have stories about where they were and what they were doing when the war ended.
The morning of his last mission was frantic for Spencer. He had been transferred to another bomber crew after its navigator was sent to the lead plane for the mission that day. In the early morning rush to get briefed and down a quick breakfast, Spencer left his flying jacket folded on his bunk.
After bailing out, Spencer made it safely to the ground but was picked up by the Germans. He was taken to Frankfurt for interrogation.
“They spoke perfect English,” Spencer said of the Germans. “They weren't really that hostile. They were more trying to be your friend or buddy.”
After three days in solitary confinement, Spencer was transferred to Stalag Luft 1, a large prison camp for Allied aviators in Barth, Germany. The Mason City, Iowa, native spent about 14 months in the camp, where life wasn't as easy as it was portrayed on the popular U.S. TV show “Hogan's Heroes” a couple of decades later.
“The myth of being able to have good food and in-and-out escapes, none of that stuff happened,” he said. “According to the camp commandant, there were over 100 tunnels dug in the compound. There were many attempts, but they were never successful.”
Spencer was among the first occupants of the camp, but by the end of the war, there were more than 10,000 there. Early on, he said, life was tolerable in the barracks he shared with other prisoners.
“At first, we would get a huge vat of thin German soup with some potatoes in it and some German bread that was about 40 percent sawdust and leaves. It was solid like a rock, but later it tasted pretty good.”
Life wasn't much easier for Guido Ferlo.
As a gunner on an M5 light tank, he worked his way across Europe for the better part of two years.
“We could do 50 or 60 mph on a flat road,” Ferlo said of the small but fast tank.
That speed came in handy because the lightly armored vehicle left its crew vulnerable while it spent most of its time on reconnaissance.
“We would go draw fire and get our butts out of there,” he said. “You can't stop. You have to keep moving, because that way you're a much more difficult target to hit.”
As a gunner, Ferlo had to deal with the cramped quarters of the tank and the ever-present danger of being blown away by the much larger German tanks.
Life in a tank wasn't easy.
“The small space didn't bother me much, but it bothered a lot of GIs,” he said. “They used to crack the turret hatch an inch or so. You couldn't do much more than that because of snipers. I took my shoes off and put them on the transfer case to keep my feet warm. I thought that was a good idea.”
Ferlo's unit often had several days off between missions. The tank crews would spend their time on maintenance, occasionally wandering into abandoned towns to look for what creature comforts they could find. It was during one of those breaks in the action when Ferlo got the scare of his life.
Sleeping on a balcony of a bombed-out building in a small town in Germany, Ferlo awoke in the pre-dawn hours to the smell of coffee. He no longer remembers the name of the town, but what happened there is seared into his memory.
“I just laid there smelling that coffee for a minute,” he said. “It smelled so good. The only problem was we didn't have any coffee. I got up really quietly and listened to their voices. They were German soldiers. I figured there were about eight of them down there” below the balcony.
Ferlo went around to his fellow crew members and woke them up by putting his hand over their mouths.
“I whispered, ‘There are krauts downstairs,' ” he said. “I told everyone to keep their guns handy, but it wouldn't have mattered much. (The Germans) had machine guns.”
The four Americans sat there for nearly three grueling hours. Miraculously, none of the Germans ever came up the stairs.
“We would have all been dead if they had,” he said. “We just sat up there while they had breakfast, which smelled terrible.”
Prisoner of War
By the time of Ferlo's close encounter with the enemy, Spencer had settled in to life at Stalag Luft 1. Prisoners had plenty of time on their hands, he said.
Card games were popular. Cigarettes were as valuable as gold, as were the occasional Red Cross packages the prisoners received.
“There was a group of musicians that formed a band,” he said. “There was also a group of POWs that formed a group that called themselves the Table Top Thespians. The stage was a group of tables from the mess hall.”
There were few comforts from home, but Spencer was able to communicate through letters. He received a photo of his two sisters and a cousin that he put in a makeshift frame made from a bed slat. He stained the frame with shoe polish and hung it over his bunk.
“It not only gave me a lift, but others in the room enjoyed it immensely,” he said.
Some prisoners were able to procure a radio. Its parts where kept hidden at different locations around camp and assembled whenever they wanted to listen to it.
News heard on BBC broadcasts made its way into a camp newspaper. Just a handful of copies were passed around under the noses of the guards.