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.
“The soldiers running the camp weren't SS (German elite troops), which was fortunate,” Spencer said. “They were mostly respectful in their treatment of us. There were no atrocities. At one point, Hitler had tried to issue and order that all the Jews be segregated, but our people refused and the Luftwaffe never enforced it.”
As the war wound down, conditions worsened. Food was scarce. The soup had been replaced by more sawdust bread, and on some days, nothing at all. As the Red Army closed in on the camp, the commandant was ordered to move it. Allied officers in the camp protested, fearing they would be shot by their own planes.
“The German commandant said, ‘If you don't want to leave, I'll turn the camp over to you and we'll leave,' ” he said.
On May 1, 1945, Spencer woke up to find the Germans gone. American prisoners had taken over the guard posts. There was a roll call that morning, and an announcement was made that all of the prisoners should stay in the camp because it was too dangerous to leave.
“That lasted for about two days until the Russians got in there and tore down the fences and burned the guard towers down,” he said. “A bunch of prisoners walked away, and some of them were killed in the uncertainty of the situation.”
After four missions as a navigator in a B-17 and 14 months in a prison camp, the war was over for Spencer. He returned home on an LST, a ship designed to transfer tanks. With just a 5-foot draft, the seas in the Atlantic were rough.
“I was seasick for 20 days,” he said.
When he arrived home at midnight in Mason City, his family was waiting for him.
“We had a mini-midnight celebration, and then I enjoyed a long night's sleep in my own bed,” he said.
Band of brothers
Despite being spread out all over the globe, the Ferlo brothers were able to stay connected. Guido Ferlo stayed in touch with his five brothers by writing letters.
The six Ferlo boys — Anthony, Joe, Guido, Fiore, Guy and Lindy — were born between 1920-27 an average of 10 months apart in Rome, N.Y. A seventh Ferlo boy, Albert, was too young to be drafted and didn't serve in the war.
His mother, Jennie, died in 1930, leaving their father, Joseph, to raise seven boys and one girl. He supported the family by running a small grocery store.
The first Ferlo shipped out in January 1942 and the last in 1944. Four were sent to Europe, and two went to the Pacific Theater. All saw combat.
“My father never thought we would all come home,” Guido Ferlo said. “The fact that we all did is amazing to me even today. I guess the Lord had a time for us, and it wasn't our time.”
Guido and his brother, Lindy, nearly crossed paths in Germany late in the war. They had been in close proximity to each other for six days along the Rhein.
“That's the crazy thing ... we were in the same town for those six days and we never even knew it,” he said. “It was pretty chaotic.”
After finishing his combat tour in Europe, Guido Ferlo was on a ship heading toward the Pacific when he found out the war was over.
“We had it rough in Europe, but you heard stories about what they were doing to Americans in the Pacific,” he said. “We were prepared to go, but it was a big relief not to.”
By late 1945, the last of the Ferlo brothers had made his way back to the U.S. Guido was discharged in November in Texas and hitchhiked along Route 66 to make his way home.
Their father kept champagne on ice for each reunion. While the brothers were not all immediately reunited after the war, they shared their stories when they were.
“We came home and that was it,” Guido Ferlo said. “We talked about our experiences. We were all excited to be home and that we were all in one piece, but we went on with our lives the best we could.”
Ferlo found solace in music. He played saxophone in bands that toured in the Adirondack Mountains and nightclubs upstate, as well as in a few Broadway shows in New York.
“I was interested in music before the war,” he said, “but when I got back, it was something that I could do that seemed to make me feel normal again. You had to focus on it, and when I was doing that, I wasn't thinking about the war.”
He also helped run the family grocery store in Rome. Ferlo's Grocery sold everything from fruit to homemade Italian sausage and pasta. At Christmas, Joseph would give customers a gallon of wine with their groceries.
Ferlo, 89, married his wife, Anne, in 1949. The couple moved to Oklahoma in 1964 when his job working for the Air Force took him to Tinker Air Force Base. He and Anne raised a daughter and were married for 60 years. Anne passed away in 2009, and Ferlo still works three days a week at the Oklahoma Blood Institute doing technical work.
Ferlo still struggles with some of what he saw in the war. He keeps scrapbooks of his time in the war, most shot with his trusty Kodak he carried. He is the last of his unit still alive.
“So many memories,” he said, his voice cracking as he flips through photos.
After the war, Melvin Spencer went to college at the University of Michigan, married his wife, Dena, and practiced law in Oklahoma City before retiring.
But, although Spencer had left the war behind him many years before, a part of his past would entice him to make a trip back to Europe.
After Spencer was shot down over Germany, another flyer had taken the jacket Spencer had left on his bunk. And, the flyer wore it for the remainder of the war.
To Spencer, the jacket was lost — until 1995, when he learned the other flyer had donated it in the early 1980s to a museum in the United Kingdom. The jacket was eventually displayed at the Red Feather Club Museum in Horham.
Both Spencer and his son, Dennis, and grandson, Nathan, traveled to England where the veteran was reunited with the jacket he had left behind on that hectic February morning 68 years previously.
“What can you say when you put on a jacket,” Spencer said laughing. “It was a jacket, and I put it on. It wasn't anything magic. I didn't have any particular attachment to it. It just happened to be mine.”
When looking back at what he lived through, Spencer said the war taught him a lot about himself and life.
“It was a great learning experience,” he said. “I learned to value my country, my freedom and our Christian heritage. I was proud to serve in the military and have never regretted for an instant my service.”