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FOR DECADES AFTER the war, Henry Supchak, who flew B-17 bombers as a lieutenant in the Eighth Air Force, had nightmares. He was a successful executive with a loving family and a Distinguished Flying Cross, but the memories of being shot down and his travails as a POW haunted him. “My wife kept pushing me to do something about my PTSD,” he recalls fondly. In time, Supchak and his daughter wrote The Final Mission (2012), about his wartime experiences and peacetime search for closure. Here he revisits the ordeals that seared him.

When was your final mission?

July 31, 1944. I was a senior pilot on my 33rd bombing mission. I was 28,000 feet over the target, Munich’s railroad yards, when I got shot down at 11:30 a.m.

Had you bombed Munich before?

That was my fourth mission to Munich, which was one of the roughest targets ever. During the approach, hundreds of Me 109s attacked us from every direction. Countless antiaircraft guns opened up. This time, as the bombardier announced “bombs away,” the starboard engines took a hit. The AA shells were set to explode at altitude, not on contact. Otherwise you and I wouldn’t be talking.

What happened?

My right thigh caught a piece of shrapnel. I left it in to cork the blood flow. The engines immediately began to smoke, and the antiaircraft shells had destroyed the fire extinguisher mechanism. That made it very dangerous: the fuel tanks were directly behind the engines, separated by firewalls. We were lucky those firewalls held.

What were your options?

It was six hours to England, so that was out. I decided to fly directly to the Austrian-Swiss border, only an hour and 20 minutes. At Innsbruck, six antiaircraft guns opened up. We dodged them. When we were out of range, I gave the order to bail out. I had drilled my crew relentlessly, so that went off flawlessly.

What about you?

I glanced out the windshield—to this day I don’t know why—and saw that the plane was on course to hit a village. I had to turn sharp left to avoid that. Since everything was pulling to the right, I had a helluva time. But it worked, and I bailed. As soon as my parachute blossomed, my plane exploded. The heat was so bad it was a damned good thing my chute was made of silk. Nylon would have melted.

How did you feel?

I was absolutely relaxed, I guess because I was alive. The saddest part was watching my B-17, Priority Gal, explode into a huge fireball and a zillion pieces of hot metal. I’ve had nightmares over that. This beautiful aircraft had gotten me through 32 missions safely, and now I had to watch it die. When I looked down, there were about 50 farmers and a couple of SS troops with machine guns and dogs. Even that didn’t bother me. What did bother me was the fields. They were freshly plowed, with high furrows.

Did that make it hard to land?

It sure did. I twisted my left leg very badly. As I hit the ground, a little old lady dressed in black standing by herself said, first in German, then in English, “For you, son, the war is over.” Then the guards chased her.

Could you stand up?

My left leg felt damn near broken— it took me about three months to get it back in shape—and my right thigh had the shrapnel, but the guards made me pick up the chute and march a quarter mile to the town’s military outpost. They shoved me into solitary. A couple days later a small boy brought me food and clean water. He and his aunt had seen me bail out. The aunt, who turned out to be a very attractive young woman, distracted the guards while the boy snuck around to my tiny window.

Did you get medical care?

The SS captain pulled the shrapnel out with pliers, using benzene as an antiseptic. I thought I’d go crazy. He’d been a cabdriver in Chicago, and he talked like one. “It’s all we have,” he said. “Take it or leave it.” He was gonna throw the shrapnel away, but I’ve got it here, framed.

You and your crew reunited.

We were shipped out in a huge covered truck with a tailgate four feet high. When I couldn’t make the climb, my friend, bombardier Wilson Leahy, tried to help me. The guard told him, “Get away, let him do it himself.” Leahy boosted me anyway. The guard’s rifle butt hit the right side of his head; it sounded exactly like a coconut dropped on the floor. After that, Leahy shuffled and was glassy-eyed. His head lolled to one side, he spoke only a few garbled words. I’m sure he had brain damage. He died soon after getting back to the States.

Where did they take you?

To a small encampment outside Munich. I was put in solitary for two weeks in a cell about 6 by 10 with a window up at the ceiling. The mattress was made of straw; when I shook it, a copy of Goodbye, Mr. Chips fell out. To preserve my mental equilibrium, I began reading it out loud and exercising rigorously. But a sickening smell came in that still gives me nightmares: our camp was a quarter mile from Dachau, where they were burning bodies.

You moved to Stalag Luft III. How were conditions?

Tolerable. I was in the building next to the one where the “Great Escape” happened. The movie has a lot of truth about life in that camp. One evening in late January, we had a performance of You Can’t Take It With You going when the barracks chief ran in. He said that we had half an hour to vacate the camp. The Russians were moving straight at us. Hitler wanted us as bargaining chips.

So 11,000 POWs marched for days in deep winter.

We went as we were, during a blizzard, minus 20 degrees, with 10 inches of snow already on the ground. I was in loafers; my feet were numb. Some of us had coats; some had only blankets. None of it was adequate. Most of us had no food. Everyone had frost bitten fingers and toes; some just fell off. One night we had to sleep in a warehouse with a flooded floor. I was at the rear of the POW line. Behind us the only guard and a chaplain, in a horse-drawn wagon, were picking up frozen bodies.

Then you were loaded onto trains.

Cattle cars, with the souvenirs everybody before us had left all over the floor. Forty people could stand elbow to elbow in there, and they forced in 50 of us, or more. We were at the outskirts of Nuremberg when B-17s began to bomb around us. One explosion rocked our car so hard we had trouble standing. All we could do was hope and pray.

You made it to Stalag VII-A, near Munich.

There were 60,000 POWs in buildings meant to house 30,000. Imagine the conditions. Prisoners were barbecuing rats— and enjoying them.

When were you liberated?

On April 29, 1945. I awoke to heavy gunfire, explosions, and the rumbling of tanks. The guards assembled to defend the camp. We hid. A column of American jeeps and tanks appeared in a cloud of dust. We were screaming and gasping. A jeep ripped through the barbed wire and the rest followed. The guards surrendered, and we came out. The officer in charge said, “Congratulations, men, you’ve won the war! You’re free!” They gave us clothing and medication. To go easy on our systems, we got bland food: fresh bread, steamed rice, bananas, and hot tea. It wasn’t much, but it was the best meal I had ever eaten.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.