|Robert Felgar was photographed shortly before being shipped to England to fly B-17s with the Eighth Air Force in the spring of 1944. The grinning young pilot could have no idea of the adventures awaiting him, including the August 13, 1944, low-level bombing run to France that ended his flying career. (Courtesy of Robert Felgar)
From the winter of 1942 to the spring of 1945, Robert Felgar was a member of the Eighth Air Force’s 379th Bomb Group and was a part of the United States’ powerful strategic bombing effort in Europe. After his B-17G bomber was critically damaged over occupied France, Felgar earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in saving his crew and trying to save his aircraft. His experiences offer insight into the training of B-17 pilots, their combat operations and the dangers they encountered, in addition to the particular challenges faced by prisoners of war.
Felgar still has his POW dog tags and the personal file the Germans created after his capture. He also managed to hide the silk map of Europe he had in his emergency gear, which now hangs in a prominent spot in the Tucson, Ariz., office of the retired civil engineer. Felgar, who is active in former POW associations, notes that 6,000 interned Allied soldiers were never accounted for at the end of the war. He shares his own harrowing flying and POW survival experiences in this interview with John Bryant.
World War II: Can you briefly describe what you were doing just before the war?
Felgar: I was born in 1919 and spent much of my youth in Jacksonville, Ala., a small college town in the foothills of the Appalachians in the northeastern part of the state. Those were tough times, of course, but my father was a history professor in the college, and I studied there for three years before moving to the University of Texas in Austin to take advantage of the civil engineering program. I was there and scheduled to graduate in June 1942 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
WWII: How did you get into the Army Air Corps?
Felgar: The government had a program to encourage flying in the late ’30s, and I learned to fly at age 17 or 18 in Pipers and other small planes at the field that is now the Anniston, Ala., airport — it was only natural for me to go into the Air Corps. I recall the character of the times as it related to going into the service, and my family was an example. My brother was four years younger and an excellent student at Duke University, but he enlisted and ultimately deployed overseas before I did. He was shot down in the Pacific and spent a very long and difficult time alone on a small coral island; he had to be hospitalized for a long time after he was finally rescued. My sister married an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division who, after the end of the war in Europe, was waiting to redeploy to the Pacific theater when the atomic bombs were dropped. It seemed everyone was involved in some way and affected by the war, and we were no different.
WWII: What was your training like?
Felgar: It began at Santa Ana, Calif., in May 1942. We primarily flew Ryan PT-22s, and the training was pretty demanding, particularly for those not suited to flying. Lots of guys had joined the Air Corps because of its glamour but found out quickly they weren’t going to be able to make the cut. It was dangerous, too, and several of my friends were killed in training. I’ll never forget the eerie sound the flag would make all night long when it was at half-mast and the links would bounce haphazardly off the flagpole. I next reported to Bakersfield, Calif. We were still flying training aircraft, but one day the bulletin board had the selection criteria for different types of operational aircraft. My problem was my 6-foot-2-inch height. The cockpit of a Lockheed P-38 Lightning was too small for me, so I was going to have a choice of the Douglas C-54 Skymaster, Consolidated Vultee B-24 Liberator or Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. In that case, I wanted a bomber, and I preferred the B-17 over the B-24. The B-24 had greater range and bombload than the B-17, but I always felt the 17 was a more durable aircraft. And I got the 17!
WWII: Where did you begin training in the B-17?
Felgar: Initially in Roswell, N.M. I remember it took a lot of physical strength to fly the aircraft. There was a huge spring in the rear, and we had to overcome its resistance to land. Some of our boys began to buzz cattle, causing lots of problems for the ranchers who would occasionally lose some of their herd. They would call the base to complain, but some say it took finding a few bullet holes in our aircraft to dissuade us from bothering the cows any further! Later in our training at Ardmore, Okla., we practiced strafing with our .50-caliber guns on large white panels stretched on the ground.
One day a lady called the base — in great excitement, of course — to call off those planes shooting at her laundry on the line! We practiced flying in formations a lot in Ardmore, which I learned later was critical to survival and bombing accuracy when we were flying for real. Of course, we had our chances to learn from our errors, too. We practiced bombing at night, and once we hit an electrical substation with practice bombs that had a small explosive charge. I never thought night bombing was very accurate, and I believe the results in Europe proved that. I remember one training mission where we flew all the way from Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico and back. That mission and others like it helped us get a feel for how to use terrain features below to verify our courses and to appreciate how long we might have to spend in the air. Even though we were getting better, our training was still dangerous. Once I was walking along the side of our field and I saw two B-17s collide. One went right into the ground, and everyone in the crew was killed except the tail gunner who — amazingly — walked away. The other airplane just flew away, and I assume it landed safely somewhere. We saw these things happen too often, but you just had to continue going ahead without dwelling too long on them. At this point in the training, a full 10-man crew was assigned to my aircraft so that we could begin to work together. We had to be ready to deploy on very short notice, so it wasn’t a big surprise when we suddenly moved to Kearney, Neb., in March 1944 and found shiny, new B-17s waiting ready for us to fly to England. I remember the damage done to the base officers club when we learned expected bad weather would prevent us from flying our planes to England, and we would go by sea instead. The guys in our unit acted out of frustration and left some unhappy permanent staff there when we left on our train for Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.
WWII: What was the Atlantic crossing like?
Felgar: We were placed on an armed British merchant vessel. Our convoy did encounter what I assume was a German U-boat, and I remember several small corvettes trying to depth-charge it. At one point it seemed one of the corvettes dropped a depth charge that exploded too soon, just below the ship. That little ship’s stern came right out of the water. I was sure it would be in trouble, but it seemed to be OK. There was a big welcoming ceremony for us when we reached England. We thought we would go immediately into combat, but the Army had us sit around for six weeks before we were assigned in early May 1944 to the 379th Bomb Group under the command of Colonel Maurice Preston [who retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1963 as a general after serving as commanding general, Fifth Air Force and U.S. Forces Japan].
WWII: Did you have more training in England?
Felgar: Colonel Preston insisted on very tight formations, and we trained hard to meet his standards because pilots in a flight usually followed the lead aircraft’s pilot. We tried to stay tight on the lead aircraft, and we opened our bomb doors and dropped our bombs when he did. This gave us better accuracy, and we also had more security, too, massing the firepower of our defensive .50-caliber guns. The bombardier used the famous Norden bombsight, of course, and could indicate to the pilot on the final bomb run small adjustments to keep the plane on target. The bombardier usually pushed the button to drop the bombs, but pilots also had release buttons if there were problems. There were a lot of safety devices on the bombs, too, and I suspect many didn’t explode on contact. I guess that’s proved by the number of bombs that are still found at construction sites in Germany and other places! I know we were told we shouldn’t return to base with any bombload. I suppose that was for our own safety and the safety of the airfields. We also felt then — although I believe I found out later this was incorrect — that the Norden bombsight was something we had to protect or destroy if it was going to fall into German hands. Both the bombardier and pilot had buttons that would destroy the sight. We also had a series of lights on the nose of the aircraft that I could activate to send Morse code, and we were tested frequently on that. There was another aspect of a bombing mission many don’t know about. We usually sent some type of aircraft over the target area well before the mission to determine the weather and to take photos. We wanted to have an experienced bomber pilot do that so he could accurately assess the target area. These missions were usually flown in very fast aircraft such as the Lockheed P-38 or even the British de Havilland D.H.98 Mosquito.
|A month after Felgar’s first mission, which supported the D-Day landings, the 379th was visited by (from left) Princess Elizabeth, King George VI, Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle and Queen Elizabeth. (National Archives)
WWII: What was it like to fly in Britain?
Felgar: The long hours of daylight were a surprise for me. Most people don’t realize how far north Europe is. This means the days are very long in the summer and very short in the winter. All my flying was in the spring and summer, so we had lots of daylight. Of course, there were a lot more rain and clouds than we had encountered where we trained in the United States. We also had to learn the unique aspects of the British control system. There were lots of barrage balloons around, too, trying to protect against the German buzz bombs, which were already coming in. I really didn’t like flying around those balloons. There was a warning system for the balloons that broadcast beeps, but it was really easy to mess that up. Another aspect seems humorous in retrospect, but it was a problem then. The air traffic controllers were mostly women with very [thick] cockney accents, and our guys from all over the United States had real trouble understanding them on the radio! We flew from a former Royal Air Force base, so there were old bomb craters around, which I suppose mostly came from the German bombing a few years before. We also had another base that was equipped with a system to burn off fog if the situation really got bad. This created a lot of hot air and turbulence over the field when it was used, though, and it was a tough landing, so it wasn’t anything we looked forward to.
WWII: What was your first mission?
Felgar: Well, strangely enough, my first mission was on what turned out to be D-Day, June 6, 1944. I flew two missions that day, bombing the German gun emplacements along the beaches and inland. We dropped 500-pound bombs. I’m not certain how effective we were against those big bunkers, but we were pretty effective against some of the German armor trying to get to the beaches. I’ll never forget the number of ships in the fleet stretched out below us and how those battleships moved when their main guns fired. I watched lots of Douglas C-47 Skytrains/Dakotas, too, towing gliders. We were excited, of course, because it was our first mission, but everyone was also excited because we knew we were going to win the war and this was a big step toward getting there.
WWII: Can you give an idea of what a mission day was like?
Felgar: Well, we usually went to bed not knowing if we would be able to sleep through the night. If one of the sergeants woke us up about 2 or 3 in the morning, then we knew we had a mission. We would always ask the sergeant where we were going, but he wasn’t allowed to tell us. He could tell us, though, how many gallons of fuel we would have, and that was always a complete giveaway. It was 2,700 gallons to Berlin! We would have a light breakfast and then report to the briefing room. I remember these were always very precise, organized affairs, but I always thought the intelligence we had on our targets wasn’t very good. The weather information seemed pretty good, though. I didn’t smoke, but I recall how smoke-filled the room was. We would go out to our planes in jeeps and check them out before boarding. There were lots of things I learned to check, like the turbochargers, always looking for covers that should have been removed, tools or loose rags, that sort of thing. So much better to find them on the ground! We sometimes sat on the plane for hours before takeoff because the huge numbers of aircraft in our raids often took a long time to form up. Remember, we formed up over Britain, since it was only a short distance to occupied France, so we organized at various altitudes. It took a long time to get ready, and we could expect sometimes to be involved in the mission for up to 14 hours. We each carried an escape kit, which included small amounts of several currencies, such as French francs, Belgian francs and Dutch guilders. We also had silk maps to help us avoid capture should we be shot down. We had armored flight suits and parachutes, of course. We carried edible flimsies, too, with our communications codes on them. Colonel Preston was adamant in telling us he didn’t want to learn we had flown to a neutral country. I always thought if I was in trouble, and I thought the plane could make it to Sweden or Spain, then I could also get it at least to the English Channel, where I could ditch it and use the dinghies we had in onboard compartments. That occurred sometimes, and the Germans would try to come out and grab the crew. The British would send out ships and planes, too. Quite a few nasty little battles took place over those crash sites!
WWII: What was the 379th like?
Felgar: The 379th had a reputation for being one of the best. We had the best bombing accuracy in the Eighth Air Force, and I credit that to Colonel Preston’s high standards. I don’t think the German pilots liked to go after us, either, because our formations were so tight.
WWII: How many missions did you have, and what were some specific ones?
Felgar: I finished with 31, but I had credit for 33, since I had been doing a lot of ‘checkout’ flying for the colonel. On one mission we were deep in Germany when one of our engines was hit, and I had to feather it. Our choice was to stay in the formation or go down on the deck. There were a lot of German fighters in the area, so I chose to stay in the formation as long as I could. This meant that I had to push the other engines close to their maximum capability. It wasn’t very long before a second engine began to overheat, and I had to feather it, too. At that point, I directed the crew to throw out anything we didn’t need — we unloaded our guns, ammunition, armor plate, flak jackets, any weight we could give up. Luckily, the last two engines held on as they redlined, and we neared the Channel before I had to feather the third. I knew the 17 was a durable bird, and the last engine took us to just short of our runway. I had to dead-stick the landing, and a fire had broken out on board. It was a pretty hard and scary landing, but we got out quickly as soon as she stopped. That plane was pushed to the side of the field and junked, beyond repair, but she had brought us home. Once we targeted the German buzz bomb sites around Peenemünde. They were heavily camouflaged, but somehow we found them. As I recall, the anti-aircraft artillery only opened fire when it was apparent we had gone onto our targets. I don’t know how effective we were, but it felt good to be going after something that was hitting England every day. You felt so helpless against the buzz bombs, and they were really pounding London. One day as we returned to base we learned that Princess Elizabeth — the current Queen of England — was there, and all of us were directed to fly by once. We appreciated that the princess was visiting, but we had been shot up a bit and some of the crew were wounded, so we did it as quickly as we could.
WWII: Tell us about the enemy and his tactics.
Felgar: First, we all had a healthy respect for the German 88mm anti-aircraft artillery. I know it’s considered the best artillery piece of the war, and it was used in anti-tank and indirect fire modes on the ground, too. It would get pretty heavy up there with the flak bursting around us — sometimes sounded like rain hitting the aircraft! I wish we could have targeted those guys, because we were such easy targets for them as we flew straight as an arrow on our final bomb runs. The German fighter pilots had developed very specific tactics to take advantage of our vulnerabilities. For example, we initially had no way to engage aircraft coming head-on. Those guys would try to hit our cockpits with that 20mm fire and then pull up, showing us their armored bottom, which our .50-calibers often couldn’t penetrate. We had to put some guns on the nose. We were flying over Munich on one mission when something shot real fast through the formation. I only found out later I had seen my first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt Me-262. Those jets and the rockets the Germans had developed would have killed us had they been able to field them in sufficient numbers.
WWII: Although you had many close calls, you finally went on a mission where you did not make it back. How did it start?
Felgar: We were told our mission for August 13, 1944, would be a ‘milk run,’ since it wouldn’t be the normal mission in the strategic bombing campaign. We were going to support the ground campaign again. General [George S.] Patton had broken out of the beachheads in Normandy and was trying to link up with the British coming from the north to encircle the Germans in the battle that came to be known as the Falaise Gap. We were tasked to destroy bridges over the Seine River to keep the Germans from escaping through the gap. Colonel Preston had a policy of breaking his men in slowly when he could, so I had a co-pilot that day who had never flown a mission before. I didn’t even have any time to meet him before we started. We got up, and everything seemed pretty normal. As we were flying at 12,000 feet over German-occupied territory, much lower than we normally flew, there was a big explosion in the aircraft. I think now one of those 88s got us. I caught most of the fragments in my flak suit, but my hand was hit, and I lost some fingers and my thumb. I can still see in my mind the plane’s control panel with its knobs gone and bare wires just hanging there. One engine was hit, and the landing gear was clearly not operating. My co-pilot was able to feather that engine, but controlling the aircraft was becoming increasingly difficult, and a fire had broken out on board, too. I remember calling back to the navigator as I pulled out of formation and asking for a heading back to American lines. He said — and I’ll always remember that — ‘237.’ I was determined to get that plane back — I just couldn’t believe something like that could happen to my airplane. I was bleeding a lot, so it wasn’t long before the co-pilot shook me out of my concentration and asked about getting the crew out. I realized we weren’t going to make it, so I told him to get them out. A few moments passed, and I thought everyone was out, but I realized my flight engineer had come forward and was trying to check out my wounds, so I told him to get out. He hesitated, and I told him: ‘That’s an order! Get out!’ He was gone when I looked back for him, but I also realized the entire rear of the aircraft was gone — I could look back into clear sky! I learned later that everyone in the crew survived except the co-pilot who, remember, was on his first mission.
WWII: What happened next?
Felgar: We normally had a choice of three parachutes, and I was lucky that day to have a backpack version because I was already wearing it. I could have had to use one of the other versions, and with my hands so badly hurt I wouldn’t have been able to put it on quickly enough. At that point the plane began to spin. I had no control, and I couldn’t even get out of my seat. I don’t recall being especially scared, but I do know I thought I had bought it. Suddenly, there was a big bang, and I was just outside the aircraft, falling. I was able to get my parachute open, but I saw a missing panel when I looked up. I was a big man and I was falling pretty quickly, so I wasn’t in the air very long before I realized there was a German soldier down below firing at me with his machine pistol. I naturally did all I could to get to the ground and landed by a stream. I couldn’t use my hands, so I couldn’t get out of the parachute, and in a very short time several soldiers approached me.
WWII: What did the Germans do with you?
Felgar: They were SS troops, and they took me to some sort of headquarters in a group of trees. Everyone seemed to be drinking what I think was the local French brandy, calvados, and not acting as if there was a war going on. One of the soldiers showed me how I looked in a mirror, and it wasn’t a pretty sight with a wound on the side of my face and all the mess around my hand. After a while they put me in the sidecar of a motorcycle and took me to a small field hospital. We drove through a ditch because they were afraid to get on the road with all the Allied aircraft in the area. The only treatment I got there was a tetanus shot, and then they put me in a barn with lots of German wounded. That night I was put into a wagon with the wounded, and we somehow got through the gap. Boy, it was sure apparent the Germans were aware of our air forces and their ability to hit just about anything that moved. We traveled only at night to avoid them. The Germans would just take any French vehicle they wanted until it ran out of gas or had some other problem.
WWII: Tell us about your experience at the hospital.
Felgar: We finally reached a bigger field hospital with lots of wounded. There were tanks hidden in the hedgerows, with the hospital in the middle of the meadow. Two British Hawker Typhoons came overhead and saw the tanks and began to line up for an attack. For some reason, a German medic stood in the middle of the field with his machine pistol and opened fire on the planes. They chopped him up very badly right in front of our eyes! This made a German doctor so angry that he pulled out his pistol, and I thought he was going to shoot me right there. It may seem strange, but I almost didn’t blame him. I had been dropping bombs all over his country, and I could certainly understand his anger. Luckily, though, another doctor pulled him aside, calmed him down and led me away. Oh, yeah, those Typhoons pretty much destroyed all those tanks in the hedgerows. Of course, on the other side of the coin, I saw munitions being carried in some of the German ambulances, but I do remember, too, seeing a bus loaded with wounded who had been hit by one of our planes. It was awfully messy out there, and I suppose the rules were being bent on each side, sometimes unknowingly.
WWII: Were you able to talk with any of the French?
Felgar: I recall a French girl at one point passing out candy among the wounded. When she recognized I was an American, she said to me something like ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ An SS officer saw her, though, and led her away. The French citizens we saw were inevitably frightened by the Germans but also clearly interested in us. In one small village, several Frenchmen, after recognizing I was an American, started to gather in a crowd. You could see the Germans were getting worried, so they began to emplace a few machine guns. I was afraid something very bad was going to happen, so I asked the German officer if I could speak to the French. I promised him I wouldn’t do anything to incite them. I used the French I had learned in school and asked them to return to their homes because they couldn’t do anything. They did, and we managed to get out of there.
WWII: Tell us about being interrogated on the way to Germany.
Felgar: The farther to the rear we got, the less professional the German soldiers seemed to be. I understood those accompanying me to say they were escorting me back because ‘Hitler wanted hostages.’ We reached Brussels, Belgium, after several days, and I remember how lovely and peaceful the old center of the city was. We had a flat tire in the commandeered truck right in front of what was apparently a German garrison, and lots of Belgians were blowing kisses and throwing flowers toward me when they realized I was an American. The soldiers put me in a filthy cell for a while, but I was soon brought up for an interrogation. We had some training on that back in England, and it was pretty much as I expected. I was taken into a swanky office where the Germans inside were in fancy uniforms. You have to remember I was still in my bloody, filthy uniform, and I really hadn’t had any medical attention, so that was quite a contrast. I just gave them my name, rank and serial number, and that was pretty much what they seemed to expect. The chief guy read from a dossier and gave me all sorts of details about the 379th, but, of course, I really didn’t know much that would help them anyway. After a while they seemed to get bored and turned me over to three of four other Germans for a train ride east to what turned out to be Cologne.
WWII: That was the site of heavy action. What did you find?
Felgar: Boy, was that city bombed out! At one point, several Hitler Youth seemed pretty threatening toward me, but my guards were able to keep them away. I was pretty worried about those kids with their little daggers. They would peer up at me through the guards’ legs. Very disconcerting! I saw a lot of bombed-out rail marshaling yards, and I knew the Germans were using slave labor to repair them every night. I also saw a few places where the Germans had stacked the remains of Allied aircraft, sometimes cutting them up into salvageable pieces. I suppose there were a lot of Norden bombsights picked up in those planes.
WWII: Where did you head next?
Felgar: In three or four days more we were in Frankfurt on Main, the end of August. At this point they put me somewhere in solitary confinement and took my clothes! I don’t know what they thought I was going to do. I was still quite a mess, and the uniform would have been a dead giveaway if I had managed somehow to escape. Luckily, that was just a short while before they took me to a fancy prewar hospital, which I think was designed for rich women to have babies. I got my first bath in two weeks. There was quite a mixture of medics from several countries. The doctor who treated me was a British gynecologist who had been captured during the collapse in France in 1940. He treated my wounds using a medical book! There wasn’t much in the way of anesthetics, so I squeezed a German medic’s hand real hard while the doctor was working on me. I believe the American ace Francis Gabreski was in this hospital at that time, too. He looked pretty good.
WWII: When did you reach your final destination?
Felgar: On October 27 we arrived at a real POW camp for aviators near Berlin, Stalag Luft III. One of the first guys I saw there told me: ‘You just thought you survived being shot down. This is hell!’ That worried me a lot, you can bet. I did notice some of the guys who had been there for a long time were pretty much off their rockers. There were Americans and British prisoners in the camp, but they were divided into separate sections. There was a functioning prisoner military chain of command with a colonel in charge, and I remember the guards didn’t normally even come into the camp except for some unarmed ones we called ‘ferrets’ because they were looking for escape tunnels. They had stethoscopes and metal rods. I found the POWs weren’t automatically glad about the arrival of more prisoners because they meant less space and less food. The guards would put really nasty, mean dogs into the compound at night, and these dogs would attack anyone outside the barracks. One night some Russian prisoners killed one of the dogs and ate it. Another time a guard got drunk somehow and the POWs threw him into the latrine. His buddies the next day weren’t very happy with that.
WWII: What was day-to-day life like in the POW camp?
Felgar: We felt our job was to tie down as many Germans as we could and make things as difficult for them as we could. We did a lot of things, some major and some minor. We had a committee that had to approve any escape plans, though, so there wouldn’t be any interference between efforts. We had something we called a ‘war room’ in which we had managed to get some pretty good maps put up. We were also lucky to have guys who could make or fix anything, so we had a jury-rigged radio receiver and were able to keep those maps posted with news about the war. I believe we also had a transmitter, but that was a really well-guarded secret, to be used only in a real emergency. I heard at one time it was hidden in a loaf of bread! I remember the Germans would call for a formation on the ‘Sportsplatz’ to verify the number of prisoners, and guys in the formation would constantly move about to confuse the numbers. Maybe not much, but it made us feel better, given the conditions they kept us in. The Germans blamed everything on the bombing, so we didn’t have heat in the barracks — and you know that was one of the worst winters in Europe in 50 years. Luckily, we had lots of body heat to spread around in those small buildings. We also had coffee made from acorns and jam made from coal. I remember, though, the Brits would gather outside in the most horrible weather and somehow have tea time. I guess they wouldn’t let the Germans win that one!
WWII: How did you handle being in captivity?
Felgar: I wasn’t sure initially how I was going to survive the camp, but one day I attended a church service put on by a Scottish chaplain. He told us we shouldn’t worry about anything because there wasn’t anything we could do about our situation. We should just try to make the best of it in any way we could. That somehow made a lot of sense to me, so I decided to spend my time thinking about what I wanted to do when all that was over. We also had a little library, so I laid out a program to study philosophy, and I did that. You can be sure these things helped. I realized, too, I had already spent three Christmases in some army camp somewhere, anyway, so what was one more!
WWII: Tell us what happened after the Russians started closing in, and you had to move again.
Felgar: One night in early 1945 the colonel came to us and told us the Germans were going to move us. We didn’t really have much in the way of food reserves, since the Germans didn’t want those planning escapes to be able to hoard food. We didn’t have much time, so we rolled our few belongings into bedrolls. We took off by foot in deep snow — most of us were in better shape than many of our older guards! The guards would fall down, and we would pick up their gear, including their rifles, to get them moving. The only way we knew we were on the roads was by staying between the trees that lined them. We finally reached a railhead, where they packed us into very small cars moving southwest for several days. That was pretty bad. The Germans could be pretty selective in their application of the Geneva Convention, but I had come to the conclusion that I couldn’t expect really good treatment because I had been bombing them. It was also clear the war was going very badly for them, so they couldn’t provide much more. We finally reached the area around Munich, but our conditions only got worse. I think now Hitler may have been trying to get as many hostages as he could into the area in which he hoped to set up a desperate defensive position, the ‘National Redoubt’ in the Alps. For the first time, too, we were put with civilian prisoners, who I guess you would call political prisoners. We were in something like circus tents and had little food. Lots of guys were getting sick with dysentery. Luckily our time left there was going to be pretty short.
WWII: Describe your liberation by the Americans.
Felgar: One day in late April a guard told me I could go for a shower. I was just getting wet when machine gun bullets suddenly began to hit the building. I dressed as quickly as I could and peeped around the corner of the building. I saw the guards shooting in one direction, and several of them already dead on the ground. I suddenly saw a remarkable sight: some American GIs firing at the guards. Our regular soldiers were winning this battle against these untrained guards, but the issue was clearly over when an American tank just drove through the camp’s front gate! Someone in the crew started throwing food around. Another GI managed to get an American flag up, and you just can’t imagine what a beautiful sight that was! Our tough times weren’t over yet, because those tanks just kept heading east against the Germans, and I certainly supported that. I figured it was better to keep them on the run while we could.
WWII: General Patton was one of the first Americans into the camp. How did he react?
Felgar: When General Patton arrived to take a look at us, you could see he was pretty angry about the shape he found us in! He left, and someone obviously ordered some MPs in to keep us from wandering around, but it took a while for support to get to us. At one point a German civilian approached us and asked if we wanted food. We went to his little house where his family was, and he gave us a small amount. He told me he was an artist from Munich and offered to send me one of his works. Later he did send me that painting, and, of course, I was able to send along some things — which I hope helped his family get through that tough time after the war.
WWII: What happened after the German surrender?
Felgar: German soldiers were surrendering and turning in their weapons all around us, and it was strange to see them begin to take orders from the Americans just as they had from their Wehrmacht officers. We were taken to what was apparently a German training facility; there were lots of German aircraft there. We were told the Army was going to fly in some C-47s to move us out, so we had to wait a while. One guy — despite our warnings — wanted to take a wing camera he saw on one plane, but it was booby-trapped. He was killed outright. What a stupid waste after surviving so much. The C-47s finally came in and took us out. We stopped for fuel at the site of the famous World War I battlefield, Verdun, but continued quickly on to Le Havre. I remember what bad shape the port there was in. Gobs of reporters were always around us, and the walk to the mess hall was like going through a gantlet. I kept telling them I didn’t have anything to say. We were placed on a captured German ship and taken to Southampton in England, and then from there we sailed for New York. We had to sleep on fold-down beds on deck, but I didn’t care.
WWII: What was your first stop in the United States?
Felgar: Amazingly, we came into the same place I had left only a little more than a year earlier, Camp Kilmer. I wanted my discharge papers, but, of course, that’s not what the Army had in mind. The war was still going on in the Pacific, and I know lots of units were already preparing for retraining and deployment there. I guess that’s what they had in mind for us, because I was allowed to go on leave but ordered to report back. I went back to Jacksonville, since my family was there, and everyone welcomed me at the foot of a statue of a Civil War hero in the city square. I had to wait for a long time before I was ordered to report to Miami for medical tests. While I was there I ran into several of my old crew for the first time. We were sitting together in a bar one day in Miami, and some MPs came along and told me that officers couldn’t do that with enlisted men. My guys got up and, sadly, that was the last time I saw any of them until 1994, when I got involved in a POW organization and ran into them again. The war in the Pacific ended just about that time so the Army finally gave me my discharge, and I got on with the rest of my life. I went back to being an engineer, made a life of it, and loved it. I found, though, that I missed some of the excitement, the adrenaline rush of flying in combat, so I took up mountain climbing. That gave me the rush I needed!
WWII: You survived some tough times in the POW camp. Do you have any advice for those who might have to face something similar in the future?
Felgar: I don’t have much to add to that, since every situation will be different and the people who hold the prisoners will play by different rules. I do know that you have to take to heart what I heard that chaplain in the camp say, and you can’t feel sorry for yourself. I chose to do what I could to get ready for the rest of my life, so I did a lot of reading. Other guys tried to stay in shape by walking around the camp, and some of them even made up weights and worked out that way. Each man had his own way, but having a strong will is important.
This article was written by John Bryant and originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of World War II. For more great articles be sure to pick up your copy of World War II.