Area Woman Retraces Her Father’s WWII Footsteps
Editor’s note: The following is part of the Robert H. Jackson Center’s Defenders of Freedom project, which highlights stories of area WWII veterans.
A cloud of black smoke swirled into the cluttered sky from the deadly German 88 anti-aircraft guns. The ball turret position provided a clear view for John Kyler. The sight was rather frightening; it was clear that the No. 2 engine had been hit.
Since being in the ball turret was cramped, Kyler did not wear a parachute while gunning. He realized he was in a dangerous position as the aircraft lost speed and altitude. He began to sweat, and the pilot radioed to him to leave his post.
Kyler promptly squeezed out of the turret, entered the main body of the plane, put on a parachute and waited for the right moment to jump from the B-17. The air was cold and bullets flew through the sky. Soon, both the interphone communication and oxygen supply systems were inoperative. He had to take the risk and jump.
Kyler remembered that the first sight he saw jumping into the frigid air on Feb. 4, 1944, was that of a German pilot. He froze with terror because he feared he would be killed. He became lightheaded because of the thin air at the high altitude and the force of the wind made it exceptionally hard to breathe. Although he was dizzy, the once-blurry foliage became more detailed as he descended. He pulled the chord in the wintry sky.
Kyler landed in a vegetable garden in Belgium. He gazed at the landscape and found farmhouses, trees and fields to hide out in because he was unsure if the Germans had tracked his descent. Then he noticed a young teenaged boy around the age of 14. Kyler thought that this would be his best bet to avoid capture, so he offered the boy a cigarette in exchange for help.
Kyler noticed that off in the distance there were women and another boy on crutches. It seemed that the women had every intention to help Kyler hide from the enemy. They were carrying clothing, perhaps to help disguise Kyler. However, the Germans stalked where Kyler had landed and the women had to make it seem like they were not going to assist the American. Kyler surrendered to the soldiers and became a prisoner of war.
After being interrogated, Kyler was placed in a boxcar where he saw two of his crew members. Kyler felt like a captive animal and spent one week in the cramped 40 by 8 freight car before he arrived at the Stalag Luft VI, a POW camp located in East Prussia. Kyler was shivering from the bitter cold and rattling wind the first night, especially since he was not given adequate clothing or even a blanket.
Kyler could always look forward to the parcels sent by the American Red Cross when they were lucky enough to receive them because it provided rations and cigarettes that could be bartered with the German guards for favors. Food in the camp was scarce, as one loaf of dark brown bread had to be split among a room packed with as many as 16 or, at times, more men. One of the most traumatic experiences Kyler faced during his nearly 1 1/2 years of captivity was when he woke up to the sound of gunshot and later saw a comrade laying in a pool of blood. His buddy did not try to escape but tried going to the bathroom because the doors were accidently left unlocked and he thought that it must have been after curfew. From this event, Kyler knew that the German soldiers were trigger-happy. This would be important to note because Kyler and the other POWs eventually had to evacuate the camp once the Germans could hear the gunfire from the approaching Russians.
Kyler would be placed in a total of three POW camps, Stalag Luft VI, Stalag Luft IV and liberated by the Russians on May 1, 1945, from Stalag Luft I.
He remembers seeing Russian, British, and American flags waving in the air. Soon after liberation, Kyler recalled the horrific sights at the concentration camp in Barth, Germany, not far from the POW camp. He saw the skeletal figures of the barely living as well as the dead stacked up.
John Kyler was relatively quiet about his wartime experiences. However, he became more outgoing when he had grandchildren. He even assisted one of them for an extra credit project that pertained to interviewing a veteran. Candy Kyler Brown, his daughter, found out what her father faced after he passed.
In May 2004, Candy went back to her mom’s house in Salamanca to look for pictures and articles that could be displayed at the funeral home. Candy was riveted by the tattered, well-written journal pages she found. Her goal was to find out more about her father’s life. Candy placed one requirement on herself so she could justify writing a book about her father’s experience. She felt like she had to retrace his European travels in an effort to better understand what he felt. This requirement took years to complete.
In July 2007, Candy heard that a B-17 would be on display and be available for rides at Prior Aviation in Buffalo. This was a perfect opportunity because Candy wanted to know what it felt like being in the cramped ball turret. She walked around the B-17 and quickly identified where her father’s position was on the plane. It was in the middle of the floor with a small door that led to a metal sphere that could rotate 360 degrees. Being allowed to enter the turret from the outside, Candy, who was wearing a skort (a skirt with shorts underneath), had to raise her legs up to put her feet in the stirrups to fit properly in the position.
“It must not have looked too ladylike,” she admits. “But it was one of the best experiences. It was like I became my dad.” She realized just how difficult it was to be cramped in such a small area for hours on end.
“I could barely breathe, it took my breath away!” Candy exclaimed when talking about another experience on the quest to retrace her father’s steps. Candy also wanted to go skydiving to know what her father physically and mentally went through when he bravely jumped off the B-17. She was initially not phased when she was given waivers to sign. She had to step into the harness to be strapped up tightly so she would not slip through. She free-fell for a mile and put her legs back as she had been instructed. She had to accomplish this phase of her mission, but, she says she would never do it again. Although, once the parachute was opened, it was quite peaceful to swivel back and forth until reaching the ground. This jump was accomplished in memory of her Dad’s one-time bailout.
While retracing her father’s steps, Candy has taken photos of a plush dog at each site. One day, the resident of Kill Buck may write a children’s book about World War II using the photos. Her main goal is to pass on the memory of the brave men like her father who served in World War II.
Peri Pearson is a junior, majoring in history at the State University of Fredonia. She is an intern with the Defenders of Freedom project at the Robert H. Jackson Center.