Observing The Second World War At 18,000 Feet In The Air
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.
The sun was blazing down upon the green lands of the French marshes in early August 1944. All seemed at peace in the sky. There was nothing but blue skies, the hum of four B-24 engines and the blazing sun radiating on the metal frame.
Everything seemed at peace up in the sky, and that’s all Sgt. Lester Bishop of the 93rd Bombardment Group was seeing from his vantage point as the left waist gunner.
Bishop was scanning, moving his head left and right, searching for enemy pilots hoping to shoot down his twin-tailed Liberator. He kept checking on his 50-caliber machine gun, making sure it was ready to fire. The last thing he needed was a jam in the firing mechanism.
He was so preoccupied on making sure no enemy plane came up on him that he was startled when the large bomber suddenly shook violently. A large, orange flash erupted on his side of the plane that had just taken a hit from a ground-based German 88 flak gun. All he could see was a trail of fire, a bright orange flames running from the left wing all the way to the tail. The bailout bell blasted, slamming against Bishop’s eardrums, as he stumbled his way to his parachute and then reached for the floor escape panel. He desperately grabbed the D-ring, yanked the heavy metal door open as the plane rocked violently and headed toward the oncoming ground.
He quickly looked around to see Marty Lavener, the other waist gunner, and tail gunner Joe Lawruszko near the hatch. Bishop said his farewells and dove out head-first, almost kicking Marty in the face with his heavy, insulated boots. Joe never made it.
Now, with only one wing, the aircraft began to spiral and the escape hatch became a hole in the ceiling, then again on the floor. Only six of the 10 crew members made it to safety as the large bomber spun to the ground, spouting flames all the way down.
Bishop had escaped death by a matter of seconds, only to be shot at from below by a German “gray coat.” The bullet barely breezed by him, creating a small hole in his parachute. He was snagged by a telephone pole and with his feet only 6 feet off the ground, he was captured by a small group of German soldiers.
The officer announced in broken English that the “vor you, de vor is offer,” which translates to, “For you, the war is over.”
His odyssey to that field in France began just a year-and-half earlier when Bishop graduated from his local high school in Little Valley, located in the rolling hills about an hour south of Buffalo. He had been working at Bell Aircraft in Buffalo at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He did not even hear about the attack until he returned home and turned on the radio.
He was drafted in August 1943 and was told to report to Camp Upton, located on Long Island. He recalls entering a large building with a gaggle of fresh recruits wearing widely different types of civilian clothes. Coming out of that building later in the day were freshly-minted recruits with short haircuts and identical Army khaki uniforms.
Bishop was assigned to the Army Air Corps and sent to BTC 10, or Basic Training Center 10, in Greensboro, N.C. There for much of the year he spent training as a machine gunner. He trained with 50 caliber machine guns and later was trained in using the weapon while in the air. In 1944, Bishop graduated and was assigned to the 93rd Bombing Group in England. The casualty rates of combat airmen at that time was about 44 percent.
Bishop’s harrowing tale of survival began on Aug. 13. Flying from England, they prepared for a bombing run that was to commence at the Falaise pocket. The mission was supposedly simple: drop 57- to 100-pound bombs without destroying the bridge networks in the area so that Allied ground forces could later use the bridges to cross the rivers in the area in pursuit of the Germans.
But the assignment was anything but simple. Normally, the bombers would fly at 20,000 to 22,000 feet, but this day they were to go in at 18,000 feet in an effort to avoid hitting the bridges. This, of course, would make the bombers easier targets for the feared German 88 anti-aircraft fire. The 88 gun had the distinct reputation of being the best anti-air gun in the world during that period. It was a deadly weapon with a range of 14,860-meters and a much higher vertical height. In other words, the Germans had designed a weapon that could effectively shoot down bombers and they were merciless about employing it. Over the course of the war, the 88 would destroy thousands of bombers and aircraft, and by the end of 1944, the German 88 had destroyed an estimated 6,400 Allied planes and damaged at least another 27,000. The German 88 was also utilized as an effective anti-tank weapon.
After being placed onto a truck with other captured Americans, the German convoy was attacked by a group of Allied P-47 fighter planes and Spitfires. The trucks, though they had the symbol of the Red Cross, were carrying ammunition as well as POWs toward the front lines. As luck would have it, the POWs successfully used white segments from an American parachute to wave off the attacking fighter planes.
Following that harrowing event, Lester Bishop’s POW group of about 25 was placed into a boxcar with more groups being forced in as well. There were about 60 of them prodded into a single, French boxcar, with a tiny 10-quart metal bucket in the corner to be used as their facilities. That boxcar was approximately 7 feet wide with two holes on either end of the car with barbwire nailed on top making escape relatively impossible. The boxcars were designed to only hold 40 men or eight horses. The Germans decided to fit 20 additional captured soldiers into each boxcar, meaning “they were packed in there even tighter than sardines,” according to Bishop. It was not going to be a very comfortable trip.
For the next four days he remained in that boxcar until the train stopped at Amiens and for a short period, Lester had a sense of freedom away from that boxcar until they were loaded back up and through several short stops at various detainment sites until Bishop was sent on to Berlin. The trip to Berlin took about nine days because of disruptions caused by earlier Allied bombings. During that time, no one received any food or water from their German guards. When the train finally stopped, Bishop and his group were unloaded and told to march about a mile-and-a-half up the road from the railway to their compound. Bishop had arrived at Stalag Luft IV located some 250 miles northeast of Berlin.
The German officer in charge of the guard detail hated the Air corps. His feelings were generated by the bombings of Hamburg that had killed his wife and children. Now while at the camp, Bishop contracted diphtheria, running a fever well above 100 degrees and his throat had swelled. Luckily, there was an American doctor and two English ones at his camp and he was sent to a “hospital,” which was really just another barracks full of patients. He spent about eight to 10 days at that “hospital” recovering from his illness.
Overall, the Germans treated the Americans well. They stayed in the barracks and were provided limited sports equipment and a football. Around Christmas, they put on a Christmas play for the Germans, and the German commander came down and watched.
In his compound there were two captured radio engineers who somehow had smuggled in old radio parts and had built a radio. Over the winter those radios were plugged into the German electrical system and the prisoners were able to hear Eisenhower over the BBC. They heard the message “Stay where you are. We’ll get to you before you can get to us.”
In the middle of February, in the cold bleakness of winter, Bishop and others of his compound were put on a train and sent to Stalag Luft I. He would remain in Stalag Luft I, located near Barth, Germany, for the remainder of the war. It was then that he learned that the German commanders had received word from Hitler that no airmen were to be repatriated, or returned back to the Allies, alive.
On April 30, 1945, a can was thrown over the wall of Bishop’s compound. That’s how he and the other captives learned that the Germans were leaving. In the dead of night the Germans slipped out and on May 1, Bishop’s birthday, he awoke a free man in an enemy POW camp. Thousands of soldiers were running around, not really knowing what to do. Well, a few people journeyed down to the town of Barth and used a printing press to create the “Rusky Paper.” Bishop still holds onto his copy of the paper.
The Russians soon arrived and arrangements were made to evacuate the airmen to an airfield in Barth. The Allies flew in ten B-17s to a nearby airfield and loaded up 30 POWs at a time flying them back to France. It was one of the most organized loading of soldiers onto the aircraft that Bishop had ever seen. The aircraft would land and taxi around and these 30 men would line up at their stake and walk over to the aircraft and hop on board and the plane would then fly away as the next plane would come up and 30 more men would hop on board. They flew all the way back to France close to Camp Lucky Strike where they finally had an opportunity to clean up.
“We were a mess,” notes the quiet-spoken Bishop.
He made it back to the U.S. and received his train ticket back home. He hopped on a train from New Jersey and took that train to within a few miles of his hometown. He had sent a telegram to his parents that he would be arriving in nearby Salamanca around 6:30 p.m. His parents had not received his telegram yet and it was actually their neighbor from up the road that actually told his parents that he was back in town. He admittedly had a “teary” gathering with his parents.
Bishop later married, raised three children with Laura, his wife of 67 years, and worked as Little Valley’s postmaster and as a carpenter. Like many veterans, the 94-year-old and his wife still live quietly in their hometown with few knowing the details of his fight for survival far from home.
Matthew DeWinde is a history student at the State University of Fredonia. He served as an intern with the Defenders of Freedom project at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.