WWII vet recalls ordeal inside German prison camp

| November 8, 2017 | 0 Comments

Simon Velasquez holds the Purple Heart he earned for the injuries he suffered when his B-17 bomber was shot down during World War II. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Simon Velasquez of Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul can’t tell you off the top of his head how tall he is.

But, he can say this: He was small enough to fit neatly inside a ball turret on a B-17 bomber during World War II.

Few soldiers can make this claim. The half sphere located at the bottom of the plane measures only 39 inches in diameter, and the door to get in from the body of the plane is only 18 inches wide.

His decision to crawl from the ball turret through that narrow door at just the right time is what saved his life April 13, 1944, when he was 24.

Velasquez, 97, the son of Mexican immigrants, was flying his 27th mission that day as a ball turret gunner. A master sergeant, his job was to inspect the plane before takeoff to make sure all was right with the guns and bombs.

Then, he would climb through the opening and into the turret, creating what he felt was a safe space on board the aircraft. He believed the spherical shape deflected bullets, a theory he proved on every mission, including this one.

Velasquez is among 558,000 World War II veterans still living, which represents about 3.5 percent of the 16 million who served, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics. Recently, he recalled details of his time overseas, including the beautiful weather after dawn broke that April morning at RAF Kimbolten airfield in England. He even remembered meadowlarks singing as he and his nine other crew members took their places for takeoff.

But, he knew it wouldn’t be long before he would hear the explosions of antiaircraft fire as their plane roared across the English Channel on its way to Schweinfurt, Germany, where it was on a mission to bomb and destroy the country’s largest ball bearing factory. He estimated that there were 1,000 American planes in the air that day.

It would be the longest bombing run this plane could make — 10 1/2 hours. Typically, missions were between six and 10 hours.

Velasquez was filling in for a ball turret gunner who got sick that morning, and learned after the bomber was airborne that this was the first mission for the other nine crew members.

He instructed them to stay on their toes, then braced himself for the flak that was sure to come. The ball bearing factory was heavily defended, meaning the American planes would get both fire from the ground and fire from German fighters likely patrolling the area.

Deep into central Germany, his B-17 finally encountered the enemy. Fierce fighting followed, and Velasquez soon ran out of ammunition. At the same time, he was getting annoyed after realizing that the other gunners in the plane weren’t firing back.

He soon discovered why. He popped the lid on his ball turret and scrambled into the body of the plane to get more ammo.

“I got up [into the fuselage] and found out that everybody in the plane was dead,” Velasquez said. “I was the only one alive up there at 30,000 feet. So, I figured it was time for me to get the hell out of there.”

He strapped on his parachute and headed for the door. It wouldn’t open. Deciding to take a running start, he rammed it with his shoulder and broke through.

That’s the last thing he remembers, as he briefly blacked out following his narrow escape from the plane. He thinks the plane exploded as he jumped out and blew him clear of it.

His adventure was only beginning. After a brief time, he pulled the rip cord of his parachute and started his slow descent into enemy territory. The jet stream carried him about 100 miles from the impact, but not quite into France. He landed on the German side of the Rhine River and had to think on his feet about how to avoid capture.

He had some supplies, including a compass and map. His first order of business was to hide from the quickly converging search party of German soldiers and civilians that surely had seen him parachuting from his plane. A small bush provided just enough concealment, as some of the Germans came within 20 feet of him.

He spent the next six or seven days trying to work his way to freedom. He reached the Rhine and stole a canoe to try to cross. He didn’t know how to swim, so paddling was his only option.

The current proved too strong, however, and it brought him back to the German bank. The Germans captured him shortly after he beached his canoe.

This began the next and final phase of his military service in World War II — living as a prisoner of war.

With four other POWs, he was taken by truck to an interrogation center in Frankfurt. During part of the trek, they were marched through towns so that civilians could abuse them. They threw sticks and rocks at the American soldiers, and also spat on them.

Eventually, he and the other Americans captured with him were sent to Stalag 17, which held more than 5,000 American POWs and was the inspiration for a 1953 war film with the same name. It later inspired the sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes.”

Strangely, Velasquez didn’t fear for his life while in the POW camp. He knew the conditions would be rough — and they were — but he also carried the simple belief that he would survive.

That belief was buoyed by a faith he had held since childhood. It was tested. Beatings and getting thrown into solitary confinement — for days or even weeks at a time — were part of the ordeal. The Germans used these tactics to extract information, but all Velasquez would ever give were his name, rank and serial number.

“It was hell,” he said. “They tried to break my spirit, but they never could.”

Was it because of his faith?

“I think so,” he said in the understated fashion common among many World War II veterans.

The initial interrogations soon gave way to the daily struggles and boredom of life in Stalag 17. The hardest part, he said, was the constant hunger. The men were fed only a warm cup of water in the morning, then one cup of barley soup around noon. At first, Velasquez did not want to eat the soup because it was full of worms. But, when it came down to a choice between eating it and starving, he chose to swallow his displeasure along with the worms.

The Germans stocked up on books, so there was no shortage of reading material for the prisoners. There also were some musical instruments, along with decks of cards. Velasquez spent much of his time playing bridge, and he and another airman became bridge champions at the camp.

Prayer, especially the rosary, was also a part of Velasquez’s daily routine. The Germans allowed church services on Sundays, which he attended weekly.

The final trial of his captivity came in the spring of 1945, a year after his capture, with the Americans and Russians advancing into Germany. One morning, the prisoners were informed they would be moving. So, everyone grabbed a blanket and assembled for roll call.

Their captors then led them on a march that would last nearly 50 days. They scrounged for food along the way — as the German guards offered them nothing — and they slept in open fields at night. Some of the men died during the journey.

Sensing that the guards were losing their diligence, the men got bold in veering off the path to obtain food and water throughout the march. Finally, in their last week of captivity, several men spotted a large warehouse with food while passing through a town, and came back at night to make a raid. They found boxes full of pudding packets, and brought them back to the camp to make pudding for all the men.

Within a matter of days, as they continued their march along the Inn River in Austria, they learned that forces commanded by Gen. George Patton were just on the other side. They were hopeful but nervous, fearing Patton’s army would think they were German soldiers and launch an attack.

That fear was assuaged when Patton, detecting movement across the river, sent a few men across at night to identify who was there. Once they learned of the POWs, they quietly built a bridge under cover of darkness and brought their forces across.

The next day, May 3, 1945, Velasquez and the other men who survived the march were liberated. He met Patton and other generals, and was fed doughnuts and coffee that came courtesy of the Red Cross.

At the time of Patton’s arrival, Velasquez also witnessed the interaction between the German camp commandant and Patton, who drove to the front to face the man who had held 5,000 Americans captive, some for several years.

“The German who was in charge came up to Gen. Patton and saluted him. He said, ‘General, you’ve got to treat me nice. I took good care of your boys,’” Velasquez recalled. “Gen. Patton stood up in the jeep, and he looked at his driver and said, ‘Yup, I can see the kind of person you are. You really took care of my boys.’ He [turned and] told his driver, ‘Take that son of a b—- out in the woods and shoot him.’ He did. He shot him.”

After a brief hospital stay, Velasquez was sent back to the U.S., landing in New Jersey and, eventually returning to Minnesota where he had moved to shortly before enlisting. A fellow POW made good on a promise to find him a job, and Velasquez ended up working as a mechanic at Southview Chevrolet, where he later became a service manager, a job he held until his retirement in 1985.

About two years after the war, he got married, and he and his wife Beatrice had two daughters, Eva and Anita. For much of their lives, he said little about his experiences, not even telling Beatrice he had been a POW until their second year of marriage.

But, things changed when he decided to do an interview with the Minnesota Historical Society in 2003. The transcript contains extensive and vivid details of his military experiences in World War II. No doubt, they will become more valuable with the passage of time.

Velasquez, who was born in Delores, Texas and had three brothers who also served in the war, still talks vividly about his experiences. After years of silence, his outpouring of thoughts and emotions bring his recollections of World War II to life. Family members enjoy the stories, and he also has been interviewed by parishioners  at Our Lady of Guadalupe.

More than 70 years have passed since his liberation from the German POW camp, but, the sights and sounds remain clearly etched in his memory.

“It never goes away,” he said. “Something like that you never forget.”



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