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Interview with Milton Stern [2002]

Alice Healy:

The 17, 2002 of the US Army Air Force in World War II. We are interviewing at Lyons Veterans Hospital and attending are Alice Healy and Clare Honiker (ph). Milton, would you tell us a little bit about your background.

Milton Stern:

Okay. I was born in Buffalo, New York and at the age of one I went to--we went to Toronto, and lived there for three years. At the age of four I came back to Rochester, New York. My father was a tailor and was sent to Rochester to work. And I lived in Rochester throughout my high school days, graduated from Benjamin Franklin High School in 1941. Took a National Defense course at night, from 10:00 at night until 6:00 in the morning, five nights a week. I think I went for about 15 weeks and then was placed at Bausch and Lomb Optical Company working on defense, on range finders for the Navy. However, I didn't stay on that job very long. I was transferred to the optical division and worked on--I was made the group leader for final assembly ofthe keratometer and ophthalmoscope, which were instruments used for men going into the service and having their eyes examined. I left there October 28th to join the Air Force. A lot of my friends had already gone. And even though I had a very lucrative job, and was--we were working 60 and 70 hours a week, and I had about 25 women working under me. I was the youngest group leaderat Bausch and Lomb Optical Company. But I joined the Air Force and went through Niagara Falls. I was--oh, very important. We were sworn in on the stage in the largest theater in Rochester, and there were 30 of us. We were marched out with a brass band on to a bus. So, I went to Niagara Falls where I stayed for three or four days and then was transferred to Rome, New York, Griffiss Air Force Base, and we stayed there for a few weeks. And then went to Selfridge, Michigan, where I found out that I was attached to the 6th Airborne Squadron and we were scheduled to go tothe Aleutian Islands for the duration of the war. So, a friend of mine and I decided to take a test for the cadets, for the Air Force cadets. We didn't want to go to the Aleutians. So we passed with flying colors and about a month later we were shipped down to Nashville, Tennessee for classification. My friend qualified for pilot training, fighter pilot training, I think pilot training. And I qualified for bombardier, navigator and pilot training. And we got to the last step of the way of all the doctors that we went to, the officer said we need navigators, so being a good fellow I said I would be a navigator. And I was shipped to Selman Field, Louisiana, whereI went through nine weeks of preflight training and then 18 weeks of advanced navigation training. In November--in January of '44 we went up by train. There were 40 crews in our group training at Ioti (ph), Texas. We were shipped up to Grand Island, Nebraska to pick up new airplanes and fly them across the ocean. At Grand Island we picked up a brand new B17, and 99 percent of thecrews went the southern route and went down to Florida and South America and over to Ascension Island and then to Africa, then to England from there, or Italy. Our crew--our crew was one of the few who was sent up to Goose Bay, Labrador, and we flew the northern route over the north Atlantic in February, first part of February of '44. We were briefed to fly over 11,000 feet. We had _ crossing, but an hour out from Goose Bay we had a complete overcast so we had to climb to get above it so I could shoot the stars. We never did climb up. We got up to 33,000 feet and never got out of the overcast, so I told the pilot to go back down and fly about a thousand feet offthe water, and I would read--drift off the waves at night. We arrived at Nuts Corner, England orScotland--no. Ireland. And after trying three instruments let down because the field was surrounded by mountains, and there was a fog, after three times they told us to go head over to Scotland and we landed. We landed. We went straight in when we got to Scotland because we had very little fuel left. I remember kissing the ground when I--when we got out of the plane. And then I guess I slept for 24 hours. Eventually we got to the 381st bomb group, and for about two or three weeks we did things around the airfield. We had slow time, what they called slow time, aircraft with new engines in them, and did things like that to kill time. And then finally one morning in March, I think it was March 3rd or 4th, we were awakened early in the morning and we were at briefing or at the breakfast and briefing, and we found out that the mission that day was thefirst daylight mission on Berlin, which we flew, and I think we got turned back by weather that day. We got weathered from the mission because we were practically in Berlin, but the weather was very bad. The overcast, undercast. We couldn't even see the target. We went again on March 6th and we did go to Berlin that day. It was actually considered the first mission on Berlin. Two days later we went to Berlin again and on that mission we got shot down. We lost an engine after we turned towards the target, and we were flying at 20,000 feet, the temperature was about 55 below zero, and the two pilots decided to dive for the treetops because then we would be underradar, German radar that is, and also hard to spot by German fighters. We just happened to come down over a German airfield and the bombardier and I were up in the nose of the aircraft and he had a two gun turret chinger (ph), they called it, so we decided to shoot up the airfield. And we--I think we destroyed six or seven aircraft on the ground, which was kind of stupid, because we were down there to hide and here we destroyed the airfield and we had so much fun doing it that we started shooting up everything that we--anything that moved we shot up. We left a path of destruction across Germany. And some of the aircraft from that field, I think that field, got off the ground and they followed us. When we got to Holland we got out, I know we started seeing windmills and I decided--as a navigator I decided we were in Holland. I got on the interphone and I told the rest of the crew we are safe. We will soon be over the North Sea. I no sooner got the words out of my mouth when we were attacked by three Messerschmidt 109s. One of them--one of them came directly towards the tail. The tail gunner got a straight shot at him. He pulled up in front of us, on top of us. The top turret gun got a shot at him and the radio man got a shot at him. And when he came up in front of us I think the bombardier even got a shot at him before he disintegrated. That plane just blew up, fell apart. So, there were two of them and theystayed out of our reach and they set our right wing on fire and destroyed another engine and we were--the pilots--at that point we were flying about 50 feet off the ground and the pilot said prepare to bail out but wait until--I will try to climb. We only had I think two engines going atthat time. So, we climbed to about 400 feet, and I let myself out of the nose hatch, and the bombardier was right behind me. The day before we got shot down we had a pilot came back from being shot down over France. He was flying at 20,000 feet when he bailed out and he did a free fallfor 15,000 feet. And he kept stressing free fall, free fall, free fall. So, when I bailed out at 400 feet I did a free fall, which was kind of stupid, but when I saw the next man come out of the aircraft, it was probably the bombardier, and he pulled his rip cord immediately, I decided I better pull mine. And I did, and I saw the pilot's chute, little chute, come out, and I hit atree. The branches were very brittle. It was winter time. It was March. And branches kept breaking one after the other. And I landed on the ground very softly, and there was a bunch of people there. And I assume now that they were Dutch. And they told me to leave my parachute and run and hide because the Germans were coming to arrest us. So, I did that. I got out of my chuteand ran across the road and I got into a ditch. I hid there. I think it was about a half an hour later a young man came by on a bicycle and he asked me if I wanted some help. I said, yes, of course. And I think he was about 16 and I was about 19, 20--20. And he took me to a haystack in the middle of the field and they had a hollow rock place, like a nest. He said I should hide there, and he would come back at night with some food. He showed me my pilot's parachute on the ground, and said my pilot had broken his leg very badly and he was in a farm house, but he probably would be turned over to the Germans because they couldn't take care of him. At any rate, that night it got very cold and my feet froze. Early in the morning I decided to start walking, at least get some blood circulating into my legs, and I did. I walked all that day, and around dusk I went up to a farm house with the idea of asking for help, but I went up to look in a window first and just about the time I got up there the lady of the house came out. I think she was shaking a tablecloth. And at any rate, I think she was more scared than I was. I threw my handsup in the air and I said Ich Bin Amerikaner in my best Dutch, and they brought me in the house. She called her husband. She called her son, young fellow. And they gave me something to eat. And the young boy went and found the friend, a young fellow about 17, 18-years-old, who questioned me for about a half an hour or so to make sure I was an American and not a German trying to find the underground. And when he was convinced that I was an American, he left me. He took me onhis bicycle to his room in town, it was about 11:00 at night, and he went out and talked with another man. Left me in his room to sleep, which I did, and he came back it was about midnight, and he said that he had made contact with the underground but I couldn't stay in the house where I was because the landlady was frightened. He was a boarder in that house. The landlady was frightened. I think she thought I was a Negro. I don't know. My face was black at the time from my oxygen mask and she was afraid that the Germans would punish her for taking in a black man. What was worse, I was Jewish. (Laughter) Anyhow, we left there about 2:00 in the morning and we went by back roads and down by the canal. We went to another farm where I stayed for three days up in the loft in the barn and the farmer's daughter would bring me food and hot water bottles to keep my feet warm. After three days, the young man came for me again and he had an extra bike this time. He rode and I rode maybe a hundred yards behind him or so, and we went to the small town. I don't even know what the name of the town was. And he took me to a house where I met quite a few people and then a couple other fliers were hiding and a couple of men who had escaped from a German prison. We went to a train station and we were spread out, we were following our guides. We had maybe 50 to 100 yards in between each of us. And in Europe the trains have separate compartments, so I was in a compartment with another fellow and we had to act--because the people were curious and were asking us questions, we had to act like deaf mutes. We couldn't talk. We didn't talk too much. At any rate, we finally got off in another small town. Again, I don't remember the name of the town. We went to some people's house where we were fed. I remember it was a very good meal. We had a shower or a bath, and the next day we went by car. And down--down the way, I don't even know where, I was a poor navigator, I didn't even know where. But I remember we had to cross the Moose River. It was at night and what they call a bomber's moon, a great big moon, and there were Germans on the bridge right next to us walking back and forth. Must be guards, I guess. We went in a row boat and the row boat crossed the river about three or four times, and when I finally got over there I was met by a farmer and went to his farm in Belgium. River was a border between Holland and Belgium. About five days later the rest--five of my crew also arrived there, and believe it or not we all slept in one bed. And we stayed there a few days and then they said--the underground said that we were going to meet a plane. And since my radio man had an ankle that was injured in his parachute jump, I would go with him and we would be the first to go back to England. That was the plan. Well, we didn't go to England. We didn't meet the airplane. The airplane never showed up for one reason or another and we went tosomebody's house. Oh, we stayed in the back of a castle. The owner of the castle was a flier in World War I, and this was a--they had an underground thing for us covered with branches to hide in because we couldn't stay in the castle. Next day, the owner's daughter took two of us on the trolley, there was an innercity trolley and she took us to the Town of Hasselt in Belgium and left us in another home and a couple of days later we went the rest of the way with another guide, a woman guide, and we were to meet our final friends in a pub in Belgium. When we got there the new guys weren't there. We had to wait for them. And we were very conspicuous because we were drinking beer in a Belgium pub. Finally, they came. Lady left. We started walking through the streets of the edge (ph) and there was a German patrol following us. So, we hid in a church for a couple of hours. I think there were five of us Americans and a couple of Belgian guides. We stayed in that church for a couple hours and we hid until the patrols subsided. And we were then taken to a central office of the underground cell that we were attached to. And we met the chief, the only name I ever knew for him was Joseph, and we were divided into twos. My radio manand I went to one--we were taken to one house. The rest of the fellows were taken to other house, other houses. About every two weeks we were moved. We were moved from one house to another because, while the people we were living with were on our side helping us, you never knew about the neighbors. They might turn us in for a reward or for leniency or whatever. About 95 percent of the people were anti-Nazi. And we stayed in the underground in different houses for about three months. On the morning of May 27th, living with a particular family--I have pictures to show of the family. We--the radio man and I were sleeping in a room on the second floor and we heard sudden footsteps coming up the steps. And when we opened our eyes we were faced with machine guns and German gestapo men. They were wearing _ on their hats. We were always told by the underground people that if we were ever caught we would be taken out and shot immediately along with them. They took us out into the yard and we thought--we felt we were going to be shot. We were chained together, Bob and I, the radio man. And after waiting about 15 or 20 minutes, or it seemed like forever, we heard the siren of the patrol car. A van came and we were all put into it,the whole family and us. We were taken to gestapo headquarters, where I saw the rest of my crew.They had been picked up the night before. And later on we figured out that the fellow that turned us in was the underground. He was the only one that knew where all of us were. There were ten of us that were captured. Some Americans with my crew. There was also a pilot of a B17 and a co-pilot of a B24 and a top gunner of another B24. They were all captured the same time, different homes, and the only one that knew where everybody was was this one character in the underground who was also captured and put in prison with us but really to protect him from the rest of the people. Make a long story short, that man was hung at the end of the war.

Alice Healy:

How did the family fare, the one that--

Milton Stern:

The family was in prison camp--in prison with me. In July--well, on June the 6th, that night was the invasion and we heard planes flying over from Germany out to the coast, andso forth. And about 3:00 in the morning we were taken out of our cells and on to big lorries, they called them, trucks, and we were taken to another prison called the citadel, which was a plateau in the center of the town. The citadel was where the Germans did all their executions. So,as we went up this particular road, we all thought that when we got up at the citadel we were going to be shot. There was about--I don't know--there were two trucks and there was two to threehundred people in the two trucks. We were crammed in so tight that if your hands were up they stayed up. If your hands were down they stayed down. We couldn't even scratch our nose. Anyhow,when we got up at the citadel I was--it was gray dawn and we thought sure we were going to be shot. There were machine guns all around and there were soldiers with their bayonets drawn. Anyhow, I was put in solitary confinement again, and I stayed there. Well, on July 15th, which happened to be my 21st birthday, I was taken out of the courtyard and 14 of my Belgian friends were shot one at a time by firing squad. And the commandant was standing--of the prison--was standing next to me. He had been my interrogator throughout my stay there. And he kept nudging me and saying, you are next unless you tell me what I want to know. Well, I didn't know anything so I didn't tell him anything. Five days later he gave up on us and sent us all to Brussels, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force. From there we were put on box cars and taken to a place called Dulag Luft, which was a German interrogation center. They used all kinds of ruses--you know, friendly cop and a bad cop--to get us to talk, but actually we didn't know anything. People in the underground along the way had never given us any names or places. I couldn't tell them anything ifI wanted to. As far as my group was concerned, they knew more about my group than I did. They knew who my colonel of the air base was. They knew what--they knew everything. They even told methe name of my father, my girlfriend, what bases I had stayed at, I had gone to in the states.They knew everything about me, so there was really nothing for me to tell them. They didn't keep me there very long because we had been interrogated by the gestapo for months, and so we were separated from our enlisted men there. I went to an officers' camp in northern Germany and they went to enlisted men's camp. We thought it wouldn't be long before we were released, but it turned out to be quite awhile. I arrived at Marth (ph) on the Baltic, Seligluf 1 (ph), andon July 29,1944, and we were liberated by the Russians on May 1, 1945. We stayed in camp coupleof more weeks. The Russians had driven in a bunch of cows and we had--some of our men slaughtered them and we had steaks for breakfast and hamburg for dinner. And it allowed us to gain backa little of the weight that we had lost over the past year. Two weeks after we were liberated on May 13th, some of the 8th Air Force came in in B17s and B24s. They landed at the field about a mile away from our camp and we were flown to Rhemes in France, about 30 in an aircraft, 30 prisoners. I don't remember very much about the trip. It seemed--I remember they took us down over the River Valley and they showed us some of the bombed out cities, Cologne, so forth, but I remember getting to Rhemes, going to headquarters and drawing $150. And then we got on a train and we went up toCamp Lucky Strike in northern France, Normandy. It was a tremendous returnee camp. It was a cityof tents. There were streets between the rows of tents, and on each corner was a 20 gallon can,like a garbage can, but it was clean and it was full of eggnog. We each had acanteen cup, which we dipped in, and we drank eggnog from morning until night, liver and steaks for dinner, and they tried to fatten us up so that the people back home would never see us the way we looked. General Eisenhower visited us there. I had the pleasure of meeting him and havinglunch with him and shaking his hand. And couple of us commandeered a Jeep and we went to Paris. Couldn't go home without seeing Paris. And we were there for the first anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1945, and we had our fill of whatever. I won't say whatever, but went back to Camp Lucky Strike and a few days later we got on board a Coast Guard ship at Le Havre and we had a five-daytripback to the states. Victor Mature, actor, was on board. He was chief petty officer in charge ofmess, so we atepretty good. We got off at I think Boston. I think we landed at Boston Harbor,went to Camp Mills, and when we got there they said to me, we don't have room for youtonight. Here's a 24 hour pass. Get lost. So, I went to New York. I stayed overnight, had somemorefun, and came back the next day, and eventually they processed me out of there and I went home.

Alice Healy:

Could you give us more details of your days as a prisoner at the camp?

Milton Stern:

Well, in prison camp, we had--we were assigned to certain barracks. When I firstgot there I was living in a tent in the south compound, which was the oldest compound. There was also a north one, which was also an old compound, but it was filled. And we stayed in the tents until they finished south--north two, which was a brand new compound they built for us because there were a lot of prisoners at that time. The 8th Air Force was flying multiple missions against the Germans. There were a lot of planes being shot down. I think 69 the day I was shot down, 69 bombers. That's 690 men. We--when we had Red Cross food, our Red Cross packages were about 11 pounds and they contained either spam or bully beef or--and sometimes tuna fish or sardines. Contained some--couple of bars of soap, five packs of cigarettes. Some--at that time they hadjust invented instant coffee. We had George Washington coffee, a can of that, in there. And I don't remember all, but there is 11 pounds of substance in those packages. And at--some of the time we got a package per man per week. Some of the time we only got a half a package per man. Each package would have to take care of two people. And then there was quarter of a package perman and then we ran out completely. I think from Christmas of '44 to about the middle of March we didn't have any Red Cross. We all lost quite a bit of weight during that period. All we had was German rations, and they would--they would give us some dehydrated vegetables and as much water as we wanted to hydrate the vegetables, so we would cook them. We got a loaf of bread for every seven men, I think it was, and it would be cut up into very thin slices by one man. He would have to take them, be the last one to take the slices, so there was no point to him cheating and making some thicker than others. They were pretty thin. You could hold them up, see through them. It was very heavy German bread. It was comprised of 50 percent sawdust, but we made the most of it. And when the Red Cross finally came in in March we--it was pretty good. Also, I think in January, a bunch of prisoners came to us from another camp, enlisted men. Amongst them was my--couple of my--who are my friends now, Ed Hayes and Dick McCauley, and some of--I didn't know them at that time but since coming to this POW organization here in Lyons they have become good friends.

Alice Healy:

How did the Germans treat you at the camp that you were Jewish? What did they--

Milton Stern:

Okay. In January--on January 17th of 1945 they segregated I guess most of us, not all of us. They segregated about 220 of us Jewish officers into one barracks in the north one, the old compound. And the poop or jen (ph), as the English called it, was they were going to move us out into a concentration camp very shortly and where we would be probably put to death along with the rest of the Jews. And the only thing that happened--that was on January 17th. On January 19th, the Russians started their spring offensive and they started to move towards us, and I think the Germans--the prison camp saw the writing--handwriting on the wall, and decided toleave us, as I said in my diary, religiously alone. And actually at that point we faired pretty well because the whole barracks was full of Jewish fellows and some of them could speak Yiddish,which is very much like German, and could do a lot of trading with the German guards. So, we made out pretty good at that point. But we had lost a lot of weight by the time the Red Cross packages came. When they did come, they were housed in a neighbor of ours called the Flax Cole (ph),it was for German soldiers to learn how to shoot the guns, flat guns, and the aircraft. And they had these things in the warehouse there and Colonel Zempke (ph), who was our senior allied officer, found out that the civilians were raiding our Red Cross packages. So, we took all of us from the north compound, which was about 2000 of us, and we marched to the flag (ph) schooland wefought off the German civilians. And we--the Red Cross packages came in a cardboard carton with steel stripping around it. And they weighed about--there was four packages in each box, and they weighed about 50 pounds. And as weak as we were, we put them on our shoulders and we carried 2000 of them back to camp. After a few trips, some of the--I only went on one trip--we had about7,000 packages in there. No. There were more than that. There was 75,000. There was about--there was about--when we finally divided it up, because we had no place to put it, so eachman got seven packages. And we made pigs out of ourselves between the steaks and the chops and the hamburg and the packages. We really gorged ourselves. I think many of us got sick on all that food. At any rate, we were looking a lot better when the 8th Air Force got there two weeks later andflew us out. I think that's the end of the story. I should say that I am now a member of the Jewish War Veterans, the Air Force Association, Jewish Air Force, the Air Force Association, the 8th Air Force Historical Association, 381st Historical Association. I was chapter commander and state commander of the ex-prisoners of war. I was state commander of the year '93 and'94. Theremust be a few more, but I can't remember who they are. That's about it.

Alice Healy:

Very interesting. We really appreciate your-- what is your job now here? I know you said you volunteer.

Milton Stern:

Now I am a volunteer. I am the VAVS representative, which means I represent the POWs for the volunteer group. And I volunteer Mondays and Fridays. I'm what they call a VIP ambassador, which is more or less a guy to help do hospital when they come in, when they come in. I am what they call a veterans' service officer also, but I don't work at it. There is only so much you can do and my memory is not as good as it used to be.

Alice Healy:

How many men weekly attend your POW?

Milton Stern:

I would say we have 35 to 40, plus maybe 10 or 12 wives come along with them. Infact, I guess the wives have to come because the husbands can't drive anymore. I myself am an optimist. I bought a new car about six months ago. Well, I had a leased car and it ran out, so Ibought a car. But the VA takes pretty good care of us. They had just passed a new law. It usedto be that we used to get all our medical attention free of charge, even for our non-service connected woes, but now they came out with a rule that they can't charge us but they can charge ourinsurance companies. So, they are sending bills through our--like I am a diabetic, which is not service connected, so they charge for my visits to the diabetes doctor. Well, they have been charging--I go to a foot doctor who cuts my nails because I am a diabetic and because I can't bend over anymore, and they are charging us for those visits. Charging the insurance company, I should say, for those visits, which we are about to fight that particular thing. But all in all, I would say the VA has taken very good care of us and I think I am alive today because of the VA.

Alice Healy:

Very good. We appreciate it. Thank you very much.

 
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