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Interview with Donald G. Cassidy [6/4/2002]

Alice Healy:

All right. Today is June the fourth, 2002. We're recording at the Lions Veterans Hospital. We're speaking to Donald Cassidy, who was in the U.S. Air Corps. He served during World War II in the European Theater, and he was also a prisoner of war. Attending are Alice Healy and Claire Fonaker (ph). Donald, tell us a little bit about your background.

Donald G. Cassidy:

Well, as you have recorded already, I was born in the Catskills, August sixth, 1922. And my father at the time was working for an engineering company, a construction company in that area. From there, we moved on to Long Beach, California, and I spent about four years there. From California, we moved to New Jersey, East Orange, and then to Maplewood, and then back to East Orange. And in 1929, we moved to Lebanon, Indiana. And I had most of my schooling, at least primary schooling, in the Lebanon Public Schools. In 1932, my mother died. Four years later -- three years later, my father remarried, and at that point my brother Bob and I moved from Indiana to New Jersey to live with my father and our new stepmother. 1936, I entered Saint Cecilia High School in Englewood, New Jersey, graduated from 1940. And I went to work a few months later in New York City. I worked for Silanees (ph) Corporation of America for two years and then was drafted in November of 1942. My training took me to Atlantic City for basic training. I have been to Sioux Falls, South Dakota where I went to radio school, graduated from radio school in April of 1943. And from there, we shipped out to Kingman, Arizona for six weeks' training of aerial gunnery. After graduation from the gunnery school, I was sent to Salt Lake City, where I joined a first crew. And after joining the crew, we began our, what they call, phase training. First phase was in Moses Lake, Washington, in the desert. If you didn't know Washington had desert, that's where it was. Second phase was Walla Walla, Washington, where we had more, got more flight experience. And the third phase training was in Redmond, Oregon. Upon the completion of our training in the States, we flew across country in a B-17 that was assigned to us, landed at various spots across country to pick up equipment, and continued on to a point of departure, which was Bangor, Maine. We were there for, I think, two nights, left Bangor, Maine for Gander, Newfoundland and Goose Bay, Labrador, perhaps not in that exact order. But we flew across the Atlantic. First stop was Greenland. We were there overnight. Second stop was Reykjavik, Iceland. And we were there about two days, actually. We left Iceland and landed in the U.K. at a remote spot way up in the North Sea called Stornoway, which was part of the Butt of Lewis, geographically speaking. From there, we went down to Prestwick, Scotland, and spent two nights at Prestwick. We left Prestwick and flew down to the U.K., to England, and we were assigned temporary quarters in Bobbington, which was, in addition to being a regular air base, it was a training school. I took additional training in radio codes and radio operation. And eventually, we were assigned to the 390th Bomber Group, 570th Squadron, in Framlingham, England, which was in the east area section of England. We began our combat flight experience on late October of '43, and were on our sixth mission to Solingen, S-o-l-i-n-g-e-n, when we were shot down. We didn't quite make it to the target. The pilot that shot us down was flying in an ME-109 Messerschmitt. And the pilot knew that the controls had been shot up. He gave the alarm, sounded the alarm, for bail out. Out of the 10 crew members, eight survived. The copilot, who was on his first mission, jumped out, and his parachute failed to open. One of the waist gunners stayed with the airplane, and I found out a few years back that, in doing so, he was crushed to death. We were captured, actually, November 30th, or at least taken prisoner, I should say. We had --

Alice Healy:

They knew you were -- they followed, they were able to trace, where your plane crashed or where you parachuted?

Donald G. Cassidy:

The first night, they put us in a little jail, and one of the guards said that, "Your plane is out. It's in one place." I said, "Can't be." He said, "Well, tomorrow morning we'll take you out to the field, and we will show you your airplane," which they did. And it had landed right-side up. Propellers were bent, of course, and the plane was cracked, fuselage was cracked, where the fall, where it hit the ground. And from that point, they took us to a small hut, where the body of our copilot was. They put him in a casket and put it in the back of the pickup truck where we were sitting.

Alice Healy:

Were you over Germany at this point? What country were you flying over?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Germany. We thought it was Belgium, but it wasn't. That was our sixth mission. The crew was eventually taken to ____ Frankfurt on Main for interrogation. We spent three days in solitary confinement, with some bread with a little sugar on it and some water. And eventually, we were taken by train, it's the 40 and 8, you know, the cattle cars, and the enlisted men were taken to Stalag XVIIB, which was just outside of the village of Krems, K-r-e-m-s, Austria. One of the worst parts of my captivity was the train ride from Frankfurt to Krems, because boxcars were crowded. Not everyone, including myself, was able to sit down, so we'd take turns. And it was filthy, cold, no creature comforts. Eventually, wound up, as I say, in Krems, in the Stalag XVII, must have been the first week of December of '43. As far as the records show, I don't think my parents were aware of my situation until perhaps January of '44. Although our regular copilot did send them a letter saying that he was sure that we were all right. How he knew, it had to be probably just trying to cheer them up, you know, give them a little hope. Then began the 18 months or 17 months of captivity. At the outset, we were fortunate enough, at least, to receive a Red Cross parcel per person. Eventually, as the supplies dwindled, the Germans told us that our planes were bombing the Red Cross supplies, we divided a parcel between two people, which we call our bunk mate. The supply varied from time to time. Sometimes we would get the parcels. To supplement the parcels, the Germans gave us soap, but not all the time, which had our desirables in it. Occasionally, they would give us ersatz coffee in the form of bricks, and that was so bad that we decided to use it for fuel instead of trying to drink it. Occasionally, we'd get bloodwurst. Once or twice, they gave us some of that. They also provided sauerkraut, which was just as bad as the coffee, so we used that for fuel, also.

Alice Healy:

How many men were in a barrack?

Donald G. Cassidy:

I was in barracks 18-A. I think there were a little over 100. And there was an 18-B in back of it, probably the same amount, in that portion. In between the barracks, there was a washroom where you could try to wash your utensils.

Alice Healy:

Did you have any forced work or --

Donald G. Cassidy:

The only work that we did, it was just for our own benefit, was to go out to what they call the mess hall to bring back the kilos. It was tubs of hot water, or potatoes sometimes, and bread. Bread was pretty bad. Had to divide up the bread, one loaf or two loafs, and cut it so that each person got, you know, a share, try not to shortchange anyone. At one -- most of the time, when we got potatoes and things like that, we would peel them and throw the peels and things in the garbage. But it got to the point where we thought better that. We would save the peelings and use them for the best, as best we could.

Alice Healy:

Did you have adequate clothing?

Donald G. Cassidy:

I would say yes. Clothing came from Geneva, I believe, from the Red Cross, possibly from Philadelphia Red Cross. I think the parcels came from Philadelphia, through Geneva. And I was very fortunate to receive personal parcels from my family and ____ and that helped me a lot.

Alice Healy:

What was the highest ranking officer in your barracks?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Well, practically everyone was a staff sergeant. When they graduated from gunnery school, they're made sergeant. And then, during combat or the early days of combat, they would be promoted to staff sergeant.

Alice Healy:

Was there one man in charge of the barracks and how --

Donald G. Cassidy:

Well, you had four fellows that had their own little compartment that saw to the distribution of things that came from the Red Cross. And they were our source of information ____. Two Americans that were what they called confidence men sort of took charge of things.

Alice Healy:

How were they chosen?

Donald G. Cassidy:

I have no idea. Perhaps they volunteered.

Alice Healy:

And did you have any informants in your barracks?

Donald G. Cassidy:

I can't help but think that there was one person, and I don't remember what his name was, but it seems to me that there was. There was one fellow in our barracks that was listening, you know, not talking too much, only passing on what he thought was helpful.

Alice Healy:

Did any of the people you know, fellow soldiers, try to escape?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Yeah. There were. Before we arrived in the camp, there were two fellows that had tried to escape, and they realized that when they got over the other side of the fence that they weren't going to make it, so they surrendered, and were shot by the guards. Also, one of the fellows in one of the barracks was shot climbing back into his bunk. As I recall, there were perhaps six attempts at escape, none of which were successful. Each one was foiled, so that word was getting to the Germans, because when the Germans discovered the tunnels, they made the American fill in it.

Alice Healy:

On the whole, how were you treated by the Germans?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Personally, I had no complaints, except for the cold, but I was never beaten or anything like that. Other fellows in the various camps were badly beaten, many of my friends here at the Lions. One, who was Jewish, was taken to a camp called Berga, B-e-r-g-a, and worked in a quarry, and he comes to the meetings every Tuesday. One of the other fellows was a prisoner of the Japanese, or two that I know were prisoners of the Japanese. One was a crew member of a B-29, and the other fellow was a captured in Butaan and was a field artillery. But they lived a miserable life, beaten and practically starved to death. All in all, as bad as it was, enemy ETO, I thank God that I was there and not in the Far East. It was cold, bitterly cold, in Austria.

Alice Healy:

Could you give an example of your daily routine?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Go to the kitchen and bring back soup or whatever they were doling out, you know. Sometimes it was prunes. We all decided that they could take the prune boxes out of the Red Cross parcels and cook them in the kitchen, so that was the area of what we had for breakfast. At lunchtime, they'd give us some oats and bread and some potatoes and that kind of thing. And then after a while, when we were there maybe a month or so, a lot of the fellows who had gone to college and had teaching experience set up classes in the various subjects, such as ____ practical electricity, business law, and French, which was very helpful in taking your mind off the doldrums.

Alice Healy:

Did you lose much weight there?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Contrary to public opinion, I didn't lose much weight, as some guys did. Of course, when I was interviewed by the fellow, he said here, "You mean to say that you didn't lose any more weight than that?" But I was fortunate. Perhaps every six or seven weeks, it's that frequently, we were taken to what they call the delouser, which was the shower. And you had maybe two or three minutes. You brought your own bar of soap and your towel, to the hot water. Then they would turn that off, so you had to work fast. And then they would take us back to the barracks. One of the fellows made what they call little hot burners out of soap. It would melt down the soap, and you'd put a wick in it, and you'd use that to cook food, because there were no utensils, as such. You had to make your own.

Alice Healy:

Did you know that liberation was at hand right before you were liberated?

Donald G. Cassidy:

No, but we did know about D Day the morning of the invasion, that the wireless service radio had made.

Alice Healy:

Did you have a radio in your barracks, or was it in somebody else's?

Donald G. Cassidy:

I forget. It was in one of the other barracks. [Interruption in proceedings.]

Alice Healy:

You got D Day, and then did you get any other news about what was going on through your wireless?

Donald G. Cassidy:

There was a fellow we called Whitey that used to come around to the barracks every morning and get up on a little stool and read out the news that they had gotten from BBC. So the morning of the sixth of June, he came in, and he put an eye hawk on the front door, for Jerry, he said, "Let me know if you see them." And he read off the news about D Day the same morning that it happened. And then, of course, your imagination is running wild, "Well, it won't be long now." It was.

Alice Healy:

How long was it after that before you were liberated?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Well, that was June of '44. And April eighth of '45 we were evacuated from the camp, because the Russians were coming closer and closer from the east, and the Germans wanted to get as far away from the Russians as possible. So we were evacuated in groups of 500, heading west, and eventually ended up in a clearing that the Germans had made, even with a guard tower, which is right on the edge of the village Braunau. It was a brutal place. We were there from the end of April until May third. We were liberated by Patton's Army, Third Army. And it was three or four days later, there was no one in charge of the group of us, so one of the officers of the Third Army came and says, "Get out on the road and head toward town." So we ended up in what was actually an aluminum factory, where we got some Red Cross food.

Alice Healy:

Medical attention, those who needed it?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Not then, but --

Alice Healy:

Did you go to one of those camps, like Lucky Strike?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Yeah, we went to Lucky Strike. In fact, we had stopped at Reid, where there's a surrender sign, and while we were awaiting transportation General Eisenhower and Sir Arthur Travers, the RAF, came up and spoke to us, which was nice, I thought. In fact, Ike said to one of my friends, he said, "Where do you live?" And Charlie said Kansas. He said, Ike said, "Well, save a job for me when you get out of the service."

Alice Healy:

He was respected by his troops?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Oh, yes, very much so. And then we ended up in Camp Lucky Strike. I think we were there for a couple of weeks, at least, and eventually were taken down to the port of Marseilles, and put aboard a freighter to take us back home, ended up in -- this was Staten Island. And the press came out to the boat to interview us. From there, we went to Kilmer. And after that, the next day we were taken back to Fort Dix. And we were told that we would get 60 days' furlough, but we had to report back to the Atlantic City at the end of the 60 days. So we got time to get more acquainted with the folks at home, you know, relatives.

Alice Healy:

When you were discharged, did you use the GI Bill?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Yes, I did. I went to Saint Peters College in Jersey City and graduated in 1950.

Alice Healy:

And what was your field?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Well, the major was in economics, but I started to work with Merrill Lynch downtown, mainly in the stock department. So you can't say that the economics major did me an awful lot there. I was there for about a year and a half. Went to work for Aramco, Arabian/American oil company in the city, and was there for about nine years. 1958, I spent three months in Saudi Arabia with the Aramco people, and then returned and had another assignment in Aramco at my choosing, of my choosing, and that lasted for maybe a year or so.

Alice Healy:

And where was that?

Donald G. Cassidy:

This was in New York City. Then I was out of work for quite a while, and got a transfer, and actually through Aramco, to Texaco, and that was 1961. And I was with Texaco in the marine department and various other departments until 1982, when things got a little tight for the industry, and we were offered a handshake, which was a little bit too good to pass up.

Alice Healy:

And when did you get married?

Donald G. Cassidy:

1950, November 25th.

Alice Healy:

Was it somebody you had recently met or did you know her --

Donald G. Cassidy:

I'd known her for two years, used to meet her at the bus stop.

Alice Healy:

How many children do you have?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Three boys.

Alice Healy:

And when did you start coming to Lions?

Donald G. Cassidy:

About three years ago.

Alice Healy:

How did you hear about the --

Donald G. Cassidy:

One of the fellows called me up, and said, "You should really come down," you know. I think everyone probably said the same thing to whoever approached them, that there's nothing wrong with me, you know. Little did you realize, you know, what actually is bothering you. And it comes out in these rap sessions that we have every Tuesday. So one fellow was in charge of a meeting in Clifton at night. I wasn't particularly keen about going over there, so I dropped that. And finally, at one of the dinners sponsored by the Historical Association, I met Ed Hayes, and he gave me his card, and eventually I called him. And he said it was like pulling teeth in order to get me to. So that was about it.

Alice Healy:

You found these meetings to be very beneficial?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Oh, yeah, very much so. And he helped me fill out all of the claims and what have you, the interviews for the service officers. So he's very helpful.

Alice Healy:

Were you in touch with any of the fellow prisoners of war or your crew?

Donald G. Cassidy:

I used to exchange Christmas cards with one of the waist gunners. And that was about it. In 1993, I got a letter from my pilot, who lived down in Tennessee. And I was tickled to death to hear from him. I called him right away and spoke to him for about half an hour. And he died I think a year or so after that. Actually, out of all of the officers, there's only one left that I know of, that lives down in Georgia. The pilot died, as I say. The copilot died. The navigator had an accident at home when he was working on his car. The car fell on him and killed him. But I haven't had any further correspondence, really. Seems like a long time ago. I don't know what you can piece together out of this, but --

Alice Healy:

It's very helpful, very interesting story. Can you think of any other, I mean, incident or something that pops to your mind? How has the service affected your life? Do you feel it has had an effect on your life, or experiences, not just the service?

Donald G. Cassidy:

Yes. It made me realize that you can't take things for granted anymore, you know. And the old saying that it will never happen to me is so foolish. But I met some very nice people after the war. I think it helped me a lot to realize how fortunate I am and was to have the support from my family at home. That meant a lot.

Alice Healy:

Did any of your sons go into the service?

Donald G. Cassidy:

No. My older brother went into the service in 1940 in Governors Island. I think he was for the MP group that eventually went to OCS, and ended up in the Manhattan Project down in Los Alamos, but he didn't go overseas. One of the younger of my half brothers went in the service, went to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, and got a commission and took part in the Newark riots, 1969 or something like that. So in a good many ways, I think that was a rougher situation than I had.

Alice Healy:

Did you ever go back to Germany to visit? Some of the men went back.

Donald G. Cassidy:

No, I haven't. I'd like to. On the way home from Arabia, a friend of mine and I stopped in at -- I forget what the name of the town was, Bhatahamburg. Because the Aramco plane was sidetracked. It was supposed to go to Amsterdam and landed in Frankfurt instead. But, no, I've never been back.

Alice Healy:

Well, is there anything else you want to add to this? It's been an interesting story, and I certainly appreciate it.

Donald G. Cassidy:

I'll remember when I get home.

Alice Healy:

Well, you can always come back and add anything you want. And we'll copy some of your literature and pictures there and give them back to you.

Donald G. Cassidy:

These, the telegrams.

Alice Healy:

Oh, you have the telegrams, the Western Union?

Donald G. Cassidy:

This is the --

Alice Healy:

The draft notice?

Donald G. Cassidy:

These are from the accident general, whose name was Yulio (ph). Is that the first one, "Deep regret,"?

Alice Healy:

"Deep regret that your son has been reported missing in action." [End of digital video recording.]

 
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