On May 11, 1944, Del Wagner of Belleville became a prisoner of war.
The 84-year-old U.S. Army Air Force veteran spent 11 days less than a year in Stalag Luft IV, a German prison camp in East Prussia.
"It was supposed to be my last mission before going back home," he said. "It was my 31st mission, and we were headed to LeHavre, France. We dropped our bombs on target and turned to head back to London."
Wagner joined the military at 19 and trained as a radio operator aboard a B-26 Marauder with the 9th Air Force.
"I figured I would be drafted eventually anyway," Wagner said. "So, I just decided it was best to give Uncle Sam my service."
He was one of a crew of six aboard the bomber trying to soften up enemy positions in advance of D-Day. His crew bombed German munitions storage sites and camps in Brussels, Holland and along the French coastline as well as all along the European coast and into Germany.
The plane, which flew at a low altitude about 10,000 feet, was fatally hit by fire from German forces on the ground in the early hours of May 11, 1944.
"The pilot announced he was going to have to hit the drink and we would have to bail out," Wagner said. "A piece of shrapnel went through my radio and the plane was badly torn up. I tried to help the co-pilot, but there was nothing I could do for him."
The co-pilot and navigator went down into the English Channel with the plane.
"As I was hanging there in the 'chute, I could see and hear the gunfire going through the canopy, putting holes in it," he said. "I could see it jump every time it got hit."
He misjudged the distance between the murky, cold waters of the English Channel and his body and released his parachute too soon, worried that if he released it too late he'd be smothered by it and drown.
"I hit the water so hard it almost knocked me out," he said. "The water was cold -- very, very cold."
German soldiers rowed out to pick him up in a small fishing boat.
"I never saw any of my crew members again after getting picked up," he said. "None of them were imprisoned with me."
He and 41 other POWs were loaded into cattle cars on a train and transferred to the prison camp in East Prussia. The trip took three days. There was no water, no food, no stops and no bathroom facilities.
"It was the worst mess you could ever imagine," he said. "I imagine even if we had gotten food, we couldn't have eaten anything because of the mess and the stench."
For the next 11 months he endured humiliation, cold, hunger, filth and fear in the company of several other American and British POWs in the German prisoner of war camp.
He slept in cramped barracks with other POWs on small cots with straw-filled pallets made of burlap. They kept warm under thin, gray blankets.
Meals were thin soups of dried kohlrabi, potatoes, cabbage, turnips and occasionally other vegetables or barley. Sauerkraut sometimes ended up on their plates. Once a week, a slice of solid, heavy black bread was included.
Occasionally, skinny horses killed by 50-caliber bullets were brought in to the camp. Then they had small chunks of stringy meat in the stew and bones to suck the marrow from.
The inmates made decks of playing cards from cardboard to pass the time. They were used so often it quickly became easy to tell an ace from a deuce, Wagner said.
The Christmas Red Cross packages brought decks of slick playing cards, cigarettes, canned meat and candy to the POWs.
The Russians were getting closer and closer to the camp. Prisoners could hear the guns in the distance and every night, they seemed closer.
On Feb. 11, 1945, Wagner and the rest of the Americans were evacuated from the camp and forced to march during the cold winter months.
"They didn't want the Russians to have us," Wagner said. "We walked more or less in circles toward France, toward the middle of Germany, from early in the morning to dusk."
When Wagner and a couple of other POWs noticed they were walking in circles they made plans to escape. They used a friendly farmer's desire to save his barn from bombing to help make their escape.
The men snuck away from their captives late one night and hid in the farmer's barn until they heard the artillery of approaching American forces.
"We saw a Jeep coming down the road with Americans in it," Wagner said. "To the best of my knowledge, that farm was passed and didn't get bombed."
He was liberated on April 17, 1945, his birthday. Wagner had just turned 22.
The war made him a better person, he said.
"It taught me to appreciate what we have in this country more than I ever did before," Wagner said. "It made better people out of all of us. It's something we did for our country. We don't regret it. I wouldn't do it again for a million dollars, but you couldn't take those experiences away from me for a million dollars, either.
"The younger generations can't really understand what we went through. We can give the details and the facts, but that's not all of it. You can't absorb all of it unless you were there."
Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at email@example.com or 239-2667.