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Our War: Belleville man survived B-17 crash, German POW camp

Nine of the 10 crewmen from Vaughn's B-17 Bomber, the "Speed Ball," survived the crash into the English Channel at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1944. Seven froze to death while drifting in rafts all night.
Nine of the 10 crewmen from Vaughn's B-17 Bomber, the "Speed Ball," survived the crash into the English Channel at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1944. Seven froze to death while drifting in rafts all night.

B-17 co-pilot 2nd Lt. Kenneth Vaughn and his crewmates froze in the English Channel until Germans captured them and took them to a little hotel on Guernsey Island called "Happy Landings."

"Kind of ironic, isn't it?" said Vaughn, 85, of Belleville. "Only two of us survived to make it onto Guernsey Island and the Germans had to carry us because we couldn't walk from the exposure. Our legs were nearly frozen."

Nine of the 10 crewmen from Vaughn's B-17 Bomber, the "Speed Ball," survived the crash into the English Channel at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1944. Seven froze to death while drifting in rafts all night.

Vaughn volunteered for service, knowing he wanted to become a pilot. He knew if he were drafted he might be assigned to a less-than-appealing job.

"I knew we were going to get into war and I wanted to do something interesting," he said. "I knew since I was a kid that I wanted to fly. I built models all the time and I had my room papered with pictures of planes."

Vaughn flew with the 351st Bombardment Group, 511th Bomb Squadron out of Deenethorpe, England. The plane was brought down by anti-aircraft fire and fighter planes. The tailgunner was killed in flight.

From the Happy Landings hotel, Vaughn and about 10 more prisoners of war were evacuated to France and eventually to Frankfort, Germany. The group spent two days on a train.

"We were fortunate," he said. "A lot of people were put on box cars. Because there were so few of us we were put on a regular passenger car -- like real people -- but with guards."

After processing and interrogations, the group found itself at German prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft I, in Barth, Germany.

"We were among the first Americans in the camp. It had been a former British camp," Vaughn said. "When I got there, there were about 600 of us. When I left, there were probably 6,000."

Vaughn was sent to the most escape-proof camp in the region.

"In its entire existence only two people ever made it out," he said. "It was on a sandy shore so if you tried to tunnel under it, it would collapse."

The POWs survived on food they prepared themselves: Porridge, soupy stew, potatoes and a portion of a dark bread.

"There were no greens to speak of and no meat at all," Vaughn said. "We were very hungry most of the time. I weighed 185 pounds when we were shot down. I weighed 145 pounds when we were liberated."

A few creative prisoners tried to use the potatoes for something other than stew.

"Some of the fellas were going to try to make some whiskey out of the potatoes, so they boiled them and let them sit," he said with a chuckle. "When it came time to drink it we saw the mess had eaten a hole in the metal container, so we decided not to drink it."

He credits the American Red Cross care packages for his survival. Once a week his barracks received a package from the organization. It was filled with cans of Spam, candy bars, cigarettes, cans of veggies and macaroni.

The boxes were supposed to last a week.

"The Germans would punch holes in the cans of food to make sure it wouldn't keep," he said. "They didn't want us stockpiling food."

What did a POW do to pass the hours in a prison camp?

"We spent a lot of time reading, walking, playing cards and playing some sports like soccer," he said. "I learned to play bridge there and I still love the game. We had bridge games that lasted several days."

They also spent a lot of time talking about food and women.

"We were young, healthy men," he said, his blue eyes shining with the memory. "You could always tell when someone had eaten because they'd talk about women. When we were hungry, we talked about food."

His dream meal? A big steak, a huge baked potato and a large glass of milk.

Because he was an officer, the Geneva Convention prohibited the Germans from forcing him to work, he said. They weren't tortured or mistreated by the Germans, he added.

"Being a prisoner of war really gave me an appreciation for what I had," he said. " There are a lot of things we take for granted as necessities and when you're stripped of a lot of that you realize it's not a necessity. My main worry there was my teeth. I didn't brush my teeth for six months and when I finally did, it was with a second-hand toothbrush from a British POW."

He only lost one tooth.

The Russians liberated Stalag Luft I in May 1945 but the American prisoners were told to stay in the camp and wait for U.S. forces to arrive.

"One day the Germans were guarding us, the next day we were guarding ourselves," Vaughn said. "We wanted to keep the German civilians out because at that point things were pretty bad in Germany and we didn't want them to get our food."

The "Speed Ball" is still in the English Channel, Vaughn said. He and his wife, Jean, took a trip to England about 15 years ago to visit the site and were able to get a piece of the plane.

He retired from the Air Force in 1967 as a colonel while he was stationed at Scott Air Force Base.

"You believe in a supreme being after you survive some of the things you survive and you feel grateful," he said. "I consider myself very fortunate."

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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