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Our War: Radio operator on B-17 bomber was captured late in war

Portrait of Frederick Adams he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1943.
Portrait of Frederick Adams he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1943.

Frederick Adams was an amateur pilot as a teenager and figured he would eventually join the war effort flying bombers over their targets.

But when he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps in March 1943, the pilot training schools were already full of eager volunteers. So the guy from Berwick, Pa., who was used to being at the controls was instead assigned to be a radio operator on a B-17 bomber. He sat cramped in a cubicle near the bomb bay.

"I wasn't happy about it," Adams said. "But you had to do what they told you to do. So you made the best of it. But I didn't like sitting in that cubicle."

The decision to send the newly minted private to radio school brought Adams to the metro-east because training was at Scott Field near Belleville. In between training sessions, the soldiers socialized at events on the base.

"They had a dance one night and they had all the men lined up on one side and the women lined up on the other," Adams said. "When you got to the front of the line, you danced with the girl who was at the front of the other line."

Adams counted the girls as he got to the front of the line and decided he didn't like the one he was going to be matched up with. Her hair was up on top of her head in a style of which the young flier wasn't particularly fond.

"I asked one of the guys to trade places with me, but I must have miscounted," Adams said. "I ended up with the one I was trying to stay away from."

Usually, when soldiers didn't like the girl they got by the luck of the draw, they danced with them one time just to be nice. Then they excused themselves to go to the restroom or to get a Coke. They never came back.

But sparks flew during that first song. When his buddies went looking for Adams, he told them he decided to keep the girl, whose name was Gladys. They married in June 1944, just before Adams shipped out to England. They celebrated their 64th anniversary this year.

When he arrived in England, Adams would write letters to his new bride. In them, he secretly told Gladys how many missions he had flown by pretending to report on how many love letters he had received from her.

He'd say he got her 10th letter one day and the 11th shortly thereafter. There was no 12th letter.

On a raid in January 1945 over Mannheim, Germany, Adams's bomber -- named Olkers' Jokers after pilot Tom Olkers -- had just dropped its payload on a factory and was turning for home when a direct hit from an anti-aircraft battery split the plane in half at the wing -- right where Adams was sitting.

With no warning, he was flung from the plane into the atmosphere. He was plummeting to earth.

Adams pulled the ripcord on his parachute and nothing happened. He noticed the pin that held the flap closed on the chute bag was bent. He worked at it as he sped toward the ground.

He got it straight, deployed the chute and maneuvered past a tree just before he hit the ground.

There was no sign anyone else made it out of the plane.

A trio of German farmers quickly captured him and handed him to the military.

It was late in the war and the German army was desperate. It was being populated with kids and senior citizens because so many men in their 20s and 30s had been killed in the fighting.

"There was a group of us that was marched to the POW camp by a couple of old men," Adams said. "One guy was so old that we ended up carrying his gun for him because it was slowing him down. We wanted to get to where we were going so we could get something to eat."

With the war rapidly coming to an end, the Germans had few soldiers to spare guarding prisoners. The guards they had didn't seem very interested in their work.

Adams and another POW took advantage of the situation and stole a German military motorcycle. They rode into the nearest town.

"We went to a farmhouse and asked the people who lived there for food," Adams said. "They cooked us a chicken dinner. It was really good."

At least that's what the men thought after subsisting on a thin soup and dry bread for months.

While they enjoyed their excursion and planned their next move, Adams and his buddy learned that Gen. George Patton had liberated the area.

"We figured we better get back to the prison camp so we could get home," Adams said.

It was off to France to get on a troop ship for the cruise back to America. Once aboard, Adams thought he saw a ghost. As he shivered on deck, he realized not only that his pilot had survived the crash, but that Tom Olkers was standing there right in front of him.

Olkers, who still had his leather bomber jacket, gave it to Adams.

"He told me to come below deck with him where the officers stayed," Adams said. "With his jacket on, everyone would think that I was an officer."

Finally stateside in mid-1945, Adams arrived on the East Coast and went to his parents' Pennsylvania home.

"His sister called and told me not to come out there for at least 10 days," said Gladys Adams.

She had waited three long months after her last letter to learn her husband was alive and in a POW camp. It was another three months before she got to see him.

"He was so skinny after being a prisoner that they wanted time to fatten him up."

Waffles with fried chicken, a Pennsylvania favorite, did the trick in no time, Adams said.

"It was better than that prison camp soup, that's for sure."