The internment of LTC Irwin
On 18 March 1944 while stationed with the 506th Squadron, 44th Bomb Group (B-24s) at Shipham, England, I was shot down over Friedrichafen, Germany by intense and very accurate flack. On the initial bombing run another group of bombers were directly below us at the bomb release point, so our leader made a left 360 and we went over the target for the second time. This time we dropped our bombs but the anti-aircraft guns really gave us hell. My aircraft had minor damage on the first run but on the second we lost our No. 4 engine. It was on fire and wouldn’t feather. No.2 and 3 engines lost their turbos, our hydraulic system was out, and part of the electrical system was inoperative. There was a fuel leak under the left wing that fuel was pouring from. Our tail turret was knocked out and the belly ball turret was damaged.
My flight Engineer informed me that our fuel supply was fast running out and at this point I decided to head for Switzerland. We were intercepted by a Swiss Me-109 and led into Dubendorf Airfield near Zurich. We used the emergency procedures to lower the landing gear and landed on a taxiway as the runway had other damaged aircraft on it. We landed with two engines out and nearly out of fuel. Our group lost eight B-24s that day thanks mostly to that 360 over the target. Why we didn’t blow up with a fire in No.4 engine and fuel pouring from under the left wing I’ll never know.
After landing we were met by armed soldiers then taken to a room for debriefing. After all crews were debriefed we were taken to an old hotel up in the mountains near Neuchatel where we were to be quarantined until April. I was assigned a room with Lt. Charles D. Waska, who was about as unhappy as I was about being shot down and being in Switzerland. So we found a Swiss Map and late that night (18 March) we headed toward the French border. About two hours later we walked right into a Swiss Army Guard Station and were arrested and taken into Neuchatel and put in a dungeon for the rest of the night. The next day we were taken back to our hotel, put under room arrest and later that day we were escorted by Army Guards with guns and dogs to Wauwilermoos, a Swiss Concentration Camp. In this camp the officers were separated from the airmen. We slept on the floor with dirty straw and one blanket. There was one outdoor faucet for all to use for bathing, brushing teeth, washing clothes and our tin plate, cup and spoon and an outdoor latrine that you could smell a mile away.
The buildings had no heat and the wind blew through the many cracks in the walls. All of this was surrounded by an eight foot barbed wire fence. There were no medical facilities and rashes, colds and dysentery were rampant. The food was terrible. It generally consisted of black potato bread and a thin cabbage soup that sometimes had some potatoes or tripe in it.
The officer in charge of Wauwilermoos was a Swiss Army Captain who was later court-martialed by the Swiss. The guards had guns and dogs and let you know that they wouldn’t mind using them.
I stayed at Wauwilermoos from 19 March until to time in late April. According to my navigator, Lt. Northfelt, the rest of my crew left Neuchatel for Adelboden on the 14th of April. When I arrived at Adelboden from Wauwilermoos, the rest had been there for two to three weeks. We were at Adelboden until the 10th of July when all the officers were shipped to Davos Platz. In both places we stayed in old hotels, ate poor food and were restricted from leaving the villages. In the over six months that I was in Switzerland I went from 185 to 145 lbs.
In mid August Lt. James Mahaffey and I decided to try escaping from Davos, this time with a little more pre-planning. With a couple of stolen passes and train tickets we had bought ahead of time we departed Davos on 24 August for Zurich and then contacted Sam Woods, the American Consulate General in Zurich. He put us in contact with Charles Stopponi, one of his deputies where we stayed until we were taken to the home of George (Tony) Page on Lake Zurich. He was head of Borden Milk Co. in Switzerland. This was to be our home until contact with the French Underground could be made. One of Mr. Page’s domestics turned us in to the authorities and on Sept. 1 the local police came to pick us up. We tried to escape but a couple of shots brought us to a quck halt. We were taken to Zurich and spent the night on the top floor of a six story Military Prison. The next day it was back to Wauwilermoos. I was welcomed back by some of the people that were there on my first stay. The two Russians were still there as were some Poles, Yugoslavians and one Italian. This time we decided we wouldn’t wait as long. We waited about 10 to 14 days until we were accepted back into the routing and then just at dusk, while the changing of the guard was taking place in the front of the building, Mahaffey and I went under the barbed wire in the rear. We walked most of the night, rested and slept a little on some lumber outside a sawmill, and at dawn walked into a small village. There we bought tickets and took the first train back to Zurich. We got off the train at the last station before the main Zurich station to avoid the police that frequented the main station. We then walked to the Stopponi’s home where we stayed until we were taken by car to Geneva and turned over to an American, I can’t remember his name but he was head of IBM for Switzerland. He took us to a café where we met some members of the French Underground. We walked across the border that evening with the French. We crossed at a main border crossing in Geneva. The Swiss Guards seemed to know the French and paid little attention to us. I believe they had been bribed. We were then taken by truck to Annecy where we met up with several other evades and escapees. They were under supervision of an Army 1st Lt. We found that some had been there for quite some time. We were told that we were not to leave Annecy but after theree or four days there and no word on when we might leave, we took off walking and hitchhiked on trucks to Lyon. At Lyon we could to no farther by land. We lucked out and caught a ride in a C-47 back to London. This was on the 25th of Sept. We reported into 8th AF Headquarters in London where we were debriefed. From the 25th of Sept. to the 16th of Oct. I was busy getting uniforms, and going back to my squadron in Shipham for defriefing and more paperwork. I found my footlocker but there was nothing of value in it. I was told by the debriefing officer that he would put me in for the Air Medal. I never heard back about that. After that I went back to London then back to the States by MATS on 16 Oct. 1944.
I have tried to keep this as short as possible and still be factual. I have talked with all of my crewmembers and Mahaffey. They have filled me in on many details that I had forgotten or blocked from my mind. Some things that happened 55 years ago are vague while other things are very clear. I hadn't thought about this phase of my life in over 50 years and now I find myself waking up in the middle of the night with this on my mind.
In closing I would like to state that all information in this statement is as factual as my research and my memory can make it.
Winston C. Irwin
Lt. Col. USAF Ret.