The internment of LTC Bill Green

Story provided courtesy of the Gleaner in Henderson, KY:

Humor under fire: Light-of-heart attitude helped POW survive

By Judy Jenkins

Sunday, July 2, 2006

The date 7/11/44 was either the luckiest day of Bill Green's life -- or the most ill-fated.

It depends on how one views the events of that 24-hour period when the Spottsville native went from being co-pilot of a B-24 bomber to what was essentially a POW in a Swiss mountain town.

What's that, you say? You're having a feeling of deja-vu because The Gleaner had a story on World War II POW Bill Green on Flag Day this year?

That's another Bill Green. It's an amazing coincidence that there would be two World War II POWS with the same name and a Henderson connection -- unless you consider the fact that the subject of this column was actually James A. Green. But in these parts, he was always known as "Bill."

His sister, Sally Carter, of Henderson, explains that their dad, A.J. Green, had a "warped sense of humor" and nicknamed all of his kids. "My real name is Sarah," Sally says.

I got to know her brother Bill 11 months after his July 23, 2005 death. He made that posthumous acquaintance possible through the 51-page book he wrote a decade ago at Sally's request.

It's entitled "The Story of My Capture and Escape During World War II" and the cover is a full-length photograph of Bill as a young officer. (Is it my imagination, or was every man in World War II incredibly handsome? It seems all of the many I've written about over the years were gorgeous enough to star in an MGM movie about the war, and Bill was no exception).

Before I get into the well-written, humor-under-fire account of that chapter of Bill's military service, let me tell you that he went on to make a career of the Air Force, serving in various commands, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and logging more than 15,000 flying hours before retiring with the rank of Lt. Colonel in 1968.

A week ago, his ashes were entombed at Fairmont Mausoleum with military honors that included the American Legion Worsham Post 40 Burial Detail, a rifle salute and Taps. He initially had intended to be buried in Arlington, but prior to his death in St. Augustine, Fla., decided he wanted to come back home.

In addition to Sally, he has sisters Margaret Edwards and Norma Shetterly here and brother Harold is in Stone Mountain, Ga. Bill, 87, was unmarried at the time he died, but he has four daughters and a son who live in Georgia, California and Colorado.

On July 11, 1944, he started the day in England with a breakfast of "real eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. (Crews got real eggs on the day they were flying a mission. Otherwise it was powdered eggs)."

This was to be his 25th mission, but like all the ones before it, it caused him to have a huge surge of adrenaline and a nervous bladder. The target for the day was the BMW plant in Munich, which was reportedly "turning out aircraft engines believed to be for the new German jet fighter."

Planes got into position on the runway. "Today, we were in the number one spot."

The flight to Munich was uneventful as "German fighters failed to put in an appearance, much to everyone's relief. At a pre-selected geographical point we turned onto a 30-mile bomb run. Now the pilot takes his instructions from the bombardier, who has only this short distance to align the bomber on the target.

"There can be no evasive action to dodge anti-aircraft fire or fighter attacks; otherwise the bombs will miss the target. This is where the flak is the most intense all along the bomb run and over the target. The smoke from the exploding shells becomes so dense that often ships in the other flights can't be seen. Scary!"

Because his was the lead ship, it was first over the target. "When the bombardier calls out over the interphone 'bombs away' the ship usually rises abruptly as a result of losing the weight of the bombs. This time we didn't get the expected rise. Instead, at the exact instant the bombs dropped, we caught a direct hit in the left outboard engine!

"The B-24 practically fell out of the sky, or so it seemed. From an altitude of 24,000 feet we went right down through the following formation, scattering airplanes in a desperate attempt to avoid collision."

The ship went into a dive, but Bill and pilot George Bridson regained control. Then top turret gunner/flight engineer Sgt. Blaine Ashcraft from Harlan County, Ky., reported they were losing fuel from the left wing tanks.

That crippled plane couldn't possibly make it back across the English Channel. Instead, there was an extremely hair-raising landing squat on the border between Austria and Switzerland. Part of the intact plane was in Austria, Bill wrote, and part in Switzerland.

But they were alive, and that was the happy reality that made it a lucky day indeed.

The crew was taken by Swiss soldiers to a Swiss Army Major "who introduced himself as our interrogator. He spoke perfect English and clarified that by informing us he was a graduate of Columbia University in New York. Said his mother was an American married to a Swiss."

For months afterward, Bill and the others were "interned" in a small hotel in Davos.

"Life (there) as an Internee/POW was not to be compared with that of POWS in the Stalags in Germany, unless one committed a no-no, such as getting caught trying to escape," Bill wrote. "That was an automatic trip to the famous Wauwilermoos Prison (where the commandant) was an avowed Nazi and treated the Americans even worse than those in German prison camps."

In spite of that very real threat, Bill decided he was going to make a run for it. There followed a period of time in which he trained himself to behave like a European, holding his fork with his left hand, for example. With the help of some brave Yugoslavian "evadees" billeted in that area and later, some members of the Free French Underground, Bill eventually made it across the Rhone River into France in October and subsequently to England.

He got back to western Kentucky "just in time for Christmas."

There was many a heart-stopping moment along the way, including a train ride in which he sat directly across from German soldiers.

But Bill, whose humor constantly shows through his writing, saw the funny side of a miserable trip in total darkness when he and a number of others who were escaping to France were crossing a section of the Rhone without benefit of a boat, and armed guards were nearby.

A fellow in front of him completely disappeared in the water and Bill gallantly "saved" him, only to have the man take a swing at him and roar that he WANTED to swim underwater "in case the guards started shooting."