The internment of T/Sgt Luther Hughes

Story provided courtesy of the Shawnee News-Star:

Shawnee resident recalls being POW during WW II


SNS Staff Writer

His head bows slightly as he remembers dropping bombs over France, then feeling his plane headed downward after well-placed German gunfire.

When he raises his eyes, he sees medals and photographs, a certificate of appreciation from the French, signs of grateful nations.

And he is quietly, humbly proud.

Shawnee resident Luther Hughes, who will turn 80 in March, was part of the thousands of Allied forces who drove Hitler out of France, freeing a country whose people are thankful still today.

From D-Day on June 6, 1944, through part of 1945, Hughes was aboard bombers, held hostage and on trial. Then he came home, bringing memories with him and welcoming new ones even as they surface today.

Sgt. Luther Hughes and Sgt. Tommy Thompson are pictured in the mid-1940s during their time overseas in the war. Hughes was the radio operator and Thompson was the tail gunner on a B-17 plane. "We were a bunch of guys ... you had to understand," Hughes said as he looked through photographs of his comrades. "We didn't worry about it. We knew we were there.

"I didn't do anything that anybody else wouldn't do."

Hughes was 20 years old and living in Healdton when he was drafted on Feb. 6, 1943. He went to Wichita Falls for basic training, then Kingman, Ariz., for gunnery school. He had his choice of service branches, he said, and he picked the Air Corps. From there he went to Sioux Falls, S.D., for radio school then Rapid City, S.D., for overseas flight training.

In October 1943, his crew went to England. They were the 570th Squadron of the 390th Bomb Group, nicknamed the Joker Squadron. Months of preparation led up to D-Day, but the men didn't know exactly what was being planned, Hughes said.

"The information was kept secret, but we knew something was happening because the English Channel was full of boats," he said.

Hughes said his crew was scheduled to fly on June 6, and they had been briefed on their target. But their pilot fell and sprained his wrist, and they were called back in.

"They didn't let us back out until after the mission," he said. "Our group flew three missions that day across the water. A lot of them didn't come back."

The next day, Hughes' squadron was back in the air. They flew over France, bombing railroads, oil refineries, bunkers and bridges. Hughes was the radio operator, and his duty was to check on everyone, listen for code calls and communicate among the pilot, officers and enlisted personnel. During combat, he would check every 30-40 seconds to see if everyone was all right. When he had time, he would move to the nearby top gun position.

Their plane was a B-17, and it carried a total of 11 50-caliber machine guns, Hughes said.

"They claimed if all the guns fired forward at the same time, it would stop the plane," he said.

From June 7 to July 12, Hughes' squadron flew 13 missions. But the last one proved to be unlucky. One of their engines was knocked out and gas tanks were riddled with gunfire. They knew they didn't have enough fuel to get back to England, so they headed for Switzerland, Hughes said. They had already jettisoned their machine guns when Swiss fighter jets met them and demanded they land immediately.

"They were German fighter planes. The Swiss traded instruments to Germany for fighter planes, and I could see the red cross on them as they pulled up," Hughes said. "We landed on a little air strip in Payerne, Switzerland, and they drained the fuel out of our plane."

Machine guns surrounded the crew members as they were forced from the plane and had their sidearms taken from them. The Swiss tried to get information from them, Hughes said, but they gave only their names, ranks and serial numbers.

Hughes and his crew were sent to Adelboden, an old resort town in the Alps, where they stayed about four months. Hotels had been turned into holding places, and while they were free to roam around the town, armed guards were everywhere and checked the hotel each night.

Hughes and his tail gunner, Sgt. Tommy Thompson, attempted an escape by simply walking out of the mountains, he said. They made it down undetected but ran into a guard camp they didn't know about. Their large mountain-climbing shoes didn't help with secrecy of sound.

"They hollered at us to stop, but we didn't know much Swiss, so we kept walking," he said. "They had guns and little bitty flashlights. Four or five of them finally got out in front of us, and we could hear their hammers being pulled back. We decided we'd stop."

The two were kept overnight in a hay barn near the ground camp. They again tried to escape by sawing their way out with a Swiss army knife, Hughes said, and again they were caught.

From there, Hughes and Thompson were taken to Wauwilermoos, a detention camp where they spent the next 105 days with many others. Accommodations were significantly less desirable, and their physical condition began to reflect it.

Daily meals consisted of a half-inch-thick slice of Swiss cheese and a small loaf of week-old bread, Hughes said. Bread was often stolen and the meager soup that was offered was watery. Hughes said he lost about 25 pounds in three months.

The barracks were like troughs in a dairy barn, and the men added straw to their one blanket to stay partially warm, he said. The luxury of a shower was allowed every two weeks.

Hughes and his fellow soldiers attempted several more escapes, through previously dug tunnels and by drawing straws to see who would go over the fence. But they remained prisoners of war.

The atmosphere wasn't completely morose, however. Hughes said the men were often quite mischievous, aggravating the guards and their dogs to pass the time.

Sgts. Hughes and Thompson were eventually tried by Swiss military courts for their escape attempts. The trial was held in Zurich and through an interpreter, they learned they were sentenced to 30 days' confinement. However, because they had already been POWs for 105 days, they could be held no longer. They were soon freed in a repatriation agreement with the Germans, Hughes said.

In early 1945, they went back to England, Hughes said, then home to the United States. POWs had their choices of bases, and Hughes chose Denver, where he stayed for six months.

Around Christmas 1945, Hughes was back near Healdton and he went into a store owned by the father of a woman named Marie. She might have rung up his purchases that day, she says, but something sparked and they began dating. On Aug. 27, 1949, they married. Fifty-three years later, they have three children and five grandchildren.

A couple of years ago, Hughes' former crewmate and buddy Tommy Thompson died. But before he did, the two of them reunited, 40 years after going in and out of World War II. "They had to go off to themselves," Marie said softly.

When they were first married, Hughes didn't talk about his experiences in the war, his wife says. But over the years, he has begun telling about his time of service, sharing details with his children and grandchildren.

Even today, Marie says she hears new stories about her husband's role in the Allied effort.