The internment of COL Mahaffey

     My last mission flown out of England and against Germany in WWII was on March 18, 1944. I was a Squadron Navigator with the 351st Bomb Group flying B-17s. After Cognac, Oscherslieben and Berlin the briefing of the March 18, 1944 target looked like a cinch. The airdrome at Landsberg, Germany just a few miles West of Munich was to be our 22nd mission. This gave us but four to go and I would pick up my Captaincy. It was no longer 25 missions and home, but changed to 30. However, we received a 4 mission bonus credit since we were so near the end of our tour. I neglected to mention that I made up an extra mission when I flew as Group Lead with Harvey Wallace February 22 to Bernberg, Germany. So my mission score was the same as our crew. March 18, “Woody’s” (Lt. George Wood Mears) original crew from Lewiston, Montana was intact with no one killed and one slightly wounded. We were to fly as Low Squadron Lead. The only fly in the ointment seemed to be the yellow nosed FW 190s out of Munich. We had encountered them before. Unfortunately or otherwise for us they had the reputation of being excellent fighter pilots, the best the Luftwaffe had to offer, but they were also gentlemen and sportsmen. Time would tell.
     Only twenty five enemy fighters were later reported but that many yellow noses were enough. While under attack we completed our bomb run on Landsberg. I well remember seeing the 190s out there. The navigator had two flexible 50 caliber guns on each side of the nose. I was up in the astrodome calling out the fighter attacks when the bombardier, Dick Davis, called to me on interphone, “Jim you better get down on your gun, fighters coming in at one-o’clock.” I did, just as a burst of 20 millimeter fire went past where my head had been seconds before and knocked out the pilot’s controls. We also lost our hydraulic pressure, fuel lines, and number one and two engines. There we were one wing low and our pilot “Woody” was changing places with the co-pilot, Russ Ward, to take over his controls and fly the plane. A rather hairy situation. With gas lines out and two engines gone we knew we would never make it back to England so we set our course for Switzerland, enemy fighters all around.
     Just before we were hit a plane ahead of us had blown up and we flew through some of its debris. That will always be engraved in my memory. With that memory still fresh, would the fighters put an end to us too? We fell behind and with no further protection from the Group we prayed and got ready to use the escape hatch. The sportsmen yellow nose FW 190s let us go. Thank God, there’s Lake Constance! But what’s that plane flying up to intercept us? Looks like a German fighter, ME 109. Should we fire at him? No, no, he’s wagging his wings and waving to us. As he slides in next to us, we can see the Red Cross on his fuselage. It’s a Swiss Air Force fighter flying up to us to escort us down. With that the war was over—almost.
     To say Woody’s landing was an outstanding feat of airmanship would be an understatement. After skidding to a halt, we all piled out. The bombardier, Dick Davis, couldn’t destruct the bombsight so while we were still airborne he pulled it out of his mount, pounded it on the floor (I can still see it bouncing up and down) and then dropped it out the escape hatch when we were at about 8,000 feet. Naturally, my destruct mechanism on the “G” box didn’t work either so I pounded it a few times also.
     On coming to a stop at Zurich’s Dubendorf Airfield, we were immediately surrounded by armed guards, searched and taken into interrogation. We gave the usual name, rank, and serial number routine. It didn’t matter, the Swiss knew all about us. Then we were taken to a Swiss resort hotel at Neuchatel for two weeks of quarantine. We had a spaghetti dinner and that night we celebrated our good fortune by drinking all the wine and champagne we could hold. There’s nothing worse than spaghetti and wine the second time around.
     Several days later the senior American officer, Brigadier General Legge, and his aide, Captain Frye, gave us their welcome to Switzerland speech. I’ll never forget that pompous SOB Legge. Strutting around, dressed in his Cavalry boots, swagger stick under his arm telling us how lucky we were, how nice Switzerland was and ordering us to make no attempts to escape. Of course this was contrary to our own Air Force orders to “make every effort to return to your unit.”
     The next day two did make a try for it. Fortunately, they were intercepted before crossing the border- they didn’t know they would have crossed into Germany.
     We settled down to what could have been a great life, learning to ski, hiking, and an occasional pass to one of the big cities. I took one to Zurich. Switzerland became a popular place, we became so many that on June 23, 1944 we had to be separated and our crew was moved to Davos in the German sector of Switzerland. In fact, across the street from our hotel was a small German consulate. We celebrated the 4th of July with fireworks and bombarded the consulate with sky rockets.
     I had met up with an American Lieutenant, Jack Christenson from Tallahassee, Florida. Well Jack was quite a dare devil, he was also a big guy and handy with his fists. One of our favorite pastimes was to come in late at night after curfew and evade the Swiss guards. Jack liked to play the evasion game. Unfortunately, he got caught—so what did he do? Jack clobbered the guard. The Swiss didn’t appreciate this so they were getting ready to ship Jack to the Swiss prison camp Wauwilermoos near Bern. Wauwilermoos was an infamous place, and I got to know it intimately. Surrounded by a high barbed wire fence, it was commanded by a Swiss who had formerly been a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, with all the worst characteristics associated with that type. Not only were Americans imprisoned there, but French, British, Russians and Poles (significantly, no Germans except one). Enlisted men were placed on work details, officers were in a separate compound guarded by armed soldiers and police dogs.
     Jack had no intention of going to Wauwilermoos so he persuaded me to accompany him in an escape attempt. One of the Americans worked in the Orderly Room and we obtained fake passes to Zurich where we had been informed that Sam Woods, the Consul, had set up an escape route with the French (FFI) into France. On August 24, 1944 we made it to the Consulate and Same set us up with an American civilian, George “Tony” Page, living on the Zurich See (Lake Zurich). Tony was head of the Borden Milk Company in Switzerland. We were to stay with Tony until contact with the French underground could be made.
     The Swiss are very nationalistic. One of Tony’s servants turned us in to the authorities and on September 1st the local gendarme came out to pick us up. Jack and I ran down to the beach but when a few shots were fired at us we raised our hands. Enough was enough- we had been prepared to die for our country over Germany but not in Switzerland.
     Zurich at that time had a six-story military prison which was similar to most jail houses and we were put in the jail behind bars on the sixth floor. However, since it was so high the one window had only heavy screen mesh wire on it. I mentioned that Jack was a daredevil. That night he kicked the screen out of the window. Next door we could see an apartment/office building with balconies facing the jail. Fortunately, European guttering is very heavy weight, our roof was a slightly slanted tile one. We crawled out the window across the roof, occasionally getting a foot hold on the gutter watching for the guard patrolling the brick courtyard below. Then we jumped to the balcony of the office building next door. Luckily, its door was unlocked. Who would think a prisoner would be crazy enough to try an escape that way? We went into the hall to go down the stairs. The stairway had a folding iron mesh guard across it from top to bottom and was locked. Hearing a building guard, we made our way back to our cell the same route we had attempted our escape.
     The next day we were taken to Wauwilermoos. Jack had made it there after all, and I reluctantly was to accompany him. Several weeks of sleeping on straw and eating food that was brought to us in slop cans was enough for me. A fellow prisoner was a German Unter-officer who had deserted the Germany Army (it seems he had been working for British Intelligence and was about to lose his cover). I later verified this after meeting the Chief of British Intelligence in Switzerland. At 2 o’clock AM on September 18 he and I crawled under the barbed wire and hiked into Zurich and made it back to the consulate. While there, arrangements were made to have a cab driven to a road near Wauwilermoos to pick up some others making their escape two nights later. I was to be moved to the home of the vice-consul. Since the Consulate didn’t want the Swiss to suspect his activities, I was to go there on foot. It was only three blocks away. I got two blocks from the consulate, turned the corner and walked right into the arms of the same Swiss guard who had taken me to Wauwilermoos originally. He was not satisfied with my explanation that I had left camp on a pass. He escorted me back to the military prison to spend the night.
     The Swiss didn’t realize that the reason I was smiling was that I would escape again two night later, on September 21. I was welcomed back to Wauwilermoos by a Polish prisoner whom I had met earlier. He worked for the Commandant and hated his guts. The Pole confided in me that he had a knife and asked if I would like to go with him. He was going to kill a guard and escape over the fence. How do I meet these people? First it’s Jack who clobbers a guard and gets thrown into prison camp. Then it’s this Pole who wants to kill a guard. Not for me. The Swiss played it for keeps. I had heard that while I was away the Russian barracks had been raising hell, shouting, etc. To quiet them down the Swiss lined up outside the barracks and shot a few vollies into it. Reputedly several Russians were killed.
     The Swiss had no great love for the Russians. Incidentally, we did have a Russian officer in our compound. He would talk to no one. He just sat in a corner on his bunk all day long, saying nothing and very expressionless.
     On the pre-arranged night, September 21, five of us crawled under the fence across the field and met the cab. We knew from timing the guards when they would be in the guard shack listening to news on the radio. Again back to the Consulate, Sam Woods got us civilian clothes and this time we were escorted to the Bahnhof and placed on a train to Geneva at about 3:30 PM on 25 September. Each of us was scattered throughout the car, given a Swiss German language newspaper and told to be inconspicuous. Fortunately all the conductor asked for was our tickets.
     It was beginning at this time that the British troops interned here were being released by the Swiss by train into Allied occupied France. On arrival in Geneva, I was hidden out in a wine cellar, given a British “great coat” and told to wait there and get on the troop train the next morning. Swiss wine certainly fortified my courage. Without the spaghetti of my first night in Switzerland, I felt OK on that my last day in Switzerland.
     The next day, September 26, I got on the train without a hitch. The Brits and South Africans recognized me as an American and covered up for me when Swiss inspectors came around at the border. I detrained at Annecy, France at 11:45 AM and waited there a few days until a C-47 flew in and picked us up. As I recall, there were about 25 of us waiting at Annecy to be brought back to the U.K. Even at Annecy some were inclined to have their fun. A couple of them went up to the front lines to fight with the troops. It was in Annecy that I saw female prisoners with shaven heads. I visited the prison where those French who had been collaborators were being held. The guard offered me any woman who was to my liking. Somehow, a woman with a shaven head doesn’t have much sex appeal. I declined the offer.
     On return to England and interrogation by American Intelligence, I took great pleasure in recounting the order given us by Brigadier General Legge. Intelligence was also trying to ascertain all that could be told of the crew or crews who came into Switzerland packed for a long stay (this was later debunked). After a short few days in London, I went back to Polebrook.
     Major Carraway was then CO of the 511th Squadron. He informed me that because I was an escapee I would be returned to the States. While at Polebrook, the statistical officer provided a record of my missions, results, etc. Much of this information that I was able to relate came from a scrapbook that I assembled a few years ago. It contains many news articles of missions as was told in Stars and Stripes. These and other mementoes, pictures, etc. of Switzerland I had sent to my wife between October 1943 and October 1944. I suppose throughout the activities of that year, the only thing I’ve ever been bitter about was that we were shot down on our 22nd mission. Had it been just three missions more- our 25th, we would have gotten the Distinguished Flying Cross which was never received. But believe me, I’m just a proud of that Air Medal with its three oak leaf clusters as any Bronze or Silver Star which we might have been awarded. I firmly belive Woody should receive official recognition for his airmanship on our last mission. Unfortunately, if he does it would come posthumously.