An Oregon “Guest” of the Luftwaffe

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Wing / Historian's Office

History can be a complex subject, finding the evidence of days gone by in documents, artifacts, images, interviews and such.  Even when one is familiar with the details of a given aspect of history, it’s common for new details to emerge.  History is not a static thing, and a surprising amount of information still emerges that can help detail or shape an interpretation of past events.

As a part-time volunteer historian with the 142nd Wing for the last 12 years, I’ve had the opportunity to study the history of the 142nd Wing in detail.  Finding the names of unit members who were killed in action, missing in action (MIA) and/or prisoners of war (POW) was an important project to help in unit commemorations such as on Memorial Day and National former POW Recognition Day and National POW/MIA Recognition Day. 

This research has so far yielded the names of 11 MIAs and 22 POWs.  These men belonged to the 142nd Wing, and if the unit doesn’t take time to remember them, to honor them, no one else will.  It’s important for the unit’s heritage and self-respect to do so.  Their names are listed in the article “Remembering on National POW/MIA Day 2019, here.

The former POW roster will now be adjusted with one new addition.  It was only this year that I found a document in the wing’s history archive with a short reference to one of Oregon’s first military aviators who was a “guest” of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.  In a 1994 newsletter of the 123rd Observation Squadron Association was this line in an article summing up the squadron member achievements in World War II: “One man, Gerald Wilson, spent 14 months as a POW in Germany and returned to fight again.”  This brief reference led to a research effort to find out more, shared here in this article. 

Gerald E. Wilson was a charter member of the 123rd Observation Squadron, Oregon’s first military aviation unit, when it formed in April, 1941.  His military occupational specialty was 748, Airplane Mechanic-Gunner, and he later became a Flight Engineer (MOS 737).  The 123rd was called up in September, 1941 and placed on active duty at Gray Army Airfield, Fort Lewis, Washington.  Like many of the Oregonians in this unit, Wilson was eventually reassigned to another unit as the Army Air Forces greatly expanded during the war. 

Wilson was ultimately assigned overseas to Europe as a flight engineer/top turret gunner in a B-17 replacement combat crew, to 8th Air Force’s 384th Bombardment Group (Heavy) (group motto:  Keep the Show on the Road) at Grafton Underwood Airfield in Great Britain, and to the group’s 547th Bombardment Squadron (Heavy), effective October 23, 1943.  This was at a time of crisis in 8th Air Force when Luftwaffe aerial opposition to USAAF bombers attacking deep into Germany without fighter escort proved too costly.  The loss of 60 B-17s just one week before on the second Schweinfurt raid of October 14, 1943, “Black Thursday,” was a stinging reminder of this reality.

Still, 8th Air Force did not stand down, and continued shorter-range combat missions with fighter escort against the Third Reich across occupied Europe.  As the Mighty Eighth carried on, as long-range fighters like the P-51 Mustang were introduced into combat, T/Sgt Gerald E. Wilson began his combat career on a mission to hit the marshalling yards at Gelsenkirchen, Germany on November 5, 1943.  It was the 384th Bomb Group’s Mission Number 35, and 8th Air Forces Mission 121. 

On his fourth combat mission against an industrial facility to Solingen, Germany, T/Sgt Wilson’s aircraft had to ditch into the sea off Portsmouth, England on its return from the December 1, 1943 mission to Solingen, Germany, likely from fuel exhaustion due to excessively high formation flying speeds.  The entire crew was rescued.

T/Sgt Wilson was up in the air again less than two weeks later.  He participated in a mission against the Germany aircraft industry on January 11, 1944, for which the 1st Bomb Division (including the 384th BG), received a Distinguished Unit Citation, the highest-level unit award (now called the Presidential Unit Citation).

His 20th combat mission turned out to be his last, a mission to the “Big B,” Berlin, March 4, 1944.  Due to terrible weather which frustrated most of the Mighty Eighth effort that day, Wilson’s group had to divert to bomb a target of opportunity thought to be Cologne, but actually Bonn, Germany. 

After bombs away, T/Sgt Wilson’s aircraft, B-17G 42-31606, left the formation under control at 1156, under fighter escort.  Damaged by flak, the crew made it back as far as Amiens, France where the crew bailed out and the aircraft then crashed.  The co-pilot and two waist gunners were able to evade capture and eventually returned to friendly control.  For Wilson and six others of the Lovvorn crew, however, they were captured and taken to Germany for the duration of the war.  (Missing Air Crew Report (MACR) 2739 covered this loss)

Wilson was likely sent to a Dulag Luft (transit camp) for initial screening and interrogation before being sent to Stalag Luft IV POW camp at Gross-Tychow (formerly Heydekrug) in Pomerania, Prussia.  A new prison camp which opened in May, 1944, Stalag Luft IV held enlisted airmen, mostly American NCOs, but some British airmen as well.  By October, 1944 the camp held 7,089 American and 886 British air forces POWs (606 were from the British Isles, along with 147 Canadians, 37 Australians, 58 Poles, 22 New Zealanders, 8 South Africans, 5 Czechs, 2 French and 1 Norwegian.

To give some idea of T/Sgt Wilson’s POW experience, these excerpts from a Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on the visit of October 5 and 6, 1944 by Mr. Biner to Stalag Luft IV describe accommodation and food as such:


The camp is divided into five distinct parts separated by barbed wire fences. Camps (compounds) A, B and C contain Americans only. Camp D contains American and British. The main camp (vorlagar) includes the infirmary, food and clothing storerooms. Today, Stalag Luft IV has twice too many inmates. The men are housed in forty wooden huts, each hut containing 200 men. The huts are only partially finished; new arrivals are expected and more huts are being erected. The dormitories have been prepared for 16 men in two tiered beds. But there are not sufficient beds for some rooms contain up to 24 men each. At camps A and B , a third tier of beds has been installed, whereas beds have been removed from camp D. There is not a single bed in camp C and 1900 men sleep on the floor. 600 of them have no mattress, only a few shavings to lie on. Some have to lie right on the floor. Each prisoner has two German blankets.


None of the huts can be properly heated. The delegate only saw five small iron stoves in the whole camp. Some of the huts in camp D have no chimneys.


Each camp has two open air latrines and the huts have a night latrine with two seats, The latrines are not sufficient as they are not emptied often, the only lorry for this work being used elsewhere.


The prisoners have no means of washing; there are no shower baths as there is only one coal heated geyser in the camp of 100 liters for 1000 men. Fleas and lice are in abundance; no cleansing has been done.



The German food is no worse than at other camps. The first day of the delegates visit, the men had received bad meat, which was however, taken back again and the next day the meat was quite fresh. On the other hand, prisoners cannot check the distribution of rations, the official weekly menus not having been posted in the camp.


Each camp has a kitchen for preparing German rations, except the main camp (Vorlagar). Each camp has five or six cooking utensils, holding 3000 liters; these utensils are sufficient for cooking German rations, but there are no means of cooking food from collective consignments, which it is forbidden to prepare outside the kitchens. Hatton, Greg "American Prisoners of War in Germany"


Eventually, Stalag Luft IV was evacuated to prevent the prisoners from being liberated by Soviet forces.  An arduous forced march of 8,000 POWs in the winter began on February 6, 1945

The march from Gross-Tychow, later called the “Death March,” lasted about 86 days. The POWs marched under guard about 15–20 miles per day.


The guards took the prisoners along a torturous path, with much zig-zagging in order to evade the Soviet Red Army approaching from the east.  Prisoners who fell out of the formation were either shot or bayoneted as the march continued.  Shelter for rest overnight was whatever could be found, a barn maybe, or even out in the open under the stars.  The prisoners had but a couple of blankets and maybe an overcoat for bedding and to keep them warm in the cold weather.  Food and potable water were inadequate, and many prisoners suffered illness.  In general, POWs lost about a third of their weight in captivity.


T/Sgt Wilson survived the European Death March ordeal and was held in other prisoner camps at Wobbelin Bei Ludwigslust concentration camp and Usedom Bei Savenmunde up on the north coast.  He was eventually liberated by Allied forces and returned to friendly control.


Gerald E. Wilson “kept the show on the road” throughout his POW experience and remained in the military after the war, serving on during the Korean War as well as Vietnam War and attained the rank of Master Sergeant.  He passed away on August 12, 2009 at the age of 89 and is buried in Willamette National Cemetery.


On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, we remember Gerald E. Wilson, and the 22 other POWs and 11 MIA associated with the 142nd Wing.  May their service and sacrifice be remembered and honored as we commemorate National POW/MIA Recognition Day.