Caged Thunderbolt: The POW experience of William Schleppegrell

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired)
  • 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
Tail End Charlie.  That was where his name was on the schedule posted on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31st, 1944.  2nd Lt. William V. Schleppegrell in the 405th Fighter Squadron of the 371st Fighter Group, who had completed 16 combat missions to date, was to fly the number 12 position in the formation of 12 aircraft scheduled for a mission on Jan. 1st, 1945 from Tantonville Airfield, France. 

"I was a trifle chagrined to discover Schleppegrell was the last name on the list," the Minnesota native recalled.  "It just doesn't take much calculating to see that after 11 Thunderbolts have gone down to dive-bomb a target, those old 'Heinies' down on the ground firing that beautiful and vari-colored ammunition will have had a lot of practice, complete and up-to-date, when it comes to shooting at old Charlie-on-the-end."

The target for this mission was the marshaling yards east of Bad Kreuznach, some 50 miles north of Saarbrucken.  From a takeoff at 7:15 a.m., it was a forty minute run up to the target, which the formation quickly attacked.  A train puffed smoke in the yard, while above the smoke from exploding anti-aircraft fire filled the air as the Thunderbolts rolled in on the target.

Schleppegrell was in Yellow Flight, as Yellow Four, flying Republic P-47D-28-RE Thunderbolt serial number 44-20122.  He lined up the train's engine in his gunsight and released his bombs amidst a sky full of intense light flak. 

"I pulled back on the stick and at the same instant felt a sickening thud and smelled powder in the cockpit."

He nursed his wounded bird westward, to about 25 miles north of Saarbrucken as the engine intermittently cut out and until it started throwing oil.  Schleppegrell decided to bail out, so as not to give the enemy an intact Thunderbolt from any belly landing in a field.  At 1,500 feet now, he knew he didn't have much time to pull the ripcord on his parachute. 

"God help me," he said as he went over the side at about 10 o'clock that morning and now around five miles to the north of Saarbrucken.  He pulled the ripcord, and though it seemed he had some altitude, he barely had time to observe his new aircraft crash into a hill and explode, note the green of the trees and then he hit the ground, spraining a leg in the process.

Schleppegrell landed in an open field under a blue sky and sun in the vicinity of Völklingen, atop a fresh layer of snow with an icy wind blowing.  He hadn't worn winter clothing on this particular mission, as the P-47 cockpit had more than ample heating, and the wind and shock of the experience soon made him cold.  He regained his composure and began to walk toward some trees at the edge of the field, thinking if he could make it to the southwest and get through the lines he could get back to Tantonville.

But soon a civilian passed by the field on a bicycle coming down a country road.  Schleppegrell was seen, though he tried to play it cool.  "I must have been quite a spectacle, no hat on my head and no gloves on my hands or overshoes on my feet, with one bare leg, where I had my tommy pants.  I realized later I was also bleeding from hitting my head on the canopy as I was leaving the plane and I was favoring one leg over the other from the parachute landing." 

As Schleppegrell walked by the German civilian, trying to act as though he belonged there, the man passed him by and then stopped his bicycle and began to shout excitedly.  Schleppegrell started running, but just as he was rounding a corner on the road he ran smack into a motorcycle with two German soldiers and was captured.

After forcing him to retrieve his parachute from the field, the German soldier took him to the next little town. Schleppegrell waited outside with one solider as the other one went into a house to make a phone call.  He remembers, "Out of nowhere civilians began to appear and crowd around me.  One little girl even spoke to me in English.  They were not at all unfriendly and I began to regain some of my senses."

Schleppegrell was interrogated that first day, but only gave his name, rank, and serial number, and was put into the basement coal room for the night.  After repeating the same succinct interrogation the next day, he was taken to a jail cell Neunkirchen from where he could see P-47s dive bombing in the area, and there spent another night.  He was then marched to Kaiserslautern via Landstuhl, which took two days. 

As Schleppegrell remembers in a 2000 interview, "I had a couple of weeks in which (it was) probably the worst times of my experience because I was in solitary confinement, I was put into cold cellars by myself, I was put in civilian jails by myself.  I was finally put together with other groups and we were put on trains, had to march.  On the train we would get to a the town and we'd have to march through the town."  For example, as they detrained to cross through the center of Kaiserslautern, through streets filled with rubble from aerial bombing, angry yelling civilians threw stones and rocks at them. 

They were then taken via Ludwigshafen and Mannheim to the Luftwaffe interrogation center at Oberursel near Frankfurt where he was interrogated and again declined to provide more than the name, rank, and service number.  He was placed in a small cell for the next nine days to think it over, but at the end of that time repeated the minimum.  After that he was transported up to Stalag Luft I at Barth, Germany, near the Baltic Sea coast.

Once he arrived at Stalag Luft I, he remembers, "We lived in barracks, I was in a room with 23 other men.  The whole camp Stalag 1 was for airmen.  In camp we were confined in a small room.  There were eight tiered bunks, three high. We had straw mattresses that were fairly soft when we first laid on them, but after a few days and weeks they became hard as boards.  Since we were being fed very meagerly, we found that our bodies were becoming bruised black and blue, from the boards in the bed, like the 'Princess and the pea.'

"We had three "meals" a day.  In the morning we had a coffee and a slice of bread, usually just with jam or marmalade on it.  At noon we would usually have a cup of soup, (or) of stew and another piece of bread, usually with margarine.  And then at night again we would have another slice of bread and coffee.  The bread that we got was a loaf of bread, or a couple loaves of bread, that had to be shared by the 24 of us, cut into thin slices.

"The soup varied and sometimes we had pieces of meat in it that we found were horsemeat.  The vegetables were almost always rutabagas and potatoes, and sometimes carrots.  Every once in a while we would get the news that we were having real meat at the midday meal. It would turn out to be a great big bone from a horse, and the meat would be carved from that and we'd have a piece of the meat.  The meat didn't really taste that bad, by the way.

"We were supposed to get Red Cross parcels from Sweden and from Switzerland, and each person was to have, I believe, one parcel each week while you were a prisoner of war.  Well by that time in Germany in 1945, their transportation system was so upset in Germany that no longer were Red Cross parcels arriving, and when they were arriving and stored very often they were bombed out.  So that we had to share a parcel every few weeks with other members of my room.

"In these parcels it was interesting, we would get a tin of margarine and we'd get a piece of chocolate.  We'd get a package of cigarettes and we'd get a little can of spam, little package of dried toast. I can't really remember anything else we got.  Then we would begin our trading.  I didn't smoke, and I loved chocolates so I would trade my cigarettes for chocolate.

"Even with the parcels, the meager rations were not enough.  We gradually all lost weight.  I myself weighed around 150-155 pounds when I was in the service in active training.  By the time I got out of prison camp and we got to our at Camp Lucky Strike in France I was down to about 116 pounds, so I had lost quite a bit of weight," Schleppegrell recalled.

As for what he did to occupy his time, Schleppegrell remembers trying to take care of his ailing feet, which were frozen before he got to Stalag Luft I. "I spent a lot of time in camp with my feet facing the sun coming in the window because they'd turned black and were peeling.  That seemed to help as the skin peeled off and I got new skin.  But they still remain sensitive today; I still have a numb feeling in the soles of my feet."

But his foot condition did not prevent him from getting some exercise.  "We were allowed to go outside for physical education and do some calisthenics.  Someone would lead us in calisthenics.  In fact, at this time in the war the Russians were approaching from the east, and we had high hopes of being liberated by the Russians. So in our calisthenics, instead of counting one, two, three, four, we would say things like 'Come on Joe!' We weren't allowed to do this very long before the Germans caught on to what we were doing and we were forbidden to use that."

There were other things prisoners did to occupy their time in the Stalag, as the officers in the Stalag were not required to perform physical labor according to the Geneva Convention.  "Personally I would rather have been occupied doing some work than to be sitting," Schleppegrell said.  So the men resorted to other means to pass the time, such as playing cards, bridge, and cribbage. 

"We did have a small library, books from Great Britain, old books from the past. I did manage to wade my way through David Copperfield and several other British novels that I never thought I would read.  But nothing really up to date and really interesting," Schleppegrell remembers.

Another way to pass the time was in conversation, though Schleppegrell found this to be depressing  as men recounted their war stories and the grim nature of warfare as experienced by a variety of people came to be told.

Regarding the morale of the prisoners, they were aware of the advances of Allied forces, and it helped boost their morale.  "The mental set we had was rather positive because at night we would get an updated radio report.  Somewhere in camp there was a secret radio; someone had a typewriter and would type out the latest news.  We did get news from Germans, but we also knew that news was colored.  When they would say the British were in Hamburg and pushing out from Hamburg, we knew they had probably been in Hamburg a considerable time and were getting closer to us.  And the same thing with the Russians coming from the east.  So we did have that means of communication.  Our morale was good that way." 

The prisoners regards for their captors was not very favorable.  "We called the guards goons, until they discovered what the goons were.  Young people nowadays maybe don't know what goons were, but in the Popeye comic strip they had a series of weird looking characters called goons and so that was really why we were calling the German guards goons."

As the war ended, German forces abandoned Stalag Luft I on Apr. 30th, 1945, and approaching Soviet forces arrived the next day.  However, the men remained in the camp until Operation Revival took place May 12th-14th, when the B-17s of the Eighth Air Force flew in to take some 9,000 Allied prisoners out.  One of these B-17 group's was the 381st Bomb Group from Ridgewell, England, which recently had an annual reunion in Portland, Oregon.

Looking back on his POW experience, Schleppegrell reflects on it.  "How has this affected my life, is the question?  Well, I know it's affected my life in many ways.  One of the very negative things that was done was that I didn't learn how to eat properly, because when I got out of prison camp I just went all out for food, for sweets, for fat stuff, for anything.  I had no sense of eating properly or that and so consequently I put on weight and I've had a weight problem all my life really since that point.  Before that in the service and previous to that I'd been active in sports and I didn't have any problem with weight.  But after being deprived of food and then getting back on food again I found that to be really doing a hard thing.  So it's only in last couple of years thanks to TOPS, being a member of TOPS, that I've been able to take hold of myself and take off pounds sensibly.

"I still have dreams.  I know I have post-traumatic stress.  I think I deal with it OK, I have tried to.  It's helped me a lot to be able to talk about it, my experience, I believe.  I still have fault with the US Government because it took them 40 some years to call me back to debrief me.  I think had I come back to the United States and been able to talk this out with someone, or with people that knew what this was all about, and the trauma and the stress that you underwent. Well just being in service, much less (than) being a prisoner of war, I think that would have solved some of my problems a lot earlier.

"I find it hard to react with people in large groups.  I don't know why that should be since I was in solitary so much. I would think I would be more comfortable in large groups but I am not.  I am not an outgoing person.  Jokingly, at the Newman Club at the University of Minnesota after the war, they called me 'Loudmouth' because I guess I was just the opposite.  I've learned to become more talkative, I guess.  I live with a talkative person, and she keeps me going that way." 

He also remembers some positive effects:  "A lot of positive things have come out of it too.  I became a German teacher.  I felt these were people I had to know more about. I had to know more about the language; I had to know more about the culture.  How could a group of people perform the horrible things that they performed in that country?  And was everyone like that? Was everyone a Nazi?  Those were questions that I had.  Because I became involved in the way I did I think that helped me determine what my future course of life was going to be. 

"And so I did go into education and became a German teacher.  And have since tried to show my students and my friends by example.  But also in the classroom, I used my story somewhat to try to show them there are people bad and good in all countries.  We have a beautiful country; I wouldn't want to be a member of any other country but this.  I am an American citizen and proud of (being) an American.  But I also realize that a German citizen is proud to be a German, proud of their language and their heritage.  I feel that is the importance of learning about a foreign language and foreign culture.  You begin to see that we are not the only country in the world.  There are other countries in the world and they have feelings, they get up in the morning and go to bed at night; they marry and divorce, get buried and go to church and do things that we all do.  I've learned that and tried to instill that in my students."

Schleppegrell considers himself a lucky man, with a beautiful wife and family, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and hopes he can share some of the positive elements of his POW experience as useful lessons for them all.

On this National POW/MIA Recognition Day, we recognize and thank William V. Schleppegrell, who was awarded the Purple Heart, the Air Medal with two oak leaf clusters, and the POW medal for his service and sacrifice in World War II. 

We also honor the other POWs of the 371st Fighter Group in WWII, and the 142d Fighter Group's Orval Tandy, POW in the Korean War.  We remember the 11 men of the 371st Fighter Group, 123rd Observation Squadron and 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron still missing since World War II.  The men and women of today's 142nd Fighter Wing stand ready on the ramparts of freedom, ready to answer the call to duty as generations have before, inspired by examples seen in men such as William Schleppegrell.

142nd Fighter Wing-related Personnel Still Missing in Action

From the 371st Fighter Group

Pfc. Herbert Feit, 371st Fighter Group, 406th Fighter Squadron, from New York, New York, went missing on Apr. 1st, 1945, near Metz, France; he went on pass in Metz and just never showed up again. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Lorraine American Cemetery, St. Avold, France.

Flight Officer William Gorman, 371st Fighter Group, 405th Fighter Squadron, from Brooklyn, New York, went MIA on Aug. 7th, 1944, over St. Nazaire, France; he failed to return from a dive-bombing mission. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Brittany American Cemetery, St. James, France. He was awarded the Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters.

Flight Officer Edwin S. Humphreys, Jr., 371st Fighter Group, 404th Fighter Squadron, from Chicago, Illinois, went MIA on June 8th, 1944, over France; he was separated from his flight during an engagement with ME-109's and did not return to base. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, England. He was awarded the Air Medal and the Purple Heart.

Capt. George D. Pieck, 371st Fighter Group, 404th Fighter Squadron Operations Officer, from Clarksdale, Mississippi, went MIA on Aug. 10th, 1944, over France; his plane was shot up by flak, he bailed out four miles east of Mayenne, France, and landed safely about 15 miles inside enemy lines, but was not heard from again. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Brittany American Cemetery, St. James, France. He was awarded the Air Medal with 13 Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart.

Capt. Uno A. Salmi, 371st Fighter Group, 406th Fighter Squadron, from Lake Charles, Louisiana, went MIA on June 16th, 1944, near St. Lo, France; he led his flight away from a flak concentration and disappeared into the clouds flying downward through overcast. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Cambridge American Cemetery, Cambridge, England. He was awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart.

From the 123rd Observation Squadron

Master Sgt. Bruce C. Green, Staff Sgt. Leonard W. Mayer and Tech. Sgt. Albert R. Miller were all original members of the 123rd Observation Squadron, Oregon's first aviation unit.  All three were lost at sea on Apr. 20th, 1944 aboard SS Paul Hamilton when assigned to 32d Photo Reconnaissance Squadron and went missing when that ship was attacked and sunk by German aircraft in the Mediterranean Sea.  They are remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia.  All were awarded the Purple Heart.

From the 35th Photo Recon Squadron

1st Lt. Merroll J. "Jack" Berringer, 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, went MIA on Nov. 21st, 1944; he was on a photo mission from Flight "H" at Suichuan, China. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery, Manila, Philippines. He was awarded the Purple Heart.

1st Lt. Phillip L. French, 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, went missing on Aug. 31st, 1945; reported missing on an administrative flight from Chanyi to Chihkiang, China. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery, Manila, Philippines. He was awarded the Air Medal.

1st Lt. Franklin H. McKinney, 35th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, went MIA Nov. 5th, 1944, on a photo mission from Flight "G" at Yunnanyi, China. He is remembered on the Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery, Manila, Philippines - there is a report from 2012 that McKinney's remains may have been found at an aircraft crash site near Chiang Mai, Thailand; we are still trying to confirm this report, although his status has not changed in official US channels as of this writing. He was awarded the Purple Heart.