The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local news

November 10, 2012

Surviving World War II

ENID, Okla. — At 88 years old, Enid native Bill Shelton still draws strength from the near-death experiences he survived during the Second World War.

Born in Perry on “Leap Day,” Feb. 29, 1924, Shelton moved to Enid with his family when he still was a toddler.

He has fond memories of growing up in Enid, a process driven to an early conclusion by the dawn of World War II.

By the time Shelton turned 17 the world already was at war, and on Dec. 7 of that year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

During the next few months, Shelton saw his brother and many of his friends enlist in the military.

“My brother was already in the 45th Infantry, and everyone was leaving for the service,” Shelton said.

He wasn’t willing to wait until his 18th birthday to follow them, and he had no intention of waiting to be drafted into the infantry.

“I wanted to get into the Air Corps, but if you were drafted you had no say about it,” Shelton said. “So, I had my parents sign the papers when I was 17 and I went into the Air Corps.”

Shelton had aspirations of becoming a pilot, but he soon found the Army had other plans.

“I was going to be a pilot, but they were loaded with pilots,” Shelton said.

Instead, he went to enlisted basic training at Fort Sill and then on to Wichita Falls, Texas.

“At Wichita Falls they came in and asked for guys to volunteer to be gunners,” Shelton said. “It was a five-week course and you made buck sergeant — three stripes  — after five weeks. There was no other way you could earn three stripes in five weeks.”

Shelton took the Army up on its offer and went on to attend gunnery school, flight engineer school and a long list of other training designed to prepare him and his crew mates for the worst aerial combat in human history.

“Everywhere you went, as soon as you checked in, they already had you assigned to go to the next place,” Shelton said.

The long training regimen drug on through 1942 and well into 1943, as the new aircrew was assigned to the 96th Bombardment Group, a mix of B-17 and B-24 bombers destined to be assigned to the Eighth Air Force.

The lead elements of the 96th Bomb Group arrived in Snetterton, England, in June 1943, joining other fighter and bomber groups that would fly thousands of missions deep into Germany and occupied Axis territory, in the last two years of the war.

Shelton soon settled into his role as a tail-gunner and flight engineer on a B-17 and joined the group at Snetterton in December, 1943.

“They told us when we arrived there we were replacing some crew who had been lost ... they had lost more than 60 bombers over there,” Shelton said. “We were replacements.”

He said the thought of replacing men who already had perished in combat didn’t play much on his mind.

“You just didn’t think about it,” he said. “One way or another ... it didn’t make any difference. You didn’t pay any attention to who you were replacing. It didn’t make any difference.”

He said he and the other fresh aircrew looked forward to their first combat mission, and the opportunity to get into the war.

“On our first mission we had an escort over the Channel,” Shelton said. They could see the fight raging ahead of them as Allied fighters tried to clear the skies of German aircraft.

“We looked ahead and we could see the dogfights going on. We were kind of hoping all the Germans wouldn’t be shot down so we could get into some of the action.”

Shelton said that attitude changed quickly after the first shots were fired, after they saw the first of their comrades go down in battle.

“That was the last we ever hoped we would get action,” he said. “After that, we generally preferred not to.”

As newcomers to the group, Shelton’s aircraft was assigned to the lowest and rear-most part of the formation. Known as “tail-end Charlie,” the spot was the German fighters’ favorite point of attack, the easiest target for ground gunners and the deadliest place to fly.

“Back in those days your lead ships and the high ships in the formation had the longest lives. We thought they were living the life of leisure up there. Back in tail-end Charlie ... that wasn’t the place to be. That’s where all the Germans came in, that’s where they attacked.”

Shelton said he and the other tail-gunners “got a lot of business.” The gunners learned quickly to ignore the official practice of claiming “victories” for shooting down German fighters.

“You’re up there with all those airplanes, and you have 15, 20, 30 German fighters coming in. You have the whole formation shooting at those planes when they’re coming in. Naturally, you’re going to hit some of them. There’d be a puff of smoke and one of them would go down.”

Shelton said with all the guns firing, it was impossible to tell who shot down which fighter.

“We all kept our mouths shut after a while, because you couldn’t prove it. You learned pretty darn quick what to do and what not to do.”

Shelton said the worst missions were to Berlin and the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Germany.

“We always had a lot more action than we liked when we went there,” Shelton said. “And, you never liked to go to Berlin. There was a lot of action over Berlin, getting there and getting back, too. It was a rough target.”

Several months into his combat tour, Shelton’s plane was equipped with radar and moved from the tail of the formation to “Pathfinder.” Not all B-17s were equipped with radar, and the formations would rely on the Pathfinder, or PFF planes, to guide them to target.

“We thought we were fortunate to move up there,” Shelton said.

Unfortunately, the development of Pathfinder tactics forced the Germans to adjust, and they began attacking the front of the formation first, instead of the rear.

“They found out if we didn’t have any radar we didn’t have any eyes,” he said. “That wasn’t a good deal for us.”

The odds caught up to Shelton and his crewmates on May 8, 1944, when they were dispatched to bomb targets in Brunswick, Germany.

The raid was one of the largest and deadliest bombing days of the war. The Eighth Air Force sent 807 bombers and 729 fighters to attack targets throughout Germany, in preparation for D-Day, scheduled one month later.

Shelton said there was no particular anxiety over that mission before they took off.

“Actually, it was just another mission,” he said. “It was just another target to hit. They made the decisions and all we did was try to carry the missions out.”

But losses over the target were high. A total of 36 bombers and 13 fighters were shot down. Ten planes from the 96th, including Shelton’s, were lost over Brunswick.

Luftwaffe fighters fought their way through the protecting screen of P-51 Mustangs and attacked the B-17 bombers head-on.

“In that first wave, they hit our left wing man, and then the same thing happened to our right wing man. We lost both our wing men.”

Shelton said the command pilot, in charge of the entire attack, was yelling orders over the radio in an attempt to regroup the scattered bomber formation, when their plane also was hit.

“He was trying to get the formation back together when all heck broke loose,” Shelton said. “Bad things happened. We got hit real bad.”

A Focke-Wulfe 190 fighter had raked the B-17 with cannon and machine gun fire, disabling the bomber’s control surfaces and starting a fire in the left wing.

“We were out of control for a little while,” Shelton said. The pilot was able to regain control of the aircraft and give one last order.

“He told us, ‘You’ve got to bail out, get the hell out of there.’”

The flight engineer was the first to jump.

“He jumped through bomb bay, and he hit that big radar dome we had on the bottom of the plane,” Shelton said. “I saw the radio operator and the radar operator head for the tail of the plane, and boy, I was right behind them.”

Shelton and six other crewmembers were able to bail out of the B-17. The pilot, command pilot, navigator and bombardier all went down with the plane.

For those who survived the jump, the fight was just beginning. They next had to survive parachuting through an ongoing air battle.

“There was a lot of action going on upstairs,” Shelton said. “I was about to pull that ripcord, but you wanted to get down low and get below all that action that was going on. I wasn’t going to pull that ripcord until I got real close to that ground. It seemed like about a year until I got down there.”

When the parachute opened, it jolted Shelton so severely it ripped the boots from his feet and tore his survival gear and .45-caliber pistol from his body. As he descended, he could see the next threat to his survival forming on the ground.

“When I got closer to the ground, I could see a lot of people,” Shelton said. “There was going to be a committee to meet you.”

The “committee” was a large crowd of German civilians armed with clubs and pitchforks, seeking revenge for the bombing of their country.

“I didn’t think we were going to live,” Shelton said. “They hate your guts. You’re the one who’s been dropping bombs on them.”

A German soldier arrived in time to save Shelton’s life from the civilians.

“He had to pull his Luger to get them off of me,” he said. “He saved my life.”

The German soldier led Shelton toward a nearby town. On a dirt road, the soldier made Shelton strip to prevent his escape.

In the process, Shelton discovered he had been injured. His right eye had been knocked out of the socket, and he had only partial vision from that eye.

Bloodied and naked, Shelton was marched through the streets to captivity.

“We had to walk down this road, parachute under one arm, clothes under the other, just like the day I came into this world.”

Civilians spat on the airmen as they were marched into the basement of a courthouse, where they were met by a Gestapo officer.

“They did a little interrogation,” Shelton said. “They tried to find out some information, but I didn’t know anything.”

The captured airmen soon were packed into a train and shipped east to a new compound at Stalag Luft IV, a prison camp in present-day Poland.

“The camp was still under construction when we got there. They hadn’t even completed the first barracks.”

Shelton was the 101st prisoner to walk through the barbed-wire perimeter. He surrendered his name at the gate, and was known to his captors only as “Number 1101.”

Life in the camp was not pleasant, but tolerable. Author and Stalag Luft IV survivor Charles Janis later described conditions in the camp as “barbed boredom.”

Shelton said the food wasn’t bad during the spring and summer, when prisoners grew their own fresh vegetables. In the winter, fare degraded to a monotony of cabbage soup, with an ever-decreasing supplement of cabbage.

Conditions took a turn for the worse in early 1945, still the depths of winter, as the Wehrmacht began losing ground to the advancing Soviet Army.

Prisoners of war were evacuated from Stalag Luft IV and numerous other camps west into Germany.

Nearly 200,000 Allied POWs were forced to march hundreds of miles under deplorable conditions and with little food. Many did not survive what became known as “The Black March,” or simply “The March.”

Shelton and his campmates from Stalag Luft IV were moved by train to Nuremberg, a trip he said was worse than marching.

“They loaded us in this box car, and they packed us in there like cattle. You couldn’t hardly move.”

The men in each box car were given a single bucket to serve as a toilet.

“Most all of us had dysentery, and it didn’t take long to fill that bucket up,” Shelton said. Human waste soon coated the entire floor of the box car. Too cramped to lie down anyway, the men remained standing for an entire week.

“That’s seven days and seven nights I never will forget,” Shelton said.

From Nuremberg, the men were ordered to march nearly 95 miles to another Stalag camp at Moosberg, Germany.

Shelton said he and the other men from the train were glad to be on the road.

“We would not complain one little bit. We were just glad we didn’t have to use that box car.”

The POWs again were threatened by combat action, this time at the hands of American fighter pilots who mistook them for a column of German soldiers.

“Thousands of us were marching to Moosberg, and one day you could hear the airplanes up above. We knew by the sound they were Americans, they were P-47s, and all at once here they came. They thought we were Germans.”

The fighters strafed the column of POWs and German guards with .50-caliber machine-gun fire.

“We took off to the woods, the guards and everybody. But, all they had were these little pine trees. Those .50-calibers went through them like nothing, and if you ran the wrong way ... well, you made a mistake.”

Shelton doesn’t know how many POWs died in the attack. He just kept running forward.

The survivors were rounded up and marched on to Moosberg and Stalag VII-A. The camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army on April 29, 1945, nine days before VE Day.

Shelton said he and the other survivors made it to liberation because they stuck together, and relied on each other.

“We stuck together all the way through until we were liberated,” he said. “That helped us. We stuck together and helped each other every way we could.”

After the war, Shelton briefly returned to his previous job at a packing house, then moved back to Enid and enrolled at Phillips University.

“I didn’t really know what I was going to do,” Shelton said of his return from war. “The main thing I always wanted to do with my life was be a golf professional.”

After graduating from Phillips, he got his first job as a golf pro at Oakwood Country Club, and made his dream a reality.

He later moved with his wife, Marie, to Oklahoma City in 1951 and Duncan in 1955, following his passion for golf.

Now, more than 67 years after the war ended, Shelton said his experiences in combat and captivity still inspire him to look forward to the future.

“It still helps me now, it makes me look forward,” he said. “You learned to make adjustments and get by. I can always draw back on that.”

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