Biography of A. Edward (Abe) Wilen
Navigator, Crew #8, 732nd Bomb Squadron, 453rd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, POW
I was a B-24 combat Navigator who flew 20 bombing missions against the enemy. I was assigned to the 732nd Bomb Squadron, 453rd Bomb Group, 8th Air Force.
I went through phase training at March Field, Riverside, California. On some weekends we would go to Lake Arrowhead.
I was assigned as Navigator for Witton's Crew, Crew Number Eight. The rest of the crew included Bombadier Walt Conneely, with whom I became friends. Walt had a positive out look on life and always kept us upbeat and laughing, whether it was out socially, on a Bombing Mission or later in POW camp. Our Top Gunner was Joe LeBoeuf.
After training it was time to fly to England. We had blown an engine on take off at Hamilton Field in San Francisco. We had to wait for a new engine and then the fog to lift before we could take off.. When we were ready we took the Southern route through Brazil and across to Dakar, Africa to cross the Atlantic. We finally caught up to some of the crews that had left earlier in Marrakech, Morocco.
Here we took a photo. This photo had a friend of mine, Eugene McDowell, standing at the left, a local gendarme in the center and myself at the right. Sitting were Vic Mikko, Navigator and Bill Bates, pilot of their crew. At that time McDowell signed my "Short Snorter". Which is a dollar bill signed by witnesses of a crossing of the Equator. I still have that bill with fading signatures of several 453rd crew men.
We flew on, eventually reaching our destination in England. The 453rd would be stationed at Old Buckenham. At Old Buckenham, two crews of 4 officers each were assigned to a Nissan hut. Bates` crew and Witton`s crew shared a hut. Here we took another photo, of Eugene McDowell and Abe Wilen. Eugene McDowell was co-pilot of Bates crew and I was Navigator of Witton`s crew, both original crews of the 453rd Bomb Group.
In early 1944 while I was flying as a combat Navigator on B-24s with the 453rd Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force we were informed that the movie star Jimmy Stewart had joined our group as our new operations officer. His job was to brief us on our missions, help plan and at times to de-brief after the flights ended. We were all there to fight, win a war and stay alive. We accepted him as one of us.
One day after a mission we heard an announcement, "Anyone from Pennsylvania come to operations. Being from Monessen, Pa, I reported in. They had photographers and wanted to take pictures of Jimmy with other Pennsylvania airmen.
There were 4 of us and Jimmy, Keith Dibble, Roger Counselman, Joseph Fiorentino and myself A. Edward (Abe) Wilen. We took 3 photos. One where we were looking at a map of Germany, where I was sitting at the edge of a table on the extreme right pointing to the map .I was the Navigator of the group. On another the 5 of us were walking away from the plane "Male Call" with Jimmy in the center and me at the extreme right again. The 3rd was in a Jeep with Jimmy at the wheel while I was in the back seat. Jimmy, a Command Pilot, also flew 20 missions over enemy territory.
A month later on May 8,1944 on my 20th Mission we were shot down by enemy fighters on a mission to Brunswick. We had to bail out.
Those of us who have had to use a parachute to save our lives appreciate the contribution of the men behind the scenes, like the man who packs our chutes. The movie star Walter Mathau was a parachute packer with our 453rd Bomb Group. These people are always quietly in the background, never recognized, rarely acknowledged but ever so important. The chutes they packed saved our lives.
When we went down my brother by coincidence was visiting our base and awaiting our return. He was at an air base several hours away and was returning a visit I had previously made to his base. My friend McDowell helped him pack some of my belongings and gave him all my personal items.
I spent the next year in 3 different German Prisoner of War camps starting with Stalag Luft 3, where "The Great Escape" took place. A movie was made about this.
The Escape that was depicted in the film was an effort that led to 76 men escaping from the camp through a tunnel, but many were caught. Everyone gave up trying to escape after the 76 tunnelled out and 73 were picked up and 50 of them were executed, the ashes brought back and we were told the same would happen to anyone trying to escape.
Beyond escape the only other interests we could have were in food, keeping active with walking and sports to keep fit. In the beginning at Luft 3 some men formed a theatre and put on some shows. There was card playing and a little reading of books the Red Cross brought. But after we marched out Jan. 27, 1945 all this stopped. Staying healthy and surviving was our only objective.
On January 27, 1945 10,000 Allied Air Force Prisoners Of War in STALAG LUFT 3, Sagan , Germany started a DEATH MARCH. The Russian Army was 15 kilometers from our camp. The Germans wanted to hold on to us for bargaining purposes. The Allies were insisting on unconditional surrender and the Germans thought they could negotiate with us as a bargaining chip. At a staff meeting that afternoon Adolf Hitler announced that our camp would be evacuated to keep the Russians from liberating us.
The order triggered an ordeal and an adventure that would be frozen for life into the psyches of every Kriegie ( POW) who survived it.
Our senior American Officer notified us that we had been given 30 minutes to be at the front gate! Get your stuff together and line up.
There was a frenzy of preparation, improvising back sacks, putting on layers of clothing to protect against the sub zero cold. Snow covered the ground 6 inches deep and was still falling. As we waited the icy winds penetrated our clothes and froze our shoes stiff on our feet.
The first compound moved out at 11:30 PM and we in the West compound followed at 12:30 AM.
The word was that anyone who tried to escape would be shot.
Horse drawn wagons followed to pick up frozen bodies. As a column before our compound was rounding a curve shots rang out from all sides. Everyone dove for ditches or to get as low as we could. After a while the shooting died down and left a few bleeding.
We marched a total of 50 miles to finally get to a railroad yard at Spremberg. Here after rest and thawing out we were split up.
Those that were in the best of shape were entrained to Stalag 7A, Moosburg near Munich and near the Concentration camp, Dachau. My co-pilot and Bombardier were with the group going to 7A.
Those of us that were in worse condition were, this included my Pilot and myself, the crew navigator, were jammed into old boxcars. 60 into cars that hold 40. There was very little air coming through the cracks in the walls. We were jammed in to the point that all of us couldnt sit so we took turns sitting and standing. Men had nausea and dysentery and since we couldnt get out to relieve ourselves, the car stunk to high heaven.
Approximately every 6 hours they stopped, opened the doors so we could relieve ourselves. When we did, if there were any of the local people around they stared in disbelief. Meanwhile our own planes bombed and strafed the cars thinking they were enemy troops. When German military trains went by we were moved to side rails.
What seemed like an eternity but was really 3 days we arrived at our destination, Stalag 13D, in close proximity to the Railroad yards just outside of Nurnberg. Italian POWS previously used this camp.
The place was a mess. Wet and damp, vermin and bugs crawling all around, not enough bunks, no inside toilets. In order to sleep we had to double up in 3-foot wide bunks with our GI issue overcoats and blankets since there was also no heat. If we had to use the toilet during the night, since we could not go to the outside latrine after the doors are locked for the night, we all used a large can at the end of the barracks. The following morning those of us who used the can during the night had to help empty it into the outside latrine. We arrived Feb.4 during the coldest winter in 25 years so it was difficult to get comfortable with no heat, not enough bunks and very little food.
Then we got word that a Red Cross representative was coming to inspect the facilities. Bunks were brought in, heating stoves were installed and the horrible inadequate food improved ever so slightly.
At no time were there any medical supplies or facilities before, during and after the inspection. Food was always insufficient and horribly tasting.
One day late in February, the 8th Air Force came over to bomb the railroad yards. The guards had permitted us to dig slit trenches so we stayed in them and watched our own bomb groups come over and drop their bombs on RR yards. That was the only daylight raid. However many times at night the British would come in single file and each plane would drop on the leaders signal flare. The Germans placed flares all around to create confusion. The following planes had to guess where to drop their bombs. The guards had their machine guns trained on our barracks to make sure no one tried to get out. We used to see the light of the explosion, count the seconds until we heard the sound and we knew how close the explosions were to us. In error one of the bombs dropped on one of our barracks and killed 62 men.
The enclosed areas were small and we had no room to be active and exercise or engage in any sports as we did at Stalag Luft 3. Besides being hungry, cold and inactive we had to hope that we didnt come down with any illness since there were no medical facilities, supplies or Doctors.
Some of the British had clandestine radio receivers and we could keep up with the BBC and the progress of the war. The reports were that Gen. Pattons 3rd Army tanks were heading in our direction. Since the Germans were hoping for a negotiated end of the War they wanted to hold on to as many Allied and particularly American Air Force Officers as possible for a trade off. As a result we got orders to march, ten weeks after arriving at Stalag 13D. We were going south to Bergdesgaden, Hitlers retreat in the mountains. As we were preparing to leave the camp we got word that President Roosevelt had died. Not only were we sad but also we got the empty feeling that our country would give up the war and abandon us.
The weather had improved by this time in April and during the March we were permitted to stop at some local farms and trade cigarettes and chocolate from former Red Cross packages for some fresh eggs or milk.
Seeing lines of men marching on the road our fighter planes thinking we were enemy troops would dive down and strafe us as we dove for the ditches. After several times some one got the idea to tear up anything white that we had and spell out POW beside the road. The planes wagged their wings and passed the word on.
Eventually, actually it was 10 days, we arrived in Stalag 7A, Moosburg where we met up with those of our group that had gone directly from Sagan. It was a great reunion that my Pilot and I had with our Co-Pilot and Bombardier. However since they had no more barracks available we were all put in tents. Things were looking up, the weather was better, and the news had our Armies getting closer. We were permitted to dig slit trenches for protection. Food was a little better; there were medical facilities if needed.
Then of the morning of April 29, 1945 we awoke to the sound of gunfire from the guards firing out and tank shells coming in our direction. Since the tents were no help we went for the trenches we had dug.
The fear of getting killed so close to liberation was uppermost in our minds. As the tanks came over the hill and started toward the camp we kept as low as we could. They broke through the gates and as they did someone pointed toward the guard quarters. One of our men had climbed the flagpole, pulled down the German flag and put up Old Glory. 130,000 Allied POW`S cheered until they were hoarse.
Some of the men went for the food, what they had hidden, what they found in the camp kitchen, what the Tank corps. men gave them and got very sick. Their stomachs werent able to cope.
Our Liberators were the 14th Armored Division of the 3rd Army. The following day General George S. Patton the Commanding Officer came in and gave us a welcome home speech.
They drew lots to see in what order we would be flown out. Our tent got lucky, we were the first ones to go. We got on a German train, on to an airfield then on to a DC3 to Camp Lucky Strike in LeHavre, France . That was May 3, 1945. 5 days later the war in Europe ended.
Although we were liberated I realized that I was still deeply affected by my experiences. The experiences of a Prisoner of War are unique. POWs fought in two wars. First they fought the enemy with guns and bullets, second they fought to survive unspeakable conditions in POW camps. By using their wits, those who kept their faith in God and America, disciplined their thoughts and actions and survived.
After liberation, their bodies were free but their minds would forever be captive. They can never forget the hunger, the brutality of their captors, the loneliness and fear resulting from their capture. These memories and recurring nightmares will haunt them for the rest of their days. What was it all for? The POW`s duty and desire was to stay alive. Perhaps to fight again, at least to return to home and family. The primal reason for survival left the POW with an understanding of what was really important in life.
When I arrived back in the United States after liberation from POW camp, it was May 29, 1945, we watched silently as we passed the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. I had nothing to say, my heart was too full for words. I had never fully realized before going overseas just how wonderful this country of ours is. Like most Americans I had always taken for granted my complete liberty, freedom of speech and countless luxuries that I considered my heritage as an American.
My year of oppression, of want, of hunger, of loss of hope, of loss of dignity, of constant fear in 3 Prisoner of War camps had changed my perspective completely. My feelings were: We are Home, we are Free, we are Americans, we are Proud and we are Grateful.
After liberation and after the end of the war I went back to the University of Pittsburgh to get my degree and went into business in Monessen, Pa. In 1965 I read a story in the column of Kasper Monahan, the movie editor of the the "Pittsburgh Press" that Jimmy Stewart was being honored in Pittsburgh by the Movie Theatre owners of America. I contacted the editor. He arranged for me to get together with Jimmy prior to the banquet at the William Penn Hotel. The editor brought his photographer and I brought a friend who was my walking and golfing partner as well as my attorney, Bernard Shire.
Jimmy and I reminisced over the 1944 photos that I brought along .The photographer took photos that I have copies of. Jimmy was just as down to earth and as regular a fellow as I remembered.
Over the passing years I kept watching his movies and following his career. Early in 1983 I received a letter from the 2nd Air Division that consisted of the 14 B-24 Bomb Groups that flew out of England in World War 2. Our presence was requested in Indiana, Pa. on the week-end of May 20,1983 to celebrate the 75th birthday of Jimmy Stewart . His home town of Indiana was honoring him with the dedication of a bronze statue, a long parade and a banquet.Once again I brought along my golfing attorney who was in the photos in 1965 and again in the photo of that week-end in Indiana, Pa. 18 years later.
Jimmy had been in other Bomb Groups in the 2nd Air Division before and after his stay at our 453rd so all were invited. Those of us who had flown on missions with Jimmy reminisced at City Hall after the statue unveiling and at the banquet, Saturday night. Again we took pictures, which I have and reviewed the 1944 photos. Jimmy was a regular fellow and one of us again fighting the Air War over Germany.
Next in October 1987 Jimmy was being honored by the Radio Stations of Pennsylvania at the Vista Hotel in Pittsburgh. I was contacted by the committee from Indiana ,Pa. Whom I had met before during Jimmy`s birthday celebration. Jimmy and his wife Gloria were giving a reception the afternoon before the Banquet in their suite at the Vista to thank the committee for their marvelous efforts during his birthday celebration. They invited me since I lived in the area and they recalled we flew together during WW2.
I asked if I could bring a guest? He was Andrew S. Low Major General, USAF, Ret. who was Jimmy`s assistant Operations Officer and his roommate in the 453rd Bomb Group. Andy himself was shot down July 29th,1944 and was in the same 3 POW camps that I was in. They said great! I phoned Andy. He came down from Narragansett, RI. I picked him up at the Pittsburgh Airport the afternoon of the affair and we went right down to the Vista Hotel.
In their suite Jimmy and his wife Gloria stood at one end of the room and the people from Indiana, Pa. went through a receiving line shaking hands with their home town Hero and in turn being thanked for their efforts several years ago. At the end of the line were Andy Low and I. When Jimmy saw Andy, his mouth dropped and they grabbed each other as the long lost buddies they were. By then he knew and remembered me since I had shown him the 1944 photos often enough. Again we took photos that I have and keep reviewing. The photos were of Jimmy, Andy and myself and Gloria, Andy and myself.
Jimmy was called to a press conference and Gloria, Andy and I were left in the suite since the rest of the group left. The 3 of us spent the next hour talking about Jimmy their family and the war .Gloria was friendly, down to earth and a devoted and understanding spouse and mother.
After Jimmy returned the 4 of us spoke a few minutes then we proceeded down to the banquet. On the way down Jimmy was continually approached by fans and admirers who wanted to speak to, touch or just be near the man. They ignored the rest of us despite the fact that Andy Low outranked Jimmy, a 2 star General against a 1 star general.
We parted, The Stewarts to the head table and Andy and I elsewhere in the room. That was the last time I saw Gloria or Jimmy . Although he is as close to me as the movies I see of him on television and the photos of and with him from 1944, 1965, 1983 and 1987 it is no longer the same. Those of us who rubbed shoulders with him, as well as the rest of the country who knew him through the screen have lost a man we looked up to, admired and can all relate to.
As I look back at my "Moment in History" when I first really met, became friendly and photographed with Jimmy Stewart on April 7, 1944 at our 453rd Bomb Group airfield in Attleborough, England and the various times our paths have crossed since, I feel that my life has been enriched by knowing and having associated with a man who best exemplifies what America stands for.
Jimmy Stewart was not the only former 453rd member who I would meet after the war, since I was active with our unit association. This led to a an unexpected reunion with a close friend.
While in POW camp we got the news that Bates crew went down in a mid air collision with no survivors. To my complete surprise at a re-union many years later, I couldn`t believe my eyes when I ran into Eugene McDowell. He said neither he nor Vic Mikko were on that mission when they went down but Bill Bates was.
Several years ago I saw an article in the 453rd Newsletter that Eugene McDowell had folded his wings. I immediately phoned to offer my condolences and find out what happened. To my surprise, McDowell himself answered the phone and corrected the error.
Somehow a kinship develops between men who flew together, fought together, faced death together and shared many memories . Memories that go back to week-ends at Lake Arrowhead when we were in phase training at March Field , Riverside, Ca., when we were relaxing together after a tough mission at Old Buckenham. Of playing golf together in Hilton Head, SC at a reunion or just sharing our feelings and experiences.
I like to refer to a quote from a veteran`s magazine. We veterans like to re-unite because we want to be with men who shared our experiences, who suffered and sacrificed, who were stripped raw, right down to their humanity.
----- Abe Wilen
aewpw AT aol DOT com
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