Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
4 December 2015
Review by Donald Lateiner, Ohio Wesleyan University
Odyssey of a Bombardier: The POW Log of Richard M. Mason
Ed. John J. Hurt and Steven E. Sidebotham
Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2014. Pp. xii, 315. ISBN 978–1–61149–495–2.
Descriptors: Volume 2015, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

German artillery shot down Richard Mason's plane, the "Hot Rock," over France in 1944. His B-17 "Flying Fortress" navigator mistakenly thought they were on a heading for Paris and told the crew to look for the Eiffel Tower. This error would have been funny, had it not led to the deaths of three crew members, already relying on just two of four engines. "Crip"[1] had dropped the plane's bombs out of tight, or even a loose, formation. They were limping home to their base in England when they stumbled over a part of France near Thionville still held by German troops.

The British bombed by night, while from 1943 on the Americans bombed by day, both German targets in occupied territories and Germany itself. The planes (costing about $200,000 each) took off with 2,700 gallons of one-hundred-octane gasoline and 160 gallons of engine oil. They faced German Luftwaffe fighter planes as well as ground-based FLAK cannons. Until the long-range P-51 Mustang fighters left American production lines in quantity, most bomber missions had little protection. The B-17s carried twelve five-hundred-pound bombs each, as they approached their targets at 25,000 feet at a speed of about 150 mph. After boarding his airship, Mason had to arm the bombs, store the arming pins (in case bombs were not dropped), verify his bombsight and "intervalometer," and, most importantly, drop the bombs over target, often following the lead bombardier with his Norden bombsight. Some missions flew deep into eastern Germany and lasted over ten hours (27).

After his plane was shot up and crashed, Mason was rescued from a tree by French civilians and arrested by local German troops along with the rest of his destroyed plane's survivors (except one man whom the French guided to safety behind Allied lines). Mason's POW Log runs about ninety pages; his impressive and heartfelt pencil drawings illustrate, sometimes humorously, his life from bailout and capture to his time as a "kriegie"[2] (POW) in Germany (Stalag Luft 3, Moosburg), liberation by the US Third Army, reintegration into the American Armed Forces, and a ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty into New York Harbor (the ferry listed when all the returning soldiers shifted to one side to see her). Besides reproducing the images, Sidebotham carefully transcribes the Log's text, spelling errors and all. Mason never showed the Log, a Red Cross composition book, to anyone but his wife and his granddaughter's sixth-grade class, when invited to describe his war experiences. Much of it is recapitulated in Hurt's eighty-five-page introduction, which annotates now forgotten American POW practices and details Mason's military training and career before he was deployed to Europe with the "Mighty Eighth" Air Force.

Mason was born in 1922; after graduating from high school in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, he volunteered in 1942 for a commission in the Army-Air Force, a military wing that grew to 2.4 million men by 1944. He wanted to be a pilot, but, for unknown reasons, was selected for bombardier training and a concomitant pay increase from fifty to seventy-five dollars a month (15). He arrived in England on 12 July 1944 and was assigned to the 510th squadron of the 351st Bomb Group at the Polebrook base. Thirty-six percent of this group completed their missions and returned home; 41 percent became POWs. Most of the others were confirmed dead or presumed so. Such statistics were military secrets during the war (22).

Mason flew his first combat mission on 1 August 1944. Others followed until he was shot down on 8 September. By then, he had flown fifteen missions of the required twenty-five-mission (later, thirty-five-mission) quota for airmen. Among other targets, he bombed the I.G. Farben synthetic fuel works in Ludwigshafen on the Rhine. He flew some missions in tactical support of the Allied forces that landed on D-Day.[3]

On Mason's final mission, again to Ludwigshafen, his Fortress joined 277 other bombers, thirty-six of them from the 351st Group. His plane flew in low on three engines on a "reciprocal heading" that risked taking "friendly" fire. After dropping their bomb load, the crew headed to their airbase across France. Losing altitude, they found themselves flying below some German gunners on a hill. Hit by enemy fire, the crew lost their radio operator and another engine (34). The pilot, George Schera of Scarsdale, New York, ordered his men to bail out and, as was the custom, was himself the last to leave the airplane. German soldiers rounded up the parachuted survivors, while an officer ordered his men and French villagers from Beuvange-sous-St-Michel to drag the wounded pilot out of the flames. After treatment at a German medical clinic and a period of imprisonment, Schera was liberated from a POW camp by Soviet soldiers.[4]

Bombardiers had the best view of the air war and the earth far below them, although they (like the ball-turret gunner on the bottom of the plane) were isolated from most of the crew and exposed to enemy antiaircraft fire in the plexiglass nose of the bomber. Infantrymen, who often thought airmen had it easy, were sometimes invited to fly one mission. They rarely volunteered for a second (73n8).

Mason was a cheerful person who seldom complained about his captors (38) in the Luftwaffe's Dulag Luft (Transit Camp, Obermassfeld), Meiningen, or at Stalag Luft III (Belaria—ten thousand airmen POWs), ninety miles south of Berlin. In the Transit Camp, his captors tried to gain information from him, but they seemed already to possess more up-to-date intelligence about Allied numbers and operations than he did. For a time, Mason was held in the famous "Great Escape" camp,[5] but he himself settled into captivity, upbeat, adjusting, and (rightly) confident that the war would end before Christmas 1945. He played golf, "4 rounds of 18 holes in a day" in October 1944, the same month that the SS took control of all POW camps in Germany (42). Three roll calls each day were conducted by the "Goons," a kriegie term for guards, not the insult it is today.[6] Neither German nor Allied officers, both of whom routinely censored prisoners' outgoing mail, ever censored Mason's. He was allowed to send four postcards per month. His drawings relieved his boredom. Red Cross food parcels frequently supplemented the Allies' German-issued rations.

Mason was evacuated to a site deeper in Nazi-controlled central Germany as the Thousand Year Reich's borders shrank. In January 1945, when Red Army troops came within twenty miles of their camp, the POWs and their guards were ordered out of Belaria. The march exhausted even the German guards (not front-line troops) whom their prisoners sometimes helped, even carrying their rifles (52)! Mason, tongue in cheek, called their long slog "barnstorming through Germany" (146), since they often sheltered in barns. Later, they were shipped west in cattle cars with little water and inadequate toilet facilities at the infrequent stops. Lucky to have avoided strafing or bombing by Allied aircraft, they reached Stalag VII-A near Munich (100,000 prisoners). Mason had his first shower in thirty-two days, and his last until liberation. He slept in crowded, vermin-infested bunks. Red Cross parcels became scarce and food obsessed the prisoners; women, however, are rarely mentioned in the Log.[7] On 29 April 1945, the (properly) frightened SS guards deserted their posts at Moosburg, and the Allied prisoners were free to come and go. The Forty-Seventh Tank Battalion of the Fourteenth Armored Division sent Sherman tanks through the double barbed-wire fences. The American flag was raised. Gen. George Patton visited, and Mason got new clothes, shots, food, and delousing showers, after enduring long lines of ex-prisoners at a "RAMP" (Recovered Allied Military Personnel) camp.

Mason had written that on 8 September 1944 at 1400 hours "I stopped living. From then on I have been existing" (103). Now he had come home and would soon receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, and other medals. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and Conrail and continued to draw and paint. He often mentioned the International Red Cross with respect.

The book's seven appendixes include his mail to his mother and fiancée, two narrative poems in doggerel, and a note on the 7x5-inch notebook: "Log as Artifact." The Red Cross provided the aircrew POWs deep inside Germany with food, films, musical instruments (for a jazz band), books (fifteen thousand volumes arrived between June and September 1944!), and sports equipment (for tennis and for hockey, played on a Canadian-built ice rink, etc.). The Nazi government, until near the end, permitted privileges to the Western captives while starving the Soviet POWs in the same camps. These included warm showers, the occasional steak, cigarettes (routinely used as camp currency), and abundant leisure time. Geneva Conventions were followed and there were no reports of prisoners doing work other than maintaining camp hygiene, cooking food, etc. It refutes the traditional grim picture of prison camps to know that the Belaria prisoners had their own radio station (KRGY—get it?) that broadcast through the PA system (50). Though 296 Jewish POWs were segregated from their comrades despite protests by American, British, and French representatives (83n69), they otherwise received similar treatment.

The Log is a valuable picture in art and text of American aviators' lives in World War II German POW camps. One of Mason's drawings on the march into Germany shows prisoners trading with housewives, bartering bars of soap for bread (Log 37). The Red Cross food parcels included raisins, paté, corned beef, chocolate bars, vitamins, coffee, soap and "cigeretts." One image (Log 55) pictures "My worldly possessions as of 14th March 1945" and then lists them. Another depicts an American officer chastising an American soldier at inspection for his dirty "Klim-can" (milk-can). The most daring image (Log 58) in terms of art shows the fat-penciled word "food" about twenty times—receding into the background. The most humorous (Log 67) shows scraps of paper with disconcerting texts such as "(From an old sweet heart)—'I'll be getting married in two months time and I'll be thinking of you on my wedding night.'"

Hurt, a historian, and Sidebotham, a classical archaeologist, have provided an admirable and thorough edition of an ordinary flyboy's unique reflections on the fate of American bomber crews who survived their planes' demise and spent the rest of a brutal war as prisoners of the damaged but still functioning German war machine.

[1] A nickname Mason probably earned after he jumped ship from less than four hundred feet and broke his ankle landing in a tree. His recovery after German treatment was swift but never complete.

[2] Prisoner slang for Kriegsgefangener, Prisoner of War (2).

[3] Truman Smith's wonderfully titled story of his war as a bomber, The Wrong Stuff: The Adventures and Misadventures of an 8th Air Force Aviator (Norman: U Oklahoma Pr, 1996), offers a picture, mission by mission, of what it took to complete a European tour of bomber aircraft duty.

[4] He survived several infections and trained to be a dentist. He died in a car crash in upstate New York in 1987.

[5] In March 1944, the SS executed fifty men for the British-led attempt; only three reached safety.

[6] Some incidents in the Log are faintly reminiscent of the long-running American TV sitcom, Hogan's Heroes, which featured risibly incompetent German camp authorities.

[7] Perhaps because it is dedicated to the son and daughter he hoped to father some day.

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