First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Lt. Col. Milt Shalinsky: Becoming a POW in Nazi Germany

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Lieutenant Colonel Milt Shalinsky served in WWII with the 385th Bomb Group. On June 20th, 1944, Shalinsky’s B-17 bomber was hit and crashed near Brunswick, Germany.

Listen as Shalinsky describes the crash and his experience as a prisoner of war.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Today we’ll hear from Lieutenant Colonel Milt Shalinsky. Shalinsky served in Europe in WWII as a part of the 385th Bomb Group. On June 20th, 1944, Shalinsky’s B-17 bomber was hit and crashed near Brunswick, Germany. He was captured, and was held as POW for the remainder of the war.

Lt. Col. Milt Shalinsky:

My name is Milt Shalinsky. I arrived in England and was assigned to the 385th bomb squadron when I was 23 years-old.

We weren't assigned a permanent ship when I was a new crew member. However, I was shot down on a mission, and the name of the ship was Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith flew many missions and there were a couple of crews that went all the way through with Mr. Smith. And I flew it once and lost it, flew on it once.

I was shot down over Brunswick, Germany, our target being one of the suburbs of Brunswick.

The preparation for being a POW was really not that great. They used to give us talks on what you should do and what you shouldn't do if you were captured. Everybody carried a packet which contained maps and money and material, which might help you escape. But it worked fine in France a nd Belgium, or Holland where you had underground people to help you. But if you went down in Germany, your chances of getting out of Germany were practically nil, as far as escaping is concerned.

When we got, when our plane picked up this flak and was disabled, we flew possibly for about, I would guess, maybe 30, 40 minutes or maybe an hour. We got hit when we were flying 25,000 feet, and two of the engines were knocked out and the third one was damaged somewhat. But we were actually flying about one and a half, from the story I got later on. Between throwing out all of our guns and armor plate and everything else, we could tear loose from the plane, we managed to keep the plane in the air, but we were losing altitude continually.

There was a discussion among the crew on what we wanted to do. Our options being well, we could try and get back to either Switzerland or Sweden maybe, or we could crash land there in Germany and sweat out the war there, crash land or bail out. But the option that we decided on, was trying to get the plane back out over the water in the North Sea. And we wanted to ditch the plane. We knew we couldn't get back home. We were going to take our chances on ditching, and hopefully be picked up.

In the meantime, we had fired a distress signal, after we had gotten hit, and four American fighter planes immediately came around to protect us. We had two P-51s and two P-38s that stayed with us from the time we got hit until we finally jumped. But they were encouraging us very much over the radio to, "Jump, jump, jump! Get out of there! " Well, we were the ones that were going to get stuck in Germany and we didn't want to jump. We tried to get out there, and hopefully be picked up. But it just didn't work out that way, which was probably the best for us. The third engine, which was damaged, finally decided to give up too, and then we had to jump, and jump in a hurry. By that time we were down about 5,000 feet, and we were nearing the coast and the flak was already starting to come up for us. They would have just butchered us if we'd have gone on. So it was a good thing we had to jump, I'm sure.

After we bailed out, well, I was immediately captured by the Germans and taken to a little town jailhouse. After being held there for a while, they took us to a ME-110 base where I was just preliminary interrogated.

After they confiscated my leather jacket with the big Wolf on it, that was the first thing they took, and my GI wristwatch, they were about through with me at this base here. They, anything that was GI equipment, they can legally confiscate, and then they did. Anything that was personal items, they took away from you, but returned to you later on, I was told at this particular time that our copilot was killed in the raid, and after they had rounded up some of the rest of our crew, and they took a couple of our enlisted men out, to pick up the body of our copilot who was killed. And then all of us who had been gathered together at this German air base, were put into a truck, along with the pine box containing the body of our copilot. We drove for quite some time. Of course, we didn't see where we were going, but they stopped at a nice German cemetery and then left the body of our copilot.

We continued on, and lo and behold, we ended up on, I guess, at a Gestapo camp. This was a harrowing experience. Everybody was put in solitary and kept overnight with no bed, no toilet facilities or anything whatsoever. But we were just kept there one night. They put us in the hands of the Gestapo, in order to transfer us by train to the regular Luftwaffe interrogation center, which was down near Munich in Germany. But they put about 14 men in one little compartment of a train with the Gestapo guards, all around us.

I think 13 of us were American, and one British boy. I have always admired British ever since this little incident. But as we were driving along on the train to go to this interrogation center, this young British flyer said, "I'm leaving." He says, "Do any of you blokes want to go with me?" And nobody answered, but he jumped off of the train and he was gone. I don't know whether they ever caught him or not. I imagine they did, because it was awfully hard to get out of Germany at that time, but he sure tried. Then I really had great admiration for that. We were supposed to try and escape, and he lived it to the fullest.

But anyhow, we did arrive at the interrogation center and they, the Germans, just knew everything in the world about us. Just everything, their intelligence was superb, but they used a lot of devious tricks too. They would hold out a great big form that was marked, "Red Cross," on the top, and then they'd tell you to fill it out. It had very pertinent questions on it, such as, "Who are all of your crew members?" And, "What group squadron." And so forth, "Who were you flying with, and where were you going?" And just all kinds of things that we weren't supposed to answer.

I wasn't particularly scared when I was interrogated, except in one particular time, after I had been kept in solitary confinement for about a day. About 3:00 in the morning, they called me into one of the German officers' interrogation offices, and they were just particularly interested in finding out one thing from me, because they knew everything else. I might backtrack just a little bit and tell you what all the interrogation officer told me. He, being as I did not answer any of the questions they wanted to know, he said, "Well, I'll tell you then," and he gave me the names of all of our crew members. He told me where I went to grade school, all the different Air Corps schools I attended in the States. He even told me that one of the operations officers at our base had gotten a promotion the day before. They just knew everything about everything, but they didn't know one particular thing on the flight that I was shot down on.

Our group on that particular day, had two groups going to one target. The squadron that I was in, went to a different target with a different group, that was what they call a composite group, I guess, from different bases. Well, this really had the Germans confused, because they knew where most of our planes went that day and they couldn't figure out why I was away over here with another group. So in particular, they wanted to know what our target was that day and who we were flying with, because they knew the pattern of who we usually flew with, what other groups.

I never did tell them. And he threatened me quite a bit because I didn't, and this was the only time that I really got scared. First of all, he just told me, "Well, all of your friends, your buddies, the rest of your crew members are going to get to go to the regular POW-camp. Well, you're not going to get to go with your friends, because you won't tell us." Well, that was fine with me. I figured he was bluffing me. So I still wouldn't tell him. And then just out of the blue, this was 3:00 in the morning, I hear a bunch of soldiers outside the window, with their marching, and their orders. And they're going through some drill-like thing. Then pretty soon I hear the orders, "Ready, aim, fire," and a bunch of rifles going on.

Well, they were, I guess, putting on a little show for me, to show me that they were executing people that didn't cooperate with them. Well, I got a bit scared when all that happened, but I still didn't tell them. I think he found out anyhow, not through any part of my own, but he started naming all the different targets that were hit that particular day, all the different cities. He was watching me real close and possibly, when he mentioned the name of the city that I went to, I don't know how I reacted, but I think he probably found out, but he still didn't know when or why. And they wanted to know why we were there and who we were flying with.

I don't know whether they ever found that out, but they say, if you're kept in Stulag Luft over three days, either the person has talked, or they figured he will talk. So they'll keep him longer to find out whatever they can. Well, they told me I wasn't going with the rest of my friends, but the next day I got shipped out, and we were sent to a place called Stalag Luft III. It was in a town called Sagan, Germany. It was about 60 miles Southeast of Berlin, made rather famous by the movie, The Great Escape, which happened at this particular camp, just shortly before I got there.

But I was separated from the rest of my crew, the pilot and a bombardier were sent to, what they called, the center compound. And I was separated from them. I didn't see them en-route, I didn't see them, but I was sent to, what they called, the South compound at the Stalag Luft III. So I was separated from the rest of my crew for the duration of the stay at Stalag Luft III.

I never was really mistreated, except in one time, which I didn't consider very serious, but it was right after I was captured. The soldiers had picked one of our waist gunners and me up, together practically. And we were the only two that were really picked up around right together, and they took us to a little village jailhouse, just for a holding until they could transport us to this air base.

I happened to make a silly remark, because all the villagers were gathering to see these two airmen that were shot down. I happened to make a little remark to my gunner, "Well, we're quite a side, I guess, here for all the villagers." Well, one of the soldiers didn't like the way I was talking to my gunner, and he took the bat of his rifle and jammed me in the belly two or three times and knocked me down. I gathered they didn't want us to talk after that. So I said no more, but that was the only time I was physically harmed whatsoever. They didn't physically abuse anybody that I know of.

Of course, in this camp where I was sent to, it's strictly an officer camp, and the officers, according to the Geneva Convention, didn't have to, in fact, couldn't work. They couldn't make us at work. In fact, they even brought in sergeants to do the work in the camp, American sergeants, as our, what you might call, orderlies. So life there was not good. They gave us no food. The only food that we got was American food, or British food parcels, which came through the Red Cross. The German rations consisted usually of some kind of a brown bread, they called it Ersatz bread. It had a lot of sawdust in it.

When I first got there, every man was getting one loaf of bread per week. As the war went on and it got worse and worse for the Germans, our rations went down and down and down, and we were finally, it was one loaf for every two men, and a one loaf for every four men, and one loaf for every seven men. Sometimes we didn't get any bread at all. The only other thing that the Germans gave us besides the bread, was, occasionally, they would have some rotten potatoes or a vegetable, like a turnip. If they got rotten and were not fit for consumption by the German people, they gave it to us.

I consider myself lucky that I survived this ordeal, because I know so many people that were in combat, that didn't survive, including the one crew member of our own, who incidentally was the only married man on our crew, and the only one that had a child, which was the sad part about it. But I considered myself lucky that I survived it. Thankful. I came out of it pretty well. I didn't weigh too much. I lost about 50 pounds in about a year's time that I was over there. After we were liberated, the pounds came back real fast and I wasn't injured in any way, wasn't sick. Wasn't really mistreated either then having very little to eat and no fuel, it was quite cold there, incidentally.

I didn't tell you that after the Russian offensive started in the East, and the Russians started getting near to us, well, the Germans figuring that we were, I guess, about the only thing that was of value to them to hold decided that they weren't going to let the Russians liberate us. We were put on a forced march in the middle of winter. I think it was January, the 29th. It was a number of degrees below zero, and there must've been a foot of snow on the ground, but in everybody's condition, and some lacking shoes and clothing and so forth, we were forced to march for two or three days to get away from the Germans. I mean the Russians, and finally, they put us in box cars and transferred us to another POW camp, called Stalag VII, and it was down near Munich, which was an area of Germany, which was still pretty secure for the Germans.

We had about 10,000 American and British officers and men in Stalag Luft III. When they started accumulating all of these POWs from all the different camps in Eastern Germany and all the different nationalities. I understood they had about 120,000 over there in Moosburg, and the conditions were much worse. The food was less and the sanitary conditions were really bad.

I used to discuss it though, with this co-pilot of ours that was killed, because he happened to be a Jewish and he was rather concerned about getting shot down, because being Jewish and getting captured in Germany, concerned him quite a bit. In fact, he was quite fearful of being captured, and he was the man that was killed. We still don't know why. It might've been this fear of being captured that killed him, because he was found with his parachute unopened on the ground. We don't know whether he didn't pull it, he pulled the ripcord and it didn't work, or he panicked. No telling what happened. But anyhow, his parachute did not work, and he was killed, but he was, nobody else seemed to be really fearful about being captured, except him, on our crew.

As far as being a Jew in Germany, it didn't, as far as the Americans or British were concerned, it didn't mean anything, because you were an American, period, and they treated all Americans alike.

But later on, as the war wound down, there was a rumor going around, which I think was true, that Hitler wanted the names of all the Jewish POWs. I know General Spivey, who was the ranking officer in our camp, refused to give them the information, who was, or who hasn't. He said, "We have no Jews. All we have are Americans," and nothing ever came of it.

When I first came back home from being a POW, I was pretty much, I guess, in a shell. I didn't socialize too much, didn't really talk about it too much. Right now, just like all of the, "There I was," stories, you shoot the bull about it now, without any problem at all. You remember mostly the humorous things that happened to you, and the bad things that happened, you forget.

I guess, maybe just because we want to, we like to remember the funny things that happen. And we just put the bad things that happen out of our minds. I can talk about them, and it doesn't hurt me, but I'd rather talk about the other things.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was WWII veteran, Lieutenant Colonel Milt Shalinsky.

Next on Warriors in their Own words, we’ll be joined by Michael ‘Top’ Washington. Top is a Marine Corps Veteran and Firefighter, and toured in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan between 1988 and 2004.

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

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