Lieutenant William Bruce was a pilot in the 700th Bomb Squadron.
This is how I remember the events from Sept. 27, 1944, to April 30, 1945.
3:00 a.m., Sept. 27 – Mission: Kassel, Germany:
We were up at this hour for breakfast and then to the Briefing Area. We had a full load of gas so we knew it was going to be a long, long flight. The ship had a full load of 1,000-pound bombs and all the .50-caliber machine gun ammunition we could squeeze in.
We waited on the runway for some time for better weather and finally all 37 ships were airborne. We flew across the North Sea into enemy territory within a short time. Then the long run deep into Germany. As I recall, we had heavy cloud cover and would drop our bombs by radar or pathfinder ships (these were radar-equipped planes that led us to the target in case of bad weather).
There was some confusion as to the proper target – finally we were on the bomb run and dropped our bombs, dove down 500 feet and headed for England. At this point we had only flak to contend with. After a short while we saw what appeared to be our own P-51 escorts, which we had not seen all morning. However, there were so many of them that too late we knew they had to be German ME-109s. They sure were. It was just unbelievable how many enemy fighters came at us in large groups – sat in back and below us and shot the living hell out of us. They had their wheels down – stayed in formation and raked us steadily with machine gun fire and 20mm cannon.
We had to have our tail and waist gunners fire at the ME-109s who were shooting at our wingmen simply because we could not get at the ones on our tail.
Pictured: Dewey Radio Operator, Charlie Craig
It was just a hopeless situation – there were just too many of the enemy fighters. I saw at least seven ships go down in flames; four of our group and several German ships. Our fighters were nowhere in sight. I could not understand where the hell they could be.
Our ship, the “Bonnie Vee,” had been hit several times – two engines were on fire and the interior of the plane was in shambles. The gunners kept firing, but finally they were all wounded or dead. At this time I knew we were in serious trouble with no hope of flying any longer. I finally gave the bailout order because at this moment only one engine was running and not too well at that.
I asked my co-pilot to unbuckle my seat belts before he bailed out. Just as he stood up to do so a 20mm cannon shell cut him in half.
At this point I really knew it was the end of our flight. The right wing was rammed by a German fighter, tearing it off. Next, the left wing blew up and only the fuselage remained. We were then at 19,000 feet. It must have just exploded because the next thing I knew I was clear of the plane and hurting very, very much.
I did not open my parachute for a number of reasons. One, I was on fire or so I thought. Two, I figured the fighters would shoot at me. And third, I was kind of groggy and covered with blood.
After what seemed an eternity I saw a farmer plowing his fields. I pulled the ripcord. The chute opened and I hit a very large tree within four or five seconds. My right leg was hung up over a branch and wrapped around my neck. It took me some time to untangle myself and climb down this fifty-foot tree.
By this time what was left of my ship crashed into the forest not too far from me along with several others, causing a massive forest fire. No one evidently saw my chute – however, I heard a lot of yelling and screaming about something. It was probably about the fire. Several dogs growled at me but were finally called by their owners.
It took me about ten hours crawling through the trees and along the stone walls to find a house. At this time I knew I was badly hurt – could not stand up – covered with blood and really, really hurting.
I crawled along a fence to a farmhouse. A man and two women came out and carried me into the house. They tried to wash my face and give me some milk but I could not even swallow. I think they thought I was dying and I wasn’t so sure I wasn’t.
After a few minutes their grandson (I guess) who was about 10 or 12 years old came in and pointed a small rifle at me. His grandfather knocked it out of his hands. With that, the little bastard ran out of the house and returned with seven soldiers all carrying sub-machine guns, or what I know now as burp guns.
Their fear of me was incredible. They pointed their guns at me and started yelling. Not being able to move, and lying flat on my back, I certainly did not pose a threat to them. Finally one officer, after trying to communicate with me, spoke in French. This I understood. He questioned me first as to whether I was carrying a pistol – I said, “No.” Then he searched me and was satisfied that I wasn’t going to shoot them all.
Next he wanted to know the Bomber Group I was in and what type of plane I was flying. I gave only my name, rank and serial number as we had been instructed in situations such as this. Thirty minutes went by – same questions – same answers.
Soon several other German officers arrived and put me in a horse-drawn open farm wagon. We proceeded to drive to a village where it seemed like half the German population had gathered. I certainly was the center of attention. They cursed me – spit on me – hit me with rocks – sticks – fists and anything else they happened to have handy. Finally after the officer had had the glory of capturing me, they put me in a small barn. I really thought I was dying at this time. The crowd did not let up on me and continued to throw stones through the windows and pound on the walls.
After about three hours everybody left. I spent the rest of the night awake and hurting. About daylight the officers returned and asked me the same questions over and over – same response from me. Finally one of them hit me in the jaw with a pistol butt – fracturing it. I was carried out by four soldiers and we spent three days on the train, arriving at Frankfurt for two more days of intensive interrogation. By this time I had become almost totally paralyzed and was black and blue all over.
The Germans finally gave up and once again, under guard and on a stretcher, we spent the next week on a train, arriving at Obermasfeld, where a doctor finally examined me. I was told that my right pelvis was broken, my right shoulder was badly damaged and that I would not ever walk again or use my right arm. (Later, back in the States, I was told that my neck was also broken.) The next week they shipped me to Mennigod Hospital because the Germans had to make room for all the German soldiers wounded at Arnheim.
We stayed at this place until Dec. 21, 1944 and then went to Sagan Stalag. On Jan. 27, 1945, we were told to get ready for a long trip. Most of the other prisoners walked to Nurnberg, 110 kilometers away. They took the most severely crippled by train – we barely escaped being liberated by the Russian troops by only about five minutes.
We traveled by train, trucks and walking until Feb. 11, 1945 with very little food and no toilet paper. I was by this time able to operate on crutches. This trip was really a rotten one – the German guards were just as hungry and miserable as we were. We did nothing to aggravate them because they did actually shoot prisoners.
We arrived at Nurnberg Feb. 11, 1945. This was a complete transition from what we had at the Sagan camp. The Germans were very nasty and actually shot two prisoners going to the latrine after 10 o’clock at night. I met several of my old pilot friends here and heard that our Kassel Raid was the biggest loss of aircraft on a single mission in the war – 25 out of 37 aircraft shot down and several others crashing in France.
I stayed at this POW camp until April 4th when we were sent to Moosburg, Germany. There were 6,000 of us and 660 German guards on this march. It was one helluva trip. Myself and two friends kind of kept out of the mainstream. However, after a couple of close shaves with the SS boys, we rejoined the rest of the men.
All the way to Moosburg (about 100 kilometers) we were constantly under aircraft machine gun fire. Mostly because the American fighter pilots did not know we were prisoners – they thought we were retreating German soldiers. We lost several men; it was a very sad thing.
Finally we arrived at Moosburg – at this time we knew the Germans were close to having the shit kicked out of them. Even the German guards admitted they were losing the war. Their manners and attitude changed 100 percent for the better.
April 29 – A Big Big Day.
At 11 o’clock American P-51s came in at treetop level and strafed all around our camp, causing the Germans to panic. This lasted about ten minutes and then our lovely big Sherman tanks came crashing into our camp with the infantry soldiers right behind.
Loudspeakers from the tanks told the prisoners to lie flat on the ground and stay there. They didn’t have to tell us twice. With that they blew up every building around the camp – also a church that had 88-mm guns concealed behind the closed door. We as POWs knew that the Germans meant to fire at our camp when the Americans came to rescue us. We told the tank boys that it was full of German anti-tank people with a lot of ammunition.
Our tanks called in a spotter plane for range and after three or four shots hit the jackpot, blowing up the church and everyone in one gigantic explosion. What a thrill for us POWs. We were no longer prisoners of war. How sweet it was.
The 14th Armored Division of the Third Army were our liberators. I personally met and talked to General Patton and believe me, he was and looked as we all knew he would – white pearl-handled pistols and all – a real great guy.
For the next few days things were not too good – we still had very little food, no date to leave – still in Germany – and no information on when we would go home. Actually, we were practically in the front lines even though we did not know this at the time.
Finally, the Army really took hold and flew us to Camp Lucky Strike in France. They put us on a large ship for home – we arrived in New York City as the first POWs from Europe to a great welcome. I called my wife who I hadn’t heard from in eight months and found out I was the father of a six-month-old baby girl.
Note from George Collar: "I first met Bill Bruce in the summer of 1989, when I visited him in his home in Guilford, Conn. I also met his wife, Vyrlin, and his daughter, who is a schoolteacher. Bill was a master carpenter and builder in Guilford and had a nice woodworking business. We got along famously, and spent the afternoon reminiscing about our combat days in the 445th Bomb Group. He was in good shape, and could still fit into his WWII uniform. He gave me the attached story at this time, and I gave him a copy of my story “Recollections of a bombardier.”
We planned to keep in touch, and were going to get together again, but fate intervened, as Bill was stricken with a heart attack, and died on Oct. 17, 1989. He was a very brave man and a great pilot. He is sadly missed."