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2014, Aaron Elson






It Could Happen to You

Hal Mapes

2014, Aaron Elson

Page 2

    I was drafted when I was 19 and I was assigned to the 26th Division, the Yankee Division. But I didn’t like the idea of living in the mud. When I saw these guys from the Air Corps flying over, I thought that was glamorous, I could just see us swooping in there and blowing something up and getting out. And I used to hear people say, "Well, if you want three square meals a day and a bed, go either in the Air Corps or the Navy." So I said, "I’ve got to get out of here." I’m lying out there in the mud and walking all over the place. But I think the basic thing was I wanted to get out of hiking. Some kids love to camp out, not me. They don’t have a camp or a tent in the world I want to sleep in, and ironically when I was in Germany I wound up on that forced march. We marched 80 days, something like that, six hundred and some miles. And I had diarrhea for two or three weeks and it was freezing out and I wore three or four pair of pants. I said, "This is crazy. I’m in the wrong outfit." I was in the Air Force. I wanted to get away from this stuff and here I am right in the middle of it. What a mess. But I survived, that was good. I lost 55 pounds, it was the best diet I was ever on because we didn’t have anything to eat. It was kind of scary at times, but it was pretty good. And if you had a lot of guys with you you didn’t mind it too much. That misery loves company is very true.

    In fact, I found one of my buddies – I’ve got this prisoner of war book, and I contacted people – he died last week. He was from Connecticut. He was one of my partners when we walked. The first night we walked out from the camp maybe 10 or 15 miles and we went to a barn. We got into this barn and we were looking for someplace where there was straw to lie on so we got in a corner, this other guy and myself; I said, "This is a great place."

    Well, they had a big storm that night, snow, rain and everything. And there was a big hole in the roof, right above us.

    One night we were in a barn and we hadn’t had any food for a while, and this one guy says, "Tonight we’re gonna have chicken."

    I said, "You must be out of your mind."

    He was a farmboy from Iowa, and this old chicken walked by the door, he grabbed that chicken, and these farm kids, you know, they’d snap its neck like it was nothing.

    "How are you gonna cook it?"

    "Don’t worry. We’ll cook it."

    They had this big cauldron, and they had big potatoes they put in there, and this crazy chicken, the legs were sticking out and the farmer comes by and he sees this chicken in there, he says, "I’m gonna shoot all of you guys right now. Line up against the wall!"

    One of the guys says, "Now don’t be hasty." And fortunately we had Red Cross parcels, and in the Red Cross parcel we had Nescafe coffee, and the guy said, "How would you like a little good old American coffee?"

    And the farmer said, "Okay."

    We ate like pigs that one night. Just because of that chicken. Boy, he did a job on that chicken. It was a scrawny chicken, too.

    Then one night we ate a dog. The poor dog was nothing but bones. Then we had a lamb one night, and the poor lamb, we watched them strip the whole thing and it came out to be dirty soup. It was tough. But we had some interesting times.

    We had one German guy who was about 76 years old, a fellow named Fritz. Fritz was a nice old German guard. They used to have all the old guys guarding us, one guard for 15 guys or so. A lot of these Germans didn’t want to be in the war any more than we did, and old Fritz was getting fed up with this stuff. Finally, one day, they had this old an oxen cart, he said, "The hell with this. I’m quitting."

    And the German captain came over and said, "I’m gonna shoot you if you don’t get back there and take charge."

    He said, "Go ahead and shoot me. What do I care?"

    So Fritz rode out the rest of the war, they let him go, he just sat in the cart and went the rest of the way.

    Then one day we were in a Focke-Wulf plant, I guess that was in Annaberg, they used to make fighter planes. We were walking out of that place and the guys decided to paint a big bed sheet with a big red cross on it. We wanted to make sure the Allies didn’t shoot us up. And as luck would have it it rained, and that thing became a great big red ball, it looked like the Japanese flag.

    We were in this plant, and they had two entrances, one in the front and one in the back, and they maybe had a couple thousand guys in there. And these P-47s came over and they evidently knew that they were hiding oil in a field across from this factory, and the sonofaguns came over and they start strafing it, and there was all this noise, explosions, and the guys got up and ran out the door, knocking over the German guards who were standing there with guns. The guns went flying and they went flying, and we all went outside. Right across the way was a cemetery, and here was this little old lady putting flowers on a grave, and she said something to the guys – I mean, some guys actually cleared a five-foot fence without touching it, that’s how scared they were, they jumped over the fence into the cemetery – and the woman says, "What are you running for? You can’t get away from it."

    After the planes left, everybody got up and went back into the building. And the Germans came back, picked up their guns and stood at the door again. Craziest thing you ever heard of. But that’s the way it was. That was in Annaberg I think it was. They called it an open city, they weren’t supposed to bomb it, but the sonofaguns, they had hidden fuel in the woods and the Allies found out about it and blew the whole place up.

    Another thing the planes would do is when the sun would set, they evidently would fly in where the sun was behind them and the people on the ground couldn’t see them coming. And the trains would go into the woods, where there were trees. The guy would stop the train because if you’re out in the open they could see the smoke, and the planes would know where they were. So these guys would go in there, they’d stop and then start up. But the guys flying the planes, they were smart enough to know, well, we’ll go down like this and make out like we’re gonna shoot ’em but we don’t know where they are, and then another group comes behind them, so when they started up, the guys coming behind them got them. This one particular time we stopped at a train station and there was a train full of I’d say 15-year-old kids, what did they used to call them, the Hitler Youth guys with the little brown suits and shorts, and these P-47s and P-51s came down there and strafed them when they were getting out of the train, and killed them all, it threw them right up in the air just like a pencil. It was a terrible thing to watch these kids, and the jerky guy walking down the street, you know, Heil Hitler and all that sort of junk, acting like a bunch of crazy people. But to watch these little kids get it was ohh, sickening. It was terrible. You know, the horrors of war. If anybody has ever been in a war, they know that the worst thing you could do is have a war. I pray every night when I go to sleep that they’ll never have a war in this country. I think of my grandchildren and everybody else’s kids, to me one of the worst fears I’ve ever had is an air raid. Have you ever been through an air raid? If you ever sit through an air raid, let me tell you, it’s one of the worst things, because there’s no way you can escape from it. And they come come over, and you hear those bombs coming down, and you’ve got no place to hide. When I was first shot down, they put me in this building and in the room I was in – that’s another thing, solitary confinement is the worst thing in the world. I used to think if someone committed a crime they should hang him right away or electrocute him, but that’s not the worst thing you can do. If you want to get a guy, get even with him, stick him in a room and let him stay there for 20 years or even 20 days, with nothing. You go crazy. So they put me in a room with a bench, a little sawdust and a pot, and I stayed in there for four days. And one of the funniest experiences in life is to be in a foreign country where you don’t know the language and they’re all speaking German out there, and the next thing you know they’re all leaving the room because they hear an air raid. Now, I had dropped the bombs but I had never been on the receiving end, so when you get in there and that room shakes and the ground breaks, I’ll tell you, it’s scary. And you have no place to go. So the sonofaguns the Germans left, and I was afraid they weren’t gonna come back. I said, geez, come on back and get me out of here! So about an hour later they came back, and the guy comes in the room and the first thing he does he looks in the pot, and I knew he was gonna do this because he was gonna see if I was scared, and I didn’t want him to know I was scared and I was scared, I was really scared. And he looked in there, he says, "Nichts."

    And I said, "Nichts." I was about to bust my gut, but I didn’t give in there, so he was surprised. And then an hour later the planes came back again, ohh, what a scary thing that is.

    Then the following night they stuck us on a train going from Paris to Germany, and at night they’d leave the train in the yard and everybody would get out except us, they’d leave us in the middle of the train. We got underneath the seats; it wouldn’t make any difference but we did.

    Another time they put us in these boxcars. They stick you in there and they give you a bucket for water and then a bucket to get rid of your urine and everything else that goes with it. All in the same bucket.

    We got in that boxcar for four days and went to this place called Magdeburg where they had all the countries in there, and the sonofaguns, they put us in a boxcar and we prayed for four days that it would rain so the fighter planes wouldn’t come over and strafe them. And you know, it rained for four days, we got out of the train and a half an hour later they came and blew the whole train up. So that was pretty good luck. Then they put us in this great big tent like a circus, like Barnun & Bailey, with a League of Nations, every nationality you can imagine in there, and the poor Arabs I guess it was, I don’t know what they were, but they were stealing stuff from the Americans, in the tent. We almost had a war right there in that tent. Every country in the world was represented there, and they had all kinds of turbans. But no one was trusting anybody, everybody’s watching this guy, look at those guys, they’ve got to be crooks, look at ’em.

    I was in the 615th Bomb Squadron, 401st Bomb Group. They put out a book, called "One Last Look." It’s probably one of the best books that’s ever been written about B-17s. And on the first page it mentioned our group.

    I don’t remember when I arrived, but I think my first mission was to Merseberg. No one had told me what to do – usually they break you in – and I wore a flak suit for 11 hours. When I got off that plane I could hardly stand up.

    They said, "You wore that? You’re only supposed to wear that when you go over the target."

    The first thing I saw, when I arrived at the base, they had a great big banner that said, "We have the best safety record in the ETO. We only lose 10 percent of the planes," or something like that. The first day, 50 planes took off and 20 came back. I said, I’m not great at math, but this doesn’t work out. "Oh, don’t worry. Some of them are at another air base, and some of them are here, and some of them are there." They didn’t tell me half of them were shot down.

    If you made a mistake going over the target, boy, those guys on the ground would throw up enough stuff that you’d almost run into it.

    On August 1, I wasn’t flying with my regular crew. A gunner from another crew didn’t come back from a trip to London, and they asked me to take his place. I later found out that it was the plane with my regular crew that hit us. For a long time I thought that I was the only survivor, but the tail gunner of the plane I was on also got out. This is a report of the crash:

    "The ship was hit by flak at 1457 hours near Chartres, France. It was a bit higher than the wing ship. It pulled out to the left and hit aircraft 859. The tail section of 873 came off and it went into a spin. It leveled off for a short while and then disappeared. The altitude was 24,500 feet when it was hit." – Technical Sergeant J.S. Pinkerton, toggler, from the MIA report.

    "I saw Lt. Melovchik’s aircraft at 1457 hours, five to ten miles north of the target it appeared to collide with another ship because the tail assembly twisted sideways and fell off. It went into a spin, and the other aircraft floated down. I saw the tail gunner, Sgt. Bozarth, crawl out of the tail section and open his chute." – Lt. C.W. Bryan, Navigator, from MIA report.

    "Our aircraft was hit by flak, causing us to collide with another of our aircraft. It exploded, breaking into pieces. I was blown free of the tail section" – Sgt. J.W. Bozarth, tail gunner.

    Bozarth was the tail gunner who got out. He was captured and sent to Buchenwald, and he survived that. He later became a veterinarian.

    All of my regular crew was killed. The pilot was Bob Sproul, he was from Massachusetts. Donald Bennett was the co-pilot. He would say he was never afraid of getting shot down. The only thing he was afraid of was fire. And I guess he probably went down in a fire. Ellington was the navigator. He looked like the guy who’s a Phi Beta Kappa, a very intelligent guy. And Moon was an Indian. The nicest guy. He was the bombardier. Daniel Kotilla was the radio operator, he was from New York City. And Lapoint was an engineer and he was the top turret gunner. He was from Plainfield, New Jersey. I went to visit his widow after the war. She was very happy to see me, but she cried like crazy. Ken Marks, I’m trying to remember where he was from. I can picture these guys, he’s a little stocky guy. Marks, I have a feeling he was from New Brunswick. Cornwall was from Louisiana, and he was kind of a country hick. And Henderscheid was from Ohio. They were all nice guys. When I was in France I went to Normandy to visit their grave sites.

    It was interesting. I was saying to myself when I was there, though, I said, "Geez, if you’ve got to go someplace that’s pretty nice, I’d just as soon go there as anyplace." The cemetery looks like a golf course, a beautiful place. The only time in my life I didn’t care about living was about 15 years ago I had the flu. I felt so lousy, I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I told my wife, "Call up and see if you can get a spot at Arlington, I’m ready to go."

    She said, "You’re crazy."

    That was the only time. That’s why when I saw Normandy, contrary to what a lot of other people feel, I thought that was a beautiful place. Although it translates to a lot of grief and sadness. The place is just absolutely beautiful.

    I got a call three years ago from somebody who had been shot down in May of 1944. He had gone back to France, and he met a man who had seen me coming down. He was a kid of 14 at the time. Well, he was one of six people who met us at the train station and they treated Nancy and me like royalty. He said that he and some other kids had seen the tail gunner land, and they saw me come down behind a hill. They hid the tail gunner’s parachute and got him into the attic of one of their homes for a couple of weeks, and then got him into the French Underground. But somebody in the Underground betrayed him and he was sent to Buchenwald, and I think they said he weighed about 80 pounds when he was liberated. He went back to Des Moines, Iowa, and became a veterinarian. But then he died in 1976.

    This 14-year-old kid had asked this man who had been shot down in May if he would see if he could find the tail gunner. In his research he found that I was in the same plane, and he went through the Internet and found our son, who lives in Glen Rock, and my granddaughter answered the phone and said, "I think you want to talk to my grandfather." That’s how this all started. Otherwise we would have never gone back.

    Where the plane crashed, it’s in a little country town, the mayor was in overalls, it’s maybe five or six miles north of Chartres, and in this little square they have a huge memorial to the crew of the plane. It had all the names with little crosses next to the name. When they heard that I was alive and coming back, they put adhesive tape over my cross. So now when I croak, all they have to do is pull off the adhesive tape. But it’s funny to see your name on a stone.

    I’ll tell you another funny thing. They took me to the office of the mayor, and when we got there, he introduced me to the people, and he said, "I’d like you to meet Hal Mopes."

    I said to the guy, "It’s Mapes. Not Mopes."

    And the guy said to me, "Over here they say it’s Mopes."

- - - -

    In Chicago – this was before I went overseas – the crew I was with always used to kid me because I was always kind of, I wouldn’t say I was bragging about it but I would always say, I would admit I was a virgin. I didn’t fool around. You know what I mean? I fooled around, but I never got that serious with anybody. So they used to kid me, they were going to call the airplane the Valiant Virgin.

    So we got on the train going from New York to Las Vegas, and as I told you, my mother was quite a character, so she made a big box of cookies for me to take, and she said, "You can give them to your friends on the trip." So I had this big box of cookies. And we get on the train, and we went to Chicago first. On the way to Chicago this good-looking blonde is sitting across the aisle from me, and she started looking at me and I started looking at her, and the next thing you know, I said, "I think maybe it’s time for me to make a move." And I suggested that we stop in Chicago.

    I never had done this before, maybe I’d seen it in the movies or something how you do this, but anyway I said to her, "We’re going to stop in Chicago, and I’m gonna make my first conquest and make all these guys happy."

    We get to Chicago – I had an extra day to get to Las Vegas and I told the guys, "Listen, I’ll meet you in Vegas because I’m gonna spend the night here."

    And one guy said, "You’re going to spend the night with this gal? You?" They couldn’t believe this. And then the word got around, "Hey, Mapes is spending the night with this woman in Chicago." Holy mackerel!

    In the meantime, I had this box of cookies that my mother made. So I didn’t give many to the guys because I figured I could use them later on.

    We get to Chicago, and I said, "Now where am I going to stay? How do you do this stuff?" Well, there’s the Palmer House, which is a pretty snazzy hotel. So I said, "Let’s go to the Palmer House." In the meantime this gal’s with me and we’re walking in there, and there’s a lot of people lined up at the desk to make a reservation. So I stood in line, and this fellow comes over to me and he says, "You’re in the service, right?" I had my uniform on.

    I said, "Yeah."

    He said, "You’re looking for a room?"

    I said, "Yeah."

    He said, "Why don’t I get a room for you and your wife."

    My wife? I had never heard that word even hardly. I said, "Oh, that would be a good idea."

    So he goes over and he gets in front of all the crowd, and he comes back and he says, "I got you a reservation. I’ve got a room upstairs for you and your wife."

    Then I get to the registration desk and, "What’s your name?"

    And I could just see – my mind is working – I could just see my mother getting a postcard saying, "We enjoyed you and your wife’s stay here at the hotel." I thought she’d have a heart attack. So I said quickly, "The name is Sepam." That’s Mapes spelled backwards. I didn’t tell him that. So I put down Hal Sepam.

    So we go up to the room, and the bellboy says, "I’ll carry your bag."

    I said, "I’ll carry my own bag." I’m a young, strong guy, you know.

    So we walk up there and go in the room, a nice room, all that sort of stuff. And this gal and I start fooling around a little bit, and the next thing she tells me, "You know, I’ve never done this before."

    And I looked at her as if to say, "I’ll bet you haven’t."

    And the next thing you know, I’m sitting in a chair, and she’s sitting on my lap, and we’re getting ready to make a big move, and I said to her, "You know what?" All I could visualize was in the Army, they had these pictures of the guy catching gonorrhea, syphilis and stuff like that, and I could just see myself catching that from this gal, and I said to her, "Would you like some cookies?"

    I said, "My mother just made these."

    She looked at me as if I was crazy.

    She said, "What’s wrong with you?"

    And I said, "Nothing. Wouldn’t you like some cookies?"

    I didn’t want anything to do with this gal because I could just see myself getting syphilis and gonorrhea and everything else, and trying to explain it to somebody. So she thought I was nuts. And she wanted to go to Vegas with me, and I said, "No way." So I got to Vegas the next day and I walked in the barracks and all my crew is sitting there waiting.

    "Here he comes, he finally did it! He finally did it!"

    And I said, "No way! I’d never touch anything like that." But the expression on that woman’s face when I offered her some cookies, she thought I was out of my mind. I’m probably the only guy in the world who would have ever made that offer. My my mother would have been proud of me. But I’ll tell you, that picture was a good thing. They ought to show it to high school kids. They had a picture of a guy and they’d show his penis with sores all over it, oh, jeez, it was enough to make you sick.

    When I went from the train to the POW camp, I took part in the infamous Heydekrug Run. They had police dogs chasing you and biting your rear end, but other than that it wasn’t too bad. I guess some people were worse off than I was. I just moved damn fast, that’s all, because I sure didn’t want to get bit by a dog. Although they got even with them. We used to put razor blades by the window, and then call a dog over, fix them up. Boy, you never heard dogs cry like they did, they stepped on the razor blades. They’d stick the razor blades in the dirt. These dogs would bite you just as soon as they’d look at you. So some of the guys would stick the razor upside down, and then they’d call a dog over. Then the dog would come over and yelp, you never heard such screaming in your life. They cut the paw.

    But I saw guys get bit by dogs on the Heydekrug Run. They’d bite them in the leg, get ahold of their clothes and start shaking them. And then the guards would take their gun and bayonet and jab you in the rear end a little bit, or swat you with the butt of the gun. But, hey, that’s part of war I guess. But it’s no picnic. I had a funny thing happen, one of the guys remembered, he said, "We played a football game on New Year’s Day." And the guys, you want to see something funny, they bet food. The Red Cross parcel, you’d take your parcel and with 20 guys in the room that’s a lot of food when you put it together. To this day I buy Smucker’s jelly because that’s what they had in the parcel. And on New Year’s Day we had, they called it the Kriegsgefangen Bowl. And they had one guy that had been shot down before the war started, they made a mistake going over the English Channel and the guy got shot down. I think he was a Canadian guy, English or Canadian. The crazy guy, they dressed him up like a woman with the top part and made him a drum majorette, and you’re marching down the field and they’ve got a band playing "Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame," they got the instruments from Geneva, Switzerland, and the Germans were standing with the machine guns, "These guys must be crazy. They’re marching up and down." Then we started to play a football game, real tackling, with no equipment. Guys were breaking arms, legs, drag them out, the doctor’ll take care of you. The Germans thought we were nuts. And we were betting food.

    I was the only guy in my room that was on the team, and a guy says to me, "Hey, Mapes, do you think we’re gonna win this game?"

    I said, "Sure."

    "Well, we’ve got to count on you because we’re gonna bet food, and if we eat, it’s all right, but if you lose, you’re gonna get it, because we’re starving."

    We lost by one point. But anyway, we got out there, and I’m telling the truth, it was so funny, this guy was a prisoner for three years, maybe he went off his rocker a little bit, he got dressed up like a woman and they started playing Cheer Cheer for Old Notre Dame and some of the guys who had been prisoners for two years started to chase him around the field. So they’re chasing the guy around, I guess he must have felt like a woman after a while, they’re chasing him. Then we played the game.

    And then we used to have – there were 10,000 guys in the camp I was in. Ten thousand in one camp. Twenty-five hundred in each Vorlager and one football. And the funny thing was, there were 20 Russians in the whole camp, and they made them clean the latrines for the Americans. But then they had the theme song, did you ever hear of a guy named Larry Clint, an orchestra leader like Glenn Miller. His piano player was shot down, and he used to lead an orchestra, they’d play, the theme song was, "If I had the Wings of an Angel, Over These Prison Walls I Would Fly." So we used to have some fun there. Then maybe on a Saturday afternoon they’d do a little recital. One day there was a German plane, an accident or something happened to it and it crashed right outside the prison, and all these guys were up there cheering for the damn thing to crash. You’re not gonna make it! He’s not gonna make it! And the damn thing crashed and everybody cheered. Talk about being sadistic.

    Even if he was an enemy, the guy got killed. He was a fighter pilot. And you know what they used to do, too? Near the end of the war, the Germans, when the American B-17s and 24s used to fly over on a mission, the Germans would always fly low to the ground and make it look like they chased them away. That was kind of a morale thing. And we always had a radio, we got the news every day from BBC, the Germans didn’t know it, but what we were doing was, we had these crystal sets, some of these guys were pretty sharp and they could make up a radio, all they needed was two little batteries. And one guy would talk, I’d be talking to you and in the meantime the guy would be stealing the batteries out of his bicycle.

    There were two guards in the prison camp I was in, they were known as Dirty Gus and Big Stoop.

    Big Stoop was about 7 feet tall. He was a moron, and Dirty Gus was a little moron. They used to walk around and check each room, and they walked with their hands behind their back, the big guy would come and he’d say something, he’d smack somebody real good. And the Russians – I understand this, I didn’t see it, but the Russians I understand came in and hung them from a telephone pole. The Russians were crazy. If they wanted to get something to eat they’d go to a farm and kill a cow, for one guy they’d kill a whole animal.

    I didn’t smoke. I used to sell the cigarettes I’d get in the box. In the Red Cross package you always had cigarettes. So I’d sell them to the guys that smoked, when we’d trade, for a D-Bar things like that. This guy Levin from Miami, he and I used to sell them to the guys that smoked. So when we left there, we were both owed about $1,600. Needless to say, we never got a penny. I would sell you a pack for a hundred dollars or something like that. But the crazy guys, they’d rather smoke than eat. When I first got captured, they used hay and straw, and wrapped them up in newspaper to make cigarettes.

    When I came home, my mother was happy as a lark. She was fairly religious, she had a lot of faith in things and she had a good preacher who always kept the faith.

    Shortly after I came back, I was home on a furlough, and she said, "You’re home now, we’re going to go out and have a big meal." She used to know I loved roast pork and red cabbage and stuff like that. I said, "You can’t get that stuff."

    She said, "I can get it."

    I said, "Yeah, how are you going to get it?"

    "You just take me to the store, and drop me off, and then drive around the block a couple of times."

    I dropped her off, and I went around the block a couple of times. And here she comes out of the store with a big smile and a bag, and there are some people lined up outside the store. And she says, "I got it."

    I said, "How did you get that stuff?"

    She said, "It was nothing. I just told them you’re a war hero."

    Can you imagine, she went in there and got the food. I guess if I have any tenaciousness too, it came from her. She didn’t say no to anything. Anything she wanted to do, she’d do it. She was quite a woman.

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