In honor of my father
November 11th, Veteran’s Day is always a solemn day for me. It is a fixed holiday, one that does not change yearly to provide us with three-day weekends; rather, the date is immovable, much like Christmas, New Year’s and Halloween.
Although I’m not religious, I approach Veteran’s Day as a sacred holiday, much in the way others observe Good Friday, Yom Kippur, or Eid al-Fitr — as an occasion of reflection. On this day, every year, my thoughts turn to those who have served, and to those we have lost. I dedicate this day to my father, and to the young men who fought alongside my son in the U.S. Infantry in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006, and to all those who willingly put duty, honor, and country before self.
My father, Jackson Waller, was born in 1917 at the tail end of World War I and one year before the Spanish Flu epidemic. He grew up in Iowa, the son of a businessman with a German bride, the fourth child of six.
As a young man, Jack drove a gasoline truck for Phillips Petroleum. In his spare time he wooed the pretty Marian Wolfe as she worked behind a soda fountain counter in an Iowa drugstore. They married in 1939, and my sister Kathryn was born in 1943. Shortly before her birth, Jack enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, as a Second Lieutenant and Flight officer. His eldest sister Evelyn served in the Women’s Air Corps in the European theater, and his brother Douglas was stationed in the Philippines.
Jack read the night sky like a map. This skill led to his duty assignment as a navigator on a bombardier plane, the B-17G, known as an American Bomber Fortress. On July 2, 1944, the plane, with a crew of ten, was returning to Budapest, Hungary, after completing a mission to destroy a rail head in Vinkovci, Yugoslavia when they were fired upon.
Wayne F. Waller, Jack’s father, wrote about the events that followed:
His ship survived the flack over the R.R. yards at Vincovci, but they had several feet shot off the wing and one motor was shot out and afire. Going away, they were hit by two fast fighters who did a lot more damage and shot out another motor before they were driven off. His crew figured they would save the ship and get back to Italy, across the Adriatic. But they were losing altitude, and with two motors running, their supercharger system was damaged, but they still thought they could make it, or at least get to the Adriatic, ditch in the water, and call for help from the Sea Rescue Service. But they again ran into terrific Anti-aircraft fire from the ground near Sarajevo and sustained more damage — and only one motor running.
Jack located a small valley on his maps, and they headed toward that valley SW of Sarajevo, losing altitude fast and threw overboard everything possible to lighten the ship. Ran into another flack battery at low altitude and were all shot to pieces and Sgt. Priest was blown in two by a shell (that passed right between Jack and the Pilot). With Lt. Howd wounded, their oxygen tanks leaking, and the ship on fire, the crew bailed out. Lt. Howd died, shot all to pieces on the way down by either flack or machine-gun bullets.
Five enlisted men and two officers, besides Jack, got to the ground alive, but three of those enlisted men were also wounded. Jack had only 400 ft. of altitude as he jumped, and his chute barely opened before he hit the ground so hard he thought he was done for. He had been hit in the back with shrapnel, either while in the ship or while in the air in his chute but found he had no injuries to his legs. He then heard machine gun fire and observed a group near him still firing at something. He lay flat a bit, got his wind, and decided to make a try at surrendering. Jack jumped up and threw up his hands and cried out “Americaine!”
The group of men that surrounded him were a hard lot of Balkan brigands wearing German uniforms. They promptly plundered him of everything of value. His revolver got torn away in the jump — which was no doubt a very good thing that he had not had it on him. The mob then proceeded to hang him. But before it was too late, the German officer in charge of the vicinity came up, told them to stop, gave them $1.25 for Jack, and offered the same rate for any more of the crew brought to him alive or dead.
Jack does not know what ever became of the wounded men as there was no medical aid thereabouts and no mercy and no value at all on human life. Much more went on and finally he was taken to an “interrogation centre.” Information was demanded about military matters. And about the Norden Bombsight. None of which they ever got.
He was thrown into a stinking dungeon for two weeks where he was fed bread crusts and water and was beaten into insensibility with blackjacks.
My mother and sister were living in Army post housing in Los Angeles, when the dreadful news reached her that my father had been shot down, was missing in action, and presumed dead. Devastated, my mother and sister left by train, and returned to Iowa, to await word of his fate, which took an agonizing several months.
The journey from Sarajevo, Yugoslavia to Lamsdorf, Germany, to the POW camp Stalag-Luft III in Sagan, Germany (now Poland) spanned approximately 1,200 kilometers. We know that Jack, badly injured, walked at least some of this distance. He arrived at Stalag-Luft III on July 26, 1944.
Stalag-Luft III was one of six operated by the Luftwaffe for downed British and American airmen and was best known for two escape plots hatched by Allied POW’s: one in 1943 and one in March 1944, just months before my father’s arrival. The second escape attempt became known as The Great Escape, all of which was heavily fictionalized in a 1963 movie. Of the 76 escapees, 73 were recaptured, 50 of which were executed. Only three men made it to freedom.
Stalag-Luft III was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945. Little is known of my father’s whereabouts until May 14, 1945, when, in a letter to his father, he wrote he was at Camp Lucky Strike in France, awaiting a ship back to America.
My grandfather continued the story as Soviet troops approached the camp:
The Germans marched the POW’s out of the camp around midnight on the 27th of January in a foot of snow and in below zero cold. This was a bad deal for days and nights without sleep and not much food and no heat and marching most of the time…and at towns where the Germans had said they had arranged to rest and sleep — many times the Burgermeister had changed his mind and would not let them in and they had to walk around for hours in a fenced pasture or some place and would freeze to death if a man tried to rest. Jack's toes were getting frosted and he finally took off his shoes, cut up his leather bag, and cut up his army blanket to wrap his feet.
He got by someway and when they got to Spremberg they were shipped by rail to Nuremburg. The camp there was a pigsty and pretty terrible. When the Germans notified the U.S. they would do nothing more for these men, the Army loaned fifty trucks to the Red Cross and they got food and clothing without which everybody would have been naked and would have starved to death.
In March the U.S. Third Army got too close and again the Germans marched the prisoners from Munich to Moosburg. It was bad there with 11,000 prisoners in a place designed to hold less than half that number. Finally, S.S. troopers arrived and ordered the prison guards to fight the American army that was approaching with tanks. The guards refused to fight with small arms against the tanks, so the S.S. executed them in the compounds. The S.S. went out and I guess they all were overrun and killed by our army.
A few days later our men were trucked to a town above the Danube and flown out to the French coast, to a rescue camp between Havre and Dieppe. Jack left France on May 16th to England, and then sailed from Liverpool on the 19th or 20th, and docked at NY on the night of the 29th of May.
Jack returned home to Iowa, to my mother and sister, and his parents on June 2, 1945. My grandfather described him:
He shows the effects of starvation and abuse. Is weak, nervous, and low in weight. I would say he has lost about seventy pounds. His digestive tract is so contracted and shrunken that it will take a long time to get back to eating liberally of foods. In fact, he is on a diet prescribed by the Army medics and will have to go very slow and carefully in building his health back.
My father was sent to Miami Beach for ninety days of rest, recuperation, and monitoring by Army medics. He was honorably discharged when he was deemed unable to return to active duty. He had been awarded the Purple Heart, and numerous medals and citations. My mother and sister accompanied him. They fell in love with the ocean and the tropical beauty of Miami. In 1947, my family relocated from Iowa to Miami. Jack’s eldest brother and his sisters Evelyn and Virginia soon followed.
Shell Oil Company staked my father to a gas station just outside Coral Gables. I was born in 1958. I knew very little about my father’s service, other than he had been in the Army Air Corps, and a German POW. His health was precarious. I realized much later he suffered from debilitating PTSD and deep depression, but those weren’t terms we knew, or discussed openly in the 1960’s or 1970’s. My parents were the generation that didn’t talk about religion, money, sex, or mental health issues with anyone, for fear of being stigmatized. Men were men and weren’t supposed to admit they were weak.
My father was 68 years old when he died at a VA hospital in Miami. He was cremated and we held a service for him at sea. We scattered his ashes in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.
Several years ago, my sister and I were reminiscing about our father. We knew little of his war history. We wondered why he hadn’t been buried at Arlington National Cemetery and we began a quest to find out about how one can be interred there.
Jack’s military records were impossible to obtain — the Military Personnel Service Center, which housed thousands of records, had burned in 1973. To make matters more difficult, all of his medals, and commendations, including his Purple Heart, had been stolen during a break-in at my mother’s Miami home, years after our father died. Neither my sister nor I had much in the way of our father’s personal papers.
Our mother died in 2005, and I had purged most of her paperwork over the years. But, in strange and unexpected places, both Kathy and I began to find random documents in our possession. I found the collection of letters our grandfather had written about my father, as well as letters Jack had written from German captivity. My husband Peter joined in the quest to locate information. He contacted the International Red Cross and received a one-page statement that provided a list of dates. Using these dates he located a Missing Air Crew report (MACR), #6444, at archives.gov. This report proved very useful in learning what had happened to my father and the crewmen during that ill-fated bombing mission on July 2, 1944.
Once we were able to provide documentation of his service record, and proof he had been awarded a Purple Heart, we asked that a plaque be placed at Arlington National Cemetery for our father. In a somber and moving service, a memorial was held to honor this man, who sacrificed much to defend our country.