Last Vet Standing: Thirty Two and A Half - West Virginia Strong

Last Vet Standing: Thirty Two and A Half

Clyde Crowley got shot down over Germany on the return leg of what would have been his last bomber mission before being rotated home and, consequently, he spent the last months of World War II in the hands of the Luftwaffe. As Steven Coonts put it in Flight of the Intruder, "He logged one less landing than take-off."

Like Tom Williams, there are things on Clyde's wall that let anyone who cares to look know that Clyde served in the war. Tom had the picture of himself in his uniform; Clyde has a frame filled with decorations for courage and campaign medals. There's a Purple Heart for a piece of shrapnel in his leg, a Victory medal for serving in the war, Polish, Greek and Russian medals awarded for service rendered to those nations, his six Air Medals (one for every five combat missions), his medal for flying twenty-five missions, a Bombardier's medal, and then his Prisoner of War medal. And if he took the time, he says, he could still get others due him that he never received. One he earned but was never awarded is the Distinguished Flying Cross.

When Clyde got to England it took twenty-five missions to earn the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). When he had them completed, Gen. Doolittle raised the mission requirement to thirty. Because he was shot down on his thirty-second mission, Clyde never received the badge. In the 1980's Clyde learned that he was still eligible to be awarded the commendation and the Air Force forwarded him the documents he needed to fill out to receive the medal. Among other intangible requirements, Clyde would have had to get the signature of his commanding officer at the time he completed the last necessary mission. For all Clyde knows, that man is long since passed.

Clyde was born in Pocahontas County, WV. As a teenager he ran his family's beer joint, but when World War II started he was in Duluth, Minnesota, serving as a Merchant Marine on the Great Lakes. He begins:

I was supposed to register for the draft in 1941, so when the day came I went into the office in Duluth and told them to forward my papers to Marlinton, WV, back home. Well, when I got home they didn't have any record of me signing up. They contacted the board and got my number. I was called with 119 other guys in April of '42. I knew a lot of the guys and two of them were guys I had worked with on the road crew. They were all for signing up for the Army and getting into tanks. They figured they'd be nice and safe in those things. I saw them after the war, they said it was just miserable.

I got in the Air Corps though. I thought it would be pretty nice, just a few minutes over the target and that was it. Of course I learned that those were some pretty hectic minutes.

When I got to England I was a waist gunner in a B-17. Part of our training for that was to be able to completely disassemble and reassemble your gun blindfolded. I knew that gun inside and out. But really, I wouldn't have had to go overseas at all if I hadn't wanted to. I was stationed stateside as a gunnery instructor. You see, the Army gave you all kinds of tests and ran you through all kinds of training. I did real well on all the tests and a buddy of mine said, “Crowley, you'd better watch out. Yer doin' so good on these tests that they're gonna make you an instructor if your not careful.”

He was right. I qualified to go into flight school and become a glider pilot, but I never pursued it. Instead, I got sent to Kingman, Arizona, as a Gunnery Instructor. One thing I had to do was check out all the things that could go wrong with the .50 caliber guns used in the B-17s. I just went out on the range everyday and fired away, seeing what might go wrong, but I started out teaching air to air gunnery. We used B-18's to practice in. Now, the B-18 wasn't much of a plane when it was brand new. And the ones we had were dilapidated, and they stunk. Boys would go up in those things and get air sick, throw-up all over.

One B-18 would fly out ahead towing a target and we had to train the new guys to sight on the target, track it, and fire on it. Each student had bullets painted a different color. At the end of the day we just had to count each colored strike on the target to find out how a student was doing. One guy missed the target completely and shot up the B-18 doing the towing. The pilot had to land out in the desert and he was hopping mad when he got back in.

Another training technique we used to help students learn to lead a target was skeet shooting. All of us would pile onto the back of a truck with a shotgun and ride around a range. There were holes dug in the range, and people would jump off the truck into the holes. In the holes we had spring-loaded arms which launched the skeet into the sky. The guy in the moving truck with the shotgun then had to track and shoot the skeet on the run.

One interesting thing about that whole operation was the rattlesnakes. Rattlers would climb into the holes we'd dug for the skeet throwers and then guys would jump out of the truck and on top of the snakes. Our code was, if there was a snake in your hole, just quit launching skeet. We'd know something was wrong and the truck would head back over to you. Then we'd shoot the snake.
After awhile though, that all became very routine and somewhat boring. I got tired of the drudgery and so three of us sergeants got together and decided to see if we could get sent overseas. Our commanding officer, CO, gave the OK and wrote up the orders. He sent us to Rapid City for flight training but when we got there, well there was nothing on our orders to instruct the new CO about what to do with us. For some reason there was a bunch of Privates First Class and Corporals on that base who were unattached to any unit. That CO put me and another sergeant in charge of them, gave us a barracks at the edge of the base, and we just sort of lay around for three months.

After awhile we decided to form our own flight crew, found a pilot who had been recycled due to appendicitis, a radioman, and a bombardier. We got ourselves trained and qualified, and then we were sent to Nebraska. In Nebraska they gave us a brand new B-17. We picked up a navigator on our way out to England. He was from Lewiston, New York. On our way overseas we flew right above his neighborhood and the pilot buzzed his house.

If we hadn't got ourselves trained, we could have sat out the entire war in that barracks.

We got to England on July 4th, 1944, after weeks of trying to get there. Of course we didn't fly from America to England in one hop. We stopped in Iceland and then had to wait there because of fog. When we finally took off on the 4th it was still not the best of weather. We couldn't land at the base we were supposed to and we started to run low on fuel. After awhile we located a small strip in Wales, but they waived us off and told us not to land. But we did anyway, had to. When we got to the actual base where we were destined, it turned out we were only about three hours from London, so we got to go down there every now and again.
I flew my first combat mission nine days later. The B-17 had nine or ten machine guns, depending on the design of the particular plane. The belly-gunner and the engineer had turrets that could turn 360 degrees, to cover the whole aircraft. Of course, you had to be careful when you fired. The German fighters would zip in and out between the bombers' formations. We had to get them either comin' or goin'. If you shot into the formation you might shoot down one of your own planes. I took some shots, but I didn't have any confirmed kills.

After the first day, we flew everyday or every other day, depending on the circumstances. I think the closest call we ever had was when the pilot of the plane flying on our wing knocked his oxygen mask off. He started to go a little nuts and was swerving all over the sky. He nearly crashed into us. Everything worked out though, and I remember later that we gave him a good razzing for it. Incidentally, one of my buddies got killed in a B-24 kind of the same way. They went up on a foggy morning and had just come through the clouds when another plane came right up under them. Back then, of course, there was nor radar. The two planes collided and everyone was killed.

The medals I have from Poland and Russia were from a special mission I was part of. President Roosevelt called for some volunteers to fly supplies to the Free Poles fighting in Poland. For that mission we had to land at bases in Russia. The Russians then loaded us up with bombs and had us bomb some targets for them on our way out. Eventually, I flew missions over Germany, France, Poland, Italy, and we bombed a railroad depot in Hungary.

And then a curious thing happened. Our navigator was on a training flight one night with the pilot, the bombardier, and some other members of the crew, not including myself and two others. They were to stay over England and perform a few tasks. The weather was bad and they couldn't use their radio due to a blackout. As it turns out, they got lost and accidentally crossed the Channel. They were relieved to discover that they were over France because they were low on fuel and needed to land. They crashed landed in a field and the navigator quickly ran out to greet the uniformed soldiers coming out to check on them. Unfortunately, they were not in France at all, and the uniformed soldiers were Germans. They were all taken prisoner. But all we knew then was that they were lost, and everyone presumed they had gone down in the North Sea. It was a long time before we found out the details. So, the other two fellows and I were left without a crew.

The Base Commander gave us the choice of either taking a ground job or flying as replacement crew members. Well, I had been a gunnery instructor earlier in the war and so I thought I might try and get recertified for that job. At that time there was a need for bombardiers and so I took a two week refresher course. I had no trouble with the class and flew as a bombardier until I was shot down.

Actually, the day we were shot down I wasn't even scheduled to fly. The CO came up and said that this fellow Bates had a cold and asked if I would take his place. I told him that I had just returned from a flight, but the CO made me a deal. He said that if I flew this one more mission, my 33rd, he'd go ahead and rotate me home, where I should have been heading anyway. Well, I agreed.
It was a mission over Hamburg. Oh it was a clear, clear day. And cold as blue blazes, fifty or sixty below zero. We really didn't have any trouble over the target, nothing unusual, anyway. I did get a piece of shrapnel in my leg while we were over Hamburg, but it was nothing serious.

As bombardier I had to go back and pull all the pins from the bombs, to activate them. Then, when we were over the target, the pilot put the plane on automatic and I took over. Well, one of those bombs got hung up in the racks and just wouldn't drop. We turned back home, but we had to get rid of that bomb. In order to get rid of the bomb the pilot had to drop the racks that the bombs were stored on. While we trying to get rid of the racks we drifted out of formation, which meant we drifted out of our fighter cover.

I remember I was looking at the wound in my leg when, suddenly, the radioman announced that we were being attacked. I don't know where the plane got hit, I suppose it was the wing, but the pilot sounded the alarm. I saw the German plane and I shot a few rounds at him from the machine gun in the nose. I don't know if I hit him. If it hadn't been for that hung bomb, I doubt we would have been hit at all.

I had my parachute on already, which was odd because I very seldom wore it. It was bulky and really encumbered me. I have no idea what prompted me to put it on that morning. Usually I left it sitting beside me, but that day I put it on just before we got to the target.

Anyway, the pilot sounded the alarm and I went to jump. I couldn't see anyone else and figured I was the sole survivor. I never had jumped before, and buddy if you're in the wrong position when that chute opens, it'll jerk the piss right out of you!
I saw the plane as I was falling. It was just a sheet of flame. I figured everyone was dead, but I found out later that the engineer, navigator, and one of the waist gunners had jumped. Everyone else was dead.

It was December 31st, I remember that clearly, and I could see a village beneath me as I was drifting down. I figured that they must have been able to see me and as soon as I hit the ground they'd capture me. But when I hit the ground there was no one around at all. I hid my chute in a culvert and walked down to a little stream. I had a little wound on my leg and I washed it off real good.

What surprised me most was that no one came to get me. I started walking because it was either walk or freeze. I came to a gravel road and had no idea which way it was going. I choose a direction and walked. That night I came to an airbase. I stopped as soon as I realized where I was because I didn't want to get shot. I hid under a pine tree to wait out the night. Before long I saw flares streaking through the sky. I instantly assumed that the flares were being set off because someone knew I was around and they were looking for me. When the flares went off they gave enough light that I could see a building near by. When nobody came for me, it dawned on me that the flares were just being set off in celebration of the New Year. It was New Year's Eve, after all.
I knew my feet were frostbitten and so I decided to turn myself in. I waited 'til daylight and then approached the little building. As it turns out, the planes at the airbase where just mock-ups, designed to divert the Brits, and the little building was a Luftwaffe guardhouse. The guards were not the least bit surprised to have an Allied airman surrender to them. I gave them my name, rank, and serial number, and that was it. One of the guys wanted to trade for my flight boots. I refused. All they did was phone somebody.

A girl there made me some bread, out of sawdust, and a little ersatz coffee. I gave her the chocolate bar out of my escape kit, and then they led me to a bed. I completely zonked out. At 4 o’clock a motorcycle showed up driven by the military police. They stuck me in the sidecar, and off we went.

I don't really know where I was, but I guess it was around Hamburg someplace, as that is where I was shot down. The Germans didn't bother to tell me. We pulled up to a big building. Right away I was searched. I had two watches with me: one a gold watch, the other a silver Swiss watch. I also had my billfold in which I had a dime and a tiny compass hidden. The Germans kept the Swiss watch, and gave me back the other one, as well as my billfold, with the compass and dime still in it. Then they put me in a cell.

I figured there were other prisoners around me, but couldn't see or hear anyone. As far as I could tell that room was built for solitary confinement. It only had one window and it was up so high you couldn't see out of it. And there was nothing in the room but a bed frame with no mattress. The Germans controlled the heat and as a form of torture they would turn the heat up so high that I had to take most of my clothes off, then all of the sudden they'd make it so cold I nearly froze.

Twice a day they took me out of the cell for interrogation. It was the standard thing; one guy was very nice and calm, the other was a bully who was going to have you shot. I never told them anything but my name, rank, and serial number. Really, their spy network was very good. They already knew what crew I was on and that I was not flying with my regular crew when I was shot down, probably before I left England. I don't know what more I could of told them even if I'd been inclined to talk. They even had my mother's name and address back home.

When they got tired of me there, they sent me to an internment camp, a Dulag, near Wetzlar. They loaded me, and a bunch of other prisoners, into cattle cars and sent us off. At some point on that trip we passed through Frankfurt, and by 1945 the civilians in Germany were in awful shape, physically and mentally, from enduring all the hardships and the bombings. We were unfortunate enough to meet some angry civilians in Frankfurt, really at the worst time possible. You see, while we were stopped in the city there was an air raid. Our guards took us out of the cattle cars and into an air-raid shelter with the general population. When the civilians found out we were Yanks, and largely Air Corps, they got anything they could use as clubs and attacked us. One guy got his shoulder broke before the guards could stop them.

The next time we passed through Frankfurt, when we were being shipped to Nurnberg, we were locked in cattle cars the whole way. That time when the air raid came the Germans just left us on the tracks for hours as the bombs went off quite nearby. We had no water, no latrines, and most of us had dysentery.

At Wetzlar we lived in big barracks. Each barrack had a number of big rooms with bunks to sleep on. We had to double up, two to a bed. There were never enough blankets and we shared our beds with lice and bed bugs. For some reason though, the bed bugs didn't like me. I guess my skin, or blood, just didn't appeal to them. The guy I shared a bunk with would be covered in bites and sores every morning, but I'd be clean.

There, at Wetzlar, we were supposed to get Red Cross parcels to supplement our food, but there was an American Colonel in the area who was really quite selfish. He would go through the packages and keep the best stuff for himself. And then he had a bunch of guys who did his cooking for him. That made it hard on the rest of us.

But for the most part, it was almost a family like atmosphere. There weren't any cliques or gangs to speak of. We did a fair job of looking out for each other. Each day we received from the Germans one loaf of bread per seven people and a soup we called Green Death. The soup was basically dried vegetable tops boiled in water, with a little meat thrown in occasionally. Every now and again there were small bones in the broth or meat. I always hoped they weren't human bones. Our other soup we called Mocker's Soup. It was split peas with weevils and no salt. It was almost completely tasteless. We never had any trouble that I can remember when it came to dividing up the food, or from anyone stealing someone else's share.

In addition to what the Germans gave us, as I've already mentioned, we got some Red Cross parcels. Every nationality received a little something different in their packets, but essentially we all got butter, chocolate, tinned meat, salt, sugar, and stuff like that. The Brits and Belgians got tea; Americans got cigarettes, needles and thread. The cigarettes, of course, were the most valuable commodity in the boxes as they were the main source of currency used both inside and outside the camp. American cigarettes could get you just about anything you wanted from the guards. I know one guy who used cigarettes to get a guard to smuggle a camera into the compound for him.

To cook on we had a big stove, like a Warm Morning stove, but it had a real narrow top. It was hard for everyone who had to cook to get around it at once, and it was too small to hold everyone's pots and pans. One guy got the bright idea that if we turned the stove on its side we'd have a whole lot more heated area to cook on. It worked very well.

One thing that really bothered us was that we never got any mail. I know for a fact that my mother wrote me every week, but I never got a single letter while I was a POW. Part of the problem was that we moved around so often, but mostly the Germans just didn't trouble themselves over prisoners' mail. The mail that I sent out got through fine, my mom got a couple of letters that I sent her.

There were no officers in our compound since the Germans believed in segregating the officers from the men, but we managed to get along quite well anyway.

I was never tortured while I was a prisoner, but I think the Germans did do a medical experiment on me. I can't be sure if that's what it was but one day I was called to go see a doctor. My teeth were in bad shape so I figured it was the dentist but when I got where I was supposed to go there was a big, fat German nurse and a doctor. They put some kind of drops in my eyes. My eyes dilated and then I was taken back to my quarters. I couldn't see for sometime and was really worried. I didn't know what they'd done or if I'd ever see again. But gradually my sight came back and that was the end of it.

After we'd been at Wetzlar awhile the Allies started closing in and so all of us prisoners were moved to a camp outside of Nurnberg. That's when we were locked in the cattle cars during the air raid on Frankfurt. It was still pretty cold when we got to the Nurnberg camp and we didn't have any fuel for cook fires or heat fires. To remedy the need for wood guys would sneak out of the barracks at night and steal the wood off of the latrine house. Before long there was hardly any wood left on the latrine and the Germans were getting pretty upset. They called us all out of our barracks one morning, at three or four A.M., and lined us up. They threatened to shoot every third man until the parties guilty of stealing the wood 'fessed up. We stood there a long time, barefooted out in the bitter cold, but nobody would confess. Finally the Germans let us go back to our beds without shooting anyone. I guess it was just a bluff.

Sometimes the Germans would take some of the POWs out on work details, but they abided by the idea that non-coms and officers shouldn't do labor. As a result, I never got to go since I was a sergeant. And that was too bad. The work wasn't that hard and often had its rewards. After Nurnberg was bombed, for example, a detail was taken out to clear away some of the rubble. The guys that went out brought back a lot of food that they'd managed to scavenge from the wreckage.

That camp was right near an airstrip where the Germans were keeping some of their top-secret jets. Of course none of us knew what a jet was and when it flew over we all thought it was a rocket-bomb of some kind. I suppose they put the prisoners so close to the secret airbase to keep it from getting bombed. Everyday a jet would fly over and then one day, BOOM! It crashed, I guess, while landing and blew up. It was quite exciting for us.

By that time, early 1945, the prisoners had worked out all kinds of connections with the outside world. They bribed guards and had useful contraband sent from home hidden in packages. There were cameras in the camp and even radios secreted away. With the radios we could get up-to-date news about the war from Allied stations and even communicate with Allied troops. The Brits were the best at getting stuff. They were masterful in the way they got stuff into the camp. I don't know how they did all they did.
In April of '45 US troops started pushing toward Nurnberg and so we were forced to march to Moosburg. At Moosburg we were put into Stalag VII. It was a sixteen-day march, but it was nothing like Bataan.

The first night out was the worst of the whole march. Allied planes mistook us for German troops and strafed our column. They killed a few of the POWs and after that we made a sign in a field indicating that we were prisoners so that the aircraft knew who we were. After that, the Allies followed our progress and even dropped in Red Cross parcels. I remember that night, too, because it rained something awful and we had to sleep in the woods. We stayed off the main roads and so we ended up on muddy back roads.

By that time the German guards were so worn out from lack of supplies and the hardships that they could hardly make the trip themselves. They were actually very sympathetic to us. At times on the march some of the prisoners even helped the Germans by carrying their rifles for them. And it would have been easy to just drift away from the group at that point and set out on your own. Two guys, I know for sure, slipped out of the ranks during the second night of the march. I gave them the compass that I still had hidden in my billfold. They set out toward the American lines but I was actually liberated and back in France before they got through. The hardest part, they said, was getting past the Allied lines. It was hard for them to convince the Americans that they were not Germans.

Like I said, the guards were friendly to us at this point. In fact, we were safer with them around than without them. On a number of occasions they kept us alive.

In all, I think we walked about 100 miles and the guards kept us away from towns that they thought would be unfriendly to a bunch of Allied airmen, especially towns that had recently suffered bombings.

One of our guards, a fellow named Muller, had been educated in Philadelphia and spoke excellent English. He was a sergeant who said he had been caught up in the Nazi movement early on. He left school in Pennsylvania and went back to Germany. By the time he figured out what Hitler was about, he couldn't get back out of Germany and so he got drafted into the Army. When we'd get near a hostile town on the march he would say, “Don't go into town. If you have anything to trade, give it to me and I'll see what I can get you.” We needed food mostly. I remember I had an extra shirt and he went into one town and traded it for a stick of butter, I still have the wrapper. We found some potatoes and the butter helped a lot.

We really didn't have any fit provisions for the march and had to scrounge what we could, and make our Red Cross parcels stretch. But we had a lot to trade. We had plenty of cigarettes, which were valuable, plus thread and needles. The Germans needed that sort of thing and would trade food to get it. I remember there was an old woman cooking barley and potatoes in a pot, we traded something with her for some of that. And once I found an old turnip. I ate it, but it made me sick.

Moosburg was nothing but a big tent city. The camp was officially called Stalag VII and there were probably 14-15000 prisoners there, I don't really know for sure. They were from all over, too. There were French, English, Russian, and of course us Americans, plus others. After we arrived, the prisoners from Stalag III also came in. They had had to march from their original camp when the Russians drew too close. For whatever reasons, the Germans treated the Americans and Brits much better than they treated the Russians and French. In fact, they were down right rough on the Russians and French. Of course, it was a tense time for us all. You see, by then Hitler had ordered that all POWs should be executed. Again, it was our guards who saved us.

A group of SS soldiers showed up to carry out the order, but our guards prevented it from happening. I say the SS fellows were soldiers, but really they were just boys, fourteen or fifteen years old. One of them almost did kill me.

It was in Moosburg that I finally caught up with the navigator from my first crew. Now, the camp was so big that it was divided into separate compounds, with a fence between each compound. And then there was a warning wire a certain distance from the fence. If you passed the warning wire, and thus got too close to the fence, you could be shot. Well, like I say, I saw that navigator over in the other compound and he and I started talking across the fence. It was only then that I found out he was alive at all. I didn't know that they'd landed and been taken prisoner, I just figured they'd gone down in the North Sea. But anyway, while we were talking I guess I got too close to that warning wire because all of the sudden I heard a gun snap behind me, like a shell being loaded. I turned around and saw one of those SS teenagers standing there with his gun leveled right at me. Boy, I turned around, but quick, and jumped away from that fence!

I guess what finally saved us was that Patton's Army showed up. If they hadn't come when they did those SS guys might have found a way to carry out the order to execute us. We were liberated April 29th. At that point we had to get deloused and I took my first hot shower since being shot down. Some of the guys with me had been captured in Africa in 1943. We got out of Germany on May 8, 1945. On May 10 we boarded Liberty ships and were part of the first unescorted convoy to sail across the Atlantic since the war started.

To read Bil's next "Last Vet Standing" interview with WWII Veteran Tom Williams, click here

Bil Lepp is a nationally renowned storyteller and a PEN Award winning author. To see more of Bil's WV Strong content, click here. 

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