It was like it happened yesterday. For former prisoners of war, the experiences of captivity in the hands of enemy forces can feel as vivid as the recent events and emotions.
Some local veterans who were captured and held prisoner during World War II shared their personal stories Tuesday with those who teach and offer tours as docents at Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park.
“I didn’t have to fly the day I flew, but I did,” said Richard Duerr, 87, of North Tonawanda, who served as a ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress until he was shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans. “I’m not sorry I did. I did something good for my country.”
Duerr, joined by two fellow former POWs from a local support group run by Robert Young, spoke to about 20 docents and staff members aboard the USS Little Rock at the park.
According to Young, it was the first time that former POWs from the local group – which once numbered hundreds of members from across Western New York but has shrunk dramatically in recent years – had spoken in deeply personal ways about their experiences with the docents and staff from the Naval and Military Park.
“It’s part of the thing I wanted to do, as far as education for the docents,” said Robert McFarland, chief docent at the park. “A docent is an educator. We gather the information from the contacts that we have. We’re preserving the knowledge we get from servicemen.”
Duerr, with former POWs William Dibble, 91, of the Town of Tonawanda, and Milton Miller, 87, of Amherst, spoke of his own history in a session designed to help docents and guides at the park to describe in more personal detail the stories of the men and women who served in the armed forces.
“One of the things we really learn from our former POWs is the resiliency of the human spirit,” Young said. “There is something about the human spirit. People come back. They survive. They learn to love again; they give back to their communities.”
The former POWs told their stories in simple terms, with blunt honesty.
Dibble, an infantryman who served in Sicily during the war, told of the day he was taken prisoner.
“There was seven of us on patrol,” he recalled. “We got surrounded, captured. Three-quarters of our company was wiped out.”
After that, Dibble said, he was taken to Germany, where he spent time on a forced-labor farm, working ceaselessly in cold and brutal conditions.
“Never once did they give us one hour off, regardless of the snowstorm,” Dibble said. “We marched for over 90 days, in the coldest winter on record.”
After he was freed in 1945, Dibble said, he was supposed to be retrained so that he could serve in the Pacific. Only the dropping of the two atomic bombs and the surrender of Japan saved him from that.
Miller spoke of his Army training at Fort McClellan, Ala., and his combat tole at the invasion of Anzio in Italy. He described his sinking feeling when, on a patrol in the Italian countryside, he realized that many others who did his job had already been killed or captured.
“I realized my time was coming close, when I was one of the only ones left,” he said. “I got caught in a trap.”
Life expectancy for a soldier in his position was “probably 3 minutes,” Miller recalled. “Prison camp march, up Italy. It was a little rough time.”
Miller said he counts himself lucky. Back in the States, he got married, raised a family of three kids and worked for 41 years in a tool-and-die job.
“The Guy Upstairs looked out for me,” Miller said, “and I made it.”
Duerr, who at 87 is one of the youngest of the surviving local ex-POWs from World War II, spoke about his service as a gunner on a B-17, where he landed the position due to his size – he was 5-feet-6 and 136 pounds, small enough to fit in the tiny ball turret on the Flying Fortress.
“I was only 18 years old,” Duerr explained. “I went in, thought I was indestructible, bulletproof. Little did I know. …”
Duerr made it through many missions safely with his regular crew. Then, on Jan. 10, 1944, he was chosen to man the guns on a plane that needed a crewman because the previous gunner was overstressed and couldn’t fly that day.
“They said to me, ‘You don’t have to go.’ But they had to have somebody,” Duerr recalled. “I didn’t know anybody with that crew. I flew with them, anyway.”
Heading for a target of Cologne, Germany, Duerr said, the plane “got hit hard” by enemy anti-aircraft fire.
“The flak was everywhere,” he said.
Ultimately, the flak hit the plane’s No. 2 engine.
“I saw it just disintegrate in front of me,” Duerr said.
Two of his crew members were killed, either “on the ground or in the air,” Duerr said. The rest were captured.
Duerr characterized his time as a prisoner of the German army as a period of primitive medical care, little food – mostly “black bread” – and forced marches in harsh conditions. Once, he was tormented by the sight of a little girl who had lost an eye in a bombing and had to wear an eye patch.
“That changed my whole view of wartime,” Duerr said. “No more guts and glory. The real stuff.”
Duerr said he doesn’t consider himself a hero for what he endured.
“Real heroes, they’re the ones in Arlington, places like that,” Duerr said. “I survived.”
The session lasted about an hour and ended with a standing ovation for the three ex-POWs, as well as a presentation of certificates of appreciation by Naval and Military Park docents.
Docents included John Radens, a veteran who served on a submarine, the Sea Leopard, and who said he learned a lot from the former POWs on Tuesday. “We try to always personalize the tours,” Radens said. “We’re not tour guides; we give a reason. We tell more stories. We try to personalize it.”
Another docent, John Orluk, a Navy veteran, called the presentation “very intriguing.”
“I never gave it a thought that there were that many POWs still living in the Western New York area,” Orluk said. “I didn’t know much about POW life. So that was pretty interesting.”
The number of these former POWs in the region has dropped as the World War II generation ages, said Young, the support group coordinator. But, he said, they will always have valuable lessons to share.
“In spite of the challenges people go through, we can always rise up,” said Young, who offers weekly support group meetings to the former POWs.
“That’s an eternal lesson we can always benefit from.”