'There Are Some Awful Men in Here'.
Technical Sergeant Dan Culler shipped out for England on September 26,1943, as an airman of the 44th Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force's 66th Squadron. Based at Royal Air Force Station Shipdham in Norfolk and regularly flying missions over German targets as top-turret gunner of the B-24 Hell's Kitten, he was assigned to a major US bombing raid scheduled for March 18, 1944.
What follows is an excerpt from Prisoner of the Swiss: A World War II Airman's Story by Dan Culler and Rob Morris (Casemate Publishers, 2017). It picks up early in that March 18 mission. The second half covers the beginning of Culler's internment in Switzerland. It is disturbing, maybe too much so for some readers.
As usual, we flew in a different direction than our mission objective to confuse German fighters. We picked up a lot of flak over the southern Dutch coast. It was never a good thing to get hit by flak this early in a long mission, and soon we saw some of our planes turning back to England, either from flak damage or mechanical malfunction. Every plane that turned around meant less guns defending us from the enemy later.
It was strange to be out in the very front of the entire formation, nothing in front of us but empty sky. When I looked back from my top turret, hundreds of B-24s bobbed up and down in our wake, a veritable armada, the morning sun glinting off their silvery fuselages. With so many planes behind us, I figured our rear was covered, so I cranked my broken turret around to the front. [The turret had malfunctioned during a previous mission and could be turned only by hand, leaving the plane more vulnerable. The crew had repeatedly requested repairs, but the problem remained.
As expected, we were soon hit by swarming German fighters, engaged by our own fighter escort, and we watched the dogfights between, above, and below us. It was hazy, with scattered clouds, and below us, the German mountains and countryside were blanketed by snow. As we approached the target, the flak became heavy and accurate. As we lined up for the bombing run, we were also hit by buffeting turbulence that shook the plane in all directions. The pilot transferred control of the aircraft to autopilot, and the bombardier was now flying the plane during the bomb run and would drop the bombs using the Norden bombsight, if clear, or the radar, if not. Between the flak and the turbulence, I don't know how our bombardier was able to keep the bombsight lined up on the target, but he managed. Time slowed down as flak exploded outside our plane, pieces of jagged metal rattling like hail off the plane's thin skin. The bombardier waited for the moment when he could release the bombs, and we waited breathlessly as well.
Suddenly, we were pummeled by an intense explosion under our left wing. As the plane rocked and righted itself, I staggered back to see gasoline pouring in buckets out of the left wing tanks.
"Flames are coming out of the left inboard engine!" our waist gunner yelled over the interphone, and made a move to jump out the waist window. The older waist gunner restrained him, reminding him that he wasn't wearing his parachute. No matter how much our pilot must have longed to take the controls back from the bombardier, he had to wait until after "bombs away." Every plane in the formation was depending on us to drop our bombs correctly. We were the only plane equipped with radar for bombing accuracy, and if we aborted the bomb run, the mission would be wasted. Even though the plane was now veering alarmingly to the left, the bombardier was able to pull it back on course using the bombsight. Finally, the target appeared in his crosshairs, he pressed the button releasing the bombs, the bombs dropped from the bomb bay, our plane lurched upwards in sudden lightness, and the bombs screamed downward toward the ball-bearing plant.
The rest of the group dropped upon our release and in a split second the sky below was black with bombs. Our pilot now yanked the control wheel over to the left to escape the flak, then banked even tighter so that we were looking down on the middle of Lake Constance, the border between Switzerland and Germany. The waist gunners reported that the fire had gone out but gasoline was streaming from our wing tanks. I got an oxygen bottle and walked back to try to drain the fuel out of the left wing tank into the right tank. The pilot announced that everyone needed to put on his parachute and be prepared to bail out if the plane exploded. Wearing my portable oxygen unit, carrying my parachute, I carefully crossed the narrow 4-inch catwalk through the bomb bay, the only thing between me and the earth 25,000 feet below. If I fell I would probably be unable to snap my chute on. Halfway across, I could see we were in mortal danger. The pungent reek of gasoline filled the bomb bay, permeating through my oxygen mask, and gas seeped through the rivets between the wing tanks and the bomb bay. I made it across and began pumping gas out of the left tank into the right. Finally the leak began to slow, and it appeared we might not explode in a giant fireball.
The pilot struggled to keep the engines firing while I transferred the fuel. The oil pressure was dropping, and both engines were overheating, even with the engine cowl flaps wide open. He decided we had to drop out of the formation, and the number two plane moved up to take our place. I figured that flak had cut our oil lines and the engines were not getting enough lubrication. It was only a matter of time before each engine seized up.
During our briefings in England, we'd been told that if any plane became too damaged to make it back to England, or if a plane was too low on fuel to get home, and if the plane was close to the Swiss border, then the best course of action was to divert to Switzerland. This would prevent the recovery of the aircraft by the enemy, and would keep the crew out of German prison camps. Switzerland began to look like an option.
We were flying away from the Swiss-German border. The drag on our aircraft was intense, our air speed was dropping, our group was already a formation of small black dots miles ahead of us, and we were losing altitude at an alarming rate. We were all alone, somewhere over southern Germany, and the mountains that had seemed so unthreatening at high altitude now loomed menacingly in our path. It was now or never. The pilot's voice crackled over the interphone, asking the navigator for the quickest route to Switzerland.
As I made my way back to the waist area to reassess our damage, four German Me 109 fighters [Messerschmitt Bf 109s, commonly known as Me 109s] bobbed on the air currents nearby, two on either side. To our relief, the fighters did not open up on us, and our gunners held their fire. These fighters had the white cross of Switzerland marking their sides, something the Swiss pilots were careful to make sure we saw.
The gunners left their firing positions, and we put on parachutes in case the pilot gave us the order to bail out. We were surrounded by mountains, and our plane was dying. The only question now was whether we would jump or whether we could land safely.
The pilot came on the interphone. "I've been told by the Swiss pilot that they are escorting us to a Swiss landing strip. We're lowering the gear and going to one-quarter flaps so that we won't be able to abort. Not sure why they think we'll do that, 1,000 miles from our lines and with two bad engines, but there you have it. Culler, get ready to destroy the plane if we are able to land safely."
While I destroyed the plane, the bombardier would put a bullet through the Norden bombsight to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The radio man had already disabled our radio so the Germans wouldn't be able to receive and transmit messages, and he was in the process of tearing up his code book into small pieces. I helped him throw the scraps out the window.
Assuming we made a safe landing, my plan was to run back to the waist gunner's position and hide above the wing section at the fuel transfer station where all the large fuel lines were exposed, then cut the lines, switch on the pump, and set the plane on fire using a flare gun once the crew was clear of the plane.
We touched down, instantly pulled to one side by a flat tire, and I was nearly thrown from the plane. I made it to the wing section and pulled out my small, rusty pocket knife. The gunners bailed out of the plane as fast as they could, the pilot gave me the "All clear!" and I began sawing my way through the fuel line, but it was like cutting through steel with a butter knife. When we landed, the hard landing had twisted the metal to the point where the huge wing fuel tanks ruptured. It's a miracle we weren't blown sky-high. I jumped from the wing and ran to the catwalk, flare gun in hand, planning to shoot the flare into the gas streaming from the wing tank once I was clear. Before I could jump from the bomb bay, my leg was caught in a firm grip and I was dragged roughly from the plane. A large body flattened out on top of me and a hand wrestled the flare gun from me just as my finger pulled the trigger. The gun failed to fire, probably saving both our lives. I was covered in gasoline, and if the plane had gone up, I would have gone up with it, along with the Swiss soldier and probably many others.
Three Swiss soldiers surrounded me, and a gun was pointed at my head. We were one of 13 Allied crews who diverted to Switzerland that day. Some bailed out before their planes exploded in fireballs against the walls of mountains. Others made it to the airport shot up and in bad shape. One B-17 struggled in on one engine, and several others made belly landings, their gear shot up. We landed with 90 gallons of fuel left, not enough to have made a go-round for a second approach.
The Swiss held Culler briefly in Adelboden, in the Alps. After he attempted to escape, he was put en route to Wauwilermoos Federal Prison.
We walked from the village of Wauwil, located in a flat, open field in a valley surrounded by towering mountains. The foothills were covered with lush green grass upon which fat Swiss cattle grazed, and some sections near buildings had been planted with crops. The path to the prison was a simple dirt track; no cars or trucks made the journey to the prison, only the horse-drawn wagons that occasionally brought supplies or removed bodies. The prison was in the center of a large field with no trees or shrubs; escape would be difficult.
About a hundred feet from the gated entrance a large, 6-foot-high wooden stake stuck out of the ground.
"What's the stake for?" I asked the guard.
"It's for prisoners who disobey the rules," he said. "They are tied to the post, and they stand outside all night. If they are lucky enough to survive the wolves that come down out of the forest at night, they won't be unruly again."
Wauwilermoos Federal Prison sat in the middle of the meadow, a series of one-story wooden barracks surrounded by several tall barbed-wire fences. Its wooden front gate swung outward from either side on hinges. A guard house sat to one side, and inside more guards circled the perimeter, each with a fierce attack dog.
Inside the gate was a street lined with many individual wooden barracks, each surrounded by its own barbed-wire fence and gate--in effect a small prison inside a larger one. I'd held out some hope that the prison might house resistance fighters, who would be my allies. I would be honored to serve time with them. The stares I received as I passed each barrack sent a chill up and down my spine and disabused me of this notion, and I regretted not allowing myself to die in peace on the mountain.
As we approached the camp commandant's office, the guard left me with these final words: "I am sorry to bring you to this hellhole. Watch your every step. There are some awful men in here, and you are so young."
The commandant looked like a caricature of a pompous French Foreign Legion officer. He was thick-bodied and bullet-headed, and wore cavalry-style high leather boots, riding britches, and carried a horse whip. His name was Andre Beguin, and he was, unbeknownst to me at the time, a diehard Swiss Nazi. The guard who brought me in stood to attention and handed Beguin a large envelope that contained my records, which the corpulent figure read as he paced back and forth in front of me, occasionally pausing to look me up and down disapprovingly. Once he saw I was a soldier, he made me stand at attention. With every step he took, he smacked his boot with his riding crop, resulting in a loud cracking noise that made me jump. As he read, he would come to a section that he found particularly displeasing, and would hit his boot with his riding crop with extra force and exertion. When he opened his mouth, he had a loud, shrill, high-pitched voice. He began a five-minute harangue in German, which the guard was supposed to translate. When he did, the guard told me that I was now an enemy of the Swiss government. I had refused to obey the orders of the American attache, Barnwell Rhett Legge, and his Swiss counterpart at our initial briefing. I recalled that at that meeting, when Legge, also decked out as a World War I cavalry officer, had warned us against escape, somebody in the back of the room had piped up and said, "What war orders are you reading?" Everybody laughed. That had made Legge angry, and he warned, "Disobey a Swiss order, and you'll pay dearly."
After Beguin had finished, I told him, through the interpreter, "I take my orders only from the American Army Air Force, and those orders are: 'When an airman falls into the hands of unfriendly forces, it is his duty to try and rejoin his own command.'"
"I was unaware that Switzerland was an unfriendly force," replied Beguin, his eyebrows arching.
"We are held under armed guard in one area," I replied, "unable to travel as we please, or leave to rejoin our own forces. If the Swiss are so friendly, what am I doing here? Also, I've been told on numerous occasions that the German Luftwaffe, and other high-ranking German military officers, can come and go across the SwissGerman border at will. If the Swiss are really so friendly toward the Americans, why can't we rejoin our forces?"
We got nowhere, obviously, and soon I was being led down the narrow dirt street between the barracks to a room that served as a warehouse, where they ordered me to remove my two-piece suit, white shirt and tie, shoes and socks, even my underwear, and issued me with an ill-fitting, horrible, wrinkled dark blue suit, shirt, socks, and a Swiss Army blanket. My shoes were like boxes, with binder-twine for laces, and were coming apart from the soles, which were full of holes. Everything itched, from the socks to the suit, and all were filthy. The waste from the person who'd worn them before me caked the pants. The wool next to my skin felt like barbed wire. I tried again to reach for my underwear, and was struck in the hand with a rifle butt. A path led between the barracks, and again I walked a gauntlet of evil stares. Most prisoners appeared to be in their thirties or older, had grubby complexions, greasy hair, and unkempt beards. I felt like a child, all alone, surrounded by horrible creatures, even more alone because nobody else spoke English. [Culler does not explicitly say in his book who these barrack mates were or what country they were from.]
My only protection was my blanket, and I wrapped myself tightly in it.
Barrack Nine. The very name is evil incarnate and capable of reawakening memories that no man should have to face, ever. The enclosure door was unlocked, squealed open on its hinges, and the guard pushed me inside. The building was about 10 by 30 feet, and next to the outside wall, running the full 30-foot length, was a ditch--the barrack toilet. There was a door at one end of the barrack, facing the main gate, and the ditch at the door end ran underneath the wall of the barrack and was thus used by the men on the inside as well. I found out later that we were allowed to clean our filth out of the ditch once a week, with a single pail of water. The waste would be loaded into a wheelbarrow and taken out into the fields, to be used as fertilizer.
The door swung shut behind me, slamming with a deathlike finality. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the room's dusty darkness. The floor was covered with straw, and the ditch had straw and human waste in it. Both the floor and the ditch were made of concrete. The walls were wood, unfinished on the inside, with the studs and rafters showing. There was a single blanket, doubled up, serving as a curtain on the window, and no stove.
The stench was overpowering and almost made me vomit. There was only one space left in the room, as far from the door and window as possible, so I took it. The rest of the day I paced in the small compound outside Barrack Nine, like a caged animal....
As I walked the exterior compound, I noticed that the rest of the inmates at the prison made a point to avoid the men from my barrack. When it was time to get locked in for the night, and after my eyes adjusted to the rank darkness, I saw gaunt, demented, and cruel eyes fixed upon me. I made my way to my small area of straw, all the while being kicked and reviled by my barrack mates, and occasionally being pushed into the waste trough. I lay down and prayed, tried to become invisible, tried to sleep so that I could escape this evil place, if only temporarily. What happened that night was beyond evil and has haunted my life ever since. I'm not sure how many men were in that barrack, but they all participated in torturing and raping me over the course of that endless night. After they were done with me, I crawled back to my corner. I needed to relieve myself, but was afraid to go past the other men. Instead, I fouled my pants where I lay.
Later, they dragged me back into the middle of the room, wedged a stick in my mouth and began shoving everything they could find into my mouth, making me choke. One man slapped me as hard as he could with the flats of his hands, one on each side of my head against my ears. After several crushing blows, I blacked out. When I came to, I bit down so hard on the sticks in my mouth that I broke part of my right back tooth. Finally, sated, they threw me into the trench of waste and left the barrack laughing. I crawled from the ditch and tried to wipe myself off on the straw. I noticed something was hanging out of my rectum, then realized to my horror that it was skin from inside my body. I tried to clean up with the dry spindly grass outside the barrack. I was numb. Slowly, I regained my senses and the pain hit me. I became furious. If I'd had my .50-caliber gun with me, I would have killed everyone in that camp, guilty or not, and saved plenty of rounds for the camp commander. If they had been there, I would have gladly killed every American and Swiss official who had allowed this to happen to me. I limped to Beguin's office, ignoring the guard's motion for me to get out, and shoved open the door, yelling every cuss word a young Indiana farm kid knows. As I screamed, they looked at me like I was stark raving mad, and a nasty grin came across their faces. They listened to me rant for a while, then Beguin motioned for two of the guards to take me and throw me in the dirt. As I lay there on the ground, I realized that I was completely alone on this earth. I would never be able to escape from this evil Godforsaken place. No, I'd never leave here at all. I'd die here.
Culler did not die there. He ended up in a hospital, near death with tuberculosis. When his fellow crewmen got word of his predicament, they organized his escape. A nerve-wracking train journey across Switzerland was followed by a very close call at the French border, but Culler was finally free.
Culler's physical wounds healed slowly, first in England and then back in the United States. The psychological scars of his imprisonment would remain for the rest of his life.
Soon after the Japanese surrender, Culler was discharged from the service. In 1947 he married Betty Strang and they had three daughters. He worked as a maintenance supervisor for Parker Motor Freight Trucking Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for many years before retiring in the early 1980s to Arizona, where the dry desert air eased the residual effects of his tuberculosis.
Culler was invited to return to Switzerland in 1994 and received a personal apology from then-President Kaspar Villiger for his treatment in prison. Two years later he was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal, which made him the first of the Wauwilermoos survivors so recognized. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts to keep his plane in the air before it landed in Switzerland.
Culler died on April 24, 2016.
Daniel Culler originally published his war memoir in 1995 under the title Black Hole of Wauwilermoos. Rob Morris, a high school history teacher and author of history books, edited that memoir and added new material for the 2017 edition released by Casemate Publishers as Prisoner of the Swiss: A World War II Airman's Story.
Caption: Above, left: A young Dan Culler in uniform, technical sergeant stripes on his shoulder. Above, right: Culler and his fellow B-24 crewmen during training camp. He kneels third from right. The pilot, First Lieutenant George D. Telford, stands at far left.
Caption: Culler spent his earliest days in captivity at Adelboden, the village at the center of this slice of a prewar postcard.
Caption: The crew of Culler's B-24, Hell's Kitten, at Shipdham in 1944. Culler kneels second from left.
Caption: The WWII US Army didn't acknowledge the existence of Wauwilermoos prison. But here it is in a 1943 army photo.
Caption: Andre Beguin, the Swiss Nazi commandant of Wauwilermoos, was responsible for the horrific treatment of POWs. He also embezzled prison funds.
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|Title Annotation:||I WAS THERE; excerpt from "Prisoner of the Swiss: A World War II Airman's Story" by Dan Culler and Rob Morris|
|Author:||Culler, Daniel; Morris, Rob|
|Publication:||America in WWII|
|Date:||May 1, 2018|
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