Swingin' at the Stalag.
JAMES E. SEIDLER WAS 23 YEARS OLD when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. After training he was assigned to the Fifteenth Air Force, in the 721st Squadron of the 450th Bombardment Group.
In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised, Seidler had enjoyed playing the clarinet and the saxophone in a small band. He probably thought his music-making days were behind him when he headed off to war. Instead, his music turned out to be one of the few saving graces in the German prison camp where he found himself after bailing out from a flak-damaged B-24 Liberator heavy bomber over Austria in May 1944.
Now 89 years old, a widower, and retired from the flooring business, Seidler lives with his son on the outskirts of his hometown. His story here begins in the early days of the war.
I WAS WORKING FOR LB SMITH. At that time he was in heavy equipment, and they did a lot of government work.... He had a lot of quarries, and portable quarry equipment that they used to build the [Pennsylvania] Turnpike. I was the assistant to the purchasing agent. They were trying to get me an exemption from going into the service, but I really didn't want it, because I wanted to get out of there. I would have been drafted, but I enlisted. I wanted to join the navy, but this poor guy, my boss, he worked so many hours overtime I felt sorry for him, and I use to stay late and help him. So I just never got the chance to get to Philly and enlist. Then they opened an air force recruiting office here, where you could join the air force cadets.
When we went into the cadets in 1942, they gave you tests, and if you passed the tests high enough, you could do anything you wanted. You could be a navigator, bombardier, or a pilot. Everybody wanted to fly, so they had plenty of pilots, but they were short of everything else. I wanted to fly, too, but 1 figured, what the heck, I might as well take something that they needed, and what they needed more than anything else was bombardiers, because apparently they were killing them off pretty well. A brave way to start out, huh?
Then we went through ground school and flight school in Texas and learned to run the bomb sights and how to repair them. Then you'd go to advanced training, where you'd simulate combat runs. Usually they had you fly in twos, you and the next guy down alphabetically. My bombing buddy was Sherry. 1 can't remember his first name offhand. I think it was George, but I'm not sure. One of you would drop the bombs and the other guy would take pictures of them so they'd see where they hit. They scored you on how you hit. CE, they called it, centrifugal error. If you missed too many pictures, you had to walk tours. That was your punishment, walking around the base so many times. That was your punishment for almost everything that happened. They had a special air force camera, a big thing. Most of the guys cheated on it.
Most of the bombardiers in the first place were guys that had washed out as pilots, because, as I say, everybody wanted to fly. They didn't take too much time with the pilots. If they messed up, that was it. You didn't get a second chance, which I think was a mistake at the time because Sherry had washed out as a pilot, and he was an excellent guy, very reliable. He'd have been a great bomber pilot, but he was washed out for some simple thing, which he should not have been. A couple more hours and he'd have been flying. But that's the way the government worked.
Most of my class ... just didn't give a crap. If their buddy would throw a bad bomb, they'd just miss the picture, because you could miss so many, but if you missed too many you had to walk tours. But Sherry and I decided, when we started flying, we would miss no pictures, because it was almost impossible to miss one. So we never missed any pictures, and consequently we always had good bombs. He was older like I was. I was several years older than most of the guys. In fact our instructors told us [ours] were some of the best CEs that ever went through the schools.
The bombing was simple enough, if you understood the sight, and if you paid attention at the briefing. They'd tell you what your air speed and winds aloft would be, and all that information was set into your sight. It was like a computer, and you'd calculate everything. Your sight had crosshairs in it. If you set all your information in properly, it would just take a few adjustments and it would ride right on the target. You couldn't miss with it.
They had a shop where you worked on the bomb sights, and they'd have something wrong with them and you were supposed to find out. Most of the guys didn't give a darn. Sherry and I fixed all the bomb sights. I tried to get in touch with Sherry. I'm going to try again. I don't know if he survived the war or not.
We were supposed to go to B-29 school in Denver--we were supposed to be gunnery officers. The B-29 had just come out. It was huge. The outfit I graduated with were all goof-ups. That didn't last long, a couple of months. The CO [commanding officer] kicked the whole outfit out. They were in so much trouble, always breaking the rules, so he kicked the whole works out. 1 met my future wife, Louise (Carroll), out there. The girls used to go down to the train station to try to pick up soldiers. This one girl, Pat, was a good friend of Louise. It was Pat's sister that picked me up, so through Pat's sister I met Louise.
We ended up going to Newport News [in Virginia]. At the time they were working with radar, and they were testing it at Newport News, on the coast. And they were simulating bombing ships and stuff, and then they started dropping practice bombs like we did. They'd make a whole lot of smoke, but not much else. They needed bombardiers to travel with them and track their radar with a bomb sight so they wouldn't drop any practice bombs on someplace they shouldn't, so that's what we did for a few months.
Then they sent us overseas, to North Africa. We were camped out there in tents, and then as soon as they could they sent us to the base in Italy, when they got a good foothold, to a little town [Manduria] down in southern Italy, right along the Mediterranean. It was beautiful. We used to go swimming there. We were right next to air force headquarters for the area, and they were always having parades, and we'd absolutely have to get involved in the parades every time. So whenever we found out they were having a parade, my buddies and I would head off for the beach, to get out of the parade.
I had 14 missions. We'd bomb northern Italy and sometimes fly over to France. We made some pretty long trips and sometimes almost couldn't get back. One time we had to land at a fighter base to get fuel. We had flak vests that were issued to you that you were supposed to wear. The bombardiers, most of them that I knew, would sit on [the flak vests] because we were in the nose area. We'd hear this flak hit the plane. It was like a garbage can lid banging on concrete or on another garbage can lid. Whang! In those Ploesti raids [against the Nazi oil refineries in Ploesti, Romania in April and May 1944] it would be a cloud of black puffs.
We came back with the planes pretty well shot up at times. What happened the day we got shot up [and had to bail out], in our lead ship the compass was off, so some mechanic wasn't on the ball. We missed our fighter cover, and by the time our fighter cover found us, we were pretty well shot up. That was 5/24/44. We had fires in the back of the plane. The crew chief and I were back there fighting them with fire extinguishers, right in back of the cockpit. The intercom was out. The pilot came back and told us to get out. We went back to where the gunners were to tell them to get out, and they were already gone. The crew chief had a wound in his arm from shrapnel, so I told him to go out first so I could stay close to him. It was over Austria where we got shot up, near Vienna [on a raid against the Wollersdorf Airdrome outside Wiener Neustadt].
I tried to keep close to the crew chief because he was hurt. You fall pretty darn fast. I always felt we should have had a couple of jumps before we went to combat so you'd know what to expect. The chutes they use today are entirely different from the ones we had. They land you more softly. The ones we had were like jumping from 16 feet up. You're hitting pretty darn hard. I was swinging and landed on the side of a mountain, and it was steep. I swung right into a stump and broke my ankle. It didn't hurt a bit. I tried to get up and couldn't. You're so scared that you don't know it. I could probably have broken my back and wouldn't have felt a thing, because of the adrenaline flow. I was close to the crew chief, but he landed in some trees.
Later, I learned that the pilot, Vic Hollander, ditched the plane in the Mediterranean. [He and the co-pilot] were picked up and they got back to the base. The week after that they took off on a milk run, an easy run, and Vic's plane lost an engine on takeoff, and they crashed and he was killed, just a week after they were rescued.
The Germans took me down to this little village in this old oxcart. On the way down they stopped at a couple of little houses, and the women would come out and they'd be crying. I guess their sons were in the service or killed. The women brought me wine. They thought we flew from the United States and flew back.
We got down to this little village and some doctor set my leg in the town hall, a real old-time German doctor. He wore a string tie and a little vest-like affair. He spoke pretty decent English. All the little kids in town came in. They wanted to try their English.
We were fortunate because we were under the guardianship of the Luftwaffe [German air force], and there was mutual respect between the Luftwaffe and the [US] air force. When we traveled by train, and we'd stop in a station, all the Luftwaffe guys that were in the station would come over. They usually spoke English pretty well. They were taught English from kindergarten on up. Most of them spoke English and French and German.
First we went to a hospital, Halmark Hospital outside of Frankfurt am Main [in central Germany] on June 6. Here's where we heard about the invasion of France [the D-Day landings at Normandy]. We were there a couple of days.
We arrived at the hospital in Obermassfeld [less than 100 miles east of Frankfurt am Main, at Stalag IX-C] on 6/9. All the staff and all the doctors were British POWs. The guy in charge, of course, was German, a colonel. I had asked those doctors why they stayed there. Most of them spoke fluent German, and they could go anywhere they wanted. They had the run of the town. There was a bar across the street, and they could go over there and have a beer. They used to go over there and get a bucket of beer and bring it back. They said there was nowhere else they could do as much good, and they were right, of course. They had nothing to work with in the way of drugs. Some of those guys, oh God, you couldn't believe how they looked. They got burned so bad it was pitiful.
That's where we started our little band. One guy, Oakley Wheeler, he played trumpet. I don't know how we ever got this idea, but Wheeler and I decided to start a band, and we ended up with two trumpets and a trombone, three saxes, just a small band like I used to have. I played sax and clarinet. The Red Cross furnished the instruments. You didn't have much music, but we had a couple of piano players, and one of them was real good. He was a Jewish guy from New York. He knew all the chords and the tunes, and between him and me, we'd write out arrangements. We had two alto saxes and one tenor sax. Our bass man had what they called shell shock in those days. He'd lost his equilibrium, so we used to stand him in the corner so he wouldn't fall over. The tenor man, he had his legs off. He said he was feeling so sorry for himself until he saw some of those guys in the hospital, and he said, "I felt pretty lucky." But you can imagine him feeling lucky without legs ...
Then we went to Meiningen. Meiningen is like a little rest home. After you left the hospital they sent you there for a few days. We were there a month. We were supposed to go to prison camp. We didn't have any instruments there, so we had a choral group. The doctor at Obermassfeld, a British doctor, had us come back because of the band. He said that did more good than all the medicines they had. He sent for us on the pretext that we had to go back for dental work. So we went back to Obermassfeld. Of course, we didn't need dental work.
While we were there at the hospital, the British orderlies and so forth put on shows, and some of them would dress like girls, and we'd play for them. So when they got a show together, they'd load everything up on this old oxcart with the oxen. Anybody who couldn't walk rode in the cart, and we'd put the piano in the cart, and everybody who could walk would walk behind. It was only like four or five miles from Obermassfeld to Meiningen. We'd go over and put on a show for the guys at the rest home.
We played all the music that was popular in those days. While we were at the hospital, we'd rehearse in the little room they had for physical therapy. We were practicing one day when this German GI came in, and he wanted to know if he could play the piano. So he sat down and he was reading the music we had up, "Jealousy." He started playing it about three times as fast as it was supposed to be. He was fantastic. He was a concert pianist before the war, and he ended up in the army as a buck private. It was a horrible piano, some of the keys didn't work, but he made it sound like something else. This one Jewish guy from New York who played piano for us, he and I used to sit down there and jam for hours at a time.
That hospital was beautiful. It was right by the mountains. There was a big trout stream down the back. We had it great in the hospital because we got a lot of Red Cross parcels. We had enough to eat. We could've eaten more--we were always hungry--but at least we had more nourishment than we did at prison camp. At prison camp we were half starved. I think we had as much food as the German soldiers did, because they were in the same condition at that point. I was down to about 90 pounds. Of course, I never was heavy, about 125.
When we got to prison camp [probably Stalag Luft III] at Sagan [now in Poland] near Berlin on 10/13/44, we were fortunate to get into the British camp [the stalag had multiple compounds]. The American camp was full. In the American camp they had a couple of dance bands there. A lot of these guys played in big bands before they went into the service, so they had some good bands over there, but we didn't have any at our camp.
In our room we had two Americans, two British, two Frenchmen, and two Belgians. They all spoke French. Of course, we didn't. I had French in high school, and I used to know it pretty well, but Wheeler never had it. So we had French class. You could get a college degree in that camp, it had been established so long. You could take the tests there and send to England to get a BS in whatever you wanted. One of the Frenchmen had been a Paris shopkeeper in civilian life. He taught the French class. But when we came the others started speaking English most of the time.
The British camp had been established since the wars in Greece, so it had been established for years. They had a big theater, and they had a symphony orchestra, and they had a dance band staffed by Britishers who didn't know how to play American jazz. Wheeler and I ended up in the pit band and played for shows. They put on fantastic shows there. The girls, you'd swear they were real women. Those guys were so good. When they'd dance you'd swear they were real women.
Wheeler was assigned to play reveille every morning. So in the wintertime he played reveille by sticking his trumpet out the window of the barracks, because it was so damned cold, and they didn't have proper blankets or anything. We'd take the mattress cover off the mattress. It was a straw mattress, and we'd line it with newspapers inside.
When we were in Sagan, they used to pass out this barley soup. Barley, if you keep cooking it, gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Wheeler and I, how we got in charge of cooking, I don't know. None of the other guys wanted to cook, so Wheeler and I took over the cooking. We'd take the barley every day and we'd keep cooking it until we thought it wouldn't get any bigger before we'd eat it. We used it for cereal and soup. What you got for soup was just broth. It was probably horse broth. It was good, though.
We'd get these great big beets that looked something like turnips or rutabaga. They raised them for cattle food, apparently. They used to distribute them in the barracks, and the British wouldn't eat them, as hungry as we all were, but we'd collect them. We'd slice them thin and fry them. They tasted about like an onion when you'd fry them. And we made coleslaw out of them with powdered milk, and you'd shred these things.
A lot of these British were hard to get along with. They seemed to be so superior to you, except the guy in our room. His name was Chubb and we called him Chubby. He was down-to-earth, more like an American. Most of it might be because of associating with us. They were all British except Wheeler and I and a Texan across the hall from us. There were about 48 guys in the barracks, six rooms with eight guys apiece.
They had a shower in there, but they didn't have any hot water. I think it had hot water one day a week or a half day a week. Ice used to be on the floor, and those British would go in and take a shower. Boy, not me. I tried it a couple times, but it was too much.
You just had a little potbellied stove in your room. We'd collect the newspapers. That's something else. The British wouldn't burn the newspapers. Wheeler and I would roll them up tight, maybe wet them a little, and burn them.
Because the Russians came in, they wanted to move us, so we started walking [the Germans evacuated the camp in the last days of January 1945 as the Soviet Red Army advanced, and Seidler eventually ended up at Stalag XIII-D at Nuremberg], We did the walk in short bursts. They probably didn't know where they were going. Some of the guys took off during those walks, and sometimes they'd show up again the next morning. One of the colonels in our camp said we're better off if we stick together and don't get in the way of our troops.
Wheeler, the trumpet player, he was the stove man. Wherever we went, when we stopped, they'd come to Wheeler to get ideas for stoves. They used to make a stove out of a little can with a can inside. Just feed it small bits of wood or paper and it would burn with a blue flame like a torch, if you had it vented right. He was an expert at it. When we moved to Nuremberg, we made a big one out of tin cans, Wheeler and I. Just flatten the cans out. We had a can cutter to be able to slot them with a regular kitchen knife, a table knife. You have a slot and you have a pin across to put your knife under. You cut the can with it and do a nice job. Then you fold the metal edges over and hook them together and tamp it down. We had a big stove. The flames were pinched in a small space and would go up and across the top and heat the top. It was really something. That was the nicest thing we ever built.
The guy that did the cooking for us--there were eight of us in this one area in Nuremberg--he used to be a mess sergeant, made soup with anything. We had a good chef, but some of them boiled shoes. We made milk soup with boiled milk and bread and sugar.
When we got to Nuremberg they separated us from the British, and we Americans were all together. In Nuremberg they finally set up a band. Two guys learned to play guitar in prison camp. Who started this, I don't know. But we'd rove around the barracks and jam, two guitars and me on the clarinet. I wasn't all that great on the clarinet. There were many better musicians than I there. Then this one guy from Chicago, Pete, what a character, he played boogie-woogie. He used to play that piano and beat his feet. He was fantastic. He used to arrange for black bands in Chicago. How I wound up on lead sax, I don't know. There were five saxes and like six brass, and it was fantastic. These arrangements he made, they were outta sight! We only had a band for two weeks or less, before we left. It didn't last long enough.
If it hadn't been for the music and the people I was with, it would have been terrible. But the music made it pretty nice. But other than that, it was an adventure. I was anxious to get out of it, that's for sure. But it could have been a lot worse. The thing that hurts me the most, I had all these guys' names and addresses and everything from prison camp, and I lost the whole works somewhere.
Then Patton's forces liberated us [the 14th Armored Division of Lieutenant General George Patton's Third Army, which reached the POWs near Stalag VITA at Moosburg on April 29, 1945], When the German SS troops retreated, they shot four or six of their own guards, their own troops, because they wouldn't come with them. We were waiting for planes to take us to Rheims, France. We waited for five days. They didn't have enough shuttle planes, C-47s, to take us.
At Camp Lucky Strike [for recovered Allied POWs, near Rheims] they limited how much you could eat, because you'd been on a starvation diet. But then we got in the boat back to the States you could eat anything you wanted. When you got back to New York, some of the guys on the other boats, you couldn't recognize them, they'd gained so much weight. 1 weighed 140. I never weighed that much in my life.
The boat trip home took about a week. Those guys on the boat would buy two boxes of Hershey bars, one guy, and sit down and eat the whole works at once. I couldn't do that! They used to eat a dozen eggs for breakfast. Soft boiled, hard boiled, fried, it didn't matter. I did that. I'd eat 8 or 10 eggs.
When I got back to the States, they boosted me to 1st lieutenant, and Louise and I got married. They sent us down to Miami, Florida. The first night we were there, she and I walked down to the bar of the dining room in this hotel. 1 heard this music, and it was Pete, playing that boogie-woogie piano!
JAMES E. SEIDLER told his story to freelance writer Judy Sopronyi at his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.