At Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, on October 9, 2010, several former World War II prisoners of war recounted their flying experiences and internments in German camps. The event was part of a living history symposium titled “Airmen in Captivity: The POW Experience.” George Drew, a Tampa native and graduate of Plant High School in 1937, spoke about his wartime trials and tribulations. His is a story of duty, personal sacrifice and a reminder to all of the cost of maintaining freedom.
Born on December 15, 1919, George left school during the 11th grade in the midst of the Great Depression to seek employment. On August 27, 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. On January 4, 1944, George pinned on flight officer pilot’s wings. His next undertaking was training on Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers at Fort Worth Army Air Field in Tarrant County, Tex. These machines could carry a heavier bomb load over a greater distance than its noteworthy contemporary, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
George collected a crew at Salt Lake City and then for further training flew all to Casper, Wyo. Soon thereafter he and his crew collected a new B-24 at Wichita, Kan. To reach the theater of operations, George flew to Pantanella, Italy, via Bangor, Maine, Gander, Newfoundland, the Azore Islands and North Africa. There on July 26, 1944, the men became part of the 464th Bomb Group, 779th Bombardment Squadron, 15th Air Force.
Their first mission was to the Polesti oil production fields in Rumania. The aircraft flew through 37 minutes of heavy anti-aircraft fire. Shockingly, a B-24 directly beneath disappeared in an explosion due to either a direct hit by flak or a collision with a falling bomb. In total, George went on 13 missions before his good luck ended. On August 27, 1944, the target for the day was at Bleckhammer, Germany. On the way to the objective an engine failed, forcing the pilots to leave the defensive formation and turn back for home. To maintain altitude and airspeed, George had to order the jettisoning of bombs over barges in the Danube River. Approaching the Yugoslavian coastline, the number 4 engine caught fire. He ordered his charges to bail out, knowing the crippled bomber would not stay airborne much longer. George did not get free of the airplane until it had descended to an altitude of 300 feet, which was too low for the parachute to fully open. He landed hard, injuring his back and both ankles.
Eventually George crawled down the face of a steep hillside and sought cover in a farm house, where German troops took him prisoner. Most of the enemy holding and detention areas had little sanitation or food and water. The prisoners were starving, cold and weak. Furthermore, George became ill.
George’s captors frequently moved him. From Mostar he shipped to Sarajevo and then to Zagreb in the middle of November 1944. Partisans once shot at a derailed train George was on and friendly Martin B-26 Marauders made strafing runs. His next stop was Vienna in Austria, where he arrived on Thanksgiving Day. From there he went to Frankfurt and then to Wetzlar, Germany. Packed into a boxcar, George went to Stalag Luft III at Sagan. From there he marched to Spremberg on the bitterly cold night on January 29, 1945. Subsequently, George reached Stalag XIIID near Nuremberg, which was the subject of regular attacks by Allied air forces. After six weeks he walked to Stalag VIIA at Moosberg. There George slept on the ground atop a sprinkling of hay. Sanitary conditions were poor and rodents plentiful. The internees made a crude soup to eat, and the sole source of protein was the wormy cabbage.
Gen. George Patton’s 14th Armored Division played the role of liberators on the morning of April 29, 1945. That day the famous commander, who had himself learned to fly after World War I, was inexplicably sporting only one of his famous ivory-handled Colt.45 revolvers. Patton ordered the barbed wire rolled up and the Stars and Stripes to the top of the flagpole. U.S. Army trucks arrived later to take George and others to an airfield at Landshut, where they unloaded Douglas C-47 Skytrains landing with loads of fuel for Patton’s armored forces.
Once safely back home George’s paralysis lessened. The physical effects of the injuries and abuse eventually abated, but his memories of danger, prolonged malnourishment and deprivations linger. Mr. Drew remains an inspirational and living testament to thousands of American aviators who served and suffered during the great conflict.
The author (John Stemple) wishes to thank George Drew for graciously granting him an interview.