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Veterans Remember: WWII veteran Bill Spear was shot down and held in prison camp

Tulsa World - 7/10/2018

Bill Spear's memory has all but vanished in his old age, but the 93-year-old World War II veteran will never forget seeing the countless bullet holes materialize around him moments before his bomber plane crashed behind enemy lines.

A barrage of flak from anti-aircraft guns ensured the Arkansas native's first mission as a radio gunner on a Martin B-26 Marauder also would be his last. His hardships were far from over, however, thanks to his swift capture by German villagers and confinement at two prison camps.

Now living in a retirement community in Tulsa with his wife, Spear often reflects on his brief but hellish military service, a process that becomes more difficult with each passing year. His reflections have never resulted in regret for signing up for the U.S. Air Corps.

He did so to avoid being drafted into the army, which is what he knew would happen just a couple of weeks after moving to Tulsa in 1942 to study aircraft maintenance at what was then called Spartan School.

If Spear had to join the war effort, he wanted to do it his way. He wanted to be a pilot.

The first hitch in his plan came when he was told he was too underweight to join the cadet program.

"They were strict in that they had a certain minimum weight they wanted you to be," Spear said. "I wasn't it."

So he gorged on bananas, potatoes, gravy, desserts and every other high-calorie food he could think of to barely gain enough pounds to qualify.

Pilot training didn't last long. He "washed out" of the program because his trainer said he failed to properly land the plane. But Spear believes the trainer actually was told that no more pilots were needed at that time.

Instead of being sent to the infantry, he was assigned to a B-26 bomber crew and eventually found himself stationed in France.

His first - and last - mission came on Valentine's Day 1945. Spear's crew was ordered to destroy a railroad bridge deep in German territory.

He felt no fear.

"I wasn't really afraid of anything because I had no experience of being in battle," he said.

The air became thick with flak as the plane approached the target. The lead bombardier wasn't satisfied that their payload struck the bridge, so the pilot turned around and made another run.

Holes riddled the aircraft as enemy gunners on the ground lit up the sky. Spear kept his composure as he stood by a window and threw out chaff, which was intended to appear as a cluster of targets on radar screens to confuse the Germans.

"They weren't large holes, so I wasn't too excited about it," he said.

Suddenly the plane lurched after receiving a direct hit.

Spear rushed to equip his parachute as the aircraft spiraled into a dive and forced himself out a window. Intense air pressure knocked him around so much during his escape that he was left in a semiconscious state.

He regained consciousness while plummeting to the ground and tried to pull the rip cord, but it wasn't there. He looked up and noticed the parachute already opened.

Spear, who injured his leg and head along the way, landed in a field near a village and was soon met by French laborers who were forced to work for the Germans after their country's surrender. Then came the villagers.

He remembers one boy, likely a teenager, who did most of the talking. His intentions were clear.

"I didn't know what he was saying, but I imagined he wanted me shot," Spear said.

Luckily for him, an elderly German man convinced the others to take him back to the village, where he was given a stick to help him walk. A decision was then made to bring him to a nearby German airbase and hand him over to the Gestapo, the secret police of Nazi Germany.

Spear paused on top of a hill along the way to look down at the burning remains of his plane and realized with despair he was the only survivor.

He ended up at a transit prison camp where he could hear constant artillery fire in the distance and hoped Gen. George S. Patton would soon overtake the Germans. At one point, several bombers flew directly over the base. His optimism turned to fear as he anticipated the planes dropping their payloads directly on top of him.

Three weeks passed. Prisoners were loaded onto a train that "stole out" of the prison camp in the middle of the night to retreat deeper into German territory. Later they were removed from the train and then forced to march about 90 miles to another camp.

Bombs fell on them during the 16-day walk, killing some of the prisoners. Many waved white handkerchiefs at the Allied planes as they passed overhead to try to get their attention. The pilots eventually recognized the marchers as prisoners of war and kept track of their movements.

Spear stayed at the new camp for about a month before being liberated by Allied forces. Although he had dysentery at the time, he did his best to cheer as an American flag was raised over the base.

Germany surrendered not long after that. Spear returned home to Arkansas, where he met his wife and then moved to Oklahoma for work.

Despite the peril he endured during the war, Spear maintains he never feared for his life at the time. But later he often wondered why he lived when his friends didn't. How did he get so lucky?

"It was an awful experience," Spear said. "But I survived."

 
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