POW group disbands

WARREN – Sitting with Daniel King and Donald Freer in the bright sunlit room of the Warren Red Cross can be an immersive experience.

Both men were captured in World War II and forced into prison camps by the Germans, but it was here in this room that they discovered each other’s stories.

The Mahoning Valley Chapter of American ex-Prisoners of War has been meeting at the Red Cross since its inception in 1985. As the group’s membership dwindled over the years they decided this January was the right time to disband.

“Gathering together,” King said, “was the best thing that every happened to me.”

Nearby a large plaque hangs on the wall; its rows of tiny gold plates display the names of more than 80 ex-POWs of Trumbull County, many of whom have passed away. In the group’s heyday, when they were combined with the Youngstown chapter, the men agreed there were a couple hundred in the group. Now there are about a half-dozen.

Karen Conklin has been the executive director of the American Red Cross of the Mahoning Valley for the past three years, and hosted the afternoon get-together.

“When you talk with these guys,” Conklin said, “you really need to allow the time to soak up the history. … I mean these stories need to be told.”

Their stories justified her opinion.

Freer, 90, of Howland, began first. On his 26th mission flying to Berlin during World War II, as a bomber pilot, his plane received a direct hit, leaving it with only one functioning engine.

When the crew saw how fast they were descending without hope of returning to Sweden, they bailed out. As the first pilot, Freer was the last to jump from the plane at a height of about 30,000 feet.

At this altitude, Freer said it is crucial to descend as fast as possible since it is frigid and there is little oxygen.

“I got through the first layer of clouds, and then once I got through there,” Freer said, “I looked up and I saw my airplane coming right at me.”

On his descent, Freer was almost hit not only by his own plane, but by the fighter plane that accompanied his bomber and then by a few German planes. He finally landed in the middle of a forest of pine trees. Being close to Christmas 1944, when Freer regained consciousness, he said it looked like Christmas. The snow-covered trees also had aluminum scattered over them which had been used to override the German’s radar.

“And that’s how I got into Germany,” Freer said.

He was met by a group of Germans and taken to a village where the locals were preparing to hang him before a constable interrupted them. Eventually, Freer was taken to Stalag Luft 1, a POW camp in Northern Germany, bordering on the Baltic Sea. On April 29, 1944, the Russians arrived at the camp to liberate the POWs; the Germans had left the day before, recognizing their defeat.

Freer made his way back to England where he had been originally stationed. There, he spent a month celebrating in London with friends before being shipped back to America.

King, 89, of North Jackson, was a POW at the same camp. He shipped out from America in December 1944 as a fighter pilot. On a mission to escort the bomber pilots out of Berlin, his plane began leaking fluid. Suddenly he lost control of the plane’s propellers and decided to turn around. On his way, the engine failed and he scoped out a place to land. His wingman in a separate plane was escorting him when he radioed over that King’s plane was on fire.

“He called and said, ‘You better get out now!'” King said.

King tried to get out of the plane by was hung up by his g-suit – a device that kept the pilots from passing out when they made sharp turns.

“By this time I could smell my hair burning,” King said, “I don’t know how I got out of the airplane. To this day I don’t know.”

King found himself free falling and when he went to reach for the rip cord on his parachute it was missing. The cord had detached from his suit and was waving near his head.

“And when that shoot opened I was falling down,” King said, “and that airplane blew up right below me.”

King was captured on the ground and it took him about 15 days to reach the POW camp being lead by a German guard. Once he arrived in Stalag Luft 1, he was accused of being a German spy and the other prisoners would not interact with him. Because he had been captured alone there was no one to vouch for him and it took about three weeks before the prisoners finally believed him.

Once the Russians came and liberated the men, King and a friend explored the area. One day they came across a concentration camp beside the POW camp. Led there by a horrendous smell, they opened the door to one of the buildings.

“There were people laying in there – some dead, some alive and nobody said a word except a groan,” King said, “The awefullest smell you could imagine. I remember the feeling I had, I felt absolutely helpless and all I could see were these eyes filled with absolute fear, but there was nothing we could do.”

King said that he later found out that there were an estimated 3,000 people in the camp and that none of them survived.

Another member of the ex-POW group is James Mariano, 95, of Warren, who was one of the first men to see combat in World War II, as a member of the 1st Armored Division.

In 1942, he was sent to Europe and spent five months in Belfast, Ireland, before traveling to North Africa where he would be captured by Germans. Mariano served in the maintenance division, though he had been training to be a mess sergeant before Pearl Harbor brought America into the war and swept him around the globe.

Mariano remembers the exact date of his capture – Feb. 14, 1943. The troops had been eating breakfast in Sidi Bou Zid, Tunisia, when the Germans started bombing. Mariano said they hadn’t expected it since they had no access to news. The men were directed to head South but ran straight into a German offensive with 88 mm canons.

At first Mariano said they thought it must be an English group, because they didn’t think the Germans would have found them in Africa. But once he figured it out, he ran off by himself and hid behind a sand dune. Mariano said he could hear the tanks rolling by and was nervous that they would crush him.

Once they passed, he ran off again and came to an Arab tent where he sought shelter. The next morning, Mariano said the man living in the tent offered him an egg for breakfast which he declined, saying that it would be a waste if the Germans “blew it” out of him. Soon the Germans arrived outside and Mariano recalled an officer speaking in clear English, “War is over for you. Now you must work for us.”

Mariano and other prisoners of war were taken to Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, to wait at an airport. After supplies were unloaded from a German transport aircraft, the men were loaded inside and flown across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy.

Eventually, Mariano was sent to a farm in Budow, Germany, where he and other POWs harvested potatoes. Because of his training to be a mess sergeant, he was put in charge of cooking for the group. Rations came in from the Red Cross and Mariano would bake bread every morning and use the rest of the food to figure out meals. He recalled saving up meat supplies for Christmas 1944 to make a special meal for the men.

Mariano was moved to a second farm later until being liberated at the end of April 1945. Once he made it back home he returned to work at Republic Steel where he found his file had been moved into a stack of deceased workers.

Returning home was not easy for the men. At the time POWs were looked down upon as cowards by those who had not been overseas. From their almost unbelievable stories, the opposite is apparent.

All of the men remembered the good treatment they received from the Red Cross and YMCA while in the POW camps.

As the group dissolved at the beginning of the month they divided their funds between the YMCA, Red Cross and the Salvation Army. King expressed his willingness to disband in an orderly fashion.

Several of the remaining men and their wives still meet at the Department of Veteran Affairs in Youngstown.