Story by Staff Sgt. Sarah Mattison
Free falling 18,000 feet out of a B-17, engulfed in flames and riddled with bullet holes, was something Richard H. Hamilton never imagined he would have to do.
On July 20, 1944, Hamilton and the rest of the crew of the B-17, Destiny’s Child, were shot down during their 9th mission. They were attacked by a pack of 60 Fokker-Wolf 190s and Messerschmitt 109s while over Germany. They were carrying a full bomb load, headed to Leipzig, Germany to take out a Nazi airfield.
“When you hear the flak splatter against your plane or the explosion below, you knew you were too close,” Hamilton said. “We were shot down with a full bomb load at that time, headed toward our target runway. When you begin to get that rain of 20mm cannon fire and the 50 cal machine gun raking over our plane, of course it was set on fire right away.”
“The first thing I did was go to the fire extinguisher and with our communications knocked out, you didn’t know what anyone was doing. I could see the waist gunner, but the plane was just filled with smoke and bullet holes, just like a sieve. I used up two small fire extinguishers, but it made no difference in that bomb bay, it was just cooking those bombs like a hot dog,” Hamilton said.
Of the nine-member crew, Hamilton and four others were able to jump out of the bomber.
“To go to the hatch and to think of jumping out, it was something else,” Hamilton said. “Usually when you jumped out that hatch you landed on solid ground and knew where you were.”
With all those planes in the air, I knew enough not to grab my chute and pull it. I just drifted, spinning around like a rag doll until I spread my arms out, which stabilized my spinning. I then realized by angling my hands, I could turn. I went down until about 5,000 feet, then I pulled my ripcord,” Hamilton recalled.
Hamilton was over Germany when his plane was shot down. He landed in the middle of a wheat field and rushed to pull in his chute and get out of site.
“There was no place to put it (the chute), no trees or bushes to hide in. Trying to keep it from being a white mass, I collected it in and tried to keep it out of sight.” Hamilton said.
He started walking and it wasn’t long before long that Hamilton reached the edge of a village. He spotted a woman through a window looking at him, but not giving it much thought.
“But then pretty soon the whole village came out with their guns, pitchforks and clubs,” said Hamilton.
“They got me to put my hands over my head. There was a lot of talking and I didn’t know what they were talking about. They pushed, prodded and jolted me. Every once in a while someone would hit me in the back of the head. We got almost down to the city hall and these two old guys approached me. They yelled something in German at me and then spit in my face,” recalled Hamilton.
Hamilton was held prisoner overnight in a small municipal jail, before being turned over to the Nazi’s the next day. He was then taken to a collecting point where he spotted his waist gunner, Winton “Bill” Blevins. Though they shared eye contact, they otherwise never acknowledged knowing each other.
Hamilton endured eight days of interrogation at Dulag Luft, refusing to give up any information to the Germans.
“Some of the interrogation was very casual and the guy was very pleasant,” said Hamilton. “He had no German accent whatsoever and he knew a lot about the U.S.
But then the next interrogator would be very stern, telling me that I wasn’t going to leave until I told them what they wanted to know,” Hamilton said.
“They had books full of information on all of the Air Force training bases in Texas. They knew the insignias in all these books. Its showed their intelligence wasn’t bad,” said Hamilton.
Eventually Hamilton was put into a boxcar and traveled by train to Stalag Luft 4. On arrival, Hamilton was lined up with other prisoners.
“They let us out and lined us up. Many of the German soldiers had police dogs on leashes and they were all charged up. We were lined up on the road, four-abreast, and there was a lot of shouting, commands, turmoil-like. They got us into position and ready to go four clicks to the prison camp,” recalled Hamilton.
“When we were ready to go, they wanted us to go double-time, faster. Then they broke us into a run. The soldiers on the outside would jab guys with their bayonets. That was the atmosphere we were heading toward the camp under,” Hamilton said.
Unlike the prisoners that were brought to the camp on a flat deck wagon, Hamilton made it without having to endure any of the stabbings of the bayonets or bites from the military dogs.
“There were 35 guys that were in really bad shape. One man got off it (the wagon) and his pants were crimson with clotted blood from his leg, full of all of those little jabs. It was total chaos and confusion until we got to the prison camp,” said Hamilton.
For seven months Hamilton was imprisoned at Stalag Luft 4 with 10,000 other men. He lived in a room with 22 men, living off of soup (usually hot broth) and bread. They were counted twice a day and were limited to a warning wire around the perimeter of the courtyard. If you went beyond the wire, you would be shot.
While there he met up with Wayne Austin. Another Vermonter that had been shot down and captured, they had met briefly while both being interrogated at Dulag Luft.
It was just such a treat for us both, we couldn’t believe it,” said Hamilton. “Being together was just like having a part of home.”
Then one day, two German fighter planes began flying over the prison camp, appearing to display acrobatics in front of the prisoners.
“One of these planes just didn’t pull out, it came barreling down and blew up in the pine forest and we just went nuts and cheered!” exclaimed Hamilton. “And then “whoosh” there was a rain of bullets down from the guard towers. They wanted to disperse us because we were getting so much pleasure out of it. It was a real morale builder for us,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton endured living in the POW camp until February 6, 1945. With the Russians closing in and the sounds of explosions slowly moving closer, the Germans decided to abandon the prison and move the 10,000 prisoners to various destinations; some setting out on foot and others were taken to be put on a boat.
Hamilton along with 200 hundred other prisoners were forced into a 77 day road march with only the clothes on their back and a blanket to keep warm with at night.
“The first night it was spitting rain and snow. There was no shelter and we had to camp outside. Most other nights they would march us to where there would be a shelter or a barn,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton eventually dropped to the back of the marching group due to illness.
“I joined 12-15 other fellows that were laying by the roadside. My feet had been frozen, blistered, and had turned black and yellow. When the healing process started three of my ten toenails wouldn’t come off,” said Hamilton. “To this day my toes and the bottom of my foot feel numb all the time.”
On April 24, 1945, two Russian soldiers on horseback liberated Hamilton and the rest of the prisoners. The German Soldiers had slunk off into the night and left the POW’s to fend for themselves. Telling the Russians that they were American, the POW’s were allowed to wander freely and were not taken into custody. Hamilton was left to his own, wandering around Germany until he was able to stumble across the American lines. He returned to the United States on July 8, 1945, almost a year since the day he had been captured.
Within a month of returning home to Brattleboro, Vermont, Hamilton married his pre-war sweetheart Joyce. There, they raised four daughters and built a successful restaurant business.