Walter Farmer
of Navarro County, Texas


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Walter Farmer still has the documentation from when he was a POW in Germany. Framed, upper left, is his German POW dogtags issued to him while captured (he was No. 3666). Just below are hand-made POW air wings made by prisoners in Gulag Luft-1. At bottom is the German documentation of his Gulag stay, complete with his prisoner photo. Upper right is his U.S. POW Medal. Daily Sun photo/SCOTT HONEA

 

6/27/2004 PRISONER OF WAR: Farmer spent 14 months in German Gulag

By LOYD COOK/Daily Sun Staff

n a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, just a few blocks north of Second Avenue, octogenarian Walter Farmer enjoys his home and the quiet of small-town living.

You see, it's quite a change from his World War II days -- times filled with flights over occupied France and Nazi Germany, carrying bombs, a target in mind, and fighting continuous anti-aircraft fire.

It's quite a change from his 14 months as a prisoner of war in a German Gulag, too.

"I was based in England, just outside the little town of Norwich, at Seething Air Field which was a small field," Farmer recalls. "I was a flight engineer on a B-24 (a bomber aircraft) and the top turret gunner."

As flight engineer, at about age 20, Farmer was responsible for making sure that all instrumentation worked correctly, engines functioned a proper performance levels, ascertained things like whether or not the wheels came down or not, and made sure that mid-air, in-flight fuel transfers from the wing tanks into the four main fuel tanks were done properly.

"We made sure that as soon as we could, we moved the fuel from the wing tanks into the main tanks," he said. "You didn't want fuel in the wings when you were in combat."
For obvious reasons. He said it wasn't unusual for the B-24s to fight through anti-aircraft fire for an hour before reaching their targets.

"You could get fire from the time you hit the French coast, Belgium, anywhere," he said. "You could get flak from anywhere. Of course, we had routes to follow that we got from Intelligence to try to avoid that."

Farmer had one "probable" shoot-down of an enemy aircraft during his operation in the top turret of the B-24, using the air-cooled, .50-caliber twin-machine guns.

He flew in 13 or 14 missions, but he said two or three weren't considered official since they were called back before reaching the ordered destination. On two of the missions, his plane was part of a group that bombed Berlin.

Those were daylight missions.

"And the flak was always heavy over targets anyway, especially Berlin," Farmer said.

But there's one mission that he flew that he will never forget.

The last one, May 20, 1944.

It was a mission that isn't officially counted as part of the 10 he needed to qualify for his Air Medal with Oak Leak Clusters (indicating combat service) since it was one of the ones that had been recalled.

"We were on a mission to Frankfurt and ran into high cloud cover over France," Farmer said of the flying condition that made it almost impossible for escort aircraft to protect the bombers from enemy fighter planes. "But our group was kinda ignorant. We always had the orders to seek out a target of opportunity if we could.

"Sure enough, the Germans found a couple (of targets of opportunity) -- two of us. My plane and one other. The lead plane exploded ... it just disintegrated."

Farmer's plane took a direct hit in the No. 3 fuel tank, a strike that also destroyed some of the flight controls. He opened the bomb bay doors to check damages and was told to abandon ship.

By then, Farmer was drenched in 100-octane aviation fuel.

"When I bailed out ... I was soaked in it," he said. "We were fortunate we didn't burn."

He parachuted into a group of trees, his chute catching the limbs and leaving him dangling his feet a mere two feet or so above the ground.

By the time, Farmer disengaged from his chute, removed his one lone boot -- the opening of the chute and his subsequent slowing down was so violent, the other flying boot "was sucked right off," Farmer said -- and a couple of heated under-shoes, eight or 10 German soldiers were there to take him into custody.

Strangely, Farmer getting captured wasn't that scary.

"To be honest, I was so scared when the plane was hit it don't bother me much when I hit the ground and the Germans were waiting," he said.

His captors put him in the back of an old, open touring car, then drove him three or four miles to where a Frenchman had "treed my radioman with a pistol."

The radioman was placed in the car as well, and both were taken to a German center a short distance away, less than a 10-minute drive from loading Farmer's crewmate.

They were kept there a day and a half.

Interrogators stripped Farmer naked and questioned him while a German soldier pointed a machine gun at him.

"They told me I'd be shot if I lied to them," he said. "You see, they didn't know which plane I came out of. I just told them my name, rank and serial number."

The questioning lasted about an hour and the Germans wanted information that Farmer just didn't have as well.

"They wanted to know when the invasion was going to be ... and we had no idea," Farmer said. "But (the Germans) were stationed on the coast, so naturally they were concerned about it."

After the interrogation, Farmer was carried to another room where he was reunited with most of his flight crew.

"All but three," he said. "Two got in with the French Underground and made it back to England. There was one that was loose for a while, but they finally got him."

Farmer and his buddies were carried to an underground dugout where they were kept for four or five days. They were fed by a local girl.

Germans then loaded the Americans into an old truck and drove them to the Paris train station and marched them straight inside to a train. On the way, an event that shapes Farmer's thinking today occurred.

"One of them Frenchmen walked up to me, spit in my face and said, in English, 'All you son of a bitches should be shot down,'" Farmer recalled. "Now that could have been show, he could have been French Underground, but a lot of the French didn't like us because we were tearing up their country."

Needless to say, Farmer has no problem with the modern-day boycott of France that has come in connection with the Iraq war.

The train, ironically, carried the American bomber crew to Frankfurt -- their initial destination when their mission started. As dawn broke, Farmer said they pulled into town to find the British had visited the night before.

Fires from the bombings were still burning.

"And one of the road bridges they brought us in on had a hole in the middle that we avoided as we crossed over," he recalled.

For about three days, Farmer was kept in solitary confinement in a 6-foot by 6-foot room.

"You couldn't see in, you couldn't see out," he said.

He got a cup of watered-down soup a couple of times a day during that isolation.

Then he was moved to a general population area where the group stayed for three or four days. They had to sleep on a wooden floor, "all piled up together," Farmer said.

Then it was back on the train which transported them to Stalag Luft-3, "east of Berlin somewhere, I think," he said.

It was overcrowded and the enlisted men in the group -- Farmer was a tech sergeant -- were offered to the "opportunity" to go on to Luft-1, which was a POW camp for captured officers. There, the volunteers would handle the duties of taking care of the American officers.

Five of the arriving prisoners, including Farmer, volunteered and were shipped to Gulag Luft-1 which was located on the Baltic Sea, some 90 miles north of Berlin near the small town of Bart, Germany.

"They had an old beat up mess hall there," Farmer said. "Our job was to pull KP, wash dishes and the like. This was all for our own officers, so that was OK."

But that mess hall burned down one night, so the rest of the time spent in reading and playing ball.

"And nearly starving to death," Farmer said. "It was cold. In the winter time, we slept on mattresses made out of wood shavings. We had two thin blankets, whatever clothes that was on our backs and whatever we could pile on the beds at night ... to try to stay warm."

They had their moments, however.

"Whenever the Air Force would fly over, we'd all go out into the compound and cheer -- until (the Germans) put a stop to that," he said.

Like the movies, the POWs had tunneling efforts going on. Farmer said he "didn't have much" to do with those efforts, but they were never successful while he was there.

Once, the POWs were watching a Folkwulfe-190 aircraft practicing rocket shooting into the nearby Baltic.

"He was shooting shot after shot, then he must have been going back to a nearby air base to reload, then he'd come back and start over," Farmer said. "Then a couple of British fighters snuck up behind him. (The German plane) never saw them coming. They shot him out of the sky."

Farmer loosed a little laugh.

"He never saw what hit him," he added.

American cigarettes were very popular and one of the few things POWs had in abundance. And they were like money, Farmer said. The POWs traded cigarettes for enough parts to build a radio.

They also received a daily German newspaper. It kept them up with the enemy's reporting of where battle lines were at and other information.

"It would show the lines one way, but we knew the situation was quite a bit different than what they showed," Farmer said, "because we were listening to BBC broadcasts on that radio."

And when the final victory came, the Germans abandoned the Gulag, leaving the prisoners behind to fend for themselves, and the Russian Army liberated the camp. The radioman that had been with Farmer's crew went with a group to that nearby air field and radioed for transport.

It took about two weeks. Farmer, down to 110 pounds from his normal weight of about 150, was free.

Ironically, they were flown back to France to a camp that was just minutes from the location that Farmer and his crewmates had been captured.

It was a circle of war made complete.

For 14 months, Farmer and his fellow Americans were together in Gulag Luft-1. Farmer celebrated his 21st birthday there. They got very little mail but were able to write letters home.

Farmer's wife Peggy said her husband found many of those letters in his mother's belongings following her death at 101 in April.

"He's been spending time every day, probably reading eight to 10 per day, of those letters that he wrote," she said.

"There are things in there I didn't know existed," Farmer said of his old letters.

They are reminders of a time long ago and a three years-plus stint in the service of his country that he will always remember.

He joined from Navarro County with 32 others in October 1942. He went through Basic Training at the Waco Flying School, then to more training in Wichita Falls and gunnery school in Florida after that. Sioux City was the site of more training and his crew go there bomber and flew it to Hutchison, Kansas.

And the friends. While other service branches separated officers and enlisted men, the Air Force encouraged teamwork between its flight crews. On the bombers that Farmer flew in, it was four officers and the rest were enlisted.

Farmer recalled the uniqueness of his crew's pilot -- who was a full-blooded Commanche Indian.

"At that time, it was unheard of," he said in an interview with local historian Bill O'Neal. "And that's where the name of our plane came from -- The Commanche."

The plane had a replica of a Commanche Shield on its fuselage.

Now, some 60 years later, Farmer recalls the events of war most matter-of-factly. It sounds like an account of a long-ago contest with the sounds, smells and terror removed.

But don't be fooled ... and don't wonder. He wouldn't change much.

"The time I was in the service I do not regret one bit, the POW time is something else," he said, adding that he enjoyed much of his time in uniform. "Not necessarily combat, but I enjoyed flying. I enjoyed what I was doing.

"It made me appreciate life, to be able to live free, rather than be under somebody's guard all the time. It made me feel better about what this country stands for."

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Loyd Cook may be contacted via e-mail at loydcook@corsicanadailysun.com
 

Notes:


Sgt. Walter Farmer Is German Prisoner

Technical Sgt. Walter Farmer, 20 USAAF, England, missing in action over Germany since March 20, is prisoner in Germany, according to a telegram received by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Harve Farmer, 817 West Park Avenue, Corsicana, from the war department. The message said a government monitor picked up short wave broadcast from Germany, giving Farmerís name and home address.

Notes:


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