Never forget: World War II Airman, POW shares story of resiliency |
Posted 9/25/2012 Updated 9/25/2012
by Airman 1st Class Tom Brading
Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs
9/25/2012 - JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. (AFRNS) -- Two flags wave in the wind of his front yard. The first is the U.S. flag, the symbol of his country. The second is the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action flag, the symbol of his sacrifice.
His living room is decorated in combat medals, including the Purple Heart and Prisoner of War medals. They are relics of his military service, sacrifice and dedication.
Today, Charleston, S.C., native Jim Gatch, an 89-year-old Army Air Corps veteran and POW survivor of World War II, sits in his home safe and sound, but it hasn't always been this way.
In November of 1942, Gatch enlisted into the Army Air Corps, the predecessor of the U.S. Air Force. After training, he was assigned to the 379th Bomb Group and deployed to Europe as a waist-gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft.
During a bombing mission on May 5, 1944, the group was bombing a German ball-bearing plant when they started taking heavy fire from German fighter jets.
The Germans eventually shot down his aircraft, but luckily Gatch was able to safely parachute to the ground. According to Gatch, all of the aircrew, with the exception of two, survived the crash.
"It was the first and last time I've jumped out of an airplane," said Gatch. "I had a feeling I could be captured, but it was all happening so fast that I didn't even have a chance to process the variables."
Gatch was captured by German forces after parachuting deep into a French forest near the town of Dunkirk. The rest of the surviving aircrew were captured as well and sent to other prison camps.
"I was on my own," said Gatch, thinking back to the moment he was captured.
The weeks following his abduction, Gatch was sent to a POW camp near Belgard, Germany, and subjected to hours of non-stop interrogation by German officers. Gatch remained resilient in the face of his enemy captors.
"I told them my name, rank and serial number," said Gatch. "Other than that, I didn't say anything. They roughed me up by knocking the side of my head with the stocks of their rifles."
Although Gatch never mentioned his hometown of Charleston, one of his interrogators had visited the U.S and was familiar with southern accents.
"The German officer just looked at me and said, 'I know you're from around the Charleston, South Carolina, area,'" said Gatch. "He said my accent gave it away, but I still denied it."
Gatch survived as a prisoner of war for the next 12 months. His diet consisted mainly of dehydrated cabbage and potatoes. Each morning, he was given a cup of hot water to make coffee. According to Gatch, it tasted "awful" and was nothing like any coffee he had before.
"I knew I would make it out of the camp eventually," said Gatch. "Some of the other prisoners began losing hope, so I would encourage them to stay strong."
Gatch's hope was pushed to its limit during the winter of 1944. Due to the Soviet forces pushing the German soldiers east, Gatch, along with more than 6,000 Allied POWs, were forced to march for nearly three months through Germany during one of Europe's most severe winters.
"The conditions during the march were disturbing," said Gatch. "The lack of sanitary facilities, along with an inadequate diet (about 700 calories a day), left many of us near starvation. Diseases such as typhus fever were spread by body lice. Other sicknesses, such as dysentery, pneumonia, pellagra and other diseases were felt by everyone to a certain degree."
But it was the sub-zero weather that was the major problem for the POWs. Frost bite was common for the Allied soldiers forced to march, and in many cases, it resulted in the amputation of fingers, toes, feet and hands.
"During those frigid nights, we slept on the frozen ground," said Gatch. "If we were lucky, we'd rest in old barns or any other shelter that was available."
According to Gatch, it was random acts of heroism that motivated the men to continue marching. Wagons were sometimes provided to the POWs unable to walk, and when horses weren't available to pull the wagons, teams of POWs would pull the wagons by using every ounce of strength they had to ensure they didn't leave anyone behind. Other times, POWs would share their warm clothing with less fortunate POWs.
"I didn't mind doing my part," said Gatch. "I don't think any of us did mind. The strong helped the weak. We knew it was our duty."
In the midst of darkness and chaos during the march, the compassion shown by the prisoners to each other was universal, he said. It bonded them. It reminded the POWs of what they were fighting for and it motivated them to not only keep fighting, but to believe in a brighter tomorrow.
The march came to an end after more than 600 miles traveled by foot in the dead of winter. But the war wasn't over for Gatch. He would remain a POW until he was liberated by British forces on May 5, 1945.
He was a POW for 358 days. His body weight went from more than 160 to 112 pounds during his time in captivity.
Although nearly 70 years have passed since Gatch was a POW, he said he remembers it like it was yesterday.
He can remember the frostbitten extremities during the march, the men who died at the hands of enemy captors and even the bugs crawling through the tents he spent so many nights in.
He sacrificed a year of his life, was subjected to torture, disease and starvation. He didn't know if he'd ever make it home to the United States, but he remained, and still remains, proud of his sacrifice and his dedication to the place he calls home.
"America is worth every bit of the sacrifices I made to preserve its freedom," said Gatch. "Freedom is worth fighting, dying and sacrificing for."