NAME: John H. Fuchs
DATE ENTERED SERVICE: May 5, 1943
CAMPAIGNS: Central Europe
DECORATIONS: Purple Heart, POW Medal, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal, World War II Victory Medal
JOHN FUCHS ENTERED THE U S. Army Air Forces in May 1943, completing basic training at Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, gunnery training at Las Vegas, Nevada, and Boeing B-17 flight crew training at Sioux City, Iowa.
In June 1944, his flight crew arrived in England, assigned to the 385th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force. On September 12, 1944, Sergeant Fuchs and navigator Lieutenant George Pearson were assigned to a B-17G with an experienced crew. The crew’s 25th and final mission was the first for Fuchs and Pearson. The target was a factory in Leipzig, deep in the heart of Germany.
Over the target, Fuchs’ B-17 released its bombload and was immediately hit by flak. With its two port engines damaged, the plane began to lose speed and altitude. The pilot’s struggle ended in a crash landing near a pine forest.
Sergeant Fuchs was the first to exit, and he provided first aid to the pilot, whose head was severely lacerated. As the crewmen discussed what to do next, they saw a group of German civilians moving in their direction, and Fuchs buried his dog tags, billfold and .45-caliber pistol. The crew split into small groups and headed out in different directions. Fuchs and Pearson ran into the nearby forest, where they hid during the day and walked at night. At times they dug up potatoes or ate apples from an orchard.
The 11th day found Fuchs and Pearson sitting under a tree in an apple orchard trying to stay dry in a light rain. They saw a man carrying a shotgun moving in their direction, and they ran into the woods and hid for an hour. When they returned for their dropped apples, they were surrounded by three armed men. The Americans were taken to a Gestapo office in the nearby town, questioned at some length, and then marched for about a mile through a crowd of civilians. The following day they began a six-hour train ride to Aschaffenburg, Germany. Four nights later, they were awakened by local air raid sirens. The Royal Air Force bombed at night, and this night the target was near the prisoners’ cell.
After several weeks, they were set to be transferred to Dulag Lz/Ji-Oberursel near Frankfurt-am-Main. At the Frankfurt train station a German officer questioned the guards and wanted to know all about the prisoners. When he found out that the two were American airmen, he became very upset and hostile.The officer drew a pistol and pointed it at them, saying he wanted to kill them both because they were murderers of women and children. The guards convinced the officer that the men were on their way to a POW camp to be questioned, and that their possible information was more important than killing them. At that point, the officer stormed off.
At Dulag Luft a German colonel interrogated Fuchs and was very interested in the name of the young airman. He asked why, with a name like Fuchs, he was fighting against Germany instead of fighting with the Germans. Sergeant Fuchs’ reply was quick and simple: “ Because I am an American.” At this point the colonel realized that any further questioning was useless.
After several days Fuchs and Pearson were loaded with 100 other POWs into cattle cars, 50 men to a car, for a three-day trip to Stalag Luft IV at Gross-Tychow, Poland.The day began at 7 a.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m., with only two small pieces of horsemeat to eat. When maggots were floating in the soup, they were scooped out. The men spent time writing letters and playing cards.
On the night of January 29, 1945, word passed through the camp that a select group of POWs would be placed on a train for transfer to a camp on the Baltic coast, Stalag Luft I near Barth, Germany. The Soviet army was advancing from the east, and the Germans did not want the Allied prisoners to fall into their hands. The following morning, several thousand men, including Fuchs and Pearson, were loaded on cattle cars, 53 men to a car. It was so crowded that each man had to sit with his legs pulled up. Food and water became a problem; each prisoner had only been issued one Red Cross parcel. Water was collected in a tin can as snow melted on the roof and flowed down the walls.
Fuchs turned 21 years old in this nightmare. Although the low point of his young life, it could have been worse. While he was crowded in the cattle car, approximately 6,000 other prisoners had left camp on a foot march of 600 miles lasting 86 torturous days. Many of those men never reached Barth.
After eight days and nights, on February 7, Fuch’s group arrived at Stalag Luft I, a large camp of 10,000 men on the Baltic Sea. The Allied officer in command of the prisoners was the famous Colonel Hubert A. Zemke , former leader of the 56th Fighter Group.
On May 1, the guards were nowhere to be found — the Germans had moved out in advance of the Russians. After the gate and fence were broken down, many of the men walked to town searching for food and drink. Fuchs and fellow prisoner Roy Loveless decided to explore the waterfront. After they had gone a short distance, they came upon what appeared to be a family of two women, a man, a young boy and a small baby in a carriage— all had been shot in the head. No one ever found out who had killed these people, or why, but most suspected that it was Russian soldiers.
After two weeks, the U.S. Army Air Forces flew in B-17s to begin the evacuation. Sergeant Fuchs was flown to Camp Lucky Strike in France, and then boarded a ship for the United States. After a month of recuperation in Florida, he was discharged in November 1945 and returned to his home in Houston, Texas.
Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.