Finding a WWII Hero from Decatur, pt 5


By G. Michael Pratt, Ph. D.

Learn the fascinating history of one World War II Hero from Decatur and the winding journey the author took to discovery. The story will uncover heroism, classified documents, and family lore. Robert J. Rogers received the Distinguished Service Cross (posthumously) for his heroism in connection with military operations while serving serving as an Officer of a B-24 Heavy Bomber in the 460th Bombardment Group.

Catch Up Here:

Part 5: The Survivors’ Stories

Lt. Robert Rogers never made it. At about 500 feet above the ground the aircraft, now “totally eclipsed in flames” broke apart and plunged to the ground in pieces. Co-Pilot Birnsaum and gunners Caldwell, McCreedy, Wills, and Welch observed the crash while floating to the ground. Unseen from the air – by now their squadron was beyond the target area – six crewmen parachuted to the ground and were quickly picked up by German military personnel, probably from the Luftwaffe base that had been their target. Sgts. Robert McCreedy and James Caldwell apparently landed close to the wreckage, or were brought there by their captors. It was not unusual for captured flyers to be taken to the crash site to identify their aircraft and its dead. Sometimes these men were required to bury their fellows and at other times bodies of the aircrew were collected by the Germans or the dead were left behind to be buried by local civilians. (Lt. Birnsaum was not at the site, but gathered information from other crew members while they were together as POW’s.)

Co-Pilot Birnsaum, based on information from McCreedy and Caldwell, later reported that Lt. Sundeen had died on the ground, presumably of his wounds.  It isn’t clear whether or not Lt. Sundeen successfully opened his parachute. They also reported Burns died on the ground, presumably from a combination of injuries incurred inside the aircraft, from being struck by the aircraft as he jumped from the top hatch and from a parachute that failed to fully open.  Caldwell reported that the rest of the crew was “killed in the nose and the flight deck and were burnt very bad.”

Once the survivors were gathered together, all were taken to the Luftwaffe interrogation and transition center known as Dulag Luft, near Frankfurt, Germany.  The interrogation of Allied POW’s at Dulag Luft generally followed provisions outlawing physical violence or torture, but no amount of calculated mental depression, privation, and psychological blackmail was considered excessive. Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped, searched and sometimes issued German coveralls. At other times, they retained the clothing in which they were shot down. All were shut up in solitary confinement cells and denied cigarettes, toilet articles and Red Cross food. Usually the period of confinement lasted four or five days but, occasionally, as a punitive measure a surly POW would be held in the “cooler” for the full 30 days permitted by the Geneva Convention.

Interrogators often used threats and violent language, calling POWs “murderers of children” and threatening them with indefinitely prolonged solitary confinement or starvation rations; unless they would talk. POWs were threatened with death as spies unless they identified themselves as airmen, by revealing technical information on some such subject as radar or air combat tactics. Confinement in unbearably overheated cells and pretended shootings of “buddies” was resorted to in the early days, but intimidation yielded inferior results and the “friendly approach” was eventually considered best by the Germans. Since the survivors of Rogers Rangers were the first crew captured from the new 460th Bomb Group and 763rd Squadron, they were probably subjected to more intense interrogation than the average airman.[33]

Dulag Luft was also a transition camp and from there the POWs were transferred to a regular POW camp for flying personnel, a Stalag Luft.  Lieutenant Stanley Birnsaum and Sgt. Robert McCreedy (and probably the other surviving crewmen) were sent to Stalag Luft 17B near Krems, Austria. This camp opened in 1943 and primarily housed non-commissioned officer aircrew.  How or why Lt. Birnsaum was sent there isn’t clear. They remained imprisoned there until April 8, 1945 when those capable of walking were forced to march 281 miles in 18 days so they could not be freed by advancing U. S. and Russian forces. This group of about 4,000 was liberated on May 3rd by the U. S. 13th Armored Division near Braunau, Austria.  A group of about 200, too ill to march and left in hospitals at Stalag Luft 17-B, were liberated by Russian troops on May 9th.[34] The released POW’s were flown to France and then were evacuated home.

Allied POWs in the open yard of Stalag Luft 17B, barracks visible in the right and rear[35]

End of Part 5


[33] Dulag Luft.  https://www.b24.net/powDulag.htm

[34] Stalag Luft 17B https://www.b24.net/pow/2luft17lg.jpg, Stalag 17-B http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/stalag-17-b/

[35]Stalag Luft 17B https://www.b24.net/pow/2luft17lg.jpg